Saturday, November 5, 2011

Spokes Councils? No Wonder the Energy Center Shifted to Oakland

In a previous post, I mentioned cryptically that Big Changes were on tap for OWS in New York, and suggested that whatever OWS was becoming, it wouldn't be much like what it had been. At the time, the picture was so confused and confusing, it was not at all clear whether the Structural Reformation being touted had actually passed the NYCGA or not. There were both claims and denials posted, and as the GAs are not necessarily Livestreamed any more, and I had some other pressing concerns to take care of, I wasn't able to follow up right away.


It appears that the Change was actually passed on October 28, and this is the first weekend of its operation. Oh. Boy.

What's happened, as best I can describe it, is akin to a coup by a Leadership Group -- which of course claims not to be Leaders -- which reduces -- and may eventually eliminate -- the authority of the New York City General Assembly. In its place, a representative body called the Spokes Council is being set up; it will consist of Spokes People, one elected or otherwise designated from each of the "official" working groups of OWS, who in Council (with work group members in attendance -- at least in theory) will adopt proposals which will then be sent to the GA for what may amount to pro-forma validation.

The main factor underlying this extraordinary change in the operations of OWS in New York -- and make no mistake, this is a radical transformation -- is money. OWS, through its ad hoc fundraising efforts, has accumulated at least $500,000 (probably quite a bit more, given the 5 gallon "Donation" cans set out on the corners of Liberty Plaza/Park/Square.) All expenditures over a certain very small amount ($100 or $200) must be approved, after arduous argument, by the General Assembly, and some decisions made by the GA about expenditures have been questioned. By interposing a Spokes Council, with the authority to determine expenditures more or less independently of the GA, at least so far as I can tell, it has been argued that the money OWS has accumulated will be put to more immediate and productive use. The GA process being being so difficult and all.

The last time I checked, there were some 80+ Working Groups listed by the NYCGA, but how many of them are "official" -- that is adopted by the GA by at least a 90% consensus -- I don't know, and unless you're a total records nerd, you're probably not going to find out.

But if we assume that all of them are "official," then the Spokes Body is composed of 80+ Spokes People, each of whom has one vote, and an 11% minority of the Spokes Body (ie: 8+) can thwart any decision or action by the Spokes Body.

Exactly how all of this works nobody knows yet, as none of it is seasoned by practice sufficiently to be clear.

Which is probably the point.

It's not really fair to characterize what's happened as a full-on coup; that would actually be quite a different thing which may come in due time. What happened, as far as I can tell, was more like the ramrodding of a proposal by a highly charged and organized group of OWS "leaders" (that is to say, people who have a heavy investment in OWS and who have taken on various responsible roles -- which I may get to in another post) through the operational minefields of a direct democratic model. It wasn't easy. They failed many times (I know of at least four times the Spokes Council was rejected by the GA).

But when it was finally adopted, I think it is fair to say there was a good deal of animosity toward what had occurred, and I would imagine that plenty of people left the group in response.

Of course, we wouldn't know that right away. For one thing, OWS doesn't publicize these sorts of fragmentations (which have been occurring with some regularity anyway), and for another, the internal workings of OWS are not of much interest to many observers, including the media.

Nevertheless, the transformation of OWS in New York from a direct democracy model to a representative democracy model, which was accomplished by this move to the Spokes Council, is essentially a capitulation to the power of the standard model of organization.

Right now, I think what happens in Oakland in response to the partially successful General Strike (and the Black Bloc Diversity of Tactics) is of more long term importance to the Movement as a whole than what has happened in New York to "regularize" their local operations.

I could be wrong about this of course. Once the "regularized" OWS model in New York is well-enough known, there may be little or no possibility for other Occupations to adopt alternative models and the dream that something truly radical and revolutionary might come out of the Occupy Movement will... disappear.

Time will tell.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "Daniel, a tall, red-bearded, white twenty-something—one of the six leaders of the teach-in—said that the NYC-GA needed to be completely defunded because those with 'no stake' in the Occupy Wall Street movement shouldn’t have a say in how the money was spent. When I asked him whether everybody in the 99% had a stake in the movement, he said that only those occupying or working in Zuccotti Park did. I pointed out that since the General Assembly took place in Zuccotti Park, everybody who participated was an occupier. He responded with a long rant about how Zuccotti Park is filled with 'tourists,' 'free-loaders' and 'crackheads' and suggested a solution that the even NYPD has not yet attempted: Daniel said that he’d like to take a fire-hose and clear out the entire encampment, adding hopefully that only the 'real' activists would come back."

    I expect that the people who did this have some experience with political power, as it takes a certain amount of discipline to keep pushing a losing resolution over and over again until it finally wins. (I've seen this tactic used before in my own state, to stop things that the powers that be don't want, like a commuter rail system.)

    Oh, and another quote, "I felt like I was watching a local production of Animal Farm," sums it up pretty well.

    However, I'm still optimistic in the long term. Hey, optimism is a brand new concept for me... I prefer not to give it up at the first apparent setback.

  3. The pressure to institutionalize -- from inside and outside the Occupations -- has been intense from the get go, and it is only getting stronger as the Movement strengthens.

    Of course the minute it becomes an "institution," it ceases to be a revolution, or even a revolt for that matter.

    Most of the anarchists who were initially involved in the local Occupation have abandoned it in favor of Oakland. And by anarchists, I don't mean Black Bloc.

    On the other hand, Oakland is so close that a lot of local occupants went to the General Strike festivities and some got their asses arrested for their trouble, too. Caught in the crossfire of teargas and flashbangs and nightsticks and so forth. Or maybe they were being "bad." I dunno, I wasn't there.

    From what I can tell, the pressure on Oakland's Occupation to institutionalize is as strong as anywhere else. Maybe stronger. How they deal with it remains to be seen. But somehow, I don't think they're going to follow the New York model. (And the Oakland people have plenty of experience with institutional power...)