A polemic by Arts councilor Nathan Crompton

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has an enemy in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit from the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

At today’s AMS Council meeting there was a motion to create a committee that would “consider the feasibility” of a Citizen’s Assembly at UBC. A Citizen’s Assembly would be a diverse group of students funded and by the AMS to share with the student body its informed and researched positions on student elections issues and candidates. The Assembly would be made up of UBC students selected on the basis of what is called a “stratified random sample”, which is a sample drawn on the basis of various categories (i.e, gender, faculty, students with loans/students without, etc.) in order to create a “micro group” roughly reflective of the entire student body.

Even though the motion was only to create a committee – not to approve the Assembly – council reacted defensively against any proposal that would “take power away from the single voice of the AMS”, to quote one councilor. Another councilor complained against “giving power to the masses[…]especially if they are not asking for an Assembly”. One journalist was capable of noting the defensive nature of council’s reaction, which led others to reassure councilors that a “committee would not take power away from the AMS.” An executive spoke of the “dangers” of the proposal, which to many seemed real: one councilor saw the Citizen’s Assembly as a “parallel state”.

As debate drew on, councilors became impatient with the motion. The hired speaker for the AMS informed us that he wanted to go drinking and that the meeting should be expedited! The debate was becoming fragmented, like in a “chaosmos”, though in a good way, (which is why I use Deleuze’s term), since nobody had yet explored the new proposal nearly enough to take a position. If a position could have been taken at all, it would have been to vote in favor, and not because the Citizen’s Assembly is ideal, or even good, (a Citizen’s Assembly will not solve the “root problems” of democracy, as was claimed by the presenter). The motion should have been approved because it was for the creation of a committee. And it should have been approved out of a creative inspiration, as an experiment regardless of its apparent merits. We should of course recall that that in the present moment democracy is not functioning.

Things in the meeting were becoming more “out of order”, as one councilor complained. It was in this environment that the firm position of an authority – council President – was welcomed by most councilors. The president proposed an amendment to undermine the possibility for a committee that would be oriented towards an Assembly. Councilors began knocking the table in support when people spoke in favor of changing the motion wording from “a committee to explore the Citizen’s Assembly” to, “a committee to find ways to involve non-involved students”.

The rewording was of course condescending to the author of the motion, but also to the student body in general – the AMS community’s attitude toward “apathy” is incredibly facile. Councilors have a sense that, “we are involved, other people aren’t because they are not us”. Or worse: “why don’t more students pay attention to what I do that is so important?” But in fact, student non-involvement is very complicated. 6/10ths of students take a full course load while working part-time and full-time, (while collecting massive debts of course). Most of the students involved in the AMS community are from the 4/10ths of students who don’t work and who are from bourgeois and professional family backgrounds. Not only are they confident (many of them are trained to be future leaders of Canada, etc.), they emerge from a system that works well for them – this is what I mean to introduce this polemic with the quote of Machiavelli. It is fitting that the “democratic” position of many councilors is the one: “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.

Read more behind the jump

What do they mean when they say, “don’t burn bridges with the university” and “be professional”? They mean that we must cross those bridges and settle down in that seat of power, because we deserve it – don’t ruin your chances. It is in this context that many marginal members of the community are not confident or, on principle, not interested to become involved in the AMS, or any power system. And it should be recognized – the university and student governments keep much of the institutional racism they were founded on. There are brothers and sisters in the community who do not feel like participating alongside mostly white men who mostly plan beer gardens.

These are political questions but there is a way to make an “apolitical” argument in this instance, in the way that “nonpartisanship” is so fashionable today. Simply, there was nothing in the original Assembly motion that prevented the creation of other committees. If people had other ideas in mind about how to involve the student community in the AMS, they could have made a proposal. But those alternative ideas would not have been threatened by the existence of an Assembly committee, and hopefully their ideas would add to it.

We could theorize on the fact that the motion was gutted even though its was only a motion to strike a committee to explore the possibility for an Assembly, not for an Assembly as such. History tells us that elites have not been reactive, only reactionary. In his unpublished notebooks, Marx reflected on the prospect that European ruling classes might gain class consciousness before the workers themselves. Marx’s speculation was made true, of course. Not soon after he wrote, the repressive police-state of Bismark effaced the possibility for socialism in Germany by establishing of one of the first welfare states. Bismark anticipated democracy – he was ahead of democracy qua democracy. It is a maxim: an elite’s ability to anticipate unwanted democracy is essential to liberal democracy in the first instance, that is its primary characteristic: to allow a level of formal democracy necessary for the prevention of actual democracy. Democracy is sanctioned, or “repressively desublimated” (to slightly alter a notion from Herbert Marcuse.) Democracy here is allowed only to the extent that class structures are properly preserved.

