The Theology of Consensus
May 27, 2015 7:41 AM   Subscribe

The prime appeal of consensus process for forty years has been its promise to be more profoundly democratic than other methods. But let’s face it: the real-world evidence is shaky at best. posted by anotherpanacea (127 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think we can all agree one of these posts has to go.
posted by mhoye at 7:48 AM on May 27, 2015 [22 favorites]


What, are you seeking consensus?!?
posted by mr. digits at 7:50 AM on May 27, 2015


I think we have a duty to disagree vehemently about which one should be deleted, escalating into the longest MetaTalk thread ever.
posted by No-sword at 7:50 AM on May 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


And already, latecomers to the thread will be confused. Maybe that way they won't voice any objections and consensus can be achieved?
posted by trif at 7:52 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Speaking of MetaTalk, I'm pretty sure if I wasn't already going to read these articles for ammunition in a professional setting, I would also do so for arguments there.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:53 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


[Here's the related, posted-minutes-later deleted thread also about consensus, for the benefit of folks not filtering for deleted posts on the site. Maybe have a conversation about the post content now, though?]
posted by cortex at 7:54 AM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


This is exactly what my friend from Occupy said - oh, the ones who get their way are the craziest ones, because they stay the longest at the meetings. And my 65 year old dad laughed, because he remembered his activist days in the 60s and how it was exaaaactly the same back then.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:59 AM on May 27, 2015 [45 favorites]


Basically, the issue is twofold:

One, there's no real evidence that consensus really is "more democratic" (and honestly, I'm not even sure what that's supposed to mean.)

Two, there's the mistake that "democratic = better". It turns out that when you are actually trying to achieve goals, there's a certain point where you do actually need some hierarchy to actually get shit done.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:00 AM on May 27, 2015 [23 favorites]


As an attendee of a Quaker college, I can absolutely appreciate the intention and the spirit behind the consensus process (and would point out that Quaker model of consensus is a process of a particular kind, which may overlap significantly with other forms of consensus, but is not necessarily the same.)

On the other hand, as an attendee of a Quaker college, FUUUUUUUCK consensus. Consensus is how extremists and zealots take over committees, they just sit on their lead asses with nothing better to do and wait out everyone else out until they're the only ones left or folks just give up.

on edit: so this is clearly a well-known problem with the process.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:01 AM on May 27, 2015 [51 favorites]


When I was involved in activist groups, the consensus process seemed hugely biased in favor of inaction, which was sort of funny for a group that wanted to do illegal direct action. A lot of the more interesting stuff ended up happening in a smaller circle of close friends, independent of the larger process-laden group.
posted by ryanrs at 8:01 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


On the other hand, as an attendee of a Quaker college, FUUUUUUUCK consensus. Consensus is how extremists and zealots take over committess, they just sit on their lead asses with nothing better to do and wait out everyone else out until they're the only ones left or folks just give up.

Another great example of the failure of consensus is Wikipedia, which has an incredibly Byzantine culture and rulebook built around an unhealthy worship of consensus.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:05 AM on May 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


But how would the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth have become the byword it is without the liberum veto?
posted by PMdixon at 8:06 AM on May 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


There's a video somewhere of a real world protest, students occupying a college building. Maybe someone better than me can find it.

Cop shows up, asks to speak to the group's leader. One student breathlessly explains they're using a consensus process, and asks "Do you know what that is?" with the tone of a high school freshman trying to explain drama class to his puzzled mom. He's sooper excited about this new thing he learned!

The cop, befuddled, repeats his request. Later in the video, the consensus guy is seen asking his colleague what they should do about the police request, and the colleague makes a unilateral decision. Which belies the nature of consensus itself.

It was a fascinating view into sheer bubble-headedness at work.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:07 AM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Consensus has a role - the mistake is thinking it's the only process you need.
posted by Segundus at 8:12 AM on May 27, 2015 [7 favorites]




Another great example of the failure of consensus is Wikipedia

It worked. It built an encyclopedia. Your example is actually consensus succeeding. Is there a democratic encyclopedia that I am unaware of? Consensus can work when the aim of an organization is focussed.
posted by bhnyc at 8:18 AM on May 27, 2015 [15 favorites]


I often wonder if this isn't the deeper problem:
The irony here, of course, is that activists have adopted consensus as part of a larger aspiration to prefigure the world they hope to create ....
I've always found that contradictory to the diagnosis that prompts social justice actions. If the existing structure is unjust, is indeed inimical to justice, then prefiguring utopia is always a partial, contingent thing. Eventually you run into the fact that you're still embedded in a larger, unjust situation. The ways you compensate for the unjust circumstances around you cannot resemble the projected life of utopia; they can only be pragmatic, situational adaptations of social and ethical principles.

It's a lot more work, often frustrating work, to figure out those adaptations than it is to pretend you can act as if we're already there. If perfect fairness and horizontality were immediate possibilities, or even easily attainable, *you wouldn't need to undertake direct action in the first place.*
posted by kewb at 8:22 AM on May 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


The cop, befuddled, repeats his request. Later in the video, the consensus guy is seen asking his colleague what they should do about the police request, and the colleague makes a unilateral decision. Which belies the nature of consensus itself.

The classic paper on this is by Jo Freeman: "The Tyranny Of Structurelessness".
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.
posted by mhoye at 8:22 AM on May 27, 2015 [37 favorites]


It worked. It built an encyclopedia. Your example is actually consensus succeeding. Is there a democratic encyclopedia that I am unaware of? Consensus can work when the aim of an organization is focussed.

It worked in spite of consensus. In fact, there are numerous cases where consensus has actually crippled the organization's ability to produce a usable work, which is why cranks wield so much power there.

There's a reason my nickname for it is Schrodinger's Encyclopedia.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:23 AM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Two comments:

All the Virtuous Process will not help you if you have Vicious Participants..... (ask me how I know).

and to quote Asimov

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”
posted by lalochezia at 8:25 AM on May 27, 2015 [15 favorites]


It worked. It built an encyclopedia.

It built a remarkably useful reference for things that any average user could, given a few minutes, verify while sitting at their computer. So it's maybe the greatest tool in history for, for example, figuring out which episode of a TV show you watched last.

This is a remarkable accomplishment. I use wikipedia every day. But despite the use of "pedia" in the name, it's not an encyclopedia, not exactly. It's a different type of reference, good for different things than old encyclopedias. When you try to use it as an encyclopedia, you rapidly run into problems; either you hit a page that's being squatted on by a crank, or you look up stuff on math, physics, or technical subjects and discover that it rapidly becomes extremely unreliable once you get beyond the stuff that an average first-worlder took in college, or you find one of the pages that I've inserted spurious material into in an attempt to convince the world that the Alameda-Weehawken burrito tunnel actually exists, or you otherwise bump up against wikipedia's baked-in limits.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:26 AM on May 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


All I know is, the tribunal scenes in the documentaries I've seen about Occupy triggered in me a very powerful flight or fight response. Mostly flight.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:27 AM on May 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Speaking as a Wikipedia administrator (or at least a former one, I still have the powers, but am not active), Wikipedia is only nominally consensus-based. Or, rather, it is consensus-based until somebody cares enough that there is a conflict, and then it is settled by a small group of people.

Papers examining the promotion process in Wikipedia, for example, have found that promotion to Admin is not based on consensus factors, and that a small group of people (who understand the rules and generally know each other) are those who end up administration.

The problems of consensus are still there in Wikipedia, it is just that the cranks and devoted types have generally already won. (Which is not always bad)
posted by blahblahblah at 8:28 AM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Consensus obsession is why Occupy fizzled out and changed absolutely nothing on the ground.

If it worked, it would have worked by now.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:28 AM on May 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Another great example of the failure of consensus is Wikipedia

This is not just a great point, but a case in point of a broader cultural history. Some of the most politically naive approaches to organizing have been the quickest to make the leap from counterculture to cyberculture and the most tenacious to stick around — these days "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" seems almost as important a corrective for online culture as it unfortunately still does for activism and organizing.
posted by RogerB at 8:29 AM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


One political cause that emerged from Occupy has gotten any traction: the $15 minimum wage.

And it has done so by means 180 degrees opposite of consensus.

A couple of union chiefs in Washington DC dictated it as a priority to their organizing corps and the politicians they back, who then followed their orders. Those politicians are going on to impose the wage increases without any deference to the furious opposition of most of the businesses who will face 25%-100% labor cost increases.
posted by MattD at 8:34 AM on May 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


This discussion can't proceed until we all agree to voice support for the workers' revolution in China.
posted by goatdog at 8:38 AM on May 27, 2015 [12 favorites]


Those politicians are going on to impose the wage increases without any deference to the furious opposition of most of the businesses who will face 25%-100% labor cost increases.

Considering that those businesses have been benefitting from the erosion of worker pay for years, I'm seeing this as a bill coming due.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:39 AM on May 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


Some of the most politically naive approaches to organizing have been the quickest to make the leap from counterculture to cyberculture and the most tenacious to stick around — these days "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" seems almost as important a corrective for online culture as it unfortunately still does for activism and organizing.

There seems to be a knee-jerk opposition to the concept of hierarchy in a lot of online communities, even when hierarchy would actually be beneficial.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:42 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oh the businesses I weep.

MattD does have a point, though; because the increased minimum wage has driven up the cost of labor in sectors dependent upon minimum-wage labor, no one is opening any new restaurants in Seattle.

He also accidentally highlights the really effective thing about Occupy; while those interminable meetings were going on, people on the left were, well, talking, and organizing, and it wasn't until a few years after Occupy that we saw the upshot of that organizing — things like Occupy Sandy, 15 Now, and the entry into mainstream electoral politics of smart, charismatic leaders who otherwise wouldn't have gotten involved.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:43 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Consensus obsession is why Occupy fizzled out and changed absolutely nothing on the ground.

If it worked, it would have worked by now.


Why do people keep saying this? It's starting to creep me out. The occupy protests were put down by police raids. We saw this on the news. Calling that "fizzled out" is some Orwellian rewriting of history right there. Like do you seriously believe what you just said? How did you come to that conclusion?

