A story of a Greek Assembly

May 20th, 2011 by aragorn in General

Ever since I saw the Void Network give their presentation on the “Greek situation” I have wanted to seriously think, and put into practice, my understanding of what they meant by “an assembly”. Since I am in Greece now (updates of my Amsterdam trip will have to come later as I don’t want to lose my way regarding this topic) and have attended my first significant assembly I feel far more informed about what is possible to transfer from my Greek experience and from the several conversations I’ve had with different people on the composition of their model compared to what we do in the States.


Asocial @ vs the pigs at the Polytechnic: Photos by Insurgent Photo

Preliminary sidebar: What is broken in US meetings

I have taken a generally hostile stance towards meetings, particularly with people who have a different political center of gravity, for over a decade. I tend not to go to them, as I believe many others do also. This deep ambivalence towards “working with others” has a couple different sources.

One, multi-tendency meetings tend not to be about anything. This isn’t to slight the necessity of people sitting in a room together as part of their individual and group growth process but in terms of actually getting anything done, it tends to happen intra-tendency not inter. A harsh example is to discuss the summer 2010 attempt at an assembly in the Bay. This was an incredible opportunity missed as it ended up being a general directionless gripe session rather than a place where people (outside of a few specific Statist Marxist types who were there) could articulate either general proposals or examples of the kind of work their particular tendency or affinity group believed was appropriate. Here is an excerpt from the call out that exemplifies the problem.

Although any actions that come out of this assembly will be on people’s own initiative – whether they do so alone, through small affinity groups, or in more formal meetings – we should all feel compelled to make a mark on the world we inhibit and not passively let history pass us by!

The intention here is fine. It implores something be done, puts the onus of that something on the participating groups, but leaves the action delightfully vague. Who is going to try to measure our groups initiative with the flow of history?

Two, multi-tendency meetings in the Bay Area (or any other US city) have a life-stealing/soul sucking tendency toward creating ridiculous Manichean mission statements that serve as statements of purpose and/or litmus tests for participation. Here is a particularly egregious example from the brand new call by UA in the Bay for an upcoming quarterly General Assembly.

We’re asking anyone who agrees with the following to attend:
– A rejection of all forms of hierarchy, including capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, colonialism and party based politics
– Organizing on a consensus based, non-hierarchical basis, that promotes autonomy, solidarity, and the agency of those most affected by each decision
– Embracing a diversity of tactics based on practicality, regardless of legality
– Working actively to build relationships and institutions that are based on equality, self determination, and sustainability

This is a laundry list of loaded terms that is, or should be, entirely unnecessary if your goal is to have, or to call for, an Anarchist General Assembly. At some point we either assume that we are dealing with units-of-active-agency (aka adults) and stop treating each other like children, or worse like people who can’t be trusted, or we just stop dealing with each other. I can tell you that even if I was in town this passive-aggressive checklist would make me seriously doubt that this event would be worth my time or would be capable of resulting in (meaningful, interesting, potential building) activity.

Three, multi-tendency meetings in the Bay Area have a proven track record of bringing out the worst kinds of behavior in people, this includes lack of respect, bad faith, general wingnuttery, and unending evil eyes. I, for one, don’t enjoy going into a room where it feels like everyone in the room hates each other, speaks entirely in (historically loaded) jargon, and can’t pull their heads out of their asses for long enough to accomplish more with more people than resentment and enmity. I have enough hate in my life dealing with people who absolutely hate the idea of anarchy to waste my time with my frenemies who will not actually work with me anyway due to misunderstandings and half-knowledge.

Four, multi-tendency groups tend to confuse friendship with politics. Especially in the Bay Area where the groups with the strongest political disagreements also do not socialize with each other (I often refer to the Bay as have 4-6 different anarchist scenes that do not talk to each other) this is a particularly thorny problem. We do not see eye to eye politically but we don’t really know that because we don’t really know each other. When we do experience each other it is in an atmosphere of hostility. This is a chicken-and-egg problem.

