Category Archives: Democracy

When Peter Singer was right: why we should give to the East Africa appeal

“As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care.  The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable…”

“At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the situation in any significant way.  Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed towards providing the refugees with the means to satisfy their essential needs.”

History repeating itself – a sad but true cliché.  As Britain is embroiled in a media scandal, thousands of people are slowly starving to death in East Africa, largely unnoticed.

Peter Singer has lost a few fans in the UK following the New College for Humanities scandal.   He did, however, write one of the most significant articles in contemporary political philosophy, “Famine, Affluence and Morality” .  His argument is worth re-stating here to remind us of why we should all be donating to the East African crisis appeal .

Singer begins with the assumption that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.”  He argues, “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

This principle seems obvious, but in reality, it fundamentally challenges the way we live our lives in consumer societies.  To prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we would have to give up almost everything we own until the level of marginal utility; that is, until the level where we have the most basic standard of living necessary to survive.

Singer argues that this is morally correct.  He admits, however, that the demanding nature means that most people will not adopt such a principle.  He suggests instead that, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought morally to do it.”

For example, if you walk past a shallow pond where a child is drowning, you ought to go into the pond and save the child.  All you are sacrificing are wet, muddy clothes and a loss of time; these are not as morally significant as the death of a child.

What does this mean for individuals in developed countries?  Singer suggests, it means not buying new clothes, or a new car, or whatever consumer item you feel you need, but giving that money to famine relief.  If what you already own is acceptable, owning these items is not of comparable moral significance to the death of an individual due to famine.  It would not be good of you to give that money to famine relief, it would not be an act of charity; it is a moral obligation.

If you can prevent something bad from happening (death through starvation) without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (clothes, booze, electronics), you ought morally to do it.

What’s wrong with this argument?  Well, it is an argument about individual morality.  We know that the causes of poverty and famine are structural.  So simply appealing to individual morality is inadequate.  We need to rethink and transform the political and economic structures that allow chronic poverty and famine to occur.  Individual morality, however, is a good place to start.

If you are still not convinced, let me suggest a further reason why you should donate.  Famine is not a natural disaster; it is man-made.  As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy.  While the years of drought that have precipitated the crisis in East Africa are natural phenomena, the ability to cope with this is not.  A functioning government, which can fairly distribute food and resources, can prevent disaster.

Why doesn’t that exist in these countries?  Bad governance?  Partly, yes.  But also as a result of IMF policies that prevented them from developing viable public sectors.  In the 90s, the IMF demanded developing countries open their markets to foreign direct investment (FDI) if they wanted to keep receiving loans.

Foreign multinational corporations and governments have bought up the most fertile land in these countries, leaving wasteland for those who live there.  This neo-colonial land grab, designed to keep Western countries functioning at their current levels of consumption, has also gone largely unnoticed.

Have you lobbied British companies that are involved?  Have you checked if you pension fund or bank is involved?  Have you written to your MP condemning this heinous practice?  No?  We are all complicit in this – this famine, and the next one, and the next one.  It’s time, at the very least, to mitigate some of its effects.

So instead of going to the pub tonight and spending £50 on booze and partying, give it to the DEC.  As Singer has shown us this isn’t a matter of choice, it’s a moral imperative.

Quotes from Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, reprinted in Thom Brooks ed., The Global Justice Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008

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Filed under Democracy, Human Rights, Uncategorized

Black Bloc: A Self-Defeating Tactic?

March 26 saw this country’s biggest demonstration since the Iraq War. Over 500,000 people marched through the streets of London, shutting down the capital, to protest the government’s ruthless austerity measures. A small group of protestors, known as Black Bloc, broke away from the main march and engaged in direct action including smashing the windows of banks and the Ritz hotel, and throwing paint and smoke bombs. The police retaliated with violence, and riots ensued in Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.

The right and the mainstream press have branded the Black Bloc “thugs”, “hooligans” and pariahs. The liberal left bemoans how they “ruined” the otherwise peaceful protest for everyone else. The radical left denounces any criticism of the group, espousing solidarity and unity, and defending their “legitimate anger.”

None of these narratives is accurate nor adequate.

Whether you agree with Black Bloc or not, we need to discuss their actions, try to understand why they did it, critically engage with it and then make a decision. Knee-jerk reactions whether from the right or the left are useless. Let’s start a conversation about this…

Property damage: the theory

The right argues property damage is violence. The left argues it isn’t violence.

For the right, property rights represent the fundamental cornerstone of a civilised society. The argument, dating back to John Locke, is that if property is privately, rather than collectively owned, it will be better cultivated and more productive. This will improve society for everyone.