Also, how many articles have been posted to Metafilter about "the 1%"?
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:46 AM on May 27, 2015 [43 favorites]


bhnyc: "It worked. It built an encyclopedia. Your example is actually consensus succeeding."

An arrow is shot. It misses the target by more than a foot. The archer and his comrades peer down the lane at the errant shot. After a nervous cough, a voice asks, "Well, who says me move the target over?"
posted by boo_radley at 8:47 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Kauffman isn't wrong to trace the origins of consensus to Quaker business method, even though she derides it as "magical thinking." It is, fundamentally, a spiritual discipline: for Quakers, meeting for business is basically the same as meeting for worship, with its silent waiting upon God; the only difference is that the meeting for business is focused on particular matters of concern. And that worshipful attitude is key: it requires a good deal of discipline to let go of ego, to overcome one's desire to be clever or dramatic, and pay attention to how God's presence is being felt in the meeting. In fact, it would be misleading to even describe how Quakers make decisions as consensus at all. As Barry Morley once wrote:
In seeking the sense of the meeting we open ourselves to being guided to perfect resolution in the Light, to a place where we sit in unity in the collective inward Presence. Through consensus we decide it; through sense of the meeting we turn it over, allowing it to be decided. "Reaching consensus is a secular process," says a Friend. "In sense of the meeting God gets a voice."
This is why, as a Quaker, I'm rather skeptical of efforts by other Quakers, however well-intentioned, to export our business method into secular settings where people don't share the same set of theological commitments. As Kauffman and others have pointed out, the process very easily breaks down when participants act in bad faith or clutter up the discussion with minutiae. The same thing can be seen in holacracy, which is also derived, after a fashion, from Quaker business method: a process run by control freaks will reflect their spirit, no matter how "egalitarian" it is on paper.

I was disappointed that Kauffman didn't spell out what she thinks the alternative to consensus should be, other than a passing reference to SNCC. But I think if you're looking for a framework for secular direct action that is more reliable than consensus, the Moral Mondays movement is a good place to start. Even Quakers agree.

Lastly, if you're interested in what pure, uncut Quaker business method looks like, this article by Eden Grace is highly recommended.
posted by Cash4Lead at 8:51 AM on May 27, 2015 [31 favorites]


Why do people keep saying this? It's starting to creep me out. The occupy protests were put down by police raids. We saw this on the news. Calling that "fizzled out" is some Orwellian rewriting of history right there. Like do you seriously believe what you just said? How did you come to that conclusion?

Because a lot of us saw what happened, and we came to the opposite conclusion - while yes, the police raids made things difficult for the movement, what ultimately caused it to collapse was that there was no real plan to actually translate the movement into something more tangible - and a lot of the blame for that rests on the embrace of consensus and the rejection of building a lasting hierarchy.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:54 AM on May 27, 2015 [20 favorites]


Why do people keep saying this? It's starting to creep me out. The occupy protests were put down by police raids. We saw this on the news. Calling that "fizzled out" is some Orwellian rewriting of history right there.
Zalzidrax

Because it's the truth, and you're not really countering that. Occupy both fizzled out, as the Jacobin (not exactly a right-wing institution) article in the FPP notes, and was ultimately broken up by police raids. But it would be a rewriting of history to suggest that prior to the police actions it was a model of success and organization. I live in NYC and saw it firsthand. Were you in Zuccotti Park at the time? What did you see there?

It was a noisy mess that was broken up that left some memetic markers (talk of the 1%) but otherwise didn't really change things.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:54 AM on May 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


up that left some memetic markers (talk of the 1%)

Which, IMO, is fucking huge.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:56 AM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


I showed up at the local Occupy encampment first night all packed up to bivy with them for the next several nights only to find the place was being run by these folks in yellow armbands who considered themselves some sort of authority.

Later in the evening they started guiding a consensus process to determine whether and how to camp that night (as I recall) but no one could be arsed to explain who the yellowbanders were, where they came from, or why we should let them lead and mediate discussion. I went home that night feeling the doom of left-activists embracing an apparently authoritarian structure under a guise of a radical democracy.

I attended the subsequent GAs for several weeks and watched the yellowband contingent seem to grow. Never found out who they were, not sure it matters, authority without accountability is inevitably horrific and there they were not even willing to speak to their affiliation and story within the action.

Loved all the dance parties and marches though, loved helping to keep the cops accountable by livetweeting all their motions in regard to the occupiers and offshoots... but those cold nights watching what I still percieve to be an incipient authoritianism take hold really soured me on their entire school of process.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 8:59 AM on May 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Consensus obsession is why Occupy fizzled out and changed absolutely nothing on the ground.

I think it's a lot more complicated than that. Particularly, because Occupy arose out of a planned ANSWER driven protest, full of the same sort of anti-globalization groups as involved in the WTO Battle of Seattle etc.. ANSWER is a highly hierarchical grouping and, as it is told, Occupy came about when rank and file started organizing spontaneously within the protest to defy ANSWER's plan... or something like that, I'm not a historian of this.

Consensus is just one type of decision making process within democratic groups and you can apply the general dictum: it's the worst form of decision making, except for all of the others. The problem is that, when engaging in activity with risks or planning risky things, it's much safer to engage on process rather than action: there's no risk! Bourgeois anarchists love to talk about consensus process for (I woudl argue) exactly this reason. David Graeber wrote an entire book: Direct Action: An Ethnography, on concensus process which feels like This Is Spinal Tap for the proto-Occupy groups. He clearly a proponent of consensus process but every situation he describes out reads like a case study in dysfunctional decision making.

The bottom-line is that Occupy Wall Street happened when literally everyone in the US *hated* Wall Street. Yet somehow it seemed like "Occupy" wanted it to be about "Occupy" rather than Wall Street... which I think is utterly typical of how bourgeois activists function, anarchist or not...
posted by ennui.bz at 9:04 AM on May 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


So the one thing consensus is really great at actually - which is important for activist groups and Quakers alike, I imagine - is not irrevocably dividing your group over issues of deep moral importance. I don't know if it's 'more democratic' but there are definitely less people walking away afterwards.
posted by corb at 9:09 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


rank and file started organizing spontaneously within the protest

This isn't really at all accurate. And the vilification of ANSWER is a holdover from the right-wing response to the Iraq war protests and has little to do with Occupy, which was a product of cultural anarchists and academics in Adbusters and Graeber-affiliated circles.
posted by RogerB at 9:09 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I've been part of organizations that operated by consensus for most decisions and that worked pretty well - at least as well as the similar organizations that ran on voting. (It's a mistake to think that voting solves the problems of power - holy gee, the faction building alone will break your heart, and one of the worst, most fucked up and racist processes I've ever been part of in a radical scene was run on a vote.)

A lot depends on your organization.

A big group like Occupy, full of people who had relatively little organizing experience and liberally seeded with cranks, responding on the ground to a shifting and unfamiliar situation, is precisely the kind of group where consensus is going to be a giant mess. (And yet, people had really ridiculous expectation for Occupy - most of the criticism I've read has been from people who have very little experience of mass movements and essentially expected Occupy to go from zero to toppling the regime - people had no reference points with long-running campaigns so they had no real sense of the problems that even the very best, most experienced organizers run into in large, stable, process-based situations.) Occupy was a flash process full of random people, not a revolutionary movement. (Note, I wasn't in Occupy - I was around Occupy and know many people who were in it.)

Here in MPLS, what has happened now that there isn't really Occupy anymore is that the cranks have gone back to crankery and the people who were new to activist projects and were committed have stuck around - I know a bunch of people involved in other projects who came in to this stuff via Occupy.

(Seriously, everyone who froths at the mouth over the failures of Occupy but idealizes the Paris Commune or the RAF or even the civil rights movement, ask yourself what you would have been thinking had you had a front-seat view of the all the short-term/ad hoc aspects of those formations. Ask yourself what you think of as a successful organizing campaign - you'll almost always find that it may have intersected with a mass upheaval like Occupy but was not the same thing. You see this, for example, in the British abolitionist movement - lots of mass upheavals every so often that faded away but that had a certain use in spreading language and ideas, plus long-term organizing by people who had time to grow as activists.)
posted by Frowner at 9:16 AM on May 27, 2015 [36 favorites]


There are legitimate reasons to vilify ANSWER, especially around its fundraising, accountability, and the hate speech they allow from their platforms. However, I will agree that it has little to do with Occupy.

Occupy did not happen as an offshoot of ANSWER. I know, because I was there - hilariously at one of the smaller protests that ultimately grew into Occupy, which of course was birthed in NYC. I used to work a couple blocks from there and got involved when I saw police were beating those proto-Occupiers.

Occupy had a lot of problems. Most notably, it tried to be all things to all people, which wound up creating a deeply segregated camp. The tents at the 'high side' of Zuccotti park were the academics and college students. The tents at the 'low side' of Zuccotti park were made up of those who were homeless and wanted an organized camp with free food/clothing/etc.

The problem with Occupy was not the consensus practice - the problem was that Occupy was trying to be a unified thing without a unified group. Consensus really only works in communities where people are known members of the community and value each other. It by definition cannot work when anyone who wanders by during a General Assembly can raise a block.
posted by corb at 9:16 AM on May 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I don't know if it's 'more democratic' but there are definitely less people walking away afterwards.

