Cindy Milstein's Blog

Messy—This Is What Democracy Might Always Look Like . . . But It’s Worth It

If it seems challenging at times to slog through process in anarchist collectives, if it was challenging much of the time to remain patient and compassionate during general assemblies within Occupy (anywhere), none of that quite prepared me for the nerve-fraying, tear-producing, angst-inducing challenge of trying to apply horizontal, egalitarian decision making to my bio-family’s impending decision about my dad’s illness: put him in a ventilator-dependent facility (i.e., nursing home) or hospice. That is, to be precise, me trying to figure out how to apply a horizontal structure to what seems to require consensus — a life-or-death decision that impacts us all — given that I’m the one in my bio-family who, historically, everyone including my dad has looked to for decisions, help in coming to decisions, and/or a sense of safety when making decisions.

Herding cats seems like a breeze in comparison, scratches and all.

Fortunately, this evening in a phone call, one of my sisters and I ended up laughing so hard that we almost cried when she told me an anecdote about one part of this process in her day. My new (healthy) stance is to see this process/nonprocess/sheer chaos dialectic as a comedy of errors, in which we’re doing the best we can as a family and as human beings. Or healthier still, to view it as a Charlie Chaplin film. I loved his films dearly as a kid, and still do. When I was a teen, I used to help a film buff who possessed a huge collection of silent films to show Chaplin ones in particular, again and again, for free in a community room at my local public library. Process as pathos that evokes laughter for us tramps struggling for a better world, whether on the societal scale or in terms of how we treat each other as individuals.

We anarchists are a pretty confident bunch about our forms of politics, and not without good reason. Our pretty nifty bunch of ideals can, in fact, be pretty nifty when practiced by all sorts of people. As moments in occupations, strikes, takeovers, and neighborhood assemblies, among others, around the globe have demonstrated the past couple years in particular, face-to-face ways of self-organizing our lives actually works. Even if only for a time and in a certain place, it really works — on small and large scales. It not only works, it feels a whole hell of a lot better for everyone involved and creates far better approximations of communities.

So when a new situation arises that seems to necessitate extra care to be sure everyone gets to problem solve together, be heard and respected, and end up on the same page so we are ultimately A-OK with moving forward with a decision and implementing it, I “naturally” apply anarchist decision-making ethics, techniques, strategies, and processes. Most of us anarchists and like-minded autonomous types try to do this, I think; it’s one of those things we pride ourselves on doing and being able to do. After all, we spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about it. Writing and dreaming about it. Reading and doing skill shares about it. And just doing it, again and again, in most every project, from collective houses to collective spaces and so much more. Practice makes sorta perfect, right? Or if not perfect, at least a lot better at it than most.

So it is with utter humility, and more stress than I thought possible — and now, good humor as well — that I admit to defeat. Not failure, but defeat. Somehow or other, a process of sorts is arising — like matzoh, without leavening, but completely useful under pressure and even surprisingly good (at least I think so) — but it is almost in spite of my efforts rather than because of them. I feel like I dragged out a heavy toolbox crammed tight with anarcho-gadgets and gizmos, and one by one, had to throw them over my shoulder in despair. From theories of direct democracy a la Murray Bookchin (his 1970s’ period) and others, to all the experiments I’ve personally been involved in — ranging from anticapitalist spokes councils at mass mobilizations to the smaller space of the “public living room” of Station 40 in San Francisco, from the Free Society affinity group in Vermont to the decentralized Institute for Anarchist Studies, from anarchist cafes to now an anarchist(ic) archive, and a bunch of others — to inspiring practices I’ve read and heard about like those of the Zapatistas, I drew on every potential angle and idea to shape a process for this monumental family decision. First and foremost, that process had to (and still has to, I trust) involve letting my dad decide or at least consent if at all possible (legally he can’t, and medically, well, it’s still an open question). And still, after each try, I came back to: “Damn, that one didn’t work either! What gives? That was so effective when we used it during that window-display crisis for Black Sheep Books’ collective that threatened to tear us apart.”

At one of my lowest moments in this family crisis (so far, although I’m crossing my fingers it will be the lowest moment), a good friend who has family crises of her own advised, “A family is not a democracy.” She’s an anarchist, so she meant that as “direct” democracy; but I think she also meant it even in the representative democracy sense. My every empathetic effort at patiently crafting a consensual, inclusive, transparent process that might please everyone in my family — that is, meet everyone’s needs and desires — kept meeting with objection, resistance, or outright hostility. Directly democratic processes were seen as everything from too complex and time-consuming to alien and even suspect. A sister suggested I serve as our family’s “ballot box” and collect votes separately from each person — in the privacy of a phone call — and then go with the clear majority. Even that didn’t quite work.

Was a dictatorship of me really the only viable option? At various points, family members suggested just that — to my sheer horror. Maybe this is my anarchism speaking here, but politics aside, it’s no fun to have the “power” to singularly decide your parent’s fate. (Besides a host of ethical considerations, there’s also this imperfect human one, Who wants to later be blamed for sour and sad outcomes?)

Of course, at an earlier “lowest moment” a couple days before my wise friend’s counsel, I had resolutely promised myself to “step down” from my head-of-family role and trust in my other bio-family members to decide — convinced that it was healthier for everyone, and would actually facilitate a more inclusive process. That anarcho-tool, too, had to be tossed out, since it’s easier said than done to walk away from love.

