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Work, Place and Community: The ‘Solidarity Ecosystems’ of Occupied Factories

By Liam Barrington-Bush

The Greek workers of VIOME took-over their old factory, fought off evictions and collectively occupied auction houses to stop the sell-off of the land they work on. In doing so, they are not just creating a better way of doing work, but also offering hints at more supportive and integrated communities and stronger, less-fractured societies. And they are not alone.

Hand soap from the VIOME factory in Greece [Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]

At first glance it is a factory: heavy machinery, crates, palettes, industrial barrels and men doing manual labour. Little catches your eye, except maybe the homemade banners hanging up around the warehouse. They’re in Greek, so you might not be able to read them, but you can tell these are not the stock decorations from the ‘IKEA industrial chic’ catalogue.

Over a couple of days, you might also notice that you’re unlikely to see those men doing the same specific jobs, day after day, as you would in most factories. They seem to rotate their roles, mixing up batches of soap, pouring them into frames and cutting it into bars, but also cleaning toilets, taking product orders and coordinating distribution.

However, overall, when you walk into VIOME, it mostly looks like countless other industrial workplaces in the north of Greece and beyond. At least, until you come back on a Wednesday or a Thursday and find part of the administrative office converted into a free health clinic for workers and the wider community.

…or when you arrive first thing any day of the week and see all the workers gathered together, sharing updates on the work and making sure they are all in the know around the pertinent aspects of the business for the day ahead.

…or if you go into one of the store rooms and discover members of different migrant solidarity groups sorting through donations that are stored at the factory, for ongoing distribution around Thessaloniki’s many migrant squats, camps and occupations.

Over time, you notice that beneath VIOME’s sometimes mundane veneer, a series of radical changes are taking place. These are changes which offer alternatives to how we organise work, community and society at large. While VIOME has become a hallmark of these shifts in Europe, what those who work and support the factory are discovering is not unique. And it is spreading, offering an alternative vision of how radical changes might occur in the ways we work, live and relate to the planet as a whole.

INTRODUCTION TO WORKER CONTROL

Workers have formed cooperative workplaces together for at least three centuries. The recuperated workplace movement that the VIOME factory in Greece is a part of, however, traces its roots back to Argentina in 2001. This was a moment when the country was ravaged by neoliberal debt, frozen bank accounts and a handful of presidents that could only cling to the role for a number of days or weeks amidst mass public uprisings.

“It was an economic, political and social crisis,” says Andres Ruggeri, an academic at the University of Buenos Aires, who has been studying worker recuperations since 2002 and came to Greece to participate in the Second Euromediterranean Workers’ Economy meeting at VIOME in October. “This was not a working class, or middle class, or poor people’s insurrection – it was everything,” Ruggeri explains. “The ruling class collapsed. In this context, some of the bosses abandoned their factories.”

A VIOME worker puts up a poster for the 2nd Euromed Workers’ Economy meeting. [Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]

In 2001-2002, roughly one hundred workplaces that were left behind by their owners were quickly re-occupied by their workers. Though worker occupation was not a new phenomenon, its immediate explosion in Argentina at the turn of the millennium was the first time such actions had happened at this kind of scale.

Today in Argentina there are roughly 16,000 workers in 370 recuperated workplaces, holding up two fingers to the systems of work that have dominated the global economy since the Industrial Revolution. These coops range from industrial manufacturers, to hospitals, textile producers to chocolate factories, hotels to print shops. Some have come to lead their industries and have improved members’ incomes, making clear that it doesn’t take an MBA to run a complex business.

Though the movement has its roots in Argentina, it has spread across much of Latin America since the early 2000s, and begun to pop-up in countries around Europe, in the aftermath of the 2008 crash. VIOME is undoubtedly a shining star in the fledgling European movement for workers’ control, but similar projects to take back abandoned workplaces from absentee owners are currently underway in France, Italy, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, Croatia, Bosnia, and other parts of Greece. And while the motivations of the workers leading these occupations have been more pragmatic than utopian, what is emerging through their experiments is the DNA of a new kind of society.

HOW WORK CHANGES, HOW CHANGE WORKS

“We knew that if we left the factory, the economic crisis would leave us without money, with big problems with our families,” says Dmitri Koumatsioulis, one of the VIOME workers involved in the initial factory occupation in 2010. “We knew that we had to restart production without knowing the next steps.”

Thus was the uncertain footing from which the first steps were taken to put the Thessaloniki factory back to work after its bosses disappeared, owing the workers months of back pay. With no managers around, it fell upon the shop floor workers to figure out how the business they had worked in for so long was actually run.

They could have opted for new managers to fill the roles of the old managers. They could have adopted the pay structures of the former company and the jobs they had all done before, but they decided to leave all of that behind and try something different. Rotating roles, equal pay and decisions made by assembly became the new norm, as the VIOME workers experimented with finding a new way of working together.

“When production started again in 2012, we would come every day, drink our coffee calmly, and talk about each day’s production, the money to pay for materials, and the problems that came up each day,” says Koumatsioulis, contrasting the collective nature of the factory today, with the command-and-control systems of before. His colleague, George Arvanitis, puts the difference more explicitly: “All of us, we are the boss.”

WHOSE VOICES COUNT?

Assemblies and democratic decision making were not familiar processes for the workers of VIOME before the occupation began, but once they started talking it became obvious that they had no desire to reproduce the kinds of unequal relationships that were the core of work under bosses. Even beyond the bold move of deciding to take decisions together though, they realised that they were still missing important perspectives if assemblies only included the relative few who were actually members of the newly-formed cooperative.

“After [the decision to occupy],” Koumatsioulis recounts, “we decided that we must open the factory up to society, with an assembly to decide what we were going to do next, like, what products we would sell.” Thus was the birth of the Solidarity Assembly, a weekly gathering in which supporters and Thessaloniki residents were free to take part in shaping the direction of the factory.

Panel at the 2nd Euromed Workers’ Economy meeting, VIOME [Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]

Too often a company’s communication with a community is limited to occasional promotional broadcasts, or at best, hollow consultations when the decision is already a fait accompli. But the motivations for opening the gates at VIOME were fundamentally different, having seen how important the support of the wider community had been in helping them take back the factory. “After a lot of talk with the many who were in solidarity,” Koumatsioulis explains, “we decided that we must produce something that was going to help them.”

This decision marked a fundamental departure from the relationship between most modern companies and the local areas in which they set up shop. Rather than seeing the neighbourhood as incidental to the business – one of the pitfalls of owners and shareholders making decisions from afar – the workers saw the factory as a part of the community in which they lived their lives. With this simple grounding came one of the most radical shifts between the old and the new factory: the idea of active interdependence, rather than an incidental coexistence between the work and the lives of those in the area. People were supporting the factory, and in turn, the factory was supporting the people.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN EVERYONE IS INVOLVED?

When the choice of what to make is left up to workers and communities, rather than managers and shareholders, the results improve in a range of obvious and important ways. The workers had been made ill by the chemicals used in the old production process. The local area had been polluted by the factory’s fumes. There was no investment capital to buy expensive specialist raw materials. People in the local area had seen their household incomes evaporate during the crisis.

These kinds of issues are deemed ‘externalities’ in most companies, but what are they actually external to? In a typical company, ‘externalising’ important factors is a one-way street; the company gets to say everything which doesn’t produce direct profit is external to it, shedding responsibility in the process, but no one else can do the same to the company. The company is never ‘external’ to the environment that it is based, the community that surrounds it, nor the lives of those who work there.

