Problems the DNU had: Part 3

Submitted by hadrian on Fri, 05/08/2015 - 12:50
Every protest movement requires critique in order to improve. "De Nieuwe Universiteit," (DNU) a student protest movement in Amsterdam started with the occupation of the Bungehuis in February 2015 and continued with the occupation of the Maagdenhuis two weeks later. The movement has made its mark in the history of student protests in the Netherlands with two lengthy occupations and it inspired some people to become more active in other cities. How the DNU must continue requires us to turn our collective gazes inwards and backwards in order to analyze the problems we've had so that we may look forward with new experiences and hope for a more successful movement. This text deals with some of the problems I've noted. It's part 3 of 4.

The first thing that any protest movement must be aware of is that, once they gain any size and level of success, they run the risk of infiltrators. Moreover, a movement like DNU, which actively tries to pull people into its organization, will have to deal with widely varying political ideologies. The first may bring forth levels of paranoia that will actively harm the movement. Both require a different mode of organizing from the way DNU is organized.

From the beginning of the Bungehuis occupation the General Assembly (GA) became the central organ from which decisions on the movement are made. The GA was open to everyone who wanted to attend and followed a variation on the consensus model of democracy. Although this form of organizing may work well in a relatively small group of up to about fifty people with ideologies relatively close to each other, such as was mostly the case in the Bungehuis, it quickly started disintegrating in the Maagdenhuis. The Maagdenhuis attracted a lot of people from Anarchist to center-right-wing Social-Democrats to its ranks. With this came widely varying differences in strategies and levels of comforts with specific types of actions. Whereas the goals of the DNU were generally agreed on by everyone attending the GAs it was clear that people had differing ideas about many specifics of the movement.

The problem with the structure that the Maagdenhuis adopted from the Bungehuis was that the GA became the body that could determine DNU policy. The movement itself became something that was to be controlled by a centralized organization. This opened the movement wide open for people who wished to take control of the movement. For example, there were several weeks during the Maagdenhuis occupation that there were several people who started organizing actions on their own with as goal to do new radical actions in the hopes of activating more people in DNU to do so. They wished the movement to go a specific course but were afraid of both infiltrators finding out about the action as well as people who disagreed and would disallow them from doing this action. There was a lack of trust in both people themselves and in the creativity and dynamics of the movement. This latter is exactly what the creation of a centralized GA created. A centralized body which can control a movement inevitably puts a limit on the creative forces that brought forth that same movement.

Some attempts were made at separating the movement from the Maagdenhuis occupation but this never really happened. To this day, the GA is the central authority which makes decisions on the course of the movement and, thus, self-destructs the movement. I think it would have been better if the movement itself were the demands and everyone who agrees with these demands may then organize their own activities as sympathizers of the movement. The strength of this way of organizing is that the creativity and dynamics of the movement can be safeguarded as people have the freedom to do whichever action they deem necessary. Each activity becomes a show of force while it is not possible to blame the DNU in its entirety for the mistakes of its sympathizers. The demands, after all, are legitimate even if actions may be badly timed.

Another strength of this form of organization allows people with specific ideologies to find groups of sympathizers with which ey is most comfortable. If this level of comfort changes ey has full freedom of association to either find another group of sympathizers, set up hir own group, or go hir own way. This means that the Anarchists don't have to sulk over the 'conformism' of the Social-Democrats while the Trotskyites don't have to sulk over the use of consensus democracy and can use their own form of organizing. In the end, if the individual actions are successful and the subgroups don't stab each other in the backs, the demands may be backed up by a true diversity of tactics.

Another strength of such decentralization would be the divergence of focus. One of the most important changes in the DNU as movement has been the changes of demands. At first, the DNU had six strong demands. They were later made more concrete and, with that, less strong because we were beginning to pin us down to a specific model of democracy in the university. This was followed by a change of what seemed to be our core demands from the six original ones to the single demand for a dissolution of the current board. In I already explained part of the problem with this. The change of demands to the dissolution of the current board made it harder for outsiders to understand what we were actually fighting for. After this demand was partly acceded to in Louise Gunning's departure the movement seems to have lost any and all momentum. The core of its original demands have been lost sight of.

The divergence of focus would be possible in other areas as well. While one group could be working on the core demands, the other could sympathize with the DNU in an action pointed towards, for example, decolonization of the university as well. This way, multiple problems could be fought against at the same time without the DNU itself losing focus. After all, the DNU is the original set of demands and all sympathizers to those demands.

Of course, I've projected a model here that may or may not have worked. Furthermore, it may or may not work in future protest movements. What we've seen most strongly in the DNU is that centralization itself leads to various problems even when the stated goals are direct democracy. Centralization has has caused further friction between ideologies, it has caused greater mistrust because of a fear of infiltrators, but most importantly it led to decreased creativity of the movement.