Why the Consensus Process Has a Poor Track Record in Activist Movements

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Yves here. I don’t have trouble with having bosses, provided they are good ones. Unfortunately, they are hard to find and we seem to be making fewer and fewer of them.

Note that even Occupy Wall Street, which started out with a consensus-type decision process, found itself having to modify it so as not to become hostage to obstructionists or members with very narrow interests. Some groups moved to 80% and 90% majority votes as a basis for action.

By L.A. Kauffman. Originally published at the Berkeley Journal of Sociology

Consensus decision-making, a process in which groups come to agreement without voting, has been a central feature of direct action movements for nearly 40 years, from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s to the turn-of-the-millennium global justice movement to 2011’s Occupy Wall Street. Instead of voting a controversial plan up or down, groups that make decisions by consensus work to refine the plan until everyone finds it acceptable. A primer on the NYC General Assembly website, the structural expression of the Occupy movement, explained, “Consensus is a creative thinking process: When we vote, we decide between two alternatives. With consensus, we take an issue, hear the range of enthusiasm, ideas and concerns about it, and synthesize a proposal that best serves everybody’s vision.”

Proponents make broad claims for consensus process. They argue that it is intrinsically more democratic than other methods, and that it fosters radical transformation, both within movements and in their relations with the wider world. As described in the action handbook of an Earth Day 1990 action to shut down Wall Street, which included a blockade of the entrances to the Stock Exchange and led to some 200 arrests, “Consensus at its best offers a cooperative model of reaching group unity, an essential step in creating a culture that values cooperation over competition.”

Few, though, know the origins of the process, which shed an interesting and surprising light on its troubled real-world workings. Consensus decision-making first entered the world of grassroots activism in the summer of 1976, when a group of activists calling themselves the Clamshell Alliance began a direct-action campaign against the planned Seabrook Nuclear Plan

Many activists of the time were well aware of what feminist writer Jo Freeman famously called “the tyranny of structurelessness.” The tendency in some early 1970s movements to abandon all structure in the name of spontaneity and informality had proven to be not just unworkable but undemocratic. Decisions still happened, but without an agreed-upon process, there was no accountability.

The organizers of “the Clam,” as it was often called, were eager to find a process that could prevent the pitfalls of structurelessness, without resorting to hierarchy. Two staffpeople from the American Friends Service Committee, the longstanding and widely admired peace and justice organization affiliated with the Society of Friends, or Quakers, suggested consensus.

By this, they did not mean an informal process of building broad internal agreement of the sort used, for instance, by the pathbreaking civil rights group SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the early 1960s. The consensus process adopted by the Clam was much more formal, and grew directly out of Quaker religious practice. As historian A. Paul Hare explained it, “For over 300 years the members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) have been making group decisions without voting. Their method is to find a ‘sense of the meeting’ which represents a consensus of those involved. Ideally this consensus is not simply ‘unanimity,’ or an opinion on which all members happen to agree, but a ‘unity’: a higher truth which grows from the consideration of divergent opinions and unites them all.

That unity, they believe, has a spiritual source: Within Quaker theology, the process is in effect a manifestation of the divine. A 1943 “Guide to Quaker Practice” explained, “The principle of corporate guidance, according to which the Spirit can inspire the group as a whole, is central. Since there is but one Truth, its Spirit, if followed will produce unity.” Consensus process will eventually yield a decision, in other words, because discussing, listening, and waiting will ultimately reveal God’s will. Patience will lead to Truth.

This religious core was left unmentioned when consensus decision-making came to the world of secular activism. Quakers do not, as a rule, proselytize their faith, and the two AFSC organizers working on the Seabrook anti-nuclear campaign — Sukie Rice and Elizabeth Boardman — were no exception. They were emphatically not looking to impose their religion on the group. They introduced the decision-making method because it seemed to them a good fit with the larger movement yearning for inclusive and truly democratic forms of decision-making, as well as with the philosophy of nonviolence, in which one tries to understand the heart and motivation of one’s opponent. “Under consensus, the group takes no action that is not consented to by all group members,” explained a Clamshell action manual, using italics to underscore the point: Everyone’s voice would matter.

The process quickly spread among those segments of the activist left that embraced direct action as central to their strategy. Some called it “feminist process,” for it seemed to embody feminist ideals of participation, inclusion, and egalitarianism. Rice recalled, “[People] had no idea that Clamshell would be the prototype for all the other groups that took off from there, they had no inkling of that.” But by the end of the 1980s, the Clamshell model — fusing consensus decision-making, affinity groups, and a coordinating spokecouncil — was firmly established as the prevailing structure for grassroots direct action organizing in the United States.

But while Rice and Boardman were careful to exclude any explicit theology from their trainings on consensus, something of its religious origin adhered to the process nonetheless — including a deep faith in its rightness, a certain piety in its implementation, and a tendency to treat claims about consensus as foundational truths. A 1987 handbook produced by two founding members of Food Not Bombs, C.T. Lawrence Butler and Amy Rothstein, On Conflict and Consensus, codified the many assertions made on its behalf, central among which was the declaration that “Formal Consensus is the most democratic decisionmaking process.” This statement of faith, presented as a statement of fact, could be heard in nearly every movement that adopted the process over the ensuing years. The conviction that consensus would produce more democratic outcomes than any other method was repeated like a catechism. “The goal of consensus,” the handbook continued, “is not the selection of several options, but the development of one decision which is the best for the whole group. It is synthesis and evolution, not competition and attrition.”

In practice, the process often worked well in small-group settings, including within the affinity groups that often formed the building blocks for large actions. At the scale of a significant mobilization, though, the process was fraught with difficulty from the start. At the 1977 Seabrook blockade, where consensus was first employed in a large-scale action setting, the spokescouncil spent nearly all the time before being ordered to leave the site bogged down in lengthy discussions of minor issues. A similar dynamic played out in Occupy Wall Street almost a quarter century later, where the general assembly proved ill-equipped to address the day-to-day needs of the encampment. Though On Conflict and Consensus assured organizers that “Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming,” experience suggested otherwise. The process favored those with the most time, as meetings tended to drag out for hours; in theory, consensus might include everyone in all deliberations, but in practice, the process greatly favored those who could devote limitless time to the movement — and made full participation difficult for those with ordinary life commitments outside of their activism.

Movement after movement found, moreover, that the process tended to give great attention and weight to the concerns of a few dissenters. In the purest form of consensus, a block by one or two individuals could bring the whole group to a screeching halt. Sometimes, that forced groups to reckon with important issues that the majority might otherwise ignore, which could indeed be powerful and transformative. But it also consistently empowered cranks, malcontents, and even provocateurs to lay claim to a group’s attention and gum up the works, even when groups adopted modifications to strict consensus that allowed super-majorities to override blocks.

Consensus can easily be derailed by those acting in bad faith. But it’s also a process that is ill-equipped to deal with disagreements that arise from competing interests rather than simple differences of opinion. The rosy idea embedded in the process that unity and agreement can always be found if a group is willing to discuss and modify a proposal sufficiently is magical thinking, divorced from the real-world rough-and-tumble of political negotiation.

Groups hold on to ingrained practices in part because they help reinforce their sense of identity. The complex liturgy of consensus process — from the specialized language and roles (“facilitators,” “vibes watchers,” “progressive stack,” and more) to the elaborate hand signals (“up-twinkles,” “down-twinkles,” and the like) — has functioned as much to signal and consolidate a sense of belonging to a certain tradition as it has to move decisions forward. And because consensus process was marked from the start not just by its religious origins but also by its cultural ones, that tradition has been imbued with whiteness. The Clamshell Alliance was, after all, an overwhelmingly white organization, bringing together white residents of the New Hampshire seacoast with white Quakers and an array of mostly white radicals from Boston and beyond for action in a white rural region.

Few of the groups that would adopt consensus in the decades to come would be quite as starkly monochromatic as the Clam, and the use of the process is hardly sufficient to explain the reasons for racial divisions within activist communities. But time and again, activists of color found the use of consensus in majority-white direct action circles to be alienating and off-putting, and white activists’ reverent insistence on the necessity and superiority of the process has exacerbated difficulties in multiracial collaboration and alliance-building.

During the campus anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s, for instance, the use of consensus drove a major wedge at UC-Berkeley between the mostly white Campaign Against Apartheid and United People of Color, a multiracial student group. UPC organizer Patricia Vattuone explained at the time, “We felt it was undemocratic to have these long meetings — four hours, eight hours — when, I have things to do, other students are not only active in their own organizations, but can’t spend hours and hours and hours on Sproul, and that was the only way you could have input or provide leadership.” UPC proposed shifting to a representative decision-making method — but CAA, believing consensus to be intrinsically better and more radical, refused. Two other UPC activists, Sumi Cho and Robert Westley, later wrote, “As a result, planning meetings and political actions … became virtually devoid of student-of-color participation in the name of radical hyperdemocratic (consensus-only) decision-making.”

Two decades later, similar though less acute tensions arose when white activists streamed to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to participate in the Common Ground relief effort “with a preconceived notion that collectives use consensus as the decision-making process,” according to participants Sue Hilderbrand, Scott Crow, and Lisa Fithian. Local black activists preferred a different course of action, in which “the group defines itself and establishes the decision-making process collectively,” particularly since “the consensus process brought in by white activists confused many community members, who were often unfamiliar with the ‘rules’ of participation.”

The irony here, of course, is that activists have adopted consensus as part of a larger aspiration to prefigure the world they hope to create — presumably not one as racially bounded as the practice of consensus process has been. There’s long been a deep yearning at the heart of that prefigurative project for a kind of community and connection otherwise missing from many movement participants’ lives. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, where consensus process played out with such dysfunction, Jonathan M. Smucker considered what role this yearning might have played in skewing movement practice:

I began to wonder if the heightened sense of an integrated identity was “the utopia” that many of my fellow participants were seeking. What if the thing we were missing, the thing we were lacking — the thing we longed for most — was a sense of an integrated existence in a cohesive community, i.e., an intact lifeworld? What if this longing was so potent that it could eclipse the drive to affect larger political outcomes?

