I (would like to) use anarchy
November 26, 2007 6:33 PM   Subscribe

What books or web resources are there for learning about practical anarchism? I'm interested more in faciliating group decisions and consensus rather than in political/theoretical aspects.

A while back, I went to a talk given by some street medics with anarchist leanings. Part of what they described involved their methods for coming to decisions as a group - all sitting down and discussing, reaching consensus, etc.

I am really interested in this - not so much the political angles and theory of anarchism but the practical aspects, how it's actually carried out, group decisions rather than decision by hierarchy.

Are there any useful books or web resources out there for learning about practical anarchism? I'm not even sure if I'm using the right search terms - does this kind of thing go by other names?
posted by cadge to Law & Government (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Okay I deleted some responses that were like "HURF DURF NO SUCH THING" and now I'll answer the question. In short, there are a lot of anarchist principles like consensus decision making and mutual aid and whatnot that will be helpful to you. There is also an awful lot of rhetoric that can get in the way so you may have to make a lot of pratical decisions about what to listen to and what to toss.

First off, you're using the right world. Practical Anarchy is a decent sporadic (last time I was reading it carefully) zine that has stories about people actually doing stuff not sitting on the couch and talking about Bakunin. I'd suggest getting some back issues and digging through them for some more ideas that appeal to you.

If you read about specific actions, particularly activists writing about how their own demonstrations and events go, you can see a lot of this in action. I worked during the WTO with the Direct Action Network some and they have a lot of trainings in how to do this sort of large group process with no one in control. Of course if no one person is in control is sometimes leads to the process being in control and that is sort of weird. It was pretty amazing to me to see it in action with hundreds of activists with differing backgrounds (and agendas) be able to use the same process to figure out who was doing what and so forth. his sort of thing is not necessarily forwarded as "this is going to be the replacement for the oval office when the revolution comes!" but a good way to get as many people as possible involved in the decision making processes when there is time to do that. It's time consuming, to be certain.

This email, linked from their wikipedia entry, talks a little about their organizing principles. If you google around for some of those terms, like "spokescouncil" and "afifnity group" you're likely to come up with a lot more stuff along similar lines.
posted by jessamyn at 7:02 PM on November 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

You might be interested in the oddly-titled technique called Open Space Technology.
posted by Alt F4 at 7:54 PM on November 26, 2007

You should research the Black Panthers. They had an anarchistic agenda, but part of what they did in their local community was set up daycares and encourage spending within the community. They tried to empower blacks to think in terms of economic power as well as other types of power. Interestingly, apparently there was a lot of sexism in the cause, too. Angela Davis has talked about it and it's a fascinating contradiction within the movement.
posted by 45moore45 at 8:30 PM on November 26, 2007

Tree Bressen's website has many useful resources for consensus facilitators.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:40 PM on November 26, 2007

the starting point for understanding consensus decision-making for a lot of anarchist groups is the excellent On Conflict and Consensus, which can be found at http://www.consensus.net/ocaccontents.html . Now, many groups use modified versions of it, but as someone who has worked in it, I can say that it takes practice and understanding, but it can work great. You said you were interested in the practicalities and not the theory, but I think the theory can be pretty important in getting how anarchism works; it really is a vision that closely aligns the means and ends. so, if you decide that you want to venture into the scary world of what anarchism means besides dirty fourteen years olds scrawling circle As into their trapper keepers, check out znet and parecon. It's very practical, but with a close linkage to theory. Have fun.
posted by history is a weapon at 8:43 PM on November 26, 2007

The Black Panthers were great and all, but Anarchist, they were not. Their politics in their heyday were very strongly influenced by Mao and Stalin. Please do not judge them ahistorically, but they were not really anarchists.
posted by history is a weapon at 8:46 PM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Quakers use a decision-making style that can be called consensus, or seeking unity (though we also use our quaint religious terminology, like that we're looking for "sense of the meeting."). A book about the process written by a non-Quaker is Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decision-Making in the Society of Friends by Michael J. Sheeran, but the best way to get a sense of it is to be part of it for awhile. Not that I expect that to appeal to you, necessarily. Quakers aren't anarchists, but they're better than any other group I've ever been part of at this kind of decision-making.
posted by not that girl at 9:35 PM on November 26, 2007

buy a book about the Spanish Civil War... Hugh Thomas wrote a good one with HUNDREDS of citations.

