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News ::
Direct Democracy and the Global Justice Movement (english)
02 Sep 2002
Modified: 03 Sep 2002
People often ask what the so-called "anti-globalization" movement is actually for. The usual response is that we're for a lot of things, ranging from ecological sustainability to racial equality; but if there's one theme at the very center of the movement, which really sets it apart from social movements that have come before, it's its dedication to direct democracy.
It's one thing to shout "power to the people" or talk about giving ordinary people back control over their lives; quite another to think about what this actually might mean in practice-and if the history of the twentieth century has shown anything, it's that things can go disastrously wrong if you try to radically change society and just assume those problems will somehow take care of themselves. Any attempt to change society is going to have to begin by reinventing democracy.

That's what we're trying to do. Not just by talking about it, but by actually starting to create new democratic forms in the present.

Most Americans would probably agree that what's called "democracy" in this country is largely a sham. But this is not just because the system is completely controlled by money (though it certainly is: bribing politicians is, effectively, legal in the U.S. system - legislators openly admit their votes on key issues have been bought by corporate contributors); it is because the very structure of our government is not genuinely democratic. It was never meant to be. Thus, while over the last two hundred years we've seen a lot of advances, most of these have involved extending the benefits of the system-civil liberties, the right to vote-to segments of the population who had formerly been excluded; while this is obviously a good thing, and could certainly be said to make our society more democratic, it's not the the same as making the system itself more democratic. That is: we are still talking about the right to chose some politician to make decisions for us, rather than creating ways for people to make those decisions themselves.

This is why experimenting with direct democracy-showing that it really is possible-is so important to us. When the people who shut down the World Trade Organization in Seattle chanted "This is what Democracy Looks Like!" this wasn't just a figure of speech. The action itself was meant as a model of genuine democracy, the kind that could work without leaders or politicians. And one reason that anarchism has come to be seen as the real moral center of the globalization movement, in turn, is because anarchists have, over the years, put the most thought and effort into imagining how all this could work and to actually start doing it. Consensus process, spokescouncils, affinity groups... all these are terms which almost nobody outside the movement has actually heard of, because the corporate media never talks about them, but for many of us, they are the most important things we are doing here, even more important than confronting or exposing anti-democratic organizations like the World Trade Organization or IMF. They provide living proof that direct democracy can work - if human beings are capable of organizing a huge action of 40 or 50 thousand people under very difficult circumstances, without any kind of formal leadership or chain of command, in a way in which everyone has an equal say, then, why not a town or a city? Why not, ultimately, reorganize the world around these lines?

This pamphlet is meant to fill in a gap: to explain what we mean by direct democracy, how we go about organizing democratically; and some thoughts about how a truly democratic society might work.


Conservative writers often insist on this point. The founding fathers, they point, had almost nothing good to say about "democracy", by which they meant precisely what we'd now call "direct democracy": that is, communities get together and decide matters of common concern by joint discussion and voting, much as in ancient Athens or New England town councils. Like most ancient Greek philosophers (who were, like the founding fathers, mostly rich land- and slaveowners) they did not really like the idea of ordinary people managing their own affairs. They were especially afraid of majority rule, which they thought might lead to decisions against the interest of minorities - the particular minority they had in mind, in this case, being the rich. So they tried to create something less like Athens and more like the Roman Republic: a system which they hoped would combine the best elements of Monarchy (yes, the President was always meant to be a kind of king), aristocracy (the senate - it's no coincidence they're always rich guys and represent the interests of the rich, it was supposed to be that way), and democracy, in very limited measure (a congress to represent the people - mainly, it was a way to give them some say over the management of their tax money.) The key to the whole system was the notion of representation: that ordinary citizens should not be able to intervene directly in politics, or make decisions for themselves, but should instead chose others to make their decisions for them.

The conservatives overstate their case - James Madison and Sam Adams hated democracy, Thomas Jefferson was more favorably disposed - but they're basically right. We do not really live in a democracy. We live in a republic.

The difference is that unlike the conservatives, have a problem with that. We feel America should be a democracy. If the U.S. government is going to be sending representatives around the world preaching about the need for democracy, it might be nice if they actually practiced it. Of course there are good reasons they don't encourage this sort of thing. If government officials really did allow direct democracy, if they let ordinary people manage their own affairs, most of them would be very quickly out of a job. This wouldn't bother us, but it's pretty obvious why bureaucrats and politicians wouldn't like it very much.


