The General Assembly has become a familiar practice since the growth of Occupy Wall Street. Anarchistic and radically democratic organizing processes have a much longer history, though, including the Zapatistas, the Spanish student movement, and movements in the history of feminism. For WisCon members, a familiar feeling might have bubbled up in watching, reading about, or participating in Occupy: wasn't this a bit like what they did on Le Guin's Anarres, or in DuChamp's Free Zones? This panel will discuss the possible growth of a kind of democracy other than our current party-based political systems, using the ways it has been prefigured and imagined in feminist science fiction to help make sense of radical histories and futures.
Twitter Hash-Tag: Radical Democracy
The tweets have also been Storified.
Panelists: Alexis Lothian (moderator), Timmi Duchamp, Liz Henry, Andrea Hairston
Panelist Liz Henry also live-tweeted the panel, although she tragically did not use the designated hash tag. You can find her tweets at lizhenryHere's a link to Liz Henry's blog post
, including lots more details and references and insights.
note: The transcription is more complete for people who talk slowly (Timmi), and way less complete for people who talk faster (Alexis, sometimes Andrea). I hope I have recorded things as an accurate representation of the panel, but this is definitely not every word that was said on the panel!
Also, there are some political events/organizations that were mentioned that I have no idea wtf they were. These will be denoted with "?!", lol.
AL: Thank you all so much for coming. It’s early, I appreciate you coming to an intense and what I hope will be exciting and creative panel. I proposed it because I thought it would be amazing to have these three people talking about these things. That was my main goal. Imaging radical democracy and thinking of ways we can imagine politics – more than Republicans and Democrats. What could democrfacy be other than that? Political agencies, actions....what the histories are of these movements.
I want to ask some questions that will solicit conversation. Want to give panelists 40 minutes before questions. Would appreciate holding your questions until they’re opened up.
TD: Hi, in terms of this panel, I would say that for most of my adult life I’ve been torn between intellectual and writing activity and political activism of various types. Always with some group or other, not as a follower but getting involved in individual actions locally. I’ve tried to balance these two and in my writing, if any of you have read my fiction, I address social and political issues all the time. The Marq'ssan Cycle (series of books written by this panelist) as a result of my activism and thinking. Wanted to imagine how we would get to a better place where everyone can flourish. Took me 5 books to do that. I found in writing those books, to my surprise, not an end utopian result, but a process. The books told me that utopia is a process. It’s a political process involving working out problems, collective problems collectively with political dialogue. It is sort of interesting that those books in a way are a culmination of all the thinking I’ve been doing in my exp as an activist but led me to a diff place. I hadn’t realized that. I knew from the organizations that I worked with and my problems with them that my problems were hierarchal. That’s why I didn’t become a full member but just participated in actions, often direct actions. Also things like petition drives, like the ERA. That was disillusioning, the practice of it. Not the goal of carrying it out, but dealing with the National Organization for Women. Put me off that. After that I worked with NARAL, same thing. Very hierarchal and top-heavy. Those of us who did actual work...hired organizers treated like dirt by the board who did all the fundraising. The organization existed to serve the fundraisers. That could put a lot of people off activism. These kinds of experiences do. That’s a part of the whole problem in the US. Bad experiences create low expectations especially with social rollbacks over the last 30 years. Creates political apathy. Political apathy is a response, not just a state of ignoring the world, it’s a state of actual response. It’s not passive even though it looks like passivity. I think what’s important about science fiction is it gives us alternatives that we can’t imagine in the US even though our history is full of tens of thousands of experiments in collective communities. All around the world, all sorts of things going on, all sorts of collective groups. World Social Forum created to make a visible example in visible space of an alternative to DAVOS, the world economic forum. All these groups converge in South America. Puerto Alegre in 2001. Followed the WTO in Seattle, not accidental. At that point that we saw that imagining alternatives had to be outside of natural boundaries. I think the whole game has changed. It’s not just 9/11, it’s globalization. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself here, you can see what my interest is.
