Anarchists Getting Ourselves Together
James Herod, March, 2007
Revised, April 2007
Written for the second founding meeting
of a proposed network of anarchists in the
Northeast, April 7-8, Amherst, Massachusetts
Northeast Network of Anarchist Groups
Purpose of the Network
To agitate for anarchy and against oppression as defined below in Part Two: Principles.
The Nature of the Network
This anarchist network consists of equal, democratic, autonomous groups which are connected by communication and decision-making procedures in the common purpose of agitating for anarchy.
Definition of a Group
A group must consist of at least two members. They must hold at least occasional, but preferably more frequent, face-to-face meetings. That is, two people who communicate solely by electronic means or via regular mail will not be considered a group for the purposes of this network. (Why? See (7) in the discussion below.)
Decision Making Procedures
Within Our Groups
We will use so-called consensus decision making procedures. These procedures will be written down and agreed upon. Decision making within our groups is based on face-to-face discussion. This is generally known as direct democracy or participatory democracy. Since majorities in these groups have no power (nor desire hopefully) to impose decisions on those in the group who do not agree with them, procedures must be adopted which ensure that the largest possible majority will be reached on any issue, and on securing the willingness of those who disagree to go along with the decision. Such procedures are generally known as 'consensus decision making' (a misnomer actually, see (8) in the discussion below). Decision making will never be given over to a decision-making elite, to elected officers, for example, or delegates, representatives, or spokespersons. Decision making remains on the local level, with local groups, always.
Amongst Our Groups
Decisions amongst our groups will be made in the following way:
Proposals that involve two or more groups will first be discussed and decided upon in the local groups, using the “consensus” process. Then an “agreement negotiator” from each group will be sent to a negotiating conference to hammer out any differences and prepare a general agreement, which will then be returned to local groups for ratification. This back and forth process will continue until all groups involved are satisfied with the decision. This technique is already in use all over the world on a regular basis in the process of negotiating treaties amongst various autonomous entities. It is cumbersome but necessary if direct democracy is to be preserved. There is no other way without reverting to simple majority rule and the tallying of votes by individuals, thus voiding the consensus process.
(a) Origin of Projects
Any individual in any group can float a proposal for a project, either within their own group, amongst several groups, or to the network at large. Those who are interested in the project, and feel they have time and resources to devote to it, will volunteer. All these volunteers will then meet to hammer out an agreement about how to do the project.
(b) Control of Projects
Projects, both local and regional, are controlled by those who are doing them and not by the network as a whole.
(c) The Nature of Projects
A project can be anything that helps establish anarchy. We include under the category of projects such things as:
-- agitation for the establishment of assemblies (work, home, neighborhood)
-- agitation to persuade small family businesses to convert to co-ops
-- agitation to persuade NGOs to convert to direct democracy
-- agitation to persuade small towns to convert to direct democracy
-- agitation to establish extended households and co-housing
-- solidarity work with worker-owned businesses
-- single-purpose campaigns (e.g., military recruitment, bio-labs)
-- campaigns on race, gender, sex, age, and species issues
-- campaigns against the exploitation of animals
-- defense of immigrant rights
-- tenant support projects
-- strike support projects
-- publications: pamphlets, flyers, broadsides, magazines, newspapers, videos
-- security work
-- indymedia work, dealing with mainstream media
-- prisoner support work
-- protest marches and rallies, solidarity demonstrations
-- website and email list maintenance
-- public lectures
-- book tabling, bookmobile, book fairs, infoshops
And so forth. Naturally, there will be debates over priorities.
Membership in Groups
Membership in the groups is left up to the individual groups themselves.
Affiliation with the Network
Initially, the groups present at the founding of the network are automatically affiliated. Subsequently, new groups can apply for affiliation and be admitted with the approval of all existing groups.
Expulsion from the Network
Any group can be expelled from the network through the unanimous rejection by all other groups.
What We Are For
(1) In general, we picture anarchy as a world full of autonomous communities, in which people control all aspects of their lives at all levels. This is sometimes called (rather awkwardly and even confusedly) a self-managed society. The core social forms through which our autonomy will find expression are directly democratic assemblies in our neighborhoods, in our projects (“workplaces”), and in our extended households. These will be the basic decision-making bodies under anarchy. This means that our new society (anarchy) will be horizontally organized, not hierarchically.
(2) We are committed to creating an ecologically sound and sustainable society. This implies, at the very minimum, the conversion to renewable energy sources. But, in general, this commitment affects practically everything we do – agriculture, transportation, housing, and so forth.