But unlike in Marx’s time, elite rule is not coordinated today, or, it is not only coordinated. It is spontaneous, since the conspiracies are not in back rooms, or, not only in back rooms – if they can even be called a conspiracies. Certainly no conspiracy even exists at the level of the AMS! But it is precisely its non-conspiratorial nature that makes liberal democracy so pernicious. For example, the mood in council today was neither sinister nor heavy. It was anticipatory like Bismark and like Marx predicted, but not coordinated in the way of Bismark. People spoke on intuition, not out of some presupposition, and not even from a conscious set of ideological commitments. Elite ideology is so well entrenched that no coercion is necessary, and neither is debate. This is liberal consensus, where ideology operates at the pure level of the political unconscious. Dissenting in t
his totalizing environment is barely optional at times. But there are many people who don’t dig the consensus, if at least because its totally boring.


8 Comments so far

  1. Anonymous on June 28, 2007 7:32 pm

    Here, here! Nathan makes an excellent point (though I have qualms with his analysis of Bismark but that’s hardly relevant). My experience with the AMS is that it is so resistant to change that a special alignment of the stars are necessary in order for substantial change to occur. Even as president there were things that I could not get accomplished, ironically because I had both too much and too little power – the president has very little power to affect change on his or her own, such as a veto, but so much responsibility is centred in the executive that Council has trained itself to be no more than a body looking for problems, and every radical, new idea has enough potential problems that it’s easy to shoot down change. Executives have responsibility without authority, and Council has authority without responsibility.

    I hate to sound like I’m living in the past but I stay informed about what the AMS is doing because of its propensity for repeating past mistakes. The two major structural proposals that came out of 2005-06 were Committee Reform and the Student Assembly (sound similar?). It was an assembly of about 75 or so that would meet once or twice a term, selected from a cross-section of campus (clubs, resource groups, random students that showed up, etc.) to talk about larger issues that are not specific to the inner workings of the AMS. Council approved this in principle on July 20, 2005. Unfortunately the Code and Policy Chair resigned before anything could be proposed but the original proposal is still there and there’s still a requirement for Code to report back on it with something concrete. At the time, the AMS was very concerned about accessibility of the organization, but perhaps it no longer is.

    Committee Reform was to change the fundamental dynamic of council from a reactive to a proactive body, one that was actually concerned with putting forward proposals. Complaints were that it would take up too much of the councillors time, and be unnecessary bureaucracy. Very recently when discussing the idea with one member of the executive, I was informed that they were worried it would take away too much executive authority (which is a ludicrous criticism because if anything the process set out a clearer separation of powers than the AMS has ever had before – effectively giving executives more authority over their areas of responsibility).

    Reform is a long process, made all the more difficult by two natural human behaviours: 1) councillors, executives, etc. feel justified in shooting down these proposals because they believe they are doing their best, and so the status quo is what is natural, and 2) change that will require more than a year to implement is not worth anyone’s effort, because it will only generate controversy with no guarantee of success.

    But the fact is that even compared to peer student societies, the AMS has substantial problems: about 1500 fewer voters than we should have, a chronic inability to consistently engage and consult with constituents, an ever increasing virtual deficit (rising salaries are paid for by reducing operational expenditures and converting student space into revenue-generating conference space, leaving a balanced budget but staff without the resources to do their jobs), and an inability to be consistently excellent in lobbying at the provincial level (and municipal level when/if required). Even if these were not the plans of the AMS they were the de facto plans because of the lack of a plan. An inability to plan, to transcend the one-year term, and a governmental culture that is anti-innovation *is* the natural order of things, but not because of inherent human behaviour but design. The AMS has a design problem and my experience with the organization is that the problem rests with Council and the Executive.

    The fact is that organizations like the AMS function not on communications plans or coordinators, or on how nice the website is, but on social networks. How many people are involved in the AMS and how many of them are saying it’s a good organization that gets the job done? Creating something like the Citizens/Student Assembly expands that network not just by the people who sit in it, but by their friends who would otherwise have no direct connection to the AMS.

