Elevate Difference

Come Hell or High Water: A Handbook on Collective Process Gone Awry

Mahatma Gandhi famously urged his followers to “be the change you want to see in the world.” It sounds so simple: Be kind, listen well, mediate conflicts, and treat all living things with respect. But as anyone who has ever worked in a community or civic organization knows, power plays are common and Gandhi’s counsel is easy to ignore.

Delfina Vannucci and Richard Singer’s Come Hell or High Water is a pocket-sized pamphlet meant to help anarchist organizers avoid the pitfalls endemic to social change efforts. The lessons are clearly written—and supplemented by hilarious line drawings. They’re also applicable beyond anarchist circles. Indeed, this practical manual offers easy-to-follow guidelines that can be applied to all kinds of situations, from the workplace to the affinity group.

For example, anyone who has ever participated in a so-called collective has seen how difficult it is to share power. Time and again, we see a charismatic leader rise to the top, becoming the de facto spokesperson and decision-maker, while everyone else scurries to assist him or her. Despite lip service about all members being equal, in practice, this rarely if ever happens. “When the ideal of egalitarianism is allowed to flounder unattended to,” Vannucci and Singer write, “it can devolve right back into the patterns that most of us knew in our lives outside of collectives: Hierarchy, mistrust, looking out only for oneself, and sometimes even underhanded scheming.”

Their solution? Pay attention to process, encourage debate, be sure all individuals and factions get a chance to air their positions, and then vote. While consensus is important, they conclude, voting allows dissenting opinions to be recorded and lets all sides vent their ideas before a final tally. They also offer a check list of behaviors that erode participation: Tolerating people who act exasperated or impatient, as if less-popular members are wasting the group‘s time with questions or contending opinions; slandering a member of the group behind his or her back between meetings; using intimidation tactics to keep opposition at bay; condoning behavior that lets a few activists act wounded or victimized by criticism; making oneself indispensable and not sharing information; treating others as though they are silly or stupid; and injecting fear by projecting dire consequences if things are not done a particular way.

While concrete examples of these practices—and how they destroyed a collective or came close—would have made the pamphlet even stronger, anyone who has attempted to plan an action, organize an event, or create something new will recognize the destructive demeanors outlined in Come Hell or High Water. Making the Diva or Dictator aware of his or her actions—and making clear that such behavior is unacceptable—Vannucci and Singer write, is key to developing a new paradigm. They also argue that collective process doesn’t mean that people have to agree with each other 100 percent of the time. Instead, learning how to disagree without rancor and engaging in civil discourse despite disagreements is a good starting point in recasting the world. As Gandhi made clear, progressive advancement requires imagination and creativity to envision alternatives to capitalism, war, oppression, and hierarchies.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, April 2nd 2010