The prime appeal of consensus process for 40 years has been its promise to be more profoundly democratic than other methods. This promise has been repeated again and again like dogma. But let’s face it: the real-world evidence is shaky at best. Perhaps the reason why it has endured so long in activist circles despite its evident practical shortcomings has something to do with the theological character it carried over from Quaker religious practice, the way it addresses a deep desire for transcendent group unity and “higher truth.”

If the forty-year persistence of consensus has been a matter of faith, surely the time has now come for apostasy. Piety and habit are bad reasons to keep using a process whose benefits are more notional than real. Outside of small-group settings, consensus process is unwieldy, off-putting, tiresome, and ineffective. Many inclusive, accountable alternative methods are available for making decisions democratically. If we want to change the world, let’s pick ones that work.

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  1. James Levy

    Yves, I think you encapsulated the problem in the first sentence: you don’t mind bosses, so long as they are good ones. Well, the same thing goes for kings, dictators, and popes. Nothing works better. But is that the way you want to live, surrendering your power to an authority that happens to be, at this minute, “good”?

    Perhaps you used the wrong word. I would say that I have no problem with duly constituted authorities subject to law, custom, and the majority approval of those under their authority. I have a big problem with the unaccountable power personified in a “boss”, especially in its Capitalist manifestation (which is where the word is most used). And since I reject that notion that efficiency is our god, I am prepared for humane suboptimal results like those attained through some form of supermajority or consensus (66% seems fair to me). “Succeeding” the wrong way, as I believe the Bolsheviks did, is in my opinion more harmful in the long run than failing.

    1. Tammy

      “There is no phrase more harmful in the English language than ‘Good Job’.” I haven’t seen the movie Whiplash but it looks like an interesting film.

    2. Ned Ludd

      Another problem with centralizing power is exemplified by the Roman Empire. Once power is centralized, a large number of ambitious and terrible people will go to great lengths to gain that power. Hence, even the mythical enlightened dictator plants the seeds (centralized power) for its own demise (unenlightened power-hungry sociopaths with the skills to outmaneuver their rivals).

      1. saurabh

        I think what happened in Rome is best described by the converse: people sought power and as a result it became centralized. It was individuals seeking dominion in the form of wealth or military authority who eroded and superseded democratic institutions. Caesar crossed the Rubicon when Rome was largely opposed to rule by one man.

        1. Ormond Otvos

          Perhaps the supermajority number needs some unpacking. It certainly isn’t 51%. That leads to endless policy flip-flops. It isn’t 100%. That’s ideology run amok.

          The parameters should allow forward movement, with workable efficient periods to evaluate actions based on the policy.

          I like 70-80%, reachable in practice, and resistant to trivial change. We will always have professional dissenters, people who like to argue more than get things done.s They go home from a discussion happy to have had a day of yakyak, with no action.

        2. Ned Ludd

          I don’t disagree about the decline of the Roman Republic, which ended in 27 BC. That year, Augustus (born Gaius Octavius), successfully challenged the Senate’s authority and became the founder of the Roman Empire and its first Emperor.

          After democratic institutions ceased to function, successions in the centralized Roman Empire played out like this (from Wikipedia):

          Alexander was the last emperor of the Severan dynasty. He succeeded his cousin Elagabalus upon the latter’s assassination in 222, and was ultimately assassinated himself, marking the epoch event for the Crisis of the Third Century — nearly fifty years of civil wars, foreign invasion, and collapse of the monetary economy.

          Crisis of the Third Century

          The Crisis began with the assassination of Emperor Alexander Severus at the hands of his own troops, initiating a fifty-year period in which there were at least 26 claimants to the title of Emperor, mostly prominent Roman army generals, assuming imperial power over all or part of the Empire. Twenty-six men were officially accepted by the Roman Senate as emperor during this period, and thus became legitimate emperors.

          The more centralized power becomes, the more power plays to usurp that power.

    3. jrs

      Bosses are a very odd thing to bring up in a discussion of “other ways of making decisions democratically” as of course they aren’t democratic (we don’t vote for them). At best the big boss is chosen by shareholders (often not even that. And of course none of that is workplace democracy and it’s obvious rather than controversial to note that).

      Sure a benevolent dictator would work, even the dark enlightenment folks aren’t wrong that a benevolent king might be the best system there could be and monarchies sometimes work really well! The problem is there’s no way to make sure they are benevolent. Which is why democracy might be a good system, if only we had it.

      Consesus depends on what you are trying to maintain. Purpose of a huge group, maybe it’s less than optimal, actual passion and involvement of people involved, then you might want to give them a say! Sure people will work even for bosses without any say in it for money as they have to to survive. They will probably work at less than their full capacity as money is way less than the true driver of human striving, whatever the economists may say. You can blackmail them with it out of their need to eat, that is all. But you want them to work for your cause without money? Better keep the passion alive then, better not disempower and alienate them.

    4. jrs

      Maybe it’s best to just leave people a great deal of autonomy in doing their roles.

    5. Chris B

      I have no problem with authority, but only when I GRANT the authority and only when I am given a way OUT of the authoritarian structure if I end up disagreeing with it. This is the main tenet of Anarchism, the difference between rational and irrational authority. http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secB1.html

      In the U.S. there is currently no way out of being a subject of the capitalist’s authority. Sure I can go from job to job and you CAN call that freedom, but it is only freedom of movement in a system. The best you can do is fight as hard as you can to be the authority in a capitalist system and that is what you see around you everyday, people fighting for better jobs, more money. They only want freedom in the system, not total freedom.

      The ownership of capital by an individual is an affront to freedom. Woody expressed this notion in “This Land is Your Land”

      As I went walking I saw a sign there
      And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
      But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
      That side was made for you and me.

      Until this is understood there will never be a revolution, only mutinies, and people will continue to suffer. This was the failure I saw growing in Occupy, instead of dismantling power, the movement was co-opted and they focused on getting more power in the current system instead. (It is worth noting that Occupy was created by an anarchistic magazine, Adbusters.)

      And I too have seen the failure of consensus first hand. Even in a small group it led to inaction. What we found worked much more efficiently was just trying stuff to see what worked. It was more evolutionary that way and led to better results. When either the group or the individual thinks they know best authoritarianism starts to creep in. It is acting without knowing and learning from the results. It is the scientific process.

      The misunderstanding of authority is an endless source of the fun I have with Libertarians, they are against authority placed upon them but they all want to be the authority, they want to “be their own boss”.

      1. Ben

        But don’t you want to ‘be your own boss’ by having a way out of the authority when you disagree with it? Anti-authoritarianism is like Australia. It doesn’t matter if you get there by going left or going right, it’s on the other side of the planet.

    6. jrs

      I’ve been in volunteering things that have degenerated to more and more micromanaging and at a certain point it’s: why? I have to have a boss at work as is, why am I spending my free time serving a bunch of other bosses when I DON’T have to? Am I some kind of masochist? It’s enough to have bosses 40+ hours a week and only then ultimately for the income, because no matter how stupid the task is you have to go along.

      I’m quite sure that how good the bosses in the capitalist marketplace tend to be has a direct correlation to the income and status of a job, sure individual data points vary, but I’d bet the correlation is there and strong. Even the best bosses are still bosses, still serving the machine, but I think if the position is high pay, high prestige, high autonomy, high respect, it’s probably more congenial.

      1. LifelongLib

        The micromanagement in my (government) office stems from the fear that somebody someplace will do/not do something that makes the organization look bad. It requires courage to leave people autonomy because the organization has to take responsibility for mistakes and failures as well as successes.

    7. Nathanael

      Consensus is a failure.

      Voting, on the other hand, seems to be fairly effective. When the voting system is designed well.

  2. Inverness

    This must become essential reading. Thank you for this. While I appreciate the origins and idealism of the clam, I’ve also found it frustrating. I’ve heard this “democratic process” is “both frustrating but the only way” of organizing. The author of this piece brilliantly recognizes the religious-dogmatic nature of such an argument. Beware of anyone who argues there is “only one way” to run a meeting.

  3. gardener1

    Failure by consensus. This describes Seattle politics and development in a nutshell.

    Studies, focus groups, meetings, votes, neighborhood recommendations, referendums. Either nothing gets done, or the big money buys what it would have bought anyway – ten years and umpteen public dollars later.

    1. LindaJ

      Yup. Anarchists R Us in Seattle. Although we do have Kshama of Socialist Alternative, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish (and sometimes it stinks also).

      Anyway, mass action of the type I believe is required to change stuff seems hard to build from affinity groups. But I could be wrong and maybe the anarchists and socialists will knit something together. Let’s hope so!

  4. Steve H.

    “In another scenario—four-person teams collaboratively solving math problems—the person with the most inflated sense of her own abilities tended to emerge as the group’s de facto leader. Being the first to blurt out an answer, right or wrong, was taken as a sign of superior quantitative skill.”

    When our son had the opportunity to enroll in a *new* Academy in our school system, we saw that they’d use a group approach to solving math problems. We remembered the meetings in the consensus organization that we were part of, bullying at 3 in the morning, and decided against. Within three years the program crashed with some of the worst math scores in the state.

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

    A small group.

    “. . . the remarkable absence of systematic training for the essential skill of conducting efficient meetings.”

    I have seen two good politicians, and the president of the board at Civic Theater, with this ability. One came into a disorganized meeting, listened, then pulled out a pen and twisted it open. There was a sudden sense of confidence in the room that something was going to actually get done.