So what would direct, rather than representative, democracy actually insist of? One thing to make clear right away is that we are not talking, here, about a system of referendums or plebiscites, where everyone in the country would get to vote on questions of public concern (should we legalize marijuana?, should we invade Iraq?) through their computer or cable TV or something. Some have suggested this would be more democratic than the
current system, and probably it would, but that's not saying very much. Voting "yes" or "no" on an issue may be more direct than voting for a politician to make the decisions for you, but it still reduces democracy to one moment of flipping a switch or pushing a button. True, this is what consumer culture is all about: in modern America, "freedom" comes to mean choice, it exists in that one millisecond where one decides between a Coke or a Pepsi, a box of Ajax or a box of Comet, a Democrat or a Republican, yes or no. And as any advertising executive could tell you, in cases like this, everything depends on how you package the product - which in the case of a referendum means, how you word the proposal. You can manipulate people into agreeing with almost anything if you phrase it right. So clearly, we want a system in which people are free to participate in the whole process, from start to finish, not just press a button at the end.

In U.S. democracy as currently practiced, advertising and marketing techniques intervene at almost every point (most of them were originally introduced into political life by disreputable figures like Hitler and Mussolini, but they have since become standard practice.) How could we free ourselves of this frightening legacy, to make politics not a matter of cynical manipulation but honest reflection? Well, first and foremost, it would mean bringing decision-making down to the smallest scale possible: block associations, workplaces, town meetings, going up to higher levels only when its truly unavoidable. It also means creating what might be called a culture of democracy where thoughtful deliberation on becomes an easy and natural part of daily life - the way it already is, ironically enough, in relatively free societies in other parts of the world. (One of the great ironies of our current system is that while Americans are proud of the fact they live in a democracy, few have much experience, if any, of participating in democratic decision making - in fact, they spend most of their lives following other people' orders - while someone living in a village in Indonesia or Brazil quite possibly might.) It would mean some profound changes in our way of life but we have every reason to believe they are possible because we have begun to create such institutions ourselves, in our own communities, and in the organization of our own actions.

Let's look for a moment at how this works:


