Deliberation for activists

What is involved in deliberating within an activist group? This isn’t quite as simple a question as it might appear. Deliberation has to do with a discussion among a number of people aimed at arriving at a degree of consensus about facts, policies, and strategies. But it grades off into several other collective activities: contention over power and influence, efforts to deceive or manipulate, efforts to mobilize people over emotional issues.

I am led to think about these questions by a very stimulating seminar by a colleague, Lara Rusch, in which she presented some of her current research on the specific features of collective decision-making by activist groups in Detroit. (Here is an article of Lara’s on one aspect of the issue, the challenge of creating trust within a group of activists; link.)

What I’m interested in examining here is grassroots activist deliberation — the kinds of decision-making and action that are associated with movements like the anti-globalization movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a variety of grassroots environmentalist movements. This kind of deliberation seems to be structurally different from those that are often highlighted within the literature of deliberative democracy. (Erik Olin Wright and Archon Fong’s Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (The Real Utopias Project) (v. 4) is a great statement of current thinking about deliberative democracy. Here is an earlier post on deliberative democracy and here is another post on the Real Utopias project.)

Most examples in the deliberative democracy literature involve processes in which the task is simply to arrive at a majority recommendation about a fairly well defined issue, with the process increasing in persuasive force according to the strength of the majority. But a process like this doesn’t have to cope with the issue of maintaining the coalition after this one action. Activist groups, by contrast, are not regulated by formal rules of voting leading to a single adopted resolution, they are not bound by majority vote, and they are not concerned about simply coming to a decision about a single resolution.

So let’s consider one aspect of activist debate: the communicative effort by members of a group to sort out what they should do collectively, given the framing goals and values they share. The individuals and groups have come together because they share commitment to some purpose or goal. (Though there is always the possibility of uncommitted visitors and even provocateurs whose goals involve side-tracking the purposes of the rest of the group.) So how can individuals and sub-groups engage in a process that leads to a degree of consensus about future actions?

Here I take it for granted that activists share goals and values. But this is not wholly true. They may share a high-level concern — ending racism, pushing for sustainability — but may disagree sharply about finer details. So reaching consensus about action is often made more difficult by the fact of disagreement about important goals and values. For example, an environmental activist group may disagree about the scope of their collective efforts — global sustainability or improvement of their own region’s environmental quality.

Another important source of disagreement arises a step closer to action, deriving from differing theories of how social change works. One segment may think that the primary tactics should involve getting effective messages to the broader public through media coverage, whereas another group may think that it is essential to get the attention of policy makers through consequential and visible direct action. With broad disagreement about efficacy of various possible strategies, it is difficult to achieve consensus.

One option that exists in this case is for each camp to make an empirical or historical argument supporting its claims of efficacy; to the extent that opponents are open to rational assessment of evidence at this level, it is possible to narrow disagreement about efficacy.  In other words, rational persuasion based on evidence and inference is one possible avenue of communicative interaction within a group of similar-minded activists. But often partisan groups are as committed to their models of social action as they are to the ultimate outcomes.

The whole situation of activist deliberation is complicated by the fact that a social movement at any level of scale depends on the willing participation of individuals and sub-groups. So a degree of consensus is a practical necessity, if the movement is to maintain itself as an active and activist conglomeration capable of any form of collective action. To the extent that a proposed plan of action diverges substantially from the preferences and interests of a sub-group, there is the likelihood of defection of that group.

There are a couple of features of collective action that seem to make the problem of factions somewhat more manageable than it first appears. First,there is a degree of solidarity involved in almost every social movement; and a widespread feeling of solidarity provides some degree of motivation for each individual to join the collective action even if it is not one’s first choice.  In other words, activists often have a degree of willingness to support the decisions of the group even if they are on the losing side — unless the differences are sufficiently fundamental! Second, individuals and groups are capable of compromising: they can agree to an action plan in which Group A gets most of what it wants, but it promises to pursue part of what Group B wants as well.  And if there is a degree of inter-group trust, this may be sufficient to get both A and B to work together on the agree-upon plan.

David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography is a fascinating ethnography of anti-globalization activists preparing for a complex series of actions at the 2001 Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec. As Graeber makes clear, these loosely affiliated anarchist groups were effective at planning and coordinating action. Here is an earlier discussion of Graeber’s book (link).


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