    : Margaret Mead
    : Daniel Kahneman]

  5. Ken Hall

    Sometimes there is a single best path or action that will achieve, or bring the group closest to, the desired outcomes. My experience is that consensus brings the group not to the proper course of action that will achieve the objective but the course of action that offends no one. This can leave the group captured by the most timid or most aggressive members in the group. A proposed strategy formulated by the leadership is, under democratic standards, subject to discussion and re-formulation of the group through processes like Roberts Rules and then subject to approval by a majority of the group.
    The best process I’ve seen is to allow open discussion in the consensus model to measure the desire of the group and then move to the formal voting process. As usual, it’s not one or the other but a combination of two options.

  6. Carolinian

    What if the thing we were missing, the thing we were lacking — the thing we longed for most — was a sense of an integrated existence in a cohesive community, i.e., an intact lifeworld? What if this longing was so potent that it could eclipse the drive to affect larger political outcomes?

    Isn’t this the nub? These movements lack effectiveness because the participants are more concerned about the process than the result. Of course they are concerned about whatever social cause they are pursuing but only as long as they can feel good about themselves while they are pursuing it.

    I think an interesting example of the consensus system would be juries. Judges seem to think there is a “collective wisdom of the jury” and, having served on a couple, I think that is right. But jurors are highly motivated toward an end result because they didn’t want to be there in the first place and all want to go home. It’s a results oriented process.

    It could be that social movements need bosses, good or bad, to get anywhere. Leaders make good targets, and sometimes good martyrs, for the authorities but in the socially dynamic 1960s they were always present and change did happen. Tactically today’s Left may need a rethink.

    1. vlade

      Bingo. When people talk about democracy and how Greeks came up with it, they often have no idea how it really worked there. What we have now (open voting for those in power) was railed against as being effectively a way towards oligarchy – as a way to guarantee to get those who want it the most in power. But those who want it the most are rarely those who are the best for it long term.

      Greek sortition accepted the fact that the occasional idiot selected for some role by a random process could screw it up, but they thought it a small price to pay for avoiding oligarchy and similar.

      Unfortunately, we (and here I mean “we” as all societies with Judaistic/monotheist roots, I can’t speak for others but from the indirect experience it sounds to me that say Shintoistic Japanese have better balance) are way too much concerned with efficiency of the process as compared to long-term outcomes. Sometimes it works to our favour, sometimes it doesn’t.

      1. Nathanael

        Sortition is still more effective than consensus. Sortition works all right; it has the effect of at least making sure a decision *gets made*.

    2. jrs

      “I began to wonder if the heightened sense of an integrated identity was “the utopia” that many of my fellow participants were seeking. What if the thing we were missing, the thing we were lacking — the thing we longed for most — was a sense of an integrated existence in a cohesive community, i.e., an intact lifeworld?”

      Then that’s not necessarily wrong, though it may not work for everything. But it is a *political* goal with widespread implications for the well being of society. It just may not be the only political goal when there are more practical concerns. But if that is what one feels called to work toward then perhaps that is what they ought to work toward, directly so, without camouflage.

      1. jrs

        In other words if one wants to raise the minimum wage, or stop police killing black people, or even stop the TPP (ha good luck with that one), then it might be wise to remember what the ultimate goal is.

        But there are always more squishy things people could get involved with whose very goals are to increase a sense of community.

      2. hunkerdown

        Except it’s not a political goal. Cherokee Organics, a frequent participant in discussions over in Archdruidland, had spoken of a senescent garden club that lost interest in doing business, that camaraderie seemed to be closer to the purpose of the club than its stated purpose.

        In a world where so much camaraderie is locked up in private spaces for rent and meted out to us through the infallible benevolence of glibertarians in Mountain View, and with no thanks to the Protestant Reformation, one is compelled to earn their way into a social economy unpolluted with market supremacy, or it doesn’t feel purposeful. It’s just a shame, and honestly a bit desperate, that there are so many affinity groups whose overwhelming purpose is to reproduce the heraldry of some variety of common interest and which are ill-equipped to provide for the interest itself.

        Trouble with the squishy things is, who’s got time or energy, other than the ambitious, and what kind of camaraderie can be brewed up by those types?

  7. diptherio

    Consensus decision-making is of limited utility–this is not a new discovery. Only a very few worker co-ops use it (and only small ones, so far as I know). Most everyone uses some form of modified-consensus or majority-rule.

    Part of learning to work collectively is learning to go along even when you don’t get your way, because the group and the larger process is more important than any particular decision that gets made. Consensus process seems to miss this important point.

    1. tim s

      You hit the heart of it here. The consensus method works only if people’s ego and individual outlooks can be subordinated to an assumed greater good of a larger group. Regardless of any positive contributions individualism has in the progress of the West, we must realize the negatives that come with it and be prepared to factor those into any collective actions that may be attempted.

      The religious, subordinating mindset of the Quakers is not just another feature of their culture, but an essential one, and one that we most definitely do not have in our general Western culture. Without it, headbutting and lack of resolution will be inevitable.

    2. akaPaul LaFargue

      What? A group of fools will screw up no matter their process. But a skilled group using consensus will attain the result you want. Blocking can be reveal a defect in the decision-to-be-made OR it can reveal an individual concern that should be addressed if the group is to be coherent.

      1. RanDomino

        If people screw up a good process, then the process wasn’t perfect. If people can use the ridiculous mess that is Robert’s Rules of Order, I have no doubt that they can understand well-designed and well-taught Consensus.

        1. Lambert Strether

          The problem here is that Roberts Rules is published for all to see, even if only used as a starting point. I notice you use a capital “C” for “Consensus,” implying it has that status, but it doesn’t.

        2. lindaJ

          Did you ever go to Occupy? Consensus does not work. Why is Robert’s Rules a mess. I think it is common sense and I bet there are flow charts for it too. [this is meant for RanDomino not Lambert]

          1. RanDomino

            As I’ve said elsewhere on this page, the ‘consensus’ that Occupy used was a mess. It would be like looking at the Articles of Confederation and declaring the United States to be doomed.

          2. Nathanael

            Robert’s Rules is pretty much a mess too, but most of the trouble can be eliminated by adopting approval voting rather than the complex, abusable chain of amendment trees.

        3. lindaJ

          Did you ever go to Occupy? Consensus does not work. Why is Robert’s Rules a mess. I think it is common sense and I bet there are flow charts for it too.

  8. sufferin'succotash

    liberum veto: in Polish history, the legal right of each member of the Sejm (legislature) to defeat by his vote alone any measure under consideration or to dissolve the Sejm and nullify all acts passed during its session. Based on the assumption that all members of the Polish nobility were absolutely equal politically, the veto meant, in practice, that every bill introduced into the Sejm had to be passed unanimously. It was first used to dissolve a session of the Sejm in 1652. Subsequently, it was used extensively, often paralyzing the government, making a centralization of power (opposed by nobles jealous of their independence) impossible, and leaving Poland vulnerable to the influence of foreign powers, which habitually bribed delegates to the Sejm to force the adjournment of sessions that threatened to pass legislation contrary to their interests. —Encyclopedia Britannica
    The majoritarian approach does have its uses.

  9. Aaron Schutz

    This practice is deeply related to the culture of the middle-class. It is no accident that Occupy and these other movements were fundamentally dominated by and primarily populated by, people who were (culturally) middle class. The number of people who were either students or college educated, vs. the general population, in the New York Occupy movement, for example, was astonishing.

    I’ve wrote about this issue of social class and organizing here if anyone is interested: http://www.openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=5117, which was part of a series of community organizing for the sadly defunct blog Open Left (The whole thing is here: http://www.educationaction.org/core-dilemmas-of-community-organizing.html.) Just ignore that stuff unless you are interested. It’s all deeply based on the American context, but the culture of the middle class has become increasingly international.

    I think that the work of Alinsky, which is quite popular on the right (even as they villify him) but mostly ignored on the left (partly for the reasons I argue in the post) is on this particular point, more useful than the Clamshell stuff.

    However, the more recent work of Paul Engler and Carlos Saavedra, who combine what they call structure approaches (from Alinsky et. al.) and momentum approaches (Clamshell, et. al.) provide a fascinating way to bring these ideas together. I brought Saavedra onto my campus to teach a course on his ideas, and I was really impressed. As someone deeply immersed in the Alinsky tradition, I’m still mulling their ideas over, but I think they have developed something important. Some webinars by them are available here: http://www.movementmastery.org/resources. They are a bit long and I cut them down a bit for our class if anyone is interested.

    I’ve posted in, below, a chunk from one of the posts above. I wrote a book on this as well, but it covers a whole range of stuff that is a bit tangential to the core argument here. I also wrote an article that summarizes much of the argument that you can find here: http://bit.ly/1AZRNSg. Note that I’m not trying to stereotype. These are just tendencies, that are most evident in places like labor unions. Nor am I saying that working-class approaches are less “democratic,” just differently democratic.


    Social Action and Middle-Class Professionals
    In organizations dominated by middle-class professionals, speakers generally need to be “comfortable with theoretical, impersonal discussion.” Because these groups generally lack formal rules for participation, they often expect people to be able to “just jump in when they want to speak,” following a format resembling “college classroom[s] . . . familiar to those who are college educated” ( Stout ).

    In part because the issues addressed by middle-class activists are usually only weakly linked to group members’ lives, (think of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace) Rose found that “even the most pragmatic middle-class organizations frame their issues in broad ethical terms, . . . never in terms of advancing the interests of a particular group,” possibly indicating how little the “struggles faced by low-income people” actually impinge on the “reality” of middle-class people.” In fact, middle-class groups generally believe that they advance universally valid goals, not “the interests of their class” (Stout)

    Participants in middle-class, professional organizations are encouraged to “continue to act very much as individuals” (Rose). Groups often allot plenty of time for self-expression and see it as problematic if everyone doesn’t contribute.

