Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Why I'm Not A Fan of the Spokes Council Model
The New York City General Assembly adopted a significant revision to the operations of OWS and a significant limitation on the power and authority of the General Assembly itself when it adopted the Spokes Council Proposal of the Structure Working Group on October 28.
Fritz Tucker's widely publish dissent has made the rounds. It's very clear to someone who has been following the NYCGA what Tucker's dissent is dealing with, but it may not be so clear to the non-involved public. It looks like the question is all about money and nothing else. In fact, there is a lot more going on than simple pecuniary interest.
There has actually been a great deal of dissent and wide-ranging discussion leading up to this major structural change, and though I can't be certain (one's eyes can deceive one), it appears that much of it has now disappeared from both the NYCGA and the OWS websites. Instead, there are hundreds of off topic posts among which a few of the posts arguing against the Spokes Council model remain, like raisins in a pastry.
But one thing is certain: minutes have not been posted from any NYCGA since November 4; there are no minutes posted of any Spokes Council meeting; there are no archived Livestreams of any GA since November 2, and there are none at all for any Spokes Council meeting.
Announcements are made of pending meetings of the Spokes Council, and the time or place is changed suddenly. There is no follow up on any of the OWS websites, so whether or not they actually took place is unknown. Nature of these meetings is changed suddenly; announcements are not necessarily timely, nor are they particularly accurate.
Requirements for Spokes Council membership are strict but not necessarily adhered to, necessary forms are not provided or not easily found, communications falter.
I could go on and on, but the overall picture is clear enough: in an effort to alleviate the chaos inherent in a Direct Democracy model as used by the NYCGA, the Spokes Council model was proposed to operate in parallel and in tandem with the GA; the proposal was rejected several times before a revised proposal was accepted, but once it was, many of the operations at Liberty Plaza and throughout the OWS Movement -- in New York -- went into a state of paralysis or chaos as people tried to figure out what was what and who was now suddenly who, and how this whole New Model OWS was supposed to work. Nobody knew and information was in very short supply.
I am reminded once again of images I don't want to recall; that reminder was very stark as the captives on the Brooklyn Bridge were corralled and then led one by one and in batches to their fate. Without resistance.
Now it is a reminder of the chaos of re-establishing authority in a brand new, very complex system that under psychological if not physical assault every minute of every day. Review the documents of the chaos and the re-establishment of authority in the ghettos of Eastern Europe during the Period of Unpleasantness* in the previous century. This is what the re-establishment of authority through the Spokes Councils looks like to me, and this is one of the reasons why I don't like it.
[*Period of Unpleasantness = the totalitarian/Nazi conquest era in Europe, not simply World War II; Fascist, Nazi, and crypto-Nazi ideology and political power pervaded Europe from the end of WWI through the end of WWII. The scapegoating of the Jews long pre-dated either of those events; their ghettoization and finally extermination was all but pre-ordained within the overall European context, and people still remark at how the Jews mostly meekly complied with the Orders for their round up, concentration and death. When I see some of the same meekness and compliance in the face of authority in New York -- especially -- I get very nervous about what may be in the cards in the by and bye. I try not to make too much of it, but I won't turn my back on the evocative nature of what I see. Better to point it out than to avoid the issue.]
I don't have an ideological objection to the Spokes Council model in tandem with the GA, for I think it could be an excellent means of scaling up the operating model of the Movement. An inherent problem with Direct Democracy is that in order to function properly, it has to be maintained at no greater than a certain, fairly small, scale. Those who originated the idea and practice in Athens thousands of years ago figured that out pretty quickly: the model could only function -- and even then not necessarily well -- at a scale of no more than 5,000 or 6,000 participants. Ideally, the Assemblies were smaller; and there had to be an elected body from within the Assembly to handle day-to-day operations in any case. In other words, the Assembly was not capable of appropriately handling minutiae, nor -- tragically for Athens -- could it appropriately handle bigger questions of War and Empire and such on behalf of the People.
The Spokes Council model, if it is operating properly (which it is not in New York) can provide a means to deal democratically with both the larger and smaller matters that the General Assembly cannot do well or at all. But it carries with it significant risks to the interests of and the overall health and well being of the People it is supposed to represent.
The Spokes Council is, after all, a form of Representative Democracy that is at least tangentially related to the failed Representative system the OWS Movement seeks to... change or at least to move beyond.
The advantage of a Spokes Council model is that it can be scaled up, whereas realistically -- as the folks in New York found out -- the GA model cannot. They had to split into two General Assemblies, one at Liberty Plaza and one at Washington Square, and empirically, they were still too large to operate productively. Something of the same problem has occurred in other cities (Boston, Chicago, Oakland, etc.) where the GA and the Occupation became too large for the site and for reasonable operations and they calved off supplementary locations.
If each is autonomous, then (if) as each grows, they will have to split in order to survive. The GA model is one of endless proliferation and autonomy. It has its function, but it also has inherent limitations. (Think biology.)