For the left, property rights are the bane of any civilised society. They prevent human beings engaging with each other as human beings, rather than as owners, producers and consumers. We must abolish private property, the argument goes, so that we can all own the earth’s resources collectively; generating freedom for those who have been oppressed by the capitalists’ monopoly over property.

So for those on the right, an attack on property is an attack on society. For the left, an attack on property is legitimate and justifiable.

What’s the answer?

Well, there isn’t one. It’s up to you to decide what you think. The point is, however, in a liberal capitalist society where the majority believe in property rights, an attack on property will be interpreted as an act of violence. The question for the left is, do their opinions count or are principles more important?

The practice: a self-defeating tactic?

An important point to remember in all this, is that Black Bloc is not an organised group – it is a tactic. Anyone who dressed in black and masked-up on March 26 was a member. While clearly targets had been picked in advance – The Ritz for it’s connotations of capitalist hierarchy, the banks for causing the current economic crisis, Starbucks for its globalised corporate greed and banality, Anne Summers for its profiteering co-option of sex and its misogynistic advertising – the members of the group were not coordinated.

This lack of coordination, for me, is one of the fatal flaws of the Black Bloc tactic. Anyone could take part in it. While the left argue that everyone in Black Bloc was politically motivated, there is no way of knowing if this is true.  Unfortunately (at the risk of sounding like a right-wing reactionary) there are people who enjoy smashing stuff and engaging in violence against other people. To believe that people will only get involved in property damage for political purposes is naïve.  There is no way of knowing if such people will turn up ready for Black Bloc, and their actions (if ill-considered or simply out-of-control) could seriously damage the credibility of the anti-cuts movement. I’m not saying that this happened on March 26; but now that Black Bloc is not just a tactic known among left-wing radicals but is very prominent, it could easily be hijacked on future demonstrations. Everyone wears a mask – so there’s no way of knowing.

We saw on the November 10th demonstration, where 50,000 students marched through London, how the media focused on the actions of one person – Edward Woollard who threw a fire extinguisher off the roof at Millbank.  One person’s ill-judged violent act stole the headlines and has etched itself on the public consciousness, firmly entrenching itself as the narrative of that protest.  In other words, it only takes one person to destroy the movement.  It could even be (and would likely be) an agent provocateur

A second problem comes back to the theoretical discussion: what’s more important – the opinions of the majority or Marxist or anarchist principles? Black Bloc defences of their tactics take the following line: all successful movements of resistance have used violence. Look at the Suffragettes, smashing windows, even using bombs, or the violence of The Chartists or the Poll Tax riots. Popular opinion didn’t matter then – it came later – and they were vindicated.

While I have sympathies with this argument, I’m not sure it applies now. Many people are getting active against the cuts – 500,000 marched in London and thousands more have been involved in UKuncut actions, university occupations and local anti-cuts groups. There is an appetite for protest and direct action at the minute; it doesn’t need a vanguard to kick it off. When the cuts start to bite, more and more people will want to engage in these already abundant activities. Violence, whether it is property damage, could scare them off.

What we need now is a mass movement. And we need a mass movement that involves the centre left and the right. Why did the government do a u-turn over selling-off forests? Because conservative constituents were against it. Why are they now back-tracking on the NHS reforms? Because traditionally conservative doctors are opposing it. Everyone, whether red, blue, yellow or non-affiliated, has good reasons for being against the cuts. Getting everyone involved and out on the streets will stop them. Violence – whether you consider it violence or not – will alienate all but the most committed activists.

The right-wing press and the government play on the public’s fear.  They can so easily manipulate the actions of Black Bloc activists, portraying the protests as anarchic riots, scaring off those who want to take part.  It has already given Theresa May an excuse to introduce draconian police powers.  This is compounded by the group’s aesthetic.  While people in the group are ‘ordinary people‘ and they believe themselves to be unintimidating – just  a person engaging in legitimate protest tactics – to the untrained eye a large group of people dressed all in black and wearing masks is terrifying.  Black Bloc wear masks to protect themselves from the Big-Brother-type surveillance that pervades British cities, but that it doesn’t make it any less intimidating and off-putting to outsiders.

My final reason against the tactic of Black Bloc is, in my view, the most serious and important. It’s a truism that violence begets violence. Someone could have gotten killed at Piccadilly or Trafalgar Square. The police killed Ian Tomlinson, who wasn’t even a protester, and put Alfie Meadows in hospital.  If the rioting continues, this is almost inevitable. If young people have been involved all day in smashing windows and running rings around the police, adrenalin pumping through their veins, they will want revenge. It’s a slippery slope from property damage to violence. Like I said above, there is a strong movement for peaceful direct action at the minute. Property damage is alienating to the majority of people already; if it turns to violence against people, they will all step away – even if it was started by the police.