    Structural reform is part and parcel of effective communications. It’s all well and good to say the AMS should be an important part of a student’s life, but if you don’t give them opportunities to make it a part of their life, you’ve only succeeded in teasing them. A Student Assembly would be way to overcome that.

    Substance is also part of a communications plan. Students are smart people and if they succeed in getting involved, you better have things happening that are worth their time. Committee reform was a way of doing that because it meant that Council would be engaged in the projects of actual councillors, rather than just the projects of the Executive. More proposals means more things to interest people means more involvement means a better AMS.

    But of course, these simple ideas are too radical by the standards of the AMS (historically, not just with this council or this executive) and it is worth invoking the only Immutable Law of the AMS that I ever came up with:

    Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.


  2. Anonymous on June 28, 2007 9:38 pm

    Umm… yeah, can we slow down a bit? I don’t think it’s quite time for the panic buttons. I can’t help but take exception to some of the comments here- I certainly don’t aim to put forward “Machiavellian” or “condescending” amendments.

    Last night, a very specific solution to a problem came forward from the floor. It’s a fair point that some people seemed unreasonably suspicious of how this new entity might interact with council. It’s also fair however, for people to see that there were some fundamental issues with the proposal, and that it had a slim chance of eventually passing at council as envisioned. Creating committees is an investment of limited time and resources we have available, and I’d like to have some confidence that the recommendations coming back will receive real consideration. For that reason, I felt it was useful to back up a step and find some consensus. The consensus point was consistent with what both previous points have identified- sometimes council is narrow in its representation and it would be a healthier organization if a wider body of interests were a part of its decision making. Now we have a committee that can investigate that problem and propose solutions- an assembly is one idea, but frankly, I think there are probably others that achieve the same functions in a different form. I don’t think that amounts to being oblivious to an issue, or to being close-minded about change.

    Reform- of elections, planning, communications, structure and governance, etc- takes a long time. In my opinion, that usually has less (less- not nothing) to do with a satisfaction with the status quo (as Spencer seems to suggest), or because of “elite students” who are enjoying the fruits of power (as Nate seems to suggest), and more to do with the fact that these are complex challenges. Silver bullet, fix-all solutions are nice in their advertising and rhetoric, and they’re nice when you find them, but more often are not what they appear.

    Committee reform, by the way, is still in a committee, and no exec has taken steps to prevent it from coming to council (I’ve asked for it to come back several times, and we created an oversight committee because we were sick of waiting).

    -Jeff Friedrich

  3. Paul on June 29, 2007 12:41 am

    It’s good to see that Nathan was paying attention in Poli 340.

  4. Nathan on June 29, 2007 1:00 am

    Hey Jeff,

    I would have made a huge mistake to have suggested the you were not the most impressive executive the AMS has ever seen! What I am arguing is different. The point of my article must have been hiding from you…beyond the first two paragraphs! Just kidding (maybe not). I argued that nobody on council is “Machiavellian” in the usual sense of term, (which is taken to mean “conniving, scheming,” but also calculating and coldy rational. In our case Bismark can be an example, even in Spencer disagrees. But that is a bad use of “Machiavellian”, since Machiavelli was an admirable republican. The Prince was the work that associated Machiavelli with “backstabbing”, but it was only one of his important works.) Anyways, no sense of the term “Machiavellian” applies to councilors; they are neither conspiratorial nor republican. Instead, they are liberal and “boring and without life”. In fact I accused council of having committed a “non-conspiracy”. Their elite position is secured by intuition, reflex and a certain training, none of which have to be conscious commitments. And I suggested that council debate is a good means to gain insight into the unconscious of councilors, and so I listed many quotations from the night. I’m glad you didn’t deny those quotations, but neither did you address them, and this is precisely what I mean to speak of non-conspiracy. What I mean is: the consensus functions precisely by quietude, not deliberation, (even if backroom deals are essential for the imperialism-capitalism of the present.) Ideology is a far greater weapon for ruling classes in our “sanctioned democracies” – and as I suggest, a weapon that elites may not even know they wield. People rule themselves, this is “governmentality”. Discipline is no longer exclusively physical and coercive, it is ideological.