We begin: What I saw in Greece

This is a time of incredible tension in Athens. After the general strike on May 11th an anarchist comrade was hospitalized by an attack by the police (putting him into a coma by blunt force trauma to the head). In the days following the informal nationalist/fascists forces attacked immigrants (including a mass stabbing incident with over a dozen victims) and have made serious violent incursions into the public space (with a square next to long standing squat Villa Amalias being a particular target). At the same time some “asocial” anarchists attacked the Exarchia police station with molotovs to disasterous effect. The following day included an attack on the Skaramanga squat (which I happened to witness first hand and it was 1) terrifying and 2) intense for its political consequences) and then a mass arrest (the next day) of residents of the same squat.

To the extent to which there is a central body (which is in no way a central body) of anarchists that would even discuss the incredible week and series of events it is the Assembly of the Polytechnic. The Polytechnic is on the edge of Exarchia and, from what I’ve seen so far, the rumors of it are true. It (it is an architectural school) is a “free zone” from the police. It is the location from which young anarchists stage hit-and-run attacks against fascists and the police. It is a meeting space that is also a place of occupation. We cannot imagine such a place in the US today as nothing even a 1/4 of it has ever existed in my memory.

The Assembly met there on Wednesday night to analyze the events of the past week and to discuss what action makes the most sense to take as a result. The meeting went on for three hours with very few pauses (more on them later). The meeting was smoke filled, multi-generational (mean age: 30), packed by US standards (60 down to 40 by the end) but supposedly small by Greek standards, and totally respectful and productive (even when there were disagreements which there were a number of serious ones). This was a focused serious meeting about what to do in crisis.

Structurally it began with a person introducing the Assembly and then one person after another speaking. There was no structure to the event other than particularly long winded speakers being cut off for talking too long (and at least 8 people talked for 10+ minutes at a go). At the end of the event the proposals (that would be finalized next week) were fairly specific (orientation wise) and agreeable/disagreeable along lines that would cross most political lines. They were different plans along strategic, not ideological, lines.

We end for now: Conclusions

Before we end a note on the interruptions of the Assembly. The day of the Assembly also happened to be the day of student elections at the Polytechnic (which, remember is a university). Traditionally (?!) the anarchists (some faction or another) attack these elections and… they did. Obviously I was inside a meeting room (and none of the @ in the room were involved) but it was clear that at least 4 bombs (bigger than M-80s smaller than a cluster bomb) were thrown, sticks (and helmets) were deployed and the area outside the meeting room (but inside the Polytechnic) was a standoff of mostly leftist (meaning Statist Communists) students in a paranoid stance against the anarchist interlopers of their election. Fucking crazy.

I will end this write up with a few cautious conclusions about what I have seen from Greece that I think is directly transferable to the American context.

1) Treat each other like adults. It makes a substantial difference in the attitude of the participation and, I believe, makes a long term difference. This means no lifestyle restrictions, no “stacks” or “vibe checks”, and freedom of expression of the participants (especially insofar as they demonstrate that they are doing as well as talking)

2) Leave labels and group identification at the door. While it is important to have participation of people from many concerned parties at your event it is not important for everyone to end every sentence with “class” this or “insurrection” that. It is also important that our rooms look more chromatic (and that doesn’t just mean red and green).

3) Our ideas can be communicated without jargon or loaded terms.

Cheers from Athens

8 Comments

  • Thanks for the report and suggestions. I am curious about how their assembly came to have a number of ‘proposals’ at the end of the session. Did you get a sense that folks brought proposals already prepared to the meeting or that the proposals were worked out there in the assembly? If a particular proposal was contentious (agreeable to some; disagreeable to others), did you notice a process by which the terms and content of the proposal were recorded for the next meeting? I ask for two reasons: 1) I have noticed a tendency for folks to think that proposals are best worked out in detail in small groups (committees) to be submitted to assemblies for consideration. this tends to turn the assemblies into rubber stamps and any debate is shut down by the committee folks with an almost moral accusation – ‘how dare you criticize all our hard work, etc’2) I have noticed that when something contentious comes up, there’s a lot of sketchy revision that goes on between meetings. eg folks saying ‘this is what we agreed at the last meeting’ – when it clearly wasn’t.

    I love your point about treating each other like adults. If I have to go through another infantilizing “ice breaker” at the beginning of a meeting, someone is going to suffer.

