Monday, October 31, 2011

The Occupy Process

I finally went along to OccupyMelbourne today. I brought along enough ingredients to make about 80 sandwiches, and the UPS from my computer, in order to offer people the ability to charge mobile devices.

I thought the story I would find would be the expected one about the right to freedom of assembly or a protest about, at its root, a lack if government transparency and accountability. These are real issues, being dealt with as primary problems by the movement, but the real story is the meta one. It is about a system of decision making that far exceeds what is in place in our parliament, which by contrast seems primitive.

The Occupy movement's consensus-driven model is amazing. I spent close to 3 hours working with the logistics working group to analyse and discuss various options for where they thought the occupation should move once it was made apparent that the State Library of Victoria was no longer an option, due to the enforcement of its by-laws (some of which were a bit iffy).

I was able to participate and vote with the group merely because I was there. After lots of discussion, consensus was reached in the working group that they should put a proposal to move the occupation from the State Library to Treasury Gardens. There was also another proposal, but I left the General Assembly before that one was resolved, so I'll only talk about this first proposal. I worked with some of the of the group to put the proposal, including its justification, into words that would hopefully be persuasive enough to get an immediate consensus. Fat chance of that, it turned out.

After the General Assembly started, and from when it reached the point of first considering the proposal, it took about 2 hours to decide to where the occupiers should move, after eviction from the state library. When the proposal was first put, it probably had about 60% of people voting for it, 10% of people against, with the rest not bothering to vote. In any parliament in Australia, that would have been an overwhelming "mandate" to bind everyone to a course of action that was un-endorsed by almost half the people.

In the Occupy movement, this was not good enough. For a proposal to pass, there needs to be at least 90% of people who vote to vote affirmatively. You might think that Occupy Melbourne has the advantage of being a coherent bunch of people, unlike parliament, but you would be wrong.

The people there today were, in my estimation, around 30% socialists, from around 4 different organisations, around 10% anarchists among many otherwise-affiliated or unaffiliated. There have been issues between some of the sub-groups, from what I could gather, and there were some tempers in the crowd, which basically means that it was the same kind of factional situation that exists in parliament, just with different factions.

The process, however, kept everyone involved and gave everyone a voice. After the initial proposal was not clearly passed with a consensus, 3 people from each side of the vote came up and spoke about their reasons for their vote. Afterwards, there was another vote to see if that made a difference. There was still no consensus.

It was then suggested that only the people planning to physically occupy the chosen location overnight should be able to vote. This split the assembly, so 3 people from each side of the argument came up to give their views, though it the conflict was not resolved. Someone came up with a compromise approach, which was to suggest that a vote of the people actually planning to sleep over could be taken to inform the rest, without it being binding on them. This was agreed to with an overwhelming consensus, so the votes were taken and it was held that everyone should be able to vote on whether or not the proposal to move to Treasury Gardens should be adopted.

At this point, due to the lack of consensus, the facilitator told people to go off for several minutes into self-forming sub-groups to try to think of amendments to the proposal that could get consensus within the subgroup, which would then be offered up to the group as a whole. At this point, I should mention that the facilitator is like a chairperson, with their role being about ensuring that everybody is heard, with the right procedures for getting heard being followed. View the video, linked above, to understand more about the way that people communicate during an assembly, because it is very interesting.

So, after people came back with their suggested amendments, the clear favourite of the crowd was to move back to City Square to test the waters, but to fall back to Treasury Gardens if it became apparent that the police and council were going to start cracking skulls again. This just about would have passed the 90% threshold, but somebody else proposed an alternate amendment based on this to move properly to Treasury Gardens, but to hold the future General Assemblies at City Square as a show of defiance to the authorities that had already shut down their peaceful assembly the Friday before last.

This final amendment got around 95% support from the crowd and resulted in loud applause after the 2 hour ordeal of reaching consensus. But in the end, it was possible to go from about 60% support, which would have taken 5 minutes, to 90%+, which for such an important issue was time very well spent. Every single person had there mind changed throughout the process, because nobody singularly had all the insights to come up with the eventual decision from the start. This consensus was reached by a more disparate group than would be found in our own parliament, where 50% + 1 is often an impossibility due to a lack of party flexibility and no real desire to reach the best conclusion.

So this is the power of the movement: The ability to form an overwhelming consensus among competing interests. And this is why it cannot be ignored as a force.

That is the story.


  1. I completely agree. I believe that the strength of Occupy comes from consensus-building, in a way that allows for people to be heard.
    The use of the sub-groups sounded quite effective.

  2. That is a great story, thank-you for writing it up. I've always felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way our parliament works, it's like a tug of war where if the government pulls in one direction the opposition must necessarily pull as hard as they can the other way or lose face.

    It should be a genuine effort to find the best solution and that is exactly what seems to be going on here with occupy. Their willingness and ability to find a way around their differences, without compromising their principles, makes the real government look childish.