The Spokes Council model allows for limited and structured proliferation on a common pattern with common interests and goals, especially if it is taken to its logical extension: the Council of Councils, or as has been attempted in rough form via conference calls, the National Council of the Occupations. This is already taking place.
Supreme Soviet, Politburo, all of that. It is that Soviet model -- as well as the failure of the current liberal democratic representative model, let's not fool ourselves -- that is at the foundation of much of the criticism of the Spokes Council model. We've seen this movie before. We know how it ends. Why would we want to willingly go through it again?
But is there any rational alternative?
Fritz Tucker's well-articulated dissent has to do with money and how money is collected and handled by the NYCGA, and how the Spokes Council takes the authority over money away from the GA. Tucker also raises the alarums over the fact that a handful of interested people are ramrodding the Spokes Council model, setting themselves up as "leaders" forcing what they want on the rest of the body by stifling dissent and discussion and limiting what can and cannot be raised at Assembly.
I won't dispute his points. The problem of charismatic leaders is intrinsic to the human condition, and it does not good at all to simply complain about it. What needs to happen, it seems to me, is to recognize that the emergence of leaders -- even in an "leaderless" movement -- is completely natural, human nature, and the way to deal with it is not to try to prevent it, but to institute adequate controls on the assertion of Leadership. It's the lack of those controls that has led to so much disaster in our poor and weary world. (Cf, the Period of Unpleasantness in Europe).
The Spokes Council ideal attempts to deal with this natural human state through rigorous adherence to stated principles, and through the constant rotation of the Spokes. Since theoretically anyone can become a Spoke (momentary leader), and everyone is encouraged to be, no one charismatic Leader can (theoretically) emerge. I would urge caution in that belief. The model is not functioning at all in New York, and if it ever does get up and running, I can almost guarantee that a handful of more assertive and persuasive Spokes will assume control of the whole, and they will be almost impossible to dislodge. Most people will go along with it because most people are more comfortable with this state of affairs. They would rather be led than lead.
Human nature once again.
In my view, the best course of action for the time being is proliferation through operating General Assemblies. The problem is that many -- maybe most -- GAs don't function in the manner in which they are intended in part because there has been very little information about and training to use the GA model. Simply put, people of good will don't know how the GA model works and they don't know what to do in the face of their ignorance. They can't learn it from the Puerta del Sol Quick Guide, either. This was one of the chief failings of the initial OWS expansion. There was very little documentation and no training (unless you went to New York) on the practical aspects of "how to do it." Consequently, hundreds of Occupations came into being all of a sudden and each had to figure out for itself how to function, mostly without communications, guidance or even insight from those who had already done it.
Many adopted the superficial aspects of the NYCGA -- ie: hand signals, stacks, etc. -- but not the core principles (if those were even known), and from an operations standpoint, many, if not most, adopted some version of Robert's Rules rather than the far more egalitarian, anarchic and open model of the NYCGA and its progenitors.
Anarchy is not well-understood in this country, and many Anarchists can't articulate their politics very well. They can do "it," they just can't express what "it" is coherently or cogently.
So what happened was that many of the Occupations started out on an Authoritarian model, often without even realizing it. Some of them are trying to move toward a more open/egalitarian (ie; Anarchic) model but are having a very difficult time doing it. The Original Sin was to start out on an Authoritarian path. Once on it, you're almost stuck there.
On the other hand, some of the Occupations which started out on an Anarchic path (such as New York City's) are now gingerly feeling their way back toward Authoritarianism (with a stop for some Chaos to let the need for Authority percolate in) because their "leaders" (in waiting) have decided Anarchy Doesn't Work.
What do you do?
What do you do when you realize this Revolution is not going to be stopped? All the struggles over "models" are really peripheral. The Revolution is carrying on regardless.
And in that context, the hyper-sensitivity some have shown over Black Bloc tactics becomes almost clownish. Much more deeply rooted and important matters are at hand, and a broken window or two simply doesn't matter in that larger scheme. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Black Bloc is all but irrelevant in the larger scheme.
The Movement-Becoming-Revolution is already beyond Black Bloc.
Oakland is the Energy Center for the Movement now, and it is in Oakland where a lot of the real work of consolidating the Revolutionary aspects of the Movement are going on. But eventually, the Energy Center will shift again, maybe to somewhere abroad, where other aspects of the Movement will be worked out and consolidated.
What's happened to the Movement-That-Became-Revolution in Europe and North Africa ought to be instructive, but who among us even knows what's happened there? If you rely on CNN, you literally know nothing at all about it, and I haven't had time to look into it as deeply as I want to.
Watch Greece, watch Spain, watch Italy, watch Morocco and Tunisia and Libya, especially watch Egypt.
"Reality" changes every day.
Decide for yourself whether Spokes Councils are the way to go forward. For me, they're not. But I've been known to change my mind!