By involving all of these ‘external’ perspectives – very few of which would have been particularly relevant to the planning processes carried out by VIOME’s former owners – a direction emerged which offered answers to a considerable shopping list of problems found in countless other communities in Greece and beyond. When left with the choice and with the various relevant questions brought to the table, the workers began manufacturing affordable and eco-friendly cleaning products, instead of toxic industrial adhesives.

Today, the factory gates no longer separate the workplace from the community, nor from the environment its emissions escape to. From what the factory makes, to what the community needs and what is best for workers’ health and the wellbeing of the planet, decisions are made together, with those who do the work and live nearby. Through the initial act of workplace occupation, VIOME and countless other recuperated workplaces have begun to overcome the multigenerational failures of business owners, trade unionists, urban planners, sociologists, environmentalists and a range of policymakers, by weaving solutions to a seemingly disparate array of social, economic and ecological issues into the foundations of a single factory space.

WHEN OUR OPPOSITION MIRRORS THAT WHICH WE ARE OPPOSING

Corporations have made a science of isolating, externalising, siloing and compartmentalising themselves, under the illusion that it makes the business more manageable. In doing so, they lose perspective, zooming-in on one aspect of the business or another, without ever being able to put the pieces together and see the cumulative mess they are creating. Different teams and departments are found to be working against one another’s aims, while ‘the bottom line’ is seen as unrelated to the company’s environmental impacts. What the company does has no perceived bearing on the world it inhabits. There is no ‘cause and effect,’ so long as the effect falls beyond the realms of a quarterly report.

From a distance, we see the dysfunctional impacts of these false divisions, yet we often come to mirror them in the ways we organise our opposition. Unions fight for workers’ rights, green groups demand environmental protection, local community organisations push for neighbours’ concerns to be heard, but rarely do these isolated pushes align themselves, at times becoming explicitly adversarial.

We see this dynamic in clashes between trade unions representing workers in ecologically-destructive industries and environmental organisations. The unions rarely appreciate the realities that a fracking rig will have on any particular community’s environment, because they see the operation through the lens of net job gains or losses. When that union is organising at a national level, the issues are further isolated through the consolidation of industry workers’ common interests across the country, further minimising the significance of any local impacts that extend beyond employment. What emerges is a single battle cry, divorced from any particular place: we need jobs. Battle cries like ‘we need non-flammable drinking water’ are lost in the noise. They are ‘externalised.’

Similarly, national environmental organisations too often attribute the parts-per-million of various greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to particular industries, without understanding what those working in those industries in a particular area need. Abstract references to ‘green jobs’ do little to calm the fears of those who see their source of livelihood threatened by people who talk about their community from an abstracted distance and lack any personal stake in the impact of their pronouncements.

However, these kinds of differences have a potential to become more aligned when we move away from large-scale centralised thematic organisation (like that of governments, unions and NGOs), towards small-scale distributed community-led organisation, which has a clear shared value base at its core. In closer proximity, with those most-affected involved, it is easier to find common ground. As in VIOME, it became clear that neither the workers, nor their neighbours, wanted the factory to keep producing the building industry chemicals that they had before. Without the dialogue of the Solidarity Assembly though, it is hard to know if that common ground would have ever had the chance to surface, or if it would continue to be hidden behind the factory gates, as it had for so many years before the decision to occupy.

‘SOLIDARITY ECOSYSTEMS’

What seems to be emerging around VIOME and many other recuperations, are the early shoots of hundreds of connected ‘solidarity ecosystems.’ These are interdependent social and economic networks bound together by a mix of human need, geographic closeness and a set of core values which allow them to reach beyond their immediate territories and avoid the pitfalls of tribal localism. A shared sense of solidarity connects different aspects of local life in an area with one another (work and health, for example), as well as with the local lives of countless others, further afield.

Recuperations can be hard to describe because they transcend the various institutions most of us are used to. Rather than just a change of management, recuperations represent a new form of bottom-up social organisation, in which people decide together what they need, in the place they share, and take the action required to make it happen there, linking up with those further afield with similar values along the way.

Sign for the Solidarity Clinic within the VIOME factory [Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]

A former shell of purely-economic production may now address healthcare needs, alternative education provision, civic participation, food production and whatever else the people involved can create. These transformations are still in their early days, but the communities which surround these workplace recuperations are beginning to gently extract themselves from the logic and structures of capitalism and the state.

The recuperations tend to carry a sense of shared responsibility to meet community needs, but it is not addressed via one-size-fits-all welfare provision. There is certainly a level of supply and demand in the trading relations between recuperations, but it is driven by shared values and community needs, rather than lowest price and greatest profit.

The avoidance of hierarchy and promotion of collective decision making tend to transcend the different functions of a particular workplace, but no two recuperations will offer exactly the same combination of social and economic activity. There is a clear pattern of these spaces moving beyond the remits of their former owners, towards collectively answering many of the basic questions of life for those working and living nearby. However, the specifics emerge organically in each location based on the people involved, the needs they express and the materials available.

SCALING ACROSS

The spread of worker recuperations fits a pattern described by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze in their 2011 book, ‘Walk Out, Walk On,’ as ‘scaling across.’ According to Wheatley and Frieze, ‘scaling across’ is a process through which “small efforts… grew large not through replication, but by inspiring each other to keep inventing and learning.” This is about when good ideas, rather than being scaled up and rolled out by central government or multinational businesses, are passed directly from community-to-community, changing and adapting to their local circumstances in each place they take root along the way.

Scaling across is the natural extension of the bottom-up, non-hierarchical organising patterns that are being used in recuperation after recuperation. It is the way that these (relatively) small-scale examples of social change become something more than an inspiring curiosity in one community or another. It is the process through which good ideas can become widespread practices, without an imposed model steamrolling the ever-critical local contexts they are being used in.

Wheatley and Frieze argue that ‘scaling across’ is a way of understanding scale that is still based on individual relationships between people and groups.

“A few people focus on their local challenges or issues. They experiment, learn, find solutions that work in their local context. Word travels fast in networks and people hear about their success. They may come to visit or engage in spirited communications…. But these exchanges are not about learning how to replicate the process or mimic step-by-step how something was accomplished…. Any attempt to replicate someone else’s success will smack up against local conditions, and these are differences that matter.”

While Dmitri Koumatsioulis and his colleagues at VIOME have watched their own work inspire others around Europe to take over their workplaces, they initially took inspiration from workers in Buenos Aires. Some of those workers, from the Zanon factory (highlighted in Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’ 2004 film, The Take), flew to Greece at a critical moment at the start of the occupation, to share their learning and experiences. So while VIOME represents a major moment in the pan-European movement for workers’ control, their early days were the result of ‘scaling across’ more than a decade of learning from Argentina. And herein lies the real potential emerging from VIOME and so many other recuperations.

“Success for us is not if this factory makes profits,” VIOME member Tasos Matzaris argues, “but if this example goes abroad and new factory cooperatives are being made. This is what we think success will look like.” Or as a member of the VIOME Solidarity Assembly echoed, “one VIOME is not enough… What we are hoping is that more people will follow this example and that we’ll be able to cooperate and start a network. Occupy your own company and come find us.”

*This article was crowdfunded through the generous support of 18 people who wanted to read it. It is available to re-post freely under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0*

The old factory name on the roof of the VIOME factory [Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush, CC BY-NC-SA]

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Five bad pieces of advice young activists hear about organising

This was originally written for a student zine called ‘Free Lunch’ at the University of York in late 2013. In 2015, however, there is no such thing as a (zine called) Free Lunch… so I thought I’d re-post this one here.

Older people often come to universities and tell younger people what do to. Often they are paid to do so and some even make careers of it. This is not without merit, but should be taken with a grain of salt, especially when it relates to certain kinds of organising advice.

