Yesterday afternoon I went to check on how “Occupy Harvard” was doing. Not so well. It had been left vacant, again.
Not simply, as I’ve documented previously (e.g., November 12, November 18, and November 19), in the relatively early morning. That was perhaps understandable given that after the first couple of nights few, if any, of Harvard’s “space occupants” were actually sleeping in the tents. No, this time I found the site vacant in the middle of the afternoon, while there was considerable foot traffic through Harvard Yard, so that many people could notice the non-occupation.
Don’t take my word for it; you can view the minute-and-a-half video I shot while circling the site here. Note that at about 0:30 I show you the inside of the huge blue geodesic dome dominating the site which the space occupants seem quite proud of (see here and here). On the outside the dome states that it’s “OCCUPIED,” but on the inside . . . well, you’ll have to watch the video.
Here are some photos documenting the continuing non-occupancy of “Occupy Harvard”: (1) wide shots, which show various people in Harvard Yard even on a rainy day (everywhere, it seems, except at the “occupation”) here, here, and here; and (2) closeups documenting the state of the camp, and no visible occupants (not even at the info desk inside the center tent), here, here, here, and here.
In viewing these photos (and my earlier photos documenting the non-occupation of the site) it’s worth keeping in mind the commitment expressed at the top of the homepage of “Occupy Harvard”: “Occupy Harvard is located in Harvard Yard 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
Also, I took a few photos showing that the gates to Harvard Yard are still barred to those lacking Harvard i.d.s, due to an “encampment” which hasn’t been taken down even though it’s not occupied in any meaningful sense — and in particular, showing the impact on tourists who would like to see the Yard but must settle for taking photos through the gates. See here, here, here, and here. I shot a brief video of a tour group which was unable to get into the Yard, which you can view here (the Harvard Crimson has a video about the impact of “Occupy Harvard” on tourists, here.)
And now for my substantive point. “Occupy Harvard” being left vacant in the middle of the afternoon, less than a month since its launch, is a concrete example of the downside of the anarchic governance model at the heart of the “Occupy” movement, which is also at the heart of its failure to achieve anything of consequence. At the November 18 so-called “General Assembly” of “Occupy Harvard” I saw the future of so-called “participatory democracy” or “deliberative democracy” — the governance model suggested by anarchists who were involved in the early planning of “Occupy Wall Street” (see here) — and it does not work, not even at Harvard. And if it cannot not work even at Harvard, when applied by people who strike me almost without exception as intelligent, principled, and public spirited, then I doubt it can work anywhere.
First, a bit of an overview on the history of “Occupy” governance elsewhere. Members of this movement, who seek to get attention for issues they deem important by occupying prominent spaces (who may thus appropriately be termed “space occupants”), function as part of a collective, leaderless body. From time to time they hold a meeting of the “General Assembly” (really just anyone who shows up) which governs by “modified consensus,” under which no action is possible unless a super-majority (typically 70% or higher) agrees. The adoption of this process apparently was largely accidental. According to Marrissa Holmes, a graduate student involved in planning “Occupy Wall Street” (here), the “General Assembly” process was used at the start simply as a mode of discussing ideas and planning the initial occupation. It was never “designed to function as a decision-making body. No one expected the occupation to last very long, so no one thought to create a structure to manage it.”
The result at “Occupy Wall Street,” as Matthew Wolfe has written in Dissent Magazine, has been a “shambolic failure. Meetings drag on for hours, often stalling over niggling disputes or picayune questions of procedure. A few committed obstructionists will often hold up funds necessary for camp operations. Critical concerns — for example, what to do about the looming winter — go unaddressed, as the assembly finds itself overwhelmed by logistical issues. As a result, many of the movement’s most experienced, committed supporters, believing GAs useless, have stopped attending, effectively ceding its control to newcomers.”
Similar problems occurred at “Occupy Portland,” which “was completely and utterly paralyzed” by consensus governance. In “Occupy Richmond,” paralysis didn’t just affect decisions on “something vital,” but on minor issues like “which park to meet next in. . . . For maybe forty-five minutes the assembly stalled as people waited for the vote for which park to occupy . . . a paralysis, a computer stuck in a loop. . . . Then came the first vote on which park to occupy. One had a clear majority, but neither was going to get the unattainable 90%. More dithering – a bad jittery listlessness. . . . People were yelling now, ‘simple majority!’ and ‘majority rules!’ Even people who would lose were anxious for a final vote – people wanted resolution.” (Quotes from this article.)
