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How will the antiwar movement debate the way forward?
Democracy or consensus?

November 30, 2001 | Page 8

ALAN MAASS looks at the debate on decision-making in the antiwar movement.

THE ANTIWAR movement took an important step with student activist conferences held in early November. More than 1,000 students representing some 125 campuses attended regional meetings in Boston, Chicago and Berkeley, Calif. Smaller gatherings in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., drew up to 100 each.

The conferences showed that antiwar organizing is drawing larger numbers on campuses than it did at this point in the Vietnam War or the 1991 Gulf War.

But even as the meetings were being held, the antiwar movement was facing a new challenge--the Northern Alliance won its first victory in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and began an offensive that left Taliban forces on the edge of defeat.

By the end of November, the character of the U.S. war had changed dramatically, leaving activists to answer new questions, both for themselves and others--above all, what to do next.

All movements for political or social change face such moments. Spontaneous anger at injustice can fuel a struggle at its beginning and give it momentum. But questions always develop at a certain point--how to analyze the issues, what are the goals, how to organize--and they have to be answered.

Usually, the answers don't come immediately. If the people involved take the questions seriously, then the resulting discussion is certain to have debate and disagreement.

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NO MATTER how united a movement may be initially, some questions are bound to develop that separate activists--and are of such importance that they can't be ignored. That's why activists need to address the issue of how to make decisions--in order to have these discussions and arrive at conclusions that can take them forward.

In fact, one strength of the November student conferences is that the campus groups that initiated them proposed a structure to allow for debate--and a system of voting by delegates to make decisions.

But the structure itself became a subject of controversy. At the Boston conference, a minority of participants continued to raise disagreements about "process" during a daylong organizing session, ultimately preventing important decisions from being made.

After the conferences, an even sharper debate took place over the Internet--limited to a small number of people, but whose voices were amplified by multiple appearances on the Web. Essentially, the critics of the conferences concluded that the antiwar movement would be better off if the meetings had never taken place.

One member of a group called Boston Anarchists Against Militarism cheerfully declared that the outcome of the East Coast conference showed the potential for "different and separate national Anti-War coalitions."

It may be hard to understand this enthusiasm for a smaller, splintered movement. But this is the natural conclusion of activists who don't believe it's possible to convince anyone who doesn't already agree with them.

Yet the successes of past social movements have depended on people who don't share a common point of view coming together to fight on issues where they do agree--and debating political questions as the struggle develops.

As for the conferences themselves, the chief complaint seems to be that the International Socialist Organization (ISO)--the publisher of this newspaper--"hijacked" all three. The critiques wildly overstate the number of ISO members at the meetings, discovering an "authoritarian socialist" in charge of every session.

But even setting aside this "reds under the bed" paranoia, the charges beg some questions: What's wrong with socialists participating in the antiwar movement--and even taking a leading role? Should we not have opinions? Would opponents of the war be better off if socialists kept quiet?

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IN FACT, the complaints about the ISO mask a more serious objection about the way the meetings were organized. The campus antiwar groups that made the call for the conferences decided to use the principle of majority voting--as opposed to the consensus model of decision making, in which everyone involved comes to a unanimous agreement.

Consensus often sounds like a fairer way of doing things than voting. And in fact, most features of most political meetings are effectively decided by consensus--from procedural points like when to start to substantial political questions.

But when disagreements arise, consensus effectively amounts to minority rule. Why? If everyone in a group has to agree on some question, then a minority--or even a single individual--can hold up all decision making. This leads to endless and highly frustrating meetings--as even champions of consensus will admit.

There are two ways to get through these meetings and reach workable conclusions. One is for some people who disagree on a particular issue to give in to fatigue or pressure and pretend that they don't disagree--for the sake of "consensus." The other is for the real decisions of an organization to be made before and after meetings, behind the scenes, by individuals who aren't responsible to anyone.

Either way, the verbal radicalism used to justify consensus covers up a more conservative reality--that consensus makes it possible for a minority to get its way over a majority. The rhetoric about process "becomes a way of masking power," as Jo Freeman, a leading figure in the 1970s women's liberation movement, put it in a well-known article called "The Tyranny of Structurelessness."

"If the movement continues deliberately to not select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power," Freeman wrote. "All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it."

Consensus "process" has been adopted by many parts of the global justice movement and is seen as one way in which new activists have rejected old and discredited ways of organizing. But the "new ways" aren't very new--Frederick Engels had similar arguments in mind when he wrote more than a century ago, "These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things, they have changed the things themselves."

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SO DO majority voting and democratic procedures guarantee fairness? Of course not. Politicians often use parliamentary maneuvering to squelch debate.

Democratic procedures can only be effective in reflecting what the majority thinks if everyone involved has a real voice--if the need for as much debate as time and circumstances allow is respected.

Under these circumstances, formality is important. "For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities, the structure must be explicit, not implicit," Freeman concluded three decades ago. "The rules of decision making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized."

A formal structure isn't a barrier to discussion. On the contrary, a serious decision depends on a serious discussion.

Nor does a 51-49 vote have to be the final word on a question in any democratic organization. Close votes are often followed by a reopening of the discussion--since it's obvious that the group as a whole isn't sure about the question.

The most important issue is how to involve every activist in the movement in deciding on its direction--to think about the issues that face us and make up our minds about them.

Majority voting by delegated representatives, responsible to those who elected them, is the only realistic way for decisions to get made and for a sizable number of people to have a real voice in making them.

Often, the debate will be sharp. But if the importance of the political questions demands it, we should expect a serious discussion. The movement will be stronger for debating the issues that face us--and for coming to decisions that reflect the beliefs of the majority.

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