Below is a non-comprehensive list of advice for young organisers, coming from the ‘adult’ world of social change, that may well do more harm than good.

‘Be serious if you want to be taken seriously’

One of the underpinning beliefs of the ‘adult’ world of social change is that it shouldn’t be fun. If it doesn’t offer real and practical potential for burn-out in the short-to-medium term, you’re not doing it right. A big piece of this is about ‘seriousness’ – it’s in how you dress, what kinds of meetings you have, what types of actions you take – and it sucks the life of activism, turning it into an exercise in self-flagellation, rather than something that can feed and nourish you, while affecting the wider world. Those who don’t take you seriously for being involved in organising efforts that are fun or silly, need to look themselves in the mirror for a minute and see where all their seriousness has got them.

‘Someone has to be in charge!’

‘Now this consensus-based, leaderless hippie stuff is fine for now,’ you might hear, ‘but eventually someone’s gotta step up and take charge if you want to make a real difference.’

What they’re really saying is a continuation of the ‘be serious if you want to be taken seriously’ crap – that you need to act like dull and oppressive institutions, if you want to be effective.

They have leaders therefore you should have leaders… presumably so they can then co-opt them into fitting into a pre-set mould, or discredit them if they don’t follow an established narrative of how change should happen. When there are no individual leaders to point to, or hierarchies through which decisions are made, it is far harder to manipulate a group into becoming an extension of the groups that have come before it.

Telling you that you need leaders, is a way of making your activist group less threatening to those who have assumed a certain kind of power and influence around the issues they address.

‘Effective change involves getting yourself a seat at the table’

Replying to similar advice offered by countless pundits to the Occupy movement in 2011, New York City activist and anthropologist David Graeber wrote: “If one were compiling a scrapbook of the worst advice ever given, this sort of thing might well merit an honourable place.”

Essentially, he says, well-meaning institutions have spent decades trying to influence government policy to reflect the kinds of change we need, and have still presided over the greatest deterioration of workers’ rights, the environment, social inequality, etc that we have ever seen.

‘Getting a seat at the table’ has broadly come to mean the ability to mend a patient’s paper cut, while ignoring their gaping knife wound. When we take the seat at the table (while occasionally a necessary stop-gap measure), we end up playing by a set of rules that are broadly working against our interests. While many still cling to the value of such approaches to change, several decades in, its failure is becoming clearer and clearer.

‘Focus on the detail’

Much as lots of seasoned voluntary sector and civil society bods will emphasise the importance of trying to change governments from the inside, this approach inevitably leads to a principled insistence on spending unimaginable amounts of time trying to get three words in a 50-page piece of destructive legislation changed, while the legislation itself basically sails through. Then that change is touted as a major victory.

Focusing on the minutia of policy detail can at times be a necessary survival strategy, but when it becomes our primary focus it broadly allows those who are writing shitty legislation to shape the terms of the debate. By engaging with every consultation and every draft bill, we hand-over our power to change the discussion entirely.

‘Be realistic!’

This one is a killer. Never have two such innocuous words ground down the passions of so many committed organisers. They are code for ‘Stop trying to imagine something too much better than what we’ve got.’ They are the formula for a special breed of jaded cynicism which has never changed the world. ‘Realism’ is the stuff of the present, and we are certainly more imaginative than to think we simply want more of what we’ve already got!

See! There used to be such a thing as a Free Lunch!!

See! There used to be such a thing as a Free Lunch!!

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Coming to Consensus

A powerful idea’s unexpected journey around the globe

This piece was commissioned by Contributoria in September 2015.

 

Photo adapted from Kate Ausburn on Flickr, used under Creative Commons 2.0.

“It was an extraordinarily bad camping location,” DIY technologist Richard Bartlett says of Wellington’s Civic Square. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slab of grass embedded in a concrete frame overtop of a car park in the centre of New Zealand’s capital city was not designed with camping in mind. Yet in October 2011, as the Occupy movement swept the globe, this questionable attempt at public space was repurposed and became home to the Occupy Wellington encampment for the next four months.

Among the 1,000-plus Occupy camps that scattered themselves like seeds around the globe in late 2011, Wellington’s was far from being the largest or longest-lasting. Yet it was the 40 or 50 tents in Civic Square that enabled a major development in one of the cornerstones of the Occupy experience around the world: the digitisation of consensus decision-making.

What is consensus?

Consensus is a collective decision-making process that aims to avoid the pitfalls associated with both executive decree and majority rules voting. Seeds for Change, a UK collective that offers training in consensus process, describes it as “a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. Consensus is neither compromise nor unanimity – it aims to go further by weaving together everyone’s best ideas and key concerns – a process that often results in surprising and creative solutions.” [A Consensus Handbook, pg 6]

Anthropologist David Graeber grounds this process in a much bigger picture when he argues that the consensus process – not voting – is the core of democracy:

“Voting is divisive. If a community lacks means to compel its members to obey a collective decision, then probably the stupidest thing one could do is to stage a series of public contests in which one side will, necessarily, be seen to lose… Democracy, then, is not necessarily defined by majority voting; it is, rather, the process of collective deliberation on the principle of full and equal participation.” [The Democracy Project, pp 184-186]

In many people’s minds though, the consensus process is the series of silly-looking hand signals regularly employed by activists to symbolise where people in a group discussion stand on a comment or issue. While rarely featured in most mainstream discussions of democracy and collective organisation, variations on the consensus process have been found among the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Quaker religious traditions and countless Indigenous cultures across the globe, dating back millennia. However, in 2011, the explosion of the Occupy movement breathed new life into the process, introducing it to countless new practitioners.

The growth of consensus in recent years is testament to both the efficacy of the process itself and the emergence of networked communications technology. This is part of its story.

How consensus got to Wellington

Consensus process was fundamental to the Wellington Occupy camp from its onset. There remains some contention as to whether the “jazz hands“ landed in Wellington via a two-minute clip produced by Occupy Oakland, or an eight-minute clip produced by Occupy Wall Street, but there was agreement that watching videos of others doing it was all that was needed to train up this new cadre of activists for effective collective decision-making.

CONSENSUS (Direct Democracy @ Occupy Wall Street) from meerkatmedia on Vimeo.

As with so many other places, the process had a profound impact on those involved, as many experienced the ability to make group decisions without creating winners and losers, for the first time in their lives. Richard Bartlett described experiencing “radical insights” during Occupy general assemblies, in “…these moments where you have a breakthrough that takes you to a place that no individual could have got to on their own. Once you’ve seen this three or four times, you realise that the process is actually producing that, not a charismatic leader. I had a full-on, spark-of-light-to-the-eyeballs epiphany about that process!”

A fellow Occupier and web developer, Jon Lemmon, felt similarly, but had a new insight based on his elation with Civic Square consensus. “We should be able to translate this experience into software,” Jon said to Richard at the peak of the Wellington encampment.

From this initial observation came Loomio – an online consensus decision-making platform that Richard, Jon and a crew of local social entrepreneurs calling themselves Enspiral co-developed to preserve the central process of the Occupy Wellington experience after the camp had disbanded. And though dissemination of the practice from New York to Wellington happened via a YouTube channel (with a possible stopover in Oakland, en route), the process had another key step in its recent lineage, one that would become significant as Loomio began to spread around the world.

From indignation to consensus

On 15 May 2011, five months to the day before Richard, John, Ben and a few hundred other Kiwis descended on Wellington’s Civic Square, another city square was filling with citizens. In Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, an estimated 50,000 Spaniards came out in force, sparking a new movement for “real democracy”, enraged by the human fallout of the 2008 global financial collapse and the rampant cross-party corruption that plagued Spanish politics before and since.

