There certainly exists a place and a need for inter-movement pep-talks. And we should always acknowledge the successes along with the failures of actions while evaluating our efforts after the fact. But therein lies the problem. All too often, our movement has neglected to think critically about its shortcomings and the obstacles that it faces. Instead, no matter what the facts, victory is claimed and we charge ahead to the next big event.

Who Needs Ends When We’ve got Such Bitchin’ Means?

by Andy Cornell

The years since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks have been an incredibly difficult time and context for radicals of any stripe to organize in. The situation has been that much more difficult for the global justice movement, emerging and picking up steam, as it did, little more than a year before 9-11. Since that time, the movement has been working-albeit slowly-to reconstitute itself and rearticulate its purpose. However, it has retained a focus on mass mobilizations, continuing to rely on direct action tactics despite their dwindling effectiveness. Unfortunately, instead of honestly assessing the diminishing returns wrought of this narrow focus, many global justice activists have incrementally lowered their goalpost, redefining success to match their modest accomplishments. Hence the ass whooping delivered by Miami’s finest in November 2003 became, in Starhawk’s words, “a dangerous victory.”

There certainly exists a place and a need for inter-movement pep-talks. And we should always acknowledge the successes along with the failures of actions while evaluating our efforts after the fact. But therein lies the problem. All too often, our movement has neglected to think critically about its shortcomings and the obstacles that it faces. Instead, no matter what the facts, victory is claimed and we charge ahead to the next big event.

A recent manifestation of this tendency is Robert Augman’s essay “Reflections on the Meaning of the RNC Protests.” The mainstream media missed the point of the actions, Augman says, by reporting only on turnout, number of arrests, and the effect the demonstrations might have on the election. Rather than the outcome–the success at preventing business as usual, the impact on public discourse–Augman argues that the process of organizing against the Republican National Convention was the most important part of the undertaking. Although protestors didn’t get close to implementing the direct action scenario they’d been hashing out for months, they did create a “mutualistic” environment, lending bicycles to out-of-towners and dishing up free food at banner making events. That the actions were a bit of dud is secondary in this schema. What really matters is the “democratic and participatory” nature of the meetings held prior to the week of protest.

Augman argues that the Battle of Seattle changed protest fundamentally, “it made participants and their forms of organizing values in themselves.” As he sees it, “The movement’s meaning lies within.” For it to change the world, “it has to make its internal qualities of radical democracy and mutual aid external.”

Augman, really, is giving voice to an understanding of the movement that is fairly widespread and seems to be gaining currency. In an article published shortly after the FTAA protests in Miami, David Solnit stated that decentralized decision-making is “not just the means to the change, but that is the change.” David Graeber sounds a similar note in his widely circulated article “The New Anarchists”: “Over the past decade, activists in North America have been putting enormous creative energy into reinventing their groups’ own internal processes, to create viable models of what functioning direct democracy could actually look like.” In fact, he claims, “this is a movement about reinventing democracy…It’s not lacking in ideology. These new forms of organization are its ideology.”

Looking at the movement this way at least helps to explain some things. As I was sitting through the fifth or sixth A31 spokescouncil meeting this summer, I began to wonder what was going on. The council was engaged in the same conversation about “scenario” it had been having for the last four meetings while plenty of key questions remained unresolved. People came back week after week, yet we didn’t move any closer to having a comprehensive tactical plan, much less a broader strategic vision for the direction of the movement. Eventually my affinity group and I formulated the theory that many people at those meetings weren’t all that concerned about how successful the actions would be at disrupting the RNC or how they might be strategically useful in creating real policy change. Why? Because the real revolution was happening right there, on the dirty floor of a warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where 75 people, nine tenths of them white and economically comfortable, were having “democratic” conversations. The revolution was the process itself– assuming that every nuance of consensus procedure was followed, the facilitator ran through the “stack” in the correct order, and each participant used the correct hand gesture to indicate that she wanted to make a “direct response.” It didn’t matter what the outcome was, as long as we were “reinventing democracy” in the process.

In the months following Seattle, global justice activists were overwhelmingly concerned with questions about whether ends justified means. Plenty of ink was spilled, for example, debating whether Black Bloc property destruction was warranted to stop the greater violence unleashed by global capital. Now it seems we’re in a different moment, and a new question is on the table: Do we really need ends at all, as long as we’ve got these totally bitchin’ means?

This is, admittedly, a harsh way of making a point. But the point is a fundamental one–namely, the ends do matter. The object of building social movements is to fight specific instances of injustice and create concrete institutional changes. Processes are important, but only if they are used to create movements that have a real transformative impact. Good process is necessary, but it’s not enough. This seems to get lost sometimes, especially among individuals who aren’t directly bearing the brunt of the forms of oppression or exploitation they are working against. Discussing the purpose behind the process forces us to ask once again, “What are the movement’s goals? What is it demanding?” These are questions that global justice activists have never been great at answering with much specificity. When asked these questions, the A31 spokescouncil didn’t get far beyond vaguely asserting the right to “free speech” and the need for “real democracy.” Unlike other sectors of the left organizing against the RNC, it never publicly issued any specific demands.