But what about the people walking away during?
posted by PMdixon at 9:16 AM on May 27, 2015


(I mean, if there is one thing that is truly bourgeois in activist circles, it is the idea that only Too Much Radicalism prevents a loose agglomeration of people with very different experiences, understandings and goals from coalescing immediately into a process-based group run like...run like what? Have you ever sat in on a union meeting? A faculty meeting? A neighborhood organization meeting? A grant proposal review group? Basically, I guess, middle class people expect that a loose assortment of people will instantly and without any kind of group formation or serious organizing do better than every other kind of remotely democratic organization - will basically function like Lenin's dead men on vacation, seamlessly and quickly voting on simple, direct, effective revolutionary strategies because those are Totally Obvious and only a premature anti-fascist or whomever would fail to see what they are.)
posted by Frowner at 9:22 AM on May 27, 2015 [25 favorites]


And the vilification of ANSWER is a holdover from the right-wing response to the Iraq war protests and has little to do with Occupy, which was a product of cultural anarchists and academics in Adbusters and Graeber-affiliated circles.

who fucking hate ANSWER, particularly Graeber. I'm neither involved nor an expert, but Graeber is very open about his ANSWER hatred, or rather, the hard-left marxist cultists who apparently run it.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:24 AM on May 27, 2015


the faction building alone will break your heart

Frowner is fucking spot on with this. I left activism nearly completely due to the factionalism that springs up. Consensus at least stops people from jumping up and shouting "This is procedural tyranny!" before flipping a chair and walking out, or having, say, every single POC member of an organization except one leave the room because they couldn't take the bullshit anymore. #truestories
posted by corb at 9:26 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


It seems like the two dominant models on the left right now are:
  1. variations on the spokescouncil/consensus model discussed here — everyone gets together, everyone talks until something that everyone is willing to agree upon emerges, and,
  2. straightforward Leninist democratic centralism, where everyone at least nominally is free to participate in debate, but wherein once a vote has been held and a policy agreed upon, everyone must follow the group decision. The slogan used to explain this is "democracy in debate, unity in action."
The Jacobin article, though it relies too heavily on "theology" as a scare word, does a nice job of outlining the problems with consensus models as they exist. As for democratic centralism, well, though I'm a big fan of party discipline in certain contexts — for example, Westminster systems do a great job of illustrating how members of bourgeois parliaments who submit to party discipline and vote in a bloc crush less organized MPs — it's not particularly appropriate for organizing a party as a whole.

Why do I say it's not appropriate? Well, because the dominant strategy for taking control over a democratic centralist party is clear. You do what Lenin did: first you organize the largest faction, and then you ban faction formation. In abstract terms, democratic centralism has democracy in debate, but in concrete practice democratic centralist organizations tend to become centrally controlled from soup to nuts.

The option I would like to politely float as being more fundamentally democratic than either the gridlocked crankocracies established through consensus methods or the (in-practice) top-down methods of democratic centralism is the option that the Athenians themselves used at the dawn of democracy: sortition, or decisionmaking and the selection of officers by chance.

If one is in an organization that practices decisionmaking by lot, one knows that literally any one of your comrades could have the final say on any decision. This inspires, to say the least, an attitude of mutual support and respect. Because at any given time any member could steer the entire group, respecting every member and educating every single member on how and why the group exists is of paramount importance. Treating any member as only useful for their labor becomes a form of group suicide.

I mean, I'm proposing this as a joke, sort of, almost — this is just etat roulette, amirite? — but there's an uncanny residue of the real left behind due to how sortition was actually used in practice by the people who invented democracy, and due to the uncanny fact that selection by lot is in fact more deeply democratic than more elaborate, less random systems, systems that are more susceptible to subversion by patient cranks and well-organized factions.

I am, god help me, a big fan of democracy. Just as the Quakers took as an article of faith the idea that through consensus decision-making processes the inner light that we all have could shine out, I take as an article of faith that people, random people, people off the street, actually can be qualified to make decisions about how to live. And I also take it as an article of faith that if we by our nature aren't qualified to rule ourselves, it's probably better for us all to crash and burn as a democracy than to live out half-lives as hands for someone else's brain. But, I'm a crazy person.

also I think "unity in action, randomness in planning" is a great slogan okay?

IMO the chief value of talking about this sort of thing — consensus decisionmaking, democratic centralism, sortition, whatever, is to highlight the fact that, despite the American insistence that we live in a democracy, we are not currently ruled through institutions that support democracy in practice. Acknowledging that we don't have a democracy and then asking questions about what democracy might actually look like is a first step toward understanding how and why we might prefer and work toward democratic rule, even if all the answers to those questions seem just weird as hell at first. Reflecting on these weird as hell answers can allow us to in turn see the itself very weird (and fundamentally antidemocratic) nature of our extant institutions and processes.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:32 AM on May 27, 2015 [29 favorites]


Basically, I guess, middle class people expect that a loose assortment of people will instantly and without any kind of group formation or serious organizing do better than every other kind of remotely democratic organization...

My direct experience is with academic radicals in a labor union setting but, in general, people from white suburban middle-class backgrounds in groups tend to operate by quick and instinctual consensus, absent direct input from the power hierarchy, precisely because they believe everyone thinks exactly as white middle-class suburban people of their persuasion do... and they are correct once anyone else is weeded out. When in a pinch, suburban and middle-class will do for purposes of solidarity.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:33 AM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


No I wasn't there. But the outside view was Occupy people are protesting, then police raid them, then they aren't protesting. That seems a very odd thing to just not mention. That they were ultimately ended by police raids.

You can make all sorts of arguments about why they didn't bounce back or how they should've made a political party and run local candidates or what have you, but that seems like the same sort of recrimination I hear all the time when a team blows a deadline or loses a game.

I've worked jobs for small businesses, government, and academia, and frankly most everything is a shitshow in some way or another, and yet society still functions. There is usually a combination of 'this could have been done better' and adverse circumstances that leads things to fail. Forceful opposition by police forces just seems to me a pretty big adverse circumstance to totally omit, even in a glib description.

I think there is a good discussion to be had here about how trying to avoid heirarchy can turn into an unacknowledged heirarchy, though.
posted by Zalzidrax at 9:34 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]




That article suggests that Occupy was strongly doing consensus wrong.

When someone blocks, you're supposed to ask why they block and then work to get to a point where they are not blocking. You're not just supposed to be like 'oh well, a block has been made, guess we're giving up and moving on, next question!'
posted by corb at 9:37 AM on May 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Tunney herself being an excellent example of the sort of person who renders consensus impracticable
posted by kewb at 9:37 AM on May 27, 2015 [10 favorites]


So the one thing consensus is really great at actually - which is important for activist groups and Quakers alike, I imagine - is not irrevocably dividing your group over issues of deep moral importance. I don't know if it's 'more democratic' but there are definitely less people walking away afterwards.

There have been plenty of Quaker schisms, splits, and separations, as well as explicit expulsions of members who disagreed with a Meeting majority, so I'm not sure how predictive Quaker history is in terms of preventing future divisions entirely. But at the same time, many, though not all, of those divisions proved revocable (Hicksite–Orthodox reunifications, say), and asking any system to completely prevent people from walking away over disagreements (or to prevent disagreements from surfacing in the first place) is probably too much to ask; whether it's proven more effective than other methods would have been is an interesting question.
posted by cjelli at 9:40 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


The ASTM is a consensus-based organization for setting various technical standards. It's important a large number of narrow ways. ASTM standards underlie much of our current technology and even regulation. The organization has contributed standard agreed-upon interfaces between companies, so things work together, and between companies and governments, so human and environmental safety testing, for example, is done right (or at least in a comprehensible and compatible way).

HAving seen how it works up close, there are a bunch of interesting features it has which highlight many of the problems in the article and probably more importantly how it deals with them.

The ASTM members come from everywhere, industry, private individuals, government. There are few prerequisites to join other than interest and an ability to contribute to the conversations. The main filter on contributors is persistence, as mentioned in the article. It takes at least five years to get anything through an ASTM standards process, a decade isn't uncommon. This tends to filter out dilettantes and even cranks, as the cost of entry is so high. It also, however, makes it difficult for private individuals and NGOs to participate, though some do.

The big problem though is the issue of competing interests. A typical scenario: companies A and B both want their proprietary technologies to become standards for corporate advantage. The ASTM solution is to let both develop standards on their own. This weeds out the less serious (and under resourced, though the process is more costly in terms of time than money), but has the end goal of providing at least a peer-reviewed and quality-tested result. The technologies have to at least work, and work reproducibly for other people, not just in ginned-up demos.

Ultimately though, what gets adopted is left as a choice made by the end-user. Companies and regulators adopt methods as they see fit. They have the choice to be involved in development, and many do, or not, as many more do. It's a democratic but somewhat chaotic system, there tend to be four or five different standards to do a certain kind of measurement say, which can be intimidating for a new person. However, being end-user driven, its partial-consensus process allows also for choice and competition as well. This is in contrast to many other standards organizations which are top down, and thus rather less flexible and able to respond to end-user needs or evolving technology. Both can work, but the ASTM process of partial consensus and competition has been highly successful.
posted by bonehead at 9:40 AM on May 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Occupy did not happen as an offshoot of ANSWER. I know, because I was there - hilariously at one of the smaller protests that ultimately grew into Occupy, which of course was birthed in NYC. I used to work a couple blocks from there and got involved when I saw police were beating those proto-Occupiers.

here's Graeber on the subject:
On August 2, I showed up at a 7 PM meeting at Bowling Green, that a Greek anarchist friend, who I’d met at a recent activist get together at 16 Beaver Street, had told me was meant to plan some kind of action on Wall Street in mid-September. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the background: that a month before, the Canadian magazine Adbusters had put out the call to “Occupy Wall Street”, but had really just floated the idea on the internet, along with some very compelling graphics, to see if it would take hold; that a local anti-budget cut coalition top-heavy with NGOs, unions, and socialist groups had tried to take possession of the process and called for a “General Assembly” at Bowling Green. The title proved extremely misleading. When I arrived, I found the event had been effectively taken over by a veteran protest group called the Worker’s World Party, most famous for having patched together ANSWER one of the two great anti-war coalitions, back in 2003. They had already set up their banners, megaphones, and were making speeches—after which, someone explained, they were planning on leading the 80-odd assembled people in a march past the Stock Exchange itself.

The usual reaction to this sort of thing is a kind of cynical, bitter resignation. “I wish they at least wouldn’t advertise a ‘General Assembly’ if they’re not actually going to hold one.” Actually, I think I actually said that, or something slightly less polite, to one of the organizers, a disturbingly large man, who immediately remarked, “well, fine. Why don’t you leave?”

