The notion that you can create a rival community, a new world “within the shell of the old”, a counter-culture, is intrinsic to anarchism. That this must be consensus-driven is much more recent. It is not evident among the various groups that considered themselves anarchist–anarcho-mutualists/collectivists/syndicalists/communists—from the mid-nineteenth century until the Spanish Revolution. All of them felt that voting within their own organizations and groups was just fine.By the 1960s, elements within the New Left including Students for a Democratic Society and others were experimenting with styles of decision-making that were viewed as more inclusive, participatory and democratic. These themes were also taken up by the Radical Feminist Movement in the 1970s. Certainly by the 1990s consensus organizing was gaining steam primarily though the work of Food Not Bombs (FNB), Earth First! and a few other groups. FNB in particular was effective at distributing inexpensively reproduced literature, including their Handbook, promoting consensus as the only way to order a local chapter:We make decisions by consensus rather than voting. Voting is a win or lose model in which people are more concerned about the numbers it takes to win a majority than they are in the issue itself. Consensus, on the other hand, is a process of synthesis, bringing together diverse elements and blending them into a decision which is acceptable to the entire group. In essence, it is a qualitative rather than quantitative method of decision-making.From my experience on the radical left, the influence of consensus decision-making was incredibly negative. The long, drawn-out meetings with no discernable outcome eventually take their toll. People start to drop out.While Michael Kazin, Paul Berman and others note the attempt by the OWS movement to create a counter society (some have termed the encampments “micro societies”) an important difference between OWS and the classical anarchists is an emphasis on what form the future society would take. All of the utopian socialists going back to St. Simon and Fourier had a model in mind. Never mind how wacky the model was, at least they had something to refer to. This is completely missing from OWS. They say this is “all part of the process”but it is not enough for most of us. We want to know what you want, especially if you claim to represent us (as part of the 99%).
There is an interesting interview with Kazin at The Browser.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement writes a new chapter in the history of American leftism, you’ve published a history of radical movements in the United States titled American Dreamers. Tell me about it.
It chronicles almost 200 years of the American left’s history, interpreting what the left did right and what it did wrong. What it did wrong is better known. The subtitle of the book is “How the Left Changed a Nation”. I emphasise the positive difference it made, focusing on a couple of themes.
One is that the left expanded the meaning of individual freedom. It made sure that people of all races, religions and sexual preferences are, at least in theory, able to enjoy the same opportunities and freedoms as everybody else. The book begins with the abolitionists and goes up until the gay and lesbian movement of the 1970s. The other theme is that the left succeeded in presenting a vision of a more egalitarian and socially responsible society. The left may have had less success in this respect but its success has been considerable nonetheless.
I highlight figures like Henry George and Edward Bellamy, both journalists. Henry George wrote a bestselling economics tract called Progress and Poverty in 1879. He was very popular among the labour unionists. Edward Bellamy was a Christian Socialist who wrote Looking Backward. Published in 1888, it ranks with Uncle Tom’s Cabin as one of the most influential political novels of the 19th century. Bellamy’s followers were important figures in the populist movement of the 1890s and the Socialist Party in the early 20th century. These figures articulated an anti-corporate platform which continues to be influential even in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
Do you see the DNA of the abolitionists, suffragettes and other leftist forebears in today’s protest?
Yes, in many ways I do. There are different strands. Of course you have civil disobedience, which abolitionists were known for. You have nonviolence and a “beloved community”, which civil rights protesters were known for. And you have a very strong emphasis on the 99% being injured by the 1%, and a critique of American democracy as being corrupted by big money, that began in the late 19th century with people like George and Bellamy.
He goes on to talk about Marx and Engels, about Howard Zinn’s historical vision, and then Students for a Democratic Society, and finally Gene Sharp, who has also been cited as an important influence on the Arab Spring.