    A range of other characteristics of these organizations also seem driven by middle-class life conditions and culture. Reflecting the often fluid nature of professional lives, for example, participation is generally understood as an individual choice, and engagement with a particular issue “may ebb and flow depending on shifts in personal priorities and interests.” Joining a social action group is one of the best ways to meet people who think like them. “Middle class politics is therefore an extension of personal development” (Rose)

    Not surprisingly, Rose found that middle-class groups “find the hierarchy and formality of the union structure foreign and distasteful,” since “peace and environmental organizations have few if any formal rules about membership and participation.” New arrivals are often asked “to take part in decision-making just like longer term members.” Thus they find contexts like labor unions very oppressive.

    One environmental activist described her experience learning to work with the formal structure of the labor movement in these terms: “You’ve got to kiss the ring. That’s my shorthand for paying deference. . . . So they go to the mechanism that they’re used to working with, for the formal structure.”

    Because middle-class professionals assume that other people operate (or should operate) in the same individualistic manner that they prefer themselves, they often believe that “‘if people only knew about the problems being raised, then they would be more likely to act'” (Rose). The point is not that these groups do not often seek structural changes, especially in laws, but that the mechanism for this change is often envisioned on a model of reasoned, discursive democratic education.

    Working-Class Culture and Social Action
    The approach of culturally working-class groups to social action can be fundamentally different. In contrast with the comparably formless character of middle-class organizations, worker’s groups tend to follow established formal rules for participation and are generally organized around clearly defined hierarchies. In fact, “Labor activists frequently find the meeting styles of middle-class organizations difficult and tedious.” Rejecting wide-ranging dialogue about the personal opinions of individuals, they focus on pragmatic questions of action and on rituals that sustain group solidarity. As one union leader stated,

    “These peace people don’t understand that it’s a war out there. . . . The contrast between giving people hell at a bar over the union vote and then going to a conversion meeting where people sit around and eat cheese and sip herb tea is really frustrating. These people seem like they’re from a different solar system. . . .. The peace people are too intellectual and always wanting to work on the structure of the organization. . . . The union is used to getting down to work and getting things done. They wouldn’t talk to the governor more than once, and if he wasn’t listening the first time then he’d read about it in the paper next. This is a war, and you can’t be nice about it. . . . I feel a sense of urgency about it that I don’t get from the peace people. (Rose) ”

    Those who are most respected in working-class contexts embody the core values of the working class: speaking their minds, contending, often loudly, over their commitments, and expressing the emotions behind their commitments. Eschewing abstractions, they speak from experience, often telling stories that serve to embody their particular perspectives while demonstrating loyalty and connectedness.

    Membership many of these groups is not simply chosen but the result of a long-term embeddedness in community and family networks. Identity is something that one has, not something that needs to be found; it “comes from being accepted and known” and “being a member of a . . . community with a good reputation defines who one is” (Rose). Thus, these “close communities” make “a clear division between members and outsiders.” Trust is built over time, and newcomers are not easily allowed entry.

    Finally, the issues tackled by groups like unions and local community groups are usually closely tied to particular community needs. Instead of focusing on universal values (although they may often refer to these), they tend to define their battles in terms of “competing interests,” experiencing “their own interests . . . in opposition to the interests of others” (Rose). A problem is rarely seen as the result of a simple misunderstanding that can be rationally dealt with. Instead, power must be wrested from others who will generally not give it up without a fight. Win-win solutions may sometimes be possible, but experience has taught them that conflict generally involves a zero-sum game.

    1. hunkerdown

      Open Left was a) center-right, b) bourgeois, and c) 110% dispensable. The only good thing to have come out of that site, present company potentially excluded, was Matt Stoller, and only because he left. Bowers was a careerist neolib nutjob and I’ll be happy to never hear of his insultingly falsely named site again.

      In fact, middle-class groups generally believe that they advance universally valid goals, not “the interests of their class” (Stout)
      “Middle class politics is therefore an extension of personal development” (Rose)
      Because middle-class professionals assume that other people operate (or should operate) in the same individualistic manner that they prefer themselves

      Well, yes. Bourgeois arrogance is a surprise only to people who have been protected from being called what they are. It’s implied by the status of “middle-class nation”: The interests of the bourgeoisie are normatively imposed on all classes, as a way of keeping the working-class loyal, exitless and voiceless. Enforcing the sense that their vague idealistic interests (most of which are careerist and marketist in nature) are in the interest of their inferiors is the raison d’etre of bourgeois politics.

      So, because bourgeoisie feel entitled, nay, called to lead, having been groomed throughout their life toward playing with other people’s lives like toys, any movement that puts them in the driver’s seat will simply reproduce their none-dare-call-it-Christian evangelistic culture, and therefore fail. They need to understand that they, their fiddling with the discourse and calling it action, and their infantile, fashionable norms are the very cause of the troubles of those of us they ride, and will only distance us (but not them) from the solution.

      In other words, careerists poison movements. Job security poisons getting the job done.

      1. Aaron Schutz

        It’s not just about arrogance. It’s about how they are arrogant.

        I’m not sure how an attack on Open Left (which did have some very interesting stuff, mostly from Paul Rosenberg) is relevant to the issue.

  10. TarheelDem

    The history of the method and its continued development is much too narrow and much too shallow. It dates back at least to the way SNCC operated during the civil rights movement and probably much earlier. One of the immediate sources for Occupy Wall Street and many of its offshoots was the Spanish Indignado movement, which had created a manual that outlined a facilitated form of consensus decision-making that used a modified form of voting, called “temperature check” as intermediate checks on the process.

    Where consensus methodology has a poor track record in in the midst of actions under pressure from suppressive police forces. A graphic example of this failure at tactical decision took place when Occupy Portland (OR) was attempting to retake their ground in a park after police eviction. Stymied at a corner and with police ready to wade into the group with riot batons and pepper spray, the group held a general assembly to decide what to do next. The 30 minute process is quite illuminating about the issues in making tactical decisions under time constraints by consensus. There were two irreconcilable factions in the end: those who were determined to hold the line at that corner regardless of the police response and those who sought a tactical retreat to a nearby plaza. The group split; the police moved in.

    But it was not faulty decision-making that ended Occupy Wall Street’s occupation of public spaces, it was a coordinated series of night raids over multiple cities that exacted the maximum cost through marginally extra-legal actions, all coordinated through DHS Fusion Centers and the Police Executive Research Foundation (PERF). Typical raids included mass arrests on bogus charges, seizure of the tents and private property, and disposal through carting off in garbage trucks. I would just once love to see the impact of these tactics on corporate Wall Street decision-making. And have professors of sociology write about the failure of corporate decision-making methods, which themselves increasingly include consensus methodologies (and likely always have as there are always informal meetings before any vote).

    Consensus methods remain an option because the alternatives produce comparable boneheaded results.

    No one has yet figured out decision-making methods that are inclusive, timely, and effective.

    Social action for change is not a math problem. And practical technical decisions depend on the “experts” you have available and the willingness of everybody to figure out together what works.

    When there are hired saboteurs in your midst trying to make sure that never happens, it is not the methodology that is a problem. Although, to be fair, there should be some modification of the methodology that is aimed at smoking out and frustrating saboteurs. And separating their actions from reality-based differences of direction.

    Saboteurs can also tie up voting groups in Roberts Rules of Order arguments of parliamentary procedure, which one of the motivations for the establishment of consensus methodologies to begin with.

    What has a poor track record outside over very small groups is completely structureless decision-making. That is beset by self-appointed dominant leaders, exclusion of less forceful advocates, premature closure on decisions, and groupthink that oftens ends up with very wrong solutions. Facilitation was introduced to tone down the forceful, get the wisdom of the less forceful, push beyond obvious first answers, elicit critical thinking about the proposals, deal with disruptors, and solidify decisions that result in more than lip service. Yes, that requires leaders. But it requires a multiplicity of leaders who can skillfully rotate through the facilitator role. And the development of facilitation skills in everyone involved. Those who oppose activist movements aim at preventing that depth of leadership from developing. To the extent that opposition failed, Occupy Wall Street encampments survived and conducted regular actions that drew out the police. It was that success that provoked the multi-city raid. The public was beginning to understand and question why Wall Street had been let off the hook.

  11. Q.C.

    Many inclusive, accountable alternative methods are available for making decisions democratically. If we want to change the world, let’s pick ones that work.

    Three key words here: “inclusive”, “accountable”, “democratically”. If there are ones that work, and include these three key features, it would have been helpful for the author to name a few.

  12. Jill

    Here is a process I have found effective. A person has an idea for an action of one kind or another. People are free to offer ways to accomplish this idea and improve upon it. However, it is the person who had the original idea who has final say over what happens. Those who want to join in, do so.

    As other ideas arise the process repeats. This way leadership changes hands but there is always one person, the person with the original idea, who takes responsibility for that particular action.

    My experience with Occupy in Toledo is that it was not leaderless at all. It was run by the same group of male activists who “lead” almost every leftist group in Toledo. Thus, there were not fresh ideas or people allowed to speak or come up with actions. When they attempted “consensus” it was still clear they called the shots. There was also disruption as mentioned in the article.

    I think it helps to distribute leadership to as many people as possible. To me, concentrated, unchanging leaders is more of the problem than having a leader per se. If a person does a good job, more people will work with them. If they are being a jerk, they will not inspire others to help them in their action.

    1. hunkerdown

      Oh, very nice. Sounds like the way the Pashtun appoint their temporary leaders. Authority isn’t necessarily poisonous; it’s the concept of vestiture, as if one were, like a king, entitled to ignore their subjects’ grievances and do as they will, which sends the wheels flying off at highway speed.

      How can groups fire rogue leaders? I think this is the $64000 question, and one that the bourgeois elements, seeing themselves as self-appointed shepherds, had better come to terms with if they intend to be welcome in working-class movements.