But as I paced about the Green, I noticed something. To adopt activist parlance: this wasn’t really a crowds of verticals—that is, the sort of people whose idea of political action is to march around with signs under the control of one or another top-down protest movement. They were mostly pretty obviously horizontals: people more sympathetic with anarchist principles of organization, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy, and direct action. I quickly spotted at least one Wobbly, a young Korean activist I remembered from some Food Not Bomb event, some college students wearing Zapatista paraphernalia, a Spanish couple who’d been involved with the indignados in Madrid… I found my Greek friends, an American I knew from street battles in Quebec during the Summit of the Americas in 2001, now turned labor organizer in Manhattan, a Japanese activist intellectual I’d known for years… My Greek friend looked at me and I looked at her and we both instantly realized the other was thinking the same thing: “Why are we so complacent? Why is it that every time we see something like this happening, we just mutter things and go home?” – though I think the way we put it was more like, “You know something? Fuck this shit. They advertised a general assembly. Let’s hold one.”
for what it's worth, which might be nothing...
posted by ennui.bz at 9:41 AM on May 27, 2015 [10 favorites]


It's worth noting that the people she tagged - VFP national - is Veterans For Peace. So she was actually trying to crowdfund Army veterans to be her nonviolence army.
posted by corb at 9:41 AM on May 27, 2015


The option I would like to politely float as being more fundamentally democratic than either the gridlocked crankocracies established through consensus methods or the (in-practice) top-down methods of democratic centralism is the option that the Athenians themselves used at the dawn of democracy: sortition, or decisionmaking and the selection of officers by chance.

Have there been historical case studies done of how the Athenian sortition democracy functioned in practice? I'm familiar with the theory, but I wonder how much it actually worked out in the real world, if there didn't develop the kind of unspoken rules and superstructures that the FPP articles discuss with regard to consensus organization. Did, say, the most powerful merchants or military leaders of the city really not end up having greater influence and power than anyone else?
posted by Sangermaine at 9:43 AM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Have there been historical case studies done of how the Athenian sortition democracy functioned in practice? I'm familiar with the theory, but I wonder how much it actually worked out in the real world, if there didn't develop the kind of unspoken rules and superstructures that the FPP articles discuss with regard to consensus organization. Did, say, the most powerful merchants or military leaders of the city really not end up having greater influence and power than anyone else?

Well yes, seeing as the definition of the Athenian polity excluded the majority of the Athenian population - something that is always left out when Athenian democracy is brought up.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:47 AM on May 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


( I really, really like the etat routlette thing, actually, and may propose it should I get back involved with a particular project.)

What would actually be useful might be gathering some information about times where consensus is felt to have worked, times where it failed, times where voting worked and times where voting failed.

I suspect, honestly, that there are plenty of organizations which have such foundational problems that any kind of decision-making process will be a disaster in one way or another - and I think it's important to try to separate that out from the question of consensus versus voting.

Seriously, I have been part of two long-running, similar projects, one of which worked on voting lines and one of which worked on consensus - and they both worked or didn't work in about equal measure. Perversely, actually, the one which has worked best with consensus has been the more anti-racist and the more class/age/gender/race diverse of the two. If we really wanted to get down to brass tacks, there are reasons that I think each has worked the way it does, and they have a lot more to do with the nature of the project, the size of the groups, the timing and location of meetings and the different efforts that each group made to build a sense of group-ness in the group.
posted by Frowner at 9:48 AM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Well yes, seeing as the definition of the Athenian polity excluded the majority of the Athenian population - something that is always left out when Athenian democracy is brought up.

Correct. Due to the limits on citizenship, Athens was in practice more of a bro-ocracy than a democracy.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:48 AM on May 27, 2015


Due to the limits on citizenship...

Historically we've really been pretty bad at understanding that Athenian democracy was not all that different in practice from how many traditional societies already worked.
posted by lodurr at 9:50 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Consensus is antithetical to Stalinism and the one true truth so I can see why it is falling out of favor amongst leftists. Amongst people of good will who are open to compromise and who respect each other's different opinions consensus offers only advantages.
posted by three blind mice at 9:51 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I live in NYC and saw it firsthand. Were you in Zuccotti Park at the time? What did you see there?

I don't know anything about NYC, but in Oakland there was tear gas floating down my street every other night and pictures of my neighborhood on the international news because they used consensus process to try to repeatedly take over buildings and they were really fucking organized and almost pulled it off. They were met with some pretty extreme violence, because taking buildings was not going to be allowed under any circumstances.

Were their prefigurative anarchist ideologues, general crazies and eye roll moments, and a ton of homeless people in the camps who had motivations other than a political platform? Sure. But to blame consensus process seems silly. Maybe it was all drum circles in Zucotti but here they got the shit beaten out of them for months and it wasn't because they "didn't have concrete goals" or whatever the accepted narrative is now.
posted by bradbane at 9:52 AM on May 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


Right, but what I meant was that even within the eligible Athenian voting pool (adult male citizens who had completed their military training descended from Athenian citizens), was it really equal in practice?
posted by Sangermaine at 9:52 AM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


And one more comment - the single most important thing I've found in making groups work on any basis is to take the time to do appropriately chosen group-building stuff. Training for Change, an organization with a rather peculiar underlying ideology, has some excellent tools and trainings for achieving this - whatever little ability I've developed in this area, as an introvert and a grump, has almost all derived from being fortunate enough to attend a two-day intensive train-the-trainer program of theirs.

Many, many of the problems I've encountered in small to medium activist groups have been resolvable through appropriate group-building processes. Certainly not all, but the least racist and least fucked up activist project I've ever been part of (which still had its problems but was streets ahead of everything else) was able to address many of its internal problems through careful attention to group building, and I have turned around a couple of crappy small-group situations this way. You need to get people to become more familiar with each other, to get some emotional investment in the success of the group, to be able to distinguish real material divisions from apparent/stereotype-based/miscommunication problems and to give everyone a chance to feel that they can contribute. If a person feels that they really bring something to the group, they're going to be in for almost whatever it takes. And this is regardless of consensus versus voting - IME, the most successful voting and consensus processes are actually pretty similar in small to medium sized groups, in that the majority of decisions are made by talking things through to an agreement among all which is either verified by vote or just consensed upon. In voting-based groups I've been in, it's actually been pretty rare that there's been an issue that we didn't all basically agree on, even if that was just "we all vote to let this committee make the decision on their own".
posted by Frowner at 9:58 AM on May 27, 2015 [17 favorites]


For whatever it's worth, I'm in favor of practically any decision-making process so long as the designers of that process don't think in terms of how it's supposed to work, but instead in terms of how it works when someone is trying to actively subvert it. What a system is isn't what it is on paper, but instead it's what it is when everyone's trying their damnedest to break it.

If I were trying to break a sortitionist system, I guess I'd either organize a faction to switch away from sortition and toward "democratic" centralism, take control (by whatever means) of the processes for admitting new members, or just straightforwardly subvert whatever random process is used, such that all important decisions fall to members of my faction.

Here in America we use sortition for jury selection. We've seen in practice how antidemocratic forces have worked to neutralize that particularly democratic-in-theory aspect of our system, through tightly limiting the pool of people accepted to juries in the interest of excluding anyone who sees jury membership as a lever for exerting democratic power and who therefore might gum up established processes.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:07 AM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Seriously, I have been part of two long-running, similar projects, one of which worked on voting lines and one of which worked on consensus - and they both worked or didn't work in about equal measure. Perversely, actually, the one which has worked best with consensus has been the more anti-racist and the more class/age/gender/race diverse of the two. If we really wanted to get down to brass tacks, there are reasons that I think each has worked the way it does, and they have a lot more to do with the nature of the project, the size of the groups, the timing and location of meetings and the different efforts that each group made to build a sense of group-ness in the group.

which is to say that process i.e. consensus vs. vote is irrelevant compared to the actual politics of the group. for the "left" in the US, the problem seems far more "what to do" rather than "how to do it."

Right, but what I meant was that even within the eligible Athenian voting pool (adult male ci tizens who had completed their military training descended from Athenian citizens), was it really equal in practice?

Read Thucydides. He gives an extensive account of Athenian democracy in action, albeit from an roughly oligarchical point of view. The divisions are numerous, including divisions based on centuries old religious curses between the Athenian "old-line" aristocratic families
posted by ennui.bz at 10:10 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Amongst people of good will who are open to compromise and who respect each other's different opinions consensus offers only advantages.

I think you might be thinking of those magic rings the Planeteers received from Gaia rather than consensus. No big deal; real easy mistake to make.
posted by griphus at 10:19 AM on May 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


I participated in a lot of consensus processes and got no rings at all.
posted by corb at 10:21 AM on May 27, 2015


Consensus obsession is why Occupy fizzled out and changed absolutely nothing on the ground.

That, and of course being crushed by existing power structures and provocateurs.
posted by odinsdream at 10:25 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Many, many of the problems I've encountered in small to medium activist groups have been resolvable through appropriate group-building processes. Certainly not all, but the least racist and least fucked up activist project I've ever been part of (which still had its problems but was streets ahead of everything else) was able to address many of its internal problems through careful attention to group building...

see, I think the emphasis on "training" is one of the pathologies of the professional activist class. I mean, even the word suggests a dog on a leash. Having been subject to several group-building "trainings" as part of my tour of professional activism, I'd say it's about, again, trying to substitute process for politics, and always comes down to power i.e. you aren't with the group because you refuse to follow the training, etc. which is fine, maybe I'm the asshole, but the result is that your badly functioning activist group never stops to consider whether the problem is what they are trying to do, rather than how they are trying to do it...
posted by ennui.bz at 10:25 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Acknowledging that we don't have a democracy and then asking questions about what democracy might actually look like is a first step toward understanding how and why we might prefer and work toward democratic rule

This seems like very much the same kind of means-ends confusion that leads to the mess of "prefigurative politics." The point of organizing a movement is (ought to be) to accomplish something concrete, not (primarily) process fetishism or theoretical experimentation or striving toward "democratic rule" in the abstract. That way lies total ineffectuality.

I mean, I really notice — and think it's worth ruminating on — that even here, even in this totally abstract movement-historical discussion in an online setting entirely detached from political practice, the groups and tactics in recent political history that clearly articulated left aims and worked toward them are the ones that still immediately divide opinions, quickly drawing the tags of "Leninism" or "Stalinism"* or "hate speech"** or whatever else, while the abstract process wonkery and democracy-talk seems to appeal to everyone. This total non-divisiveness is a possible indicator that it's not actually politically effective; you can't actually build a movement by appealing on process grounds to people who oppose your goals.

