Occupy LSX Debrief Part 2: Your consensus decision-making sucks a lot sometimes

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.

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7 Responses to Occupy LSX Debrief Part 2: Your consensus decision-making sucks a lot sometimes

  1. tim says:

    “simply isn’t possible to get millions or even thousands of people all wanting exactly the same thing” – what about advertising? Can we put or some billboards or sponsor a sports even or give all the children a toy with their agenda or something?

  2. tim says:

    “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?” – hehe, yeah I think allocating chunks of time/resources to particular discussions/decisions, and then blocking decisions by using up all the time/resources is a common tactic in democratic systems.

  3. damien says:

    Consensus making is a ludicrous goal. Maybe in a small meeting it can work, but on a large scale, forget it.

    Over the course of history, lots of organisational techniques have been tried, with varying degrees of resulting egalitarianism.

    The stuff that hasn’t been tried on a mass scale is networked forms of organisation. This technology is what presents new opportunities to revitalise a democracy corrupted.

    You people need to focus on exploring this far more than you have to date. You need to create mobile forums, mobile voting apps. The ambition must be direct democracy, now enabled to potentially work on vast scales, by the power of the internet. You can start small and work your way up.

  4. Charles says:

    I have been considering your comments. I finally broke with my local Occupation due to their extremely poor handling of consensus. So this problem has concerned me greatly.

    First, I would suggest you look at the Wikipedia article entitled “Consensus decision-making.” It describes some of the processes used by Occupy and other groups. The model I like best is the Quaker model. But to use this model, you almost need a group united in an almost religious fervor for reaching 100% consensus. But in particular, I noted this one sentence, “The facilitator can discern if one who is not uniting with the decision is acting without concern for the group or in selfish interest.” There is the core issue. Many attempts to reach consensus in Occupy GAs have been sabotaged by a single person who will block or derail a discussion for solely personal reasons. So every single person must be able to put the group ahead of their own personal concerns.

    Also, this Wiki article talks about Consensus Blocking, which tends to preserve the status quo. But the article describes an even worse problem, the Abilene Paradox, which says, “a group can unanimously agree on a course of action that no individual member of the group desires because no one individual is willing to go against the perceived will of the decision-making body.” I have also seen this happen in GAs.

    I also encourage you to read the classic article by Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” It describes how ad hoc power structures appear when deliberately structureless organizations try to prevent them.

    I’ve spent a lot of work on GA procedures and advised a lot of people on methods. It is almost impossible to get a group containing anarchists and political rebels to even agree to any process. They will often sabotage the very group that will give them a voice. I don’t know how to deal with people who think that because political discussions and voting isn’t working on a national political level, that it is useless at a personal, local level. That is the whole point of Occupy, to take back politics from the politicians and oligarchs. Why can’t they get on board?

  5. contact says:

    Damien, online decision-making creates its own problems. Who has the time/inclination to sit having discussions on online forums? Particular people with particular characters/skills in particular situations do, while others do not/cannot. In addition it would enable people to vote without discussion – i.e. vote in ignorance. People also have different levels of access to technology – some people use smartphones so can be online all the time, some don’t. Even more complex, forums require moderation if they aren’t to descend into youtube-level debate. This creates another series of political problems which, from my experience in online forums, can be very divisive. I agree online networking for social action has not yet been exploited to the full, but I think it is not *the* solution for decision-making.

    Charles, I’m not sure about the ‘get on board’ phrasing. It sounds like ‘get on board with the way I think things should be done’. But I am concerned, perhaps like you, that people can sometimes be more focussed on appearing to be radical or expressing themselves as individuals than getting things done.

  6. damien says:

    Might be worth reading this article on electronic democracy in Germany. http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/liquid-democracy-web-platform-makes-professor-most-powerful-pirate-a-818683.html

    A solution to many of the problems you mention is delegable proxy voting, in which you can delegate your vote someone else, but can withdraw it at any time. This allows each person to decide for themselves what level of participation suits them.

    One could imagine a system – a standard if you like – in which every blog or forum or website on the internet could tie into such a voting system, in the same way that facebook “like” buttons are tied into facebook.

    You talk about many people not have internet connectivity, and a system would have to allow for the integration of face-to-face democracy with online democracy. You would want to be able to handle delegation and voting using a common-denominator technology like a phone based automated voice response system, moving up to SMS based voting, to app based voting, and onto online forum based voting.

    The point is – there are practical political parties with a dedication to egalitarianism and sufficient support to attain parliamentary representation, that are using these systems.

    The occupy movement needs to move into the realm of practicality, and this is one way of doing it.

  7. Pingback: Discussion on political organising and how to make it better – Part 1 | Preorg!

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