In the first post I spoke about new entrants to political activism being inducted into certain methods and tactics. One of these methods is consensus decision-making. This can be a wonderful and positive thing and it can also be incredibly crippling. I want to see it challenged before the next surge of political activity because I am tired of seeing people tired out by it, tired of seeing groups fall apart through consensus.
First, let’s state what I have in common with the consensus decision-makers. I share a hatred of representative politics, I see the oppressive nature of majoritarian decison-making, and I understand the desire to give all those who have never had a voice the ability to speak. Consensus seems almost opposite to the ‘democracy’ we have learned to distrust. It must be right, right?
But here’s a couple of what I consider to be bare facts:
1. The meetings of Reclaim the Streets, who used consensus decision-making, eventually became utterly unmanageable. Rumour says that in fact they were ‘managed’ – by a group of core activists who met outside the main meetings to try and actually, y’know, get things done. What is certain is that the decision was eventually taken to break up the big meetings because they could no longer work. RTS never recovered from the fragmentation that followed.
2. The big consensus-based meetings at Occupy LSX achieved very little. Certainly a lot of the people who actually got things done in the camps didn’t go to them. They did, however, utterly burn out those involved in facilitating and running the meetings. Even the smaller working group meetings, also try to reach consensus, were often a painful slog.
Now you can – and I’m sure people will – argue that consensus is going to be difficult because we are not used to it. We are not used to speaking for ourselves or acting together. It’s true. Maybe that is the reason it is so hard.
But let’s start from a different point: let’s look at the technical aspects of consensus decision-making. It is trying to get away from majoritarian politics that silences the voices of those who don’t agree with the majority. One weakness of consensus decision-making is already known by those who use it: certain people who are good at speaking, used to speaking, often dominate. Okay, we can compensate for that, but let’s just note that consensus is not the polar opposite of the type of democracy we have at the moment. We still have to make a special effort to stop it being swung by the loudest voices. Often, let’s be honest, the efforts fail.
Next, we should look at what happens when people really don’t want to fall in with the consensus, often for reasons of ego, ideology or realpolitik. The majority can be dominated by the minority. Okay, this is a known problem and we can deal with it: allow a ‘stand-aside’ option when things really reach an impasse. But let’s note, once again, we still have a system where either a few people can dominate the discussion or where people end up feeling excluded by the decision.
What about – and this is a very common problem – what about if someone disagrees with the way the consensus is going, but they either don’t feel strongly enough to try to block it or they don’t feel confident speaking up? The social pressure on these people not to break the consensus is immense. In the name of banishing oppression we have created an almost irresistable social pressure to keep your mouth shut. We can try to create an attitude of openness to all disagreement but the reality is that we try and often fail. And so people don’t speak.
Now let’s consider something that consensus decision-making really struggles with: sometimes people’s views simply cannot be brought together. People are different. They see the world in different ways. There is one way of dealing with this when it comes to actions, which is for those who want to do the action to split off and do it. Fine, okay. But this divides groups and the point of consensus seems to have been lost. We are no longer engaged in a conversation, we’re off doing our own thing.
This latter evolution of consensus decision-making actually exposes an intensely individualistic streak (derived from individualistic forms of anarchism I suspect) that I think exists in all consensus decision-making: the idea that I can be part of a group while never compromising what I want. In a society that propagandises the virtues of individualism (even if frequently failing to practice them) it is already difficult for us to engage in collective action in which the action is not quite what we wanted to see. But for collective action to happen, particularly on a mass scale, we have to get used to compromises. It simply isn’t possible to get millions or even thousands of people all wanting exactly the same thing. If we are to work together, we are going to have to learn to put aside our own opinions sometimes – perhaps only temporarily, and hopefully being able to express our dissent. Of course, collective action still comes with certain ethical, political and empathic boundaries – we should not subsume ourselves to a group unthinkingly. But consensus decision-making purports to be all about collectivity and my feeling is that it can often hinder it in practice by over-emphasising the individual.
So, of what consensus decision-making was meant to achieve, how much is really left intact after all these glitches and flaws? Is it really so fantastic and radical that we should wear ourselves out trying to make it work in its current form? The only reason I can come up with that political activists have fetishised it for so long is that it looks really alternative. It has a feeling of novelty and yes, even empowerment, when you first encounter it, and thereafter it enables us to distinguish ourselves from those people out there who foolishly vote by a show of hands. Oh how we laugh at them. As we battle agonisingly through a 5-hour meeting.
If you can make consensus decision-making work for you, great, but it just isn’t so wonderful that we should kill ourselves trying to make it work. I think it probably works best in fairly small groups of people with a fairly constant membership. I think personal relationships can give a depth to consensus decision-making that almost make it live up to the radicalness ascribed to it. But I know for sure it does not work in large groups, and in groups where people are constant passing in and out. Occupy LSX for example.
I used to be in a group that encouraged dissensus rather than consensus. That is, we admitted that sometimes people have differing views and we should let the conflicts between them emerge and play out, potentially over long periods. The actual decision-making process went like this: we would make an initial attempt to reach consensus. This would enable everyone to have a chance to speak. Then, if it was apparent we didn’t have consensus, and if all the points of view had been expressed, we would vote. We used a simple majority but you could also work on perhaps a two-thirds majority of those present.
This gave us most of the advantages of consensus, while allowing us to be more honest with each other – we never had to be terrified of breaking the consensus and accidentally extending a meeting already at 3 hours to 5 hours. It also – and this is an important point – worked. By the way, I keep mentioning the length of meetings. That’s because it matters. If your meetings are too long, people will stop going. Meetings are always, however we try to lighten them with good friendships and cake, going to be something of a necessary evil. If your meetings regularly last longer than two hours you’re probably doing it wrong. ‘Wrong’ in the sense that your attempts at organising will probably fail. Most people just can’t take that level of boredom. If you can, good on you. But you will be the remnant who end up pushing decisions when others are so tired of the meeting they’ll just shut up in order to end it. And how democratic is that?
There are other methods of organising directly democratically. Nested councils in which the councils at the bottom choose a spokesperson to go to the next level council. The morbid fear of representation among some activists often prevents this happening, though it has appeared in the form of a ‘spokes council’ from time to time. The key thing is to view the spokesperson not as a representative but as a delegate who can be overruled from below at any time. This system too will have disadvantages, but since it is the one the Spanish CNT – the biggest and most success horizontal organisation I know of – uses, we know that it does work to some extent. Unlike consensus decision-making in big groups of people. Which – did I mention this? – doesn’t usually work (there are exceptions to this, I know, though I think most of them come from more communal societies than ours where people start from a position of less divergent opinions).
I understand that representation doesn’t work. I understand that majority voting alone is oppressive. I just think that consensus decision-making has equal and sometimes worse problems. We need to re-think the virtues of consensus and re-think how we organise. Talking to each other properly about our sitation and our viewpoints is a wonderful thing, but it does pall after a few dozen hours of meetings, and then it would be great if we could go out and, y’know, do stuff. In particular, in line with Part 1 of this Debrief, I think that we need to build large-scale local and national organisations (international too). We simply won’t do that with consensus decision-making.
If we want our small convergences to be a microcosm of larger-scale change, we should think about changing the way we make decisions even when we do have a small enough group to make consensus work. Whatever methods we use, we need to bear in mind the need to create forms of power strong enough, resilient enough, long-term enough, to challenge the political and economic institutions that dominate our lives. That isn’t easy. If we get stuck on one form of organising with a mixed track record at best, it will be even harder.