What does a General Assembly do?

November 7, 2011 § 10 Comments

Lots of conversations lately about General Assemblies, especially following the big actions in Oakland. One (the port shutdown) had GA support, mass attendance, and a peaceful conclusion generally deemed successful; the other (the building takeover) did not consult the GA, was much less attended (though ~500 is nothing to sneer at), ended with a police battle, and was generally deemed a failure. One couldn’t ask for a more dramatic dichotomy of ideology or tactics.

Of course this isn’t just about Oakland — the conflict between those who feel the GA is the rightful center of democratic decision making and those who prioritize autonomous actions seems common to every Occupation. Is the GA, run using some variant of consensus process, the defining political form of this movement? Is it the sole arbiter of legitimacy? Or is the GA merely a tool for its component (and autonomous) affinity groups, working groups, magnets, committees, etc. (is it a mere coordinating body)? These are not complimentary positions — one must appear as a betrayal of principle to the other.

The Coming Insurrection was a very hip item in anarchist bookstores when it was translated from French in 2008. I don’t see many discussing it now. Whatever its overall applicability to the Occupy movement, it contains what is still my favorite critique of assemblies:

Sabotage every representative authority. Spread the palaver. Abolish general assemblies.

The first obstacle every social movement faces, long before the police proper, are the unions and the entire micro-bureaucracy whose job it is to control the struggle. Communes, collectives and gangs are naturally distrustful of these structures. That’s why the parabureaucrats have for the past twenty years been inventing coordination committees and spokes councils that seem more innocent because they lack an established label, but are in fact the ideal terrain for their maneuvers. When a stray collective makes an attempt at autonomy, they won’t be satisfied until they’ve drained the attempt of all content by preventing any real question from being addressed. They get fierce and worked up not out of passion for debate but out of a passion for shutting it down. And when their dogged defense of apathy finally does the collective in, they explain its failure by citing a lack of political consciousness. It must be noted that in France the militant youth are well versed in the art of political manipulation, thanks largely to the frenzied activity of various trotskyist factions. They could not be expected to learn the lesson of the conflagration of November 2005: that coordinations are unnecessary where coordination exists, organizations aren’t needed when people organize themselves.

Another reflex is to call a general assembly at the slightest sign of movement, and vote. This is a mistake. The business of voting and deciding a winner, is enough to turn the assembly into a nightmare, into a theater where all the various little pretenders to power confront each other. Here we suffer from the bad example of bourgeois parliaments. An assembly is not a place for decisions but for palaver, for free speech exercised without a goal.

The need to assemble is as constant among humans as the necessity of making decisions is rare. Assembling corresponds to the joy of feeling a common power. Decisions are vital only in emergency situations, where the exercise of democracy is already compromised. The rest of the time, “the democratic character of decision making” is only a problem for the fanatics of process. It’s not a matter of critiquing assemblies or abandoning them, but of liberating the speech, gestures, and interplay of beings that take place within them. We just have to see that each person comes to an assembly not only with a point of view or a motion, but with desires, attachments, capacities, forces, sadnesses and a certain disposition toward others, an openness. If we manage to set aside the fantasy of the General Assembly and replace it with an assembly of presences, if we manage to foil the constantly renewed temptation of hegemony, if we stop making the decision our final aim, then there is a chance for a kind of massification, one of those moments of collective crystallization where a decision suddenly takes hold of beings, completely or only in part.

The same goes for deciding on actions. By starting from the principle that “the action in question should govern the assembly’s agenda” we make both vigorous debate and effective action impossible. A large assembly made up of people who don’t know each other is obliged to call on action specialists, that is, to abandon action for the sake of its control. On the one hand, people with mandates are by definition hindered in their actions, on the other hand, nothing hinders them from deceiving everyone.

There’s no ideal form of action. What’s essential is that action assume a certain form, that it give rise to a form instead of having one imposed on it. This presupposes a shared political and geographical position – like the sections of the Paris Commune during the French Revolution – as well as the circulation of a shared knowledge. As for deciding on actions, the principle could be as follows: each person should do their own reconnaissance, the information would then be put together, and the decision will occur to us rather than being made by us. The circulation of knowledge cancels hierarchy; it equalizes by raising up. Proliferating horizontal communication is also the best form of coordination among different communes, the best way to put an end to hegemony.

