History lesson: In the mid-1920s Henry Ford had the car market sewn up. His Model Ts were everywhere. Thanks to automation and his clever anti-union action, the sale price was dropping year on year. Model T’s were also very reliable, and easy to fix.
What could his competitors do? They couldn’t offer cheaper or better. What they did was… create the appearance of change. They sold their cars with minor and cosmetic changes (to the shape of the windscreen, the doors etc). This meant that, unlike with the Model T, your neighbours could see that you could afford This Year’s Model.
In disturbing ways (1) the People’s Assembly is one of those inferior cars, full of cosmetic changes, but actually the same shoddy vehicle that will not get you where you want to be. And it will all end in congestion and some terrible smashes. (See here for some of the reasons why.)
I went to its first Manchester shindig. Ho hum. I hadn’t been planning to go to the sequel, but – for reasons too boring to list – I turned up. Still, I am not totally stupid. I carefully missed the opening plenary (2).
The first thing that happened was that I met someone I know slightly. He wanted me to meet the person who was “leading” a workshop. Now, this is going to sound petty, and I had already probably primed myself to take umbrage…. but… surely you don’t LEAD a workshop. You introduce it. You facilitate it. If you are being particularly pretentious you co-produce it or you curate it.
So, I declined the offer to be Taken To The Leader, and instead sat reading my Financial Times.
I mis-timed my arrival in my “workshop”. I turned up… too early, catching the end of the previous one. There were about 50 people in a room. They were “testifying” to each other, swapping horror stories about the impacts of this horrible government (not that the horrible government we had for 13 years before that was so wonderful). What struck me as bizarre and unhelpful was that everyone was still sat in rows. With a room that big, and only that many people it would have been the work of a minute to create either a circle or a U-shape. Then at least everyone could have seen each other. Yes, it’s a very little thing, but little things matter.
Worse than this, after the two people at the front had stopped people from continuing because time was short, one of them (the male)… then proceeded to (ab)use the role of chair/facilitator to tell the assembled throngs what HE thought they should be doing. And of course, a big part of this is Telling The Tories They Are Not Liked when they come to Manchester. Banners are a Good Thing. Apparently.
I ducked out to make a sanity-saving phone call.
I went back in for the next session on “the Economy.” I knew it would be bad, but… what an atrocious format. Had they put ANY thought into it at all?
What they COULD have said was
“Right. Thank you for coming to this session. We have an hour. Each of our four workshop facilitators is going to give their one minute “pitch” about what questions they want people in their workshop to tackle together. We’ve color coded the four workshops as yellow, blue, green and red. That’s what the colored bits of paper on all your chairs are. Between each of the four pitches you are going to turn to someone sat near you – next to you, in front of you or behind you – introduce yourself and come up with a something – whether it’s a question, a suggested book/film, whatever – that the people in that workshop might want to engage with. The papers will be given to each group at the outset, and can be used to spark conversation/get past dry patches. At the end of the four pitches we will go straight to workshops. The plan is to stay in those four workshops for the following 50 minutes, before we re-gather for a very quick share of ideas. All the ideas and plans will be captured and put on-line so those who cannot be here today have a sense of what we are on about. One last thing – if after ten minutes the workshop is not working for you, you can “shop” around, as in, go to a different workshop. However, if you go to another workshop, you must sit and listen for at least 5 minutes before you stick up your hand or try to say something in that session. We don’t want people just making the same rants at all four workshops. Right? First pitch. When sixty seconds are up, I will applaud, and the participants will all join me…” [and, after a minute and applause] “Right – you’ve got forty five seconds to intro yourself to someone, listen to their intro and write something on the right colour of paper…”
Nope, instead we were going to have five minutes from each of the four workshop leaders. So it would be AT LEAST twenty minutes of listening to people at the front of the room, saying nothing you didn’t already know, bar a few factoids that could more effectively be transmitted on a sheet of A4. Great way to get the creative and movement-building juices flowing, eh?
The Law of Two Feet was invoked.
The assembly line will foul up. It is like the inferior cars that have a couple of new cosmetic changes. The SWP-types (whether they are still Partying or not) who run things have realised that you have to be a little less tone-deaf these days. You have to have open mics at the outset, and the appearance of dialogue and the occasional shout out to campaigns that aren’t front groups (whatever did happen to Globalise Resistance, btw?). But at the end of the day, it all reverts to type – the Most Important Thing is that everyone comes along to the SHOUT AT THE TORIES Demonstration.
And here’s what else…
- There will be no real efforts at finding out what people in the room already know, are already doing
- There will be no real efforts to find out what people would like help with, and try to match them with other people.
- There will be no real efforts to think BEYOND the next big Emotathon (in this case, telling the Tories a very surprising fact that they don’t already know – that they are not universally loved beyond the Home Counties)
- There will be no real efforts at creating links between individuals and groups.
- There will be no understanding that information deficit models are wrong
- There will be no understanding of the (opportunity) costs of “sage on the stage.”
And in two years time, all this “People’s Assembly” stuff will be a distant memory. A few more recruits will have churned through the SWP or whatever other sects are fishing. Many other people will have been burnt/bored/exploited. And after the next election there will be a new coalition forming, of much the same people doing much the same things with a slightly rotated bunch of ego-fodder. And there will be no mention of or thought for all the people who are no longer around because they have been burnt out/made cynical by the short-sightedness, the facipulation and ego-foddering that has been going on. So it goes.
So, what will happen?
If there are any responses to this rant, the chances are that they will fall into one (or possibly two) of the following categories
a) “we are volunteers/doing our best/right(eous) [and therefore beyond reproach]”
b) “you are mentally unwell/grinding the same axe you always do/unpopular/shrill/a hypocrite/wrong/actually a secret Tory/anarchist/Labourite [and therefore can be ignored]”
c) “you weren’t there for the best bits, so what would you know”
d) “you don’t offer any positive ideas at all, just criticism [and therefore can be ignored]”
e) “some of your proposals have merit but cannot be implemented because we don’t have time to experiment/they would cost too much money/people are used to one way of doing things and so therefore a), b) and f)”
f) “we all need to fight the Common Enemy, the ConDems. You should direct your ire at them instead of attacking the Good Guys.”
I will then point out which of the six above you are using. You will double down with your insults. I will grow bored and terminate the “conversation”.
No-one will learn anything, but energy and time will be expended, and people will dig themselves deeper into pointless but comforting routines. A bit like the People’s Assembly itself. Oh, the irony.
- Let’s not drive the analogy too far, or else we will get to implying that there used to be a robust and functional “Model T” of political organising. Trot along now…
- Really, What Is The Fucking Point Of Plenaries? Has ANYONE ever said anything surprising or useful during one of them? Or is it, gasp, a way of meeting the ego needs of the “stars.”?