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Unified Voice in Action. Really?!

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"The organization’s structure and policy (….) always

expects members to actively participate in the life of the organization including taking collective responsibility for it and presenting a unified voice in action."

                                                                                                      (emphasis added)


I can't for the life of me figure out why that's there. It's unnecessary, negative and contains the potential to explode in one very huge mess. So, on the assumption that I'm understanding that paragraph within the 'Structure and Policy correctly (and i honestly don't know how else to interprate it) I'm going to attempt to illustrate what it is that is very wrong with it by offering up an alternative based on experience.

When in the early 00’s a body of people mobilised against NZ’s involvement in the ‘western led’ invasion of Iraq, there arose a point in time where the idea of UN involvement was seen by some as preferable to the involvement of the then current coalition and was seen by those people as a positive step forward.


The people in this town had mobilised under the political auspices of a movement rather than as a coalition of pre-existing groups and so we developed ways of working that bore the idea of autonomy and democracy in mind.


Under a coalition it would have been necessary to arrive at a party line with regards the UN…a unified voice in action. But within the scenario of a movement, that internal struggle for ideological dominance was avoidable. There was no need to present a unified voice in action. And consequently, given that fair proportions of the people involved in organising against NZ involvement felt one way or the other on the subject, when we occupied the Octagon in the centre of the city for a number of days, the general public were exposed to both pro-UN and anti-UN literature and information with the understanding they could decide their own stance on that particular point without feeling an obligation to adopt either this or that stance as a pre-requisite for further involvement.


In short, everyone was against the war. And that was enough. And sure, people sat at various points on a number of spectrums when the basic unifying cause (NZ involvement in any invasion of Iraq) was broken down into historical or political analyses or prescriptive remedies. But a strength was that as a body we didn’t have to distract ourselves and waste energy on the traditional dynamics present in coalition type arrangements…we didn’t have to create ideological cohesion on each and every detail to retain an overall cohesion. Contradictions were comfortably encompassed.


Now, if IOPS has an underlying theme that might be summed up by the single term ‘democracy’, then where is the space for any call that would impose a unified voice? Why would such a thing be sought?


Going back to the anti war scenario again by way of illustration. If some people decided on a particular action, they would inform the wider group of their intention. It wasn’t a case that everyone had to agree to it or that everyone would have to involve themselves in it. The criteria that informed potential actions were pretty straight forward and numbered two. One: were there enough people to make the action successful? And two: would the action result in deleterious consequences or unintentional side effects for the main body of people involved in the broader anti war project or for any proportion thereof?


And if those two criteria were satisfied (and sometimes that was achieved only after modifications suggested by parties who would otherwise have been negatively affected if the action had taken place as initially envisaged), then those people with the enthusiasm for whatever the action was executed it.


Probably worthy of note is that no-one spoke on behalf of the Peace Movement. They spoke as people focussed on this or that issue pertaining to NZ involvement in Iraq or   the situation of Iraq in general. In other words, we were of the Peace Movement but did not represent or speak for the Peace Movement…it offered us a voice, not the other way around.


And I’m going to stress this. No ‘party line’ or unified voice was necessary for the continued development of a broad and non-sectarian anti-war. In fact, imposing notions of a unified voice would have led to internal conflicts, ideological division and a splintering of the main body of people into different and often competing camps.


And so again. If IOPS is serious about representing ideas of democracy in theory and action, then why would the destructive notion of a unified voice in action be ‘chiselled in stone’ as a part of any introductory literature?

Discussion 8 Comments

  • 5th Jun 2012

    Good example/argument. I also wonder how else it can be interpreted.

  • Kim Keyser 5th Jun 2012

    Bill, thanks for opening this discussion.

    I very much agree with your two criteria.

    Bill Clark: "if IOPS has an underlying theme that might be summed up by the single term ‘democracy’, then where is the space for any call that would impose a unified voice? Why would such a thing be sought?"

    IMO such discussion are very difficult and tiresome to conduct in the abstract (I've done so alot!), and will become much more productive as we become more people doing more stuff.

    But even so, I'd like to point out the following already as of now: A single-issue, ad-hoc, time limited alliance (in your example: The anti-war movement against the Iraq war) is – IMHO – a very, very different thing than a multi-issue, deliberate, permanent organization (in our example: one that seeks to change the whole worldwide societal system).

    In the former case, it's not necessarily necessary with much theoretical agreement other than stopping the war (and perhaps stopping the scapegoating of Arabs, and a few other connected tightly connected issues), and a few common actions (say mass desertion/mutinies and blockades).

    In the latter case, I think it's necessary with much more theoretical agreement (amongst other things because we're not just trying to stop one concrete thing – a war – but change a whole system, and all its components) and much more concerted action (amongst other things because we need to be prefigurative – reflect the sought-after future in the presence –, and shouldn't allow very non-prefigurative behavior).