LH: I’m live-tweeting the panel! I want to talk about some of the activism and process that I’m involved in. I agree with everything said, startingly. Somewhat in my involvement with a hackerspace in San Francisco. Want to talk about anarchist hackerspace – processes and problems. Part of the problem and solution is in narrative structures. As I sometimes talk to journalists at techy conferences or journalist conferences, which I end up as a human diversity machine, I am talking to people who can’t tell the story of Occupy or WikiLeaks or any kind of revolution or anything hackery. They can’t tell a story, don’t know how to understand the story if there’s no hierarchy or leader or puppet master or hero. Riot Girl? The idea that you’re killing rockstars, refusing to become a rockstar, so many people within this many-centered movement refused to be rockstars. They want to make someone the saint, canonized someone because they want to arrest them. Even if they don’t want to arrest someone, they don’t believe that htings could happen that way. I love the Marq'ssan Cycle for teling that story, for telling stories with multiple POVs. Teaching people through telling a difficult story. Demanding the reader engage so deeply as to understand a difficult story. Teling journalists you cannot understand it unless you are with it. You must participate. You are actually sucked in. Want to leave it there and come back to it.
AH: So participatory democracy. Grew up with it in my household. Everybody was a race man or woman. You had to do something, to change, b/c the narrative out there was false. You had to change the narrative. Narrative technology that changes what we want/need. Grwew up with union organizaers, civil rights orgs....I was a scientist. I was a little slower to organizing b/c I was a dreamer but eventually dreams woven in. I dsappointed them, but I'll talk about that tomorrow night [presumably in her Guest of Honor speech]. What I realized was that for me, one who tells the story rules the world. Therefore, we all need to. WE all need to be agents of action, all need to be storytellers. All need to be agents of action in the story.
In the past in the 19th century, Iqbo women in Nigeria had participatory democratic meetings where women spoke. They’d be anarchic or not within any...they were ad hoc. British did not understand them. Women had women’s war. Other people in the region in Nigeria understood Women’s War. Women: Look, this shit sucks, it’s fucked up, your dick is limp. They performed poetry: get your goats out of my grass. Performance in front of the offenders. Poetry/singing/dancing until resolved. We’re all leaving now, taking the babies, you take care of children. Men try to take it back [whater offense they'd given], etc., then resolve.
British thought men didn’t have the women in control, and so they shot at the women. During women’s war, they’d come out with utensils. British shot at them because they thought they’d kill them. It was at the turn of the 20th century. After that, the British told them, "You have to act like Victorian women! You don’t have a say!" (Referencing women's war): Also, could do it naked. Women would strip, run around, do this stuff. The men would be like, "Oh no, they've taken their clothes off, it’s over." The British didn’t understand the conventions/terms. They [the Iqbo] were much more democratic than British. Way of balancing power/making sure all voices were heard. You knew if you did some crap, you might have to face this. Made you reconsider. Called chaotic anarchic process. Functioned beautifully for a long without problems until the intervention of the British who wanted to civilize these savages who didn’t understand. Asked where the chief was. They didn’t have chiefs. Why do we need one? Chiefs imposed on them, women were revolting against the chiefs. Try to tell everyone that story as often as I can. Use those images in my own writing. Current book dealing with one such woman who comes to America. I’m Andrea Hairston, I don’t think I said that (laughter). I write SF/F, I’m a professor, I marched with my mother to March on Washington when I was 11. She got me on the right track.
LH: I'm Liz Henry, WisCon 20 was my first WisCon. I have a lovely book put out by Aqueuduct Press. Feminist anarachist geography. Imaginary geography. Buy my book, it’s awesome!
AL: It says a lot about how much one has to say that intros has become the panel, which I’m happy about. I love WisCon because the conversations we have here are also conversations I have in academic work but they’re jargon and filled with references, and I really appreciate the way we have them here. Couple things I hope we can bring out. Narrative, and what narratives have power/what do we expect? What are ways something else can be imagine? Appreciated Andrea’s example [of the Iqbo] – this is not a new idea. Have existed for so long, actually colonialism empire that has tried to stamp them out. Really specific example, gives us something to work with/draw on. Both Timmi and Liz touched on examples, would you like to take collectivities and tease out how that works and what are some of the important elements of it?
