Making Changes: The collective decides...

Charles Landry, David Morley, Russell Southwood, and Patrick Wright


For years the political rectitude of a collective method of working has been largely unquestioned. Nevertheless, a numbers of problems and issues have emerged in this method of working. We offer here a schematic account of these problems as we have encountered them in our own experience. Our emphasis is deliberately negative. We do not wish to decry the concern with democratic and accountable structures of organisation which gave rise to collectives, but we feel that many of the problems have gone unstated for too long. We are glad to add our contribution to the ‘rethinking’ process which is now starting to happen.

The libertarian obsession with ‘process politics’ leads to an obsession with all aspects of internal structure and its working. As a result, the collective can often lose sight of its larger political objectives and the primacy of the form of organisation over the political objectives it was set up to meet. This often occurs in two stages. At the outset the collective process is regarded as equally important to whatever political purposes the group might have. Later the process itself often comes to be seen as of primary importance in a way which is perhaps best understood as an over-reaction to the subordination of the individual to the outward political aim which characterises traditional party political structures.

Even though many people in such collectives will readily admit that the process is inefficient and messy, it is nevertheless often held to be more ‘democratic’. From this position it is a short step to claiming that the process is morally superior to the ‘bourgeois’ way of doing things and therefore cannot be called into question. At this point the group finds itself trapped. A discussion of doing things differently, within the realms of the ‘morally acceptable’, is no longer possible.

We believe such a discussion to be vital. Specifically, we believe that unless some of the recurring problems of collective working are recognized and resolved, the entire sector may soon be a matter of historical interest only.

Two distinct forms of collective, the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’, have emerged, each regarded by their respective supporters as the only proper way of doing things in the debate over community projects.

Those in favour of open collectives argue that unless you give the widest possible range of people open access to the collective you will exclude some category or constituency who deserve representation. Any discussion of restriction of access to the production process is seen as a betrayal of faith in what is held to be the purest form of democratic politics. By contrast, a closed collective is seen as elitist and self-perpetuating.
The open collective has, however, several problems. In an open collective you are continually caught between the need to explain things to the newest member and to help them integrate into the group’s work and the need to get on with the task in hand. As the Newsreel Collective put it:

“We have never had the time, nor money, to retrain one another thoroughly in the skills we don’t possess, let alone to provide one another with the opportunity of ‘wasting’ film by allowing ourselves to make a lot of mistakes in gaining experience. In any live shooting situation, especially one that cannot be repeated, it’s a horrible choice to have to make between someone who needs to learn how to use a camera but might fuck it up, and someone who already knows and is more likely to get what we need on film.”

The open collective’s emphasis on integration and involvement of every member usually means that you can never go faster than the pace of the newest or slowest person in the group.

Further strain is placed on the system by the fact that members of such collectives are often volunteers. Few people have the necessary time to devote to the task in hand, so large parts of the effective work of the collective will tend to devolve on to a small, highly committed group. The same kind of structural conflict of interest emerges in many projects between the paid workers and their management committee. This is also the underlying issue in many of the debates over whether to constitute a collective as a workers’ co-op or a member/users’ group.

Such conflict frequently results in tension between those who know they will be doing the work and those who are there only for the generalized discussions of overall policy; between those who do most of the practical work and feel they have a better view of what is happening, and those who want political influence but are unable or unwilling to give a lot of time to the group’s practical work.

The result is often that the most important practical decisions are taken outside the formal group meeting and ratified at a later meeting. The formal group meeting thus functions merely as a rubber stamp it adds a ‘democratic’ seal of approval to de facto decisions that have already have been made. Things often develop to a point where the group’s work process itself becomes one long plenary session where everything is open to discussion and decision at every point, rather as if the House of Commons were to try to run an airline by debate.

A further problem is the frequent lack of clear discussion over policy options: often the very notion of being clear about what your policy objectives are is tainted with all the evil connotations of machismo and ‘power’. A polarized discussion will be presented in such a way as to blur differences. Moreover, this whole process (especially when merged in a ‘consensus’ decision making procedure which excludes the possibility of decision by majority vote) encourages people to say similar sounding things when they actually mean the very opposite. Equally bad, it often leads to a use of language that serves to obscure sharp difference of opinion so that at least the work at hand can carry on.

Worse still, however, the failure to present clear policy options often means that a collective will try to ‘contain’ two or more entirely conflicting factions, none of which can be given permission to implement what they believe in. The ‘no-vote’ principle implicit in the commitment to consensus decision-making also allows a vocal minority to give the impression of commanding greater support than they actually do, and allows such a minority to prolong the discussion beyond the point at which they would have any hope of gaining a majority for their views.

Without a forum in which formal policy of any kind can be made, there will usually be, by default, a kind of de facto policy-making by a network of personal friendships which is able to utilize the confusion built into the process. The only formal record of the decision making process is often the minutes of the collective meeting. Since these won’t necessarily represent the necessary day to day decisions taken during the group’s actual work, there can often be immense confusion over what decisions have been taken.