  • Amen to this essay. Meetings would be more bearable if people just treated each other like adults. This means not trying to control every minute of the process. This means listening to what other people are saying and not repeating things just because you like hearing yourself speak. This means leaving your ego at home. This means understanding that the meeting is not the place to fix your life, your personality problems, or, fix other people.

    Amen to speaking without jargon. This has always been my practice since becoming politically active 25 years ago. You should be able to communicate your ideas with jargon or giving things labels.

  • The underlying difference may be that they orient to action rather than identity in these meetings. This suggests they have something like a movement (a bund, a network of bunds) rather than a grouping of milieus.

    However, I’d question the adult-child distinction, in that children often have more active energy than contemporary adults. Also, it seems to me that we need to handle reflexivity (thinking about the constructedness of our own assumptions and their potential reproduction of dominant categories) at some point – there’s really no such thing as a jargon/supposition-free language, and the public/private divide worries me here. Latin American movements which are a few stages on from assemblies are addressing these issues through critical pedagogy and suchlike. Were there costs in terms of these issues being less central in Greece compared to America? For instance, what were the gender dynamics at the meetings like?

    Chuck’s comment seems a horrible performative contradiction: denouncing others for being uninclusive but then dictating a particular stance reliant on a rather naive separation of the psychological and the substantive: only the normal-conformist ‘adult’ type is welcome – uncontrolled but controlled… this discourse would seem to cause people to act in exactly the way he doesn’t want them to act (i.e. trying to control every aspect of the meeting to stop *others* from being egoist, using jargon, talking too long etc). It’s repeating the mistake of thinking the problem is about good people vs bad people, when it’s the dynamic or focus of the process which is the problem.

  • fitty: The proposals were being discussed throughout the assembly. I definitely had the impression that people came prepared with them… but that they morphed through discussion. My general sense is that the cultural imperative is to talk the problem through (to death) rather than use the kind of shaming or delegating I am more familiar with.

    anon: I apologize for the clumsy shorthand. I am not interested in children/adult separation in that way. Obviously I tried to shape it by using the term units-of-active-agency as my point is to say that all the prefigurative language (or rules as they are usually framed) in the world doesn’t change naughty (cough) peoples behavior. Instead I’d like to lead us to different ends by putting more trust in participants agency itself. But it is true that I am not striving for so-called “open meetings” were strangers are included. Why would I work with strangers anyway? And just to take that point one step further… strangers have to become “units-of-active-agency” first before I feel as though the same logic applies. This doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult step but one that should be articulated early in the process.

  • respectfully … the hell are “stacks” and “vibe checks”?

    Otherwise great article sir! I got a kick out of that bit about their student elections when you had to pick your jaw up off the floor.

    Also, totally agree with Chuck. Much as any social movement needs to be inclusive and patient with people in order to grow, I want to fork myself in the eye whenever I get trapped in a meeting that becomes some kind of damn group therapy session.

    Substance and goal-oriented action damnit!

  • I happened to show up at a pre-demo assembly on December 6th 2008 in Greece… what happened totally shattered my already relatively radical approach to meetings. Clouds of cigarette fumes, folks often barking at each other, all pissed off and angry…

    And then a riot ensued. And then another one. and then half of the city was covered with black smoke and chaos mostly everywhere in the country. Then we were the stars in the world news, outranking the stars themselves.

    Ah I just loved the smell of napalm burning civilization in the morning! Smelled like… freedom! ;)

    Anyways this anarchist assembly felt exactly like the big chaotic assembly at the beginning of the Iliad… which was in fact the only good part in the book. But what’s so great with people there is that quarrels are usually the starting point to truly organizing actions… something that’s pretty much alien to us, softy Westerners, where we actually end up injured and inhibited by internal or intersubjective conflicts.

    Enjoyed reading your perspective…

  • so i heard you went to another assembly and it was a shouting match? any further thoughts on this? did you make any further assemblies? jw, thanks!

  • I went to several other assemblies while I was in Athens… but I believe I know what you mean. It wasn’t a shouting match but a very long and turgid series of disagreements. Greece is a talking culture and 3-4 hour long weekly assemblies are expected. I am not sure the US will every replicate that. :-)