SYNDICATED COLUMN: Stop Demanding Demands

Connecting the Revolutionary Dots in Occupied Washington

“Our demand is that you stop demanding that we come up with demands!”

I thought about that line a lot this past week. (It’s from a recent cartoon by Matt Bors.) I was at Freedom Plaza in Washington, a block from the White House, at the protest that began the whole Occupy movement that has swept the nation: the October 2011 Stop the Machine demonstration.

It has been one of the most exciting weeks of my life.

Stop the Machine, timed to begin on the October 6th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan ten years ago, was based on a simple, powerful premise. A coalition of seasoned protesters including Veterans for Peace, CodePink, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Progressive Democrats of America and Peace Action would take over a public space, then refuse to leave until our demand–withdrawal from Afghanistan–was met.

Adbusters magazine preempted our demonstration, which had been widely publicized, with Occupy Wall Street.

It’s the sort of thing an unscrupulous businessman might do.

But it’s all good. The sooner the revolution, the better. And the Occupy folks did choose a better name.

Like other old-timers (I’m 48), I criticized Occupy Wall Street for its wanky PR and street theater shenanigans. Yoga, pillow fights and face painting for the masses, but do the masses give a damn? Critiquing with love, I joined others in the media for demanding specific demands. That, after all, is how agitators used to do things. Hijack a plane and ask for money. Take over a prison until the warden agrees to improved conditions. Strike until you get a raise.

That’s one of the things that changed on 9/11. No one ever claimed responsibility for the attacks. No group issued any demands.

The Stop the Machiners in Freedom Plaza are mostly Gen Xers in their 40s and Baby Boomers in their 50s and 60s-. There are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of them, many spending the night in tents. Eight blocks away in McPherson Square is Occupy DC, the decidedly younger and whiter (mostly Gen Yers in their 20s) Washington spin-off of Occupy Wall Street. As you’d expect, Occupy is wilder and more energetic. As you’d also expect, Stop the Machine is calmer and more organized.

Stop the Machine has Portapotties.

It even has a station where you can wash your hands after you use the Portapotties.

“What are your demands?” my friends back home emailed me. Trust me: No one is more aware of the need to issue demands than the protesters of the Occupy and Stop the Machine movements (who obviously ought to merge).

Coming up with demands is job one. But job one is slow going. This is not merely a non-hierarchical but an anti-hierarchical movement. Everyone gets an equal say. Influenced by the Occupy movement (and other progressive protests, such as the anti-globalization struggle), Stop the Machine has embraced a system in which all decisions are arrived at by unanimous consensus. Anyone, regardless of their social status or education, can block a decision agreed upon by hundreds of other people.

Before last week I thought this decision-making process was madness. No leaders means inefficiency, right? Well, right. Meetings drag on for hours. Often nothing, or very little, gets done. Discussions go off on tangents. Poorly informed and even mentally disabled people get to talk. And everyone–even those of us with years of political experience and education–have to sit there and listen.

It sucks. And it’s great. It’s great because it gets out from behind our keyboards and out into the streets and in direct contact with our fellow human beings.

I’m as snotty as they come. Out on the Plaza, however, snark is a liability. A scary homeless guy heckled me while I gave a speech calling for revolution over reform of the system; he went on so long and so intensely that a D.C. cop tried to take him away. I couldn’t just click away. I was forced to engage with him. To discuss. To agree to disagree.

Revolution is a messy, slow process. We are just beginning to claw away at the velvet ropes of alienation that simultaneously comfort and confine us. We’re beginning to see that the things we hold so dear–our place in the class structure, our educational credentials, our shrinking but oh-so-clever circles of friends–are means of oppression.

There were 15 committees formed to come up with demands about various topics, which would eventually be presented to the General Assembly for discussion and, with luck, approval by consensus.

I joined the Economics and Finance committee.

“I don’t understand the word ‘neoliberal’,” a woman who looked to be about 30 said.

