08 September 2011 ~ 15 Comments

Limits to Consensus?

Anarchist teapotThe Melbourne Anarchist Bookfair took place in August at the Abbotsford Convent. There were stalls from a range of great groups, kid’s play space, handmade bunnies, and awesome Activist-Maisy colouring books (I may have been preoccupied by the kid-centric stuff as my 2 year old niece was in attendance).

I ran a workshop on Decision Making attended by a small group of folks from Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. I invited my friend and fellow ex-Perth activist Nicola Paris (now working with The Last Stand) to come along to share her insights. We had an interesting discussion ranging from the nitty-gritty of small group meetings to the potential for federated bodies in a future anarchist society.

One of the participants raised the importance of working on informal power dynamics that emerge in collectives. This was a useful reminder of the classic article written by Jo Freeman (otherwise known as Joreen) in the 70s, ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’. I remember reading this in the early 90s and finding it a useful way to understand dynamics in some of the collectives I had been part of. Freeman’s basic argument is that the ‘unstructured’ group model which had developed in the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s had outlived its usefulness. While appropriate for consciousness-raising it didn’t serve the needs of more task oriented political action groups. Freeman argues that all groups involve informal structures, cliques and power blocs. Formal structures make these relationships overt and allow for accountability and democratic participation.

I like the intention behind this – getting groups to think about what structure suits their purpose, rather than simply repeating what has been done before and is a default or habit in the movement. Likewise, one decision-making process doesn’t fit all. Who is most affected by a decision? Who has wisdom or expertise that should carry a greater weight on certain decisions? Who’s interested and going to implement the outcomes?

Most participants in the workshop had experience of consensus decision-making and the question was raised whether this was the only way to make decisions in an anarchist way. I’d love to hear any feedback on this. There was high regard for when consensus is used well, but wariness about how it can be abused. There was acknowledgement that there are important preconditions to consensus – trust in the group, a shared commitment to using the process fully, and a transparent process.

In the lead up to the workshop I read a helpful guide to consensus by Seeds for Change, a UK training collective. One thing that struck me was the way consensus can impede strategic action by groups. The guide gave two examples of group discussions and decisions that I found interesting:

  • A group is discussing whether to target the government or corporations with an action. They decide they can do both.
  • A group is discussing whether to squat a park or fundraise to buy the park. They decide that part of the group will squat while the others fundraise.

This ‘both and’ approach as opposed to ‘either or’ may accommodate the different views in a group, but it also serves to disperse energy and undermine effectiveness. Many groups struggle to have an impact, spread too thin between a range of activities, without a focused goal in mind. Reading these examples led me to reflect on the contribution consensus decision-making may have made to a movement culture which is permissive and inclusive at the expense of strategy and winning outcomes in the world.

This doesn’t mean that consensus can’t be used in a way that develops awesomely strategic campaigns. However, I think it does require participants to be skilled up and have a strategic outlook, and facilitators who can keep pushing the group to a meaningful synthesis of ideas.

Another participant in the workshop raised how the Movement for a New Society had been influential on his group’s decision-making processes. Movement for a New Society was a U.S. based network of social activists active in the 1970s and 80s which was committed to strategic nonviolence, and built a number of alternative institutions. Existing institutions which grew from MNS include New Society Publishers, Training for Change (which has been very influential on my work), food cooperatives, collective housing and more. MNS was very influential in a number of social movements and was key to popularising consensus and the spokescouncil model of organisation and decision-making. The MNS ‘Monster Manual’ is a classic text.

Andrew Cornell outlines a brief history in his article ‘Anarchism and the Movement for a New Society’. Participants in MNS reflect on the tensions that contributed to the demise of the project. Consensus decision making is identified as one factor that hindered MNS:

George Lakey (one of the founders) now states unequivocally: “I think one of the reasons that MNS isn’t still around is the downside of consensus.” While an organization is new and vital,” he argued retrospectively, “consensus decision-making can be valuable for encouraging unity. In the longer run, however, consensus can be a conservative influence, stifling the prospects of organizational change.” Indeed, the founders of MNS originally viewed consensus as a tool that could be very useful in specific situations. Richard Taylor explained in the late 1970s that consensus had worked for MNS in its early years because those involved in the process shared specific commitments from the outset. However, he stated, “I certainly don’t feel that consensus ought to be conceived of as sacrosanct, the only way to make decisions, or something like that…I certainly couldn’t see operating all of society on the basis of consensus.” Members of MNS, however, elected to use consensus in making all decisions that affected the network as a whole—including the writing of “official” literature… Consensus and full decentralization, innovations designed to make the organization more effective, were beginning to visibly impede the achievement of its goals.

