Ryan’s comments on The Invisible Committee‘s critique of General Assemblies

Hi all,

Last month I facilitated a reading group discussion of some writing by The Invisible Committee, a small French anarcho-communist cell active throughout the ’00s about whom you can read more here.

They’re highly critical of many current organizing principles of the Occupy movement (which have been around for a while), including General Assemblies and nonviolence.

The following commentary on a section from their book The Coming Insurrection is abridged and reposted from my personal blog, to be found here.

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The Coming Insurrection was a very hip item in anarchist bookstores when it was translated from French in 2008. I don’t see many discussing it now. Whatever its overall applicability to the Occupy movement, it contains what is still my favorite critique of assemblies:

Sabotage every representative authority. Spread the palaver. Abolish general assemblies.

The first obstacle every social movement faces, long before the police proper, are the unions and the entire micro-bureaucracy whose job it is to control the struggle. Communes, collectives and gangs are naturally distrustful of these structures. That’s why the parabureaucrats have for the past twenty years been inventing coordination committees and spokes councils that seem more innocent because they lack an established label, but are in fact the ideal terrain for their maneuvers. When a stray collective makes an attempt at autonomy, they won’t be satisfied until they’ve drained the attempt of all content by preventing any real question from being addressed. They get fierce and worked up not out of passion for debate but out of a passion for shutting it down. And when their dogged defense of apathy finally does the collective in, they explain its failure by citing a lack of political consciousness. It must be noted that in France the militant youth are well versed in the art of political manipulation, thanks largely to the frenzied activity of various trotskyist factions. They could not be expected to learn the lesson of the conflagration of November 2005: that coordinations are unnecessary where coordination exists, organizations aren’t needed when people organize themselves.

Another reflex is to call a general assembly at the slightest sign of movement, and vote. This is a mistake. The business of voting and deciding a winner, is enough to turn the assembly into a nightmare, into a theater where all the various little pretenders to power confront each other. Here we suffer from the bad example of bourgeois parliaments. An assembly is not a place for decisions but for palaver, for free speech exercised without a goal.

The need to assemble is as constant among humans as the necessity of making decisions is rare. Assembling corresponds to the joy of feeling a common power. Decisions are vital only in emergency situations, where the exercise of democracy is already compromised. The rest of the time, “the democratic character of decision making” is only a problem for the fanatics of process. It’s not a matter of critiquing assemblies or abandoning them, but of liberating the speech, gestures, and interplay of beings that take place within them. We just have to see that each person comes to an assembly not only with a point of view or a motion, but with desires, attachments, capacities, forces, sadnesses and a certain disposition toward others, an openness. If we manage to set aside the fantasy of the General Assembly and replace it with an assembly of presences, if we manage to foil the constantly renewed temptation of hegemony, if we stop making the decision our final aim, then there is a chance for a kind of massification, one of those moments of collective crystallization where a decision suddenly takes hold of beings, completely or only in part.

The same goes for deciding on actions. By starting from the principle that “the action in question should govern the assembly’s agenda” we make both vigorous debate and effective action impossible. A large assembly made up of people who don’t know each other is obliged to call on action specialists, that is, to abandon action for the sake of its control. On the one hand, people with mandates are by definition hindered in their actions, on the other hand, nothing hinders them from deceiving everyone.

There’s no ideal form of action. What’s essential is that action assume a certain form, that it give rise to a form instead of having one imposed on it. This presupposes a shared political and geographical position – like the sections of the Paris Commune during the French Revolution – as well as the circulation of a shared knowledge. As for deciding on actions, the principle could be as follows: each person should do their own reconnaissance, the information would then be put together, and the decision will occur to us rather than being made by us. The circulation of knowledge cancels hierarchy; it equalizes by raising up.Proliferating horizontal communication is also the best form of coordination among different communes, the best way to put an end to hegemony.

The purely horizontal non-structure implied here reflects a completely different understanding of collective action than liberal or even Marxist-Leninist notions of democratic organization, including direct democracy. Conventional judgment calls it ‘ultra-leftist.’

The principle objection is that autonomous action at a scale or intensity that appears to contradict or undermine GA decisions is vanguardist with zero accountability, and thus divisive, irresponsible, and antidemocratic. This assumes that all visible action is representative of the Occupy movement, so if a group acts in spite of the GA, they are branded as hijackers (or hackers), those who claim the right of representation without going through any official democratic process.

