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AN OPEN LETTER FROM RANDY SCHUTT TO OCCUPY WALL STREET

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AN OPEN LETTER FROM RANDY SCHUTT TO OCCUPY WALL STREET

Postby admin » Sun Sep 23, 2012 8:50 am

from Randy Schutt (bio)

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9/12/2012

For consensus decision-making to work, it almost always has to be practiced by a cooperative group. There are two criteria in that description: both cooperative and a real group. It seems to me that one of the main problems of Occupy is that it is not really an organization or stable group -- instead it has an ever-changing membership with few of the built-in trust mechanisms that often work for other loose-knit groups (such as long-standing friendships, interlocking family history, structural support from a church or business, etc.). Oftentimes, people at Occupy events have never seen each other before and have no inherent reason to value, support, or trust each other. This is a very large barrier. Also, the shared grievances that underlie Occupy (anger at the maldistribution of wealth and income in our society, frustration with plutocracy, classism, racism, sexism, etc.) lead participants to sympathize with each other, but do not necessarily lead participants to seek the same short- or long-term goals, to seek to use the same methods, or to be truly cooperative with each other.

Here are a few ideas about ways to help build a real group:

Long Introductions: People offer some significant information about their past and their goals so that others have a real sense of them.

Personal References: People present references (other people) who will attest to their integrity and good behavior and/or a list of accomplishments so that others can see the work they have done ("don't tell me who you are, tell me what you have done and I will tell you who you are").

Integrity Tests: People are given small tasks to see how they perform (Are they capable, competent, and trustworthy? Do they adhere to their stated goals and methods?). If so, then they are given greater responsibility and tested again. Those who fail the tests are asked to try again or are not granted responsibility.

Shared Struggle: People participate together in meetings and actions. Those who behave honorably will stand out from those who don't.

And here is an idea to help ensure that the assembled group is cooperative:

Commitment to Cooperating with the Group: Ask at the beginning of the decision-making: "Are you willing to place the good of the whole group above your own individual preferences? That is, are you willing to consent to a group decision that is not your preference. And if the group agrees to do something that you disagree with, will you support the group decision and work to carry it out? Or will you grouse, leave, or attempt to undermine the work of the group?" Asking this question can make it clearer that anyone who cannot answer affirmatively is not really there in support of the group, but is there for their own purposes. They will probably only be cooperative as much as the group does what they want. Asking for a commitment and getting it, of course, does not guarantee that people will follow through. But it does set a tone about what is expected from those who participate.

Asking this question also makes it clear that the Occupy group itself must be trustworthy. Why should someone support a group that does things they disagree with? Why should they subsume themselves to a larger group unless the group will actually work for their own good (and the good of others)?

Here are some things to allow people to feel that they can trust the organization:

Organizational Manifesto: Prepare a written description of the organization's goals and its means for achieving those goals. This will make it clear where the boundaries are and reassure participants that they are not committing themselves to something they actually don't fundamentally agree with. This also allows participants to understand more about why the group exists and why it operates the way that it does.

Organizational Demonstration of Integrity: Make a list of the ways that the organization has demonstrated its integrity (adherence to its manifesto) and tell stories of times when that integrity was tested and the organization held true. This will show that the group is worthy of support even when it might appear to be going astray.

Correction Mechanisms: Make a list of the ways the organization ensures that if it does go astray, it will get back on track, such as meeting evaluations, action evaluations, reprimands of those who have misbehaved (and rescission of their power), etc. Tell stories about the way the group has corrected itself in the past.

If participants cannot trust each other (or cannot trust the group) and their personal preferences are stronger than their commitment to the group, then it will be difficult to practice real consensus decision-making. It is still worth the effort to cooperatively develop proposals that try to integrate the best ideas of everyone (anything better than horribly manipulative voting will be impressive and educational to anyone who has only experienced the latter). But to actually make decisions, it may be necessary to revert to a voting process of some kind (agreeing to adopt proposals supported by some percentage of those participating , as you have done) or to delegate decision-making to individuals or small groups. If there is not enough trust or connection, the group must decide whether it is more important to make decisions and get things done or to work on building a truly cooperative group that can actually make real consensus decisions. There must be at least enough cooperation to consent on this, or the group will probably not accomplish much.