the Spanish civil war was the one time in modern history that anarchists ran the country, the economy and fielded armies recruited directly from the trade unions... specifically the CNT and the UGT. of course the Stalinists scuttled the entire war effort, but it was a valiant effort nonetheless... upon taking control of the gov't... one of the first actions of the gov't was to destroy every criminal record in gov't possession to give everyone a "new start" for a "new Spain".

hopefully when you say anarchism... you're talking about anarcho-syndicalism... not some 15yo kid wearing a shirt with a big "A" on it.
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 9:47 PM on November 26, 2007

Seconding not-that-girl's recommendation of Beyond Majority Rule. An interesting book if you're interested in group decision-making.
posted by hattifattener at 9:55 PM on November 26, 2007

The wikipedia entry on consensus decision-making is quite good and echoes the method they used at an intentional community I stayed at for a month.
posted by salvia at 10:06 PM on November 26, 2007

I read an interesting study recently, called Radical Media, which explores the ways radical media organizations applied different consensus or democratic methods. It's not wholly positive, which is why it's worth a look.

the Spanish civil war was the one time in modern history that anarchists ran the country, the economy and fielded armies recruited directly from the trade unions... specifically the CNT and the UGT. of course the Stalinists scuttled the entire war effort, but it was a valiant effort nonetheless... upon taking control of the gov't... one of the first actions of the gov't was to destroy every criminal record in gov't possession to give everyone a "new start" for a "new Spain".

There is a massive tendency in the anarchist movement to glorify the Spanish anarchists, but they're not the paradigm people have taken them for. Quite a few of the groups involved were merely slightly more libertarian communists, and they were just about as eager as the communists to institute repression when they felt themselves threatened. One group actually called for the establishment of a "revolutionary junta.":
We would assert that revolutions are totalitarian, no matter who says otherwise ... We are introducing a slight variation in anarchism into our programme. The establishment of a revolutionary Junta.

As we see it, the revolution needs organisms to oversee it, and repress, in an organised sense, hostile sectors. As current events have shown such sectors do not accept oblivion unless they are crushed.

There may be anarchist comrades who feel certain ideological misgivings, but the lesson of experience is enough to induce us to stop pussy-footing.
- The Friends of Durruti, "Towards a Fresh Revolution"
posted by nasreddin at 10:56 PM on November 26, 2007

Colin Ward's Anarchy in Action is more or less the standard work on practical anarchism, albeit somewhat dated. Check it out. Also: Anarchy: from theory to practice by Guérin.
posted by Skyanth at 2:29 AM on November 27, 2007

Response by poster: Nice! Thanks for these recommendations, everyone! Any resource along these lines is helpful - I'm not looking for "only Anarchists-with-capital-A". I cited anarchism in my post because that's the only thing I'm familiar with that uses this kind of facilitated group decision making. I'm looking for methodology behind decision making without relying on hierarchical systems, and I wasn't sure how to describe "group discussion" without making it sound like support groups or chatting.

I have loads to read now. Thanks!
posted by cadge at 6:11 AM on November 27, 2007

Seeds for Change have a useful set of online resources about consensus decision making that would make a good place to start. They are short practical guides for learning and cover contemporary practice well.
posted by tallus at 7:11 AM on November 27, 2007

Another related aspect of this is Arrows impossibility theorem. Stating basically, that every form of voting (on 3 or more items) has some arbitrary aspect that effects the outcome, related to the logistics of how the vote was carried out.

This idea then goes on to explain how and why agenda setters have so much power in most voting situations.

This can apply to how "consesus decision making" is or is not actually consesus, or more specifically if it is or is not the true will of the people.

(P.S the wiki link is a bit .... "wordy" but the theorem relates to your questions specifically about the logistics of how group consesus or any situation of group decision making works (ie carried out). It also touches on if any of those logistics over come the arbitrary nature that arises from the outcome being directly related to logistics of the decision making process)

Woha thats a mouth full.
posted by crewshell at 7:27 AM on November 27, 2007

CrimeThinc has some good books, materials etc
posted by Soulbee at 12:39 PM on November 27, 2007

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