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The Tyranny of Consensus

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One chapter of my book is on Oregon reforestation cooperatives from the 1970s who found their countercultural work ideal disrupted when the Forest Service sprayed them with pesticides. One of the key members of the main cooperative, known as the Hoedads, was Gerry Mackie. After fifteen years working in the forest, Mackie went into academia, eventually ending up as a political theorist at the University of California-San Diego. I was reading his M.A. thesis the other day, which deals with the rise and fall of the cooperatives. This is what Mackie had to say about consensus decision-making, something I oppose with every fiber of my bones:

“In the late 1970s, some new members imported a belief popular on the liberal-left, that democracy requires consensus. Consensus groups could function, but were unstable and usually the first to fall. There are several problems. Those with the least to do elsewhere in life have the greatest power in the interminable consensus process. Trust, ironically, is absent, in that no delegation of decision is permitted. The thought of a meeting then becomes so horrifying that a larger and larger scope of decisions is left to informal leadership and clandestine process, an undemocratic outcome. Consensus is always biased to the status quo, but problems usually originate in the status quo; rapid external change worsens the conservative bias. Further, consensus invades the individual personality and demands conformity; dissenters may acquiesce but in doing so are implicitly judged to have compromised the moral ideal. The healthy legitimacy of openly holding different views becomes suspect. Finally, rational unanimity is impossible for a larger class of goals. Just to illustrate with a trivial example, suppose it is time to decide where the crew works in the Spring. Six people want to work in Montana because they have friends there. Two people want to work in California because they have friends there. Three people don’t care. Under majority rule, the crew goes to Montana, and those in the minority might feel they are owed a little deference in some future decision (know to political science as “logrolling”). Under consensus, the different sides are denied the legitimacy of their individual interests, because there is only one rational goal for the group, which one side or another must adopt, or the group disband. Under majority rule one is subordinate to shifting impersonal majorities, but under consensus one is permanently subordinated to every other member in the group.”

Right–consensus decision making is the opposite of democracy. Not only does it empower the person with nothing else going on in their life, but it places everyone under the tyranny of everyone else. Meetings are impossible and effectively, consensus decision-making is a sure fire way to destroy your movement. There’s nothing wrong with disagreement and being outvoted. Unfortunately, too many of today’s social activists believe that such a thing as a consensus is possible, when in fact a consensus is the worst possible outcome.

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  • rea

    Polish history provides horrifying examples. . .

    • joe from Lowell

      And more recently, the US Senate.

  • Scott Lemieux

    I wanted to note that Mackie’s Democracy Defended is one of the best works of political theory ever written.

    • I knew of the book and that he was a successful academic (UCSD I believe). Did not know it was such a big deal.

      • Scott Lemieux

        I don’t know if it’s received the attention it deserves, but it’s a stunningly good book. Will try to post about it this weekend, but it basically notes that every canonical consevertarian public choice argument against democracy is based on a ridiculous historical error. (My favorite: the idea that the 1860 election was a cycle depends on the assumption that John Bell was the second choice of most Lincoln voters.)

        • njorl

          (My favorite: the idea that the 1860 election was a cycle depends on the assumption that John Bell was the second choice of most Lincoln voters.)

          This seems like it would be interesting if I could understand it. Is there a typo or is my poli sci jargon inadequate?

          • Colin Day

            I believe a cycle among three choices A, B, and C is where in two-person races voters prefer A to B, B to C, and C to A. So Bell over Douglas over Lincoln over Bell . . .

            This assumes that Breckinridge could not have won enough Northern votes.

            • Njorl

              Ah. Thanks.

      • Greg Nagle

        He is at UCSD now but did his phd at Chicago, went on the Oxford, Notre Dame etc. I read it too, his daddy was a milk man in rural Oregon, surely the best scholar to come out of Hoedads, much better than me. Always been a great older brother to me.

        • Greg Nagle

          I had intemperate comments below since I did not read carefully but Gerry Mackie is as bad as me, I was with hoedads for 12 years, Gerry was with us for about 5, left sooner due to bad back, He was president in 1978 while I served in 1980. He pressed me into running, the best thing i ever did in my life. I think we had the best meetings I have been to in my life, using Roberts Rules of Order, pressed on us by an old IWW guy. Mackies take above is on the mark, voting allows contending views a voice much more effectively I think.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoedads_Reforestation_Cooperative

    • GFW

      “This is what Mackie had to say about consensus decision-making, something I oppose with every fiber of my bones”

      English leaves such wonderful opportunities for ambiguity. I went into the quote thinking you opposed what Mackie was saying, and it took me a bit to realize you agree with Mackie in opposing consensus decision-making.

  • DocAmazing

    when in fact a consensus is the worst possible outcome

    That doesn’t follow. If there’s unanimity, then that’s great: consensus wins. You might say that pursuit of consensus is the worst possible process, but consensus as an outcome isn’t bad at all.

    Also: While consensus-driven organizing is terrifically inefficient and easily paralyzed, it’s important to acknowledge why people were drawn to it in the first place: the usual models of democratic participation are easily manipulated by skilled players, and politics is a skill that is not necessarily mastered by those with the purest motives. Consensus-driven organizing might well be magnificently naive, but it’s a legitimate reaction to seeing one’s organizing efforts flushed down the toilet of deal-making, power-brokering, and old-fashioned corruption.

    • anthrofred

      I think the bit on logrolling addresses this fairly well. Consensus as an outcome doesn’t seem so bad until you start extending the horizon out a little from a single decision.

    • LoriK

      IME consensus decision making is just as easily manipulated by people with a certain set of skills that not everyone has mastered. They’re just different skills than those needed to manipulate democracy. Watching a group’s efforts flushed down the toilet of deal-making, power-brokering, and old-fashioned corruption is sad and frustrating. So is watching a group be torn apart by things like bullying, obstinacy for the sake of obstinacy, and valuing purity of motives over any clue about how the world actually works. And don’t forget sheer exhaustion. When the process of deciding what to do takes forever and sucks the life right out of you there’s not much energy left over for actually doing what you finally, finally agreed on.