What newcomers usually find the most surprising thing about the way we do democratic decision-making is that it doesn't, usually, involve majority voting. If votes are taken at all, it is usually as a last resort; and it rarely comes to that.
This might seem odd but it actually follows logically from our conception of democracy, which is very much bottom-up instead of top down. Ideally, all decisions should be made by those immediately concerned, without appeal to higher authorities, by coming to some kind of reasonable agreement with each other in way which encourages mutual respect and compromise. As a result, our idea of democratic practice often bears a closer resemblance to what goes on in many village assemblies in Southeast Asia or Latin America or even Amazonia than it does to, say, the U.S. Congress or French parliament. Outsiders often find it hard to see such community meetings in other societies as "democratic" at all because they almost never use majority voting to reach decisions either: they tend to rely instead on a principle usually referred to as "consensus", whereby decisions have to be agreed to by everyone immediately concerned. But if one thinks about it, this makes a great deal of sense too. These are usually popular assemblies, which are not passing laws which can then be enforced by armies or police. Since they can't force people to go along, they have to come up with something acceptable to everyone. When one holds a vote, however, one is in effect holding a contest. Even if one is not voting for candidates but for proposals, those proposals have advocates and opponents. Hence, some people will be winners, others loses. It is usually not very difficult to figure out what a majority of people want; it is much more difficult (in the absence of any means of physical compulsion) to find a way to convince everyone else to go along with it. Publicly declaring them losers is certainly not the best way to go about it. Consensus decision-making, then, tends to crop up wherever there is a situation of genuine equality, as a way of ensuring majority decisions are acceptable to everyone.
What our movement calls "consensus process" is one way of formalizing this very ancient form of decision-making, making it more efficient, but also, ensuring it is done on a basis of genuine equality and in such a way as to encourage individual initiative and creativity rather than ever being allowed to slip into deadening conformity, (which is what often happens in traditional communities.) The history of consensus is an interesting thing in itself: in the U.S., it seems to trace back originally to the Quakers, who in turn claim to have adopted it from Native American practice. Some civil rights and peace groups of the '50s and '60s used consensus decision-making, but much of the current interest emerged in the '70s, largely, in reaction to some of the more macho leadership styles typical of the '60s New Left. The feminist movement played the crucial role here. More elaborate forms of consensus decision-making, involving affinity groups, spokescouncils and the like, first emerged within anti-nuclear groups like the Clamshell Alliance in the '70s. These forms have proved so spectacularly effective in Seattle and elsewhere, that groups like the Direct Action Network (DAN), Anti-Capitalist Convergences (ACC), Global Action Networks, the Mobilization for Global Justice, and the like, all tend to see them as a crucial element of any model of what a better world would be like.
Here's how a meeting of such a group might work. Usually there are two facilitators, one male and one female (usually too someone volunteers to be time keeper, someone else, the scribe, who will later write up the meetings' minutes; and sometimes too a "vibes-watcher", who is in charge of monitoring the mood of the room, ensuring no one is being silenced or excluded, and so on) An agenda sheet is taped to the wall, or maybe on an easel; time allocated for report-backs, new business, ongoing business, educational, emergency announcements, and so on. None of this is dictated by facilitators but is decided collectively by the group. One key function of a facilitator is to keep things moving along, so as to ensure the meeting doesn't last hours and hours-a real danger because no one likes an endless boring meeting-ensuring that no one sounds off interminably about the meaning of life while at the same ensuring that everyone who has a comment which actually is relevant to the matters at hand gets to express it.
As for the actual mechanisms for reaching decisions:
Most coalitions like DAN, ACC, etc, are broken down into a number of different "working groups", all open to all comers; these can either be dedicated to handling ongoing needs (legal, finance, outreach, media...) or specific actions and campaigns. Working groups also operate by consensus, if usually more informally. During general meetings, such working groups - or sometimes outsiders or individuals - will present proposals for action of one sort or another. The facilitators will then open things for
discussion, first asking for clarifying questions to make sure everyone is precisely clear on what course of action is actually being proposed here. (If there are many questions, it is usual form to make a "stack" naming one person first, second, third speakers - to ensure no one dominates the conversation.) Next come "concerns" about the proposal: potential problems anyone might want to point out. If there are a lot of these, and it seems a majority thinks the proposal isn't such a great idea, it might simply tabled; if the objections are more specific, someone will usually suggest "friendly amendments", or the person making the proposal otherwise rework it until it reaches a more clearly acceptable form. (At certain points along the way, for instance if two mutually exclusive options are proposed, the facilitators might ask for a non binding straw poll, a show of hands, to see where majority opinion lies - but these polls are never final but always a step on the way.) At this point one can test for consensus, by asking whether there are any stand-asides, or any blocks. A stand-aside is when a participant states that while they personally do not support a proposal, or are not willing themselves to participate in a proposed
action, they do not wish to stop the group itself from doing so (stand-asides will then be asked if they want to explain why they feel this way); a block, however, is a veto. Anyone has to power to block consensus in this way and stop the proposal dead in its tracks. Obviously this is not something to be done lightly. The way it's often framed is that one should not block unless an issues is either so important to you that you would be willing to quit the organization because of it, or else, because you feel that the proposal is in violation of the group's fundamental principles. The relation between stand-asides and blocks is extremely important. The first assures that no one will ever be compelled to take part in an action they do not wish to-even by moral pressure, which we consider to be a violation of the spirit of human autonomy which is what our movement is all about. The second is among other things a way of resolving one of the greatest potential dangers of direct democracy, which its critics rarely fail to point out. All modern constitutions, it is often noted, contain certain fundamental protections such as freedom of speech which no majority can abridge and which are maintained by a separate judiciary which has the power to declare laws unconstitutional; this ensures there is a limit to the degree to which even overwhelming majorities can push minorities around. Direct democracy would seem to remove these protections. Blocking however ensures that it does not by turning over that same role, not to an elite body of judges, but in the most egalitarian fashion possible, to anyone who has the nerve to stand up against the majority will. Most people
who have actually practiced consensus decision-making find that rather than blocking happening too often, if anything, it doesn't happen enough.
All this is only the roughest sketch: consensus process has any number of other aspects, such as "popcorn" or "brainstorming sessions", in which all limits are temporarily lifted and people's imaginations given free reign; various sorts of "trainings" ; "fishbowls" where a few people are chosen to sit in the middle and debate to clarify points of division, and so on. Every group has their own, slightly different version of the process; there are endless variations of detail; even within groups it tends to change over time; consensus is better seen as a growing, even organic phenomena than a strict set of rules and regulations. There are also usually some situations when the process itself has to be limited, or even put aside entirely. Most groups have some provision for "modified
consensus"-when there is no time to deal with individual blockers in the normal way (for instance, by encouraging them to join the working group that originally made the proposal so as to see if they can come up with a way to formulate it that they would agree to), one can go to making decisions by 2/3 or 3/4 majority, or else, some formula like "consensus minus 2". DAN, for instance, has a way of challenging whether a block is truly "principled" (ie, rooted in the basic principles of the group): everyone but the blocker(s) can discuss the matter and if they come to unanimous consensus that it wasn't, the block is overridden. And so on. All this can be unwieldly: at true moments of crisis, one might also chose to forgo consensus entirely and fall back temporarily on a more efficient, if less democratic, form of decision-making (ie, while running down the
streets: "until the cops are off our backs, she'll be our leader!")