Well, does this anarchic governance process work any better at Harvard? Apparently it didn’t work well back in the 1960s, when used by the Harvard chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), as contemporaneously documented by the Harvard Crimson here. And it doesn’t seem to work any better at Harvard even in the 21st century, judging from the pivotal “General Assembly” meetings of “Occupy Harvard” which I attended on November 14 and 18. (Ironically, apparently providing a bridge of sorts between two futile activist movements, also in attendance was a fellow who says he was a Harvard SDS member in the 1960s — to safeguard his identity I call him, somewhat irreverently, “SDS Dinosaur.”)
As summarized previously here, the November 14 “General Assembly” meeting which dragged on more than three hours consisted largely of speeches by Big Labor officials and debate about a press release that student representatives of Big Labor had proposed, focused on current bargaining objectives on behalf of employees of Harvard or Harvard-owned entities — illustrating the degree to which the “Occupy” movement is being captured or at least directed by Big Labor interests. Spurred on by the Big Labor activists who had done much of the work in setting up and staffing “Occupy Harvard,” a clear majority of those present twice voted in favor of an official statement by “Occupy Harvard” demanding two concessions by the Harvard administration on labor-related matters.
Twice this determined majority was thwarted by a determined minority of people who I call “social utopians” (anarchists, Marxists, socialists, etc.), who favored no statement at all or a broad statement about a need for a radical restructuring of society, or who objected that to make “demands” implied that if the demands were met, the camp would be taken down. The Big Labor activists refused to abide by the consensus process. Instead, they began making threats and ultimatums. Even after the Big Labor activists threatened to abandon the movement, so that almost no one would be sleeping in the tents or staffing the info desk, the determined minority refused to consent to the majority vote in favor of the proposed resolution. Eventually, after three hours of debate, ultimatums, and counter-ultimatums, all the group could agree on was to issue a watered-down and confusion version of the original proposal which expressed “solidarity” with Harvard workers and made two demands on their behalf, but stated that even if the demands were met, “Occupy Harvard” wouldn’t leave Harvard Yard.
Even more chaotically, in the end the result of this consensus process was ignored. The next morning the Big Labor activists, who apparently control the “Occupy Harvard” website (at occupyharvard.net) posted on the website, as the official statement of “Occupy Harvard,” the original resolution which had twice been defeated because it had not received the required consensus vote of 75% in favor (see postscript here).
The November 18 “General Assembly” meeting (previously summarized here) was even more chaotic. By the end it descended into anarchy, setting the stage for the encampment being left vacant yesterday. As recounted in my detailed notes (here), similar to what happened in “Occupy Richmond,” it took about 45 minutes for those attending the meeting, most of whom were suffering from hypothermia, to achieve a consensus that the meeting should be held inside where it was warm. Once inside, the Big Labor activists unveiled a proposal that they’d put together at a pre-meeting meeting two nights earlier — that the group should: (1) set a date certain for ending the encampment (either shortly before or shortly after Thanksgiving); and (2) decide on some sort of noteworthy event to coincide with decampment, such as declaring victory and having a big party, and holding a march, or moving some tents over to the business school to occupy it for a day, or something similar.
As in the November 14 meeting, a determined majority, led by the Big Labor activists, insisted on the two measures. Twice a majority voted for them. But a determined minority thwarted them, its members explaining that they didn’t join the movement to advance the short-term Big Labor interests which had been by then largely satisfied (in particular, the successful conclusion of a new contract for SEIU-represented Harvard custodians), or to make particular demands, but instead to occupy Harvard for the sake of occupying Harvard, and thereby calling attention to a variety of issues (just which ones they didn’t seem particularly focused on specifying). As before, when the Big Labor activists did not get their way they did not abide by the consensus process but instead made threats and ultimatums. These proved fruitless. Eventually several of the Big Labor activists walked out of the meeting, quitting the movement.
Before he left, one of the Big Labor activists, who — borrowing one of his frequent expressions, I call the “Do Stuff Guy” — made a suggestion which turns out to be the governing philosophy of “Occupy Harvard”: governance by anarchy. He didn’t see any point in further debate or voting on the direction of the movement. He suggested that people should just do what they want to do, camp if they want to camp, demonstrate if they want to demonstrate, etc., and as to this suggestion — perhaps in part because everyone was so exhausted by the marathon debate, which was obviously fruitless — he was received with widespread expressions of support. However, some people responded with what I regarded as an excellent point: that given the immense strain of trying to occupy the site during cold weather and the limited base of support the movement currently has, such an undisciplined, anarchic approach would inevitably mean that the encampment will fizzle out without any definite decision to end the encampment, and without the occupation ending on the movement’s own terms, so that ultimately it would be viewed as a failure.
That’s exactly what I saw yesterday afternoon in the middle of the afternoon, when “Occupy Harvard” was left vacant. This is what anarchy looks like.