Why OWS must become the egalitarian democracy it seeks - Part I: Ill-defined 'consensus' is not democracy'
By Ernest A. Canning on 11/27/2011, 4:08pm PT  

Guest editorial by Ernest A. Canning

A post on Tuesday on the hard right Republican website Free Republic suggests that opponents of the Occupy Wall Street movement may well be injecting themselves into the demonstrations' open consensus process in order to confound the objectives of the nascent movement.

"[We n]eed LA Freepers to show up to block this vote by the Occupy LA General Assembly," the poster identifying him/herself only as "joinedafterattack" wrote in apparent hopes of scuttling a discussion that night about a proposal being negotiated with the LA City Council to trade 10,000 square feet of office space and some farmland with demonstrators in exchange for their voluntary exodus from the lawn in front of City Hall.

The call by the rightwingers to take part in a General Assembly meeting at OccupyLA for the specific purpose of blocking a proposal (one that was rejected, in any case, by the majority of demonstrators that night) exposes the vulnerability of Occupy Wall Street's "consensus" decision-making and an internal contradiction between a movement which rails against rule by the 1% even as it permits the one to block the will of the many...

Democracy entails more than a 'mic check'

"We must become the change we wish to see in the world."
- Mohandas Gandhi.

My October editorial, "Occupy Wall Street is No 'Tea Party,'" addressed the "why" of the OWS movement. This genuine democratic uprising emerged from a profound contradiction between America's "promise" and its "reality."

The American "promise" is embodied in the lofty, egalitarian principles of the Declaration of Independence, in the recognition provided by the U.S. Constitution that the purpose of government is to "promote the general welfare," and in the concept inscribed above the portico of the U.S. Supreme Court --- "EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW." The "reality," as noted by former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges, is that political power in the U.S. has been seized by a "criminal class" of rapacious oligarchs, whose radical goal is not merely the ability to carry out their criminal pillage of the economy and the environment with impunity, but the decimation of "all impediments to the creation of a neo-feudalistic corporate state."

We must now examine the "how."

The goal of egalitarian democracy will not be realized absent resolution of the anti-democratic, internal contradictions that have emerged from within the movement itself.

It is ironic that the decision to proceed by way of an ill-defined "consensus" system was, itself, superimposed on a now world-wide democratic movement by a small group who came up with the idea of Occupy Wall Street and that a movement which rails against rule by the 1% has come up with a rule of governance that can permit a single individual in some cases --- and a small group of individuals in other cases (each Occupation may have slightly different rules governing its General Assemblies) --- to block any and every action.

According to David Graeber, on Aug. 2 a group of anarchists, included amongst about a dozen people who formed a "self-appointed 'process committee,'" came up with the idea of creating "a New York General Assembly" --- a form of direct democracy whose decisions would be made not by voting but by a loosely defined "general assent." While Graeber insists this does not mean "unanimity," election integrity advocate Jeannie Dean, an Occupy LA participant and long-time reader and supporter of The BRAD BLOG, advises that "every occupation has a different protocol for [General Assembly] consensus. In LA, we operate first time proposals at 100%." Her understanding is that "NYC...now does 90% consensus."

As demonstrated by this video, the well-meaning but ill-considered nature of a "consensus" decision-making process is revealed by confusion between 'the people's mic' --- a fabulous tool for group participation without microphones, developed in the wake of NYC's ban on amplified public address systems in city parks --- and the essence of democracy.

"The only way that you keep people involved in a movement like this," the unidentified female protester states, "is you have a process in which everyone's voice can be heard: consensus process."

By facilitating the ability of an individual's thoughts to be conveyed by the many, the 'people's mic' enhances democratic participation. However, 'mic check' participation does not require consensus agreement on every spoken word by the scores or even hundreds of individuals who repeat them simply to provide amplification. 'Mic check' is not a substitute for the essence of democracy --- majority rule.

'Consensus' naïveté

During a recent appearance on the nationally syndicated Mike Malloy Show while The BRAD BLOG's creator and publisher Brad Friedman was guest hosting, Dean observed that one of the problems encountered with the "consensus" form of governance for Occupy LA has been the transient nature of the Occupy population, especially since many participate only on a part-time basis.

There is another, more fundamental problem, especially when it entails a unanimity requirement. There is no guarantee that the individuals who vote to block a proposal are actually supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement --- a point poignantly demonstrated by the hard right-wing Free Republic website's call for Freepers "to show up to block" the city's offer for office space and farmland at the OccupyLA General Assembly.

The essence of democracy is majority rule

Democracy, whether direct --- where the people themselves collectively decide --- or representative --- in which leaders are democratically elected for the purpose of conducting the people's business --- entails "rule of the majority." In our Constitutional system, there are protections for the minority against the tyranny of the majority, but aside from those narrowly tailored protections for civil and human rights (and various bastardizations of the democratic process, such as the Senate filibuster), decisions are, supposedly, based on majority rule.

Rules that require either unanimity or a super-majority are, by definition, anti-democratic. They permit a minority to dictate gridlock --- e.g., the 2/3 majority rule required for cloture (ending debate) in the U.S. Senate that permitted the GOP to block the appointment of Elizabeth Warren to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the ability of the minority GOP in CA, by way of an undemocratic 2/3 requirement for passage of revenue enhancing legislation, to block any effort to restore fiscal sanity by taxing "the 1%."

Ironically, the very next speaker in the Occupy Wall Street "consensus" video (above) underscored the fundamental error in the so-called "consensus" form of movement governance.

"In our movement," the speaker explains, "it's really important to have our means reflect the ends that we are trying to create. We want to have more representation in our government and in our economy."

How can the means of a movement that takes pride in the absence of leadership, and which proceeds by an anti-democratic "consensus" that permits the few to block the will of the majority, produce a government that "represents" the aspirations of the many and the needs of a sustainable planet?

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Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California state bar since 1977. Mr. Canning has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science as well as a juris doctor. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968). Follow him on Twitter: @Cann4ing.