The media termed the group indignados, or “indignants”. However, most of the participants refused to dwell on the systems they were fighting against, quickly placing their energies into something more constructive: the creation of “real democracy” in the square and beyond.

Miguel Catania had never been involved in activism before 2011, but on 15 May decided that he would add his voice to the tens of thousands of others who were fed up with how politics was playing out in his country. While Richard Bartlett and his fellow Wellingtonians are still visibly enthused when recounting their initial experiences of consensus process, Miguel is much more subdued in his descriptions of Day One in Puerta del Sol:

“The first assembly we did was very natural. Maybe there wasn’t somebody doing proper moderation to get to consensus. Anyway, in a natural way, we did it, because there were no leaders, there was nobody controlling things… it is a natural way of organising people in such situations. Like when you are among friends and want to take a decision to go to the movies, you are using this kind of process. You try to see other points of view, make everyone happy. It was a bit like this. We wanted to have a decision and of course we wanted everyone to be in the decision. It was a proper, natural process.”

In this case, the decision was to stay the night in the square. The basics of the process began to emerge via the input of a small core of veteran activists. These were largely people who had participated in the Global Justice Movement in the early 2000s and who began to introduce the hand signals that had been used in the street protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.

What became clear within a few days in Puerta del Sol was that a pure consensus process was unlikely to work with such large numbers. The aim for 100% agreement continued, but with space to enable the group to move ahead if 100% consensus wasn’t proving possible.

In Miguel’s view, this was not in contradiction. Rather than a literal interpretation of the word, the 15-M activists moved towards a spirit of consensus that aimed to bring more and more of the group into dialogue and gradual agreement about a question, but without allowing a minority to prevent a process from moving forward. This process was about collaborative improvement of proposals through open discussion, rather than purely about the number of people who backed the specifics of the proposal in the end.

In the weeks that Puerta del Sol remained occupied, it quickly became clear that the square was not the right place to do the kinds of organising that were needed to confront the plethora of problems that Spanish communities were facing. The local nature of evictions, electricity cut-offs, food prices and other issues – along with ongoing police repression – led to the localisation of assemblies that summer, with hundreds of smaller groups forming in neighbourhoods around Madrid and most other Spanish cities.

And while many criticised the consensus process used in Puerta del Sol for its unwieldy and often epic meetings, variations on the method again became the standard process in each of the neighbourhood assemblies that emerged. Though challenging, the fundamental consequences of adopting any other system that offered less widespread input were consistently shot down.

But the processes used in Puerta del Sol and elsewhere in Spain didn’t just become more localised. They also spread like seeds on the wind, as several 15-M activists found themselves in New York City that summer, and brought a few significant hand gestures along with them.

We are the 99% (but let’s aim for 100%, OK?)

Figuring out how exactly consensus became the decision-making process of choice in Zuccotti Park, Lower Manhattan, in September 2011 is still a slightly contested chapter in recent activist mythology. David Graeber, who took part in the early days of Occupy Wall Street (and its precursor, the New York City General Assembly), in his book The Democracy Project attributes the choice to the presence of a mix of American Global Justice Movement veterans and some Spanish and Greek activists who’d recently hopped the pond and plugged themselves into the organising efforts.

Miguel Catania in Madrid distinctly recalls some fellow Spaniards – possibly named Nikky, Vicente and Angel – who had moved to NY after the Puerta del Sol occupation and had shared their learning with the New York occupiers. “It was very direct. They just took the process and said, ‘ok, this is very effective, so use it’.”

Another variation on the story suggests that a translated pamphlet produced in Puerta del Sol, entitled How to Cook a Non-Violent Revolution, and its accompanying appendix, A Quick Guide to Group Dynamics in People’s Assemblies, provided the practical training for the soon-to-be Occupiers.

More generally, Marina Sitrin, a fellow veteran of Occupy Wall Street who has documented and participated in non-hierarchical social movements around the globe, also includes the role of “movement media” in spreading images of the processes being used in other movements around the world. These images captured the imagination of activists elsewhere, who filled in the details themselves based on a cursory understanding of what was being done in other movements.

And back to Spain again…

While the dissemination of the process from Madrid to New York, and then New York to Wellington, was at least in some significant part the result of the emergent web of connections on the internet, the birth of Loomio was a significant shift. Whereas the tools of the web had enabled others to learn about consensus before, and to put it to use in the flesh from there, Loomio digitised the process, opening it up to countless more who couldn’t be or hadn’t been a part of the Occupy movement.

There are currently about 20,000 Loomio groups operating in 33 different languages, enabling more creative, inclusive and collaborative decisions to be made among a massive array of users. The Loomio platform has facilitated group decisions at a community art gallery around the corner from its office in Wellington for more than three years, while also helping aggregate public opinion to push Statistics New Zealand – a national government department – to produce the first national census in the world that offers respondents non-binary gender options (i.e. not just male or female). Current users range from schools and grocery co-ops, to activist groups, community gardens and even a few local authorities, who have seen the value of consensus process, even while stuck in stifling hierarchical bureaucracies.

In yet another unexpected twist, though, Loomio also reintroduces 15-M activist Miguel Catania to the narrative, having found Loomio while organising with Podemos, the new leftist political party in Spain that won five seats in the 2014 European elections. Podemos had emerged as one of the spin-offs of the 15-M movement. It was founded on the desire to bring the (relatively) radical perspectives and processes of the country’s massive street movement, into the corridors of power. This was always contentious among some participants, but activists like Miguel saw the transition as an important part of bringing direct democracy into new places.

Initially, Podemos spread like wildfire and many of the neighbourhood assemblies that began after the Puerta del Sol occupation, morphed into Podemos “circles” – democratic groups that continued to take local collective action while also feeding into national policy debates and priorities.

Podemos offered political opinions that were well beyond the existing political consensus, and showed signs of bridging the gap between the direct democracy of the street movements and the shambolic representative democracy of first-past-the-post elections and political parties. The party held assemblies at every level, offered countless inroads for new volunteers (not just door-knocking and making phone calls) and practised consensus process in most of its local circles.

The initial excitement around the party led to five seats in the European Parliament and a membership in the hundreds of thousands. When Miguel came across Loomio through an article in the tech press, he and fellow 15-M technologist, Yago Bermejo Abati, invited Ben Knight, one of Richard and John’s Loomio co-founders, to pay them a visit in late 2013. Ben gave a couple of small talks there and Miguel and Yago began to tell other Podemos activists and local circles about it, encouraging them to use it to support local organising efforts.

By June 2014, hundreds of new groups and thousands of new members were flowing to Loomio from across Spain. At one point that summer, 60% of Loomio’s global web traffic was coming from the country. Today there are more than 1,600 Podemos-related discussion groups on the site.

However, with its growth, a centralising force set in, gradually asserting top-down control over the party’s direction. Miguel had joined Podemos as part of its participation and outreach group, from working on technology and collective process in Puerta del Sol. But from the start he had seen elements of the party that were only interested in achieving better governmental policies, rather than also creating directly democratic structures. In some cases, there had been open high-level contempt for assemblies and the directly democratic organising processes that they represented.

This became vastly more prevalent with the creation of the National Citizens Council, a body that was in many ways rigged to consolidate support for the existing party leadership, and that, at the very least, drew power away from hundreds of thousands of regular members and into a much smaller group of elected representatives. “The power of the circles disappeared,” Miguel says over Skype, and so “most of the circles stopped using [Loomio].”