The purely horizontal non-structure implied here reflects a completely different understanding of collective action than liberal or even Marxist-Leninist notions of democratic organization, including direct democracy. Conventional judgment calls it ‘ultra-leftist.’

The principle objection is that autonomous action at a scale or intensity that appears to contradict or undermine GA decisions is vanguardist with zero accountability, and thus divisive, irresponsible, and antidemocratic. This assumes that all visible action is representative of the Occupy movement, so if a group acts in spite of the GA, they are branded as hijackers (or hackers), those who claim the right of representation without going through any official democratic process.

Zunguzungu’s argument against the building occupation seems a little different. It doesn’t necessarily assume GA sovereignty, but instead concentrates on the unannounced action’s secrecy. For him the action wasn’t wrong on merits and it wasn’t wrong because it didn’t go through proper channels, it was wrong because it refused to make itself a topic of discussion. It refused to try to persuade the group as a whole to adopt its position, and as a result wasn’t large enough, needlessly endangering everyone involved and alienating potential supporters.

However, I don’t actually think there’s any real difference between these two. Zunguzungu is simply aware that no GA has claimed central authority for itself, and by embracing “diversity of tactics” they are tacitly condoning the actions of affinity groups. He thinks that an effective, disciplined democratic institution is necessary to protect the principle of inclusion. As the discussion here illustrates, a perhaps surprising consequence of inclusion is that there should be a distinction between Occupy, whose actions are centrally and democratically determined, and other groups who are not involved in the deliberations. As the commenters point out, this sets Occupy off from “the 99%” while still claiming to represent it. In the same way, even if they did operate under strict consensus process (and most do rely on a majority vote), GAs often don’t include many of the participants in the action being decided upon, much less “the 99%.” I tweeted a few days ago that the reality of the Occupy GA deconstructs any theoretical opposition between representative and direct democracy — it doesn’t seem that a democratic institution can ever truly become equivalent to its constituents. As Socialisme ou barbarie theorist Cornelius Castoriadis writes in The Imaginary Institution of Society (1975) there is a minimal degree of alienation involved in any political form:

“The social-historical dimension, as a dimension of the collective and the anonymous, initiates for each and every one of us a simultaneous relation of interiority and exteriority, of participation and exclusion, which can in no way be abolished or even ‘controlled’, in any definite sense of this term. The social is what is everyone and what is no one, what is never absent and almost never present as such, a non-being that is more real than any being, that in which we are wholly immersed yet which we can never apprehend ‘in person’…It is something that can be presented only in and through the institution but which is always infinitely more than the institution, what is formed by it, what continually overdetermines its functioning, and what in the final analysis founds it: creates it, maintains it in existence, alters it, destroys it.There is the social as instituted, but this always presupposes the social as instituting. ‘In ordinary times’ the social is manifested in the institution, but this manifestation is at once true and, in a sense, fallacious — as in those moments in which the social as instituting bursts onto the stage and pulls up its sleeves to get to work, the moments of revolution. But this work aims at an immediate result, which is to provide itself once again with an institution in order to exist in a visible manner — and once this institution is set in place the social as instituting slips away, puts itself at a distance, is already somewhere else.” (111-112)

Nowhere is the elusiveness of the truly democratic decision more apparent than in the vexed question of demands. Most occupations now have some sort of demands working group, through which demands, along with principles or statements of intent, are to be routed before presentation at the GA. The problem here is that the real power to represent the will of the 99% is the mandate of a group that operates autonomously from the GA, leaving the majority with the choice of whether or not to authorize a list it did not author. If any set of proposals manages to pass, as did happen with my home occupation, Occupy Austin, their inadequacy makes obvious the extent to which the GA, despite all talk of direct democracy, pure democracy, or consensus, is a representative body not fundamentally different from a parliament (it is deprofessionalized and procedurally much more responsible, but I still don’t think the revision is any more radical than, say, the Internet’s effect on music criticism). It’s no wonder there have had to be official statements dissociating the movement from these working groups or any other group, such as media or police liaison, that claims to give the movement an ideological ground that its diversity and rapid, ‘chaotic’ development constantly undercuts. They are all potential hijackers (for a necessary critique of the entire subject of demands, see this here).

