Saturday, October 29, 2011

Direct Democracy in Action

I’d been following Occupy Melbourne closely online, along with its counterparts around the world, but until very recently I hadn’t been able to attend because of work. I’ve also read a few interesting pieces since my last post, so take it as read that my viewpoint is a little more nuanced now.

Firstly, this piece asserts that Occupy Wall Street isn’t really a traditional protest, it’s like a beta-test of a new way of life - which, as part of its functionality, incorporates activism for political change. The way they run things, with their consensus-based decision-making process and their peaceful resistance, is not just an incidental way of running their protest - it is what they’re doing, with the protests being incidental to that. The process is the point, to borrow their phrase. This is an interesting point, and footage I’ve seen from OWS certainly backs this up.

But having been to the 8th General Assembly of Occupy Melbourne, it seems…less the case. I’m not sure, but it’s my impression that it may have started out a lot more along these lines; the existence of the working groups, especially the Education and Food working groups, which educate/feed anyone who wants it, attests to this. But since they were forcibly evicted by Victoria Police, they’ve gathered a lot more numbers to the cause - numbers who are angry at the Police and those who command them for the violence they employed. And, since they weren’t part of the original group and are so angry at this one specific target, a large number of the crowd at GA8 didn’t conform to the ideal presented in the article.

There was a definite tension between those who think of it as a protest, who want traditional protesting methods - marches, disruption, banners and slogans - and who want to target specific people and organisations rather than the system at large; and those who are trying to test out this new way of life, to build something lasting. This conflict came to a head (as much as things do come to a head amongst generally-agreeing people committed to peaceful consensus) in the issue over what to do on Saturday. The plan was to set up camp in Treasury Gardens, but the option presented was to meet somewhere beforehand and march to Treasury Gardens as a group, which would present a powerful front, get attention, and make it harder for police to prevent them entering than it would be if they arrived in dribs and drabs.

Both sides presented compelling reasons for why theirs should be the chosen option but they both seemed to miss that their disagreement was not so much over what was right to do in this specific situation but over what Occupy Melbourne is and will be. If it’s a protest, then yes - acting quickly while they’re still in the public mind, causing some disruption and refusing to be silenced or cowed, marching and banner-waving are all valid strategies.

If it’s this societal testing ground that happens to protest when it’s useful, then not so much; people were concerned about causing more disruption than is necessary, about turning the public against them, about seeming like they’re just in it to cause trouble and not effect change. People often responded to this by saying that the Civil Rights movement, and labour strikes in general, are only successful because they cause people enough trouble to force them to listen - and they’re right, but that’s not really the point.

This tension is an interesting one and I’m interested to see how it plays out - but although a consensus was found it seems the larger issue is unresolved and can’t be resolved in this manner.

This also, incidentally, relates to what I was saying last time. I was assuming that this wasn’t such an open-ended thing; that it needed specific short-term goals because it would in all likelihood only last a relatively short time. Now? Not so much. I definitely think we need to propose specific solutions but for reasons that will become apparent below, I have no problem with thoroughly discussing the problem for now, while the movement grows.

Which brings me to my next point. When I was about 18-19, I first discovered Direct Democracy. I thought it was brilliant at first - many of our problems stem from the fact that Representative Democracy only allows you to pick the closest fit, even if it’s a very poor fit - but it does have its own problems. It really doesn’t scale well; what worked for ancient Greek city-states doesn’t really work too well on 23 million people, especially not when they’re spread over 7.5 million square kilometres. There was talk of eDemocracy changing this somewhat (electronic polling booths eliminate the tyranny of distance and make counting infinitely easier) but I eventually gave it up as unfeasible, especially since no Australian government would choose to give up their power by installing such a system - not without overwhelming pressure, anyway. I didn’t think it worked and I didn’t think anyone would try it if it did.

Well, having been down to the General Assembly, I can tell you now - I was wrong. It does work, remarkably well, and this sort of grassroots movement is exactly the kind of thing that has a shot at slowly working it into the system. But it’s definitely not perfect. The primary problem is that which affects all forms of Direct Democracy - it struggles to work unless your population is reasonably small and within earshot. The entire notion the movement is founded upon is that we, the 99%, need to have more proportional control over our destinies and so effectively restricting the decision-making process to those who live very close by and only have work/study/other commitments within conventional hours is antithetical to everything we stand for. Including the voices of supporters from further afield, supporters whose jobs don't let them attend every GA, supporters who can’t take time away from their families, can only strengthen the movement.

The second main problem is the time constraint. You have what can be complex issues that require reasoned, well-researched discourse, and trying to get several things done in a 3ish hours, when it’s getting dark and cold and people have jobs and families to get to…things get rushed. They’ll either stall and people start leaving, or they get rushed through on increasingly lax definitions of “consensus”. People will be presented with a problem and a proposed solution and expected to come up with the right answer almost instantaneously, without any time for reflection or time to assess the facts (both as presented and as may be necessary for responding). This is a relatively minor issue at this stage, but it will only become more problematic in the future as the movement expands and takes on bigger questions.

