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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Monday, October 22, 2012

    It's More Positive to Be Against than to Be For

    Tuesday, January 24, 2012
    Jim Macdonald
    Are you against war, or are you for peace?

    Are you against capitalism, or are you for an economically just society?

    Are you against sexism, or are you for gender equality?

    Are you against racism, or are you for embracing diversity?

    Both sides of these sets of statements say pretty much the same thing, but it's amazing how difficult and perhaps reckless it can be to build a social movement on the latter rather than the former.  Social movements usually rise in response to what they are against.  That is often what unites us.  However, when we try with any specificity to define what we are for, divisions arise in spades.

    In Occupy Bozeman, there is about to be a campaign against Wells Fargo.  The campaign is progressing slowly somewhat stuck in a discussion of whether we should be more negative in tone - screw Wells Fargo - or more positive - put your money here and help our community.  We may all be against big banks for instance, but where should people put their money?  Some argue that money should stay locally, others argue that the money should go to credit unions, others may argue to put money under a mattress or to burn money and go to a true barter system.  And, even if one could agree to a type of solution, there are so many variations in the type.  When we try to build solutions, movements will often go awry.

    If you are against the war in Afghanistan, what would you like to see instead when you argue for peace.  Some take peace to be an inner struggle of the individual in the world.  Others see it as only compatible with a world of social justice.  Others see some combination of the individual with the outer social world.  If one begins describing what such a world might look like, other views in the movement quickly become alienated.  We often come at these things in very differing ways.

    The examples could go on and on.

    I'd briefly urge two lessons from this state of affairs and then open it up for discussion.

    1. Social movements should not try to offer specific solutions; the solution rather comes from embracing the result of destroying the injustice that movement strives against.  What I mean is that positive visions can be dangerous.  When we find ourselves fighting unified against injustice, the injustice often roots from some power imposing a positive view of what reality should be on the world.  It starts a war to accomplish some goal, it institutes an economic system, it justifies a class or a race or a gender system.  If we think we can replace this world with something else, we often will simply recreate new systems of oppression for those who don't share the vision.  We are better off embracing a world without clear norms and goals.  Of course, this is a kind of positive vision; it's called pluralism.  However, pluralism is a kind of empty positive, one that doesn't impose a specific way of acting.  It simply annunciates some boundaries - one being that anything that tends against pluralism should be resisted.  It also doesn't pretend that the goal of the social movement is some utopian world where there are no problems; there are always problems.

    Not offering solutions can admittedly be somewhat divisive to any social movement as there will always be a group calling for positive solutions against the better judgment I am suggesting.  I guess I would argue it's far more divisive to be specific as to solutions.  To the extent that we can convince our friends in the movement that we are not united by what we are for and are far more united by what we are against, we can at least urge that the practicality of the situation demands that we not offer solutions where there is no consensus and to focus instead on where there is consensus - i.e., in what we are against.

    2. The process of how one is against is itself a very positive thing that should not be discounted.  If social movements are committed to stopping an injustice, they should not replicate either the injustice or the grounds that give rise to the injustice.  I believe that the logical fallacies that produce hierarchies are at root for so many of the problems of the world today.  If a social movement replicates non-hierarchical ways of interacting as a way of combating injustice, then there is a real positive paradigm shift.  However, note that the complement of anti-war, or anti-racist isn't the positive side of the apparent equation.  Rather, instead, they are again ideas like consensus, listening, and finding voice.  Perhaps, that is also the essence of the "for" side.  However, the tone is different.  We don't find the tone by speaking out for what we are for but rather in the process of speaking out what we are against.  That can be a difficult thought to get around, but it is important.  The way of being against is positive in a sense different from the way of being for can ever be; there is no critique in the latter, and I'd argue that critique (thoughtful discourse) is always a much more positive result.

    That may not be clear; perhaps, discussion can clear it up.  It is indeed impossible to annunciate what one is for without it; that is the irony of being for the idea of being against.