* interesting that these are now the go-to for vague online red-baiting; the reclamation of "communism" seems to be working
** this typically indicates that a US-liberal issue is being used, or is about to be deployed, as a wedge; almost always anti-Zionism

posted by RogerB at 10:25 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


(drawing the pejorative "anarchist", you might add. I dunno, I am personally acquainted with probably ten people who call themselves Leninists and with two people who call themselves, incredibly enough, Stalinists - when I think about "Leninist" tactics, it is with some acquaintance with Leninists. The Stalinists are, I tend to think, mostly just confused.)
posted by Frowner at 10:30 AM on May 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


When people tell me we need consensus, I tell them we need what built the Internet. "Rough consensus and running code."

"Okay, here's the plan. Any objections?" "I don't like it." "Anybody else?" "Okay nobody else, let's do it." One or two people don't get to shoot it down. If they don't like it, they can go do their own thing. Heck, maybe it's so much better that it'll win. If if does, then, well, the rough consensus will flip to them. If half the group doesn't like it, you don't have a rough consensus, you need to keep talking, or you need to split, double implement, and see which works better.

But if you demand full consensus, if you give the veto to everyone, then nothing gets done, because someone always becomes the tyrant. Always. All you need is someone having a bad day, and it all turns rotten.

I've also found that in general, the best way to fix a broken process is to not add to it. It's to change a step or remove a step. Sometimes, you honestly do need to add a step. But it's rare. Usually adding a step to a process just breaks it more.
posted by eriko at 10:40 AM on May 27, 2015 [16 favorites]


But if you demand full consensus, if you give the veto to everyone, then nothing gets done, because someone always becomes the tyrant. Always. All you need is someone having a bad day, and it all turns rotten.

Even in the best case where co-opting doesn't happen, you can also get weird skews and derails based simply on who was in the room that day and by odd trails the conversation might follow. I am really skeptical of "focus group" and "workshop" outputs as a result. They can too easily be distracted and produce a pathological result.

Those problems can be mitigated by sober second thought or independent review (and most of the technical groups that use consensus do that, ime) but that takes a lot of time and effort. Allowing competing partial consensus too, even as trial balloons, is also really key to making a consensus process work.

It's important to test any decision with the people who have to live with it, who may be a subset of the original group or have little or no overlap. Being able to pick from multiple options from the original consensus allows them to have a voice in deciding what happens too.
posted by bonehead at 10:52 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's a fair cop: I am such a process fetishist, and I've always been. In fact, if you have a time machine, you could travel back ten years and have such wonderfully long, boring, and useless conversations with ten-years-ago me about how approval voting is vastly superior to instant runoff voting, and oh by the way yes I know that Condorcet voting is preferable in abstract terms than approval voting, but approval voting is so much easier to explain and calculate and even the American Mathematical Society uses it instead of Condorcet isn't that interesting?

Nevertheless, acknowledging my own tendencies toward process fetishism, I still don't think that thinking about process is necessarily just a diversion from action or organizing or whatever. Something I think that this conversation has highlighted (I especially appreciate the input from Quakers, btw) is that the primary purpose of a decision making process isn't necessarily to make decisions, not exactly. Instead, decision making processes can be understood as institutionalized rituals for building... something. Solidarity? Mutual respect? Mutual empowerment? Love for one's fellows, but love for them as they really are rather than how we'd like them to be?

Some rituals are better at this than others, and some rituals, on the other hand, are really good at undermining all those nice things above. The existence of the consensus ritual was maybe, one reason why Occupy was so much more successful than the democratic centralist organizations we find on the far left in America have ever been. Although Occupy wasn't The Revolution or whatever, it was a way for a lot of different people to meet, talk, build solidarity, mutual respect, mutual empowerment, and love, in the presence of organizing rituals that, despite their inefficiency at producing decisions, at least didn't undermine all of those things.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:53 AM on May 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


It's simple, really.

Look at Occupy.

Look at Selma.

Ask yourself which one was more effective at achieving a tangible goal -- the one with the V for Vendetta/Guy Fawkes masks? Or the one where the leaders insisted everyone dress in their Sunday best and link arms?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:04 AM on May 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


Sorry. I didn't finish my thought and got distracted. The thing about consensus is that it is as much about the process as about the result. In a consensus approach, decisions are not considered made until the last opponent stops talking. It is a process of listening, convincing and if you cannot convince the withdrawl of opposition which is understood by all to be part of the rules of the game. Argue your position, but when the tide turns against you, you follow the group's wisedom. In this way you do not oppress minority opinion and you avoid becoming an oppressor yourself. Thus the snark about Stalin.

The longer point is that it's slower to convince people than to rule over them, but if you want to avoid tyranny process matters.

And consensus has the major benefit that once reached no one tries to work against it or undermine the decision. Everyone participated in the process, everyone had their say, and everyone has skin in the decision. This is at least as valuable as the result itself.

Consensus works where there is a common goal. All ETSI standards - hugely complex 3G and 4G standards - are developed by consensus proving that even academic disputes can be resolved given equal comitmment to process and result.

That consensus failed the aimless, pointless, ad hoc Occupy movement says more about the lack of consensus on the Left of who to blame for everything, than it does about the failure of process.
posted by three blind mice at 11:05 AM on May 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


well, and to be fair, ETSI doesn't have cops a) infiltrating it and b) trying to bust it up every night. Consensus decisionmaking might be particularly bad in wartime contexts, regardless of the membership and beliefs of the group that's making decisions by consensus.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:11 AM on May 27, 2015


hey let's talk about Kronstadt! that's always helpful!
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:12 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


When people tell me we need consensus, I tell them we need what built the Internet.

The US military?
posted by Sangermaine at 11:13 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's simple, really.

Look at Occupy.

Look at Selma.


It's really, really important not to say that the primary difference between these events is one of decision-making process (and clothing choices??!!). This does a huge disservice to civil rights organizers by underestimating the depth and breadth of their work and the many years of organizing that culminated in events like Selma and to Occupy, by suggesting that a disparate, ad hoc popular upheaval could have been the civil rights movement if it had only had more willpower.
posted by Frowner at 11:22 AM on May 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


The US military didn't design the Internet; they just paid for (the beginning of) it.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:23 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


And consensus has the major benefit that once reached no one tries to work against it or undermine the decision. Everyone participated in the process, everyone had their say, and everyone has skin in the decision. This is at least as valuable as the result itself.

In theory, perhaps. In reality, disgruntled members who may have grudgingly gone along are quite happy to work against and undermine the decision, skin or no skin.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:23 AM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


The US military?

No, only their $$ and the initial directive that legitimized existing obsessions. Anyway, most of the actual institutional support came from research universities.

[on prev, saxman beats me]
posted by lodurr at 11:23 AM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


(and clothing choices??!!).

in b4 "aha, but I was actually talking about the leadership that enforced those choices"
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:25 AM on May 27, 2015


I am frankly and sincerely glad to see that this hasn't devolved into the kind of flame-war that battles over the ideas of consensus and initiative so often do. There are a few people here being reactionarily anti-consensus, but most of what I'm seeing is people who are talking about what's wrong with it as though it were still something that had value. I find that encouraging.
posted by lodurr at 11:26 AM on May 27, 2015


Are we sure Occupy failed? Back when that was all going on, I remember reading interviews where some news celebrity would ask an Occupy participant what their message was, what the goal of the protest was, and would receive an answer to the effect that there were no spokespeople and there was no message and the occupation itself was the goal. There was a lot of "you can't understand unless you're part of it" and very little "this is what we want to do and this is how we intend to do it". It seemed like maybe the point was just to make a big stink about the problem and then hope that people already enmeshed in the system would be motivated to do something about it, but it was never entirely clear to me what the specific goals were. In that case, how is it really fair to say that the protest failed?
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:31 AM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


In that case, how is it really fair to say that the protest failed?

They were out to accomplish shit.

They failed to accomplish shit.

Ergo, they failed.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:40 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


There's a pseudo-consensus model that works well in many open source software projects, where the participants debate some issue until the various points all seem to have been argued clearly enough, and then a "benevolent dictator" draws the debate to a close by choosing a direction. The participants generally fall in line, even if they would have picked some other choice, because their point of view has been heard (and usually accommodated in the final design), and because forking the project would make both halves weaker and so it's better to make the best of a plan you don't particularly like than to strike off on your own. Still, if the plan is really bad, the option to fork is always there, so the dictator can't ultimately force anyone to do anything; the decision really does have to approximate the group's consensus judgement.

We have a "dictatorial consensus" model somewhat like this in the makerspace I've been involved with for several years. There's a basic set of rules everyone agrees to when they sign up, and then it's pretty much "do what you want, work things out, and be excellent to each other". There are a lot of ad hoc processes for getting things done and keeping the place tidy. When serious problems demanding immediate action come up, however, there are a small group of managers who can step in and do things (like evict a disruptive member) without having to waste a lot of time on process-filled consensus-building meetings. It's not perfect, but it works pretty well in practice, and it's nice not to have much of a power hierarchy.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:41 AM on May 27, 2015


Ooh, sortition! I know there are people on MetaFilter who know way, way more about this than me, but I've done some research and thinking about it that might be helpful anyway.

Like some of the other people in this thread, I was always fascinated by the political use of randomness, particularly in the Athenian case. So let's get into the nitty-gritty of it:

First, most important, "Athenian democracy" excludes a large portion of the population from citizenship. Obviously that's a non-starter for us, and means they could side-step issues of privilege, solidarity, biases and subtler problems that have to be dealt with. But given that, the mechanisms are still interesting. It's all about moving people from role to role, using lots of big analog devices in the public eye. Every citizen is a member of the Assembly, debating measures and policy. The Council of 500 -- which every citizen could expect to serve on at least once -- draws up the measures to be debated. Prosecutors could bring suit, for juries of 200 citizens. Being a citizen means being part of a deme, the basic unit, like a township(?) of sorts, which in turn was part of a bigger unit (the trittyes) which in turn was part of a phyle or "tribe." This whole system of units was actually a deliberate strategy to both weaken the power of aristocratic family groups, by making citizenship contingent on towns rather than hereditary clans, and to balance out regionalism -- the phyle had to include three of those midsize trittyes units, one from the city, one from the coast, one inland.

