3 Meeting 3 Meeting
3.4

Political meeting

Gathering to talk

Sometimes in educated circles an article from a newspaper might be read aloud and then discussed. At other times a guest will be required to offer a summary of his or her political experience or research. A recently returned migrant may discuss his life abroad or his impressions of his former host country. A visiting poet may recite recent work and invite commentary from the audience. When no topic is immediately obvious, participants propose themes and then engage in a brief discussion to decide which topic most merits further debate. Once a topic is chosen, individual speakers present their views in persuasive, politically relevant displays.

Lisa Wedeen, ‘The politics of deliberation’, 2007

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.


Activists

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.

Natalia Morar helped to organise the protests which took place in Moldova in December 2009, which came about ‘through Twitter, the blogosphere, the internet, SMS, websites. We just met, we brainstormed for 15 minutes, and decide to make a flash mob. In several hours, 15 000 people came out onto the street’. There was no network in the square where the demonstrations took place, however. As Bibi van der Zee notes, ‘Nothing, once you’re actually there, can beat a megaphone, just as nothing, while you’re gearing up for an event, really beats face-to-face meetings’.

Bibi van der Zee, The Protestor’s Handbook, 2010

Our relationships forged the practical commitments to one another that held the union together. They made us accountable to each other. They were difficult and multifaceted, often frustrating, intensely vulnerable, and potentially transformative but no less prone than any other relationship to carelessness, hurt, and betrayal, and always a lot of work. We were constantly building them and testing their limits, pushing each other harder the closer we got. They had to bear a lot of weight….

It’s not that class and race and gender disappear, transcended by the cause — but the need to work together to achieve a shared end provides a baseline of commonality that makes it possible to relate across difference and essential to figure out how. That’s why you meet people one-on-one and talk about what you both care about, why you open up to someone you only know as a colleague or share with a stranger things you hardly even discuss with your friends. It’s why I cried about the humiliation of the grad-school pecking order with my organizer when I wouldn’t admit to anyone else that I was struggling. One-on-ones are countercultural: the conversations you have in them challenge your default expectations of who you can relate to, force you outside of the demographic categories that organize most of your life and the scripts you’ve learned for interacting with people accordingly. You build trust with people you have no prior reason to trust not simply by affirming your commitment to the shared project, your devotion to the Borg, but by coming to understand what brought someone else to it.

Alyssa Battistoni, ‘Spadework’, 2019

These interminable meetings… sitting on the floor, in this big room, and there was this endless meeting, about the demands, and what would we do if and when the cops came, and what did we want, and did we really want amnesty for the Columbia students… in the way of those meetings it was so deadening because it just went on and on and on and on… I mostly remember just this sense of tedium…

Fernando Rosas was a left-wing activist in Portugal, and remembers the moment in April 1974 when General Caetano surrendered to the rebel tanks and the crowd in Lisbon’s Largo do Como. Had he actually been there? ‘No, of course not… I had to go, there were resolutions to write, standpoints to establish, meetings to attend!’

Geert Mak, In Europe, 2004

When students occupied the University of Zagreb in the early spring of 2009, they formed a decision-making plenum, open to both students and staff and also to members of the community. ‘The plenum itself was neither territory nor community, but rather a temporary assembly, which only existed as long as the assembly lasted. Consequently, there were no members, but only the act of assembling, discussing and deciding, without identification and representation.’

Gerald Raunig, Factories of Knowledge, 2013

The Afghans that come to the camp do not come for food and blankets, although it is very nice, this is not what we come for. Every time I come to meetings we discuss blankets, but we are not hungry, we do not come for blankets, open the borders.

Afghan Migrant, noborder camp, Calais, June 2009, in Joe Rigby and Raphael Schlembach,’Impossible protest: noborders in Calais’, 2013

The day would be started in the morning pretty early, as early as you could get it, 7.0, 8.0, you’d go round the fire, have your breakfast and then we’d discuss what to do… so if there’s diggers to be dived on, we’d go jumping on diggers. If there was wood to be got or water to be got then you’d have a team go and get in the wood and the water…

Protestor, in Adrian Arbib, ‘Keep It Fluffy’, 2017

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’.

The IAF not only mobilizes for traditional public meetings, but organizes its own public accountability meetings, where elected officials (and the media) are called to participate in, say, a large meeting in the low-ceiling basement of a church in a very poor black section of town, with an agenda, process, and temporality that is not of the official’s design or custom, and a group of Mexicanos/as who respond after official pronouncements with cicada-sounding instruments. Suddenly, those who typically preside – and are seen to preside – over the ‘common’ public space find themselves situated in a common space where they are decidedly not in control, a common space where the topics under discussion, the framing of these topics, the duration allotted to various speakers, the mood in the room, and so forth, are now disproportionately organized by the peoples of neighborhoods mostly ignored by the hegemonic halls of public deliberation.

At their best, these meetings, often called ‘accountability sessions’, are artfully and reflectively crafted ‘public dramas’, symbolic spaces that resituate public officials such that they are no longer those presiding over public space from the heights of their elevated chairs deciding who among these others will be ‘included’ as serious voices in the discussion and how, as well as who and what will not. Rather, they find themselves now as the ‘others and otherness to be included’, initiated into the world by others, figuring on their ground.

Romand Coles, ‘Moving democracy’, 2004

Congressmen

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.