Miguel moved his efforts away from Podemos and towards one of the smaller new local parties that emerged after 2011, Ahorra Madrid. Now he finds himself in the role of “director of participation” in Madrid’s new city council, since Ahorra Madrid came to power in May. A loose network of parties that had made stronger efforts to keep the consensus-based methods of 15-M at their core, ended up winning in countless local elections across the country this spring, with Podemos’ influence far weaker than many had predicted, failing to win any local elections.

The lesson from May was clear to Miguel: “If you turn to more traditional structures where things are done in a more traditional way, people just don’t want to work anymore, if they don’t have the space to work and support… [The local elections were] a bit like proof that it was much more effective to have this more open structure, a more open way of taking decisions.”

While Miguel had put his efforts into Podemos, whose media-savvy campaigning had helped capture the national imagination, he is clear that without consensus, change is impossible:

“It’s the only way we can organise these kinds of movements, where everybody is really at the same level. It’s the only structure that can really take all the collective intelligence of a lot of people and create better ideas and better proposals and better actions, that include all the collective intelligence of the people around it.”

Fundamentally, Miguel says, consensus “is the most powerful way to get the best ideas”. It is a process that allows for better processes and ideas to emerge, so even when the process is flawed, collective deliberation can help to find, create or adapt something that works better.

While decision-making processes can seem relatively inconsequential with all the big issues and questions that the world is facing, changing the process through which decisions are made can in turn change the ways we ask and answers so many wider questions. As Richard Bartlett at Loomio so eloquently said of one of his key moments recognising the importance of the consensus process: “We used the consensus process to improve the consensus process… holy shit! This thing can fix everything!”

 

Photo adapted from Kate Ausburn on Flickr, used under Creative Commons 2.0.

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Structuring our Beloved Communities?

I wrote this piece for Contributoria, as my longest exploration of how we organise for social and environmental justice, since the publication of Anarchists in the Boardroom. It looks at the messy relationship between the kinds of organising structures we use, and the kinds of relationships we create. And I got to speak to some truly inspiring people in the process! Enjoy!

'I LOVE HUMANITY! LET'S FIGURE THIS SHIT OUT TOGETHER!'

Photo credit: shankbone on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankbone/6193404069/sizes/l

In the early days of the US civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. used the phrase ‘Beloved Community’ to describe the kind of change he was working towards. The Beloved Community expressed a way of organising that made non-violence and compassion both its means and its ends, and placed strong relationships at the core of wider social transformation. The phrase, initially coined by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, articulated the idea that organising based on Love will create a culture of Love in its wake. King said:

“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method… is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that.”

The King Centre describes the Beloved Community as “an overall effort to achieve a reconciled world by raising the level of relationships among people to a height where justice prevails and persons attain their full human potential.” But what does the Beloved Community look like when we get past its romantic broad-brush prose? And how can we organise ourselves in ways that align our methods with the visions our social change organisations and movements are trying to create?

The chicken-and-egg of structures and relationships

“I often say to people,” Margaret Wheatley tells me over Skype from her Utah home, “if you get the room set-up right, you’re at least 60 per cent of the way towards creating what you want.”

While seemingly a far cry from the ideals of Beloved Community, Wheatley has spent decades exploring what helps people to work meaningfully together, primarily in organisational settings, and places great importance on structuring the kinds of spaces we gather in. Her first book, Leadership and the New Science, became a best-seller in 1992 and offered a glimpse of what human leadership might look like if it followed the organising patterns found elsewhere in nature. She is deeply critical of hierarchy and over-specialization and an advocate of self-organising and individual autonomy.

“If we’re creating a good process – people are highly engaged, self-motivated, thinking again, feeling creative,” she tells me, “what we’re really doing is reintroducing people to what it feels like to work well together.”

But to what extent is ‘working well together’ something that is created – by place or process – and to what extent does it emerge through the individual relationships involved? Or is this simply a chicken-and-egg conundrum that leads in an unending circle? Even if the ‘relationship/structure’ question is ultimately rhetorical, the exploration remains a critical one if we are going to find better ways of organising our communities, organisations and social movements towards something resembling a Beloved Community.

The political is personal

Following King’s articulation of Beloved Community, the feminist movement in the 1960s made a quantum leap in Northern/Western understandings of social change with the articulation that ‘the personal is political,’ grounding each of our lives in the wider social dynamics they are a part of. More recently, new social movements have traced this relationship back again, looking at how widespread system change is dependent on deep reflection about the kinds of individual relationships we choose to form together. In other words, the political is also personal.

Marina Sitrin lived in Argentina for several years in the early 2000s. An American activist and writer, she documented and took part in an emergent form of organising – Horizontalidad (or horizontalism) – that offered an alternative to the top-down structures of most political parties, unions and NGOs.

While many of our current organising structures were initially used to bolster the iron-fist management practices of the industrial era, horizontalism emerged in worker-occupied factories, neighbourhood assemblies and direct actions undertaken by unemployed workers after Argentina’s economic collapse in late 2000. Hierarchies were flattened, management teams disappeared, decisions were made via consensus and actions were taken collectively. Sitrin has written two books about her experiences there, offering eloquent articulations of horizontal organisational forms that have influenced countless social movements around the globe in the past decade.

“In Argentina,” Sitrin explains to me from Berlin, “the focus was on creating a new relationship where people could be heard, and finding that in that process it was developing… new ways of thinking about oneself, a new dignity.”

It is around this ‘new relationship’ that Sitrin’s work meets with Wheatley and others at the more progressive end of the organisational spectrum, grounding organising in the transformation of the relationships between those involved. “We are all bundles of potential,” Wheatley opines, “that manifest only in relationship,” highlighting that if we are to realise our individual or collective potential, it will be based on the quality of connections we are able to form with one another.

Liberation via Structure

Kiran Nihalani is a founding member of The Skills Network, a women’s collective based in Brixton, South London that organises cooperatively around directly-democratic principles. She finds it hard to distinguish between the means and the ends of organising, as have so many others – from traditional charities to revolutionary armies. “It is difficult to separate structures and relationships,” she tells me via email. “They feed off each other… [the structures] help people think about their relationships with others in the group (and people outside it) in a different way.”

In societies built on deeply unequal power dynamics, we often need to be reminded of equality, wherever we are used to finding ourselves in the social pyramid. “I would be a proponent of a little more structure,” Marina Sitrin cautiously encourages, based on the relatively loose methods used by most of the non-hierarchical groups she worked with in Argentina. “Structure helps facilitate more horizontal relationships.” Making explicit reference to King’s idea of Beloved Community, Sitrin continues:

“Beloved Community …doesn’t just happen magically; we’re coming with so much baggage… people are coming from the system where [they] are so divided from each other and so alienated from each other, and alienated from themselves, that we need help in relating to each other in an equal way… We need help with structure to not permit certain behaviours. And if we agree to those structures ahead of time, collectively, there’s nothing hierarchical about that.”

Similarly, Peroline Ainsworth, another founding member of the Skills Network adds:

“…in our context, where people are so used to feeling ‘less than’, realising that everyone gets paid the same rate, deciding on paid to unpaid ratios together and seeing that you can participate in making formal decisions is crucial.

…the nuances of interpersonal relationships, although they are important, need to be combined with the really objective structural stuff to make it real for people. …This is an essential starting point in situations where a lot of people are so used to being made to feel unequal, even though they are told that they are equal.”

Another core member of the Skills Network, Hannah Emmons, described the liberating nature of their organising structures as follows:

“I think if those [non-hierarchical] structures and processes didn’t exist… [members] would be exactly where they felt they belonged – at the bottom … that they didn’t matter. So the structures we put in ensure people know that they do matter, and they are relevant, and what they have to say is worth hearing …[In] the hierarchical state, there’s always someone at the bottom, and unfortunately the majority of the people coming through our doors, they believed they were at the bottom of that hierarchy. So …when we’ve kicked off the hierarchical structure, for the first time in ages for some of them in a public space, they are equally important as everyone else in the room.”

