14 October 2011 — The Return of the Public
On Saturday people will be heading into the Square Mile, the centre of the UK’s financial sector, in conscious imitation of Occupy Wall Street and similar actions in Europe and the Middle East.
Some are planning to put together a People’s Assembly.
The aim is to create a venue for democratic deliberation and open debate in a place normally associated with secretive privilege. People working in the City of London have played a starring role in creating the global economic crisis. Since our representative institutions have thus far failed to address this crisis in a way that is both sensible and just, it is only fitting that we should use the City as a place in which work on solutions ourselves.
The form the assembly takes will be determined by the people who turn up. But there are some general principles that will guide what happens. And previous assemblies in Spain and elsewhere provide us with some hints as to how things might progress. There is now a body of experience on which to draw. Those who say that popular deliberation is impossible are given every courtesy by the major media and they often sound plausible. But recent history has proved them wrong.
In a People’s Assembly everyone will have an opportunity to be heard, and those who participate will be expected to do so in a spirit of equality and mutual respect. Whereas public debate in Britain is dominated by ‘professionals of speech’ and the vast majority are expected to remain altogether silent, the Assembly will seek to break down the distinction between those who speak and those who listen. This is not Question Time. There is not a panel of approved speakers and an audience. We are equals in the Assembly.
Every effort will be made to ensure that those who have most confidence and experience of public action do not monopolize discussion. If those calling for an Assembly have their way then those who are normally excluded or marginalised will have a chance to speak, and so to exercise a share of the power over the actions of the Assembly. Deliberation takes time. Eloquent and confident speakers are not necessarily right. People who have been discouraged from contributing in the past will be encouraged now to make themselves heard. Conditions will not favour the merely quick-witted.
Both the agenda of the Assembly and the details of how it proceeds will be established by consensus. But in other places where a People’s Assembly has convened, the main body breaks up into working groups that debate particular issues in greater detail. These working groups manage the practicalities of an occupation, they communicate with the wider world, network with other assemblies elsewhere, and so on. They also initiate and refine proposals that are then discussed in the main Assembly. Individuals can also bring proposals to the Assembly.
In both the Working Groups and the Assembly itself the emphasis is on consensus. Every attempt will be made to hear and address dissent. The Assembly will seek to proceed by promoting dialogue and finding common ground. The goal is not administrative efficiency or executive convenience. The goal is a collective energy that empowers individuals. It is this experience of this collective energy that will create the impetus towards further Assemblies, and the development of a movement capable of achieving social transformation.
Learning From Spain
[See also ‘Text for the Dynamisation of Popular Assemblies’ available online here, from which the italic sections below are taken.]
In the Spanish Assemblies consensus was reached when a proposal is accepted by the Assembly as a whole, ie when no one is ‘frontally opposed’ to it.
Proposals followed this format:
1. What is proposed?
2. What is it proposed for?
3. How would this proposal be implemented if it reached consensus?
In short, What/What for/How.
The Spanish Assemblies also used a signing system:
1. APPLAUSE /CONSENT: Raising the hands open while moving the wrists.
2. DISSATISFACTION: Crossing forearms in an X shape over the head.
3. “IT HAS ALREADY BEEN SAID” / “YOU ARE GOING IN CIRCLES”: Rolling the
arms by turning the hands around themselves in a similar way a change is
requested in sports.
4. “YOUR SPEECH IS GETTING TOO LONG”: Extending the arms in a cross shape
slowly closing towards the head and finally joining the palms. Similar to the
movement of the hands of a clock.
5. “WE CAN NOT HEAR YOU” Pointing your ears or moving hands from bottom-up
indicating to raise their voice.
The Role of People’s Assemblies
Britain and the wider world is in a shambles. Our politicians are corrupt and insulated from popular constituencies. Our economies are now quite obviously rackets run for the benefit of rent-seekers and speculators. Collusion between politicians and the media leaves us radically misinformed about the world beyond our immediate experience. The path we are on leads through servitude to annihilation.
No one can deny that a far-reaching transformation is necessary. The People’s Assembly is a crucial device for making what is necessary possible.
Everyone arriving in the City of London on Saturday will have their own views and experiences. They may well find that they have a good deal more in common than the major media would have them believe. We have been starved of opportunities for effectual speech for years. To discover what we have in common will take time. We have time, still, and we have each other.
It is worth looking at the document prepared by the 15 May for more information about the occupations and assemblies in Spain. Mark Barrett, who helped me with this post, wrote a piece in the New Statesman in March of this year advocating Popular Assemblies that remains highly relevant.
You can follow Occupy London on Twitter at @OccupyLSX. There is a Facebook page here.