If a collective meeting is too obviously divided, a problematic issue will often be deferred to give the collective more time to reach a consensus. Such a process does not allow decisions to be taken quickly on controversial issues. This poses no problem in a self contained discussion group, but if the collective in question is trying to produce a service or product for the outside world a cafe, a cinema, a magazine it can cause obvious difficulty. Quite simply, the outside world will not necessarily take heed of Canute-style gestures indicating that the collective needs time to arrive at a consensus. The democratic impetus behind the notion of collectively discussing and deciding things is certainly important, but in order to survive, an organisation must be capable of taking key policy decisions quickly when the situation demands it. Too often the commitment to ‘consensus’ pre-empts that possibility. Different situations demand and allow different decision-making procedures, and the ‘principled’ adherence to one (collective/consensus) method in all situations is a recipe for disaster.

Often the formal lines of responsibility in radical projects/groups bear no resemblance to where or how decisions are actually taken. This is an inevitable consequence of setting up ‘ideal’ structures that don’t correspond with the reality of the needs of the group’s practical work. To the outsider who wishes to join the collective the situation can be even more confusing. You won’t be dealing with one person; everyone may be willing to talk to you, but few will take individual responsibility for a decision: chiefly because the very notion of individual responsibility is usually ruled ‘out of order’ by the collective ideology. This lack of clearly defined responsibility is a frequent cause of rancour it means that it’s very hard to trace the source of a mistake since nobody can be found to accept individual responsibility. Everyone produces either pragmatism or default as reasons why a particular thing didn’t happen.

The lack of individual responsibility is related to another unwritten article of the libertarian constitution: the desire to rotate all jobs in order to prevent individuals building up power. Power, rather than the way in which it is exercised, is often seen as a thing in itself. As a result, people will only take responsibility on a partial basis.

The voluntary nature of a collective can also result in a particular task often being forced on someone or given to an unknown newcomer. It is then difficult to demand that this person take full responsibility for that task. More importantly, because the jobs are often constantly taking part in a kind of ‘pass the parcel’ rotation, they are never seriously defined, because such a definition would imply the kind of sole responsibility which is anathema to a collective that wants everyone to feel equally responsible for everything. But without clear job definitions it is impossible to call to task somebody who isn’t doing their job. Everything is equal and shared, but no one is directly accountable for anything.

There is a worrying definition of ‘equality’ implied here. In this context the struggle to establish equality takes on new dimensions as, in effect, the struggle to abolish all differences. The starting point seems to be the notion that different degrees of power are to be abhorred. As the individual possession of knowledge and skills is a source of power in any organisation there is an attempt to eradicate all differences of knowledge or skill within the group. But as the possession of knowledge or skill is something which people are made to feel guilty about, they often can’t admit that they have them, which, among other things makes it difficult for them to share their skills with others. The fact that commitment to collective solidarity is a key value tends to increase the pressure for people to adopt the same views or, at least, to repress their differences. This makes constructive debate difficult within the group, and leads easily to a situation in which the repressed differences finally explode and the collective splits in an ironic parallel of sectarian organizations to which the collective was seen as an alternative. In short, what we have here, and we cannot prevent the Kampuchean overtone, is ‘equality’ remodelled as the suppression of all difference.

Accountability and the rationality of bureaucracy

At the heart of the matter is the problem of defining responsibilities in radical projects. The present pattern is one in which undefined responsibility is too lightly undertaken without considering the nature of the job and whether, for example, a volunteer is the right person to do it. And when things start going wrong it becomes even more difficult to reallocate responsiblity.

Experience shows that clear patterns of accountability are crucial if a collective is to function effectively. So if, for example, the task is to sell advertising space and after an agreed period the individual responsible has not sold any advertising space, he or she should be asked to account for their failure to do the job effectively. Then we need to discover whether the problem arose because the job was delegated to the wrong person, or whether it was because the job itself was badly defined, or whether there are external factors which mean that the job cannot be done until the circumstances have changed.

But accountability means more than simply apportioning blame to certain individuals. It also means developing an organisational culture which will encourage the individual in question to be the first to bring the problems to the attention of the collective. This requires a working atmosphere in which the admission of personal inadequacy or failure is not necessarily regarded as culpable.

At this point we could also refer to Max Weber’s arguments for the rationality of bureaucratic procedures in so far as they usefully distinguish, for instance, between the role and the particular person filling that role at a given moment.

One of the strengths of a bureaucracy is that it will develop explicit rules and procedures, written down in rule books, which can be shown to newcomers to the organization, who can thus take over a new function without too much trouble. Our argument is that in relation to ‘bureaucracy’ (and in relation to the division of labour) the left has, on the whole, only got half of the argument. Bureaucracy may have depressing aspects and ironically the left shares some of these, but it also has some vital points on its side. For instance, it is quite normal for a crisis to occur when a worker leaves a community project. No one else can effectively take over from them, because all the information, contacts and criteria of decision-making are inside their heads, rather than explicitly formulated in a way that makes them accessible to others. You have to start with the premise that since no one is irreplaceable, other people will be able to understand what is in his or her head, and establish a system for making that knowledge generally available. If you don’t start on that basis it will be too late when you realize why you should have done. Or, as someone said, an organisation that does not secure the conditions of its own reproduction is doomed within a generation.