    ​ I will have to spend some time thinking about your premise, Jim. As you often do you ask stimulating questions. I can see that getting people to agree on complicated things can result in coercion. On the other hand part of the reason we form societies is to get things done for the common good. Consensus is very slow and difficult. If you want to get a wind farm built or a crop planted, action is necessary. While you discuss the war people die. Some of our problem is that we don't know clearly what we each believe and want. My hope is that in the course of organizing to make the changes to society that we all agree on we will be able to develop as process of governing that solves this problem. If we educate ourselves and really understand what we each believe it might be easier to come to consensus.  More later when I figure out what I mean LOL
    ​Ed Scheterlak


    To some of your points ...

    You write: On the other hand part of the reason we form societies is to get things done for the common good.

    Obviously, this is part of the classical social contract theory, whether we are talking about the Constitution, the theories of Locke or Rousseau, or as far back as Plato, where he says in Republic that societies exist in large part because no one is truly able to be self-sufficient.

    I want to note that I am not talking about societies, however those are designed, but rather about social movements, particularly mass social movements.  Obviously, people are going to form groupings or be part of groupings that are going to strive for things.  This indymedia site arises from that.  Families are going to seek food.  Groups of people are going to construct things.  They are not simply going to define their existence in terms of what they are against but are going to strive for things that relate to the group.

    That is not what I think social movements do, however.  Social movements arise because there is something in society at large that needs changing.  The job of a social movement isn't to build a new society but rather to remove the conditions affecting society or societies at large.  This is particularly true in this day and age, where the notion of society has become so large.  If a social movement is trying to provide an alternative, I'd think it would have to start with a critique of what society has become such that it has grown so far beyond what's natural.  It's natural for small groups of people to join together; it's not natural for us to think we are actually sharing a social space with 40 thousand Bozemanites, over 300 million Americans, and more than 7 billion other people, not mentioning even all those non-human inhabitants who might make up our natural communities.

    Social movements must grow large in order to combat the pervasive nature of injustice; however, I'd argue that it would be nonsensical to conceive of social movements as the new constructors of alternative society.  They can provide options, right?  People can share their experiences.  Social movements can allow for the creativity and freedom for more natural groups of people to develop.  Ultimately, though, they have to be characterized in somewhat negative terms - in terms of resistance, in terms of what's wrong, in terms of the ailment.  In doing that, I'd argue that they are allowing for freedom, creativity, and the much more natural tensions that develop.  We should be much more concerned whether our neighbor is being too loud and disrespectful than we are about whether we are going to fight wars in a distant land.  Yet, we cannot do that (and should not do that) because the social structure has been set up in a way to abstract us from our immediate environment.  If we spend our time trying to build a better global (or too big a local) society, we fail to see that we are simply re-creating a world where abstract problems affecting us all will matter more.

    You write:

    Consensus is very slow and difficult. If you want to get a wind farm built or a crop planted, action is necessary. While you discuss the war people die.

    Consensus can be conceived in a couple ways.  Either consensus is used so that all decisions must be agreed to by everyone alike, which makes it especially slow and difficult.  Or, consensus is used more properly simply to set the parameters where people may act freely.  In fact, that's how it always works to some extent; it's just that people don't always realize it.  Where consensus is used as a bludgeon for conformity, it is being misused and creates a hierarchy ruled by those who know how to master the process.  A culture of consensus, rather, should be used only to limit action that goes against the common good of the group.  People should feel free to act; that should be one of the first acts of any group.  When that action runs amok, then it is reigned in.  Too often it works in reverse.

    I think this perhaps also is a result of thinking groups are there to effect positive change.  There is a belief that we can all figure this out together.  That probably is not the best way to go about it.

    On Wells Fargo, for instance, it would be better process, I think, in Occupy Bozeman, if I simply said that I was engaging in a campaign and invited people to join me to work on it.  Only when we went too far for the group (like if we had put out a call to action on all for-profit banks, as one example), would we then revise our work to meet the consensus aim.  However, we still tend to work on a model where we had all better be on board before we act.  That does, I agree, slow us down immensely and to the discredit of us and even the beauty of the consensus process.