(3) We are committed to the principle of direct democracy. We reject and will campaign vigorously against representative government. By direct democracy we mean decision-making in assemblies through face-to-face discussion and deliberation, and an association of such assemblies built up through negotiated agreements, not through federation (or confederation) using delegates or spokespersons. (See (2) in the discussion below.)
(4) We are committed to “consensus” decision making. We reject the principle of simple majority rule (half plus one), in favor of decision-making procedures which achieve the greatest possible majority on any issue (usually called, inaccurately, consensus decision making – see (8) in the discussion below).
What We Are Against
(5) We fight for the abolition of capitalism, the state, and god, and for the establishment of a social order without wage-slavery, markets, money, commodities, classes, or war.
(6) We stand opposed to all forms of domination, discrimination, and oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, age (and any other personal attribute if irrelevant to the issue at hand). All persons are equal as to rights. In particular, we are opposed to patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, xenophobia, and ageism (especially the oppression of children by adults).
(7) We are opposed to the destruction of the environment and the abuse of animals.
(8) We reject national borders, and instead assert the right of all people to travel freely wherever they want.
(9) Organizations of anarchists cannot establish anarchy, they can only agitate for it in various ways. Thus we make a distinction between us anarchists organizing amongst ourselves as anarchists, for the purposes of agitation, and the social forms that will be needed to constitute anarchy. Organizations (or networks) of anarchists are still one step removed from anarchy itself. For anarchy itself, we will need social forms to enable us to self-management our social relations generally across society. These social forms can only be established by neighbors in their neighborhoods, workers in their workplaces, and residents in their households. Naturally, anarchists can play a role in this process, but only as neighbors, workers, and residents, not as members of an anarchist organization (except in their role as agitators).
(10) We assert that human beings are inter-subjective creatures, and that therefore the words "individual" and "society" misconstrue and inaccurately describe the reality of our situation and lives. This means, among other things, that there is no such thing as an "autonomous individual." Consequently, anarchy cannot be conceived as an aggregate of such individuals. It also means that "freedom" cannot be an attribute of an individual but only of a social order (that is, a pattern of social relations). Freedom (and even individuality) can only be a social achievement.
Further Explanations and Discussion
(1) The Meaning of the Term Network
The term network is vague. Nevertheless, we use it because it carries with it the connotation of horizontalism, rather than hierarchy. It is usually thought that a network consists of equal nodes, resting on a flat plane, which are connected. And so it is with this anarchist network, which consists of equal, democratic, autonomous groups which are connected by communication and decision-making procedures in the common purpose of agitating for anarchy and against oppression.
(2) Network not Federation
Most of the anarchist federations established recently consist of individuals or groups who agree to abide by the decisions of an annual or bi-annual regional assembly of members. This feature will not be characteristic of this network, the absence of which is what distinguishes it from a federation. This network does not use delegates, representatives, or spokespersons for decision making. Nor would a regional assembly, even if it were attended by every person in the network, have the power to make decisions that were binding on local groups (such decisions are made following different procedures, as explained above). The existence of such a regional decision-making body would rapidly lead to the idea that there is a superior, or higher, level of decision making than the local group. This is what we want to avoid. For this reason we would not condone such a regional decision-making body even it were attended by every individual in the network. In practice, of course, one hundred percent attendance is next to impossible to achieve. But this is not the main reason for rejecting regional decision-making assemblies. It’s because they remove power from local assemblies.
(3) Regional Gatherings
Members of the network may still, probably will, find it useful to meet periodically in regional gatherings. These gatherings could serve many purposes, like (a) simply getting better acquainted with other members of the network, (b) holding face-to-face discussions of the issues in larger groups which often can generate insights not forthcoming in discussions involving fewer people in the smaller groups, (c) conducting workshops, (d) listening to lectures by guest speakers, or (e) having fun together. The key point, however, is that these gatherings would not be decision making assemblies. They would not decide upon projects or anything else, although they could certainly propose projects, which would then be undertaken through normal procedures. They could also initiate any other kind of proposal, which would then be channeled through normal procedures.
(4) Group as Opposed to Collective
The word 'collective' is ugly and cumbersome. Moreover, it is unnecessary since it carries no meanings that are superior to the word 'group,' so we're just using a bigger clumsier word when a shorter nicer word would work even better. In fact, for those with a bit of history, the term collective carries bad connotations, connected as it was for seventy years with the authoritarian "collectives" of the Soviet Union. Even without that connection, however, the word seems to imply the superiority of the collective over the individual. For these reasons, we prefer the much simpler word 'group.'
(5) On Direct Democracy
This term has been widely used in recent years to refer to referendums and recalls, which is an unfortunate restriction and weakening of the concept, which originally referred to direct participatory democracy, as in a town meeting. We stick to the original meaning of the term.
