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.