This gives a very rough idea of how consensus-based decision-making works; and hopefully, a glimpse of why those who work with it often find it so refreshing, different and exciting. This is even more so when decentralized decision-making is brought to the streets, in direct action. While direct action is (like direct democracy) constantly changing and evolving,
Actions are usually involve several months of preparatory work beforehand; different local chapters form working groups to prepare, these in turn usually create teams to handle media work, legal work, outreach, and so on. Scenario teams usually scout out the area beforehand to come up with ideas for possible actions. While there is never anyone directing operations during the action itself, no leadership or even marshalls, as in conventional demonstrations, sometimes there are teams of volunteers that fulfill necessary functions, such as tactics and communications. However, it is crucial that ultimately, decisions are never imposed; larger groups serve merely to coordinate, and an overall plan created through consensus process, all on-the-ground decisions should be made on the smallest level in which it is possible to do so, by those immediately concerned.
As a result the basic unit of organization during actions is the "affinity group" (a term originally coined by anarchists in '30s Spain). These are small groups of people united by something they consider important: shared political ideas, common origins, even faith or personal friendship. They can consist of anywhere between 5 and 15+ people, but should stay small enough everyone is able to know each other and make decisions as a group. Often they are made up of people who work together on
an ongoing basis during the rest of the year: a collective of one sort or another. Other times they just get together for a certain purpose. During an action, one member of each affinity group should have some medical training, another makes a point of avoiding arrest if at all possible so as to keep track of who's been arrested, who's unaccounted for, and so on; sometimes another member keeps track of supplies, or someone with a cell
phone to handle communications. Finally, one member at any time acts as the group's "spoke" in larger "spokescouncils," in which affinity groups coordinate their actions. Spokes have no decision-making power of their own; they merely serve to convey information, proposals, and ideas back and forth between groups that reach decisions by consensus, as described above.
These spokescouncils are, at their best, perhaps the most spectacular demonstrations of democracy in action, because they are can allow huge numbers of people to make decisions together without any sort of formal leadership. The best way to think about them is to imagine a giant wheel: each affinity group has it's "spoke", in the center, and the spokes sit around in a circle and discuss what to do, while all the time the other members of their affinity group are free to whisper and discuss, and provide guidance. Periodically, there are "breakouts" where the group can decide on their position; alternately, "breakouts" can involve forming entirely different groups to work out specific problems. And there are any number of other techniques.