      I have a friend who, for lack of any other available space, lived for a year in student housing that made all its decisions by consensus. It took them something like 15 hours to do room assignments and everyone had to be there the whole time. There is not enough “Oh hell no” in the world to cover that.

      • Exactly. I’ve been in the middle of “consensus”-driven meetings where clearly pre-meeting caucuses had already decided what was going to happen, and the meeting itself was basically reduced to beating verbally on people until they gave in and accepted what the majority pre-meeting caucus had decided.

        • LoriK

          I’ve also been in “consensus”-driven meetings where everyone agreed on a plan save that one contrary person whose self-image was tied up in the illusion that s/he was an iconoclast or smarter/more perceptive/more compassionate than everyone else. Since we couldn’t tell the Lone Ranger to just freakin’ deal we had to spend hours crafting a plan that LR would agree to even though it was less pleasing than the original plan to everyone except him/her. Everyone’s voice was heard and the final plan had the illusion of consensus, but the Lone Ranger still had all the control.

          • Yep, which is the Scylla to the Charybides, or vice versa.

    • Scott P.

      I think the whole advantage of democracy is supposed to be (and is) that it functions even if the players don’t have the purest motives.

      There is a long-standing strain in American political philosophy (extending back to the Revolutionary Era) that government ought to be run by those with the purest and most disinterested motives, but I am not convinced that is the ideal outcome, let alone a practicable one.

      • DocAmazing

        Obviously, one must balance motive with a great many other factors, but for an example of democracy functioning, I give you the current push to restrict voting. Democratically-elected representatives of the people are attempting to undermine democracy in the name of democracy.

        Was it Churchill who said that it was the worst system except for all of the others? Maybe that’s the best we can hope for. Still, I understand the drive to find other approaches.

        • LeeEsq

          Yes, it was Churchil who said that democracy was the worst system except for every other system tried.

          The problem with consensus is that it assumes that you can reach universal agreement on issues. This isn’t going to happen. I can see why highly ideological people, people who believe that they possess the “truth” are going to be driven towards consensus. For most other people, majority-rules works well enough.

    • mpowell

      I think you are right, but you are speaking a different language. When Erik says consensus, he means the process (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what he means). His use of the word outcome notwithstanding.

    • MikeJake

      While consensus-driven organizing is terrifically inefficient and easily paralyzed, it’s important to acknowledge why people were drawn to it in the first place: the usual models of democratic participation are easily manipulated by skilled players

      Imagine we’re all in a group, and we have to make Decision X, which has two alternatives, Option A and Option B.

      Virtually everyone in the group thinks Option A is preferable, but they don’t think Decision X is really all that important in the grand scheme of things.

      I, on the other hand, support Option B, and I feel strongly enough about it that I’ve decided to be a major PITA about it, such that it’s easier to just let me have my way then to argue over it.

      In this example, we’ve reached a consensus that the group can live with. But the decision we’ve arrived at is one that nearly everyone in the group disagrees with. Is it likely we’ve arrived at the “best” decision?

      • DocAmazing

        Imagine we’re a union, and we’ve busted ass to get out the vote for a Democratic politician who immediately sells us out because one of her major donors is a leader in the industry in which we work. Is it likely that we’ve achieved the best outcome?

        All systems have drawbacks. I can certainly see why people screwed by one system might well look at another to see if it’s superior. Table-top modeling of those systems is helpful, but doesn’t really demonstrate practice.

        • MikeJake

          That’s bad for our union, but our union isn’t the whole of the politician’s constituency.

          On the other hand, if our union had enough membership to give us the clout to counteract the industry leader’s clout, the politician would be bound to obey our wishes if he hoped to remain in office. THAT’s democracy. The people don’t always get what they want, but if they can credibly display enough muscle to their elected officials, then they’re more likely to get what they want. Our system requires you to get organized to even have a chance of getting your way. Which is a major drag, and biases the system towards those with money, but whaddya gonna do?

          • DocAmazing

            but whaddya gonna do?

            Attempt reform and consider other systems, which leads us back to where we began.

        • The solution there is to do political organizing and coalition-building within the party to nominate the most electable person who’s closest to your views and repeat over time until the status quo leans in your direction.

          cf the New Right and their descendants, 1964-present.

      • synykyl

        … Is it likely we’ve arrived at the “best” decision? …

        If your strong feelings were based on superior knowledge of the issues, your stubbornness may very well have led to a better decision.

        Even you were just acting out of self interest, it may still have led to a more satisfactory decision. If the others were right not to care enough to fight for Option A, then what’s wrong with making the minority happy and choosing Option B?

    • This, however, assumes that you actually have a real consensus, when in fact you probably only end up with a system where the strongest voices are able to force the rest of the group into pretending they agree so that a decision can actually get made. That seems quite a bit inferior to giving everyone the ability to cast an actual dissenting vote and going with the will of the majority.

    • “the usual models of democratic participation are easily manipulated by skilled players, and politics is a skill that is not necessarily mastered by those with the purest motives.”

      Consensus-driven meetings are even worse. In the traditional models of democratic participation, the mechanisms of power are visible and open to democratic accountability. In consensus-driven meetings, the mechanisms of power become invisible. As I say below, I’ve been in meetings in which clearly everything’s been decided ahead of time, but you can’t even object because “everything runs on consensus, so we couldn’t possibly be in charge of anything.”

      • DocAmazing

        In the traditional models of democratic participation, the mechanisms of power are visible and open to democratic accountability.

        Kinda missed out on that whole “smoke-filled room” thing, huh?

        • The smoke-filled room relied on superior organization to achieve victory. The historical solution to the old party bosses and machines was to construct new machines composed of alliances between labor and liberals. In other words, organization is needed to beat organization.

          • DocAmazing

            But has nothing to do with “visibility” and “openness”.

