On August 2, at the very first meeting of what was to become Occupy Wall Street, about a dozen people sat in a circle in Bowling Green. The self-appointed “process committee” for a social movement we merely hoped would someday exist, contemplated a momentous decision. Our dream was to create a New York General Assembly: the model for democratic assemblies we hoped to see spring up across America. But how would those assemblies actually operate?
The anarchists in the circle made what seemed, at the time, an insanely ambitious proposal. Why not let them operate exactly like this committee: by consensus.
It was, in the least, a wild gamble, because as far as any of us knew, no one had ever managed to pull off something like this before. Consensus process had been successfully used in spokes-councils — groups of activists organized into separate affinity groups, each represented by a single “spoke” — but never in mass assemblies like the one anticipated in New York City. Even the General Assemblies in Greece and Spain had not attempted it. But consensus was the approach that most accorded with our principles. So we took the leap.
Three months later, hundreds of assemblies, big and small, now operate by consensus across America. Decisions are made democratically, without voting, by general assent. According to conventional wisdom this shouldn’t be possible, but it is happening — in much the same way that other inexplicable phenomena like love, revolution, or life itself (from the perspective of, say, particle physics) happen.
David Graeber, “Enacting the Impossible: On Consensus Decision Making”
Also: “We may never be able to prove, through logic, that direct democracy, freedom and a society based on principles of human solidarity are possible. We can only demonstrate it through action.”
Welcome to the Occupations
BEN EHRENREICH on Occupy Los Angeles
and JASPER BERNES, JOSHUA CLOVER, and ANNIE McCLANAHAN
on percentages, politics, and the police.
Woman Detained cc Paul Weiskel
They are occupying Riverside! They’re occupying Oakland and Omaha and Iowa City and Sacramento and Denver and Miami and Kalamazoo and and Hartford and Philadelphia and Buffalo and Austin and San Antonio and Fort Wayne, Indiana! On Tuesday morning, police in Boston arrested 141 protesters. This week cops made mass arrests in Des Moines, grabbing 30 in one swoop, plus 25 in Chicago, 11 in San Francisco, six in DC, another 21 in Seattle last week, and those 700 on the Brooklyn Bridge. Torrance is under occupation!
What a difference a month can make. Until September 17, 2011, I was buzzing along in my usual slow, steady state of localized political despair. In Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, people had been risking and losing their lives, demanding to play a role in the construction of their own societies. And it was clear enough, if you paid attention, that they were rising up not just against particular dictatorships but against the local manifestations of a global economic system that had for decades been concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands, privatizing all public goods, tossing everything into the market and dicing it up into speculation-ready bits. The Greeks took to the streets, too — and the Chileans, the Italians, the Spanish, the French, the Irish, the British, the Icelanders. The forty-years-and-running neoliberal transfer of public wealth to private coffers was everywhere becoming too brutal and too brazen to ignore. While mouthing the now nearly universal rhetoric of “shared sacrifice,” governments were feeding billions directly to the banks. And people across the planet were showing them exactly what they were willing to sacrifice — their freedom, their lives — to stop the looting.
Everywhere but here. In the U.S., it seemed that Milton Friedman’s jolly acolytes had colonized (occupied, even) not only the halls of power but our very imaginations, locking us into solitary suffering, cutting off all possibility of even envisioning some collective response. Politics was for politicians — and for those who could afford to buy one. Even the fleeting, expiatory pleasures of a good riot seemed beyond us. We were pissed, surely and righteously, but beyond voting-booth fetishism, online griping, and The Secret, what options did we have? The jackals in Congress wouldn’t listen anyway. They had their orders. Better to stay home, avoid the mailman while there still was one to avoid, and pray that the Law of Attraction kept functioning long enough to keep the cable and the Internet on.
It took the Canadians, in the end, to snap us out of it. I didn’t know Adbusters was still around, but a few people did, and they began to gather in a tiny park in lower Manhattan near a certain street with a famous name, a name that spoke, appropriately, of exclusion, fortification, enclosure. There were not many people out there at first, but there were enough, apparently, to make certain other people nervous. People of the exclusive, enclosed and well-fortified variety. For the next two weeks, the mainstream press kept a studious silence while Mayor Bloomberg and the New York Police Department did everything they could to turn an isolated protest into a rapidly growing movement. Every blast of pepper spray, every baton blow to the gut, every protester beaten and dragged away on YouTube made it clear what the stakes were, and who was on what side. While the slogan of the moment — “We are the 99 percent” — can be faulted for eliding enormous differences of class, race and privilege among us masses of non-billionaires, billy clubs and zip-tie cuffs have a funny way of forging solidarity. The fallen and falling middle class is swiftly learning what the poor have known for too long: that the rich protect their wealth with violence and the state exists to help them do it. Like the picket signs say: “Screw us and we multiply.”