More fundamentally, I don’t believe violence against people is justified in this struggle. We live in a democracy (albeit a poorly functioning one, run by a tiny self-serving elite); but there are channels for resistance. This is not an oppressive dictatorship where people resort to violence as their only way out. I, personally, don’t support political violence even in these situations (I’m naturally averse to violence as an individual, but also as a product of growing up in Northern Ireland); but I really don’t see any justification for it in our situation now. While I’m sure everyone in Black Bloc on the 26th was entirely committed just to property damage and would find the idea of violence towards people (although, worryingly, maybe not the police) abhorrent; if things continue the way they are, I worry it’s only a matter of time. To reiterate, you don’t know who’s going to mask-up in future, and you don’t know what’s around the corner…

This article will not go down well. Anyone who has tried to give nuanced interpretations of March 26 so far has been derided by the right for condoning violence, and from the left for denouncing protestors.  Everyone else has sided one way or the other.  What Black Bloc has done is highlight a grey area in our thinking about protest, property and violence. We need to think deeply and critically about that, not just thoughtlessly denounce or defend. This is my first tentative attempt at doing that. I hope to simply start the debate and I intend to write more on this as it develops.

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Filed under Democracy, Public Service Cuts, Student Protests

Consensus Decision-Making at the UCL Occupation

On the 24th November 2010, a group of students protesting about education cuts entered University College London’s (UCL) Jeremy Bentham Room. Someone asked, “Do we want to occupy?” A resounding “yes” was the answer, and so it began… a two and a half week occupation of one of the country’s most prestigious universities.

But what did it mean to occupy a room? How long would we be there? What would we do next? Luckily, there were a few climate camp veterans among us, who swiftly took action and showed us how to organise.

The first thing we did was have a meeting. At this meeting we decided on our list of demands. Most importantly, however, we implemented the process that would drive the occupation until the end; in fact, we are still using it in our meetings now. That process is consensus-decision making.

What is consensus decision-making?

UCL Occupation

Typically at large meetings, decisions are made by voting. There will be a few speakers for and against a topic, then questions from the floor, a chairperson to mediate all this, and finally a binding vote. If you are in the losing group, you simply have to accept that you lost and move on.

Consensus decision-making, by contrast, is non-hierarchical and inclusive. Typically, the group will sit in a circle formation, with a facilitator or two at the front (if there is a front!). The idea is that everyone who wants to speak, gets to speak; and because the set-up is in the round, it feels less intimidating than standing up in front of a panel of speakers and a room full of inquiring faces. Everyone is “in it together”.

Decisions are made by the whole group. Anyone can make a proposal. A proposal can only pass if it is agreed to by everyone. If just one person says, “I disagree, I veto this proposal”, then it won’t pass. We hardly ever encountered this at the occupation, because whenever there was a disagreement we talked it through until the proposal was sufficiently amended so that everyone agreed.

The role of facilitator is to make sure everyone who wants to speak gets their turn. The facilitator cannot make substantive comments themselves (although sometimes we did, but made it clear it was in a personal capacity rather than in the role of facilitator). They keep the meeting moving forward, may restrict the time of discussion for topics, try to draw out those who haven’t had their say and try to limit those who never shut up!

The participants use hand signals, rather than clapping, to show how they feel about what is happening in the meeting. Waving your hands in the air (like jazz hands) shows approval. Waving your hands towards the floor is disapproval. And wavering hands, shows wavering support.

There are several tricks a facilitator can use to check the mood in the room. A “temperature check” is where they ask everyone in the room to do the appropriate hand signal for how they are feeling. This way they know that everyone in the room is engaged and whether it’s an appropriate time to “move to consensus” or whether to continue the discussion. When we move to consensus, we see if there is consensus on a proposal in the room. If there isn’t, the debate continues; if there is, the proposal passes.

Working groups

If we had tried to make every decision about everything, and discuss everything that needed to be discussed at General Meetings, the entire time would have been spent doing that. Instead, we designated working groups for particular topics. The core working groups emerged during the occupation as media, tech, events, outreach, process, escalation, demands, security and kitchen.

Anyone could join any working group, or leave a working group at any time. I think at one stage I was a member of about six working groups! Some people devoted themselves entirely to one working group for the whole occupation– such as a few dedicated members of the media team, the techie team who were the evil geniuses of the occupation, and the events team who assiduously organised a timetable of lectures, comedy and gigs to keep us entertained. Other people floated between groups, depending on the time they could give and their interests.

While working groups worked autonomously, if there was an important decision to be made they had to bring it to a General Meeting to get consensus. For example, camera crews frequently wanted to go on demos with us, so the media team would ask the general meeting if that was ok or not. The demands team worked on negotiations with management, so regularly fed back to the General Meetings projecting draft documents onto the big screen and adding amendments from the group until everyone was happy with it.