Even if you stick to the more pragmatic position, that any action should be discussed and proposed to as many people as possible, you’re forced to accept some of the same conclusions. One, that there has to be a distinction between Occupy, whose actions are centrally and democratically determined, and other groups who are not involved in the deliberations. As the commenters point out, this sets Occupy off from “the 99%” while still claiming to represent it. In the same way, even if they did operate under strict consensus process (and most do rely on a majority vote), GAs often don’t include many of the participants in the action being decided upon, much less “the 99%.” I tweeted a few days ago that the reality of the Occupy GA deconstructs any theoretical opposition between representative and direct democracy — it doesn’t seem that a democratic institution can ever truly become equivalent to its constituents. As Socialisme ou barbarie theorist Cornelius Castoriadis writes inThe Imaginary Institution of Society (1975) there is a minimal degree of alienation involved in any political form:

“The social-historical dimension, as a dimension of the collective and the anonymous, initiates for each and every one of us a simultaneous relation of interiority and exteriority, of participation and exclusion, which can in no way be abolished or even ‘controlled’, in any definite sense of this term. The social is what is everyone and what is no one, what is never absent and almost never present as such, a non-being that is more real than any being, that in which we are wholly immersed yet which we can never apprehend ‘in person’…It is something that can be presented only in and through the institution but which is always infinitely more than the institution, what is formed by it, what continually overdetermines its functioning, and what in the final analysis founds it: creates it, maintains it in existence, alters it, destroys it.There is the social as instituted, but this always presupposes the social as instituting. ‘In ordinary times’ the social is manifested in the institution, but this manifestation is at once true and, in a sense, fallacious — as in those moments in which the social as instituting bursts onto the stage and pulls up its sleeves to get to work, the moments of revolution. But this work aims at an immediate result, which is to provide itself once again with an institution in order to exist in a visible manner — and once this institution is set in place the social as instituting slips away, puts itself at a distance, is already somewhere else.” (111-112)

Nowhere is the elusiveness of the truly democratic decision more apparent than in the vexed question of demands. Most occupations now have some sort of demands working group, through which demands, along with principles or statements of intent, are to be routed before presentation at the GA. The problem here is that the real power to represent the will of the 99% is the mandate of a group that operates autonomously from the GA, leaving the majority with the choice of whether or not to authorize a list it did not author. If any set of proposals manages to pass, as did happen with my home occupation, Occupy Austin, their inadequacy makes obvious the extent to which the GA, despite all talk of direct democracy, pure democracy, or consensus, is a representative body not fundamentally different from a parliament (it is deprofessionalized and procedurally much more responsible, but I still don’t think the revision is any more radical than, say, the Internet’s effect on music criticism). It’s no wonder there have had to be official statements dissociating the movement from these working groups or any other group, such as media or police liaison, that claims to give the movement an ideological ground that its diversity and rapid, ‘chaotic’ development constantly undercuts. They are all potential hijackers (for a necessary critique of the entire subject of demands, see this here).

Finally, the root of many of these concerns about the role of the GA is the fear that autonomous action risks ‘violence,’ a word I put in scare quotes because it’s hard to say these days what anyone means when they use it.

Nonviolence is a tactic, as its would-be debunkers always claim. More precisely it’s a media tactic. But for the very reason that the effectiveness of a nonviolent action is determined in the realm of appearance, of spectacle, it can’t be reduced to a mere appearance; nonviolence is also an ideology. It would be ineffective if practitioners weren’t committed to it in principle. Just as capitalists can’t stand outside capitalism and use it in a purely instrumental manner, just as they can’t mystify society without mystifying themselves (albeit in a class-specific manner), protest movements can’t use nonviolence without striving to be nonviolent. A nonviolent action in which someone throws a molotov at a cop effectively loses its nonviolent status. And that means any violent action — or anything that, like breaking windows, might be construed by someone with the power to decide these things as ‘violent’ — has to be repressed, or at the very least, dissociated from the ‘mainstream,’ ‘official’ movement.

Effective nonviolence, then, requires a strong GA, to propagate the idea of what nonviolence today is (counterintuitive to many people), to regulate the action and to define other actions as unauthorized. Conceived as a decision-making, governing body, the GA is the primary means by which the movement disciplines itself in the war to represent public opinion.