      1. Nathanael

        “How can groups fire rogue leaders? I think this is the $64000 question,”

        This is the question of governance in general! How do you get rid of the bad king/president/dictator?

  13. Carla

    “Many inclusive, accountable alternative methods are available for making decisions democratically.”

    ? More on these please?

  14. RanDomino

    This article is garbage and a brief review of previous articles by Ms. Kauffman will show that she is motivated by opposition to grassroots activists.

    To her main point, however: She makes the same mistake here as was made by “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. The answers to the flaws of Consensus and Structurelessness are not their opposites, Democratic Centralism; to say that fails to address the reasons people have for rejecting that system. The answers to the flaws are fixing the flaws.

    The main problem with Consensus for the past 40 years has been this: The people teaching it, such as Starhawk (and anyone who doesn’t recognize that name should not be commenting on Consensus process), have been teaching a version of Consensus based on wishy-washy feel-good hippie crap.

    For example: http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/consensus

    The main problem is that they have been teaching that the point of Consensus is that you have to make a decision that everyone agrees with. This is, of course, sometimes impossible. But their process fails to acknowledge this, leading to paralysis and/or frustration.

    The solution is hinted at in their own materials: “If the group accepts the proposal either you or others will struggle to stay part of the group.” They take this to be The Worst Thing Ever- such an odious possibility that they refuse to directly confront it. After all, if someone leaves your group, then your group is smaller and therefore less powerful, right?

    Not necessarily. Sometimes you can have two demographics who are generally allies but disagree on tactics or strategy. For example perhaps a group is formed to oppose an oil pipeline, and it quickly becomes clear that half the group wants to pursue a strategy of lawsuits and petitions and the other half wants to build barricades on the route. What do you do, vote?

    Consensus already has a built-in way of resolving this: The Block. I screamed this from the rooftops in 2011-12, but a Block is NOT a Veto! A Block is equivalent to saying, “If this proposal passes, I/we will leave this group”.

    OWS either didn’t understand, hadn’t heard of, or didn’t want to accept this, for the same reason as above: If your group splits, now your group is smaller! Right? Actually, no: If you split intentionally, now you have two smaller groups with the same total number of people, but each group is working on the things they want to, and they are probably still in solidarity with each other. For example I could see the pipeline opponents who are pursuing a legal strategy organizing jail support for the direct action group; and in fact this often happens.

    This failure to understand the Block crippled OWS. Consensus is not the problem. The problem is that we’ve been teaching a shitty version of it.

    I could, of course, go on, for example discussing the essential role of the Affinity Group (which were also utterly absent in Occupy), how Spokescouncils can allow organizations to scale up in size while still having manageable meetings, how one of the most serious flaws with Democracy (including so-called ‘Consensus’ where 90% or whatever can override a block) is that it disregards the concerns that lead to “no” votes, etc.

    1. vlade

      I’ve seen what you describe as Block, and it often degenerated into a number of groups that had blinkers on, because it still depends on being able to argue rationally and look at facts, not wishful thinking (just ask Yves about wishful thinking and Greece…).

      There are two things here which get mixed. One is making a decision, the other is a reasonable debate before a decision. They are not necessarily interrelated, but to be honest, if I was to chose one, I’d actually prefer the debate. Because after a reasonable debate _somone_ is likely to get something done, but a decision without a reasonable argument is as likely as not flawed. Here’s where teaching science (as a process of active challenge and disbelief) could do a lot of good.

  15. oho

    ” “the tyranny of structurelessness.” T” “Decisions still happened, but without an agreed-upon process, there was no accountability”

    One of Adam Curtis’ documentaries has a segment dealing with this topic in 1970’s communes (forget which one, maybe “The Trap”?)

    Decisions were made, but the formlessness of decision-making provided a vacuum for tyrannical/cult-of-personality types to make all the decisions.

    Robert’s rules of order exists for a reason.

    1. oho

      Some people glorify Malcolm Gladwell’s “Wisdom of the Crowds” too much and draw inappropriate lessons.

      Yes, a random crowd of people can correctly guess the weight of a bull or the number of M&M’s in a jar—things visual, discrete that our Reptilian brain can grasp.

      But a sports betting line? Complex strategy? That’s a different can of worms.

    2. RanDomino

      It is possible to write an equivalent of Robert’s Rules for Consensus. In fact, I intend to. You can even use Robert’s rules unmodified for your Consensus decision-making, as long as you keep the Block as I described above (“if this proposal is passed, I/we will leave the group”). Actually, the Block is always there- except that it’s usually either not acknowledged (because if people LEAVE the group then the group is SMALLER! We can’t have that!) or it’s actively suppressed (for example, I can’t choose to leave the group called “The United States of America” without having my home stolen from me due to non-payment of property taxes). In the former case, the non-acknowledgement of the Block- how is that not a non-documented process? I say, let’s just acknowledge the Block (Again, not a Veto, but rather equivalent to saying “If this proposal is passed, I/we will leave the group”) and get on with it.

      1. hunkerdown

        !!! The Block. Very, very interesting, maybe even more effective than a perpetual right of recall in renouncing rogue leadership (whether in a person or emergent from some cabal). Of course, the Block is a very very very bad thing because a) people tried it for very very very bad reasons 150 years ago and therefore it’s, um, bad, b) what about the toaster ovens in Heaven they can earn for converting people to Right Thinking, and c) what about groaf, won’t someone please think of the groaf?

        1. RanDomino

          Funny you should mention 150 years ago- Proudhon made the point that, ignoring the slavery for the moment, the United States could not reasonably call itself a “Federation” if members (States) could not leave unilaterally.

  16. DJG

    I’d say that decison making has to come from some kind of core group. The problem these days is that so many of these cores, even in neighborhood-level organizations, are dominated by personal agendas. The words disinterested (in its original sense) and probity are now archaic. So you end up with talking-stick pass-arounds, which are endless and wear everyone down.

    On the other hand, what I learned by listening at Occupy Wall Street stacks is how poorly educated Americans are. People would wait in the stack to get to the front to mention things on the order of, “Did you know that there were big demonstrations in the 1960s?” At first, I thought that this low level of information was a waste of time. Then I realized that Americans being Americans we had to go through the stage of inventing the wheel. Also, because all American opinions are equally valid all the time, it meant that no one could critique another’s opinions without being labeled as being engaged in patriarchal oppression.

    So there is information. There are decisions. They are not the same. But the low level of civic involvement means that the information stage is endless here in the USA and wears down the decision-making stage.

  17. John Merryman

    There is a lot of basic physics here. Equilibrium is a state of high entropy, i.e., low useable energy. Basically the happy medium is also a big flatline.

    Power is a function of producing and even more to the point, leveraging energy. Getting everyone pointed in the same direction. The two primary tools of social control are the polarities of hope and fear. If you can’t lead them with hope, you herd them with fear.

    This is why despots often work, as individuals function in one direction and so having a single leader naturally compels the group in a particular direction.

    The larger issue is that collective nature is much more thermodynamic and any action in one direction is balanced by the equal and opposite forces being pushed and pushing in the opposite direction.

    Social movements naturally seek a core identity in order to make the group function as a single organism, but that does mitigate against it moving in a particular direction, since its goal becomes cohesion, not action.

    The combination of both a strong community and a collective effort then requires external conditions that are compelling enough to where the group is willing to make sacrifices sufficient to achieve those goals. Originally this was simple survival of the group.

    Obviously varieties of these conditions exist, but how to frame them in ways which inspires broad enough action to overcome the various group and individual motivations?

    To put it in the context of the issue of the 1% versus the 99%, currently evident as social elites seem to be both drawing away from and siphoning value out of the larger community and economy and it boils down to a monetary system designed to effectively both connect everyone on a global scale and create a rent extraction device to skim off the resulting excess value.

    Which is to say that we all are riding this wave, but as it gets closer to the shore of natural limits, it is becoming more attenuated, as value becomes more concentrated and those at the crest are drawing away from the rest, as there is no excess, so it simply extracts functional value and dissolves the dynamic on which it is based. Basically the bankers are monkeywrenching the economy from the inside.

    Which also goes to show that there is no real driving force to counteract this action from within human society, because it is the current glue holding that society together. We are all atomized individuals economically tied together by the financial system.

    The only evident consequence will be to dissect this process and try to mitigate it building back up as much force next time.

    Given there will be much less resources next time, this won’t be physically possible, so any good social evolution will be to learn to treat monetary systems as public utilities and not as commodities, where the goal was to possess as much as possible, since that ends up making the creation of notational capital the ultimate goal, rather than a healthy world society.

    If we were to treat money as a voucher system and bookkeeping device, then strong communities and healthy environments would be understood as the only viable store of value.

  18. TheCatSaid

    There are excellent decision-making methods that are democratic and practical, even for large groups. It works beautifully to reveal where the consensus lies within a group, even when dealing with strongly polarized situations.

    Peter Emerson (Director of the de Borda Institute) has published books analyzing the differences between various systems (such as those in the wikipedia article on voting systems mentioned above).

    Ranked preference voting is my favorite. Key elements:
    1) The group itself (or at least a representative smaller group) chooses 3 or more clearly-stated options. This stage is critical–that the options are chosen by the group itself, and not dictated top-down. Having a too-lengthy list of options becomes less practical; I’ve read recommendations that the maximum list of options be 6 or 10.

    2) Each person ranks all the options (1 for most preferred option, 2 for second choice, etc.)

    3) Counting up the votes is weighted according to how many options were ranked. For example, if there were 5 options for a given issue, if a personal ranked all 5 options, their No. 1 choice would get 5 points. Their number 2 choice would get 4 points, etc. What happens if someone only ranked 3 of the 5 options, because they rejected two of the options on the list? Their No. 1 choice would get 3 points. Their No. 3 choice would get 1 point. Strong likes and dislikes among the options are thus accounted for, but not in a way that distorts the final result.