  • Fascinating. I think I’ve said before that my great grandfather ran an anarchist commune (Sunrise) in Michigan in the ? 30’s. HIs book on the subject (Quest for Heaven) is a scream because they had to wrestle with all these issues. I could not agree more with the extremely accurate description you block quoted about the dangers of consensus based political or social action. It sounds good in theory but in reality the longest winded, most manipulative, will usually win through sheer bastardy, sitzfleisch, and stubborness. In the long run they leave people no choice but to vote with their feet and flee, if they can (and this is why communes sometimes devolve into cults, beginning with love bombing and ending with locking people up).

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      “sheer bastardy, sitzfleisch, and stubbornness”

      add “knowing the rules when everybody else doesn’t” and you have the recipe for the Ron Paul faction taking over the Iowa GOP

      • Nick

        Coincidentally, the Pogues were going to use that as the name of their 3rd album.

        • It’s actually the name of my three fantasy children, as imagined by tbogg.

          • Hogan

            Or it could be a great law firm.

  • Sebastian H

    Consensus is an excellent outcome.

    Requiring it before moving forward is a stupid process.

    See for example wanting to wait to act on global warming until the last denier is convinced…

  • Hogan

    An ancestress of this argument can be found here.

    Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness — and that is not the nature of a human group.
    This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

    • How do you remember and locate this stuff, Hogan? Great link.

    • Nick

      Excellent analysis, there. One of the red flags (heh) about some of the Occupy rhetoric, for me, was the claim that they had “no leaders”. Leaders are simply people with followers, and of course Occupy groups had leaders, like any other group does. I think what they meant was, “We have no official authorities”. Not the same thing.

      • Kingfish

        I always thought it was funny how leaderless Occupy claimed to be when the local occupy group had the same 3-4 people facilitating, keeping minutes, and keeping stack at practically every meeting. I didn’t mind, but it was a transparent lie and having it out in the open might have been better in the end.

        One person (a snitch or provocateur, as it turned out, when they bragged about it on facebook) eventually started holding all meetings up and they would repeatedly last 4-5 hours. Their favorite tactic was to call for a 10-15 minute break, then come back and say “some people had raised concerns with me about those who are facilitating/stackkeeping.” The few leaders would each voluntarily leave their role in an attempt to mollify this person and in a short time we would have inexperienced and often very shy people attempting to run meetings with a hostile person who had no interest in ever reaching consensus.

        Needless to say, shit fell apart. It left a lot of bad feelings among those of us who have stayed in touch since the group’s effective disbandment. Yet for some reason whenever there’s talk of getting the group back together for something there is no talk of getting rid of the consensus model, like it’s the Holy Bible, inerrant and divinely inspired.

        • On a similar wavelength, the fact that multiple Occupys couldn’t actually deal with the politically sensitive issue of black bloc tactics because just enough people would show up to ensure that there wouldn’t be 95% in favor (or whatever the percentage was for General Assemblies to pass things).

      • Precisely. When you have “no leaders” and people “just step up” to do things – there’s no way of holding anyone accountable, because you can’t vote anyone out for being a bad actor.

        • r. clayton

          When you have “no leaders” and people “just step up” to do things – there’s no way of holding anyone accountable, because you can’t vote anyone out for being a bad actor.

          Maybe, but in that situation why can’t accountability be self-directed instead of other-directed, as in “That’s a dumb way to do X; here’s a better way.”?

    • andrewsomething

      Came here to post that. I’ve been waving that around at people since I was involved in anti-globalization stuff in the late-90s. If anything, it’s even more relevant now.

    • YES! I had been trying to remember this essay for hours, but yes.

    • KF

      Pretty sure the title is a direct reference to it…

  • Jackdaw

    So we’re all in agreement, consensus is terrible.

  • Davis X. Machina

    Every school administrator I’ve worked for, but one, used consensus-as-a-weapon.

    Pull all the people with ideas into a LaBrea tar pit of ‘thumbs up, neutral thumbs down’, and then rule by decree, because deadlines, and nothing is getting done.

    The lone exception ran faculty meetings with the house ruled from town meeting, of which he was a past moderator.

  • LeeEsq

    A lot of people are also driven to consensus because they can’t stand the idea of disagreement. Majority rules means that you know that at least some people are in disagreement on something. If you can’t stand this, consensus provides an illusion of universal agreement.

    • Jose Arcadio Buendia

      I think this brings up a pretty important distinction and that’s between government and/or involuntary governing bodies and those of voluntary associations.

      In the government, obviously there will be disagreements and everyone might be affected and it’s wrong to let the noisy crowd out other people’s feelings.

      But, say, on a non-profit board, consensus is often really just a different face for a kind of confederation of interests where unanimous consent is required and any kind of majority rules decision will break up the group anyway.

    • Oh yeah. I’ve been in meetings where consensus works by “anyone object to doing X?” and then the eyes start sweeping around to look for the dissenters. It’s incredibly, but passive-aggressively, intimidating to the lone hold-out or the minority.

      Especially when you’re then called upon to explain your vote, with the subtext being “why are you gumming up the works/creating schisms within our blessed community?”

  • jon

    It would be better for you to simply say that you dislike consensus as a process for decision making and leave it at that. Consensus is a means to achieve mutual agreements, and a great deal of commercial and social relations can be seen to distill to more or less formal consensual processes. All systems have their drawbacks. Consensus can be a means to achieve the best possible outcome. It does not require unified, total agreement or perpetual happiness to function well. I have seen it used with skill and determination to achieve great results for thousands of people on a deadline, and I have seen it used poorly and result in failure.

    Consensus does require the genuine determination of those using it to work for the best overall outcomes. Consensus process has also been crafted to work with large groups, tight deadlines, and evolving circumstances. Consensus is not useful for all people or all organizations, and it can be undermined. But so can other decision making processes. Majority votes can easily result in disastrous outcomes, and reinforce conservative positions. Tyrannies of the majority can be horrendous for minorities. Knowing a number of old tree planters, I’d have to say that personal gain can be corrosive to the process, and you should try not to associate with antisocial assholes.

