Gathering to talk
In Yemen, people gather to chew qãt, a leaf which releases a juice with properties similar to caffeine. Chews occur daily in public or semipublic spaces, sometimes in the rooms of large houses, or the offices of civic associations. They’re an opportunity for talk among those who may or may not know each other; they’re social occasions, but also in some sense political meetings. They’re a ‘space of appearance’ in Arendt’s terms.
More men chew than women, and they do so separately. Among men, conversations may be concerned with business or religious matters, social issues or politics and public affairs; they may or may not be structured across several meetings or organised around the presence of a special guest. Conversations among women are not public in the same way: they almost invariably take place among intimates and are concerned with domestic affairs, such as relations between family members. Women politicians protest at being excluded from an arena in which politics is conventionally done.
A chew takes place typically in a long, rectangular room. High-status participants sit at the end, and others around the walls, their relative status diminishing the further they sit from the head. When someone new arrives, others shuffle up so that he can find an appropriate space. In this fashion, the chew creates an arena in which men might meet and talk, but does so in such a way as to reproduce the prevailing social hierarchy.
Chewing qãt is significant here in making for ‘presentations of self as deliberative persons‘, as Lisa Wedeen explains, drawing an analogy with the coffee houses which Habermas identified as seminal to the construction of a bourgeois public sphere in Europe in the 18th century. Importantly, too, as she points out, each discussion is carried on in the light of others, whether previous ones held in the same forum, or in the knowledge of others having taken place elsewhere, or by extension other communicative events such as sermons, speeches and newspaper articles. Gathering to chew qãt forms a moment of connection with an imagined, more general and abstract political community, which of course exists only to the extent that it is likewise imagined in other conversations elsewhere.
Bibi van der Zee’s Protestor’s Handbook has chapters on fundraising, petitions, demonstrations, boycotts, letters, lobbying, union activity, fact-finding, getting publicity, standing for election, legal action, non-violence and civil disobedience, direct action and occupation. But it begins with a chapter on meeting.
Meetings are for the practicalities of organization and planning, but also for making sense of who we are and what we want, of how we should organize and perhaps whether we should organize at all. They happen in moments of crisis, but are also a way of keeping a political community and its project alive. In some contexts, the meeting is the project.
‘Doing politics differently’ often means doing meetings differently. The Industrial Areas Foundation was founded in 1940 by Saul Alinsky, as a network of organizations and groups engaged in community activism and committed to radical democratic practice. That practice is a practice of meeting: its work begins in ‘one-on-ones’ in which individual organizers seek out conversations with counterparts in other settings, in unions and religious organizations, social movements and public service. In turn, local associations hold house meetings in the neighbourhoods in which they work, bringing more people to talk and listen to each other, while periodic conferences bring regional networks together. In this way, ‘central to IAF practice is the continual movement of meetings and members around the various neighborhoods and institutions of an urban area’.
Richard Fenno spent time with Congressmen at home in their constituencies, asking what work they do there. They’re home to engage with the constituents they represent, and they do so in different ways, in gatherings and meetings of different kinds. Each develops something like a ‘home style’, constructing opportunities to present him or herself to his or her constituents in a way most likely to gain their support. What kind of a person will their constituents vote for, and what kind of a person are they are they able to be?
One congressman plays principally to his personal identity: he thinks of his constituency as a natural community, and of himself not just in it, but of it. His calculation is that his constituents will vote for someone who knows them, someone who is like them, who is one of them. His natural terrain is the civic, business or social gathering: the barbecue, the business lunch, the local fair.
Another congressman trades on his understanding of and engagement with political issues. He thinks of his constituency as made up of different social and economic worlds, and of himself as an advocate of policies designed to promote the respective interests of their members. Accordingly, he looks for occasions to speak, to debate and discuss. His calculation, by contrast to his counterpart, is not that his constituents will vote by connecting issues with policies, but that they will vote for someone who seems qualified and competent to do so.