The Movement for a New Society was a bold experiment which resulted in significant learning and influence on social movements around the world. One of the legacies of MNS is widespread use of consensus decision-making in many social movements. Perhaps a key lesson from MNS is that such a tool should not be adopted uncritically – and there are risks involved with holding consensus ‘sacrosanct’.

What do you see as the strengths of consensus? What are some of its limitations? When would you suggest a group use consensus decision-making – or not?

Picture from Radical Graphics.

15 Responses to “Limits to Consensus?”

  1. andrew 8 September 2011 at 11:17 am Permalink

    Also recommended, Mark Lance’s article “Fetishizing Process” http://nyc.indymedia.org/es/2005/10/59129.html

  2. Lian 8 September 2011 at 11:21 am Permalink

    Important questions. I have been doing less enviro and anarchist campaigning lately, instead focusing on union organising, youth work and queer activism… in each of these areas consensus has seemed less important to me. When a group comes together around pre-existing structures, eg. as members of a workplace, as opposed to coming together over shared values and objectives, consensus is a lot harder to work with. I still think it is important to work towards consensus as a goal, but not as a rule. love to see more from you. peace.

    • Holly Hammond 8 September 2011 at 12:49 pm Permalink

      Hi Lian – interesting to hear of your experiences in different activist contexts. Do you find that in these contexts there is more of a focus on the end result, and less of a concern with process and the means matching the end? Sounds like you’re doing great work. I’ll be in Perth in November, keen to catch up with crew about getting some training happening.

  3. george 8 September 2011 at 1:07 pm Permalink

    hey there Holly… great to see you have a new venture!

    I just wanted to post the dissenting view that consensus should be kept sacrosanct in order to maintain standards of respect, trust and engagement. My experience of activism without consensus is that it is ultimately disempowering, alienating and just as vulnerable to manipulation as any process is. I take the point on the tyranny of structurelessness, but I don’t think the two are synonymous.

    Probably effective consensus does “require participants to be skilled up and have a strategic outlook” — but I think that’s a good thing for a collective.

    I certainly wouldn’t claim that it’s always an efficient process, and agree that “both/and” doesn’t maximise the effectiveness of the group, but the alternative would have been the group deciding to do something that a proportion did not want to do, and I think that is equally at risk of energy dispersal.

    My favourite resource always remains the Collective Book on Collective Process: http://www.geocities.com/collectivebook/

    • Holly Hammond 12 September 2011 at 12:08 pm Permalink

      Hi George – thanks for your comments and the excellent link.
      I agree that being consensus based isn’t the same as being unstructured/structureless, but I guess I hold out a similar suggestion as Freeman does, that groups be intentional about structure and process, and find the best of both to suit their circumstances. The term ‘sacrosanct’ implies rigidity, a lack of flexibility and questioning which seems risky to me.
      Matthew Herbert, who has also commented here, has expanded on Starhawk’s ‘When not to use consensus’, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts. http://rhizomenetwork.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/when-not-to-use-consensus/

      • george 15 September 2011 at 3:35 pm Permalink

        thanks, Holly

        … re: “sacrocanct” — no doubt I was overstating, and will cheerfully withdraw.

        re: the “when no to use” list — it’s thought-provoking, and a good conversation to have, but have a few responses that makes me suspect we’re talking about the same thing anyway: flexible consensus where a group is mindful of process, and can decide, by consensus, to adapt its processes for different circumstances.

        “When there is no group in mind” — if there is deep division, it needs to be addressed and worked into the process, but majority-based or small-elite based process would only make this worse.. what would be a way that such a group could make a decision that would be constructive?

        “When there are no good choices,” or “the issue is trivial” or you don’t have enough information — I reckon a group deciding to flip a coin to determine their decision between a rock and a hard place would be a perfect example of consensus being used flexibly and constructively. Ditto deciding they don’t know enough to decide. I don’t think any of the courses of action articulated there are inconsistent with consensus.

        “When they can see the whites of your eyes” absolutely. but again, I don’t think this is inconsistent with consensus if the group decides together to do it.

        I spent along time only in groups that used consensus, and was probably taking it for granted. More recently, I have been part of lots of other ways and means of decision-making, and I have realised just how important consensus is to me. Holly, I could talk to you about this all day!

        • Holly Hammond 16 September 2011 at 9:32 am Permalink

          Let’s do that sometime!
          This has been a really interesting discussion for me. I’ve been thinking about the tension or continuum between process and outcome. I used to be a lot more on the process end – which in part was probably a response to my first activist experiences being in a democratic centralist socialist group! These days I find myself more down the outcome end, which reflects my impatience for real change in the world. For some folks it looks like having their group working well internally and achieving consensus is enough of an outcome itself, but that’s not working for me these days. As a facilitator of course I’m a very process-oriented person, but one of things I find myself doing a lot is challenging people to think about what their decisions really mean in terms of impact in the world.
          None of which is meant to imply that consensus decision-making necessarily gets in the way of those outcomes. It is probably more about the work to develop strategic campaigning in social movements.

