Friday, October 21, 2011

Occupy Consensus

Kind of like a story my old boss Mike Rose told me about consensus meetings at the old WRFG in the 80's, this earnest lefty with cred has a succint point for Occuppy Whatever:


Did I ever tell you youngsters how I started the Green party in Los Angeles?

Okay, not really. But I kinda sorta maybe arguably played a very small role.

This story goes back to that awful period between college and my first decent job. I was out on my own, poor and miserable. We're talking 1981 or thereabouts.

The Los Angeles Times published its very first profile of Petra Kelly, one of the founders of the German Green Party. I fell in love; she was the warrior-saint of my dreams. Shortly thereafter, the LAT published a right-wing editorial which tried to imply -- without offering any evidence -- that the Green movement was somehow connected to Nazism. An obvious smear. If they were going to such absurd lengths to besmirch Petra, she just had to be cool.

(The LAT could be pretty rank in those days. Of course, as many now forget, pretty much every major news outlet acted like Fox News during the Reagan era.)

I kept a clip of the original Petra piece on my refrigerator. I also ran off a copy for a college friend whom I will call Colin -- who, at the time, flirted with left-wing politics. (He later turned neo-con and ran a ghastly, short-lived right-wing blog endorsed by Mickey Kaus. The 1981 Colin was a different animal.) I've mentioned him before, in the tale of the beauteous seed of Tuco.

(If you want to know what campus activism was like back then, read the first chapter of David Brock's Blinded By the Right. Same godawful shit, different UC campus. I don't blame Brock for his temporary rightward shift, because I know what he went through.)

I gave Colin that clipping about the Glorious Petra: "You want to see someone who gets things done? Someone who isn't all talk-talk-talk?"

He may have noticed the subtle hint of neener neener in my words. Colin's usual idea of political action was to spend the night slurping up caffeine while talking philosophy.

He and I parted company soon afterward. The guy was insufferable. (So was I, but in different ways.) The final straw came when he castigated me for buying a used car and contributing to the destruction of our environment. Of course, I had taken the bus for years, while he never considered getting rid of the recent-model Mustang which his rich mommy had bought for him.

It was time for new friends and a fresh start -- a tactic which worked out very nicely. In fact, I repeated that tactic every seven years or so until I decided that people, in general, suck.

I later learned that passing that fateful newsclip to Colin had unexpected results. The example of Petra Kelly prompted him to get off his philosophy-spewing butt and start an L.A. version of the Green party.

Now, I wasn't an eyewitness to the events that followed, and the story which eventually reached me at fourth- or fifth-hand may be very wrong in many details. But the gist comes to this: Colin and some fellow not-terribly-active "activists" in Santa Monica held a series of actual meetings devoted to getting a Southern California party off the ground.

Of course, there could be no one leader. Of course, the group had to reach consensus on everything. These were lefties, after all. Their precious widdle egos would be injured if everyone did not agree on every point. That meant a lot of arguing, which Colin quite enjoyed. The guy really should have been a lawyer.

But there was no arguing with the invasion of hard-core Stalinists who decided to take over the meeting.

Instead of telling the loopy fans of Uncle Joe "Go away; we want nothing to do with you," the proto-Greens first tried to include them in that all-important consensus. Didn't work. Finally, the non-Stalinist proto-Greens went off to form an alternative Green party, which they called the Green Alternative.

The initial meeting of the Alternative was a scene right out of Life of Brian: "This calls for IMMEDIATE discussion."

Discuss they did. Brave and fearless discussion went on throughout the night, throughout the next day, throughout the next night. Lots of coffee, lots of arguing. This was mandatory because the important thing was to flatter everyone's egos by establishing that all-important consensus.

Also, it was important to avoid leadership at all costs. Leaders had cooties. So they had to reach consensus at a leaderless meeting, which was not easy.

After all of that hyper-caffeinated argumentation, the proto-Greens finally came up with one (1) platform point which, they all agreed, must have a prominent place in their Green Manifesto, a document destined to turn the course of human history. Their declaration came to these six words:

"We must destroy capitalism through poetry."

When that sentence finally reached my ears, it triggered a belly laugh that lasted about a week. Although I never strayed far from my basic New Deal-ish beliefs, the sheer Porky-Pig-in-Wackyland surreality of those six words almost turned me into a Reaganite. Right then and there.

Soon thereafter, Colin skulked away from political involvement (following my earlier example). Some folks came along who started a real, or real-ish, Green party in Los Angeles. I presume that their heads had a somewhat shallower anal encasement.

The point of my story should be obvious.

The young people involved with today's OWS protests have to understand that, beyond a point, consensus does not work. History proves this. Alas, too many lefties keep attempting the search for consensus because, in their theoretical model, the trick should work. In this, they are like libertarians and communists, who keep insisting that their political ideas have never been disproved by real-world events because their systems have never been tried, not really really tried.

In fact, they really really have been tried, and they really really failed.

Consensus, like communism, does not work. Y'know what works? Democracy. Take a vote. If you're on the losing side, just suck it up and wait until the next vote: Maybe you'll convince your opponents to see reason. Or maybe you were wrong all along. Fuck your precious widdle ego.

The other point is, of course, that the OWS movement should not fear leaders, as long as they are always considered replaceable, and as long as they are kept on tethers with a reasonable degree of slack. If a leader shows signs of egomania -- so what? A little bit of egomania is inevitable, even healthy. If it becomes overbearing, slap his or her face until the trance of solipsism wears off.

Leadership is inevitable. One should not worship leaders, of course, and it is always a mistake to place the entire burden on one person's shoulders. A single individual may be discredited or smeared. Over time, everyone does something foolish or disreputable.

Still, who can deny that the struggle for black freedom in America benefited from the leadership examples offered by Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X? Where would the Burmese freedom movement be without Aung San Soo Kyi?

That kind of talent must exist in the world of Occupy Wall Street. Why allow the envious and the small to suppress such large voices?

I began this essay by talking about Petra Kelly. The woman was a natural leader -- and she was undone by petty, spiteful individuals in her movement who distrusted the very idea of leadership.
Petra Kelly's friends are bitter about the way the party treated her. 'In the beginning,' said Eva Quistorp, a Green Party MEP, 'we gave everything to the party, we gave three years of our lives unpaid. Now the party is full of salaried bureaucrats who have never given the way we have. And when she needed a job, those bureaucrats would not find her one.'
The question of her mysterious death is a post for another time. Those who accept the standard "suicide pact" story believe that she was depressed by the way the movement mistreated her.

That said, let's not be too impatient. What is meant to happen will happen. Leaders are a bit like stray dogs: It is not necessary to go searching for such a creature, because the right one will bound into your life when needed.

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