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Stephen Polk, UCD lecturer, on anarchy, Occupy and the failure of democracy

This week's cover story, "Free for All," talks about living off the grid and anarchism in the radical community -- topics of great interest to Stephen Polk, who not only lectures on political science, ecological crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement at University of Colorado Denver, but has over a decade of experience living in alternative communities and organizing anti-war protests.

We dig into all of these subjects in the following wide-ranging Q&A.

Currently residing in a community house that grows its own food, raises chickens and operates on a consensus model, Polk is also a facilitator of a community housing collective Facebook page, which links together Denver's radical living spaces in order to share goods and trade services.

While not all people in this community identify as anarchists, most operate within a system in step with the principles of anarchism, and in our chat with Polk, he helps shed light on this often maligned political belief.

Westword: How did you first discover the radical community?

Stephen Polk: I was politically active during the Iraq war protest years. I was going to school at Auraria, and was kind of living collectively -- though it was just with my brothers and people I grew up with. There wasn't a whole lot of intention behind it. It was more of a punk house.

Could you explain the difference between a punk house and a collective?

It's really about intention. The main intention of a punk house is to have parties, for the most part, whereas at a more community-oriented house, the intention is cooperation, shared labor, shared living expenses. There's a fundamental difference.

I'd met a lot of self-identified anarchists during the anti-war protests, and they were living collectively. That's how I first got into it. It seemed really attractive to me during that time, because there were protests all over the world, in South America, Europe, everywhere. The New York Times had written a story about there being a "second-world super-power," which was supposedly world public opinion.

But that didn't happen. The bombs started falling, Bush was reelected. I realized that protests weren't enough; we needed to create the world we wanted to live in now, instead of protesting about it. If you're against homophobia or patriarchy, then you create a community with your values at the heart of it.

So living the way you do -- with bikes, gardens, collective houses, etc. -- that is a type of protest within itself?

I think it is. If you're against capitalism, or want to help protect the environment, you can try and create relationships with people that exist outside of the capitalist system. Same with the environment: You try and live a lifestyle that adheres to ecological cycles. It's a lifestyle choice, and in that way, it's not explicit resistance or revolution, but without creating that model that other people can look at and say, "Oh, you guys work less, and you have stronger relationships, you get a lot of food for free," then they won't catch on.

To me, 50 percent of inspiring a revolution is creating the world you want to live in right now.

Do you identify as an anarchist?

I have a weird relationship with that word. Most of my academic writing is on that subject. It's a loaded word. Most of the progressive or revolutionary causes are phrased in a way that's not accessible to regular people.

To me, anarchy is combining individualism with our collectivist inclinations. How that's expressed in many communities is through practicing consensus. With consensus, you're making choices as a collective whole -- while at the same time anyone in the consensus can block a proposal for moving forward. They can do this under two conditions: One, if the proposal violates a core principle of the group, and two, if it would prevent that person from continuing to engage in the group.

Sounds somewhat like Washington: several people voting on an action, some blocking, some arguing that it violates an agreed-upon constitution.

Yeah. The founding fathers did create a vibrant model of democracy for its time. Anarchists want to supersede that and create a more democratic, more open process.

But it's the absence of authority that sets anarchism apart, yes?

Yes. Except for the agreed-upon organization that the people have created themselves.

Would you agree that this type of operation can only function on a small scale? I mean, the reason we have representatives in a country with 300 million people is that it's impossible to get all of those people to vote on every issue through a consensus model.

Yeah, I think essentially you're talking about scale. Could these policies survive with the 300 million people in America, or the one billion people in China? From looking at how our democratic process has played out in history, I'd say you're probably right.

Continue for more of our Q&A with Stephen Polk.

Westword: True, our current system is pretty gridlocked.

Stephen Polk: And that's one of the reasons that Occupy emerged, because of the corrupt nature of our political system. Democracy isn't serving a majority of the people in this country. It's serving the rich, which can be seen in the huge and growing income disparity.

One of the principles often cited in anarchism is the decentralization of the system. More local control, more autonomy. Which is problematic in some ways and more liberating in other ways. And anarchists don't shy away from those kinds of difficult questions. We'd like to create a system that is able to balance local autonomy with some sort of federated, liberated, municipality.

Occupy Denver from Shelby Smith on Vimeo.

You brought up Occupy, which I know you were heavily involved in. What exactly went wrong there? I don't want to say it failed, but it certainly didn't endure.

There are a number of different reasons that contributed to the fall of Occupy. I also don't want to say "failure," because if you say that it failed, you really don't understand the historical processes of movements. They always stand on the shoulders on the poor, and something like Occupy was an extension of what happened in the Sixties. And you could go as far back the Iroquois confederacy.

With Occupy, there was a benefit and a liability in that it brought together a lot of people who had no experience in political protests, thrust into an unweildy model that required a lot of experience. Consensus and horizontal decision-making is not easy, especially when you have hundreds of different political experiences and backgrounds in the group.

In the society we're living in we're not taught how to effectively participate in the democratic process.

Well, there are a lot of outreach campaigns to get people to vote.

Yeah, well, vote. You can vote. But voting is a very passive and ineffectual method of participating. In a general assembly you're able to express your opinion, have other people critique that opinion, and make a decision on it, or actively deny it. When you have a process that makes decisions that everyone is comfortable with, you maximize solidarity while preserving individual autonomy.

When I was first introduced into this process of decision-making, I didn't know how to effectively participate in it, but now, after ten or twelve years of living in that model, I know how to navigate it.

That brings up what I've seen as the ultimate flaw of the radical community: You basically need to take a course on how to interact with this micro-culture -- learning the fashion, the politics, the views on sexuality and ethics and food -- before you'll feel comfortable enough to interact with anyone. That's the chief complaint I hear about attending Food Not Bombs or a bicycle collective, it's so specifically eccentric that it feels exclusionary.

That's a real problem in the "scene" aspect of collective living. When you look at the political movement side of it, they're very serious about democracy, which means including other people's voices while maintaining their own. If we're going to have any kind of successful movement, it has to be made up of people from different cultures -- especially the most marginalized, like the poor and people of color.

If we're not doing that, we're just perpetuating the middle-class values of high fashion. That's not a movement, it's just a culture.

Follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.

More from our Occupy Denver archive circa December 2012: "Occupy Wall Street enters the classroom at UCD next semester."


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