    (I've found we've had a far clearer understanding of that in the indymedia group, and people are finding their own path.  It takes trust, though, which people are still building.  The problem often with consensus isn't the malcontent blocking everything; it's usually people afraid to act for fear of stepping on toes.  People should act - particularly once the root process is in place - and react accordingly when the group after the fact raises concerns.)
    You write:

    Some of our problem is that we don't know clearly what we each believe and want. My hope is that in the course of organizing to make the changes to society that we all agree on we will be able to develop as process of governing that solves this problem. If we educate ourselves and really understand what we each believe it might be easier to come to consensus.

    Part of that might be true, but I think social movements need to embrace people often with conflicting and even contradictory beliefs, people who would not be friends in different circumstances.  I don't think consensus usually resolves itself by looking for similarity of belief but rather similarity of function.  The last place I went to school was as a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  Catholic is not some liberal Jesuit school; it's a rather conservative Dominican school with strong ties to the Pope.  I have never been a Catholic (though personally am a theist, which no doubt is puzzling to most of my anarchist staunchly atheist friends); I obviously have issues with the authoritarian and sexist structure and many of the politics of the church.  Nevertheless, I found I had many of the same philosophical starting points.  We all believed in reason, we all believed in truth, we all believed that something had gone wrong when modern philosophy came on with Descartes.  Yet, somewhere, things fell off the rails where I became a radical leftist and most of them became conservative Republicans.  There's no way I'd join a social movement with most of those people even though the roots of our philosophical thinking are largely the same (though they may be more Aristotle, and I may be more Plato).  From a belief system, I had more in common with them than with the new friends I made in the streets of DC fighting against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Yet, nothing was going to change from starting with people with common core beliefs if bombs were dropping, if people were being sent to kill and die, if others were being tortured, and on and on.  I rather needed the functional similarity of opposition to make that happen.  The root of the injustice required action, and consensus needed to be conceived in terms of action and not in terms of ideology.

    Of course, there's an ideology in that, right?  It's pluralism.  Even if there are better beliefs than others, I believe strongly that you cannot simply impose a belief system on to someone else.  I realized that there were plenty of non-pluralists in the anti-war movement.  There were statists and authoritarians of various stripes.  It would produce all kinds of tension in decision making.  It would often make consensus impossible. 

    However, if we begin a social movement from the standpoint of functional consensus, even the authoritarians have to either accept it or move on.  Those who stick around will do their thing.  They'll have their permitted marches with peace marshals and strict rules of conduct, or they'll urge people to get into electoral politics, or they'll try to peddle their marxist newspapers.  Yet, so long as they don't get in the way of differing tactics, of differing actions, so be it?  We can have a loose way of organizing and being united so long as we remember what brings us together.

    If we win that battle as a social movement, new lines are drawn, and resistance begins anew.  What I hope, I guess, is that people realize how empowering a non-hierarchical process can be that the resistance will be much easier once the capitalist giant is brought to its knees, once all the isms are no longer tolerated.  If the amplitude of the problems become smaller, then maybe the new social movement needs to be less massive and that those movements come closer to the natural size of societies.

    More later when I figure out what I mean LOL

    I'd really look forward to it.  I'd love it if you shared your thoughts in an essay on this site for everyone here to read.  I really enjoy listening to you at meetings and reading your thoughts online.  That enjoyment is why I've spent so much time writing this evening.

    in solidarity,

    let me start by saying i agree that the consensus process is as Jim described and requires action followed by revision followed by action and so on, but remembering that action is first then the group can come to consensus about the action. much more is accomplished this way.

    second, i would like to point out that the seems to me to have been start as a group of people with the desire for similar positive action. we all wanted a local indy media site and now we have one.
    i agree that a large consensus, like that of a nation or even a town, is impossible. i do not think it is necessary. if a small group of individuals were to take positive action, such as starting an alternative economy, perhaps a barter economy even if only for certain aspects of their lives such as food or clothing, and were to actually be happier, because of it, that this coupled with the regular involvement in other societal activities, such as school or work, would draw new people into the positive action, of the barter economy in this case.

    finally, as to pluralism, i agree that this is the only anarchist view to hold. i cannot, nor would i want to, force a view upon another person, but this is precisely why i do not think changing our capitalist republican democracy is effective in any way, shape, or form, since it forces it Laws onto its citizens. when an anarchist society exists i would agree to resistance as a more effective method with a fuller heart.


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