    • Davis X. Machina

      Consensus does require the genuine determination of those using it to work for the best overall outcomes

      .

      This is why I recommend its use for all meetings except those involving human beings.

      • Hogan

        Or cats.

      • ericblair

        This is why I recommend its use for all meetings except those involving human beings.

        Right; saying that it can work given pure motives, determination, and excellent organization isn’t a very high bar. It’s how tolerant the system is to abuse and mistakes that matters.

        Unless you’re always dealing with uncontroversial matters, in a consensus-based decision process aren’t you really counting on the holdouts to self-censor? You may disagree with the decision, but unless you are comfortable with tying up the entire group and can deal with the social pressure you’re more likely just to give up and pretend to agree to the consensus than keep disagreeing. So in any of these structures, there’s a lot more disagreement than it looks like there is, but it’s just hidden behind a wall of social pressure, which isn’t a good thing.

        • Another Holocene Human

          Exactly. And this can be disastrous.

          As someone who’s often been the most forceful person in a group (Northern education plus my own anti-authoritarian impulses? Who knows) only to find out later that many people had reservations they didn’t feel–comfortable?–airing, with disastrous consequences … as well as being the one who sat back because, hey, I fucked up that one time, again with disastrous consequences …

          Gah. Ain’t no way to run a union.

      • Very good, sir. +1 internet to you.

    • DocAmazing

      Consensus does require the genuine determination of those using it to work for the best overall outcomes. Consensus process has also been crafted to work with large groups, tight deadlines, and evolving circumstances. Consensus is not useful for all people or all organizations, and it can be undermined. But so can other decision making processes.

      Consensus should not be used with other processes. See your doctor if agreement lasts more than four hours. Consensus is not a substitute for good nutrition or sensible exercise. Ask your doctor if Consensus is right for you.

      • Hogan

        If you want but cannot afford Consensus, AstraZeneca may be able to help.

      • Barry Freed

        Hey, as long as it doesn’t cause explosive diarrhea or an erection lasting more than four hours I’m okay with it.

      • GFW

        Do not taunt Consensus.

      • joe from Lowell

        If consensus lasts more than four hours, begin a blog thread.

      • Anonymous

        Some people taking Consensus have reported occasional loss of consciousness. If you lose consciousness while on Consensus, discontinue immediately and consult with a physician.

  • Richard Hershberger

    My church has semi-annual meetings of the entire congregation, with a twelve-person council meeting monthly. Most votes in the council are unanimous, and a surprising number of full congregational votes are as well, or nearly so. If someone votes against the majority, or even abstains, it is routine that he or she can (but need not) make a statement explaining the disagreement. Consensus (which is not the same thing as unanimity) is considered desirable, but not necessary. It is necessary, however, that those in opposition get full opportunity to have their say. Yes, this can make for a long meeting, but better this than disgruntled members who feel they were silenced. Give people their say and they will be more willing to accept a result they disagree with. You can’t let the absence of consensus immobilize the organization, but you also need to keep disagreement from creating factions.

    • JoyfulA

      My denomination has the same decision structure, and my congregation has one member who always votes no “because no vote should be unanimous.” He is usually alone in his vote.

      • Davis X. Machina

        Is is name “Benedict”? Did he retire recently?

      • janastas359

        Is he a HOF voting member of the baseball writers of America?

    • Davis X. Machina

      It is necessary, however, that those in opposition get full opportunity to have their say. Yes, this can make for a long meeting, but better this than disgruntled members who feel they were silenced.

      Not really unique to consensus, though — in fact this is basically Parliamentary Law #1. Majority rules, but minority is heard out.

  • DN

    I was a member of the Second Growth reforestation coop for a few years. It was truly astounding how terrible the meetings were. It could take an hour or more to decide what pizzas we should order. It made me realize the word consensus didn’t mean what I thought it meant.

    • LeeEsq

      I think your sentence about pizza is a really good idea on why concensus based decision making are bad ideas. Its hard enough for a bunch of friends to determine what to get for supper a lot. With more serious issues, getting a consensus become a lot more troublesome. The assumption needs to be that humans are going to disagree a lot, about everything, and sometimes just for the purpose of disagreement.

      • NonyNony

        Strangely, I’ve found that the more petty the decision being made, the harder it is to get consensus. The more important the decision being made, the easier it actually is to get consensus (this comes from observing academic faculty meetings, which are an admittedly biased sample).

        Though I suspect that even if this is true it only makes trying to run an organization by consensus even harder. Because 99% of the decisions that need to be made are petty ones that everyone will have a different preference/opinion on and only a few are the “big deal” decisions where consensus building comes easily.

        • Gregor Sansa

          Among programmers, that phenomenon is known as bikeshedding. The idea is, the town council meeting on approving the nuclear plant runs 40 minutes, the one on which color to paint the bikesheds runs for 6 hours, because everyone understands what their favorite color is. Or, concretely, replace “nuclear plant” with “kernel scheduler” and “bikeshed color” with “shut down menu order”.

        • Hogan

          I think there’s an original Parkinson’s Law about that: the amount of time spent debating a budget item is inversely proportional to the amount of money involved.

    • greg nagle

      what, second growth worked by consensus? I thought they voted. I was with hoedads and we sure as heck did not use consensus. And I always saw SG as better organized and focused than we were.

  • Another Holocene Human

    I hope you are being serious and not sarcastic, because I have seen this in action. This doesn’t mean being an autocratic douche is the answer. But while consensus and coalition building are really important, you lose the ability to have a democracy function when people can’t accept that they have civil disagreements. It’s a cultural problem that leads to structural breakdown and perverse outcomes.

    Showing an external united front does not mean you can’t have frank discussions and internal disagreements or keep stuff in the open in meetings and engage in what you call log-rolling.