Voluntary disorganization

Many collective or cooperative organization in the voluntary sector were formed in the social welfare or community development field in the seventies and were also influenced by the political, libertarian culture of that period. However, it is noticeable that the style of collectivity operated by many of the voluntary organizations frequently resembles more closely that of professional partnerships or companies, rather than the earlier experiments in workers’ control with which they often identify themselves.

The style of self-management practised in much of the voluntary sector is in many respects quite different to that of the collectives discussed earlier: it reflects the highly educated and self confident background of the people involved in these organizations people who are not about to be told what to do by anyone else if they can avoid it. In some such organizations this difference becomes institutionalised: membership of the collective group, for example, might be limited to the professional workers, while other functions, such as clerical and secretarial work, are contracted and managed on a conventional hierarchical basis.

Damaging collisions can occur between supporters of this style of self-management in social or community work, and the very people they are working to help. This was illustrated by a letter in the Hackney Gazette in January, 1984. It was written by an outraged member of the local community, who complained that the local community centre was closed for the whole of the Christmas week. Here, as the embittered author put it, was a bunch of educated, middle-class lefties organizing their cooperative working rules to suit what the author perceived as simple self-interest. Everyone else in the area either had to work or to suffer unemployment during the Christmas period, yet the centre was run by a group of people who were able to make the rules to suit themselves a self-indulgence they justified on political grounds. While we pass no judgement on the fairness of this complaint, the form in which it was expressed conflict between traditional working-class expectation and middle-class self management is certainly worth noticing.

This conflict has other manifestations. Many of these organizations have offices which are ablaze with posters and lapel badges asserting a progressive and radical politics. This sort of display defines and expresses the politics of the organizing group, but it seems possible, at the very least, that it will also work to intimidate many other people who, while far from rabidly Tory, do not exactly share these explicitly asserted faiths, and this can work against any possibility of developing the involvement of a wider public, or of expanding the constituency of political ideas one supports. In some respects, the recent increase in the number of paid community work posts in many inner city areas, which is also a consolidation of the political culture we are talking about, may actually be working to increase the distance it was intended to close. Harmonious relations between the managers and the managed in voluntary sector organizations may have been possible during the community development drive of the early seventies. They have certainly faltered, with the hardening political and economic climate of the eighties, and we have already seen a return to a more militant trade unionism within the sector. In some depressing cases, ex-community workers have ended up taking management committees (which they themselves had struggled to form a few years earlier) to industrial tribunals, in disputes about their own personal terms and conditions of employment. The mobilization of the heavy machinery of industrial relations against management committees can be perverse if it results in a less educated, less politically adept group of voluntary people (not always representatives of the local state) being crudely thrust into the role of ‘management’. A similar failure of political integrity may well be involved in the recent blocking by local government officers of attempts to decentralize Labour controlled administrations through ‘going local’ initiatives, involving area offices. As a result and welcome pamphlet from the Labour Coordinating Committee puts it: “When cuts and privatisation are on the top of the agenda, if you’re not going to work in a way that is appropriate to the needs of the community you serve, they will have no reason to support you when your job is on the line”.
(Labour Co-ordinating Committee, Go Local to Survive: decentralisation in local government, p.25)

Political guarantees

The alternative/libertarian sector has been dominated by an extremely slipshod approach, often involving lack of attention to the specific skills of the task in hand. Sometimes this results from the assumption that a person’s ‘correct’ political views will guarantee that they can do any given task. This is, of course, a most unhelpful form of moralism, which derives from a generalisation of concerns such as politics and morality, which may well be the proper priorities in some contexts, to a perspective in which they function as the determining priorities in all situations. The need to distinguish between the person and a particular task is often bypassed. This distinction has often been blurred by the libertarian version of the argument that the personal is political. The person in question may have an impeccable political stance on racism, sexism, etc., and still be lousy at packing parcels or writing reviews, or whatever. The converse is, of course, also true. It may be that a group wants to insist that a person should be good at doing a task and possess a particular set of political views, or inhabit a particular lifestyle. But that then has to be seen as a supplementary or additional, not an alternative qualification. The priorities chosen here have to be chosen consciously, and their likely effects fully understood.

The personal is surely political (how could it not be?), but the political extends some distance beyond the personal (into the ‘public’); nor is the personal capable of simply being reduced to the political. One consequence of the dominant libertarian perspective here (as you are ‘living a project’, not ‘doing a job’) is that you can’t criticize anyone’s performance of a particular task without it being seen as a total attack on the person. It thus becomes impossible to distinguish ‘doing a bad job’ from ‘being a bad person’.

From this perspective ‘politics’ becomes a guarantee of ability or, conversely, proof of inability. The bones of libertarian Stalinism perhaps, with a different content, and different views being prescribed, but a similar form, where there is only one road to salvation and all other roads are seen to lead to the libertarian equivalent of Hell.

"The Collective Decides" is excerpted from What A Way to Run a Railroad: An Analysis of Radical Failure, 1985, 101 pp, ISBN 0-906890-80-2, published by Comedia, 9 Poland Street, London, UK W1V 3DG.



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