Errico Malatesta was something of an anarchist super star, if such a thing is not self contradictory. Toward the end of his life, he was so popular he could draw crowds in the tens of thousands to hear him speak.
His political career started early, as a boy he was arrested for writing an “insolent and threatening” letter to Italian King Victor Emmanuel II. Many nations would look unfavorably at Malatesta, he was forced to leave Italy, he was blocked from entering Syria and Turkey, he was expelled from Switzerland. He also opposed syndicalism because he believed it created an elite class of trades people. He would spend ten years of his life in prison.
But it is his ideas and not his personal history which i find especially compelling. One of the many compelling points in his short book “Anarchy” was:
Anarchy literally means “without government”. It has taken on the common secondary meaning of “disorder and confusion” only because people have been conditioned to believe that the abolition of government is impossible. In the days when people believed that the abolition of monarchy was impossible, the word “republic” carried a similar meaning to “anarchy” today.
I find it fascinating that the people who control language choose a second meaning for the name of the style of government/self rule that they were afraid of with chaos and disorder, both for Republic a hundred years ago and for Anarchy today.
30 years ago i went to the Arcosanti community in the dessert of Arizona. When i was younger i was fascinated by the dense building ideas of Paolo Solari who was the original designer of this extraordinary community. When i was on the tour, someone kept explaining to our guide how this type of venture was impossible and would not work, they described all the businesses that they personally needed and how they could not see them there. A blindness i would consider a failure of imagination.
Most people can not imagine work environments without bosses and hierarchy. This failure of imagination leads them to think that these things are not possible. And everyday i am at Acorn i am amazed, pleased and impressed by the business which we run that has no managers or bosses, dynamically determines much of the work which needs to be done and still comfortably succeeds in supporting the community.
There are dozens of answers to the question “Who will build the roads?” The fact that some people can’t visualize how this would be done, does not mean it can not be done, it often just means that people have poor imaginations or are wedded to the status quo.
I breezed into commie clothes and got a funny t-shirt which i barely read. After walking around in it for half an hour and a couple of people saying, “are you wearing that to the wedding?” i decided i should go back to commie and upgrade my attire. On my return trip i found a nice embroidered lightweight shirt, which was praised by several people after i emerged with it on.
The next day i walked into the Acorn smoke shack and guest Johnny said, “Oh i like that shirt,” to which i replied, “Would you wear it?” to which he unhesitatingly shot back, “yes!”. I immediately pulled the shirt over my head and handed it to him. He stripped his shirt off before a slightly shocked new visitor and put the embroidered one right on. The total length of our exchange was less than 2 minutes. I walked off wearing his simple green t-shirt.
The pitch i made to the PBS reporter who was just here is we basically have two choices: we can learn to share things, be generous and cooperate, OR we can continue to be selfish, possessive, and untrusting. In the latter case, the world dies. Let’s practice giving stuff away in a big way.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
I am quite sensitive about comparing Twin Oaks to Acorn. It is perhaps like trying to compare great books. There is so much done right, does it really make sense to focus on the downsides? And i firmly believe that propagandists (like myself) should be vocal critics, trying to make the ideas and experiments they are advancing be better.
So it is with some trepidation that i compare the different systems my two communities use for dealing with problems between members or between a member and the rest of the community. In theory, both approaches look quite reasonable.
At Twin Oaks, one part of the system we use is a technique called the Feedback system. Someone does something outside our agreements (they don’t make their labor quota for a long time, they spend more money than the community provides – creating a debt to the community, or they have other problematic behaviors) and they get a feedback called on them. If someone is in a conflict with another member, there are a number of things which are supposed to be done before a feedback is called, including mediated face-to-face conversations between the people who are in conflict. If this mediation goes poorly, a member can call a feedback on another member and if 10 members agree it is appropriate (by signing the proposal to call a feedback) then the feedback is launched. If things are really bad, the feedback can be the entry way to an expulsion process. But this is quite rare actually, perhaps happening less than every couple of years.
When a feedback is called, a date for the community to meet with the individual is set. A facilitator is selected, if the focus person wants they can also have an advocate. The facilitator of the feedback is clear that we are trying to create a safe space for people to express their views and concerns. Usually, there is some mix of appreciation and critique of the person who has had the feedback called on them. Their friends and supporters will often come to make sure they know that their are positive voices in the course of the community. Usually the conversation is dominated by different members perceptions about what the problems with the focus person are and in some cases constructive feedback on how to address them.
When we coach people on how to handle feedbacks, it is generally about how to manage their defensiveness. When someone gives you a critical observation, almost all of us jump to what is wrong about the critique. This is exactly the wrong way to respond at a feedback. Instead, you start by validating the part of the expressed concern which feels genuinely true to you. You reflect back, ideally summarizing and using different language, so that the person with concerns feels heard. And it is important to say how you disagree (if you do) but not in a charged and defensive way.
After listening to the concerns, there is a “Next Steps” portion of the feedback, in which the community investigates if there is something which needs to happen next. Are we done with this issue? Do we need a behavior contract with consequences if the problematic behavior repeats? Do we think the problem is so big that we need to start the process of expelling this person?
At first glance this seems complete reasonable, especially in a one-on-one conflict there is lots of mediated conversation before the problem comes to the entire group. And this is another one of those cases where completely reasonable is not quite as it appears.
Alternatively, Acorn uses our clearness process to deal with these types of problems. One important difference is that the clearness process is not an extraordinary process, it is the same process which is used by every member at least twice every year. The other central difference between a clearness and a feedback is that the clearness requires one on one conversations with every member of the community. After these conversations are finished there is a group clearness, which appears at first glance would be of the same form as the Twin Oaks feedback, but it is not really. Typically, in the Acorn approach the inner personal heavy lifting is done during these one on one conversations and the group event is summarizing the set of (generally successful) conversations so everyone can get an overview of concerns and solutions. It is important to note that this format is much more accessible at Acorn (which has a population of 30) than at Twin Oaks with it’s 93 adult members.