Finally, the root of many of these concerns about the role of the GA is the fear that autonomous action risks ‘violence,’ a word I put in scare quotes because it’s hard to say these days what anyone means when they use it.

Nonviolence is a tactic, as its would-be debunkers always claim. More precisely it’s a media tactic. But for the very reason that the effectiveness of a nonviolent action is determined in the realm of appearance, of spectacle, it can’t be reduced to a mere appearance; nonviolence is also an ideology. It would be ineffective if practitioners weren’t committed to it in principle. Just as capitalists can’t stand outside capitalism and use it in a purely instrumental manner, just as they can’t mystify society without mystifying themselves (albeit in a class-specific manner), protest movements can’t use nonviolence without striving to be nonviolent. A nonviolent action in which someone throws a molotov at a cop effectively loses its nonviolent status. And that means any violent action — or anything that, like breaking windows, might be construed by someone with the power to decide these things as ‘violent’ — has to be repressed, or at the very least, dissociated from the ‘mainstream,’ ‘official’ movement.

Effective nonviolence, then, requires a strong GA, to propagate the idea of what nonviolence today is (counterintuitive to many people), to regulate the action and to define other actions as unauthorized. Conceived as a decision-making, governing body, the GA is the primary means by which the movement disciplines itself in the war to represent public opinion.

To repeat, in different language, the question I asked at the beginning: is the GA the culmination/restoration of democracy at the core of Occupy, a minimally repressive form of governance that tries to discipline without enforcement, that upholds the impossible ideal of pure consensus as a regulatory principle? Or is it not even primarily a deliberative body, but simply the medium through which the movement makes itself visible? Could there be a GA that makes announcements, debate, “palaver,” instead of decisions? An occupation that makes no attempt to institutionalize itself (which is not to say it fails to generate institutions)?

At any rate, it is my opinion that strategy, whether elite or collective, is weakened if it accepts taboos that restrict solidarity. If less than everything can be discussed and potentially executed outside of clandestine, after-hours meetings, then we’re still talking about moralism, not strategy.

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§ 10 Responses to What does a General Assembly do?

  • Chuckie K says:

    I’m glad you were finally able to post again on the movement. That Coming Insurrection discussion sounds to me like it so specific to France and the activities of a specific time that I don’t feel like I really know what they’re talking about. But it seems to me that the analysis “This presupposes a shared political and geographical position” barely scratches the surface and thus does not lead to a fruitful approach to the issues.
    Just like ‘discipline’ popped up in the first post on Austin, vanguards and even professional revolutionaries are all over this one. People in a position to devote time to the movement and collective bodies mobilizing much larger numbers than can or want to participate in the central organizing are necessary and inevitable. That’s where ‘process’ concerns or the Coming Insurrection model, if I may call it that, already fall one step behind a modest mass movement like that in Oakland.
    The biggest question is see in the these relations is responsibility and obligation. Not of the GA to the autonomous initiatives, but of the initiatives to the GA. Can an initiative that enjoys or lays claim to the solidarity of a GA conceive actions in which its solidarity with the GA does not figure?
    No that I have an inkling of an answer. I just hope to see the questions put in the most perceptive way so they have the best chance of leading to effective answers.

  • traxus4420 says:

    thanks, chuckie. it’s risky to draw connections to the banlieues in 2005, and i do agree that the level of analysis in Coming Insurrection is behind the times, but (and perhaps this is just my ignorance) i don’t think the questions of organization are so vastly different that they can’t be usefully compared, or observations extended. that moment seems closer to the london riots or perhaps greece than tahrir square or zucotti park, but i would argue there are recurring process concerns that really do add up to a coherent set of problems.