LH: NoiseBridge, hackerspace in San Francisco. Own little movement (hacker spaces) situate them in early Internet culture, pre-web. Then through conference in Berlin every Christmas, CCCC, people there were like, we need to establish a physical space where we can do our stuff. About making things and computer hackery things. Started a Wiki hackerspaces. Popping up instances in different cities. Patterns in software, patterns – not rules or legal structures. Patterns or anti-patterns can lead to institutional structures that are quite flexible. That came from book on architecture that’s an amazing book.
AL: Liz has a essay that explains all this in the WisCon Chronicles.
LH: Oh yeah! This is not a coincidence! NoiseBridge started by people who pooled their money. Co-op but anarchist. One rule, inspired by Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: be excellent to each other. One rule. Leads to some very interesting meetings. Mostly works, has worked for 3 years. We’re one of the largest and radically inclusive hacker spaces. Right now we’re 5,0000 sq ft space in the mission in San Franciscoi between 17th and 18th (?!). Full of junk. Computer junk, electronics drunk, soddering irons, photography dark room, wood shop. Two classrooms. Attracted some revolutionary micologists. Shelves with plastic, people having a meeting who were growing mushrooms. People brewing/distilling. Sewing/crafting there. Acceptable project definition grew very quickly. Salting of the space with kitchen and sewing and things that were signifying....don’t have to prove you’re a computer hacker to come into this space. A lot of it is about do-orcracy. Let’s have a farm/business/etc. Trying to bring in some history of utopian history –
AUD: Louisa May Alcott – her father had a utopian farm/etc.
LH: I’m not a farmer but a lot of our fights...we have constant drama. I edited an issue of the WisCon Chronicles about internet drama. Danah Boyd paper about how people talk about drama. Specifically teenagers on Facebook and how drama has become gendered. It’s what girls do, trivial, gossipy, sort of bad. Dudes shouldn’t engage in drama. NoiseBridge has a public mailing list is drama. Someone used the kitchen…
AH: What do YOU mean by drama? You mean Melodrama.
LH: Everyone can see it (the drama). Complicated process sof a relationship in public. Not real but has some inauthenticity despite we’ve grown up mediated thorugh media. It seems natural to me that our relationships are played out in a public sphere. If you think about blog sheets and gossip, happening now. Happening when you’re 12. Happening at hackerpsace. 3-D printers. Launched a weather balloon into space. Main public face is us fighting about who to kick out and where the boundaries are. Always the process. How do we kick out the jerks? Everyone’s fighting, people doing weird guerilla actions that mock everything, making us look bad, shouldn’t you do something awesome? Meanwhile, people are homeless. We have a buzzer or you can read the Wiki and how to get in. Anybody can walk in, we’ll give a tour, you can use all tours. We had to kick out half of Occupy San Francisco. People in squats who had shelters or SROs don’t have access to running water/working kitchen. By making a space in which we’re trying to address one problem, we’re more revolutionary than we realized. Once you’re part of a revolution, you have to fix all the things. It’s very hard, very valuable it takes place in public, documenting what happens. Also really difficult and uncomfortable and don’t know when feds will come shut you down. Wanted to mention books, but can do that in next space.
AL: The drama, the fact that trying to make change is really tortorus, results in fighting and people hating each other, internet culture/drama. What wank and drama and melodrama do and why they might just not be....part of how we negotiate. We have to emerge from it. It does things that other kinds of more carefully planned politics don’t do. Even the most trivial fights can have ripples of effects that are really important to what a community does. Marq'ssan Cycle, learned more about it through reading that. And also through many other works of SF. Love that you brought that together, what you need to do in the hacker psace. How there are so many....that should not be dismissed. Why we should work that.
LH: All the Occupys ran into that. They had kitchens, and then suddenly people who were mentally ill, they had to embrace everything and was quite difficult.
AL: That was huge – the class division within Occupy. Have to look at it, not shy away.