“It means conservative,” a guy answered.

No it doesn’t.

I shut up. In consensus meetings, you quickly learn to choose your battles. Those battles can run late into the night.

I urged our committee to decide whether we were revolutionaries or reformists.

“Why does it matter?” asked our “facilitator” (the leader-who-is-not-a-leader).

We went on to waste the next several months debating the distinctions between revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the system, reformists who accept its basic structure but seek to improve upon it, and revolutionists-posing-as-reformers who issue what I call “unreasonable reasonable” demands–demands that are popular with the population but that the system can’t concede without undermining the essential nature of their relationship to the people, the idea being to expose the government as the uncaring, unresponsive monsters, thus radicalizing the moderates and fence-sitters.

OK, it was about an hour. It only seemed like months.

We only came up with two demands for the general assembly to consider. But that doesn’t matter.

The process of discussion educates everyone involved in it. Obviously, the better informed share information with the less informed. But the knowledge flow goes both ways. The better informed learn what is not known, what must be transmitted to the public at large. And of course the less informed about one topic are usually better informed about another.

Demands will surface. But there’s no rush. Let the intellectual cross-fertilization run its course.

Besides, it’s fun to watch the ruling-class-owned media squirm as they wait.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL

27 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Stop Demanding Demands

  1. @Ted am I missing some feature that links your replies to the posts they are intended for? I am honestly not trying to be a dick here, but I rarely have any idea to whom you are replying. Sometimes I sit down and try to do some detective work, which usually reveals the answer, but when there are a large number of posts and you have a large number of replies it is often too time consuming to deconvolution everything before the entire thread falls into your blog’s collective memory hole.

    It is your site, do as you will, but a something simple, like a little “@” followed by a name, would make the flow of the conversation within these piles of text that stack up here infinitely more readable. Without doing something like that the structure of discussion here takes on a form akin to an essay with no punctuation, indentation, carriage returns, or inline citations. Again, do as you will, it is just a humble plea on my part.

  2. @suetonius17 You may be unaware, but anarchy is a pretty broad term. The only thing it truly means is no-hierarchy. Nothing about that means no-decision making as you claim. Certainly there are anarchists that do want just a crazy kill or be killed society (extreme libertarians) but there are also anarchists who want highly structured societies that rely on constant aspects of decision making from the populous at large via continuous direct democratic processes (look up anarcho-syndicalism if you are curious about the later).

  3. @suetonius, I am sorry you think I was using silly examples. I simply picked the two logical key end points to stress test the theory: the first, 99% moron, where most democratic process fails and become mob rule with appeasement of the lowest common denominator, and the second, moron obstruction, which is a special case stress test for consensus as most other democratic processes don’t have to worry about it. Everything system, no matter how idiotic or ill-conceived, can work under certain special environments or conditions. These aren’t silly or straw man arguments, they are simply extreme examples because stress testing something is the only way to see how good it really is.

    How exactly do you suggest decisions be made then? Honestly any criticism besides time efficiency that can be lobbied against consensus applies even more strongly to any other form of democratic process. Try me and I’ll walk you through the thought experiment. There really are only two good criticisms of consensus that can be made on any logical footing:

    1) It is woefully time inefficient. As Ted said above it would be a bad way to govern precisely for this reason.

    2) You can argue that democratic process in general is bad and inherently appeals to the lowest common denominator and that consensus, being perhaps the most pure and idealistic form of democratic process, is not free from the general failings of democracy.

    I’ll openly agree to point one, and have already. As for point two, you would certainly be entitled to such an opinion, but I kind of am a big fan of democracy and as I have thought about this for a long time and read many arguments on it you are going to have to come up with an argument that is pretty mind blowing and revolutionary to convince me otherwise.

  4. @someone,

    I don’t think silly examples argue against what I said – any method of making decisions fails in some cases. And Ted, I have no issue at all with giving voices to the voiceless, but I can’t see any of these protests getting anywhere if that is how they are making decisions. Hearing what people have to say is one thing, deciding what to do to fight the system is another.