This process can also be used in an emergency, as with me recently where i was inviting guests in a way that made people feel run over. Plus i had the misfortune of co-hosting Nero who set Acorn at fire. It was not time for me to do one of my regular clearnesses, so we put together one that was principally focused on this particular problem. I talked with everyone and other issues came up and even before we had the group clearness at the end, i was already feeling quite good about the groups response to my mistakes and feeling like the resolutions we were coming to would work for everyone.
From my perspective there are three critical differences here, all of which make the Acorn system generally preferable. The first is that these clearnesses are part of regular life and membership at Acorn. You don’t need to be messed up to have a clearness, though if you do mess up, it is a familiar tool for helping to decode that. The second is that everyone is involved in a one-on-one conversation before the big group meeting. These can be facilitated, work i have done and enjoyed at Acorn. Finally, the consensus underpinning of the Acorn system means members are seeking solutions which work for everyone.
“Your organizing style exhausts me,” GPaul complained, and my occasionally defensive nature did not put up a struggle. Even for me this event felt a bit like a bridge too far.
NYC proved intoxicating with its density and rapid possibilities. In February, we had announced a discussion of the income sharing communities in Virginia and the new Point A project. We announced it less than a week before the event, which was on a Tuesday night, and we did not even have a venue until 3 days before the event. Still 65 people came (Facebook predicted 60). Some powerful alliances were made. At first GPaul and i thought these new connections had been more fortunate for our friends at Catalyst Community and other community/ecovillage projects which had participated in the event than they had been for us. But we were wrong.
Elena and Beatrice and Teagan and Arrow and Andrew and Jaimi from the venue we presented at, the BUZ, all were huge helps especially in networking. And in the face of this support i convinced GPaul that we should immediately turn around and do it again in March, only bigger.
This time we would announce it two weeks in advance, we would run a Friday night program of Transparency Tools by Marta and Roberto, and then 6 hours of content midday on Saturday. Internally, we referred to this as a “mini communities conference”. At the time we announced we had 6 workshops and a panel discussion on the schedule. We also only had one confirmed presenter. And since all the content was either urban or NYC specific, unlike the February event, neither GPaul nor i could facilitate the material which we had proposed.
Then NYC decided we were interesting. Three days after we announced the event nearly 100 RSVPs plus 40 maybes on Facebook were telling us they were coming. What if they all come? What if more people than this come, because there is more promotion coming and it is still 10 days away? i started seeking more content, for an event that did not have a stable group of confirmed presenters for the initial proposal. We added a Bridges to Burners workshop and one on the Lessons from Occupy as it relates to intentional community.
“Do you have a lot of money?” started one person who i was directed to as a presenter on gentrification. When i confessed that we did not, they told me that there was nothing which could be done on gentrification without it. i realized that this person was failing as an activist. When you finish your conversation with an activist you feel like there is something that you can do to make the situation better. Dis-empowering messages are the purview of policy analysts and wonks. At the least, activists have stuff they want to try. Gentrification was especially vexing because i did not have any useful experience with it and we had no direct contacts to people working the issue. I was already feeling the crash of the NYC opiate high.
Fortunately, former Twin Oaks and Acorn visitor Eman agreed to present on gentrification and multiculturalism. She simply laughed at the notion that without money we were helpless to change things. Eman is an amazing story in herself. A long time NYC community organizer and fundraiser, she has lost both her legs in the past year to a blood clotting disorder. She agreed to give the “solutions half” of the popular workshop. To get her to these workshops required me carrying her up the several flights of stairs of this non ADA compliant venue.
A week before the event Facebook was saying that we had 125 participants confirmed and almost 100 maybes. I went and did a walk through of the space and then relaxed a bit. There were additional rooms for workshops and BUZ organizer Jaimi would give up his personal room as a child care space or spare workshop space. Even if we had 175 people, we were going to have enough space for 5 concurrent good sized workshops.
It is easy for me to write up workshop descriptions and put them up on a website. It is another thing to fill the 15 odd slots on for panel discussions and workshop facilitators with knowledgeable people who present reasonably well. And then there is this little thing that i am terribly disorganized.
At the initial panel discussion, Andrew, who was working sound, asked “How many chairs and mics should we set up?” and i realized i did not know the answer to the question. One speaker had confirmed, two were maybes and several others had not responded to my inquiries. And then some people who i invited surprised me and showed up to present. In the end, five very different and quite engaging people presented.
The audience (and organizers) loved their stories. These included avoiding unrelated persons occupancy restrictions by appearing to be a family. The way the authorities determine this is if you have all your toothbrushes in the bathroom and no interior locks between bedrooms.
I have never done crack. Thirty years ago when i tried cocaine and it did not have much of an effect. My girlfriend at the time posited:
You are coke are redundant. You already have a huge ego. You already think you are unstoppable. You are already arrogant and pushy and in a huge rush.
This observation perhaps saved me from an expensive habit. But the analogy with NYC lingers. NYC comes on powerfully. It gives you the illusion you can do anything. It changes your internal clock and everything starts to go faster. And then it dumps you out the other side, often not gently.
Only 80 people came to the final event (not counting the 25 who came to Transparency Tools the night before, which was the perfect size). We lost a couple hundred dollars. But despite this attendance let down, we were all pretty satisfied with the content. And we have new respect for this complex and occasionally deceptive city.
* Wikipedia article on the Reagan Administrations confession to the CIA trafficking crack and cocaine revealed after the Iran Contra Scandal.