If this is a sticking point, then it might be helpful to think about Effectiveness versus Integrity. Possibly a positive way to illuminate this would be to ask each person the thing about Occupy they feel is most effective in bringing about progressive social change and what in Occupy best represents its integrity (honesty, non-hypocrisy). Then ask what they would most like to see change in Occupy to increase its effectiveness and the thing they would most like to see change to increase its integrity. This might help illuminate differences and also might offer some ways forward.
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The essential spirit of "diverse tactics" is individual initiative and creativity, unimpeded by group restriction. In contrast, the essential spirit of "consensus decision-making" is subsuming individual preferences and actions for the common good -- in this case, united collective action to garner enough strength to overcome a powerful adversary. It is possible to meld these two concepts together, but since they pull in very different directions, it is inherently difficult. Many of the struggles you are experiencing may derive from this basic difference. Calling for splintering into smaller, like-minded groups does not overcome this problem, it just creates different kinds of problems.

Another thing to consider: When activists protest/demonstrate/act against the status quo, we justify our actions as representing the common good and/or the common will -- we are not (as the critics say) just bullies trying to impose our will on others. But are we really doing representing the common good/will? In a horrible dictatorship, it is usually pretty clear that progressive activists are acting on behalf of almost everyone. But in a society like our own in which there is a great deal of freedom and some level of democracy, it is not as clear. In this large, diverse society in which millions of people voluntarily listen to and believe Rush Limbaugh and Mike Huckabee, it is tricky for progressives to claim we are acting on behalf of the common good.

One of the reasons for activists to use consensus decision-making is to demonstrate that we, in fact, act in accordance with our professed values (our actions "prefigure" the kind of society we hope to build). So we are sympathetic and compassionate towards others, especially those who are hurting. We tolerate dissent, we incorporate the best thinking of everyone, we seek democratic solutions, and we act only with the consent of everyone involved. We challenge bullying and try to stop psychopaths armed with assault weapons or with collateral debt obligations or computerized trading programs. We show by our actions that we have the best interest of the common good. If we controlled all of society, we would act in this positive way with/for everyone.

But whenever a small group of activists acts without at least passive support from most of society (and especially without at least the consent of the larger progressive movement), it risks actually demonstrating only its self-righteousness and intolerance of other people and other ideas. And if that small group engages in behavior that appears destructive in any way, it may show disregard for the common good instead of the reverse. Instead of demonstrating that we are responsible and democratic, the lesson that is learned is that we are not.

This is the quandary of any progressive movement, especially in a society that is not totally repressive: to demonstrate our progressive values clearly and thereby garner support and consent from a significant majority of the populace, while we are mercilessly attacked by the forces of repression and beset by the normal difficulties of ignorance, lack of resources, racism/sexism/classism, etc, large egos, and petty selfishness. In this context stands our decision-making process: Does it demonstrate our values? Is it open to millions of people or restricted only to a tiny few? Does it come up with solutions that are appealing and encouraging to most people or solutions that appeal only to a small slice of progressives? Does our process work in getting things done, or is it hopelessly idealistic?

Cooperative decision-making works great in a cohesive group with clear, common goals that has skills and experience using (or at least observing) good meeting process. It does not work well among transient or diverse/divisive groups bound together only by common grievances and without skill or experience. It is the job of good organizers to know what kind of group they are working with and then build the components (stability, cohesion, common goals/values, skills, experience) necessary to use a cooperative decision-making process. Of, if that would consume too much time/effort, to use another process and focus on other efforts.

It is also the job of good organizers to think about the larger strategic vision and what process or actions will advance the movement. What will excite and empower activists? What will build the size and strength of the movement? What will best challenge our opponents? What best shows that we are standing up for the common good?

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Keep on snuggling and struggling,

--Randy


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