  5. Consensus is less about decision-making than giving voices to the voiceless.

    Amen.

    The revolution needs to ensure that in addition to giving the voiceless a voice, someone is there to hear and do.

    I, for one, am tired of lip service being paid to anyone who is not representing an interest with money. Where I work, I see many disgruntled people protesting and trying to get the ear of their elected “representatives”. They will come out and chant with them, feel their pain, but when the bottom line hits, it is the lobbyists representing monied interests that get heard.

    And the majority of the voiceless are taxpayers. Brings us back to our roots — taxation without representation.

  6. Let’s take the concept of embracing a system in which all decisions are arrived at by unanimous consensus and take it out past the current movement.

    It would cause revolution. Why? Traditional government would cease to exist. Nations, states, cities, etc would cease to exist in their current state because you could not reach any consensus with the current citizens. There would be a breakout of people looking to find their own tribes. It would be a dynamic process with people searching out their own truths.

    The thing to be careful of is the “facilitators” of the tribes. Anyone who has been to any kind of meeting from cub scouts to the congress knows that it is easy to sway the thoughts of the group to meet the facilitators/leaders agenda.

    Practically, the concept of embracing a system in which all decisions are arrived at by unanimous consensus may work with a small group, but eventually it will be consumed by internal strife and the message will be lost. Reminds me of the old Doonesbury cartoon where Mark Slackmeyer attends an anti-war “convention” (for lack of a better word and a better memory) and after hashing ideas about what should be done to stop the war in Vietnam with specifics flying about, the final resolution is that “War is bad”.

  7. @suetonius17: I don’t always agree with unanimous consent as a means of decision making, but for the record it does NOT reduce a group to the lowest common denominator. For example lets say you have a group that is entirely comprised of morons save one person. The morons decide to do something moronic (big surprise) but the one non-moron does not agree. If working by unanimous consent then the group does not do said hypothetical moronic thing so long as that one non-moronic person disagrees. The end result is that the one person either manages convincing every single moron why they are a moron and comes up with a better idea to sell them through an arduous process of reasoning, or the whole event remains frozen due to disagreement preventing group execution of moronicity. The frustration of having a decision frozen like this forces people to try and reason with each other. It also can create anger and such, but it forces people to talk through things. Morons can be made slightly less moronic via an arduous and slow process akin to shoveling out your car in subzero weather via the removal of all the snow and ice with your tongue.

    But what happens when the shoe is on the other foot and there is a group full of people with a good idea being filibustered by a single moron? Well, things get deadlocked until everyone has talked to and reasons with the moron. Even the most obstinate moron eventually succumbs to this if only because he or she is being forced to discuss things and listen to reason likely against his or her will. Like Ted said above, the moron in question “can’t click away” which would prevent many of them from seeing logic on the internet, but now they are being coerced into trying to understand things with no relief until consensus is reached.

    The standard practice of majority vote actually reduces a group more to the common denominator then consensus because it has far more of a tendency to create mob rule. I.E. if you are a moron representing a majority subgroup of morons, why bother listening to the smart or informed people if you have enough votes to pass what you want and: their points confuse you, don’t play to your preconceptions in ways that you like, and it would take to much time or effort to listen to or understand them. Thus any criticism lobbied against consensus about appealing to the lowest common denominator applies many times more strongly to majority vote. Unanimous consent slows things down like you wouldn’t believe, but it does not reduce a group to the lowest common denominator, at least not as much as majority vote does. I would say the only major problem with consensus is that it requires exponentially more time to reach consensus with every person you add to the group in question. Thus when dealing with any thing other then obvious trivial issues with a group containing more then a few tens of thousands of people, consensus is probably too slow to get anything done. However, it might still result in the best possible outcomes in the long run if there is infinite time in which to reach consensus before getting things done.

