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Latest report from the plenary of the Cambridge University Law School

Manos (IMC Cambridge) | 25.01.2009 19:00 | University Occupations for Gaza | Education | Palestine | Cambridge

A quick report from the plenary discussion in the Cambridge occupation, Sunday 25 January 2009 evening.

The situation at the occupation of the Cambridge Law school has slightly changed from yesterday, Saturday. First, an agreement has been reached with the university authorities guaranteeing the free access to the political space. The day before activists were being turned away, unless they showed a valid university ID. This came to a head when students from the LSE occupation turned up and were nearly denied access. The new consensus, that emerged out of a threat of direct action to secure the doors, is that anyone can gain access if they sign in with some ID – the list of participants will only be given to the university in case of emergency (whatever that may mean).

Having just walked in it is difficult to understand exactly what has been happening politically today. It seems that the university has responded, but until I get a clue it is difficult to report on the essence of the debate. None the less an interesting political dynamic is emerging. I am sitting in a meeting of about 100 people, where is absolute silence aside from the person given their turn to speak by the facilitator. Original political tools have also been developed for the smooth(ish) running of the meeting: special hand gestures indicate and amendment (an “A” sign), a proposal (a “P” sign) and the usual consensus and technical points. Procedural issues seem to have also been discussed: should decisions be taken using consensus, majority and what majority (half or 90%). Other procedural discussions include how many votes each person has, and whether votes should be “spent” only for matters that are very close to their heart.

The current proposal discussed is whether there should a vote with only half, and whether there should be the possibility of a “block”. The proposal is that if there is a “block” the group should check whether there is at least a 90% consensus. The key argument is that if people are not given the opportunity to block, they will simply leave the group. Interestingly, the opposing point came from a “firm believer in democratic centralism” that considers that people should not throw their toys out of the game, for simply disagreeing. Such discussions put to shame the sham democracy of CUSU or the University Senate house – and is an example of direct democracy: tedious but effective and fulfilling. Did I say tedious? Yes, tedious, and dull.

The discussion was interrupted by the need to discuss and response to the university. It then turned out that the university officers had left, so that was that.

Finally a vote was taken and the decision was to first test consensus, and if there is not a clear consensus then take a vote. Simple majority then is used to make a decision. Interestingly only about 3-5 people argued for the 90% option. When their proposal was defeated they withdrew from the assembly, before the points of essence were discussed – namely the discussion on how to handle the University response. There was some ungraciousness when they left, as well as some call to keep order. Neither side shined, but the process continued.
A working group was then formed under strict guidelines to draft a response to the university – basically the university offered nothing new, but a series of bureaucratic excuses for why they cannot deal with the demands of the occupation. I will refrain from reporting anything until they come up with a statement.

Food is being prepared, and the discussion has moved to occupation rotas and organisational matters.

Manos (IMC Cambridge)


Hide the following 2 comments

The essential difference in VOLUNTARY groups

25.01.2009 21:51

Something we have to come to grips with. Involuntary groups can use "majority rule" forms of democracy. Voluntary groups can SOMETIMES use such rules also -- when there is great incentive to stick together that will outweigh for the losing side in any vote their concerns about the issue being voted upon.

In practice voluntary groups often have to use a decision making process closer to concensus (which has multiple different definitions anyway). The reason is very simple -- the losing side can't be compelled to actually work for what they don't believe in.

They can of course then be expelled (what usually happens in groups that try to use "democratic centralism").

The "toys" being taken away are the dissenters minds and bodies. Theirs, not yours to play with. You retain all of your own "toys".

BTW -- probably the best definition/defense of "democratic centralism" can be found in the handbook of The Farm Bureau (a rather right wing farm organization). Or at least it used to be in there. It should not really surprise that an organization completely opposite from the Communist Party would share this organizational ideology (they were organized at about the same time -- and "democratic centralism" was then in vogue for "serious" voluntary organizations).



26.01.2009 00:16

An interesting, encouraging and sensible development, because there are many times in life where 'majority rule' is actually counterproductive, and this could be one of them, given the occupiers have a range of authorites aligned against them waiting for them to slip up.

One cautionary note though.
I hope this system does not quash the individuals' right to sometimes do things on their own, especially if it can be justifed as being in the best interests of everyone else.