My concluding question: is the GA the culmination/restoration of democracy at the core of Occupy, a minimally repressive form of governance that tries to discipline without enforcement, that upholds the impossible ideal of pure consensus as a regulatory principle? Or is it not even primarily a deliberative body, but simply the medium through which the movement makes itself visible? Could there be a GA that makes announcements, debate, “palaver,” instead of decisions? An occupation that makes no attempt to institutionalize itself (which is not to say it fails to generate institutions)?

At any rate, it is my opinion that strategy, whether elite or collective, is weakened if it accepts taboos that restrict solidarity. If less than everything can be discussed and potentially executed outside of clandestine, after-hours meetings, then we’re still talking about moralism, not strategy.

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2 thoughts on “Ryan’s comments on The Invisible Committee‘s critique of General Assemblies

  1. I think it is a mistake to levy a blanket criticism against General Assemblies.

    A criticism of particular ways in which people who are largely new to revolutionary struggle have (mis)used the GA’s would be more constructive and would indeed be helpful. For example, I can understand criticizing the list of demands that was approved by the GA ( both for the content of the demands and perhaps for the potential misuse of the General Assembly in approving such demands), but this does not mean that such assemblies are not an important part of organic and democratic movements.

    When it comes to governing conflicts and managing collective resources within the movement, I can think of no more democratic process than the GA, and I think that it does indeed offer a real alternative to representative democracy. For instance, take two issues decided at the GA on Tuseday: 1) Spending of Occupy Austin money on a proposed trip to protest at the Egyptian consulate in Houston and 2) whether or not to remove the OA food table at City Hall. On this day it was decided to spend a certain amount of OA money on hand on the proposed trip to Houston and to keep the food table for now.

    Mundane decisions like this must be made as part of any movement. The benefits in having them made by the GA are real in comparison to having them made instead of by an empowered individual, as would occur in representative democracy:
    1) Everyone gets a chance to hear the proposals, ask questions about them, offer amendments, and have their actual will on the matters counted and not just “represented”
    2) Since the decision is made by a mass of the body bound by the decision, it is thus a more inherently transparent process, and the ability of a representative to be swayed by corruption and selfish interests is not a factor.

    Also, I think it would be a mistake to have things solved in a Hobbesian manner of having whoever has the initiative and ability to affect the decision they want simply doing so irregardless of what their comrades in the movement want.

    All that said, the GA needs to manage the movement not define it. Action must define the movement, not words agreed to via consensus. I believe I agree with the Invisible Committee on that.

    Still it is false to criticize the use of the “99%” propaganda used by the Occupy Movement just because their nonviolent edicts alienate a certain segment of the 99%. It is indeed the responsibility of the GA’s to effectively manage the human resources that it is made up by — if that body thinks that non-violence is the most effective way to implement revolutionary change, then they are correct in demanding it from those belonging to their movement. And if that stance means that a certain group must work outside of the umbrella of the Occupy Movement, it shouldn’t mean that the spirit and goal of their marketing plan should change.

  2. hi james! ryan here.

    i agree with you that general assemblies are important (and i think the invisible committee think so too, despite the rhetoric). the question is what role do they actually play in the movement and what are the limits of that role.

    but i did want to point out that technically, the GA does function as a representative body, despite the lack of official representatives, because not everyone is there to contribute to the decisions. instead of ‘expert’ qualifications or elected status, the GA’s representatives are whoever shows up. but it is basically forced to attempt to represent the interests of the group at large. and that’s the source of the controversy. there’s no real party structure, the guiding principles are vague, and there’s no real capacity to enforce anything. it’s just one part of an ongoing conversation, both within Occupy and without.

    that said, i agree that going forward the GA will only become more central and more ‘legitimate.’ i just think that as this happens, we should not think of GA decisions as self-justifying, merely because they’re more democratic than the decisions of the Texas state legislature. consensus process isn’t so much about ‘getting things done’ by achieving democratic consensus decisions (100% of votes) but to facilitate a productive, synthetic conversation, building solidarity. if there are those who feel the need to act outside the GA, maybe that means certain subjects — violence is just the most sensational example — are not being openly discussed, and we should figure out how to address that, rather than figure out ways to separate the ‘official’ GA from an unofficial ‘them’ (black blocs, mentally ill, looters, drug addicts, etc.).

    my more radical suggestions, like that working group initiatives should be announced at GAs then implemented, and not voted/consensed on, are yet another issue…

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