Solidarity is hard work. It requires ongoing self-reflection, clear accountability structures, continual learning and critical thinking. Also: humility, empathy, commitment, hope and love. True solidarity unites communities with different levels of oppression and privilege in the common struggle for liberation. It involves community building, support in struggle, awareness of our own relationship to different forms of oppression, and commitment to action that is accountable to those most directly affected by injustice.
— From the Jewish Voice for Peace Haggadah with a nod to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed
It feels risky to write this. Partly it’s the current, all pervasive fear of ‘getting something wrong’ that I hear from clients constantly as they embark on the journey towards social justice and equity. Partly it’s the understanding of the consequences for that in today’s culture.
When I was a young anarchist and abolitionist in the early 1990s, every so often I would be asked what we anarchists thought people should do with the few inherently bad people who, it was presumed, would commit awful crimes even in a world where everyone’s basic needs were met.
We saw jails as fundamentally dehumanising and wanted community responses, behaviour change programs, treatment for mental health conditions. But what if none of that worked, we’d be asked. What then?
The answer, when pushed, at the end of a long night of passionate discussion, was always ostracism — to be expelled from community and social connection. Goodness knows what we thought this would achieve.
In a conversation with the fabulous trans activist Mama Alto about cancel culture a few months ago, she raised the history of ostracism as a practice. In Athenian democracy, any citizen could be expelled from the city-state of Athens for 10 years. It’s named after the pottery shards or ostraka on which people’s names were written when their community ‘voted them off the island’ for real. At least 6000 citizens had to take part in the vote for it to be valid. And in ancient Athens, after 10 years, you could return home without stigma.
Today, people can be cast out by a small, self-selected group of people and then the word goes around, the social pressure to vote for expulsion. Our pottery shards are not placed face-down, anonymous.
It’s unclear these days what the process is to make amends, learn, grow, be accountable and return in solidarity to the work.* Now, when I think about ostracism, I think about how today’s version allows absolutely no pathway to change or redemption, no assistance or education. We are left with more and more people excluded, alienated and rattling begging tins against the gate. Eventually, one assumes, they will band together and attack.
Co-design and co-creation have been buzzwords for a while. In theory, they’re about including affected communities in the design and creation of services aimed at those communities. On a smaller scale, this makes complete sense — you want to design a skate park for the teenagers in your local community? Probably a good idea to check whether they want a skate park, and where they would like a skate park and whether there are particular kinds of structures they would prefer, or you risk spending a lot of money on a skate park that no teenager ever skates in.
On a larger scale, it’s much more complicated.
‘Nothing about us without us’ is all very well — but which ‘us’? Who are ‘we’? We are not homogenous. And when we try to cover all the bases, it sometimes feels like we are trying to play identitarian bingo.
The global Greens project is a massive intersectional project. While it stems from an environmental foundation, it has blossomed into an interwoven anarchic attempt to bring about an equitable world in which we can all live in fulfilling connection and harmonious community. That word ‘anarchic’ in there is fundamental to me but it is challenging to have an organisation based on consensus decision-making with a stated aim of distributed, participatory democracy in a world where might is still right and late capitalism and corruption are rife.
When I read Living Democracy and the uplifting and hopeful possibilities contained in Barcelona en Comú and the general assemblies in Rojava, I’m reminded that we are currently so far away from this it’s hard to see the path there.
Consensus — built through deliberative discussion — can’t be coerced. If we acknowledge that ‘we’ are nuanced and multiple, then we are going to have vociferous disagreement even when we co-create solutions with affected communities and individuals. Our processes allow for someone to veto a decision — to block consensus. Some party processes then abandon consensus and go to a vote — but if consensus was blocked because the decision affects a person’s survival, or breaches their rights, it’s untenable to tell them the majority seems okay with the outcome.