    This comment was not necessarily used as argument against you, but I tried to shortly answer your question (I don't know if I succeed though). Anyway, I think this issue will be more interesting to discuss when we are more people, doing more stuff and thus having to decide upon several concrete issues. ;)

  • Gerry Conroy 5th Jun 2012

    My understanding is that the 'unified voice' applies specifically to the organisation itself and its structure and policy as such - based initially at least, on the 'goals, values and visionary commitments laid out in the organizational description'.

    So in the bit where you're thinking of joining, you read:

    'IOPS is open for anyone wishing to join who shares the goals, values and visionary commitments laid out in the organizational description.'

    Since everybody who joins agrees to share those things, then that's the level at which you have the unity and cohesion to be described as a global organisation.

    Bill, you say:

    'There was no need to present a unified voice in action.'

    As you say, there will be lots of different approaches as to how to go about actions - within IOPS itself - and all of those approaches should fit with those 'goals, values and visionary commitments laid out in the organizational description.'

    So groups and currents within the organisation could choose different courses of action on the same issue, for example - but without breaking unity and coherence as an organisation.

    I think that's what you're getting at when you say this:

    '...But a strength was that as a body we didn’t have to distract ourselves and waste energy on the traditional dynamics present in coalition type arrangements…we didn’t have to create ideological cohesion on each and every detail to retain an overall cohesion. Contradictions were comfortably encompassed...'

  • Simon Carroll 5th Jun 2012

    I agree with Kim, it's all in the word 'organization' as opposed to temporary alliance. To me the points Bill raises are a salutary warning of how 'unified voice' can quickly become 'party line', and then descend into Stalinist distortions and the reaction of pointless factionalism....There is plenty to learn from the history of socialist movements, parties and organizations about how to avoid this unnecessary terminus...it should be noted that there is no inherent contradiction between 'democracy' and choosing an agreed upon platform for action....otherwise, democracy is all about process only and has no actual outcomes...we must remember that democracy has always been tied to the notion of 'rule' and decision-making...if we did not have to make collective decisions at all, we would not require democracy.

  • Dave Jones 5th Jun 2012

    That is a good point Carol, about argument, contest and decision. Bill mentions that "criteria" was established in order for his group to decide whether an action was "deleterious". This requires debate at the least and a vote, if not consensus. This is the "complex unity" we should strive for and a more radically democratic vision.

    As an example of what can go wrong within an organization without criteria or unified voice, our local Occupy has several splinters, some pursuing individual "sovereignty", some pursuing legal remedy, some legislative. Some electoral, some regulatory. It's all over the place and no one wants to "block" the actions of others. We aren't Stalinist but we aren't effective either.

  • Paul Maunder 13th Jun 2012

    At the risk of discussing how many angels might fit on the head of a pin, is this about action being an embodiment of much discussion. And that the 'voice' of an action is then somewhat different from discussion. A protest march is in this sense different from a discussion about holding a protest march. When we marched down the streets of Greymouth protesting asset sales we were unified in our opposition to Asset sales and asking people to sign the petition etc. However, if someone had started smashing shop windows, that would have been a different voice speaking through action and dissension would have arisen.
    I suspect the problem with the occupations, especially in NZ, is that the action, as a voice, became confused. In Wall Street it was pretty clear for a time - those bastards had ripped off the country and the occupiers were symbolically occupying their space of operation. That action led to another action, sustaining an encampment. Here the space was not so clearly delineated and the sustaining became equally confused so that the action was trying to find a unified voice.

  • Mario Bogunovic 10th Aug 2012

    So along Paul’s lines – perhaps in Bill’s case their unified voice in action was on highest level their opposition to war and lower than that a unity in every single aspect of this common objective could not be expected. In similar way with IOPS our unified voice is our shared vision of a better world and there will be many different ways to get there. But I understand Bill’s concern how insisting on a unified voice can lead to internal divisions and also contradict dissent and alternative views which are all important, so we should be careful and sensible when doing it.

    In any case, I think the overall plan is that all these definitions are revised in any future conventions, so options with this one are removing, modifying or leaving it as it is. In my view this entire defining sentence (quoted by Bill on top of his article above) and especially its first part about “expectation of active participation from all members” needs reconsideration because it just doesn’t reflect the reality which is a problem in its own, but that’s another issue...

  • Lambert Meertens 15th Aug 2012

    Of the things in the organizational description I would have phrased differently (or just left out), this one stands out most. Actions are generally carried by people from several organizations and backgrounds. Participating also means participating in their discussions. Some revolutionary organizations decide among themselves what the "correct" line is, and then the comrades bring it into the discussion speaking with revolutionary discipline in a "unified voice", in an attempt to dominate and monopolize the discussion. That has always struck me as dishonest. I'm sure this is not what is meant, but still it evokes this spectre.

    If this is about actions carried solely by IOPS, why haven't we found allies for the action? Should we in fact aim at all at actions with an IOPS label? I'm in favour of everyone being personally responsible for their actions, and of everyone being free to say publicly that they disagree with a majority decision.