“Occupy Wall Street is inspiring and uniting Americans from the left, right and middle who are sick and tired of our rigged economy that works for big business and hurts ordinary workers and entrepreneurs.”
I can’t possibly ask the left to be self-critical if I’m unwilling to critique myself.
A number of people were rattled by my piece in the American Prospect offering a constructive critique of Occupy Wall Street. Specifically, responding to a piece by Subhash Kateel, an organizer for whom I have immense respect, I wrote this.
“I tend to favor the sort of well-ordered, well-bathed protests of the early 1960s; I want to know what democracy looks like, not what it smells like.” My latest for the American Prospect.
Get ready to applaud, folks. I’ve a new section of the Movement Vision Lab in which, when I read a book that I think is useful for grassroots organizing and movement building, I’m going to not exactly summarize the book so much as summarize what (I think) are the most important lessons to be learned from it. In 800 words or less (while still hopefully using full sentences…).
The first book I’m tackling is one of my favorites, Freedom Is An Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements by UC Irvine professor Francesca Polletta. I had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting Francesca a few weeks ago and trading ideas and experiences of social movement building. A total geek treat for me. And an excuse to go back and re-read her exquisite and enjoyable book about participatory decisionmaking in American social movements and organizing. Here are my top take-aways. I suggest reading through the end, which really packs a wallop…
1. Participatory democracy is a strategic leadership model
There is a false dichotomy out there that collective decisionmaking is an ideological choice but an ultimately impractical, unstrategic one. But participatory decisionmaking is also strategic for four reasons:
First, participatory decisionmaking builds trust among leaders/members. This becomes really valuable when putting your bodies on the line together in direct action or when dealing quickly with surprise crises.
Second, participatory decisionmaking leads to better decisions. The word “crowdsourcing” wasn’t in vogue when Polletta wrote this, but she might use it now. Many minds are better than one and that’s often how the best innovations arise.
Third, it develops leaders. Especially for leaders locked out of most decisionmaking in their lives and, thus, whose perspectives have been systematically devalued, participatory democracy helps leaders value their own opinions, while also developing new skills to voice those opinions.
Fourth, participatory democracy is “prefigurative”. (Good word, right?) We should aspire to effect political change without reproducing the structures we oppose, thereby also modeling the alternatives we wish to bring about more broadly.
2. Participatory decisionmaking need not be unwieldy.
In the movements Polletta studied, particularly the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t that everyone had to agree on every single decision nor that everyone’s opinion was weighed exactly equally. The point was not unanimity but discourse, so everyone felt bought into the final decision, even if it wasn’t their personal preference.
Also, Polletta writes, “Equality has sometimes been interpreted as prohibiting any differences in skills or talents.” Wrong. The point is to not be overly deferential to traditional hierarchies of expertise but to recognize each person’s unique contributions and honor “differences in skills and educational background, not by denying them, but by reasoning and learning together on the basis of mutual respect.” Still, some people may have more valuable insights on a given topic and that is okay.
The pitfall, Polletta warns, is if groups use participatory democracy to avoid hard decisions. Then it really can drag on…
3. It ain’t just for white folks with too much free time…
Sometime in the late 60s, civil rights activists who had been big participatory democrats (particularly within SNCC) turned against the practice. It became seen as a while elite, process-heavy luxury while the shift toward a more black power-oriented politics and incorporation of military metaphor into militancy favored centralization and hierarchy. Polletta notes that this disregards the fact that, historically, it was Ella Baker, James Lawson and Miles Horton who introduced collective decisionmaking to civil rights circles.
4. We need more popular education.
If we’re going to meaningfully involve grassroots leaders in the decisions that shape our political work, then we need meaningful political education—not just training to bring folks up to speed on the particular issue we’re working on, but more broadly, to help them be deeper-thinking, analytical leaders.
I was most struck by the connection between popular education and participatory decision-making Polletta unearthed. In the 1930s, Ella Baker and Miles Horton (among others) trained at Brookwood Labor College, a popular education school that sought to “serve American labor with trained, responsible, literally educated men and women from the ranks of the workers.” The participatory pedagogy of Brookwood (informed by John Dewey) shaped Horton’s approach at the Highlander Institute, also a landmark of political education. But this is noticeably a seriously lacking piece of our infrastructure today…
5. We are uncomfortable with participatory decisionmaking…
…or we should be, anyway. The idea of real, democratic decisionmaking in our movement (or movement-aspiring) organizations challenges implicit hierarchies within our own organizing, in which we “assume that leaders know their followers’ interests better than the followers themselves do.” And as much as we rhetorically claim otherwise, let’s face it—there’s a lot of professional organizers empowering themselves to agitate on behalf of their leaders rather than the patient work of helping leaders agitate for themselves.
Polletta notes that people’s understanding of what is or isn’t democratic in the context of decisionmaking is based on personal history—largely with family and culture. Quite honestly, professional organizers have a choice to exploit the life experiences of poor people and people of color living in (and sometimes replicating) very undemocratic structures by manufacturing processes that are slightly more democratic, and thus attractive, but not fully participatory. I have no doubt that organizers who rush through process in the name of expedience have the best of intentions. But it is seriously time for us to consider whether our ends justify our means.
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