  8. Well said, Delano. You’re wasting your time, Ted.

    Try again in four months, when the PERMIT expires.

    Better yet, apply now for your Revolution Permit. Aim for June, if you can get it. The weather will be nice, and students on summer break can join-in. That’ll give us a good 80 plus days to get it all fought and won in time for Fall semester.

    Maybe now’s not too soon to be planning for New America’s first universal consensus meeting, too. What do you think? Maybe I was a little presumptious calling the revolutionary movement “New America.” What does everyone else think? Is that a good name? Suppose we can all agree on “New America” being a great name for our revolutionary movement…should we change it if we start to attract a following that wasn’t with us in the incipient days of the rebellion and they’re not happy with it? How often should we have these universal consensus meetings?

  9. I see two examples have not been discussed at all (at least on this forum):

    1. Kent State
    2. The Indian Occupation of Alcatraz (which went on for something like 20 months before the government came in and stopped it by forcibly removing the dozen or so holdouts).

    You don’t need to be a political scientist to figure out the expected play from the dirty tricks book:

    1. The police will give an order to disperse. Because of the crowd size and other acoustic issues, everyone will not hear the order.

    2. The police, goaded by one of Delano’s “law enforcement/military intelligence agents” providing the appropriate trigger action (perhaps the agent will throw a bottle at a police officer’s feet, giving the justification for firing tear gas, bullets, whatever, into the crowd), will start dealing with the crowd.

    3. In the ensuing fiasco, people will be hurt badly.

    4. The mayor will point to the injuries as a reason why the park MUST be closed and any future assembly MUST be prevented.

    5. Other cities will take heed and out will come the cops and the National Guard.

    6. Rinse, lather, repeat.

    Also, can Ted (or anyone else) discuss whether it’s true that the police (including the ones who maced those women and baton-beat the others) are being paid not by the city but by Wall Street organizations?

    Good luck in D.C., Ted.

  10. Ted, months ago you had a clear demand and a clear plan of action- now the demonstration has neither. Who benefits from this? Understand that some of the self-appointed, unelected facilitators are law enforcement/military intelligence agents who have been tasked with muddling the waters, delaying, obfuscating and generally weakening the movement- and they have done a damn good job up to this point. Insisting on consensus and excessive debate are part of their playbook- and they will outlast you because they are being paid to be there. But you can resist- nothing says you have to play their stupid games. Stick to your original plan and messages, and refuse to let them waste your time and energy. US Out of Afghanistan. Period.

    • One of the things about revolution is, I’m not a dictator. I don’t get my way. It’s OUR revolution, which means having to relate to and deal with and stand at the side of people I would ordinarily never associate with. It’s great! And annoying. But great!

  11. Ted,

    I’m glad you’re there, and a bit jealous, sometimes family life intervenes. Glad also you’re calling for revolution, but really the notion of unanimous consent is silly, it reduces you to the lowest common denominator – how much exactly does EVERYONE agree on? And anarchy it isn’t, anarchy doesn’t involve decision making, only accommodation. Better to introduce the protesters to the idea that once a decision is made (and they could decide that some sort of super majority is necessary) that everyone goes with it, even if it wasn’t what they wanted. Sometimes to get things done you have to compromise, and if you can’t compromise on something, then you have to leave and start your own group. Some things are essential, some not so much.

  12. And only a short while ago you were making fun of anarchists, yet hear you are not just endorsing but actively participating in a “not merely a non-hierarchical but an anti-hierarchical movement” which by its very definition is an anarchist movement.

    Incidentally decision by unanimous consent is something the Quakers have always done and have always firmly believed in. They swear by it, admitting that it takes forever, but is the only way to ensure that absolutely everyone is happy in the end.

    • That’s right. I’ve changed my mind. I was wrong before.

      I LOVE saying that. It’s exciting to be proven wrong and to change one’s mind.

      In the future, this system will prove unworkable. Right now, we need to grow our numbers, and this is a great system to use in order to get bigger and stronger.