But are alternative structures enough to undo all the ways we inevitably adopt bits of the structural inequalities that surround us, when we have been raised in deeply unequal societies? Tana Paddock, co-founder of the South Africa-based Organization Unbound project, says this:

“Those experiences live on inside of us and we’re going to replicate them… So what do we do when these patterns come up? …No structure can keep them down. No structure can rid our inner selves from those patterns.”

The question then becomes: are non-hierarchical structures and processes enough? Or do we need to think beyond these nuts and bolts if we want to foster our own Beloved Communities?

The shortcomings of non-hierarchical organisation

According to Paddock, “the form should always grow out of the experience. All the time, no matter how beautiful that form looks from the outside, it can eat us.” While no advocate of hierarchy, Paddock is also dubious of the focus many social movements since the 1960s and 1970s have placed on non-hierarchical structures: “The feminist movement was hugely successful in experimenting with ways of flattening hierarchies,” she argues, “but in doing so they became quite ideological. And thus the ideology started to overrun everything else.”

Paddock stresses the need to stay open to a range of forms, and that those forms must remain responsive to the people in the group, and the contexts they live and work in. “Structures are certainly helpful,” she says, “but they are only helpful if they grow out of relationships,” pointing to various experiences where “pushing the structure on the people just because of a philosophy of participation can end up having the opposite result in practice and in experience.”

Similarly, in North America and Europe, the concept of horizontalism has become rigidly associated with the particular form of consensus decision making used by Occupy and the 15-M movement in Spain since 2011. The experiences of some participants in both movements reinforced the thesis of Jo Freeman’s 1970 essay , ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ in which she argued that soft hierarchies simply replace formalised power when formal hierarchy is removed. In some of these protest camps, the rigid adoption of a particular form of decision making ended up placing power in the hands of those most versed in that process, often silencing those less familiar with the intricacies of ‘jazz hands,’ ‘blocks’ and ‘speaker stacks.’

Sitrin echoes Paddock’s sentiment about ensuring structures grow from the place they are being used, describing a far less dogmatic understanding of consensus in Argentina: “Horizontalism doesn’t necessarily mean any form of consensus… it’s that the group together decides what makes most sense for that group without anyone having power over other people.”

She continues by highlighting that in many of the neighbourhood assemblies, “there was no formal consensus process at all… People referred to consensus, but what they meant was finding agreement with each other by seeking a compromise in a conversation.”

Wheatley, too, warns against the wholesale adoption of any particular structure or process:

“The issue for me is getting hooked on one, and only one [process]… so it’s all that you know how to do. It’s just like people assumed I always want to sit in a circle [when facilitating a session]… I would urge people to stay with their game here and not get hooked on one particular practice.”

When relationships transcend structures

While in theory non-hierarchical structures are more egalitarian, this is not universally the case in practice. In fact, does an on-paper hierarchy necessarily create inequality, any more than a flat organisation automatically creates egalitarian relationships? Tana Paddock began to wonder about this question when working with a community organisation that had adopted a very traditional management structure:

“This place seemed to develop this really embedded culture of strong relationships and trusting relationships, so much so that no matter who came in, in those positions, they were forced to work in that way because it was so embedded in their being as an organisation, as a collective. …I’m in this place that looks on paper to be very structurally hierarchical, and it’s the healthiest place I’ve ever been, and it had consistently been like that for years and years. So it’s not just reliant on a charismatic leader or someone who’s really good at relationships, it seemed to really develop this really deep way of working, despite the structure… Who am I to say, ‘No! You should be a flat structure!’?”

Many of us have experienced moments where particular organising relationships become so much more than how they are described on paper. Peroline Ainsworth of the Skills Network describes some of the relationships she has there as feeling more “like equals than most relationships I’ve had in my life.” While they have initially been shaped by formal process, they have become “something that is more than and exists beyond and between the formal structures.”

This is further reflected in Hannah Emmon’s description of the day-to-day application of the Network’s decision making process, where a culture of ongoing dialogue has often come to supersede the formalities of consensus:

“The more important decisions which really need everyone, we do ensure there is everyone… However on smaller ones, I think we’ve got mini-versions of consensus, where… you turn to the next person [and ask their perspective]. Nothing in Skills happens completely individually… before anything is finalised it always comes back to the group before the next step happens. …We are always… conferring with each other.”

Amongst Argentina’s primarily Indigenous-led defence of the land movements, formal rules were often eschewed in exchange for a culture of direct discussion, and when needed, confrontation. According to Marina Sitrin:

“When faced with the challenge of different kinds of political parties… trying to infiltrate [assemblies], they tend to not have rules that [those parties are] not allowed to participate, but… a culture of calling them out. Which is a step forward.”

While this hasn’t always been the case within these movements, Sitrin sees this type of constructive confrontation as an improvement on the culture of passivity that pre-dated it. Rules become less necessary if you have a culture that offers collective accountability. “Once you have good trusting relationships,” Margaret Wheatley adds, “you can sit on the ground or meet on a bus and it all works … over time [structure] becomes less important.”

What does it all mean?

So let’s recap:

• Non-hierarchical structures can help us challenge the parts of ourselves and others which have been negatively shaped by wider social inequality and injustice.

• But those structures, just like their hierarchical counterparts, can become oppressive when used too rigidly, playing into wider social privilege and bestowing undue influence on those who know the systems best.

• Relationships may transcend the structures we create, though if we want them to do so in a positive way we still need to be very conscious of how we relate to one another.

Rather than juxtaposing structures and relationships, perhaps a Beloved Community is more about the intent behind them? “When you’re creating structure, where is it coming from?” Tana Paddock asks me pointedly. “Is it coming from a place of fear, of what could happen if you didn’t have that structure, or is it coming from a place of wanting to generate something positive?”

“Most institutions,” she asserts, “are created out of fear. Rules and structures are created [because]… something bad happened and you don’t want it to happen again, so you create a structure or a process or a regulation to keep it from happening again.”

If we start from a place of fear – expecting the worst and focusing on avoiding it – how much more likely might we be to create the very patterns we are afraid of? Many traditional organisational policies start by telling people what they can’t do, and end up spawning the kinds of dishonesty and carelessness they aimed to avoid. Might some of our most-seemingly democratic and participatory organising structures have the same effect?

Imagine if we organised primarily with the intention of liberating human potential? While the prevalent use of horizontalidad amongst Argentine social movements reflected widespread intent to create equal relationships, the specifics that emerged in groups varied vastly. And while the Skills Network remain strong advocates of consensus because they want to correct the powerlessness that so many of their members feel in wider society, it hasn’t stopped them from adapting their understanding of consensus to fit the needs and aspirations of those members.

In other words, there is no silver bullet that will address the rich complexity of human dynamics, but if we think more about the intent behind each structure, each process, and each relationship we form on the path to creating a Beloved Community, we may just find we get there along the way.

Thank you to Contributoria for commissioning this piece and making it available Creative Commons!

Photo credit: shankbone on Flickr






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Social media for organisational change @ ECF2014

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the eCampaigning Forum in Oxford on April 11, 2014, describing how social media can act as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for the constructive subversion of organisational bureaucracy. Here’s the video to prove it.

…If you’re not yet convinced that you want to commit 28 minutes of your life to watching me talk, here are a couple of teasers:

  • I describe ‘three stages of organisational social media embrace’: ‘the new fax machine,’ ‘the social engineering project,’ and ‘the more like people organisation.’ Most organisations are stuck at the second stage, but the real magic happens at the third stage.
  • You’ll get to see silly image macros that involve the Hulk, the boss from Office Space and a bunch of wanky pics that come up when you search ‘professional’ in Google Images.
  • I explain constructive subversion, as a way of changing your organisation, without expecting the turkeys (senior management) to vote for Christmas (flatter, more democratic, transparent and trusting organisations).