So you're a citizen -- you're in a deme, in a trittyes, in a phyle. The approach to juries was to pull them together at the last possible minute, using a big allotment machine, the kleroterion. You show up at dawn at the tribal kleroterion with your ID ticket. There's a whole system for putting people into different rows and using random draw to dismiss rows. (Similar systems, as I understand it, were in place for the committee structure.) There are special allotment tokens -- like tally sticks -- to fight fraudulent jurors, and a system of tickets so you could only collect your pay from the jury to which you'd been randomly assigned. There were anonymous ballot systems (which were very cool looking) and paint-slathered ropes for tagging people who should have been at assembly, so they could be fined and shamed for their neglect of civic duty. And timing tools like water clocks for the limits to presentation and argument.

It's a really fascinating system. However, you can still imagine ways it could be gamed and manipulated by someone under the right conditions -- and for that there was ostracism. Every year the Assembly -- the full quorum of citizens -- would decide if a vote of ostracism was needed; if so, there was a system for all citizens to bring potsherds (ostraka) with the name of the person they considered most dangerous to the state through a tyrannical accumulation of power, wealth or influence. Everybody would have to stay as a group until all the names had been counted; the ostracized would be sent into exile for ten years. (The shards were then used to fill potholes.)

(MeFi classicists, please say if I've got things wrong here.)

The overall project of building a political system in which everyone (again, setting aside the monstrous misogyny, slave economy, etc of the Athenian model) is expected to play a role -- and having to think, behind a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance," about who will actually debate and decide on your ideas -- is a really compelling one, to me. It's particularly fascinating to consider what we could do along these lines with new technologies to face current political problems.
posted by deathmarch to epistemic closure at 11:42 AM on May 27, 2015 [25 favorites]


Some very useful organizations emerged from Occupy. I mean, I had no connection to the movement then or now, but calling it a failure because it (eventually) ended and gave way to other things is taking Occupy to be the termination point, rather than a beginning, of a movement, and that doesn't seem to match to the reality of how it drove organization in other ways and in other places (the movement for a higher minimum wage, Occupy Sandy, etc.).
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:42 AM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Deathmarch (or any classicists around): are there texts you can recommend on Athenian democratic processes? I obvy find this shit incredibly fascinating, but I've never done much real reading on it.

Re: technology and democracy, I think ultimately the farther you get away from big analog devices that everyone can see, the more open the system becomes to subversion. It goes without saying that the potential for subversion is one reason why antidemocratic forces in America are so big on digital voting machines that count using secret methods. (The other big reason is that making and selling the machines can make a few oligarchs richer.)
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:56 AM on May 27, 2015


Some very useful organizations emerged from Occupy. I mean, I had no connection to the movement then or now, but calling it a failure because it (eventually) ended and gave way to other things is taking Occupy to be the termination point, rather than a beginning, of a movement, and that doesn't seem to match to the reality of how it drove organization in other ways and in other places (the movement for a higher minimum wage, Occupy Sandy, etc.).

I'd argue that they "emerged" mainly in the sense that they were winnowed after the collapse. As was pointed out earlier, the drive for higher minimum wage really took off when the unions got behind it, and it appears that Occupy Sandy learned that a key element of organization is, well, organizing.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:57 AM on May 27, 2015


Some very useful organizations emerged from Occupy. I mean, I had no connection to the movement then or now, but calling it a failure because it (eventually) ended and gave way to other things is taking Occupy to be the termination point, rather than a beginning, of a movement, and that doesn't seem to match to the reality of how it drove organization in other ways and in other places (the movement for a higher minimum wage, Occupy Sandy, etc.).

See, this is why I don't quite understand everyone being all "oh, Occupy, that was a total failure". Unless you really, really expected that Occupy was going - in itself, as it stood - literally to bring about revolutionary change...well, how did anyone expect it to end? Has anyone been paying any attention to mass movements over the past thirty years? Mass movements that take up public space in this country get beaten down and evicted, period. "Mass encampment that turns into actual revolutionary policy change"....I have trouble thinking of any historical example of that. If you want an example of a beat down, look no further than the Harvard Art Museum 1932 Hunger March mural. I mean, basically, what happens is that the protesters protest as long as they can, and then the state clears them out - it happened at Tian An Men with more at stake, clearer demands and more popular legitimacy for the protesters - and more violence; it happened in Oakland with enough of those things. The degree to which the state is violent is proportionate to the degree to which it expects the protesters to resist being moved and the degree to which their demands are threatening/inconvenient.

If you want to say "I think Occupy should have been a totally different movement that did not involve an encampment", fine - although then you might want to look at the various things that have sprung up from Occupy. But if you think that the issue was "if Occupy only expressed the right demands in the right way to the right people, then the state would have rolled over or else there would have been a popular uprising" - well.

At least around here we got a couple of years of Occupy Homes in the wake of Occupy. To my certain knowledge, some of the local Black Lives Matter organizers were Occupy. Occupy people are in the labor and immigrants' rights groups here, some of which have made actual material successes. On a day-to-day level, the cops simply haven't been fucking with protests as much since Occupy - there are a variety of reasons for that, but I think one of them is just what a giant clusterfuck it was, and how Occupy illustrated that frankly a mere street march is not so bad. Occupy opened up space here and gave a lot of people language. Another thing - around here, a lot of working class and lower middle class people got into activism via Occupy, because it wasn't something where you had to know where to go or feel confident enough to show up at a meeting in a bookstore or at a university where you weren't a student; you just had to walk up to people on the street.

I didn't even like Occupy all that much. It was pretty dudely, for one thing, and because so many people did not know each other, there was a tendency for organizers to assume that anyone they personally hadn't seen before was ignorant and could be ignored. And I'm not saying that more could not have been accomplished, or that there weren't dumb-ass things going on. But it did change the landscape around here in good ways that are still visible and have had real material effect.
posted by Frowner at 12:04 PM on May 27, 2015 [17 favorites]


I went to a Quaker college where housing was decided by consensus. It's basically like those contests where people stand around touching a truck for 72 hours, but with 35 crunchy 20 year olds who all want to live in 7-person German House.
posted by geegollygosh at 12:19 PM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


There's a video somewhere of a real world protest, students occupying a college building. Maybe someone better than me can find it.

Cop shows up, asks to speak to the group's leader. One student breathlessly explains they're using a consensus process, and asks "Do you know what that is?" with the tone of a high school freshman trying to explain drama class to his puzzled mom. He's sooper excited about this new thing he learned!

The cop, befuddled, repeats his request. Later in the video, the consensus guy is seen asking his colleague what they should do about the police request, and the colleague makes a unilateral decision. Which belies the nature of consensus itself.

It was a fascinating view into sheer bubble-headedness at work.
Was it this one?
posted by cosmic.osmo at 12:39 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


are there texts you can recommend on Athenian democratic processes?

Ober's Democracy and Knowledge is something like a standard text.
David Estlund is a really good introduction to sortition and the challenge it presents to voting (he calls it Queen for a Day)
I also love Herotodus' account of the debate among the Persians. Here's Otanes:
“[T]he rule of the multitude [plêthos de archon] has… the loveliest name of all, equality [isonomiên]…. It determines offices by lot, and holds power accountable, and conducts all deliberating publicly. Therefore I give my opinion that we make an end of monarchy and exalt the multitude, for all things are possible for the majority.” (Herodotus 3.80)
Otanes identifies democracy with the strict sortition equality accomplished through lots. The appeal of this vision of isonomy is that the lottery supplies an equal opportunity for rulership to each citizen. But this equality is only possible when combined with two forms of accountability: that accounting by which an officer must give an accurate tally of expenditures during the administration or be held liable, and the figurative accountability by which the officer owes his fellow citizens his reasons for the decisions made in the public deliberations before, during, and after the decision is taken. As has already been pointed out, the use of lots only functioned insofar as citizenship was radically restricted, and in the debate, Otanes' justifications for the ‘rule of the multitude’ fell flat against Darius’ account of the tendency of all regimes to fall into monarchy insofar as both oligarchies and democracies produce agonistic tensions from which one man eventually emerges the victor and is designated the most excellent and the wisest of the contenders. (Herodotus 3.82)

But Otanes just withdraws into self-exile, still defending isonomy. The three norms of isonomy are mutually reinforcing: equal participation requires that the office-holder act with the understanding that she might be replaced by any other member of the community. She cannot abuse her office without being held to account at the end of her term. For the same reason she must regularly give reciprocally recognizable justifications for her actions, without which her decisions might be reversed by the next office-holder, or even punished when her office no longer protects her from prosecution. Ideally, the result of such a regime is a strong preference for deliberation and mutual respect, alongside a cautious honesty and transparency with regard to potentially controversial decisions. Consensus is the goal rather than the process.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:39 PM on May 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


Electing the Doge!

also btw :P
Occupy Madison, Inc.: Tiny Houses For The Homeless In Madison, WI

oh and from Cathy O'Neil, mathbabe today: Left Forum this weekend
I’ll be participating in two panels. First, a Saturday panel (3:15pm-5:00pm) called What is Occupy Up To?, to be held in room1.100, with the following description:
The occupation is over but groups with roots in Zuccotti Park are working actively in many ways. Representatives of some of these groups will discuss their current efforts and we will look for a participatory discussion of how the movement can be effective. Committed at this time: OccuEvolve – Sumumba Sobukwe, Occupy the SEC – Neil Taylor, OWS Alternative Banking – Cathy O’Neil, Debt Collective / Strike Debt — Luke Herrine. Copies of the book Occupy Finance will be available free to attendees while supplies last.
Second, a regular Alt Banking meeting on Sunday from 10am-noon, to be held in room 1.119, which has the following description:
Occupy Alternative Banking proposes to run one of its typical weekly Sunday meetings as a Left Forum workshop, as it did the last two years. You can learn about us at http://altbanking.net/. But in brief, we grew out of Open University sessions at the Occupy protests, and have been meeting ever since. We are open to all comers, and meet every Sunday afternoon at Columbia University to discuss current events and theory related to the dysfunction of the financial system, develop strategies, and endeavor to implement them. Our meeting-structure involves listing some topics for possible discussion, allowing attendees to add others, and then voting on two or three to discuss (in assembly-style format) during the meeting. We believe our two previous appearances at the Left Forum were very successful, both in terms of how they were received, and in their bringing some wonderful new consistent members to our weekly meetings and community. We propose to run a similar workshop this year. Other presenters will include Natasha Blakely and Thessy Mehrain, both of Occupy Alternative Banking.
posted by kliuless at 12:49 PM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is perhaps neither here nor there, but in this whole discussion of how consensus based decision making either works or doesn't work, is there some reason why the consensus based governments of the world -- I'm thinking of the territorial governments in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut for example -- never get brought up? Presumably they have to be doing something right, as they both govern and don't really have the choice of giving up and walking away from the conversation?