In both cases, notably, politicians are concerned with the presentation of self, and this self is neither given to them a priori, nor readily accessible to those with whom they interact. It must continually be presented, expressed and proved; it must be performed. For it is in giving performances of one kind rather than another, in encounters and meetings of one kind rather than another, that a politician creates the conditions for his or her own agency, the conditions which make it most likely for him or her to be able to act.
What do local councillors do? They have meetings: in their constituencies, in their parties and in their councils.
For the busy councillor, casework and other commitments of this kind are usually fitted in between meetings more formally conceived. But constituency activity invariably has many of the characteristics of meeting: councillors meet individual constituents who raise matters of concern with them, and addressing those issues will entail further meetings with council officers. Meanwhile, councillors attend community and other events not least because they serve as occasions for direct encounters, however brief and informal they may be, with constituents.
Many councillors are elected as representatives of political parties, and as such are engaged in party discussion and decision making processes. These meetings, like others, may be more or less formal and institutionalised, or very informal and ad hoc.
Councillors spend some of their time – sometimes much of their time – in council meetings, of course. These might be full Council or Cabinet meetings, or meetings of subsidiary and component Committees and groups, or of external bodies and partnerships. Many meetings have a consultative and coordinating function, and include both councillors and council officers; many will be routine and/or scheduled some time in advance. One councillor lists on one day, for example, a weekly meeting between the Leader and the Deputy Chief Executive and a fortnightly meeting of the Finance Group, and on another a fortnightly meeting of Convenors and Directors and a weekly meeting with the Head of Communications and Marketing. What is striking, too, is the number of meetings which have as their object the planning and conduct of other meetings. This is a conspicuous feature of meetings both in councils and in party groups.
From the accounts they give of their everyday activity, the work of councillors is the work of meetings. We might understand the work of the councillor by understanding the function and process of the meeting, and the function of the council by understanding the meetings of which it is comprised.
Following Arendt, we should not be surprised by the fact of meeting and the work it entails, though we might be surprised at its volume, diversity and intricacy; at the succession and sequences of meetings, and the extent to which the meeting is a topic of activity and not simply a resource for it. The meeting seems self-evidently an expression of Arendt’s notion of plurality: not directly, but as an institutionalised response to the problem of plurality, that is of living together in communities in the world. It seems, similarly, to match her sense of the epistemology of plurality: the meeting is where the constituent tests a sense of a problem with her councillor, where it is defined and redefined, validated or otherwise; it is where councillors debate with officers and each other what the problem is and what might be done about it; it is where each participant forms an understanding of the identities and capacities of others.
Action in meetings is as uncertain in its outcome as any other action is: understandings formed and decisions taken there may or may not be realised or revised in practice, or in other meetings. For each meeting is transitory, ethereal and ephemeral; meetings are where stories are told, constructed and developed, and the story which emerges from the meeting is no more than a preliminary fixing of what has gone on there. As a result, meetings consist in significant part in accounts of what has happened in other meetings.
The party conference
One of the functions of the party conference is to hold the meetings required to sustain it (the party) as an organization: to present the work of committees concerned with finance, membership and so on, and to have it ratified by party members. At the same time, and for similar reasons, another is to make occasional encounters more likely, among different groups of officials, elected representatives and members as well as between them. The conference, an organized assembly of those with similar interests and commitments, increases opportunities for and the density of ad hoc, more or less impromptu and face-to-face exchanges. In this way, the conference serves as a kind of meta-meeting, a meeting of meetings. We might think of organizations working in a similar way, as frameworks in which meetings take place – as institutionalised conferences, perhaps: the parliament, the political party and the local council are each in a sense ‘architectures of meeting‘.
Florence Faucher-King describes the conference season as ‘an annual rite of renewal’: convening at the seaside takes parties out of parliament and back to the country, reconnecting the Westminster political machines with their filaments of support in local communities and branch organisations. The conference distinguishes the party from the institutional framework of British politics and from other parties. In this way, the conference, too, is something like a demonstration, albeit in this case a demonstration of what is taken to be due political process: ‘In its ritualised conferment of legitimacy on political elites, it highlights the sacred dimension of politics’.