    one of these problems is to what extent we can think of the occupy movement(s) in party or proto-party terms. does the fact that autonomous initiatives use the language of ‘the 99%’ and ‘occupy everything’ really mean they conceive of themselves as in solidarity with the GA? it seems to me they challenge (perhaps in a counterproductive way) the GA’s claim that it represents/manifests the general will and that solidarity with the 99% = solidarity with the GA. they are in a sense daring the GA to think of itself as a party structure, something i think every GA has declined to do.

    at any rate, if plans to expand GAs within cities continue to take hold (as they’ve done in washington square in new york), the habit we all have of calling it ‘the GA’ will start to look increasingly silly. coordination of actions within cities might start to look more like coordination of national actions between cities — decentralized, informal, etc. with no real right to strike down any one else’s proposals. in austin, dissatisfaction with the city hall GA has been coming mainly from people of color and residents of the much less wealthy and much more diverse east austin, which is already putting together a GA of its own. factor in occupy the hood and the centrality of ‘the GA,’ or any GA, starts to look pretty precarious.

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  • zunguzungu says:

    Thanks for writing this. Am still pondering, but in the meantime, worth noting:
    1. Autonomous Occupy Oakland demonstrators smashed a Wells Fargo’s window on Wednesday.
    2. Occupy Oakland general assembly yesterday voted to put the money that was sent to them from New York into a Wells Fargo account.

  • Chuckie K says:

    “does the fact that autonomous initiatives use the language of ‘the 99%’ and ‘occupy everything’ really mean they conceive of themselves as in solidarity with the GA?’
    I think not, and how to resolve that contradiction an issue.

    “what extent we can think of the occupy movement(s) in party or proto-party terms” that prospect seems far-removed at this point, and orthos who criticize the movement because it does not pose party formation don’t seem to me to have thought much about the historical dynamic of that process. I figue it’s pretty much inevitable, whether people like it or not, and thus another contradiction to resolve. But much more movement would have to be happening on more fronts before its a material issue.

    But my point on the Coming Insurrection is more banal. I literally don’t know what actions they’re indicating and what the broader movement consisted of. And not so much behind the times as over simpllified.

    • traxus4420 says:

      i agree the formation of some kind of party structure is likely, though i hesitate to say inevitable – it might just dissipate and disseminate. but it would be nice to see that structure maintain relations of solidarity with whomever is left outside of it (for whatever practical or ideological reasons), and that is something the ethics of the movement – aversion to claiming power, valuing of criticism, etc. – can be used to encourage.

      being fashionable french intellectuals not so far removed from the post-68 tradition, the invisible committee and tiqqun are intentionally vague, but they do refer to greece quite a bit, and here’s what they say about the 2005 banlieue riots:

      The flames of November 2005 still flicker in everyone’s minds. Those first joyous fires were the baptism of a decade full of promise. The media fable of “banlieue vs. the Republic” may work, but what it gains in effectiveness it loses in truth. Fires were lit in the city centers, but this news was methodically suppressed. Whole streets in Barcelona burned in solidarity, but no one knew about it apart from the people living there. And it’s not even true that the country has stopped burning. Many different profiles can be found among the arrested, with little that unites them besides a hatred for existing society – not class, race, or even neighborhood. What was new wasn’t the “banlieue revolt,” since that was already going on in the 80s, but the break with its established forms. These assailants no longer listen to anybody, neither to their Big Brothers and Big Sisters, nor to the community organizations charged with overseeing the return to normal. No “SOS Racism” could sink its cancerous roots into this event, whose apparent conclusion can be credited only to fatigue, falsification and the media omertà. This whole series of nocturnal vandalisms and anonymous attacks, this wordless destruction, has widened the breach between politics and the political. No one can honestly deny the obvious: this was an assault that made no demands, a threat without a message, and it had nothing to do with “politics.” One would have to be oblivious to the autonomous youth movements of the last 30 years not to see the purely political character of this resolute negation of politics. Like lost children we trashed the prized trinkets of a society that deserves no more respect than the monuments of Paris at the end of the Bloody Week- and knows it.

  • [...] doesn’t mean that the council can just be an unmediated expression of political wills; Disaster Notes invokes the French theorist of “self-management,” Cornelius Castoriadis, to describe “a [...]

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