    There are no “spoiler” effects in this kind of process.

    I’ve personally experienced this in many settings, from choosing a name for a new group of people addressing a specific social issue, to prioritizing policies for a party platform, to deciding party policy from a large membership. This method has also been used for decision making by Dublin city council.

    It’s easy to try out. For example, choosing a family vacation destination, choosing a restaurant for a gathering, etc.

    It’s democratic, practical, doesn’t give the loudest voice more power than the quietest person, and if choosing the options is done properly (key!) it yields results that reflect the wisdom of the group.

    1. RanDomino

      Before the final decision is made, am I allowed to say, “If this proposal passes, I will leave the group”? If so, it’s fundamentally Consensus.

      1. TheCatSaid

        Firstly, this is a method for ranking multiple options–at least 3. (It is NOT a method for a yes/no or for choosing between only 2 options.)

        In all my experiences using ranked preference decision-making there was nothing preventing anyone from leaving a group anytime they wanted.

        IMHO (and according to Emerson’s mathematical analysis of various voting methods), this or similar methods are the most democratic and take everyone’s preferences into account in the fairest way, with the least disenfranchisement of any person or point of view.

        Majority voting is the LEAST democratic of all the voting options! Emerson shows this clearly.

        1. RanDomino

          “In all my experiences using ranked preference decision-making there was nothing preventing anyone from leaving a group anytime they wanted.”
          Okay, then it’s Consensus. The rest is window dressing.

          1. TheCatSaid

            Depends on your understanding of Consensus. It’s not “consensus” as in we stay in the room and talk and talk till 4am and we get divine inspiration and everyone agrees.

            Rather it’s a quantified way of finding out where the group preference lies, among a number of options.

            Some discussion is needed at the beginning to determine the number and wording of the specific options to be ranked. After that it’s a quick process for each person to mark their ranked preferences and to count the results.

            1. RanDomino

              You’re right that absurd never-ending meetings aren’t Consensus (which, by the way, is different from “consensus” in the same way that “Democracy” is different from “democracy”), but the problem isn’t with Consensus but rather that people have been doing it wrong. Consensus culture is the problem, and the problem that Kauffman is addressing in this article, not Consensus as a whole.

            2. Oregoncharles

              @ TheCatSaid – that is ranked choice voting, not consensus. The Green Party uses both; I suspect, but don’t know, that gatherings like the national convention emphasize voting,w hile the small groups I’m used to only use it for contested nominations – granted, our defining function, but rare in Oregon.

              I’ve never known a consensus process to go on forever; we do sometimes just conclude that there is no consensus, so we don’t take that action.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      How does your process avoid Kenneth Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow%27s_impossibility_theorem]?

      1. TheCatSaid

        I’m not aware of the relevance of Arrow’s theorum in real-life practical applications. In none of my varied experiences was there any “key voter” who was a dictator. The wikipedia article was mental gymnastics but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about different kinds of voting.

        Contrast with Peter Emerson’s analysis of various voting methods, which is solidly rooted in real-life practical experience, together with mathematical analysis.

    3. Nathanael

      There are some serious problems with that form of ranked-choice voting.
      — It *does* have a spoiler effect (yes, really, the math’s been worked out on it)
      — it’s subject to some very nasty tactical voting tricks
      — it doesn’t handle long lists of options well
      — it’s tedious to count

      Therefore I prefer approval voting. Approval voting genuinely has no spoiler effect. There are *extremely* limited opportunities for tactical voting. It handles lists of options as long as 20 or 30 easily (I’ve actually done this in a meeting). It’s *VERY* quick to count, and can be done with shows of hands.

      Approval voting is very simple. Everyone votes up or down on each option. The option with the most up votes (the one *approved* by the most people) wins.

      Approval voting in a club sometimes has the result that the losers leave the club. Well, that’s fine — because you guaranteed that you picked the option which would *retain the largest number of club members*. That’s how approval voting is structured!

      I therefore have found it superior to all other forms of voting.

  19. quixote

    There is so much historical evidence at this point about what really happens in decision-making by consensus that those who still insist it could work (for some value of “work”) are out there with the climate change deniers.

    The Nihilists tried it in the late 1800s. The Bolsheviks/Communists tried it and became famous for endless mandatory useless meetings while the boys in the back room made the decisions. Right down to the present day of endless Occupy meetings where the microphone somehow, magically, wound up in men’s hands a lot.

    Consensus in practice is another name for informal, inarticulated exercise of power. And that easily defaults back to whatever sexist, racist, classist habits our backgrounds have ground into us.

    Democratic and inclusive decision-making is much better served by clear and articulated assignment of responsibility and accountability, with cumulative- or approval-voting methods to set policy.

    You don’t have to be opposed to grassroots activism to see the flaws in decisions by consensus. Au contraire. If activism is to be effective, it has to use effective methods.

    1. RanDomino

      Yeah, democracy, that’s effective. Just look at how effective the United States’ democracy is!

    2. Chris B

      Consensus in practice is another name for informal, inarticulated exercise of power. And that easily defaults back to whatever sexist, racist, classist habits our backgrounds have ground into us.

      If you cannot LEAVE the group it would be an excessive use of power. But by leaving the group you take away the authority that group has over you. This is the problem when people try to understand consensus without understanding Anarchism.

    3. quixote

      RanDomino: US democracy uses a 1st-past-the-post majoritarian system. That is exactly the type that is the least useful if you want to be sure that different views are taken into account as much as possible. That is what Cat and I and others and the original article are both talking about.

      How about trying to read, comprehend, and then respond? The second step is important.

      1. RanDomino

        My only dog in this fight is to get across the point that any decision-making process has to be subordinate to Consensus, because the ability to say “If this proposal passes, I/we will leave the group” is fundamental to liberty; just as importantly, if a proposal would cause a member (“member” meaning either an individual or a constituent group) to leave a group, then it’s not just fair but more efficient to say that beforehand- since then the proposal’s proponents have to decide if their proposal is more important than the group sticking together, if their proposal is even viable without the Blocking party- in that sense, it’s a veto; but if the Blocking party’s participation was necessary to a proposal, then if they don’t want to participate they have the right to tell the rest of the group to get stuffed regardless.

        If you want to come up with a ranking system, fine. TheCatSaid’s system could be fine for certain circumstances and completely inappropriate for others. More specifically TheCatSaid’s system seems like too much of a game, which subjects it to the same potential for manipulation as any other kind of voting system. Voting is probably appropriate for when there are multiple incompatible options but nobody Blocks any of them.

        1. Andrew Watts

          The petty tyranny of middle class Americans is rearing it’s ugly head. Conflict resolution shouldn’t usually involve the devolution of the group into smaller and often more hostile factions/groups. Democracy is first and foremost about compromise between groups of diverse individuals.

          “any decision-making process has to be subordinate to Consensus, because the ability to say “If this proposal passes, I/we will leave the group” is fundamental to liberty; just as importantly, if a proposal would cause a member (“member” meaning either an individual or a constituent group) to leave a group,”

          …And just because you don’t get everything you want doesn’t mean you are being deprived of your liberty or we don’t have a functioning democracy. It means a majority of the people who care enough to be there don’t agree with you.

          “Democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.” -Reinhold Niebuhr

          Consensus politics is a waste of time. Even if people were right about any of the alleged benefits this significant drawback is more than enough to demoralize/demobilize participation and it also discourages any constructive response to public opinion or any other contrary viewpoint that resides outside of the group.

          1. hunkerdown

            You’re describing a bourgeois liberal republic. You describe nothing about democracy because at no point has this nation ever had one for anyone outside the landed gentry, and I question why you feel the need to continue selling a falsely-labeled product long after you could or should have known.

            And just because you don’t get everything you want doesn’t mean you are being deprived of your liberty or we don’t have a functioning democracy. It means a majority of the people who care enough to be there don’t agree with you.

            No, it means that a bunch of arrogant conspirators with a monopoly on violence got together and compulsively made decisions because they a) think themselves superior and self-righteous and entitled to force others into their mold b) believe that unmade decisions are sinful and/or c) can’t stand their inferiors acting independently or without guilt. Any one of which is psychopathic reason enough to storm the joint.

            Enough faith-based Augustinism and just-so stories about a system you can’t even bear to name properly. You are not entitled to our participation in your rigged corporate management system you call Democracy™, let alone our continued confidence and consent. You earn it. And you’re doing your cause no favors by reciting 12th-grade talking points, drawn from an educational system that eagerly sacrifices honesty to obedience, talking points that can’t survive any three consecutive social transactions on city streets.

            Shorter: Democracy is minding your own business, and this ain’t it.

            1. Andrew Watts

              Yeah, if only we could have a real democracy, right? Indulge your utopian fantasies all you like. The ideas and decisions of millions of people aren’t going to square towards anything resembling a optimal response to any complex issue. Direct democracy doesn’t scale beyond a classical Greek city-state where only a minority of the population is able to vote.

              Enough faith-based Augustinism and just-so stories about a system you can’t even bear to name properly.

              As opposed to what exactly, the pre-millennialist Gospel of Marx? The Marxists of various creeds owe royalty payments to those types of Christians. The rest of your response is meaningless drivel. Which sums up a lot of what passes for political rhetoric these days.

              Shorter: Democracy is minding your own business, and this ain’t it.

              You keep on using that word but I don’t think you know what it actually means.

          2. RanDomino

            Conflict resolution shouldn’t usually involve the devolution of the group into smaller and often more hostile factions/groups.

            You’re making a hell of an assumption there. As I said in my initial post, a split can be a good thing, and a split due to disagreements in strategy or tactics can result in a diversity of these things which can all proceed rather than the group wasting its time fighting over which way they all should move.
            More importantly, splits happen anyway! Either they’ll happen because you acknowledge them in your system, which only Consensus does (or should), or you refuse to acknowledge them (as every other system does) and you get infighting, factionalism, civil wars, etc.