The usual response to all of this is that it might be all well and good for small-scale decision-making, or even big one-time events like mass actions where everyone is revved up and excited; but what about the day to day management of town or city, let alone anything larger? One can hardly have face-to-face meetings consisting of the entire population of North America, or even New York City, let alone some system where any one American citizen would have the right to block any national decision..
A lot of these objections can be answered simply by emphasizing decentralization, but not all of them. With functioning local councils, one might be surprised how few decisions would have to be made on a larger scale, but obviously, some would have to be.
Probably the best way to start thinking this is to go back to first principles. In this case, one might say there are really two fundamental principles which form the basis for all radical democratic theory. These are:

1) if you are willing to put your time and energy into some project, then you ought to have some say in how that project is carried out
2) no one can do something that will have a profound impact on
someone else's life without clearing it with them first

If you take the first principle to its logical conclusion you usually end up with some notion of worker's control, or worker's self-management. And certainly this would have to be part of any democratic program: you can't really say you are a free man or woman when you spend most of your waking hours running around at someone else's beck and call. If you take the second to its logical conclusion, you end up with some notion of
"libertarian municipalism", in which everyone living in a given region has equal say over its resources and matters of common concern.
These principles are hardly mutually contradictory. If there's a chemical plant near a city, there's absolutely no reason why the inhabitants of that city should want to bother themselves voting over how many days vacation the workers there get (that would be up to the people who worked there); on the other hand, there's every reason why they might be interested in the plant's emission standards, or anything that might involve the chance of its blowing up. And this would be true no matter who claims to "own" the plant: the workers, the municipality, or anyone else.
The question then is how to articulate the two principles. Say we have a neighborhood served by a local hospital. The community owns the hospital, but they would obviously not be in charge of setting the qualification standards for surgeons; that would presumably be up to a professional organization of some sort; probably, one nation- or even world-wide in its membership, which consists of people who actually know how to tell if a would-be surgeon is qualified to cut into people. Since most people do not in fact work in factories, and this will continue to be the case even if we eliminate most useless paper-pushing jobs in offices and cut the working week down to some realistic length-perhaps the famous 4 hour day, 4 day week the IWW was pushing for at the turn of the century-such groups will probably end up being extremely important. Most
people will be part of at least one: plumbers guilds, train-workers collectives, associations for environmental engineers, musicians, caterers, or mathematicians.
A lot of the decisions now made by government bureaucrats could be made by such groups instead. To take some obvious examples: issues of controlling the spread of epidemics or dangerous parasites, or monitoring and controlling dangerous hydrocarbon emissions, are global problems and would need some kind of global organization. But this need not be done through governments if those with the requisite skill are self-organized, in their own, democratically organized associations. These are the people
doing the work so the naturally should have some say over the matter.
However, one would not want all matters involving science to be decided only by organizations of scientists any more than we would want all matters concerning one's pipes to be decided only by organizations of plumbers; these organizations could become quite high-handed anti-democratic unless they were balanced by some groups which can represent the public at large. And in matters of policy, it's a crucial principle that the opinions of "experts" should not be judged only by other "experts" but by the community at large; otherwise, "experts" tend to get arrogant and self-important and forget who it is they are supposed to be working for. And local councils can't do all of this.
Let's take a city as an example. People often ask how a huge megalopolis like New York could ever be managed democratically at all. Certainly the first step would be to realize New York is not one thing but a collection of neighborhoods; and to make sure that each neighborhood had its own public institutions - assembly halls, entertainment centers, parks and gardens and other community spaces - create their own communal life,
and manage their own affairs as much as possible on their own. But a series of local assemblies, and a series of unions or professional guilds, would not be able to handle everything: a transit workers guild could probably make most of the decisions regarding keeping the subway running, but if we were going to start talking about building an entirely new line, that would probably demand a much larger public consultation; similarly, with schools and teacher's unions.
Those who have experimented with direct democracy in the past have found that the most effective way of coordinating between popular assemblies has been to create some kind of federative system, with recallable delegates. One example is the "autonomous municipalities of Chiapas" established by the Zapatistas in Mexico - one of the great inspirations for the movement in the U.S. as well. Every township in Zapatista territory has its own popular assembly which meets once a week, but there are also regional councils with one delegates from each. These delegates however are not exactly representatives in the sense of being empowered to make decisions for their township; they are there simply to express the will of their community's will, and therefore if at any point the people of that community feel their will is no longer being truly
represented, they can instantly removed. Like spokes these delegates mostly just convey information and coordinate.
Of course the Zapatista system is fairly simple, since it is coordinates between a series of rural townships of roughly the same size. A huge city, or bioregion, let alone a worldwide system, would probably have to be much more complex, and probably incorporate more specialized roles (urban planners and the like. Here, the critical thing is that such people would not be in charge of making policies, but strictly in putting them
into place, or at best preparing advice to the assemblies that actually are. ). Still, there's absolutely no reason to imagine that it would be impossible to work such a system out. Why not? Human beings have worked out far more complicated and difficult problems, and ones where the pay off a genuinely free society, one in which one can actually live in some degree of trust and fellowship with one's neighbors rather than rivalry or fear, in which no one will ever be told "sorry, that's just the way it is because we say so and there's nothing you can do about it"... - was not nearly so great.