  13. “That’s one of the things that changed on 9/11. No one ever claimed responsibility for the attacks. No group issued any demands.”

    Not quite. The Friday khutbas in Saudi Arabia before 9/11/01 condemned infidels in general and the US in particular. I sat next to a Saudi one Ramadan who explained to me that the people working in the World Trade Center were murderers who had killed more than 1 billion people by diverting resources that caused their starvation, and all Americans were guilty and deserved execution (I edged away from him at that point–I usually claim to be from some European country, since most people here have no exposure to any Europeans and can’t distinguish between the European accents, but the Saudi had spent enough time in the West to recognise that my accent was American).

    After listening to such khutbas, 15 Saudis and 4 others met at a shisha parlour in Dubai and hatched their plan. From Dubai they went to Germany. From Germany to London. From London to the US. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was watching his goats in Pakistan, oblivious to all this. Osama bin Laden had been saying that it was useless for Arabs to kill Arabs, that even if they managed to assassinate the head of state, the US would just replace him with an identical puppet, so he urged Arabs to go to America and kill Americans. But he knew nothing of the details of 9/11.

    The 19 took full credit, with letters left behind, so credit was taken. Their demand that jihadists execute the people I’d call innocent but whom they called murderers was met.

    And then the Bush, Jr. administration cleaned up, pocketing trillions for themselves, since Americans were so terrified they gave them carte blanch to prosecute the War on Terror, carte blanch that has passed to the Obama administration. Constitution necessarily suspended for the duration.

  14. 1968 was worse than just petering out. The very people who were protesters created the mess we’re in today. In the same way that protesters today just want debt relief (or a “debt jubilee”), the protesters in 1968 just wanted some pussy.

    Revolution (as you note) means flushing the whole system down the fucking toilet, which would be a great thing. I’m all for it. Not gonna happen though. Most people don’t want that. They love capitalism. They just want to be let out of their obligations (cc bills, college loans, mortgage, etc …). Really, they just want the breaks Wall St. got. They don’t want to re-regulate Wall St., much less tear it down.

  15. Ted,

    Very interesting. When you mentioned the leaderless meetings with facilitators, two things came to mind:

    1. In one of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For strips, one of the young characters tell Mo (the late-30s/early-40s main character) something like, “This isn’t like the good old days where you guys could process for two weeks about whether to put up posters.”

    It seems the young people are now the ones who want to process for two weeks before doing anything.

    2. There’s a great reflection in what you’ve described that relates to the state of publishing. Try as they might, the OWSers can’t shed the totality of leadership. Eventually, someone, at some level, has to become Someone in Charge, even if it’s for the purpose of running a meeting. And how many blogs still depend on the tired old mainstream media for information to generate their blogs?

    Do you see the chance of the two groups merging into a third, smaller group that will carry on the struggle? Or do you think that the OWSers are starting toward the inflection point of cohesion/dissolution?

    (And I’ll bite. What, exactly, is a neoliberal?)

  16. Revolution? Hardly. Total jive is more like it. Once the cold air arrives in a few more weeks, what’s left of these rag-tag revolutionaries will be high-tailing it back to their heated domiciles.

    Look – I don’t know how to put this more clearly: There will be no changes from all this milling about. There will be no reform. There will be no revolution. In fact, things are going to get worse. More job-killing free-trade agreements were just signed right under these “protesters” noses. They didn’t get much fanfare. Why not? In the long run they will make things worse for American workers who continue to compete in a race to the bottom. Some revolution.

    Bottom line: Americans don’t have the stomach for real change. Real change means real sacrifice. I mean REAL unemployment. Food lines. Blood. Real loss. That is the only way real changes will happen. But in the end, real change is not what Americans crave. In the end all they really want is someone to relieve their debt burden. All the rest of this is just noise. Static.

    Real change? Don’t make me laugh. Let’s meet again here one year from now and see who was right.

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