Blocking consensus doesn’t automatically mean the person who vetoed the decision gets their way either. Does this mean any attempt to then work towards a consensus is creating harm? And if there is no further attempt to reach consensus, the options seem to be exile, capitulation or resignation. We’ve seen this most recently and most clearly with Senator Lidia Thorpe’s decision to leave the Greens and move to the cross-benches and then be seemingly iced out completely during the debates, motions and amendments around enacting the Voice to Parliament and the broader programme outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
I have to preface what I’m about to say by noting that I am no longer ‘inside the tent’ in the same way I once was and so my comments are observations from afar. I’m also keenly aware that, to quote Living Democracy, seeking “to find a path through rather than seeking to destroy opponents… is an incredibly difficult task from within a political system designed around adversarialism”.
If we — meaning the Greens — were unable to come to a consensus position on the Voice to Parliament because our sometime-political allies, the ALP, were unwilling to clearly put into writing that creating the Voice did not cede Sovereignty, then we have a problem with the way we currently do politics.
If we were unable to support a cross-bench Senator’s motion that clearly stated our commitment to First Nations Sovereignty, even though every word in that amendment was backed by our grassroots policies, then we have a problem with the way we currently do politics.
If, as it seems from the outside, we did this on the promise that the ALP would join us to then put a watered-down motion about Sovereignty** only after we had supported their Bill to establish the Voice, then we have a problem with the way we currently do politics.
And if we have now lost the support of many of the First Nations people who were bravely speaking truth to us through the Message Stick process and we are unable to campaign cleanly or loudly on this issue because we never managed to cleanly find a consensus position but instead split and ostracised and were unable to make allowances for the fact that ‘we’ are multiple, nuanced and layered — then we have a very serious problem with the way we currently do politics.
I’m no longer waiting on, or celebrating, incremental forms of progress, so-called well-intentioned steps in the right direction, which always seem to fail us. This failure, we are told, should be met with more hope, as though it is our fault for not having enough of it, as though one can wish oneself out of oppressive social structures. The truth is, hope sedates the logical response of anger and outrage that fuels black insistence.
— Chelsea Watego
Senator Lidia Thorpe called that vote for the Voice ‘Assimilation Day’.
It’s a word that resonates deeply with me. There was a strong push within the Jewish community I grew up in to assimilate, to fit in, to hide — unsurprising after centuries of antisemitism and much more recent experiences of pogroms and the Holocaust. We didn’t speak Yiddish or Ukrainian at home. I never met my paternal grandfather but I’m told he was very proud that he spoke English without an accent. My parents occasionally spoke to each other in the French and Italian they’d learned at school when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying.
When you assimilate, you gain ‘passing privilege’ — the privilege of being treated the way the dominant class is treated — but it is a fearful, contingent privilege that can be revoked at any moment. The moment you reveal your identity, or the moment you are ‘clocked’, or the moment you stop being ‘a model migrant’ or a ‘model native’.
My mother recently saw Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi journalist Stan Grant in conversation with Wailwan and Wiradjuri lawyer and storyteller Teela Reid at Sydney Writers’ Festival. She came back speaking to me about loss of country, loss of culture, loss of language. Absolutely, I said. Such a familiar tale, this resonance between our story and their story. The difference of course is that we — the Jewish diaspora — are now settlers on others’ stolen land, part of the process that disenfranchises, both here and elsewhere.
Those similarities between our peoples ought to call us to action, to solidarity, to collective endeavour. That both of our peoples are displaced, disconnected, dispersed. Conversing in another tongue. Conducting our culture at home, in small groups, but for the most part going out into a world that is not run by us, not run for us, not run with us.
Fuck hope, says Watego to her fellow Blackfullas. Be sovereign.
Fuck assimilation, I say. Be a co-conspirator.
In a series of workshops Tim Hollo ran recently for the Australian Greens, we were asked to explore the question of what the world would look like once we’ve ‘won’. A world where we all thrive, within a living ecosystem at a human scale, bringing our diverse experiences and expertise to collaborate in a neighbourly fashion on larger projects, perhaps?
