I do not know how this is outside Brazil, but here the political organization of students is… Well, it has been important at some specific moments in history (though i really, really disagree with the common sense about which were those moments), and it still has some relevance, but it is definitely going through a crisis. Now i believe that this crisis is the beginning of a new age for student organizations, another student politics — and i also believe that it is a small-scale experiment in the long search for better politics (and for politics that make sense in our texting world). So i am writing this text about a subject that does not interest me anymore (student organizations) to help us think about this other one (politics, in general), which i believe is extremely relevant and urgent.
I had many and varied experiences regarding student politics, and now i will distill what i thought about them into a model. But this model is not meant as rules or goals. It is meant as a framework for discussion.
First of all, the new student politics is not deliberative. It doesn’t need to be deciding things. All the accomplishments of this politics are achieved either through unvoted consensus or through subgroups of students which do decisions in their own way.
Unvoted consensus means that somethings simply do not need to be argued. There is a certain level of ideas and facts that are so obvious that you can work with them without prior voting or analysis. This baseline understanding is more voluminous (and therefore more useful) when the people involved have more in common — as for example students of a specific area have much in common.
Some issues need firm stances. Some circumstances even press the group to take radical decisions. But many many circumstances allow the group to act through centerless common-sense tactical initiatives.
Say the organization feels a communication problem. A small band of friends might offer themselves to create a newsletter. Based on their experience maybe some months latter they (or other students) might decide to try something more formal. Or maybe go for something completely different.
Working like this, the student organization can never force a single understanding of the “bigger questions”, but it can always find actions that do not require one single interpretation. In fact, much of the banner-oriented, ideological, demagogic, “big issues” of politics are only construed as such: the issues themselves do not need rabid oppositional choices, it is the political machine that feeds on such worldviews.
Every group has similarities. Those are usually enough for taking action. And they can be worked upon, so that some oppositions can be turned to understanding.
Since it is always the individual who really “does” things, non-deliberative politics can accomplish the same with less bureaucracy.
The student organization is also not validating. The institution and the bureaucracy do not make ideas and actions valid that are not valid in themselves. An idea that is true does not become any more true by being voted by 50%+1 students.
One student’s opinion is always just as valid as any other one’s. There is no need to enforce obedience at any level.
There is also no need to make the opinions equal. If the group believes that A i still can think B, and it is OK, even if i have a position at the organization. This way the individual is not overrun by the group.
The student organization also needs to avoid being used as a means for personal validation, either for persons with affective deficits or for egoist ambitions. This unhappily can only be achieved case-by-case, with personal judgement.
The goal of the new politics is articulation. Allowing the group of students to work not as unconnected individuals but as a group. Through otherness-building we can complexify our actions up to the point that different interests can coexist, and sometimes benefit mutually.
This is much more than just communication. Group-building is a complex, delicate, rich ritual. A group of people (sometimes a big one) learn to act together. It is also much more than just doing something — the value of a student organization is not how much it accomplishes.
There is no representation involved. Representation only means that someone is bossing someone. Either the leader is bound to voting results or everyone else is bound to his monopoly of power.
Instead of representation, articulation happens through personal relationships. And that is not a bad thing either. It does not mean that the institutions are unjustified or that they do not follow group objectives. It just means that people are people — and guess what? They are! Any form of politics that require anything different will only create problems for itself.
But some people play key roles into this articulation process. They are the ones who naturally stimulate and encourage everyone around them. People converge around them, in expanding friendship circles. They are leaders, more like “Masters of Ceremonies” than “Chiefs”.
Obviously those individuals will benefit personally. From making lots of friends to professional networking to, well, smooches. Leaders have power themselves, instead of the power of the group being channeled in some mysterious ways. Equality in the group comes from the understanding attempt of leaders and from the development of new ones. It is a continuous process instead of a quality of a given voting procedure. It is built instead of existing by itself.
There are fears that this would make the student politics elitist and self-centered, caring only for the “friends” and forgetting the “masses”. This risk exists, but no more in the new politics than in the old. If anything, the old formalist politics only makes it easier for the leaders to isolate themselves by disregarding whatever comes from outside official channels — which they control.
Counter-intuitive as it may be, the new student politics fights it’s elitism through hierarchy.
Besides the informal spontaneous mosaic-like leadership structure, the new student politics also keeps the hierarchy from previous times. Now the hierarchy serves as communication device. That means that the structure enforces the openness of the political body. It makes the leaders universally known and makes them accessible — even if only because they are called leaders.
Thus it is important that the spontaneous leaders are constrained to participate in the formal structure at least for some time. In fact, it is fundamental that the two structures are not seen as different things, but two levels of the same group. It is fundamental that people understand that, at the student conventions, some friends talking late at night in a party are exactly as much part of the group as the guy who goes to sleep early to watch every single presentation or the girl who only attends committee meetings.
That can only happen if the hierarchy is not boring or a drag. The meetings must be fun. If they are not, the interesting people will find something better to do with their time. And this in turn splits the formal institution from everybody else in the group.
When the hierarchy follows those premises, it can maintain both the common ground where articulation happens and the common culture that allows people to interact meaningfully. It is more than regulations or a body of authority, it is a form of culture, a tradition that makes the articulation process easier. It is a group of ideas and processes and rituals and symbols and norms that allow the many people belonging there to interact in fruitful ways.
This tradition obviously goes much beyond the formal meetings or their regulations. It includes jokes, drinking games, who shags who, gossip. But all of those (and the connection is difficult to see but extremely important) also help the group to work and accomplish things. It is a complex system that can hardly be grasped in it’s whole, but nevertheless it is one of the most valuable assets a group can have.
To sum it all up, those four ideas (articulation above all, non-deliberative, non-validating, hierarchy as communication), point towards a politics where people are valued as people and everyone can act creatively, and where relevant action happens tactically and on spot.
For example, having everyone to express their own particular opinion over every single subject is not only a waste of time, but also boring as hell. In a meeting inside a big auditorium with hundreds of people, each single one’s opinion matters very little. Instead of it, we can have many small groups discussing different issues, with levels (preferably more than one) of leadership that will both discuss their own issues and get to know what issues the others are discussing. Throughout the process people with common interest are brought in contact with one another. And the best ideas bubble up — not only to the leaders (or to the doctrine) but to everyone who cares to listen.
Clearly, much of this can only be proposed because the student political organization has some very unique characteristics. Nevertheless, i believe the underlying ideals can be extremely useful in other contexts. In the long run, i also believe politics must re-align itself in that direction: making better use of individual creativity and intelligence, becoming less dependent of fabricated consensus, abandoning the idea of “representation” altogether and finally basing itself in synergy instead of monopoly. That certainly seems like a long road. But i also guess that, going in that direction, many explosive “emergent” phenomena will make our struggles easier than one might guess.
People are usually intelligent, and Politics must allow them to use their intelligence. Everyone does his best — not out of responsibility, but out of this very natural wishing for the best that intelligent people have.