            …And just because you don’t get everything you want doesn’t mean you are being deprived of your liberty or we don’t have a functioning democracy. It means a majority of the people who care enough to be there don’t agree with you.

            There are many possible outcomes of a decision-making process. Among them:
            A- Everyone gets everything they want (rare!)
            B- Some people get everything they want
            C- Some people get some things they want
            D- Some people get nothing
            E- Some people get some things they have taken away
            F- Some people have to contribute resources (land, labor, tools, commodities, etc)
            G- Any combination of B through F
            Now suppose that, for a given proposal, I’m part of group E or F. Assuming I rightfully/justly own* the things that are requested of me, then even if the rest of the group passes the proposal but I don’t want to contribute, wouldn’t I be fully within my rights to tell the rest of the group where they can shove it? Anything otherwise would be theft or slavery. Now, of course, the group could go ahead and do it anyway- but they would make themselves an enemy. It would even be quite expected for that person or group to sabotage the things to be stolen, just to discourage that kind of behavior.

            *Note that this does not apply to most capitalist property today- it would be fully justified to take from the Koch brothers or Walton family any wealth and property to which they hold title, minus personal effects such as a modest primary home and their actual day-to-day workplace, if they have one.

            1. Andrew Watts

              I was speaking about the inner dynamics of activist groups and not social groups v. other social groups. Organization matters and theoretical scenarios don’t square well with reality. Particularly when it comes to playing nice and working alongside other activists. Hence the compromises that need to be forged in an organized and timely fashion.

              I’ve seen this process unravel on more than one occasion and blow up spectacularly in a handful of occasions amidst supposedly like-minded individuals. Group think is definitely a problem that doesn’t handle dissent or disagreement with others well.

  20. John Merryman

    Big picture, whatever moves you make on the field will be effectively countered by those who own the field.

    The ties which currently bind society together are monetary and the current dynamic is creating and storing as much such notional wealth as can be imagined. Money is treated as quantified hope.

    While it is overpowering to any movement within society, it is also inevitably on the road to self destruction.

    Being prepared for that is what all counter cultural movements should be aiming for.

    No one is going to stop Humpty Dumpty falling. The issue will be what happens after.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Exactly, JM. All this talk, floating around in thought balloons untethered to the ground. There have been sort of “successful” human groupings in the past and may even be some at present. What are we collectively supposed to be doing? Helping each other satisfy those basic Maslow necessities? Then what? Then how? The universe has “features” and materials that make a whole lot of stuff possible, from the Golden Gate to rail guns to resurrecting the 1917 influenza virus in a form that bypasses all the immune system responses we humans developed, to nuclear weapons, to self-replicating nanodevices that pose a greater-than-zero risk of turning the whole planet, maybe a much bigger volume too, into “grey goo.” http://science.howstuffworks.com/gray-goo.htm

      There will be commissions and study groups and legislative subcommittees that yak about whether this or that technological innovation “ought to be allowed and how to regulate it.” Like nuclear weapons, guys like General Grove and certain politicians and industrial profiteers will make the decision to “introduce,” and f__k your consensus and/or Consensus. Buckyballs, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2186061/ , and GMO seeds that require lots of pesticides and produce field stubble so nasty and tough that farmers need Kevlar tires on their tractors, and novel crowd control and mind control “technologies,” and so much more in our “brave new world,” will be part of that run-up to the Humpty-Dumpty moment.

      “Movements” are built for co-optation, not cooperation. From what I have seen, in business and pleasure and church and school, hierarchy and frank or de facto delegation of actual action to one or a very few is inevitable, and inevitably corrupt as the Jesuitical Machiavellian self-servers put those always immanent skills at manipulation and self-service into play to become the Actors. “We the people” have no concept of, let alone “consensus” on, what we and the people we care about simply NEED, let alone what we WANT, or are willing to risk or tolerate or allow to be done “in our names.” There’s no Prime Directive for our species, just general motions in the direction of more, More, and Way Too Much, eventually for the benefit and pleasure of a very, very few. All the philosophers and religionists and (urp) economists in the world, now or dead, have even the tiniest bits of consensus on What It All Means or What We Should Be Or Are Obliged To Do, about or toward each other or this planet we may be stuck with as the only place we get to live as a frail species.

      Anyone want to show how consensus or Consensus has ever resulted in the reining in of any of the cancerous and parasitic excrescences of the stuff that “we” more gentle souls, disabled by empathy and a view of trains of consequence, go along decrying, grumbling and weeping about our inability to keep The Worst from happening (as in Obama’s “Fast Track to Universal Oligarchic End of the World Authority,” emphasize “Authority”? Emphasize “autocratic, with a vanishingly thin veneer of ‘democratic rule of law legitimacy’?” It is fascinating, the degree to which that ISIS thing has developed and “prospered…”

      But Process is so much fun for the impotent and ineffectual to debate, isn’t it?

      i remember a neat photo from the Occupy Wall Street period, a shot past the earnest and smug and occasionally condescending faces and raised or crossed arms in the General Assembly, to a balcony a couple of stories up the facade of one of those Wall Street bankster-phallus buildings, where a couple of snotty white boys in bespoke suits were sipping something out of champagne flutes and toasting the rabble with an Ivy League sneer. Those dudes have their consensus process within the reality of inevitable hierarchy down pat (while they no doubt are always attentive for ways and means of stabbing their consensus partners in the back and taking THEIR stuff, too.)

      Consensus? How’s that work out, when it comes to confronting the Fusion Centers and ‘petitioning for redress’ and all that? Go study some history of labor organizing. Eugene Debs and Walter Reuther and even Lech Wałęsa and such folks understand where the power to compel change comes from, when one is dealing with the likes of Henry Ford and the Kochs. It ain’t from squishiness and groping for “consensus” amongst a gaggle of omnivores…

      1. jrs

        It doesn’t seem entirely untethered as there seems a lot of activist voices in the comment section. I may speak from some experience (not entirely untethered) but it’s quite limited. But it really is attracting a lot of activist commentary.

        But the article itself may be a bit wistful, if only Occupy had been done differently, it would have succeeded, in what, containing Wall Street? Despite the overt oppression, despite public opinion seeming to have been quickly turned against Occupy? (now some day someone will document that, as it’s almost certain the Feds got involved in the media when the news reports were inexplicable initially positive toward occupy, you wouldn’t even think they would be initially positive being that it is corporate media but …).

        If we’re going to just await collapse (environmental, economic, of the hegemon and it’s reserve currency?) we may as well just build community and survival skills I guess. If we’re going to build a union movement it’s uncertain even a massively rebuild union movement could deal with issues like climate change and environmental destruction, at best I think it would have a better chance than the current system. That’s neither here nor there really as it’s not the point of a union movement, but the left sometimes assumes more systematic connectivity than exists.

        1. JTMcPhee

          The Elite know there is a Beast in the dark, they do have some historical reason to be afraid. Too bad that the Occupy folks didn’t actually, you know, “occupy.” So polite and all.

          As Yves has noted, there was a time when the Banksters and friends actually thought they were hearing the padding feet of the Beast coming up on them. Then they opened their squinty little eyes and saw it was just the Fed, clothed in velvet, bringing container ships full of Funny Munny for them to disport themselves with…

          Good thing for the GDP that the people who provide “security services” to “high net worth individuals” get paid such outrageous amounts of Funny Munny for the “protection” they provide. For the species, not much of a future…

      2. John Merryman


        Besides the fact that all of us, rich and poor alike, are on that rush to oblivion, I do think we are at an inflection point, where the monetary mediums have metastasized into an enormous amount of unsustainable promises and when it does finally consume all resources that can be thrown at it, there will be both an enormous letdown and a once in a millennium, if not history, opportunity to look at this dynamic. As I posted in a comment further up thread, we are going to have to reconstruct the social contract and that hopefully doesn’t mean contracting out all trust, reciprocity, social and economic interaction to a global medium that is explicitly organized as a rent extraction device. Given its value is based on public debt, in order to be stable, the rewards have to be returned to the public, not just loaned back to it. Like roads, it is a public medium.
        Go to locally owned and communal voucher systems and start ground up.

        Yes, there is a lot of environmental destruction, etc, but our kids will find a way to live in the rubble.

  21. Russell Scott Day/Transcendia (tm)

    Westminster Parliamentary Democracy is complicated as well. Henry Roberts in the US found there were significant difficulties for early Americans and responded with the writing of Robert’s Rules of Order. (Hydraulic Engineer)

    I personally feel that the use of Robert’s Rules is superior, and there is a secular book to consult for questions of the the move in meetings towards agreement and decision.

    What is a difficulty is that for the House and Senate and all most other legislatures, alternative rules created and passed over time represent the desire by power to favor the Chairman or Speaker so much as to eliminate from the Robert’s Rules system some of its greatness.

  22. Oregoncharles

    Since the US Green Party uses consensus process (modified when we absolutely have to make a decision), I have a great deal of experience with it. I’ve been both chair of my chapter and a co-chair of the state party, and a participant for going on 20 years.

    In my experience, it’s almost shockingly efficient. The one time we overcame a block proved to be a huge mistake, on both levels it caused a long-running internal conflict, AND the person objecting turned out to be right. Embarrassingly, I was on the wrong side of that one. We even make uncontested nominations by consensus, because it saves a lot of time. (If they’re contested we use ranked-choice voting.)

    Perhaps most important, it preserves and promotes unity in a group known for infighting. (It’s a dissident party, and for some reason, there’s a lot of dissidence in it.) A block means the person wielding it is prepared to leave the party over the issue – a big stop sign, well worth heeding.