Beyond reasserting the importance of establishing goals and winning real victories, it also seems crucial to take a step back and ask ourselves whether these new “direct” and “inclusive” processes of organizing and decision-making are truly all they’re cracked up to be. How democratic and inclusive is this movement? Augman’s article speaks almost entirely about one segment of the demonstrators who amassed in New York to challenge the Republican agenda–the predominantly young, white, anti-authoritarian contingent of activists often referred to as the global justice movement. In general, global justice activists have not built the strongest of alliances with other sectors of the left–much less with broader communities at large–over the last half-decade. We’ve been continually criticized for remaining disconnected from, and exclusionary of, poor- and people-of-color-led efforts based in communities most affected by globalization and the war, for example. Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez’s article, “Where was the Color in Seattle?” was only the first and most famous of many to offer constructive criticism along these lines.

Is it conceivable that the fetishization of the consensus process (and related structures, such as spoksecouncils) has anything to do with this? Consensus is a useful decision making model that is helpful and beneficial in certain settings. Yet, its superiority over other methods of organizing and making decisions can’t be demonstrated solely in abstract terms–the process must be useful on the ground as well. We need to test it by asking concrete questions like: Does using this process allow for all the important decisions to be made? Does the process prevent certain individuals or groups from participating?

In fact, concerns such as these arose in the lead-up to the RNC protests. Organizers from community groups with substantial membership bases were concerned that spokespeople of six member affinity groups would have equal decision making power with spokespeople representing groups with hundreds of members. And while those attending spokescouncil meetings rehashed their plans time and again, other crucial issues got sidelined. Just one example: when the affinity group I am a part of encouraged the spokescouncil to officially endorse and support the Still We Rise march–an important effort undertaken by local community-based organizations–the spokescouncil balked. Did we have the power to make such an endorsement? Wouldn’t it be proper to decide if the group can endorse anything at all first? (Twinkle, Twinkle.) Since we’re all individuals and small groups, what name would go on the flier? Shouldn’t we focus on planning our action–that’s what we’re here for, right? Ultimately, the issue, which we saw as an important matter of solidarity and Movement building, got sidelined because there “wasn’t enough time” to come to a solid agreement.

None of this is to say that consensus is totally untenable and should be tossed out wholesale. The point is that its usefulness as a tool must be evaluated and refined as we go. It shouldn’t be embraced reflexively, nor should it serve as the qualifying mark of a truly radical organization. Indiscriminatingly trumpeting the importance of participatory decision making might bolster our resolve to keep struggling after a somewhat disappointing mobilization, but we would be better served in the end by thinking about ways to solve specific difficulties that arose during the course of the organizing process.

Consensus is one aspect of the movement culture that has proven alienating to activists of different backgrounds and people in communities we express an interest in working with. Other factors–diet, language, manners, accessibility, lack of childcare facilities, and general white and privileged cultural norms–have combined to add to the effect. When reflecting on a sense of mutualistic collective spirit, it is important to ask who feels welcome at such activist spaces. Sadly, the left remains significantly divided across race and class lines, even within the younger generation, and this was quite apparent throughout the RNC organizing process. Such divides are long standing and very difficult to overcome. No single activist space or project can be expected to solve them immediately. But for members of the predominantly white and middle class global justice movement to laud their own spaces and “experiments in non-capitalist relations” as the true “heart of the meaning of the protests” seems particularly short-sighted.

First, it should be noted that while the meaning–or more precisely, the importance–of the RNC protests might have lay in the ethos and the style of organizing for some global justice activists, the importance of the demonstrations was surely different for other groups that participated. Recruiting new members, building lasting coalitions, developing individuals’ organizing skills, garnering positive media attention, and demonstrating to elites that organizations’ specific demands have mass support, were key reasons many others participated. We would do well to listen to what they deemed successful, meaningful, and important about the mobilization.

Secondly, the focus on process obscures the need to spell out specific goals and strategy beyond rhetoric and sloganeering. Certain questions aren’t getting answered: What are global justice activists doing when there’s no mass mobilization on the horizon? What’s going on in the broader movement, and how does our work connect? Too often our conversations have focused on movement-building questions to the detriment of broad-based organizing concerns. We need to re-assess who our base of support is and clearly identify what we want, why we want that, who our opposition and allies are, and what the next steps are to get us moving towards more wins. In some ways it seems easier to repeatedly call for “direct democracy” than to make specific demands and dirty one’s hands in campaigns that seek reforms today in pursuit of revolution in the future. Mutualism and democratic decision making are part of our toolkit for making change, and they are important parts of the new world we envision and work hard to create. But they don’t form the totality of either. Its important not to confuse the process with the thing itself. People can’t eat direct democracy; good facilitation doesn’t cure HIV/AIDS.

Finally, while Graeber, Augman, and others celebrate the structures and techniques they see leading to more direct and participatory decision making, they seem to ignore who it is making those decisions. They don’t ask the fundamental question, “Who is at the table in these meetings and discussions?” Similarly, who is participating in these newly empowering spaces and benefiting from all the mutual aid? Many would argue that the biggest problem with the old democracy is that poor people and people of color lack the decision making power of other sectors of the population. Their demands for inclusion and self-determination have been systematically ignored. Sadly, from this perspective, the “new kind of democracy” being invented in the global justice movement today looks a lot like the old kind of democracy. It’s been five years since we won our big victory in Seattle. It’s about time we start to rethink both our means and our ends.

Thanks are due to the friends and who commented on earlier drafts of this article.

Andy Cornell is an activist and writer attending graduate school in New York City. He is a member of Living Room Affinity Group and GSOC-UAW Local 2110. Contact him at arc280 at

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