    One of the most insidious differences between North and South I’ve found is that Southerners are, well, thin-skinned. Northerners are raised on abrasiveness. That harshness and toughness is probably not best in all circumstances, and Southerners can take credit for their friendliness and hospitality. But in a democratic organization it turns into this need to hide hide hide problems because any acknowledgement of differences in philosophy, mistakes, etc all turns into some personal affront that can only be met with rage and, in extremis, violence. In general, your working class Northern city dweller can disagree loudly and verbally* for hours without it coming to blows–generally you have to insult someone’s mother make scurrilous comments about their sexual habits** for that.

    *-and this includes cursing, even direct insults–I only learned to jump in fear when someone was “cussed out” after a few years of living below the Mason-Dixon line … a favorite Northerner tactic of someone itching for a fight is to scream right up in someone’s face and tap their shoulder with your finger… just calling them a fucking asshole at a respectful distance is just going to get you called the same right back… I mean, friends call each other fucking assholes. I wonder why the “violent” Welsh, Scots, Irish can control themselves up North yet can’t help themselves–it’s their culture–in Southern air–? Actually, that is rhetorical; we all know why.

    **-in “the dozens” if you lose your shit and throw a punch over a comment about “your mom”, you lose

    • ericblair

      One of the most insidious differences between North and South I’ve found is that Southerners are, well, thin-skinned.

      This is probably bullshittery of a high order, but I’m thinking it’s got to do with the traditional honor-based society. Disagreements can get seriously out of hand if it looks like somebody is being offended, so you have to tiptoe around them to avoid some hothead “DEMANDING SATISFACTION, SAH!”

      Also would explain the insane need for American wingnuts to not only win power, but to wipe out any hint of disagreement. You can’t just be outvoted or overpowered, you have to convert or be eliminated somehow. Just existence of disagreement is intolerable.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        “Just existence of disagreement is intolerable”

        No idea how widespread that problem is, but the people who feel that way sure as hell make enough noise not tolerating disagreement

    • NonyNony

      IME you’re describing North-easterners rather than all Northeners. You try some of that shit that people shrug off in New York and Boston in the northern Midwest and you’re likely to get your clock cleaned.

      This, I suspect, has less to do with a North/South difference and more to do with the fact that city-dwelling Northeasterners are used to people behaving openly as assholes toward each other. In the Midwest and South you behave politely to people’s faces even if you plan on catching them in a dark alley afterwards and beating them with a sock full of doorknobs. You need to be a pretty good friend to call another guy a fucking asshole to avoid a fight.

      • Californian

        Whatever, man.

  • Tommy Deelite

    APPEASEMENT!

  • shah8

    Without disagreeing with many of the points, I do want to emphasis, that a key challenge of alternative groups is filtering out assholes. Most societies, like Jamestown, Providence Colony, communes, free cities, etc, have had serious problems with obdurate, lazy, and/or manipulative assholes kicked out from other places and drifting to the alternative and seeing others there as marks. Of course, this is assuming that the boss is someone like Robert Owen rather than L. Ron Hubbard and fucked from the start.

    • Hogan

      “Revolutionary movements attract those who are not good enough for established institutions as well as those who are too good for them.”
      –Bernard Shaw

    • ADHDJ

      It’s been my experience that any large enough group of humans tend to turn into MacLeod’s “corporate hierarchy” (sociopaths/clueless/losers):

      http://gapingvoid.com/2004/06/27/company-hierarchy/

    • Well, Robert Owen wasn’t exactly great at keeping groups running.

      But the nice thing about formal democratic mechanisms is the ability to vote the assholes out.

  • rnelson

    While Loomis’ hatred of hippies (see earlier post on Euguene, OR) and consensus decision-making processes strike me as partially aesthetic, psychological, and cultural, he makes important arguments about the limitations of “pure consensus” processes. And having not read Mackie, perhaps my perspective is limited

    BUT… I think there’s a little bit of strawmanning going on here. Most current groupings who claim to use “consensus-based” decision making processes do not use what one might call “pure consensus,” which is the model being taken to task in this post. There are modified processes of consensus that are used by organizations (cooperative, political, non-profit) that incorporate aspects of consensus, or seek to achieve consensus within a certain time frame, after which if it hasn’t been secured, will move on to a majority or 2/3 vote. This sort of functions how the Senate’s “unlimited debate” policy should in a perfect world: there is meaningful time for all involved to make their case and persuade others of their objections, but business needs to be done. If there is a significant amount of intransigence in the group, well then that group has a problem.

    While having consensus as an initial, provisional goal might strike some as too hippy-dippy, I wonder if some scholars of organizational structure might have something to say about the effects of having a cohesive group goal from the outset. Blah blah blah, scaleability, blah blah blah, anarchism: I get all the objections. I’m not stating that the US House (or the city council for that matter) should be ruled by consensus, because there are serious political disagreements in American society that will never be solved by mutual agreement.

    All this is to merely say it’s a tad intellectually un-nuanced to claim that “consensus” exists as a monolithic thing to point and laugh at. Rather, consensus exists on a multi-variable spectrum of processes used for groups to come to decisions, and it is one that should be taken seriously in that regard rather than just laughed away.

    • JL

      BUT… I think there’s a little bit of strawmanning going on here. Most current groupings who claim to use “consensus-based” decision making processes do not use what one might call “pure consensus,” which is the model being taken to task in this post.

      This.

      How many groups out there are using pure consensus these days? No Occupy that I am familiar with uses/used pure consensus. The abortion funds that use “consensus-based decision-making” don’t use pure consensus. The anarchist-dominated collectives that I’m familiar with don’t use pure consensus. Many or all of these might have problems in their decision-making models, but they aren’t the problems (which Erik lays out) of pure consensus.

      Some models that I have actually seen include:

      – For concerns that affect the whole group, one or more rounds of consensus-building (people workshopping the proposal, debating the issue, breaking off into small groups for a while) before a vote requiring a 75% majority to pass. For concerns affecting a particular working group, the working group gets to make its own decisions.