I’m especially keen to hear peoples’ thoughts on this one, and if they have been able to put any of the ideas into practice in their own workplaces.

May your subversions be constructive!

Liam

EDITOR’S NOTE: For those who really don’t have time for the video, here is the ‘3 stages of social media embrace’ I recently described on the ECF list. They are admittedly crude and no org will fall 100% into one of them, but I think they provide a bit of a sense of a trajectory for getting the fullest potential from online campaigning tools.

1. The new fax machine – it’s a tool that gets given to a low-ranking member of staff to handle, with little-to-no autonomy or recognition of its significance. ‘One Tweet per week’ kinda thing. Where lots of orgs were a few years ago, and at least a few still are… The point tends to be to keep up with the Jonses, cause others are doing it. Nothing more.

2. The social engineering project – highly specialised digital teams that add up lots of metrics and then conflate them with campaign success or failure. This tends to involve lots of assumptions about the people who support us, boxing them into demographic groups and feeding them lowest-common-denominator (clicktivist) actions based on those assumptions. The point to this approach tends to be bigger numbers, and that more=better. (This is obviously true in many situations, but can be a misleading metric of success in many others, if it is a kind of involvement that minimises what people feel they are able to offer to a cause, to give people something that is likely to boost total figures).

3. The more like people organisation – everyone who wants to, tweets, blogs, shares, etc. The tone is less managed, the line between staff, members, beneficiaries, supporters, etc is blurred as freer conversations emerge within and around the organisation. There is an honesty and openness rarely found in many more trad orgs. These conversations lead to freer collaborations and faster responsiveness, as important information tends to travel where it needs to more effectively through networks than hierarchies. The point becomes about nurturing stronger relationships, which lead to more resilient networks. This stuff is far harder to measure, but comes from a deep belief that if we aren’t building stronger networks amongst those who care about our work, we are making ourselves very vulnerable to a range of outside shocks that might make top-down campaigning models more difficult or impossible (laws, tech changes, natural disasters, etc). It also recognises that there is vast untapped potential within and around organisations, that our structures prevent us from realising, and which social media has the potential to open-up, through freer connections between people, ideas, and those needed to make them happen.

This last one is much closer to how social movements tend to organise, and I’d argue that it offers the most potential significance and impact for organisations, because it can start to model new ways of organising that move beyond the Industrial-era hierarchies most of our orgs have ended up adopting over the course of several decades, which have come at massive cost to the people and causes we champion.

I wrote a book called Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people. You can order it here.







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Navigating meetings with Grumpy Cat

We’ve all experienced Grumpy Cat; that person who comes into a meeting or a workshop, seemingly set on bringing everyone else down, blasting any suggestion that might offer the potential for positive change. They often cloak their intentions in notions of ‘being realistic,’ or by regular references to health and safety legislation, or funding requirements. But whatever they call it, the effects are often the same: they suck the life out of the room. What’s the best response in these situations?

meetings with Grumpy CatI’ve done work with a few different organisations lately, in which Grumpy Cat has made an appearance in meetings or workshops. Grumpy Cat takes different forms in different offices, but his or her (usually his) demeanour sets him or her (usually him) apart from colleagues; Grumpy Cat doesn’t smile, Grumpy Cat doesn’t get excited, Grumpy Cat always has a problem with something.

Now I’m reluctant to label someone as ‘negative’ – I think it is an incredibly loaded term which is regularly used within organisations to silence internal critics and avoid dealing with a critical issue (much like calling someone ‘unprofessional’). I’ve been the ‘negative’ one before, because I was the only person in a group who was regularly willing to highlight subtle forms of discrimination, or point out that something the organisation had long done just wasn’t working.

So I have a lot of empathy for a certain kind of person who tends to receive the ‘negative’ label. But I try to distinguish between ‘negativity’ that is critical of the way things are being done in the present (where they may be doing active harm), and negativity to any ideas of change which at least offer the potential to make an existing problem better.

Even beyond that, I am split in terms of how to best respond when there seems to be the latter kind of negativity in the room. Grumpy Cat may be grumpy for a whole range of reasons, and each probably call for a different kind of intervention. For example:

1) If Grumpy Cat is unhappy or even depressed in life, generally, and their way of engaging is one facet of that unhappiness, how can a facilitator or colleague support Grumpy Cat?
2) If Grumpy Cat is angry at their organisation, but hasn’t found a constructive way of handling it, how can their specific frustrations be raised or addressed?
3) If Grumpy Cat is used to being the person who looks for anything that could go wrong – a common trait in management due to hierarchical accountability structures – how can we help them come into group settings with a different attitude?

However, if the result of any of the above is that Grumpy Cat is actively, if subconsciously, blocking positive changes (thus propping-up the status quo), is it fair to not call that out and hold Grumpy Cat accountable for preventing much-needed progress? A certain form of politeness can allow Grumpy Cat to keep something destructive going, simply by constantly reiterating the impossibility of the change that is needed, through comments about ‘being realistic’ and the like.

Ultimately, I find the balancing act lies in finding empathy with Grumpy Cat, without letting Grumpy Cat ruin the work others are trying to do to bring about change. This could mean having a one-to-one chat with them during a break, to either see if you can get a sense of where they’re coming from, or to highlight the impacts of their attitudes on others. More generally, I often introduce the (cheesy but effective) ‘Yes-And’ over ‘No-But’ approach when starting a session. This forces people to avoid responding to any new idea with dismissal (highlighting ‘why it wouldn’t work’), instead encouraging them to improve on the new idea (‘what could make it work?’).

I’m keen to hear your own thoughts on this, as I’m sure we’ve all sat in a workshop, training course, or meeting with Grumpy Cat before, whether we’ve done so as a facilitator or a fellow participant… Any tips or thoughts are greatly appreciated!

———

I wrote a book called Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people. You can order it here.







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Pamphlets are the new social media

There’s an old political tradition (that probably never had a parallel in the world of management theory) of pamphlet-printing; producing 10-20 pages about a specific theme and selling them as cheaply as you can to encourage the spread of the ideas.

Lovingly hand-folded and stapled by anarchists :-)

Lovingly hand-folded and stapled by anarchists 🙂

The pamphlet tradition lives on in anarchist circles, while havingbeen mostly forgotten by others in the age of the internet. Some could argue that this is just nostalgic, but there’s also something about the ability to physically pass something around. Something cheap enough to give away to a specific person, at a specific moment, without much thought, that doesn’t require you to both be on the same online platform, or to even remember to send a link after a face-to-face conversation.

Having written a book already, I wanted to distil a couple of key elements from it in a more radical, but also more physically shareable format. So I wrote ‘The constructive subversive’s guide to organisational change,’ Steve Lafler did some illustrations, and Active Distribution printed it and are selling it for £0.77 (+shipping).

You can read the first draft on ROAR Magazine, or the second draft on openDemocracy, and then order a physical copy (or three…) from Active if you’re so inclined.

Alternatively, if you haven’t got the book yet (or want another one for some reason), order one of the last 10 copies from the first edition print run, and I’ll throw in a copy of the pamphlet for free when I send it out.

Good ideas should be passed around. And sometimes the internet just isn’t the right way to do it…

Happy constructive subversion!