    Why do you deny that councilors are elite? Many councilors are elites-in-training (gladly not yourself). They are elites who will soon occupy the most powerful positions in the country (not gladly not yourself), and those councilors have a very unsettling idea of the “masses”, democracy, the “non-involved masses” or whatever. I should add. It is very disingenuous for you to claim that people supported the word change because “creating committees is an investment of limited time and resources we have available”. Point of information and debate went for an hour and nobody brought this up at any point. The debate was about whether or not a Citizen’s Assembly had merit. My point is that many people who disagreed with the Assembly introduced a very elitist position. Aren’t you concerned?

    I should clear up something else. I don’t make a defense of the Citizen’s Assembly. I’m almost indifferent to the Citizen’s Assembly. I don’t see it as solution that will solve the “root problems” of democracy, as was claimed by the presenter. You should know by now that my solution is to end capitalism, not introduce Citizen’s Assemblies! : -) Of course, there is no such “silver bullet, fix-all solution” solution…but ending capitalism, ‘the society of the spectacle’, and all monopoly systems would be a start.

  5. Alex Lougheed on June 29, 2007 5:19 pm

    A fair number of fair criticisms, unfortunately enshrouded by writing a number of we non-political theory students may not be able to access, but I digress.

    Although the AMS is not directly considering the CA, we now have two committees (other being code and policy) that will be looking at how the AMS governs itself. This is a good thing, but considerations and the process for adopting them have to be done very delicately. Catch-all solutions, as Jeff says, are going to be incredible difficult to put in place, but I believe that is because there is a tone of compliance to the status-quo (many reasons for this, potentially including but not limited to this ‘elite’ [which to me is more of a problem of the organization not having reorganized itself to match a changing climate in quite some time] and the fact that a decent amount of the status-quo is actually pretty good), but there is also a lot of frustration, or at least I have noticed a lot of frustration with the status-quo around the council ring. The system of patching up holes when they open up, and adding bells and whistles when they’re discovered has robbed the structure of any life and abstracted, epiphenomenal meaning. I’m personally a fan of informed decisions, so I would be completely in favor of more student polling, more data accrual, more research towards best practices at other student org.’s (local and abroad), and a lot more emphasis on listening to the solidity of this data, and using it to inform our decisions with regards to reform and best practices.

    I do have a criticism though. Nathan, as a member of the board of this organization, you have the responsibility to do what you believe is best for the organization. This concept of the ‘elite’ you have, as far as I can tell, is counter-productive to the mission of the AMS, and so the burden and responsibility lies on your shoulders (as well as those too who also see this as an urgent problem) to work within the system to induce change. Admittantly, to work within a system to change itself, when people have noted the system itself is designed stagnant to change, may be difficult, but it is not impossible, and is the only way we can do these kinds of things.

  6. Gina Eom on June 30, 2007 3:36 pm

    I would like to note that the speaker, whoever they may be, was completely out of line when they added their own editorial in those meetings.

    (“I would like to go drinking”????? Actually, from that comment I bet I know who the speaker is.)

    It sounds as if the speaker is blurring the line between speaker and councillor. It further sounds like the speaker needs to take a page out of Jason Loxton’s books (a speaker from five years ago; oh how I wish institutional memory would linger…)

  7. maayan on July 1, 2007 8:20 pm

    But Jeff, your ammendement – to change the committee to something about “involving non-involved students” completely shifts away form the idea of a citizen’s assembly. In fact, a citizens’ assembly isn’t about involving non-involved students. It’s about gathering a statistical representation of what they would think, were they informed, and then using it. I think that the ideal of “involvement” that student government people are so eager to espouse is a bit strange. The fact is that not everyone has time or interest in your kind of involvement. Their role is to delegate those “involved” roles to the few people who do, and keep them accountable. A citizen’s assembly is valuable because it helps balance the influence of social circles and insider/outsider dynamics in decision making and elections buzz. It obviously doesn’t involve a whole lot of uninvolved students, but it is representative, and useful to inform in both directions: government, and general student population.

    Creating more “involvement” is a much more difficult task, and in my opinion, not a great goal. It’s quite persumptuous. Informing and building awareness are things the Assembly is good for, and those are the things that are more important for the electorate.

  8. Anonymous on July 10, 2007 5:42 pm

    The ad-hoc committee met and we’re bringing a motion to rename ourselves something more along the lines of what we all intended:
    “Ad-Hoc Representation and Engagement Reform Committee” (AHRERC) aka “the committee formly known as involving non-involveds”.

    We also had a very productive meeting and are investigating 8-odd options that fall within what we defined to be our (more specific) mandate.

    – Alex

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind

Spam prevention powered by Akismet