(6) Negotiator, not Delegate, Representative, or Spokesperson
We use the term negotiator because this word describes more accurately what is going on. The three terms – representative, delegate, spokesperson -- are all unsatisfactory because they imply the relinquishing of decision-making power to these individuals. Many anarchists are in the habit of claiming that delegates hold no such power, because they are mandated and recallable. We deny this, seeing these concepts as mere illusions, in practice certainly. Actually, the term spokesperson is just a fancy term that has been invented recently as a euphemism for delegate. Negotiators are what we need, not delegates, representatives, or spokespersons.
(7) Groups not Individuals as Members
We insist that groups and not individuals make up the network because of our strong belief in participatory democracy. It is essential that issues be aired in face-to-face discussions involving real people, unmediated by remote communications technology. This is why we would not recognize as a group persons who are connected only by remote communication. If isolated individuals could join the network, their votes could be tallied, of course, but this would be polling, not direct, participatory democracy, which requires ‘consensus’ processes in assemblies of real people.
(8) Why We Say that Consensus Decision Making is Misnamed
When we say that consensus decision making is so-called consensus, or is a misnomer, or is inaccurately known as consensus, we mean that the word consensus means unanimity, and that although these procedures aim for that, as often as not they do not achieve it, because of the "stand-asides." So it is really just a way to try to get the largest possible majority on any given issue, hoping that unanimity will actually be reached. In practice, however, we’ve often seen facilitators declare a meeting "consensus" because all the objections had been dealt with and there were no blocks, even though there existed several "stand-asides." The stand-asides were being ignored (and hence the disagreement that they represented), and it was falsely being claimed that unanimity had been achieved. This is why we claim that the procedure has been misnamed. Unfortunately, the name is decades old, and firmly entrenched, and it’s hard to think of an alternative to it.
(9) Why using consensus decision making in local groups makes it impossible to tally votes across groups to get regional decisions.
The consensus process requires that objections to a proposal be taken into account, in the here and now, and the proposal modified accordingly, repeating this process until there are no more objections, and everyone agrees to the proposal as modified and modified, except "stand-asides." This can only be done in face-to-face meetings. It's hard to imagine it happening successfully via emails, or conference calls, or what have you. So even if every group in the network started out with the same proposal, by the time each group, working separately, reached consensus (overlooking stand-asides) the final agreed upon proposal in each group would undoubtedly be different. Therefore, a tally, by group, of the consensus would be meaningless, in all likelihood. This is why the negotiating procedure, as outline above, is necessary and unavoidable. There is no other way to get regional decisions, or even decisions by several groups, not the entire network.
(10) More Comments on Consensus Decision Making
There is an extensive literature on so-called consensus decision making. There is general agreement in this literature as to what it means, but there are nevertheless some variations. Plus there are some ambiguities remaining, particularly those surrounding the stand-asides. Are they required to help carry out the decision or not? Most manuals are simply silent on this question, or else are unclear. A few manuals claim that stand-asides are not obligated to help carry out the decision, and a few claim that they are. This is a pretty critical issue. If stand-asides will not participate in carrying out the decision then it means that we are back to extreme individualism in which people agree to abide by only those decisions that they agree with. It sort of renders pointless the whole process of deliberation and the reaching of agreements if those who disagree will not go along. It means they have not made a prior commitment to a decision making procedure. (I have discussed a conundrum of issues surrounding voting procedures in my short essay on “Majority Rule.”) The stand-aside and block features of consensus decision making are actually measures of the intensity of opposition. In my view, the stand-aside should mean “I disagree, and have registered my disagreement, but not strong enough not to go along and participate in carrying out the decision.” The block is a disagreement so intense that the person cannot go along with the decision at all. Plus, as it is usually practiced in consensus procedures, it has the power to stop the group from proceeding. (Some blocks can be overruled, however, but this is not normally remembered in half-trained groups).
No matter what version is selected the process works only if pretty much everyone is on board and has acquired some skill using it. Skilled people can make some beautiful, effective, and satisfying meetings, but half-assed consensus decision making usually results in really horrible meetings. We’d almost be better off using simple majority rule, or Robert's Rules of Order. Moreover, already many misconceptions of the technique are widespread in the movement, like the belief that it overcomes majority rule, that there is no voting, or that a block can be used by anyone under any circumstances. Nevertheless, this process, when properly done (and relabeled with a more accurate name), is superior is all respects to simple majority rule: it results in better decisions, achieves greater compliance with the decisions, builds solidarity, results in more effective actions and campaigns, and is consistent with direct democracy and anarchism. A first task of the network will be to hammer out a written agreement amongst groups about the decision making procedures to be followed (or at least recommended), that is, the version of so-called consensus decision making that will be used. This shouldn't be all that difficult. Four decades of work have gone into honing these procedures and there are many manuals. The next step will be to get some training and practice in using the procedures.