My ‘ideal world’ starts somewhere in that conversation between my own call to solidarity and Watego’s declaration of sovereignty; it is the inevitable result of a way of being that is genuinely collaborative and truly centres First Nations justice. This immediately necessitated examining what a real centering of Indigenous Sovereignty would look like. If we had a genuine treaty and land back, what might power-sharing look like on a federal level? (I have exactly the same question about what a one-state solution for Israel-Palestine might look like.)
It’s certainly not just to ‘have more Greens in parliament’ and I’m not sure I’m even convinced it’s the means to the actual goal anymore (I’m aware this is somewhat blasphemous within the current doctrine). To be honest, I’ve lost faith that adding more Greens to the mix will necessarily make our current adversarial system less so. I don’t think Greens are inherently more peaceful or collaborative than any other people brought up in the colony, any more than Thatcher or Merkel brought ‘femininity’ to their right-wing politics.
Instead, the entire system needs an overhaul.
“Diversity needs interdependence to be meaningful,” Tim writes in Living Democracy. “Likewise, in living democracy, we have to shift our decision-making away from winners versus losers towards coexistence, away from a simplistic battle towards an appreciation for complexity and ambiguity. This means moving from adversarialism, where competitors seek to dominate and destroy one another, to cooperative contestation, creativity, deliberation.”
Of course, the next question is: how do we get there?
I firmly believe in the mantra that ‘to change everything, we need everyone’. The Greens started moving towards truly understanding how to bring everyone along on the journey when we started talking about transition towns and retraining coal workers as part of the renewable revolution.
But we need to apply that same logic everywhere if we’re going to abolish not just coal mines but also (for example) jails and the state and replace them with, say, community services and general assemblies. And I’m not interested in punishing the people who have participated in those systems in any way that potentially leads to retribution.
So that means that our future world cannot simply be one in which we have simply flipped the structure and there are still people who are excluded and suffer (sorry to fans of the Barbie movie). You might notice we now — or maybe always — have a confusing group of people we’ve excluded, both those to the ‘left’ of us and those to the ‘right’.
And as we’ve just seen, even with more Greens in parliament, maybe because we have more Greens embedded in the “pointless gladiatorial theatre of politics”, to quote Living Democracy, we have just misstepped in a fundamental test of our commitment to First Nations self-determination and consensus.
Anarchist squat in Barcelona, 2003. Image by Ro Bersten.
So, if electing more Greens is not a decisive step on the path to my ideal, anarchist, collaborative world where we live fulfilling, joyful lives based in love, community and connection whether our families have been here five years, five generations or 5000 generations, regardless of our genders or our sexualities, regardless of our abilities or our neurotypes, regardless of our skin colour or our cultural heritage — if that’s not even a step, how do we get there and in what way are the Greens relevant?
I’d argue the power we have is in the network, in the grass roots. Government is partly about centralising provision of basic needs, at least originally. Our new Queensland Greens MPs were elected on the back of the grassroots organising they did but the grassroots aid shouldn’t be the means, it should be the end. We’ve got it backwards a little.
We can create this change now. In Barcelona, Tim tells us, “Barcelona en Comù emerged from community projects helping people in their day-to-day lives… as a local response to the climate crisis and capitalism, racism and war.” In Rojava, 4000 local assemblies manage hospitals and schools for a population of two million, all of them facilitated by co-chairs, at least one of whom must be a woman. These collectives govern through deliberation and inclusion, not adversarial battle and exclusion.
If our aim, in the long run, is to provide healthcare and food and housing and education for everyone, let’s just start doing that. Mutual aid all the way. And in order to scale this, we’re going to need to create general assemblies, organising groups, a rhizome of cells. And if rhizomes are a little too 1968 (sorry, Deleuze and Guattari) then maybe in today’s world we need a mycelium‡ of radical interconnection (and we might need a new word other than ‘radical’ to describe it since ‘radical’ refers to roots — I know Tim will appreciate the pun if I suggest ‘sporadic’, a mycelium of temporary autonomous zones).