TD: Little drops of water evaporate in dry atmosphere, need a human environment. Not just all of internal difficulties here but thes efforts are operating in a context in which we have vast problems. We have terrible collective problems and no collective solutions or collective process. These space (occupy, hacker, etc.) are besieged by that context. They can’t address them by themselves. That’s basically the problem. We sort of, what’s happening is more and more people are seeing the horizon of what’s possible but in this current environment, it’s very hard to ...you can hack out a space but you can’t put up walls, antithetical to what you want to do. Of course there’s the narrative. My own experiences were very limited experiences which sprang up in the context of doing activist things. You might not think of this as, well it is a radical democracy. My experience getting arrested during civil disob. My affinity group were a bunch of anarchists. This was in January 1990. But this started in November 1989. We were doing theatre, political theater on streets of Seattle. Someone tried to pick my pocket while I was down on the ground, it was raining, it was cold (laughing), there I was ....(inaudible t ome). One of my fellow activists caught the guy. Anyway, we were doing a series of protests and solidarity with the people of El Salvador. Massive protests, one of them shut down I-5. A lot of people were getting arrested. How to say this, okay, in response to the big crackdown in El Salvador in November 1989, priests were murdered. Experience of getting arrested was fabulous. Oceanic merging with the universe experiences. That’s why a lot of people get into civil disobedience. Part of a group, defying authority just by standing in a crosswalk or in a street, you know. We were all carted off in buses to be processed. We were in plastic handcuffs. A couple people decided they weren’t going to reveal their IDs so they couldn’t be processed. Cops went nuts. They made us sit there in this bus in the parking lot of the police station. They kept sending people higher up in the chain to harangue us. The longer it went on, the more ecstatic and experience it was because I realized they were really getting upset and they were going to have to negotiate to let us go because we were threatening if they didn’t release the 4 who wouldn’t reveal identities, that they’d have to arrest all of us. The police weren’t into mass arrest then. We were singing and talking. One of our members was a woman in her seventies and the handcuffs were really terrible for her, she had arthritis. We had to negotiate with cops to get her cuffs taken off. Then we went home and then we had meetings dealing with what we were going to do about our arrest. We were divided into trial groups. New city attorney determined to stamp out central American protestors, too many protestors, need to teach them a lesson. Decided to press charges and go for jail time and raelly each them a lesson. Of course, the court system was not happy with us. We refused to plea to one charge instead of two, we wouldn’t take their deals, we wanted trials. Boy was I glad to get a trial. One of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. We decided to defend ourselves, not just to not pay a lawyer, but for the experience. To make a statement about theway justice is administered in the United States. They put 18 of us in a group, 3 people had a public defender. One lawyer on the team to make objections and do procedural stuff. Judge saw us and learned 15 of us were [unable to parse this word, sorry], didn’t want anything to do with 15 citizen lawyers. On top of that, not enough room for us to sit at the defense table. Had public defenders at defense table, rest of us in the spectator seats. We’re the defendants and the spectators. Then the judge said you have to elect 2 represntatives to speak for you. I got to be one of them, but this wasn’t a fair thing to do. If you’re a defendant, you should be able to speak for yourself or have your own trial. We were being treated like a mass. I went into judge’s chambers, that was a kick, what the rules were going to be, etc. Then we went back and I sat with my fellow defendants. Every time I wanted to speak, I’d have to stand up and the jury was way up in the front and they were seeing this happening. Spatial arrangements and impositions were making a tremendous effect on them before I made my opening statement telling them why were sitting down in the street. So as it progressed, it turned out I was sort of this thorn in the flesh of the court system running smoothly. Judge...I wanted to call him sir instead of “your honor.” Didn’t want to disrespect him, but didn’t want to suggest he was an elevated creature ruling above us. Respectufl. Any time to identify myself, I would stand up and say, “Linda Duchamp” and then make my statement. By the time we got to the cops, it turned out...I worked out with the judge each of us could cross-examine the cop who had arrested us. The only way the cops could identify us was through the polaroid photographs taken of us. My photograph was standing there, 3 of us, laughing in the camera. One of the charges was that we were a threat to public safety. [laughter] It was a no-brainer how to go about demolishing the city’s case. The judge got so aggravated, and the jury loved it. I would come up through the gate and pass into the public space every time I spoke. It was a spectacle because I was in the audience and it made it clear that people who are on trial are passive objects, don’t have anything to do with the process. For me that was a breakthrough. I think of this as being an example of radical democracy, democratic practice. I was interacting with the jury and I was getting them to think about things, not only the case and what the US government was doing in El Salvador, but the way our system works. For me, because of where we are now, it’s that interface that’s so important. Between context we’re living in and what we’re trying to do.