Liam







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Quiet No More: How activism is changing organising

Last summer I did a workshop in Ottawa, which was attended by Joel Harden, an old friend from the Toronto activist world, who I hadn’t seen for close to a decade. It turned out he was writing a book, with a lot of similar themes to mine! His is called ‘Quiet No More: New political activism in Canada and around the globe.’ It’s good! Here are a few reasons why you might like to read it.

Quiet No More

Quiet No More is an account and analysis of grassroots organising in social movements, unions and political parties in Canada and beyond, looking at the changes in activism since the rise of the Zapatistas (twenty years ago, on New Years, FYI).

I wanted to include a few quotes and passages that were particularly powerful to me.

This is a quote Joel borrowed from Pam Palmater, a lawyer from the Mi’kmaq First Nation, active in the Idle No More movement, which emerged in December 2012 amongst indigenous communities in Canada, to challenge the active colonial policies being pushed by the Canadian government. Palmater, describing Idle No More, had this to say:

“This movement is unique because it is purposefully distanced from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can or can’t do.”

Some of Joel’s own words resonated strongly with me as well, for instance, his conclusions about what makes the organising processes of new social movements unique:

“…one is struck by the organization of grassroots movements, whose boldness and creativity demonstrate that the future is truly unwritten. On paper, networks of green organizers shouldn’t be able to stall energy giants, but activist mobilizations have had that very result. Networked round dances, flash mobs, and blockades shouldn’t shift the edifice of Canadian federal politics, but they have…”

And while less-inspiring, Joel’s critique of current trade unionism also struck me, capturing the increasingly transactional nature of many workers’ relationships to the institutions which were critical in bringing about things like forty-hour work weeks and weekends:

“As recent internal union studies have shown, the wider malaise that workers feel with conventional politics includes existing frameworks of trade unionism. In this cynical context, workers often treat unions as insurance agencies rather than sites for collective action.”

More optimistically, Joel’s reflections on the victories of grassroots leadership in the Chicago Teachers Union (who then chose to pay themselves the average wage of their members, a democratic act which is largely unprecedented amongst union brass), and the Canadian Labour Congress’ pensions campaign (which placed its emphasis on the human stories of pension cuts, told by those experiencing them), also explain the organising changes that are happening in the union movement:

“Simply put, direct democracy is the soul of grassroots unionism. It empowers union members to be leaders, and realizes this requires substantial change for unions themselves. … Today, there is much talk in organized labour about ‘branding themselves better” to withstand employer attacks – but the idea that a better pitch is needed misses the point. Effective union organizing will not be driven by brilliant ads, or by focus-group-tested messages that get released, like carrier pigeons of old, only to bring back good news later. Effective union organizing must being by developing the political capacities of union members, the vast majority of whom are spectators in politics.”

While Joel and I place our emphasis in slightly different places (I probably have a bit more faith in the possibilities for NGOs to create change, whereas he probably has a bit more faith in the ability of political parties to do so), we are definitely singing from similar hymn sheets, in our respective writings.

We may also diverge a bit on our sense of the value and importance of autonomous organising methods and the issues often associated with ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness,’ but we are both coming from the perspective that progressive institutions need to change (in a more democratic, transparent and participatory way), if they want to affect wider change themselves.

In brief, I suggest reading it, if you are at all involved in activist organising, inside or outside of progressive institutions. The stories that Joel tells offer hope, and the analysis he adds offers strong insights, from a seasoned activist, as to how we can bring that hope to play in our own activism.

———–

I wrote a book called ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ You can buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.







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Open is a gateway drug @ Open for Change 2013

Last month I did a talk at the Open for Change conference in Amsterdam. It was called ‘Open is a gateway drug.’ (You’ll have to watch it to find out what it is a gateway to, though). It was a great event and I reckon there were at least a few more self-identifying anarchists in the crowd by the end of it. Here’s the video.

“Open” is a gateway drug – Liam Barrington-Bush – ODC13 from Open for Change on Vimeo.

I wrote a book called ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ You can buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.







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It’s time for the non-profit trade press to go Onion!

Someone suggested to me today that their charity had been unwilling to adopt more democratic, participatory, transparent organising structures, in significant part due to the perceived ‘reputational risk’ associated with doing so. Without pointing at that organisation, more than any other, this is my Third Sector-goes-Onion response to the idea that a more democratic structure could be seen as a reputational risk. It is the ongoing story that doesn’t make sector press ‘news’ each day.

“Charity maintains undemocratic Industrial-era management in 2013!”

Welcome to the Aid Assembly Line! (CC synapticism on Flickr)

Welcome to the Aid Factory! (CC synapticism on Flickr)

Today, a leaked report from AidHope International, one of the world’s biggest development charities, revealed that the organisation employed a management structure designed in the late 1700s to maximise the number of pins that a pin factory could produce.

In a confidential document entitled, ‘The Way Forward: Relearning the Lessons of Taylorism,’ the organisation describes its approach as “a blueprint for treating a group of passionate people as cogs in a poverty and corruption-ending machine. And then replicating that machine wherever we can get funding to do so.”

Their management structure centralises decisions with those furthest from the ground, offers minimal opportunity for those affected by the organisation’s work to have their voices heard, and crushes anything in the way of creative or innovative thinking, though endless sign-off processes. The practices used by AidHope – which advocates for more transparent, participatory and democratic forms of government in Africa – is based on a few key principles:

1) Only those furthest from the action are qualified to make decisions that affect it,
2) Solutions can be copy-and-pasted from any situation to any other situation that seems kinda the same,
3) White men just seem better than anyone else at all the stuff that pays really well…

Under ‘The Way Forward’ document, lower-level managers were made to feel just a little bit more important than the people they managed. However, they were also made to feel deeply insecure about their position, because of the assumption they were meant to know everything that each of the people they manage know, and work on directly.

The document suggests that managers should pass blame down to their most junior employees, while credit for their subordinates’ work should be hoarded, until their own manager becomes aware of it and decides to take it for themselves.

Decades after such methods began to be discredited in management circles, AidHope has clung to them, drawing fierce criticism from key stakeholders for the seeming hypocrisy of its dated and deeply undemocratic internal practices.

John Eggleton, a Departmental Oversight Controller at the Office for Aid Transparency, expressed shock at the revelation, stating, “It is deeply regrettable that AidHope have brought their good name into disgrace, by demonstrating such a massive gulf between what they tell others to do and what they do themselves.” When asked what he felt could repair the damage done to the organisation’s reputation, Eggleton said his salary grade did not give him clearance to offer solutions, only to feign outrage on behalf of his superiors.

Similarly, when David Luffbottom, Chief Executive of fellow aid organisation, CrossHelp, was asked about the AidHope International situation, he was equally indignant; “Clearly, AidHope haven’t been doing a very good job – I mean, there’s no way anyone who might ever consider leaking a document of this magnitude should have even known it existed!”

Meanwhile, at AidHope, the press team scrambled to prepare a response, telling this reporter that the charity would have an official statement prepared by early next week, once the appropriate directors (one of whom was on annual leave until Monday) had signed-off on it.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one AidHope senior manager disclosed that the organisation’s board had “thought about changing, but came to the conclusion that no one else within or around the organisation would do things as well as they did.”

Making reference to some of the alternatives to the management structures employed by his organisation, the manager said: “I once heard a senior colleague refer to participatory budgeting, or flat management structures, or consensus-based decision making at a reception at the [House of] Lords, but he was seriously sauced at the time and was probably just taking the piss to get a laugh out of the Peer who was hosting us.”

“Ultimately,” explained the insider, “we realised how hard it would be to justify our own jobs if we began to practice anything that might resemble real democracy, and so decided to just keep doing what we’d always done. Just like everyone else.”

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I wrote a book called ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ You can buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.







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