And how do we avoid our new organising mycelium from being dragged into adversarial disagreement? Unless everyone is trained in consensus building and facilitation, then we probably can’t. “[O]ne of the most crucial tasks in cultivating living democracy is to train large numbers of facilitators, who can give people positive experiences of well-run participatory democracy,” writes Tim. The Victorian Greens are already running such training, albeit on a very small scale.*** How do we embed deliberative processes into the fabric of our culture? There’s my first transformative suggestion: fund consensus-building education in primary schools — adjacent to early respectful relationship education but with added ‘how to disagree gracefully and find your way to an outcome where everyone’s needs are met’.
By necessity, along the way, these conversations will intertwine decolonising, anti-racist, queer-positive, body-and-neuro-diversity accepting, gender transformative discourse, because it’s impossible to truly build consensus without perspective-taking, and deep listening to the concerns of others, in order to find a path forward and beyond.
Whatever you dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.
– A sticker on my fridge in the early 1990s, apparently from John Anster mangling Goethe
I’m hesitant to fall into the trap of wrapping this up with pithy quotes but sometimes they’re necessary. I can’t seem to find a source for the first person who said that cynicism is the enemy of progress but I know that personally at least, it leads me to inaction and despair.
My first draft of this essay said that I turn to hope — Tim also says in the conclusion to Living Democracy that there is always hope. Then I re-read Another Day in the Colony and Chelsea Watego’s clear rejection of hope as an empty promise held out to keep us enduring existing conditions while looking towards a future that never arrives. I think a close reading of Living Democracy’s final chapter ‘There’s no time left not to do everything’ isn’t genuinely calling for hope either. Similarly to Watego, Tim calls for action, determination and faith in ourselves, and for collective joy. To live democracy now. Be the change you want to see in the world.
Like Tim, I stop and listen to the nascent inhalations of the world we are creating together right now. As Arundhati Roy says: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
I also turn towards bell hooks for clues as to how to help her flourish:
“The moment we choose to love, we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”
* For an interesting discussion on this, see Episode 6 of the Canadian anarchist podcast, Fucking Cancelled
** The text of Senator Thorpe’s amendment was:
“Nothing in this Act shall be taken to cede or disturb the Sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples means an unceded right held in collective possession by the members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations which confers usage, access and custodianship to the lands, waters, minerals and natural resources of what is now known as Australia, and the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to exercise an unimpeded and collective self-determinate governance over their political, economic and social affairs.
The text of the Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians (Senator McCarthy) and Senator Cox’s motion was:
To move — That the Senate — endorses the implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full, as a matter of priority, including a Voice enshrined in the Constitution and a Makarrata Commission for agreement-making and truth-telling; and notes that all members of the Constitutional Expert Group have agreed that the proposed alteration to the Constitution ‘would not affect the sovereignty of any group or body’.
*** I was booked into a free Victorian Greens facilitation training at the end of this month, but that was only for 50 people over two sessions. It’s a start but it needs to scale rapidly.
‡ I did draw this connection myself but as with all good ideas, it’s appearing elsewhere as well, most notably Paul Carter’s Decolonising Governance: Archipelagic Thinking and Yin Paradies’ “Unsettling Truths: Modernity, Decoloniality and Indigenous Futures”.
Ro (Phoenix) Bersten lives and works on the stolen lands of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples. Xe is a queer Jewish autistic genderfluid single parent with ADHD, deeply amused by the growing list of identity markers xe is collecting given that xe wrote a Masters thesis in 2003 on the intersections of ethnicity, sexuality and identity calling for a world beyond labels. Sadly, xe has realised that you can only be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy, so here we are. Xe was National Communications Coordinator for the Australian Greens from 2013–2017 and National Co-Convenor of the Australian Greens Policy Coordinating Committee in 2017 and 2018. Xe is the managing director of intertwine, an organisation working towards intersectional social justice.
Feature image credit. Collage by Ro Bersten [Image description: a group of people are gathered together to smash through a dingy wall and reveal a shining, sunlit land beyond with grass and trees. A small child reaches a hand out towards the light. One person plays a banjo. Another waves a crutch. A woman reaches down towards the child. The text reads: Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.) The lines are from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman and the illustration is by Lewis C Daniel from the 1940 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.]