    Now the caveats, because they’re big ones: this is a highly pre-selected group, since it has an explicit ideological basis, and these are small meetings. The state committee I was on is 7 people, when they all show up; we’re pretty excited if we can get more than 20 people in a room. (To be clear: the party is much larger than that – those are the people willing to sit through meetings.) All this means we usually agree even before there’s much discussion. It’s been a long time since we encountered an irresolvable disagreement.

    Occupy, for instance, had no such pre-agreement, and involved a lot more people, because the whole movement was physically present. The most important thing about it was its very broad sample. It’s the real reason they couldn’t agree on demands, let alone enter the election. The Human Mic didn’t help; it’s a very slow, awkward way to communicate.

    And we haven’t attracted provocateurs for a long time. Dealing with them when they appear, as they might next year, is something we should give some thought to.

    We also don’t take a religious attitude to the process; much more pragmatic, as I implied. But at least for us, it’s worthwhile to take blocks and even stand-asides (which mean: I don’t agree, and I won’t help, but I don’t think it’s existential, either) very seriously.

    1. RanDomino

      Occupy’s decision not to enter electoral politics was intentional, contrary to how you portray it. The Human Mic was invented because the NYPD banned sound equipment.

      I will say it’s heartening to hear that at least someone else in this world has a proper understanding of the Block, though.

    2. Lambert Strether

      I’ve got to say that “consensus works in an ideologically homogenous small group with people who’ve been members for decades” strikes me as a pretty limited conclusion.

      Also, as I understand it, the structure you describe is a small group making decisions by consensus on behalf of a much larger Party, which is not consensus. Yes?

      1. Kim Kaufman

        That’s what it sounds like to me also. 7 people – if they all show up – making all decisions. Not hard to get consensus like that. Problem is everyone else is disengaged it seems.

        All reports from Los Angeles Greens is that it’s a disorganized mess and will never get anywhere bigger than it is. And that’s only the nice report because I don’t want to repeat rumors about people I don’t personally know and haven’t witnessed in action. :)

      2. Aaron Schutz

        Also, as I understand it, the structure you describe is a small group making decisions by consensus on behalf of a much larger Party, which is not consensus. Yes?

        But isn’t this almost always the case, except when you have people privileged enough that they can come to all the meetings?

        A particular group of pretty privileged folks has long been looking for a “democracy” that doesn’t have “leaders.” Leader doesn’t have to mean “dictator,” since, as others have pointed out, people can just leave. Especially in movements (where exit is generally easier than voice). And you do need some way of holding them accountable. But in an effective, long-term movement that wants to draw in a wide range of people, you can’t live without them.

        1. RanDomino

          This is true, although precise language is necessary when talking about “leaders”. What I agree with, and what people seem to forget, is that at some point someone has to sit down and write a proposal for what to do. There’s nothing dictatorial or oppressive about that.

        2. Nathanael

          I’ve done votes on long multiple-choice things in a club with 100 people in the room. It works if you use approval voting. It’s a nightmare with any other form.

          And yes, we had leaders. The point of approval voting is that everyone knows that the option which won was *actually the most popular*.

      3. Oregoncharles

        The Green Party practices participatory democracy – which, in practice, means governance by those who show up and do the work. The groupe of 7 I mentioned, the state committee, is an executive committee;; it doesn’t make policy.

        Policy decisions belong to gatherings of the whole, whether (local) chapter meetings or the state convention. They are the governing bodies. If a hundred people show up, we get all excited and figure out how to operate that large a meeting. Usually we get the activists; those with a tolerance for meetings (another limitation on groups like Occupy). (Incidentally: I’m aware that I’ve simplified the history of Occupy.) In practice, these are very like “affinity groups.”

        It’s as democratic as people are willing to make it, just like a town meeting system. In practice, if the activists get it wrong, we shed members – something we watch very closely. Or people show up in the meetings and change things.

        Larger meetings can be run on a consensus basis, but it takes more skillful facilitation – and some forebearance on everybody’s part.

        We elect both the state committee and the national committee. – which, in turn, operate by consensus. So, layering.

        Yes, I’m aware that I’m sketching the limitations of the system. Hence the caveats. but I can also tell you it’s pretty slick in the right conditions.

  23. thom

    The consensus process, like every OTHER human civilization governance process Just DOES NOT WORK because for some reason, it, like all the others, trends to elitism, elitist control and becomes as totally anti-democratic as monarchy whether heriditary or not (Wall Street’s self-perpetuating US corporations and government leaders), a military junta, a Peronist dictator, Leninist or French revolution, whatever….

    My guess is that the fiercely hierarachical reptilian brain stem is the navigator of the large mammalian hominin brain and it might be best to accept “good bosses” and some sorts of hierarchies as unavoidable, but with strict and direct mammalian hominin accountability. After all there is more than one way to build a pyramid, and Egypt doesn’t have the patent. Democracies with strong feedback loops and fierce accountability might work. Then again, there is Climate Disruption and the looming Sixth Extinction, so why bother lol

    The much-maligned Paris Commune of 1871 might provide a model as might Ecuador, Uruguay, Cuba and Venezuela.

    It is also my observation that George Washington, the richest man in the colonies (including ALL his property, i.e., human slaves), was the first non-heriditary monarch of the United States. Best of all for him, he didn’t need to hire a “lobbyist” to go to, ahem, Washington … ;)

  24. thom

    “This statement of faith, presented as a statement of fact …”

    The author is totally right-on, hit the nail of the head, right on-target, kicked it through the goalposts, whatever tired cliche you might favor over mine ;).

    We are DELUGED with ***statements of faith presented as statements of fact*** in the US. Whether from advertising, pr, or CEOs or government agencies (EPA says fracking does not GENERALLY harm groundwater), the White House, Number 10, the Nato command, the federal reserve, congressional debate, the Roberts Five, the Democratic party, political campaigns, and the usual suspects like megachurch preachers, whatever,

    it is ALL nothing less than EVIDENCE-FREE statements of faith presented as statements of fact, unlike the various online oases like Naked.

    Damned near everything we see and hear in the mass media maelstrom fits that description, especially what passes as “NEWS”. Caitlyn, anyone? I have the soul of a woman? Putin is destroying Russia, Obama says. We are in a strong recovery ….

    Statements of faith presented as statements of fact is a “my way or the highway” sort fof proposition, meaning dissent is instantly stifled and debate is closed and people are controlled. That is the meaning of the word “fascism” …

  25. casino implosion

    I’ve got nothing bad to say about Occupy. I was in Zuccotti Park for ten hours a day for six weeks straight (was conveniently laid-off at the time and kept postponing calling the union hall…) and had my first experience of the “public square” that everyone is always talking about. That said! I found it amusing to learn I think in a David Graber interview that the anarchist consensual parlimentarian culture of Occupy had originally been developed to avoid the emergence of hidden cliques and unseen power structures in activist groups. The first thing I found out while participating in those groups was that the whole thing was being steered by a small clique and that the appearance of equality was definitely surface-only.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s totally unavoidable in human affairs.

    1. RanDomino

      Everything I’ve read about OWS tells me they were doing it horribly wrong. Consensus works best when it’s a small group of individuals (about 5-25, aka an “Affinity Group”) or a small number of groups (5-25)*, because any more people than that in a room and you can’t have a functional meeting. OWS tried to get 4000 people at the same table. Unfortunately, it was also kind of inevitable because of 1) a very very very bad system of Consensus has been developed and disseminated for the past 20-30 years and 2) everyone apparently showed up to OWS as atomized individuals rather than as part of small groups.

      Small groups are just going to happen because it’s how people naturally organize for day-to-day work, and every other activity really.

      *If you have 5-25 groups made up of individuals, that’s called a Spokescouncil. If you have a group of groups, that’s a Federation. If you have a Spokescouncil of 20 groups, each of which has 20 members (which is about the size of a day-to-day working group), you have 400 people represented (a large apartment building or normal-sized workplace) but only have to have 20 people at the table, with only one layer of bureaucracy (which is not an appropriate word, if the delegates are delegates rather than representatives). If you have a Federation of 20 Spokescouncils, that’s 8000 people- a town, neighborhood, medium-sized business, etc. If you have a second-order Federation of 20 first-order Federations, that’s 160,000 people- a small city, a large neighborhood of a major city, a regional industrial federation, etc. A third-order Federation is 3.2 million people- an entire rural area, moderate-sized city, the major regional economic backbone federation, etc. Fourth-order is 64 million, a tremendous number of people; it should be extremely rare for this many people to need to make a decision together, maybe once in a lifetime in the entire world. The next order of magnitude above that is essentially the entire human race. Supposing we could have these meetings every two weeks, we could make a decision involving literally everyone before Halloween. 95% of people would attend only one meeting. Consensus works because math works.

  26. Rosario

    The linking to faith is kinda crude and completely unnecessary for the critique. Also, what revolutionary movement didn’t have “faith” moving it along? I tend to think all of them did. Consensus politics has been incredibly successful in changing the language of political engagement. Much of it unseen and unnoticed because of the Juggernaut of modern national politics. The problem I have noted more than a failure of consensus politics is a fear of usurping and utilizing power.

    1. jrs

      All the stuff about the religious basis of consensus in the article was too close to the genetic fallacy for my taste (though it was not the only argument used). So yea it was overly biased.

      It also isn’t even the origins story I hear most people pushing consensus state (unfortunately neither is anarchist theory or practice the background most are influenced by). So I’m not sure how much such things affect anything.

  27. Wade Riddick

    I wish people in political activities would actually study a little political science. There is no optimized decision-making (i.e., voting) process for a large group. Anyone who studied Arrow’s theorem in the social choice literature knows this. There is no optimum way to structure votes such that the final decision is “the best” with regards to the preferences of all the participants. It simply doesn’t happen. You can maybe get into the cover set, but that’s about it – and that’s *with* defined items on an agenda. It’s even messier when the group is cobbling together its own open-ended agenda.

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