I mean maybe they don't actually work, I am not attuned to the politics up north. I only recall the tour-guide relishing in us southern tourists marveling at a political system that didn't rely on just shouting and heckling the people on the other side of the aisle.
posted by selenized at 12:59 PM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


See also.
See also.
See also.
posted by klue at 1:00 PM on May 27, 2015


I'm a Quaker and an activist from way back, and had always noticed the similarities between what we did at, say, a collectively-run business I worked at in the early 90s and what we do in Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business. At the same time, I've always been very aware of the differences, too. I hadn't known that it was specifically some Quakers who introduced consensus decision-making into political communities.

As Quakers, we're very aware of the power of consensus (or unity, to use the more Quakery language). But ask any Quaker and they can also run down for you all the downsides, and the ways it fails. The way one person can stop a decision everyone else agrees with from going forward, for instance, though we also have a convention of "standing aside," which is what a person can do when they recognize that they're not in unity with the wishes of the meeting as a whole. To stand aside is to say that, while you are not in agreement, you won't block the decision. When my Quaker meeting was deciding whether to build a meetinghouse or keep renting worship space in a church, as we'd done for decades, one member was vehemently opposed to building. Eventually. after many months of meetings and conversation about building, the meeting was moving closer and closer to consensus that we would build, and she formally stood aside. She said that she felt her concerns had been heard, and that it was time for her to admit she was out of step, and she promised never to say "I told you so" if there were troubles of the kind she predicted.

There are other ugly truths, like the fact that any contentious decision eventually reaches consensus only over the loss of some of the people who are opposed to it. Supporting same-sex marriage, for instance, has been an ongoing issue in meetings, and I defy anyone to find a meeting that has decided to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies or support same-sex marriage that hasn't lost people in the process. Sometimes "unity" means, in part, that all the people who disagree have left the room.

The criticisms of the article are all very valid. You have to have a tremendous amount of time, patience, and the ability to sit still to participate in consensus decision-making. I have a couple of very high-energy friends who can't get through a whole business meeting because sitting still for that long is more than they can take. And you have to be willing to surrender time you might have spent doing other things. When I was regularly attending my local meeting, the Sunday each month when we did business meeting as well as meeting for worship pretty much ate my day. Some people don't have the luxury of giving up a whole weekend day, and their voices won't be heard. Weak clerking (what you'd call facilitating in another context) makes meetings a nightmare to sit through. And so on.

There were things I always loved about the way The Lesbian Avengers did business. in particular that you weren't allowed to come to a meeting with a suggestion that "we" or "somebody" should do. You came with suggestions for things that you were willing to work on, and asked for the group's approval, and for help.

When people say consensus can only work in small groups, I am reminded that some of the best and most fruitful (and spiritually rich) business meetings I've been part of have included well over a hundred people. But Quakers, especially here in the midwest where I live, are a remarkably homogenous people with a comprehensive set of shared values. We value process over product; one of the very best business meetings I've ever been part of ended with us minuting our failure to achieve unity.

On the other hand, this is frustrating. There is much to be said for actually doing things. The Lesbian Avengers valued keeping meetings short and action-focused, for instance, and after a couple of decades of Quaker process, I find myself longing for something more action-oriented.

I have always loved The Tyranny of Structurelessness, ever since I first encountered it as a women's studies major in a collectively-run department in the mid-80s. Some of the challenges it describes are less present among Quakers than in more political settings, in my experience. Quakers have underlying committee structures that specifically include people who are charged with keeping an eye on the quality of our worship and business meetings. We are terrible, terrible, terrible at dealing directly with conflict and with addressing bad behaviors, but that structure exists in a way that I've never seen in secular settings, and it can ameliorate some of the worst abuses.
posted by not that girl at 1:20 PM on May 27, 2015 [21 favorites]


A proposal for what mefi consensus might be on this issue: perhaps we can all agree that developing and implementing formal processes for effective democratic decision-making is really fucking hard, that formal processes cannot by themselves establish democracy, and that anyone who says they have a simple system for effective democratic decision-making deserves so much side-eye and absolutely should not be trusted to design or implement anything.

Although I typically like Jacobin a great deal (if nothing else, for how they've realized that revolutionary politics needs top-notch graphic design), and although I am on the whole a big old commie rather than an anarchist, I think the 1) anarchist-baiting and 2) use of "theology" as a scare term really weakened what could have otherwise been a great (rather than just pretty good) article. That said, I have learned so much from this thread, which is full of comments that are both smarter and better informed than the original article. yay metafilter.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:25 PM on May 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buck: MattD does have a point, though; because the increased minimum wage has driven up the cost of labor in sectors dependent upon minimum-wage labor, no one is opening any new restaurants in Seattle.

I just wanted to point out that this is not true.

As for everyone's discussion about why Occupy "failed", I think there is a lot more to it than any of you are getting at. I do believe that Jo Freeman's essay on the Tyranny of Structurelessness is appropriate, and that a lot of the GAs didn't stand up to muster when it came down to decision making in terms of what the occupation wanted to accomplish. On the flip side, when it came to creating an infrastructure at the parks (or at least at Occupy Portland) it did work. They netted out duties to people to clean up certain areas, networking in order to bring food in, create a safe area of the park to have the food at, waste clean up, and general security, which was especially important considering how many homeless people there were congregating there (moreso than had been at the park before). One thing I personally think Occupy failed at was you had a lot of voices wanting an alternative lifestyle and they attempted to create that lifestyle at the park without any sort of ability to articulate and design the lifestyle. They did believe in feeding the homeless, showing up to voice your concerns, egalitarian consensus on decisions, community involvement, and many other things, but these were all different visions that had their places elsewhere (and again, this was probably endemic to Portland's occupation, not sure about anywhere else). The real message of Occupy Wall Street was income inequality, and right now we have a lot of people who are excited for Bernie Sanders when that was not even a thought years ago. We also have major cities talking about hiking up the minimum wage to $15/hr and the president was talking about making the federal minimum wage be $10.10/hr. These are all things that came about from Occupy. Likewise, it started the ball rolling on discussing America's militarized police forces, especially after seeing the coordinated shut down of the occupations. So while certain things at Occupy failed, the movement itself is incredibly successful when you consider that a few years later we're looking at a presidential candidate that wants to punish Wall Street (with a lot of the population incredibly excited about him), we have been having a continuous, years-long, nationwide dialog about income inequality, and to top it off we have people in office making changes toward these goals that came about all those years ago. There are also a lot of smaller things that came from Occupy, like groups that fought against foreclosures so people wouldn't lose their homes, groups who didn't know each other and joined to protest other things regionally and/or locally (lots of environment stuff for those), and people who attempted to run for office and may or may not have won, but got their feet wet anyway and may have gotten their voice heard so they could maybe win in the future, and people who formed groups at colleges in order to enact change there (tuition hikes, pay, etc.)

I think the most important thing about Occupy though is that it got a LOT of people in their early-mid 20's (and younger/older) to think more critically about things going on around them, especially in regards to politics and economics. These people are the future, they're the ones who are going to vote. Not everyone has grown up in a liberal family or a liberal environment where there were protests like these against the Iraq war and stuff. For a lot of people this was the first major protest they've ever witnessed or taken part in. My ex-girlfriend and her brother went to the huge 2003 protests in Portland, while I was living in Phoenix, AZ at the time, and so she was use to seeing things like this. I, on the other hand, had never seen or been to a protest before, and as far as I knew they weren't really something that happened except during the civil rights era, and in nations far away. For me personally, going to Occupy was a game changer in my life, and I'll never forget it. When I tell friends of mine stories about it they're blown away, because they didn't have the chance to go see it when it happened, or the protests that happened afterward.
posted by gucci mane at 1:28 PM on May 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


But Quakers, especially here in the midwest where I live, are a remarkably homogenous people with a comprehensive set of shared values. We value process over product; one of the very best business meetings I've ever been part of ended with us minuting our failure to achieve unity.

I think it's really important for us to have an understanding of when homogenousness is a virtue and when it's a flaw, because I think we often default to "all the people who thought differently left the organization and that's bad" instead of asking about the organization's purpose and the exact nature of the diversity sought.

Bad emphasis on "diversity" might be:
1. We have both TERFs and non-TERFs running this feminist drop-in center!
2. We have white people in our POC-consciousness-raising group!
3. We have people running this volunteer bookstore who believe that we need to foreground the work of authors of color, and people who think that's PC thuggery!

Basically, there are groups where everyone needs to share some core values if you're not going to be wasting all your time fighting about just which women can come in to the drop-in center or whether it's legit to organize POC-only events. I would argue that there are some finer-grained values things that you also need to get on the same page about in many small organizations - if you have an organizational culture where you really want to support parent participants, for instance, you just can't have a lot of people who feel really free to express how much they hate noisy babies, etc.

Good emphasis on diversity:
1. Racial/class/gender/sexuality/etc diversity in projects that call for it, particularly projects that seek to organize or support diverse groups.
2. Ideological diversity in large projects that are either only broadly ideological (you don't need to be a socialist to volunteer at the free library or work at the Accounting Assistance project) or that are intentionally seeking to hammer out a new approach. For instance - I don't want to work in a project that is strongly marxist in outlook and practice, and I don't think the marxists want me there either; but I would have no objection to working in a project that is loosely organized around broad marxist concerns. I think it's okay for strongly ideologized projects to be strongly ideologized; if I ever want to volunteer at the marxist bookstore, I'm not going to go and demand that it start being anarchist instead.
3. Approach diversity in long-term/big projects - you don't want to drive people out of your church group over some temporary issue or one aspect of a project just because they don't especially like that one thing.
posted by Frowner at 1:49 PM on May 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


I just wanted to point out that this is not true.