Maybe I just have to learn the same lesson about directly democratic processes again and again, under what seems like one of the more trying circumstances. Perhaps trying circumstances are exactly when we learn these lessons. It’s not exactly hard to make decisions collectively when there really isn’t a pressing problem, and everyone is carefree and agreeable. And it’s far easier to make decisions within collectives or collections of people when there is a shared sense of underlying values and shared aspirations. Both within Occupy and now my bio-family, even if on different emotional registers, I’m experiencing that sensation of, “This is when democracy really matters.” That feeling goes hand in hand with, “And this is when it seems near-impossible.” Both are true. What is one to do, who is one to feel and act, within the space of this “unbridgeable chasm,” to quote a subtitle on a Bookchin book I never much liked.

That’s the lesson for me — yet again: We are none of us really good at self-governing. Sometimes, we’re downright horrible at it. And we’re also oddly good at it, when it comes down it. Because when there is nothing but us and that looming impossible decision, we figure out a way(s) to creatively problem solve, come at the dilemma and process from wholly novel angles, and decide — together. Even if that togetherness shreds some of our solidarity and forges alliances we never thought we’d make. Even if our decision is imperfect and somehow exactly the right choice given the conditions. Even if it’s a defeat that is also a bit of a victory, sparking feelings of being utterly alive and utterly damaged.

I’m not good at living on smooth surfaces. “Smoothness” feels like what capitalism and states, racism and heteronormativity, and so many other forms of unfreedom try to impose as a way of erasing us, destroying us. Yet rather than Bookchin’s chasms that can never meet, I tend toward thinking we should try to stumble into and through all the gaps we find, in this society not of our choosing that we’re born into. The gap that haunts me the most — that makes me darkly depressed at times, and buoyantly thrilled at others, and that always, always keeps me a revolutionary, even without revolutions — is that between “the world as it is” and “the world as it could and should be.”

Tonight I’m feeling hopeful about my bio-family’s ability to make a decision. For all the process I tried to devise, for all the process suggestions from sister’s I then tried to implement instead, for all the defeats, what seems to be the “tool” allowing for problem solving is maybe what I overlooked to begin with. Not the tools in any toolbox per se, but rather the hands that voluntarily reached out to try to find tools and use them humanely: us.

I’m not much for telephones, but I’ve spent more time on my phone than perhaps ever in my life, and in those way-too-many hours of disembodied conversations, our “process” has become about listening, really listening, so that we can hear. So that we are hearing. The acting and decision making seems, somehow, to be materializing from that space of listening/hearing.

Those phone calls haven’t been easy; they still aren’t. Tonight, my parents’ longtime family doctor agreed to call my mom for me, to have a “straight talk” about the two bad options that she hasn’t been able to even listen to, much less hear. I’ve tried a bunch. Recently, it struck me that she might have an easier time listening to him. He’s already spoken with me a lot on the phone, in what “reads” as a gruff, brisk manner. He gave me his cell phone number and doesn’t have voicemail, so every time I call him, I am interrupting his workday or his weekend, and his gruff, brisk manner seems all that much harder — particularly for someone like me who is usually not gruff or brisk, and hates telephoning people I don’t know super well. This past weekend, I finally asked him over the phone, “This feels awkward to ask, but do you need us to pay you for all your time?” (When my dad first came down with severe West Nile, this doctor asked me if he could come to my parents’ home, twice, to visit with me and my mom — the start of his help.) “Absolutely not! Your parents are special to me, like friends or family. This is why I’m a doctor. I want to be there with you, to work through this.” He told my mom the same thing tonight, though without the money conversation. Just that he cared for her as a friend and family, and wanted the best life (or death) for my dad, also his friend and family. He and I have suddenly become facilitation partners with my other family members who inexplicably stepping up voluntarily as active, strong participants in a family process that’s pretty damned unclear, but seems to be working at last.

The hundreds of hours of phone conversations between me, that doctor, others doctors and nurses and hospital folks, my sisters, my cousins, my mom, and close family friends have felt to me like a ball of yarn, so tangled and confused that I can’t tell whether we’re unraveling or rewinding it. And now, suddenly, it’s turned into a comforting scarf on this cold wintery  night. It’s become a process. I don’t know how to describe that process, or what decision it will lead us to. It’s less about bylaws or principles, or structures we’ve agreed to; it’s about coming increasingly to understandings, based on who each person is, what they can and can’t handle, what each of our needs and desires are, and how those all somehow weave together and also never will. It’s a mess (to hark back to my word of last year), and it’s wholly about love (my new word for this year, and one that I need to start using even more regularly, just for good measure), and it’s probably what direct democracy will look like, whether formal or informal, or a mix of both. Mostly, it’s only as good as the goodness, imperfect as it always will be, within us as we struggle to make sense of collective conundrums.

But it’s worth it. We’re worth it.

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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, Share, enjoy, and repost–as long as it’s free, as in “free beer” and “freedom.

(Photo: Graffiti, amended by a small poster, on a Montreal wall, summer 2012; snapshot by Cindy Milstein, taken on her phone used not as a phone but as a camera)

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