LH: Interface, I was scribbling that! Utopian communities you’re making and the actual world with the legal system and etc. Always a very uncomfortable interface.
AL: Want to build on this. Story about dramatic reframing of political/judicial theater. Drama, narrative. All of us in some way artists/participants in culture. Think we can do some of that in performance, I like to make remix videos. Talk about art and radical democracy before questions.
AH: Dillusion. Can’t see what’s going on, think we live in the rules and they’re absolute and we think something wrong with anarchists rather than that’s what we need to be doing. What is the world we want and how to act toward it rather than how to keep in the process. Trying to get us to see what we can’t see – that’s a function of art. Some Latin saying, that art is to conceal. I say, art is to reveal – the point is to reveal what you can’t see. What you’ve taken for granted. Facism – trains run on time, etc. Really happy with etc. and anarchists are the problem. We have a really bad narrative for anarchy – chaos, etc. People don’t think ecosystem, biological diversity and sustainable power, but degradation and ruins. Those connections in our brains are fed by narratives. I'm a theater person – I love live theater, I don’t know what’s going to happen, even if you have a script. I know my blocking, audience comes in, audience makes me change. Every moment is alive. Feedback between me and the audience and other actors. Have to respond. All theater is to prepare you to be ready in the moment. That’s what anarchy is about. If you just follow blocking and your lines, that’s not going to work. What am I going to do that keeps me...the audience loves it when you solve the problem, in it for the live moment. Image of anarchy as negative melodrama. Good guys/bad guys. Victor Turner: Social drama is essential to humanity. I’m paraphrasing him. Have to have dramatic process in order to perform the meaning that you want. That’s what drama is. Struggle to have lived experience turn into meaning. That is a slow process. We’re stuck on things needing to be fast. Social drama takes time. Slow money, slow food, I think we need to have slow anarchy. Enough change to develop new processes/ideas. I really fear sometimes the people who don’t want to go through the process. Like, oh my god, it’s life! It’s the ecosystem to use the resources in a way that will listen to the different opinions. It really takes practice to listen to people who don’t agree with you. Really work with, what are they saying, not what do I think they’re saying? Something like Occupy/other movements. Have to learn how to do because ew’ve been in facism.
LH: Love that you’ve brought in theater, it’s lovely. Was thinking about Occupy Oakland, watching the general assembly streaming video, taking notes, someone would stand up to speak and people would tell stories or what was important to them. Sometimes it was wacky or repetitive, and I would just dismiss it. But then I'd pull back and say no, what should I be hearing? This is what's important to them right now.
Books. Books that I want to ... Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson (sp?). Exemplifies, takes anarchic process for granted. Aliens who have come in, hung out, anarchists of long standing, interesting. Direct Action by David Graeber (?) – uncomfortable meetings of activits trying to decide wtf to do. Documentation of wtf to do. Kind of like RaceFail. Inability to have difficult conversations about race and gender. Defensive reaction of freak the fuck out. That is actually one of us root crucial problems.
Kevin Carson, independent economic/political thinker. Resilient Communities, society after state capitialism. Libertarian. He’s more of an anarchist really. Huge book, with picture of guy with head up his own ass. Whole-brew industry, how industrial revolution can/will happen again. Factories in our houses. Fabricating technologies. Manufacture stuff on smaller/local scales. Footnotes everything, very long. Have to open your mind to have a long arc of thought. Quite interesting.
Also love marqassan cycle.
Illicit Passage – a book. Alice Nun (sp?). Feminist SF. She’s Tazmanian.
Science fiction of now is mid-apocalypse. Not writing post apocalypse, not first contact with aliens. The aliens are already here and they’re the 1%. They have so much power they’re not comprehensible. They’re our aliens. Tension as a part of ubiquitous surveillance. All of that is important in what science fiction is going to become.
TD: We haven’t had questions, let’s do that.
AL: Sorry for not leaving mor e time for questions. Couldn’t stop them from speaking! Love to hear questions from the audience.