  4. Matthew Herbert 8 September 2011 at 6:31 pm Permalink

    Consensus as the only way forwards for anarchists? Certainly here in the UK that seems to be the basic assumption and one I’ve gone along with for many years. But in recent months and years as our Climate Camp has increasingly struggled and begun to splinter and breed quite high levels of disaffection it’s become more and more obvious that an ideological attachment to consensus is part of the problem. And I say that as one of the original group of facilitators who worked to ensure that the Camp adopted consensus in the first place. My crude analysis is that consensus is an aspirational decision-making method. It’s hard to get right because it depends on high levels of co-operation and low levels of ego which, anarchist or not, we’re not used to. These are not social norms that are bred into us from birth. Competition and ego are bred into us. There are times I’m left wondering whether anarchist groups ought to admit to their struggles with consensus and make these open and accountable too. Instead we use it badly but simultaneously chant the mantra of “there is no other way but consensus” and the result can be damaging.

    Where am I going with this? The ‘heretical’ part of me thinks that perhaps we ought to explore other options as stepping stones to consensus. Use other techniques that start to acclimatise us to co-operation until we’re ready for consensus. I’m thinking of things such as consensus voting techniques like Crowd Wise and Dotmocracy. There’s also Tim Hartnett’s work on consensus oriented decision-making, which is a very rigorous co-operative process but that can be finalised with a vote.

    Consensus can be done well. I’ve been in affinity groups and workers’ co-ops that have used it well and it’s created a fantastic level of trust and creativity. But it’s not automatic.

    • Holly Hammond 12 September 2011 at 12:30 pm Permalink

      Hi Matthew, great to be in contact with you.
      Sometimes being an activist educator feels like sifting through the rubble of past struggles to find the lessons for going forward. So it is with MNS – and thanks for adding your insights from UK climate camp, which I’m sure there is plenty to learn from. Perhaps the rubble analogy is a little grim, given there is much still alive and manifesting in different forms from both examples.
      I’m interested in the idea of ‘near consensus’ processes being a way to prepare individuals and groups for full consensus down the track – whereas many groups will persist with consensus processes when some of the preconditions aren’t in evidence. Looking forward to exploring this more.
      Readers of this thread should definitely check out all the great articles on consensus on the Rhizome website: http://rhizomenetwork.wordpress.com/tag/consensus-decision-making/

  5. Simon 14 September 2011 at 11:03 am Permalink

    Hi Holly,

    Interesting post. I have been involved in a number of consensus based organisations and whilst I see the benefits to it, I have also found it frustrating at times.

    I think this comment that you made is important:

    “There was acknowledgement that there are important preconditions to consensus – trust in the group, a shared commitment to using the process fully, and a transparent process.”

    I have often found consensus the most frustrating when it is clear that participants have not come with these ideas in mind. This is often the case in organisations where members don’t have a very strong link to others in the organisation, therefore creating a void of trust.

    One of the key things for me, is that for consensus to work, all participants need to come in to the room having a desire to reach consensus. If you have a few people who are determined to block all activity without trying to negotiate you end up having a situation where one or two people can control an agenda, to the frustration of 99% of participants. For me, this is a much worse situation than those that can result from having a voting procedure.

    Clearly for consensus to work, it needs to be done properly. However, there are some situations where consensus doesn’t work properly and I think we need to be aware of that and make decisions appropriately about how we are going to run processes.

  6. Anne 22 September 2011 at 9:25 pm Permalink


    Thanks for this. I think a possible question to ask is “What kind of difference and disagreement is there in the room today, and how might this difference animate or divert us from our goals?”

    I would say that consensus, when well facilitated, draws out difference, disagreements and reservations, encouraging conflict in a way to clarify what is at stake and what peoples different needs are. I think accommodation of difference is a hugely important principle for living in general, so I do like this educative, pedagogical aspect of consensus.

    However, when you don’t want deliberative conflict, when you want to make a decision swiftly, and if as you say- you need strength in united action, I can see problems.

    I think majority votes are much easier for new comers to understand, partly because we don’t have an adequate civics education in this country. They also teach you that you can’t get what you want a lot of the time, and sometimes you need to accept the group decision, and mount a compelling case to build support for your point of view! (I’m not sure how much this is a good thing!- there are definitely certain character traits that each breeds… and consensus people can become finicky, whilst majority people can become stand over aggressors)

    Finally there are problems for consensus in mass meetings that relate to scale. [I really like well run, empowered mass meetings, where people debate motions from the floor. I would like to see student unions run by assembly French-style- as I’m sure I’ve told you before] One example that does challenge my reservations to was the incredible job you, Wenny, Naomi, and others did in facilitating consensus between around three hundred people during the grassroots climate summit two years running… that was beautiful.