Thirdly, although there have been concerted (and to an extent successful) efforts to structure the GAs in a way that includes everyone and values difference of opinion, the fact remains that for a lot of people, standing up in front of a crowd is a hard thing to do. Standing up and openly disagreeing with a large group of people you identify with is even harder. This effect tends to make the voices of the experienced protesters heard disproportionately; while their experience is no doubt useful, I suspect that an Occupation led in large part by card-carrying members of Socialist Alternative will be less pluralistic than the ideal we’re striving for.

My proposal to fix this is really something every person involved in OWS should have thought of instantaneously (and maybe did, but if so I haven’t seen it). Just crowdsource the damn thing on the internet! It allows people who can’t be physically present at the time to add their valuable insights, it allows those involved to respond more carefully (both with more research and with the time to structure their arguments better); and it makes it more likely for the shy to contribute. This tendency for many people to be hesitant to speak out is (as I think we all know) drastically reduced on the internet.

You would need to retain some aspects of the meatspace version, I think, some of which are even more important given what we know about discussions on the internet. An absolute time limit on the thread, to prevent discussion from spiralling onwards forever and ever, would be absolutely necessary - but, say, a few days to a week, depending on the nature of the question. Not 45-odd minutes. A limit on each person’s post size would be good, too, in an attempt to mimic the 2-minute speaking limit; we’ve all seen internet debates in which each successive rebuttal gets longer and longer, and that’s counter-productive - though links to useful info would be a good way to make your points while keeping things brief.

A simple Reddit-style upvoting system could mimic the spirit-fingers of the meatspace, and suggest to moderators which ideas are worth putting to an actual vote. Ideally, I’d hold off on creating any type of poll or even proposing any solutions until after everyone’s thoroughly explored the problem, because if people propose solutions and then discuss their pros and cons, it’ll be too late because most people will have already made their minds up (1). This is difficult to implement and people will strongly resist it, but if we can pull it off, the evidence suggests it’d massively improve the group’s ability to make clear decisions.

There are some caveats to this approach too, of course. People who aren’t going to be present don’t have skin in the game, and so might be more willing to approve a risky course of action (ie one that might result in arrests or police violence) than they otherwise would. Some of the older and/or poorer members of the movement (I was surprised by the number of people over 50 at GA8) might also have some trepidation or difficulty accessing the internet to participate, but I suspect this would be far less than the effect of distance and could be mitigated by the use of libraries and by younger members teaching older members. Finally, the same distance that gives the shy a voice also gives the trolls a voice, and given some of the flak I’ve been copping on social media (and I would be getting almost nothing compared to some people) that might be a problem that takes some fixing.

I wrote the first draft of this piece on Thursday night, but now I feel I need to comment on today’s events. Maybe it’s convenient for my argument, but it seems to me that what happened today only highlights the need to fix this process - in my opinion it could have saved one hell of a lot of fuck-assing around while everyone ummed and ahhed about what to do next. The decision was hastily made to camp in Treasury Gardens; there was no consultation with the City of Melbourne or Victoria Police, and they predictably refused to allow people to camp. If people had decided to camp anyway in defiance, that’s fair enough - but instead, despite knowing they weren’t allowed to, everyone marched to Treasury Gardens and then started to decide whether or not to camp.

It was a disorganised shambles, which is why the even more-hastily chosen alternative of Bowen Lane had to be abandoned so quickly as well. If today’s moves had been well-thought out and decided properly in the first place, none of this would have happened. It might’ve resulted in another forcible eviction, if they’d stayed at Treasury Gardens, but the decision would’ve been made knowing full well what the risks and rewards were.

This evening’s megaphone shenanigans by Socialist Alliance highlight my point about the loud taking over too; @nzmrmn on Twitter suggested the People’s Mic be used for announcements so minorities with bullhorns can’t monopolize things, which is also a good solution.

I’m extremely proud of those who toughed it out today while I was stuck at work, but courage and passion will only go so far if we can’t organise. Assuming this piece gets as much coverage as my last one I’m sure a lot of Occupiers will read this, so I encourage you to comment on my suggestion, and in particular ways we can refine it - and, all things being equal, I’ll see you tomorrow for the next GA.

1. N. R. F. Maier, "Assets and Liabilities in Group Problem Solving: The Need for an Integrative Function," Psychological Review, 1967, 239-249.
(Apologies, I couldn’t find anywhere online that gives an adequate description of the study that isn’t buried amongst a big wall o’ text, but here's the citation anyway)

1 comment:

  1. Awesome article! I agree. I have been to two GAs and they spend too much time trying to decide where to march. I think we need to have good debates about how we can make changes and then how to approach the media and the public to gain the most support. This movement needs a some good thinkers to help it move forward. Debating on the internet would be great, with written debates and polls on which side of the debate the viewers agreed with. Add me on fb!