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Decision Making in the Shell of the Old Society

Review of Kim Keyser's "Prefigurative Organizaiton" speaking tour, by Jeremy of the Richmond Left Libertarian Alliance.

On Thursday I attended the talk of a Norwegian anarchist, Kim Keyser, who explored the topic of decision making structures within anarchist organizations. Entitled “The Prefigurative Organization”, Keyser did an admirable job of presenting a number of outside-the-box ideas by which anarchists could realize a powerful yet directly democratic movement. We learned a lot, not only as a result of the talk but also by the open and dialogue-oriented manner in which the meeting was conducted.

June 30th, 2008

On Thursday I attended the talk of a Norwegian anarchist, Kim Keyser, who explored the topic of decision making structures within anarchist organizations. Entitled “The Prefigurative Organization”, Keyser did an admirable job of presenting a number of outside-the-box ideas by which anarchists could realize a powerful yet directly democratic movement. About ten Richmonders attended, including Brady and I from the Richmond Left Libertarian Alliance. We learned a lot, not only as a result of the talk but also by the open and dialogue-oriented manner in which the meeting was conducted.

The talk’s emphasis was on large scale organizational behavior: who makes the decisions, how they are arrived at, and what conditions are attached to those decisions. By “prefigurative”, Keyser was referring to the need for groups and practices which are structured according to the principles and values we’d like to engender in the world at large. While postulating decision making mechanisms that could scale up to the kind of mass movement we all want to build, he was cognizant of the immediate application of these ideas to our small activist groups. Certainly if we intend to be successful, we cannot ignore the challenges that growth poses to our organizations, let alone to the future anarchist society we envision.

It was a challenging discussion; Richmond anarchists are clearly more comfortable with small, intimate groups in which decision making is performed by consensus rather than by more formal structures. And yet, if Keyser made nothing else clear, it was that consensus has its shortcomings. The informality of consensus often relies on people’s comfort with the personalities in the group. The imbalance of familiarity among participants can comprise a sort of soft hierarchy when newcomers seek to participate. Openness is also no guarantee that all views will be duly represented or that transparency in decision making will be fully realized. Furthermore, as organizations grow and become more diverse it becomes progressively more difficult to balance the diversity of minority positions and maintain the integrity and decisiveness of the organization. Activist groups can become victims of their own success; one need only look at national unions for examples, as one participant pointed out.

Keyser proposed a number of alternative processes to balance growth with direct democracy:

  • Opinion points give people the option of expressing support or dissent as a function of their interest in the matter, rather than in terms of yes or no. If people use the point system to accurately represent their true priorities, it allows strong opinions to outweigh the indifference of others. This is one way to make sure that minority views are weighed appropriately even in large assemblies.
  • Voting for issues, not candidates is an obvious improvement on traditional democratic systems. Keyser suggested that anarchists should not be as quick to dismiss referenda, as these are more directly democratic means than candidacies to effect representative policy change in a political system. There’s also the possibility that anarchist organizations could have referenda drive their own planning and administration, rather than focusing on getting the right people into office.
  • Tailoring mandates to maximize accountability was an idea that struck me as especially important. The idea is that once we get people into office in our organizations, the represented need control over how their mandate is used. The body of the group should be able to recall representatives, shorten their terms, take away certain powers at will, etc. By making the position to which a person is elected as much a matter of popular will as the appointment, the body of the group can exercise oversight that discourages the ossification of democratic structures.
  • Rotating roles among the group not only democratizes the administration of the group, but it encourages everybody to share in the learning of important skills that improves the total empowerment of every individual. While this could be applied to specialized offices like webmaster, there’s no reason people cannot all share in leading meetings, writing minutes, accounting for funds, etc.
  • Lower the stakes of direct action decisions by remembering that direct action includes a wide variety of strategies beyond protests. Propaganda, boycott, work-to-rule, and other approaches can be just as effective. If an organization engages in activism with a non-formulaic and varied approach that makes sure everybody can participate, people will be more likely to invest fully in the organization.

I’m going off a few days’ memory so I’m sure I left plenty out, but these are the points that stand out to me. I hope Keyser’s beautiful print pamphlet is made available online soon since it really covered the full gambit of his talk.

My opinion on these approaches is that all of them are game, and none of them should be off the table. The best possible organization would use all of them where appropriate, giving the body of the group the maximum flexibility to bring its administration in line with their will. That said, each approach has its downsides and disadvantages that should be apparent to any anarchist. But if used wisely, a group can use these different strategies to keep their group fair, transparent, and democratic.

I really enjoyed Keyser’s talk, and I hope his visit was just the beginning of the Richmond anarchist movement’s revitalization! And if we're planning for the long term, we must apprehend these issues of scale and size. The upshot is that there are a variety of approaches available to us to address the very real questions of just what it means to be a large, powerful, and authentically anarchist organization. Thanks again to Kim Keyser for broadening our perspectives.