He “beats the bushes,” and “ploughs the ground,” in search of face-to-face contact with the people of his district. From county to county, town to town, up and down main street, in and out of county courthouses, through places of business, into homes and back yards, over country roads and into country stores, from early morning till late at night: …he ‘mixes and mingles’ conveying the impression that he is one of them. In each encounter, he reaches (if the other person does not provide it) for some link between himself and the person he is talking with – and between that person and some other person. There is no conversation that does not involve an elaboration of an interpersonal web and of the ties that bind its members one to the other. In the forefront, always, are ties of family… His memory and his interest serve him equally well in finding other common ground – be it rivers, plants and trees, farms, crops and businesses, hunting, fishing and football, land, buildings and automobiles, home, church, and country… He continually files, sorts, arranges and rearranges his catalogues of linkages – person-to-person, place to place, event to event, time to time.

Richard Fenno, ‘US House members in their constituencies, 1977

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.

Goffman does not talk about politicians; but politicians know what Goffman is talking about. Goffman’s dramaturgical analogues are appropriate to politics because politicians, like actors, perform before audiences and are legitimized by their audiences.

Richard Fenno, ‘US House members in their constituencies’, 1977

He would sit in a living room or a yard, morning, afternoon, and evening (sometimes as often as eight or ten times each day) with one or two dozen people, stating his issue positions, answering their questions, and engaging in give and take… (B)efore groups of 4 to 300, in town halls, schools, and community centers, he articulates the issues in a question and answer format. The exchanges are informative and wide-ranging; they are punctuated with enthusiasm and wit. The open meetings, like the coffees, allow Congressman B to play to his personal strengths – his issue interests and his verbal agility.

Richard Fenno, ‘US House members in their constituencies, 1977

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.


Councillors

What do local councillors do? They have meetings: in their constituencies, in their parties and in their councils.

10.00am-12noon: constituent case work (responding to emails, telephone calls and following up issues with Council officers

1200-1300 church garden opening… Combination of socialising on-duty and picking up casework from constituents who button-hole me… 1300–1600 vintage car spectacular…. Making way round two dozen retailers and other businesses for informal chats, along with chats of various lengths with constituents who recognise me. The social public events are bread and butter to a local politician. They are worthwhile and useful. They give people the opportunity to meet and often present issues informally

Local councillors, in Richard Freeman, ‘The role of the councillor’, 2019

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.

I serve as a member of the policy forum of my party and as such I have to attend a number of key meetings throughout the year to progress the policy agenda within the party

1715-1845 Coffee with councillor colleague from neighbouring authority (adjoining ward) for catch-up, coordination and info sharing

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.

I chaired a meeting of the administration group which comprises the chairs of the various committees within the… Council together with the senior management team

Meeting with the Director of Environment Department… The meeting was to primarily discuss the agenda for my Convener’s meeting at 10am. We spoke about the three items on the forthcoming Environment Committee and I requested an update on a number of issues the department has been working on

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

There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and affirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality. Now this moral remaking cannot be achieved except by the means of reunions, assemblies and meetings where the individuals, being closely united to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments.

Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1912

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’.

Notes

Material on the qãt chew is from Wedeen, L (2007) ‘The politics of deliberation: qãt chews as public spheres in Yemen’, Public Culture 19 (1) 59-84, with cited material ‘Sometimes in educated circles…’ from p 66 and ‘Presentations of self as deliberative persons’ p 61

Bibi van der Zee, B (2010) The Protestor’s Handbook, London: Guardian Books; Natalie Morar is cited p 115 and van der Zee comments p 116

‘Our relationships forged…’: Alyssa Battistoni (2019) ‘Spadework. On political organizing’, n+1 34

Tessa DeCarlo appeared on BBCR3 Free Thinking: Counterculture and Protest, 11 January 2018

Fernando Rosas in Geert Mak (2007) In Europe. Travels through the twentieth century, trans Sam Garrett, London: Penguin Vintage, p 678

‘The plenum itself…’: Raunig, G (2013) Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity, Los Angeles, CA: semiotext(e), p74

‘The Afghans that come to the camp…’: Afghan migrant, in Rigby, J and Schlembach, R (2013) ‘Impossible protest: noborders in Calais’, Citizenship Studies 17 (2) 157-172, p 157

‘The day would be started…’: in Adrian Arbib, ‘Keep It Fluffy‘, 1:50-2:10

‘One more important constituent…’: Ramonaitė 2010 op cit, p 95

Material on the Industrial Areas Foundation is from Coles, R (2004) ‘Moving democracy: industrial areas foundation social movements and the political arts of listening, traveling, and tabling’, Political Theory 32 (5) 678-705; direct quotation is from p 689 (‘central to IAF practice…’) and p 697 (‘The IAF not only mobilizes…’)

Case material on Congressmen is from Fenno, R F (1977) ‘U.S. House Members in their constituencies: an exploration’, American Political Science Review 71 (3) 883-917: ‘He “beats the bushes”…’: is p 900 and ‘He would sit in a living room…’ p 904 and p 905; ‘Goffman does not talk about politicians…’ is p 898

Material on councillors is from Freeman, R (2019) ‘The role of the councillor and the work of meeting’, Local Government Studies 46 (4) 564-582

Faucher-King, F (2005) Changing Parties: An Anthropology of British Political Party Conferences, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p 12

Durkheim, E, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans Joseph Ward Swain, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1915, p 427