  7. Ben Courtice 25 September 2011 at 4:38 pm Permalink

    There’s a lot of interesting info here. I like the last points about scale, and about making new people comfortable from Anne. It relates IMO to one of the points you made in the original post, that consensus presupposes a high level of trust and agreement. As such it would work great in an affinity group or small collective who know each other well.

    But I’d be reticent to join such a group, as an outsider, if I didn’t share their pre-existing consensus opinion. Unless perhaps I felt that was the only possible way to participate in the work that group was involved in. Promoting complete consensus in a group could make it awkward for newcomers, preventing growth. It may promote a kind of in-group mentality or comfort zone politics. Which is perhaps also a critique of affinity groups as an organising model.

    All of which is not to say that we shouldn’t spend time working over issues, working out compromise positions, understanding where different parties are coming from, making each point of view feel valid and welcome, and so on. That’s about respectful meeting facilitation and coalition building. Something forgotten perhaps too often in old-left student/labour circles, where formal “consensus” methods could bring some very useful ideas.

    [as a disclaimer, I’m not an anarchist and have very limited experience of formal consensus based decision making – but this discussion is interesting and very relevant!]

  8. Theo 25 September 2011 at 9:16 pm Permalink

    Thanks for this article Holly, I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last year or so as well, but haven’t had many solutions offered.. So now I have one at least, I got a copy of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Design Manual the other day and there’s a section in there on working in groups. It seems like his main suggestion is just to remove all decision making down to small groups of 1-3, and to the initial set up process for the group. Initially, a lot of decisions are made about values, goals, strategy, ways of working and so on so that later down the track people from the larger group can just get together in smaller groups and agree to take things on as they need doing, or as they have ideas that will help the campaign. I’d presume decisions in the small groups would be made by consensus still. It seems like a great idea in terms of getting stuff done and just opening up the campaign to all kinds of people to do all different kinds of small actions that they’re interested in.

    I’ve recently been part of a group that was working along really similar lines, the meetings were very different to normal. Largely just reporting back stuff and planning who would do other stuff. They did make occasional big decisons though. Mollison did say a lot more than this about how it would work and so on, but I can’t paraphrase it all now. I’m going to try to scan the pages to send to people though.

    Anyway, I’m thinking I might start my new peak oil/debt crisis education campaign along similar lines, so I’ll see how it goes. I am curious how decisions about say the budget of the group would get made with all the different projects. My friend suggested the small groups could just fundraise individually, but I’m not sure, perhaps a budget for a year could be worked out ahead of time, but that doesn’t seem as nimble as would be nice. Perhaps a potential flaw, but we’ll see. I want to see what David Holmegren has to say about group work as well. Curious to hear from others’ thoughts or insights on this model as well..

  9. Holly Hammond 30 September 2011 at 4:20 pm Permalink

    Thanks everyone for your very lucid comments here. I’m going to keep sitting with these thoughts – and will especially be carrying Anne’s question around with me, “What kind of difference and disagreement is there in the room today, and how might this difference animate or divert us from our goals?”

    I’ve been thinking about ‘pre-existing consensus’ ie founding groups on a number of shared assumptions, so people can self-select whether to be involved or not. Coming up with a clear invitation and seeing who that attracts. I’ve certainly noticed a number of open collectives having to constantly re-iterate their purpose as new members join and contest it. Whereas having that already settled lets the group get on with other work.

    I take Ben’s point though about this being exclusionary and potentially cliqueish. In fact I think a number of groups do this but not necessarily about strategy, but around ‘lifestyle’, ideology, socio-economic factors etc – so that the group’s culture tends to exclude ppl who differ. For example, a group started by white professional middle class people of a particular age tends to attract more of those folks over time, while others bounce off the group, perhaps come to one meeting and never return.

    I think I’d like to see groups be more tight on purpose and strategy, and invite others to join if they agree with those, while being loose on ‘lifestyle’ such that it isn’t a barrier to participation by a diversity of folks. But it comes back to intentionality, as I argue in the article – being clear and decisive about structure, process, purpose, strategy, and creating an inclusive group culture, which all takes work.

    It’s also a chicken and egg situation – where if a diversity of people aren’t involved in deciding all of those things, then the group won’t work for a diversity of people. Which is another challenge that contributed to the demise of Movement for a New Society – recognising that they had established a white organisation, and building a multi-racial organisation required going back to the drawing-board, as it wasn’t possible to modify the existing organisation – or its ‘pre-existing consensus’.

    So not too many answers here, but some great questions to be going on with! This is all very interesting to be reflecting on in the light of Occupy Wall Street which was formed from a very hazy invitation, without a clear demand, and people are now struggling to develop consensus together. But that’s another story, and likely to be another post before too long.

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