AUD: I do fundraising for Dem Socialist political organization. Talk to people every day about socialism and democracy. Like theater in that every convo is totally unique. We have a myth in this country that democracy and capitalism go together, that they’re inseperable. We can see in outher countries that’s not true. Only industrialized country without socialized health care, our leaders are proud of that. Need to separate the capitialism from political system. Capitalism is a religion, you’re devout, we cannot exist without. Like the occupy movement has done. We believe 1% is totally in control. People who are oscialists still don’t get that we’re the 99% and we can control. The occupy movement doesn’t have focus, needs more structure, needs a superhero, really frustrating, talking to many people every day that still believe that they’re socialists and cpaitialism is the way we’re going to get out of it.
AH: Difference between capitalism and entrepreneurship. A lot of the economy is not in capitalism. We need to distinguish between the two. Idea of sharing the idea/etc. is changing the value of profit is the center of everything...can destroy the entire planet if you make a profit. Not the only way we can economically organize ourselves. Socialism, don’t know what to say. They’re separate. Planned communism not going to kill us. All these mythologies. People haven’t really read Marx. We waste 2/3 of food production. We could feed our entire country almost again with what we waste. Why is it called growth if we’re wasting so much? It’s marketing. They’re controlling the dialogue and putting their frame on it. Growth becomes 1% getting rich and wasting things. Why isn’t diversity and richness and fullness “growth?
LH: Utopian thinking and science fiction, deepening interconnectedness.
AH: Eco-Mind (book). She asked for help, how can we solve thes things. She asked people, how can we come up with things to do? Relationships. Things that can co-evolve. We shouldn’t waste resources, shouldn’t have to pay for cleanup, that should be their cost. Exactly what Occupy is about. Relational ecological results. If left to your own resources, you’ll waste/kill/etc., that’s just not true.
AL: Differences in opinions and etc., changing the narrative will bring it together.
AUD: Comment about journalism. Journalism, you said something about being within the process. Journalism seems to have a mindset that you have to be outside the process documenting what’s going on. It’s not really journalism, what we need are storytellers for this. Because the storytellers can be in the process but the mindset of a journalist kind of limits their ability to get into it. If you get too far into the process, people trash you.
TD: Journalists put into abox. If they stray outside of it, they’re no longer legitimate or credible. What questions they can ask/answer. False objectivity. They’re usually set up a false dichotomy, and they’re both unacceptable.
AL: Example of pennyred
Covering current political (?). From the UK, writes for the Independent. Extremely successful now. Modeling a different kind of activist journalism. Also subject to mysoginy/etc.
AUD: Reframing. Struggling with it myself...Couple hundred years ago, broadly speaking, in European and North American society, there was an aristocracy being created. Somebody could own land, peole on that land, etc. Could do what they wanted with that land. Now seems alien/obscure. How could people think that’s the way things had to be? How to see capitalism when you get the right to do something b/c you own it. What does ownership mean and who said you owned it? Seems like we’re at the start of trying to break that down.
AH: Degradation of the commons has been going on a long time. In Europe, assault on the commons and then imperialists saying that wehre commons aren’t owned. Who can own the air/water/etc.? You’re crazy/insane but now that’s the reverse. Trademark everything. Humanity has evolved by the commons is a hard idea to get across to people. We need to share and trade and work with the commons. It’s like public education. OMG, can we privatize everything? Hard to get people to review that. Smoking – no longer acceptable to smoke in restaurants/etc., need to move 25 feet away from a building. In this room, the air is all of us, no one person with a cigarette can ruin it. That idea was not easy. But migraine scents, people won’t do that. We as a group of people who have commons can do it. Not impossible. We can move quickly.What is fast? We can make these changes, don’t want to depress people. We have ramps, we didn’t use to have ramps. I’m going to be 60, we’ve seen so many. Watching a vid last night of Occupy. Wonderful to see all over the world images of people who have been changed by things I experienced, and changing other things. Felt the continuum. Didn’t feel despair I feel at home watching the news. Occupy, can go in the street and see. It’s hard but it worked (civil rights movement).
LH: Reminded me I have a whole really good book – Tales from The Freedom Plow – 6 authors. Stories of 52 women involved in civil rights movement in the South. Oral histories, took huge effort to take local activists and not just the famous ones. Had the same problems we’re talking about, so many unreliable narrators.
TD: I'd like to quote an unlikely source for parting words. Augustine of Hippo: Hope has two beautiful daughters, their names are Anger and Courage. Anger that things are the way they are, and Courage to make them the way they ought to be.