      – For day-to-day issues, the “Leadership Circle” votes or the relevant team/working group makes its own decision through consensus or voting or whatever it wants. For big philosophical things, consensus of all group members who show up to the relevant volunteer meeting is required.

      • Jason

        Jane Mansbridge in Beyond Adversary Democracy basically says the same thing–that consensus is good for some things and bad for others. Good at group cohesion, movement building, bad at operating in situations of great interest diversity or time constraints. So when thinking about how actually to make decisions, the best way to think of consensus is at one end of a spectrum.

        On the point concerning all of the ways that consensus, when it is actually practiced, is much more flexible than the account above, read David Graeber’s The Democracy Project. Perhaps that rigid account was accurate in earlier, but people have had a lot of time to learn, adapt and grow in how they think about consensus.

        • Davis X. Machina

          When it’s flexible enough, though consensus ceases to be anything distinct, and different. It becomes a brand name.

          What looks like ‘consensus with appropriate modifications’ starts to look like Roberts, or Erskine May, with super-majorities.

          • rnelson

            Ok thats fine, as far as it goes. I’d just challenge you to name an actual system of governance and decision-making that isn’t flexible and is completely distinct and non-overlapping with other systems

          • rnelson

            again, not holding up CONSENSUS as the be all and end all, just claiming that is can (and has been) a major facet of democratic systems worldwide.

            • Davis X. Machina

              So’s ‘majority rule’. And ‘not going at it with tire irons’.

              At some point it becomes an argument over terminology.

              “Consensus” is a brand name, and currently a hot one.

              • rnelson

                I’m totally willing to recognize the sense in which “consensus” is a hot brand name in certain circles, but using that as an argument lacks substance. If you look at, say, presidential speech rhetoric from post-WWII era, it would be easy to pick out a concept like “building a strong middle class” as a hot brand name as well. That doesn’t really negate or diminish the fact that building a strong middle class might be a worthy policy goal.

                And yes, you’re right, it’s an argument over terminology. I stand unconvinced that arguments over terminology aren’t important and interesting. When Loomis says something such as “consensus decision-making is a sure fire way to destroy your social movement,” that statement begs for a tighter terminological parameters around “consensus-based”

      • Yeah, that looks awful.

        1. Workshopping and small groups and leadership circles basically re-inscribe hierarchy and decrease the extent to which the whole body is actually making decisions, but without the visibility and accountability of elections.

        2. A 75% majority doesn’t change the fundamental problems of a 95% majority, just shifts the goalposts of how many bodies you need in the room. And if you’re going to go that route, you may as well bite the bullet, adopt simple majority rule, and learn to count votes.

        • JL

          See, these are at least criticisms of models that someone is actually using.

          As it happens, I’m not fond of Leadership Circle thing (which consists of the Board of Directors and the lead of each team, and is relatively new) myself.

          As far as your dislike of small groups – I see your point, but do you know of any organization large enough to have units performing specialized functions, where the units have to take a whole-organization vote on anything they do? To bring in an example and make this concrete, back when Occupy Boston had a camp, should the medics have had to get permission from the whole group to set sexual harassment policies in the medic tent? Should the library tent have had to get permission from the whole group over how to organize their books? Every unit having to get a full-group vote on every operational decision sounds much more likely to cause “can’t get anything done” problems than what we were doing.

          I’m not sure I understand the problem with workshopping proposals. It’s just a way of opening proposal development to a wider group than the person who dreamed up the proposal, to make it more likely that more people will like the thing when it’s being voted on.

          • My beef with smaller groups isn’t that they’re smaller, but that as they’re unelected, they’re not accountable. You just get self-selected people suddenly claiming power on behalf of the larger group.

            So for example, in workshopping, you frequently get a few people driving the decision-making process without having to get any kind of mandate for doing so, and their work is then presented as the work of the workshop, and then presented to the whole group as “well, this is what we came up with and (since no one else was involved) you don’t have an alternative, so let’s do this.”

            At least with formal democratic models, where for example you might have an executive board that does the day-to-day business of a larger group, there’s expectations about reporting of what went on, the extent to which executive board decisions require a signoff from the larger group, and the ability to shape the executive board membership by election.

    • L2P

      Your description of “impure consensus” is essentially democracy.

      Go to any local board meeting. Initially, there will be some discussion. If it appears no one really disagrees, or withdraws their disagreement, usually the matter is quickly put to a vote and a unanimous decision is entered. If it appears that there is some disagreement, there will be some give and take, several motions on actions, and a lot of argument. Eventually a vote is taken and the board takes whatever action is supported by a majority/supermajority (depends on the charter). If we called the first step “consensus building” and had a “motion carried by consensus” instead of it just being part of the normal democratic process it would be virtually indistinguishable.

      I’d suggest that anything that could easily describe the voting process of any democratic organization isn’t worth quibbling over. It’s not using “consensus” as a means of decision making; it’s simply a democratic process that has a long, complicated process for reaching “consensus” prior to actually taking a vote on something.

    • I’ve been in some of those meetings. And they’re AWFUL.

      You end up spending hours in inconclusive talking, and then when it appears people disagree, there’s a half-hearted lunge to Robert’s Rules, but with this sheepish, ashamed attitude that leads to endless “straw polls,” “temperature checks,” and “friendly amendments.”

      • rnelson

        It really depends on the size of the group making those decisions. 10 people deciding something is not the same as 100 is not the same as 100 million. Also, consensus as an initial goal or framework is different than consensus as a requirement. And thirdly, pure electoral democracy has often tended to re-inscribes frameworks of oppression as well.

        And I’m sure you will argue that this doesn’t meaningfully differentiate itself from “democracy,” as we understand it, but so be it. I just think Loomis lets his cultural hatred of “hippies” and anything that smells like them to cause him to be a little ham-handed when it comes to decrying consensus-based decision making “with every fiber of [his] bones.”

