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Inter Pares

Don’t mistake your group for society

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In Sum

Don’t get too caught up in trying to make your little activist group “inclusive,” “democratic,” or other qualities that we all want for society. Why? Because your group isn’t society.

Sure, we should all try to be the change we want to see in the world see: PRINCIPLE. We should also think hard about who we are, what we’re fighting for and why we’re fighting for it. We should mull over the future society we want and how we can best model it in the here and now. We should even read books about it. But no matter how much we get absorbed in thinking about society, we should never mistake our activist groups for society.

For example, we want society to be democratic, but our bands cannot be models of the sort of democracy we’re fighting for. Like families and rebel units, affinity groups aren’t models for how society should be. Even a well-functioning, happy group may have unelected leaders. Decisions may be taken without fully consulting all members — or even any members. These would be odious practices if extended to society as a whole, but can be perfectly acceptable in a small group, where formal mechanisms are unnecessary because all members share a basic level of trust.

We obviously don’t want society to be a place where everyone must fulfill their duty punctually and without complaint; we want real freedom, which is why turbo-capitalism is anathema to many of us. Yet to operate effectively, a small group may need to operate like an army battalion, or, more poetically, like the crew of a sailboat, with clear divisions of roles and responsibilities. And there may be dictators: while one or two people can’t usually do all the work, it may be that one or two people must make all the decisions, especially in the heat of action, so that things happen quickly.

If you’re in a group that works, at some point you may figure out the hidden interpersonal rules that enable the whole thing to crank along. Don’t be appalled when you do. Those rules probably have nothing to do with democratic principles or consensus, but are based on intuitive navigation of face-to-face relationships. Often, whoever has the most energy simply makes things happen, and ends up making most of the decisions. Even when the starting model is consensus, the formal consensus process often gets jettisoned and the active members simply coordinate informally to get it all done. Why not take a shortcut and skip the formal consensus step, period?

If your group was working well and then ceases to, could it be that you’ve complicated the decision making process through “openness,” and, to put it brutally, the wrong people have taken control?

HOW THE OPPOSITE IS EQUALLY TRUE: This is a case in which the opposite is often equally true, especially in larger groups! See almost any of the related principles.


Andy Bichlbaum (AKA Jacques Servin) got his start as an activist when, as a computer programmer, he inserted a swarm of kissing boys in a shoot-'em-up video game just before it shipped to store shelves, and found himself fired, famous, and hugely amused. Now, Andy helps run the Yes Lab for Creative Activism as part of his job as professor of subversion at New York University. Bichlbaum once flew down the Nile in a two-seater airplane, bringing a live goat to a remote Sudanese village as a hostess gift for a homecoming party. (The party was fun and the goat was insanely delicious.)


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