Problems the DNU had: Part 4

Submitted by hadrian on Fri, 05/08/2015 - 12:53
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 4 of 4.

In models of consensus democracy a block is a powerful tool to voice dissent with a proposed plan. The idea of the block is that the proposed plan not be carried out because of either principled reasons or because the blocking person thinks there are major problems with a plan. The block is a form of veto which has, when systems of domination are still in place, been able to hamper decisions at least as long back as the Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanion commonwealth. The fear of infiltrators and the annoyance of some with different opinions in the General Assemblies (GAs) of the DNU led to the block being changed from a veto to a sign that you don't agree with the decision and will leave the group. This kind of block is much closer to what a stand-aside is, namely that you disagree with a plan but won't hold it back. The difference with the DNU-block and the stand-aside is that the stand-aside doesn't include your leaving the movement itself.

The DNU-block is defined, by members of the movement itself, as meaning: "I can't agree with this and will leave voluntarily." This seems like a good way of dealing with the block in the face of infiltrators and such but in practice it is a form of domination in and of itself. Instead of being a moment where you can say that you really don't agree with something being done out of the name of an organization you're part of and believe in and that the plan at least needs more work before it is implemented it becomes a way of silencing dissent. It says: "thou shalt agree with the majority." It is the death of DNU's democracy. A plan should, ideally, never come to the point where a block is felt as necessary by anyone in the group.

The first thing to note is that consensus is not about the actual decisions that are being made but, instead, about the process itself. The central idea behind consensus is that each and every one of us has a voice that needs to be taken into account. As soon as we allow groups to make decisions over other groups we re-open the doors to oppression. Moreover, when a person or minority is ignored by the process multiple times this will lead that person to feel left outside, ignored, or unappreciated which damages the social cohesiveness of the movement.

This does introduce some criticism on the block itself as well. It can become a method of oppressing an entire group by a singular opinion or, indeed, infiltrators. As such, instead of taking away from the block any and all force and turning it into something like the DNU-block we must re-evaluate what we intend to achieve with our democracy. I believe that democracy itself must never be oppressive. The block can be a protection against this by allowing someone to, temporarily, pull the plug when ey thinks there are still problems with a proposal. It requires both active listening skills and creativity to improve the current proposal or come up with a new and better one. The block may, in fact, not work for groups of people who don't know each other well. In all the time of the Spinhuis collective there has not been a single block that I can recall. The Spinhuis collective was, however, a much smaller group with larger social cohesion than DNU.

As such, we come back to the criticism of part 3, centralization. The block became a problem because the movement had a centralized body which made decisions over the course of the movement. As such, it was possible for different people to actively hamper the movement. More importantly, it became possible for people who roughly shared an ideology to push decisions that some core members of the DNU, people who definitely were not infiltrators but simply had different ideas about strategy, disagreed with. The only way to be able to push a decision in consensus-based democracy is to gut protective measures like the block and create the DNU-block. For this reason, I must again call for the decentralization of future movements.

In concluding this series, I hope the DNU will be able to regain its past momentum. The DNU has had more problems than the ones I touched upon. The problems I've dealt with seem to me to be very central problems which hampered the ability of the DNU to get its demands met. So far, the DNUs most important effect has been a renewed discussion on autonomy in, and financialization of, universities. I do not think that the DNU will, in the end, reach its demands in any satisfactory manner. Even if more autonomy will be gained by students and staff it will be in the very narrow forms implemented by the Government. The State will, thus, be reproduced in these forms of autonomy. It may alleviate some of the problems but it's a long way off from a Socialist university where we can learn and study in a community based on mutual aid. In the end, the DNU may lose and the State may gain another victory. However, this does mean that the problems that come from centralization in the university itself will also persist. Perhaps, in a few years, another movement will renew the demands and momentum the DNU may have lost by now. I can only hope they will not repeat the same mistakes the DNU has made. Maybe the staff will remember 2015 and opt for implementation before petition. We will see, in either case, long live the protest!