        It’s so easy to hate on “consensus” when one doesn’t think critically about what the principles of consensus are, and how they’ve been incorporated into what we think of as “democracy.” Primary processes, instant-runoff voting, etc. are all exercises in some sort of consensus. The main intervention that consensus principles make in straight electoral democracy is realizing that sometimes, there are more options than the two or three explicitly being voted on. Sometimes you need to explore options not represented in binary electoral situations, but sometimes you just need to vote on the damned thing. That’s what flexibility and hybridity are all about, and that’s what any social decision-making system both needs and inevitably has.

        • I think the same dynamics take place within a group of 10 people as they do with 100 – I’ve seen consensus fall to pieces in rooms of a dozen people or thirty-odd or sixty.

          “pure electoral democracy has often tended to re-inscribes frameworks of oppression as well” – hence the need for constitutionalism, i.e Robert’s Rules of Order.

          Primary processes and IRV are about forming a majority coalition, which is similar to, but distinct from consensus. Coalition-building involves reciprocity and negotiation, but within a framework where numbers, sweat equity, and other resources carry the day in the end.

  • Steve

    Quin Norton observed the same in a great Wired article on Occupy Wall Street.

    Because the GA had no way to reject force, over time it fell to force. Proposals won by intimidation; bullies carried the day. What began as a way to let people reform and remake themselves had no mechanism for dealing with them when they didn’t. It had no way to deal with parasites and predators. It became a diseased process, pushing out the weak and quiet it had meant to enfranchise until it finally collapsed when nothing was left but predators trying to rip out each other’s throats.

    • JL

      But Occupy didn’t use pure consensus.

      Don’t get me wrong, the GAs were a train wreck in a lot of places (including mine). They weren’t a train wreck because of pure consensus (which I agree is not a good decision-making structure, but also wasn’t being used), though. They were a train wreck because enough people got so stuck on an ideal of radical inclusion that they wouldn’t vote to kick out bullies. They were a train wreck because, with there being no membership criteria, literally anyone could show up and have a say and a vote, even if they had never been there before and never would again and had no stake in the outcome. They were a train wreck because ideologically diverse coalitions are unwieldy. They were a train wreck because of the larger problem where most big Occupations took weeks to figure out basic security measures, like what to do if a psychologically unstable person starts throwing chairs at people. They were a train wreck because a lot of the people who were doing the most for the movement eventually got sick of them and stopped going, leaving the facilitators plus a bunch of people who liked to listen to themselves talk. I’m sure I could recall some other reasons given time.

      I don’t think a straight-up majority or supermajority rule, instead of supermajority rule (75%, for us) at the end of a consensus-building process, would have fixed any of these problems, though at least in our case a lower supermajority threshold might have allowed someone to be kicked out of the camp who really needed to be kicked out and wasn’t.

  • rossland

    The Society of Friends uses consensus decision making, and while its institutions are not perfect and tend to remain small, probably because of the difficulty of reaching consensus, they have achieved a lot of good.

    • Alex

      I have a horror of consensus decision-making, based on my involvement with 90s-era feminist organizations. (Not to mention the Radical Faeries.)

      But I married a Quaker, and the Quakers have managed to make a consensus-based process work for hundreds of years. It’s not a pure consensus system; they seek to achieve a “sense of the meeting” through repeated “threshing sessions.” Business meeting goes on for hours with every member of the meeting who cares to attend. When a controversial issue is anticipated at business meeting, threshing sessions are held ahead of time. If true consensus cannot be reached, minority opinions can be overruled once they have been heard repeatedly and at length. Nevertheless, meetings do fission over disagreements, and only rarely can a meeting grow beyond 100 families or so, before decision-making becomes too unwieldy.

      Traditional Quaker meetings do not have clergy, and the Clerk is only a moderator. However, elders and “weighty Friends” who are respected in the meeting carry more persuasive force than people who are known to be flakes. People who are consistently difficult in business meeting or meeting for worship may be “eldered” (advised privately) by respected members of the meeting. People who are downright senile or crazy may get an entire committee assigned to making them less disruptive. Quaker process works best with people who are accustomed to it since childhood, because it takes patience and practice.

      Although the entire meeting must approve large decisions in meeting for business, smaller decisions are delegated to committees, which have chairs but also strive for internal consensus. Committee recommendations are usually adopted because no one wants to go through all the details again in business meeting. Anyone who expresses concern about a committee’s decisions is liable to be drafted onto that committee by nominating committee, and no one has the time to be on yet another committee! So the length of the process is self-limited by everyone’s laziness and desire for business meeting to end.

      Quakers swear this works for them. (Well, actually, they affirm it, because they don’t swear oaths.)They’ve survived this long as a denomination, so it can’t be as ineffective as it looks. But it’s slow. Approving a marriage in my wife’s meeting involves two to three subcommittees and a year. Quaker process is entirely commensurate with their testimony of equality. And I still want nothing to do with any of it.

  • Van

    Some nutcase hijacked the Virginia Green Party a few years back because they had to decide everything by consensus. His political beliefs only tangentially coincided with those of the Green Party. I think at the time they kind of fell apart.

  • JustMe

    Those with the least to do elsewhere in life have the greatest power in the interminable consensus process.

    This is a problem with activist groups in general. They need dedicated members. But a lot of dedicated people are dedicated because they have nothing better to do and are using the group as an outlet for something else going on in their heads.

    That and liberal groups are generally uncomfortable with the idea of zero-sum games. Some people just don’t want to admit that some decisions will make some people happy while making other people unhappy. They think there is a “win-win-win” for everyone and for every situation, and that they just need to “dialog” long enough to find it.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve always found it strange that no one ever mentions the largest, most powerful organization with a (primarily) consensus decision making structure: the World Trade Organization.

  • Josh G.

    Another good example of the drawbacks of consensus is Wikipedia. They have a long-standing principle that “voting is evil” and that decision-making should be by consensus. In practice, the results are exactly as Erik Loomis and Gerry Mackie described: a massive status-quo bias, combined with outsized amounts of influence wielded by insiders and those with nothing else better to do with their lives than troll “discussions” all day. In practice, votes are still held, but everyone feels the need to call their contributions “!votes” to pretend they’re not really voting, and a 2/3 to 3/4 supermajority is required for it to be considered a “consensus”. Needless to say, this is a terrible way to run things.