All of these are broad perspectives and don't even begin to raise the question of how we get there from here (do we participate in the electoral system, and say, run only candidates who have already signed their resignations and placed them in the hands of assemblies they are pledged to represent, or do we abandon the existing system entirely and start creating alternative ones in small free communities, hoping to see them ?) All these are open questions; we are at the very beginning of a long road here. But that doesn't mean a bleak road. Quite the opposite: perhaps the most important principle of this movement, even more basic than direct action or direct democracy - in fact, the thing which makes direct action and direct democracy so important to us to begin with - is that we want to start building a better world right now, and living the life we envision as much as possible within the present. You don't create a world of freedom, pleasure, and self-realization by becoming some mindless soldier willing to sacrifice everything (all freedom, pleasure and self-realization) to some final apocalyptic victory in the future: not only is this not going to work, it's morally disastrous, because no one in their right mind would want to live in the kind of world such joyless and unpleasant people would actually create. The most immediate task is to begin living like free men and women, according to principles of democracy and justice, to live like people ought to live, and thus set an example so compelling and powerful that others around the world will begin to adopt it themselves, until the creative energy behind our movement becomes utterly unstoppable.
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Summer School Assignment (english)
03 Sep 2002
OK class,

The poster above has failed Radical Politics 101, but I'll let her pass if she completes the following Summer School assignments:

1) Read Robert Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy" and then explain in 5,000,000 words or less how groovy love-filled consensus-run organizations can possibly avoid the creation of new elites in their own ranks when consensus process always allows for the predominance of an unelected, unaccountable leadership clique who rule by stifling debate, and squelching the emergence of genuine leaders through procedural and psychological bullying.

2) Travel to Borneo, observe the wonders of "village assemblies" ordering the deaths of numerous people as "witches," and ponder on whether a "small is beautiful" theory of a decentralized body politic might not always be such a great thing.

3) Explain how a consensus run process would function to the benefit of all parties in the following classic politcal dispute: At the weekly meeting of the Neighborhood Assembly of Patchouli, Vermont, Northeast Bioregion, Western Hemispheric Federation, Grand Non-Governmental Non-Unifying Non-Existent Non-Body, Earth, the Assembly Vibes Monitor notes unease from numerous free citizens about the fact that over the past week, drinking the water drawn from a nearby river into the Communal Water Unit has caused the excruitiating death of over 50 percent of the population. She asks that an immediate investigation into the matter be launched, and after the customary 5 days of careful discussion, and the death of another 25 percent of the population, it is discovered that it turns out that run-off from a factory upstream of Patchouli run by the Plutonium and Nerve Gas Workers Federation is the cause of the problem. The Assembly sends a delegation to the factory with customary entreties asking the Federation to agree to a consensus-building session at the meeting of the Northeast Bioregional Encuentro the next week, and to stop putting Plutonium and Nerve Gas into the river as an interim solution, and are told in no uncertain terms to "Fuck Off" by the Federation. The next day the Federation announces that it is changing its name to the White Sons of New Amerika and begins a scorched earth campaign of conquest against all its neighboring municipalities.

Extra Credit: If the student can find one single example of a group run by a consensus process in the same fashion that she described it above has ever, ever succeeded in running any significant economic enterprise or political forum--and did it for longer than one year without modifying their consensus process--then she gets an automatic "A" and people should consider taking her seriously. Note: any consensus-based projects at Oberlin, Antioch, Goddard, or the New College does not count.
typos corrected (english)
03 Sep 2002
Typos in previous comment corrected in NYC Indymedia version:
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