I have been asked to chair a meeting, unexpectedly, and after the meeting has started. It’s a group of groups, an organisation, of which I am part, where groups have both autonomy and belong to one social enterprise at the same time. We sell fairly traded tea amongst other things, but at the heart of the operation is the idea that economic relations are coterminous with social relations. Trade is not just buying and selling at the best price, or for maximum profit, but defines the way we relate to each other as human beings. We can think of selling products to customers, or we can think of developing relations between communities, part of which will be expressed through trade. Trading differently, community to community, has the potential for transforming unequal relations and economic injustice, of humanising the numbers. It is an emancipatory project and aspires to difference.
As an organisation we are a loose conglomeration of interested individuals who have come together through various means to support a common undertaking. We have all been to meet the Indian tribals, the adivasis, who grow the tea we are selling. We have accreted, and lost, members organically. As we attract new people so new possibilities emerge. We ebb and flow, all of us volunteers, although there is a continuous core of people. We are a group of great diversity: teachers, consultants, community activists, unemployed, directors and non-directors of this particular organisation.
So how should we meet when we meet, which we do infrequently, no more than once or twice a year, and how should I chair? On the one hand we are an organisation, a company with accounts to keep, minutes to take, decisions to agree. As a company we are obliged to think about the twin gods of the rational economic world, efficiency and effectiveness. When we apply for funding funders want to know where we want to be in five years time, what our business plan is, how our sales will grow. The pressures to conform to what is expected are great. To be business-like, then, implies that I should set out an agenda, agree timings for each of the agenda items and make sure we stick to these. We would agree what it is we want to achieve at the beginning and then evaluate at the end whether we have achieved it. This is the way we run our directors’ meetings, mostly, and this is how most business meetings are run.
On the other hand, we have all grown out of a perpetual conversation which is based on negotiation: negotiation with the Indians who grow the tea, negotiations with each other about who we are and what we want, negotiations with the communities and groups to whom we sell the tea. Many things that have happened we could not have predicted: one thing led to another. We do not deny the power relations that are between us, directors and non-directors, older and younger, more and less experienced, but we acknowledge them and try to find ways of working with them. This might imply a different way of working, a more open, more discursive way of allowing the meeting to run its course with no end in view. We might talk about what it is that we need to talk about, and pay attention to how we are doing it. We could value the way we are continuing to negotiate who we are and what we are doing together. There is no way of avoiding working with power, but we could continue to negotiate how it arises between us as the meeting progresses.
Of course this is not an either/or. We have to do both at the same time, pay attention to getting through the business, as well as leaving ourselves open to the constant negotiation to which we have grown accustomed, and with it the difference of the potential for unexpected outcomes of relating to each other. The way we meet will be critically important to our experience of the enterprise in which we take part. And I am using the word ‘experience’ explicitly here: we have an emancipatory theory of economic justice and trade, but we are also trying to practice it, and the practice starts in the room in which we are sitting. To labour the point, we have to experience the emancipatory possibilities of meeting differently in the room together. Otherwise we are just another business.
I am suggesting here a different way of understanding what might conventionally be thought of as ‘task’ and ‘process’. In more orthodox descriptions of how meetings work these are usually separated out and we think of our meetings as being ‘too task focused’ or ‘too processy’. At best we are encouraged to have them in ‘balance’ with due regard to both task AND process. Instead I am suggesting no separation between the two – to take a ‘business-like’ approach to the meeting would have defined what it was and was not possible to say, just as running the meeting discursively would also encourage the discussion of some things and inhibit others. We are conditioned in our expectations, in our ways of behaving by what the philosopher GH Mead referred to as ‘social objects’. A social object is a habituated form of social relating, such as a birthday party, an election or a meeting. By having been to so many we are each participating in this particular meeting with a set of expectations about what a meeting should be like, and these both constrain and enable us.
In the moment I decide to take the second course, to run things discursively. But it can be frustrating to meet in a large group and to talk about what we think needs talking about, because we cannot do so without bumping into ourselves and our own expectations. We are continuously encountering difference and this is frustrating: we might be cross that one of our number is going on too long, or is talking about something ‘irrelevant’, or we might feel that this is not the way we are used to participating. There is a lot of anxiety about using the time well, about achieving an ‘outcome’. Conflicts, differences of opinion, erupt from time to time: one participant complains that she no longer recognises a draft paper she worked on which has been edited by another group. Another participant wants to know how the directors meet and what they talk about; yet another participant has always wanted to know how the financial year runs. Some people speak very little, others speak too much.
So one of the things we are negotiating, here in the room, is mutual recognition, having what I think is important heard, even if it is not important to you. We are also coming to terms with our idealisations about leaders: that because directors are directors then they somehow know everything that is going on, have special powers to fix things, or talk about things in special ways. We are negotiating how to use our time together, learning to participate in this group.
In participating, if we do so fully, we encounter the otherness of others, and if we can remain open to this otherness, this difference, we are offered a glimpse of our own limitations. By finding ways of rubbing along with those who are like us but are not us we can experience the possibility of coming to understand ourselves anew. We are conscious of the constraints of our business project, which we still need to address, but in meeting this way we are also exploring, feeling our way. The emancipatory trade project, of which we are part, if it is to be transformational will consist of a continuous process of opening ourselves up to our preconceptions and assumptions, and our ingrained ways of understanding the world. To achieve difference will be to practice differently: rather than having the end in view, we’ll know the end when we get there, but the end will be consistent with the means of getting there.