    Wikipedia’s editing rates peaked in 2007 and have been going down since. It was around that time that the insider crowd cemented themselves firmly in control and started to make life difficult for new editors in the name of “consensus”.

  • MPAVictoria

    Anyone ever try and pick a movie to watch with a group on more than 4 people? It may be impossible…..

    • Davis X. Machina

      It’s not that complicated — everyone winds up watching a movie nobody likes, or wanted to see.

      Perfect equality-of-pissitude. And, voila, consensus — “This movie sucks” — emerges!

      • MPAVictoria

        Well to be fair I am exaggerating. A group of friends and I have a weekly dinner and a movie club. Half the time we watch movies from the American Film Institute Top 100 list. For the other half we have developed an elaborate system of selecting the film which includes preferential/weighted ballots and multiple rounds of voting. It is kinda of ridiculous.

        • Gregor Sansa

          May I suggest Majority Approval Voting?

          -Everyone gives each option a grade A-F
          -Highest median wins. (You can find this by counting all the A votes for all options, then adding the B’s, etc, until one or more options pass 50% of all votes).
          -In case of tied medians, the one with more votes above median wins.

          (That last tiebreaker rule is one of several possibilities, but it’s best at preventing two similar options from getting into a battle where you have to strategically downrate the lesser good. Overall, it doesn’t really matter what which tiebreaker you pick, as long as it’s clear beforehand. Different tiebreakers and/or grading scales have different names: Majority Judgment, Graduated Majority Judgment, Equal Ratings Bucklin, Majority Choice Approval….)

          I could go on all day about this stuff, but this is a nice simple process that’s a lot easier than anything with pure preferential ballots.

  • Epicurus

    Great, thoughtful post, as always, Mr. Loomis. I would only add that “pure consensus” is a fabulous animal, much like a unicorn, and that we do not live in a “democracy.” A democratic republic, yes, but thank goodness the Founders realized that at the end of the day, one person needs to make a decision. That decision would then hopefully be accepted by consensus of the group. Occupy Wall Street has demonstrated the folly of “No Leaders.”

    • JustMe

      To say we live in a republic is only a pedantic point. We are a republic in the sense that we have an elected head of state, rather than live in a monarchy. We are a democracy for all intents and purposes.

      • Davis X. Machina

        When the Speaker of the House stands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with a bullhorn, and tells 450,000 people “All in favor of the Whodinkus Amendment to the THUD appropriations bill for FY 2014-15, please take three steps towards Independence Avenue. Thank you. All those opposed, please take three steps towards Constitution Avenue. Thank you. NOW DON’T MOVE! One, two, three…..”

        Then we’ll have a democracy.

        • Anna in PDX

          In your example, we would have a direct democracy as opposed to what we do have, which is a representative democracy (also known as a republic) but I don’t know why we’re debating these fairly anodyne terms.

    • Gah, this stuff drives me mad. The subtext of all this Tea Party “we live in a Republic not a Democracy” is that we should be a Republic with less democratic representation, so that only the right kind of people get to vote.

      Which doesn’t work. Once you justify a revolution on the Declaration’s principle that “All men are equated equal,” calls to restrict the franchise to propertied white men are shown up for the naked anti-republican self-interest they really are.

      There’s a reason the U.S moved to white male suffrage by the 1830s – the Democratic-Republicans just beat the loving hell out of Federalists who made those argument on the grounds that they were all rich monarchists who were betraying the Revolution.

      • Pseudonym

        What’s up with the hate for the 17th amendment?

        • It’s code for the same logic – state-wide election of senators puts power in the majority of the population of a state, as opposed to a majority of state legislators, who can come from districts that are unequal in population.

          It’s the same reason that Everett Dirksen tried to push a constitutional amendment overturning Baker v. Carr.

  • George W. Bush

    This would be a heck of a lot easier with a dictator, as long as I’m the dictator

  • Richard Gadsden

    Consensus works fine for certain types of decision. For instance, if the six who want to go to Montana could go to Montana and the two that prefer California could go there, then there would be two separate consensuses and no problem.

    Consensus works best in organisations that have no organisational value, so if there is a disagreement, the people can divide according to their disagreement.

    Where there is value in the organisation (eg organisationally-owned assets), then consensus cannot work; sometimes there has to be a decision.

    In fact, in organisations operating by consensus, the problem is that someone can propose “the organisation should do nothing” and win without consensus. I don’t know of any solution to that – except where the organisation has no value.

  • Greg Nagle

    Hmmmmm….have to swallow my bile, I am in Hanoi, here to work on agent orange issues as best I can. I was with Hoedads coop for 12 years, served on the Board of directors for years and as president for one year. I know Mackie well of course.

    This is another academic yawping about folkz out in the real world? Oh well…..have not read the comments yet, so apologize for shooting from the hip but in a hurry to go out to visit rice paddies this morning.

    This is BS, we had too many maniacs for consensus to work, too many people-hundreds, Could we spend 20 hours a day in meetings. After all, we had an actual business to run, standing on the hill in the morning, we had to hit and hit it fast so we voted and got on with it.

    And this is also BS, herbicides hardly disrupted us, only a few places in coast range sprayed so just a window, not really a hindrance and enough other work that we could avoid it almost always. And we wielded a lot of power, heck, we managed to get herbicides rejected on most federal lands in the NW by 1980 so it was us disrupting, we were also the people who got agent orange 245-T banned in 1979.

    I will have to read the rest of the book. Sorry to be a snark since consensus works sometimes for some things but…..when in a hurry, parliamentary process is a great method.

  • Greg Nagle

    wait a minute, i am yawping like a fool, true to self. I see the author feels about consensus as I do. Sorry. In too much of a hurry here at 7 am in Hanoi. I would like to see more of the book and a heads up to a nice piece of work.

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