Why did it work?

This organisational model worked for several reasons.

Firstly, people joined working groups depending on their skills. It meant that everyone was using their skills effectively and to the utmost. If there were no working groups, a lone techie may have built us a website; but they wouldn’t have been able to collaborate with a team, delegating specific tasks to those who could do it, and knowing who to talk to for info on media, events or demands.

Secondly, the general meetings provided an open forum for working groups to test their ideas but also for people who weren’t involved in those groups to have a say about what they were doing.

Thirdly, by getting consensus on decisions rather than voting, it meant we were all co-authors of the group’s actions. Nobody felt hard-done-by and no individuals could be blamed if something went wrong.

Everyone could have their say. It wasn’t about “experts” giving their opinions, or the usual suspects dominating debates; it gave the opportunity to those who wouldn’t normally speak to feel included and listened to.

Fifth, rather than stating your opinion on something and sticking to it, to open dialogue allowed people to listen, learn, change their mind, be persuaded and to persuade. The consensus decision-making model encourages open-mindedness.

Finally – no leaders! Because anyone could speak, make a proposal, facilitate a meeting, join a working group, suggest an idea, reject an idea, call a meeting, make an agenda or change the agenda, there were no leaders. Everyone was an equal part; at least, what you put in, you got out.

What are the drawbacks?

Ok, so this sounds amazing. Too good to be true even. There must have been some problems? And there were…

Meetings could go on forever! The meeting we had on the first night of the occupation lasted for four hours!!! However, this problem was ameliorated to an extent as the occupation progressed. The process was tightened up and amended to suit our group’s needs, and people learned what to expect from meetings and whether to bring something to the whole group or the relevant working group.

At times people got frustrated with the model. One night we had a one-and-a-half hour process group meeting debating whether or not to implement voting rather than consensus. A few people thought consensus meetings dragged on too long and that we weren’t making enough clear decisions. We had a trial of voting at the meeting the next night, but the group decided to stick with consensus.

Facilitating meetings could be a draining and unrewarding experience at times. If there were lots of people who repeatedly wanted to speak, it became a tricky question of whether to stop recognizing them.  There was also the problem of people being sneaky. To make a point, you simply raised your hand. But you could also make a direct factual point to correct someone’s comment (putting both hands in the air, with your index fingers parallel), or a technical point to mention something external to the meeting e.g. there’s a fire we need to leave (making a T shape). These hand signals were abused. Of course, as a facilitator you don’t know someone’s abusing them until they speak; but you still get the blame!

Power relations could be an issue. Those in the process group who had control over the agenda and how meetings working, and facilitated meetings, could be perceived as having more power than others. Also, those in the media team who coordinated external communications also could have been seen in this light. Of course, anyone could join any working group, but these perceptions still emerged and occasionally caused friction.

Because a working group could be set up anytime on anything, sometimes there seemed to be hundreds of them, with nobody knowing who belonged to what group and what the group was doing! This lack of coordination was important in terms of anonymity in the face of UCL management – they couldn’t pin anything on anyone. But it did become frustrating when you needed to talk to someone in outreach, for example, and had no idea who was in that group or where they were.

Finally, while the aim of the consensus model is to be inclusive and non-hierarchical, at times the discussions did come to be dominated by the same faces (and they were usually male). Some of the younger, female, and ethnic minority members of the group could feel a bit intimidated. On one occasion a group of three first-year women asked me to bring up a point at a meeting because they were scared of being shot-down by the vocal older men in the group. The facilitators tried their best to overcome these issues; but unfortunately you’re not going to overcome all of wider society’s nefarious power dynamics in two weeks no matter how inclusive you try to be.

Would I recommend it?

Before the UCL Occupation, I had chaired lots of meetings at school and university Model United Nations and debating societies; but I had never used the consensus decision-making model. After a little initial discomfort at the seeming lack of structure, I soon settled into it and now much prefer it over any model I’ve used before. While consensus cannot overcome the power relations of unequal societies, it is much better at doing this than traditional hierarchical models of meetings. The open discussions were fascinating and challenging. I frequently found myself changing my mind on issues based on what others had said, or discovering new ways of looking at things. The model really encourages you to see things from another’s perspective, to listen respectfully and respond honestly.

It can be a drawn-out process but ultimately I think it’s worth it. Consensus decision-making is truly democratic and avoids the dreaded tyranny of the majority. And despite the issues I raised with the model, the occupation’s success resided on the fact that we could bring all these issues up and discuss them openly; or at least set up a working group to deal with them! Best of all, consensus decision-making makes potentially boring meetings fun!

This is a longer version of a guest post for BeyondClicktivism.

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Filed under Democracy, Education, Student Protests