(11) Should There be a Mechanism to Veto Projects?
Should any project be able to be vetoed through the unanimous disapproval by all groups in the network. This would be a precautionary procedure only. It would probably never have to be used. It is conceivable, however, that scattered individuals amongst several groups could launch a very ill-advised project which violated the Principles and reflected badly on the network as a whole. Should there be a mechanism for blocking such projects? Obviously, these individuals could continue the project independently of the network. Their groups I suppose could consider expelling them. This would be our only enforcement mechanism. Such a procedure would contradict the principle that projects are controlled by those who are doing them and not by the network as a whole. And it would seem to go against anarchist principles in general.
(12) Historical and Theoretical Significance of this Proposed Structure
There may be many who do not see anything unusual about this proposal or perhaps do not have the background to see its significance. It might be useful therefore to spell it out. This proposal breaks with historical and theoretical practice in a revolutionary way. Traditionally, anarchists, and most other left radicals, have relied on simple majority rule, federated structures using delegates, and even the election or acceptance of leaders. This is true across the world. In the current uprising in Oaxaca, Mexico, for example, the Popular Assemblies use delegates and simple majority rule as a matter of course. There is also however a subterranean tradition of consensus decision making in many tribal and peasant cultures. And this exists too in Oaxaca side by side with the use of delegates and majority rule.
What happened in the United States, however, is that there emerged out of the New Left of the 1960s a movement to consciously and formally develop consensus decision making. (I’m not sure whether similar movements emerged in Europe and other parts of the world or not, but my impression is that this is pretty much a uniquely USA phenomenon – not consensus decision making per se, because that has been practiced for ages, but its formalization and widespread adoption by thousands of progressive organizations.) The impulse for this movement came from the intense anti-authoritarianism of the New Left, its passionate dedication to participatory democracy, and its disgust with Robert’s Rules of Order (which at the time were simply taken as a given to be the bible as to how meetings should be conducted). One thing we did in our meetings, for example, was to stop general discussion, if disagreement about an issue was particularly heated, and go around the room, person by person, to let everyone have an opportunity to express an opinion. (Much to my dismay, after a few years this very useful device degenerated into the mechanical ritual of going around the room at the beginning of a meeting -- not during intensely debated disputes -- asking each person to introduce themselves, often with just their name – a pretty pointless procedure and a rather serious waste of time, in my opinion). Anyway, I myself wrote an alternative to Robert’s Rules in 1976 for an employee association I was helping to establish. Unbeknownst to me, others were also working quietly and steadily on the problem throughout the seventies and eighties. The first manual appeared in the late eighties I think.
Well, so what? Here’s what. It enables us to put direct democracy into practice and thereby establish a society without hierarchy. If we adopt the proposed structure, with its attendant decision making procedures, we will have the very form and exactly the same practices that we will be using under anarchy. If we define anarchy as an association of democratic autonomous assemblies in neighborhoods, workplaces, and households, as I do, these are exactly the procedures that will be necessary to make it work. In fact, all associations, of whatever kind, of athletes, musicians, scientists, printers, electricians, households, workplaces, chess players, nurses, midwives, yoga instructors, could function in exactly this way: internally, within their groups, they would use consensus procedures; externally, amongst their groups on the regional (or wider) level, they would negotiate agreements. This is a cutting edge proposal.
(13) Alternative Names
North Atlantic Anarchist Association
North Atlantic Anarchist Network
Northeast Anarchist Network
New England Network of Anarchist Groups
North Atlantic Association of Anarchist Groups
Mid and North Atlantic Association of Anarchists
And so forth.
For background and a more extended discussion of many of the issues involved here you might want to examine three previous papers of mine, namely:
(1) "Remarks on the Efforts Underway to Organize a Northeast Anarchist Network," March 2007, at:
(2) "A Great Plains Association for Anarchy?" November 2002, at:
(3) "Seeing the Inadequacies of ACF's Strategy Statement," February 1999, at:
As well as my forthcoming book (April 2007), Getting Free: Creating an Association of Democratic Autonomous Neighborhoods. A 2004 internet edition is available on the web at:
Please note: These links take you to my new website. It is not loaded up yet, except for a few blogs and the 24 papers under Selected Papers: 1998-Present. Clicking on anything else will just get you a blank page. Sorry. I hope to have everything uploaded by the end of April when my book hits the bookstores.