I thought You Can't Tip a Buick was making a dry joke at MattD's expense, considering that no one said "Oh the businesses I weep" and the statement itself linked to a page full of new restaurants in Seattle.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:54 PM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


So she was actually trying to crowdfund Army veterans to be her nonviolence army

The Spirit of '32 is alive!
posted by Panjandrum at 1:54 PM on May 27, 2015


Not sure where the consensus=democratic decision-making meme comes from. There's nothing particular democratic about consensus. Deliberation + voting among a diverse group (cognitively diverse for better decisions, demographic diversity for better justice; cognitive and demographic diversity are well-correlated) produces great outcomes and is fundamentally more democratic than a typical consensus process. Helene Landemore's research might not be a bad place to start when thinking about the benefits of "democratic reason."

helenelandemore.com/publications.html
posted by MetalFingerz at 1:57 PM on May 27, 2015


Consensus always makes me bring up the 4 years of hell in our co-op house because (eventually) everyone agreed that this one guy had to move out... except him. So he stayed, and the house was almost destroyed by the fighting and the legal wrangling.

It (finally) took a judge five minutes to inform us that they didn't care whether or not we thought we were run by consensus, we were legally a corporation, so majority ruled and that guy had to leave.

I came out of that experience with a new respect for non-consensus democracy.
posted by ldthomps at 2:05 PM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Consensus-building processes are also popular among some of the elite, according to these profs from the Harvard management program.
posted by eviemath at 2:27 PM on May 27, 2015


Although I typically like Jacobin a great deal […] I think the 1) anarchist-baiting and 2) use of "theology" as a scare term really weakened what could have otherwise been a great (rather than just pretty good) article

For what little it's worth, the Kauffman article originated in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, not Jacobin; they're just republishing it. (I think the rest of your characterizations are pretty off base too, but whatever, it's not really worth non-consensing over.)

posted by RogerB at 2:30 PM on May 27, 2015


There are a lot of different ways that consensus can be done. Some involve blocks by individuals or small groups. Some preemptively privilege voices from disadvantaged groups, in a variety of potential ways. In another corner are mixed processes that use consensus building to a certain point but then make final decisions by vote, by benevolent dictator, etc. Consensus based processes can have better outcomes, in my experience, but are more sensitive to the ability level of the moderator than, eg, more formalized parliamentary procedures.

There are, as Frowner points out, some preconditions that can affect the effectiveness of attempts at consensus based processes. The less cohesive a group is initially, the more foundational work is needed initially, as Frowner and corb both point out, and as the authors of my link above describe with the phrase "go slow to go fast".
posted by eviemath at 2:36 PM on May 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Regarding the fpp article itself, I think it made some points about inclusivity in the process that are important to consider. I note that, despite decrying an alleged lack of evidence for effectiveness of consensus on behalf of its proponents, the article didn't cite any hard data to back its assertions either. I would have appreciated having some resources to follow up on the concerns raised around inclusivity and to study the alternative processes used by other groups.

I note that horizontal decision-making, though perhaps not a Quaker-style consensus process, is central to poor people's movements around the globe, eg. as described in Broke but Unbroken.
posted by eviemath at 2:43 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anecdata ahoy!

If consensus has failed, someone needs to tell my solidarity union. For the past couple years now, we have made virtually every decision based on consensus, from how we run an organizing campaign down to the exact text we use in a Facebook post. And it works. Because we're not taking the narrow, strawman definition of consensus, i.e., "everyone agrees 100% about 100% of the thing" but the far more workable "nobody disagrees so much that they would walk away from a proposed act altogether".

I have worked in activist circles where there was some form of vanguard, official or otherwise, and that shit is tedious. It is boring. It leads to a lot of resentment and fracturing. Egos - through charm or overbearingness - can definitely play their role in a consensus-based decision making process, but it's sooo much easier to put those people back in their chairs when they don't have some leadership title, and just by someone reminding the group, "hey, we're a consensus-based org here". The result? More people happy (or happy enough) with an action, a stronger sense of unity behind said action, and a stronger general sense of solidarity within the group at large. You don't have to split off and form your own faction because the Chairman or the Council disagrees with you and won't bend, because there isn't any chairman or inner circle; there is still room for your ideas, and you're listened to and included.

"We need hierarchies to *~get things done~*" is just as much a myth as economies are naturally market based or children need a male and female parent to be guided right. I've lived through the hierarchical and consensus-based models of direct action, and could not imagine going back to a hierarchy now.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 4:16 PM on May 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


Well yes, seeing as the definition of the Athenian polity excluded the majority of the Athenian population - something that is always left out when Athenian democracy is brought up.

Amen. I have a friend who always harps on this "we just need to go back to basics of democracy... like the Athenians!" trope all the time. It's so silly to base one's political ideology on a situation in which 1) the majority of the population is enslaved 2) doing backbreaking subsistence agricultural labor. Is that a pitch that is really going to sell anyone when revealed for what it is? It's just a refusal to deal with the modern world, IMHO.

Anyways, about Occupy...

Occupy was essentially a movement where people came together in public squares in outrage over the economic situation and agreed not to discuss politics. That is one of the reasons that the movement could last for so long -- or, really, even exist in the first place. Any concrete discussion of "what should our demands be?" would split the people assembled in the squares. They didn't want to do that, therefore Occupy was "prefiguration," "you need to be here to understand it," "we have no leaders! we are all leaders! we have no demands" and all the rest of it.

The legacy of Occupy is complicated, all the more so since it had distinct manifestations in different geographical locations. Nevertheless, I think it did expose many people to public life in a way that they had not contemplated before, as some are describing in this thread. And it did create the inequality meme in public consciousness, for whatever that's worth (my read: not much). Aside from that, however, I find it difficult to salvage positive consequences from Occupy. People that argue the contrary often sound to me as if they're singing that Lion King song: "It lives in you... it lives in me..." -- it comes across as very mystical. Are there concrete political efforts that were spawned out of the death of Occupy? I'm sure there were a few, but as far as a generalized successor, so far as I know, the answer to that question is no.

The failure of Occupy to get any tangible political wins was built into its very structure. That is why many, including myself, came away from it with a very skeptical attitude towards consensus, horizontalism, prefigurative politics and all the other fellow traveling philosophies that were dominant at Occupy. (Here I essentially agree with Jodi Dean's critiques of Occupy.)

An alternative political organizing model that many have mentioned here is democratic centralism, usually associated with Leninist parties. Without giving a full-throated defense of it, I will say that its history and practice is much more complicated than many appreciate (see, for instance, Lars Lih's book and commentary on it). Many Leninist parties have very different interpretations of what it even means. In any event, I think anyone that fancies themselves on the activist left needs to be open to considering approaches that avoid some of the pitfalls that ensnared Occupy.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 4:35 PM on May 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Apologies if I'm reading too much into a link to a Haymarket book that's blurbed by a bunch of ISO members, but I think maybe the crux of the disagreement here is over whether the strategy of building capacity and studying the bolsheviks while waiting for The Right Moment to set up workers' councils is ultimately worth more than what's resulted from Occupy.

For my part I find studying the Russian Revolution to be maybe not the best use of time and think the Messianic version of The Revolution espoused in certain Leninist organizations reflects an idea/ideal of historical progression that seems unproductively teleological / old-fashioned. In practical terms, seen against the results yielded by the "hurry up and wait" approach militated for by certain Leninist organizations, Occupy — both the big smashup party in the streets and the slow growing organizations run by people who met during that party — seems like it was an overwhelming success.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:16 PM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


"We need hierarchies to *~get things done~*" is just as much a myth as economies are naturally market based or children need a male and female parent to be guided right. I've lived through the hierarchical and consensus-based models of direct action, and could not imagine going back to a hierarchy now.

My response to this would be "you probably have hierarchy, you don't see it as such." Hierarchy is a naturally-occurring feature of life as a social animal.
posted by lodurr at 5:48 PM on May 27, 2015


Hierarchy is a naturally-occurring feature of life as a social animal.

Eh. Much group behavior in nature - from slime mold movement to the "V" formation of migrating geese - is an emergent phenomenon of purely non-hierarchical drivers. One can find many examples of hierarchical organization in the natural world as well. My understanding is that some of our primate and social mammalian cousins have non-hierarchical social structures, while others have hierarchical social structures. Doesn't mean that either one is either "natural" or necessary in human group decision-making processes, and an appeal to natural order is generally not terribly relevant when it comes to more complex human social structures and interactions regardless.
posted by eviemath at 6:16 PM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


AFAICS you have to redefine "hierarchy" in some pretty interesting ways to make sense of the idea that social species can ever possibly have non-hierarchical social structures. Their societies have structures. That's pretty much it. The hierarchies may not be primarily vertical, and they may not organize into stable forms, but they exist.

Instead of arguing over whether there's a hierarchy, they should work on realizing that hierarchies have different meanings in different contexts. In a human context, they become about more than what they are originally about. As animal societies and brains get less complex, there's less symbolic abstraction, and less emotional layering, so the hierarchies become much more straightforward.

Put another way, we make them about ego. Horses make them about reproduction.

Anyway, I'm not appealing to a 'natural' state. I'm saying that evidence from the natural world (not to mention my own experience) suggests in almost any case where people think there's no hierarchy in their culture, they're wrong.
posted by lodurr at 6:32 PM on May 27, 2015


I think maybe the crux of the disagreement here is over whether the strategy of building capacity and studying the bolsheviks while waiting for The Right Moment to set up workers' councils is ultimately worth more than what's resulted from Occupy.

Yes, in short, the question of strategy.

I share some of your misgivings about Leninist groups, but on the other hand, Occupy-style efforts don't seem like a great way to win any battles.

On the question of traditional "Leninism" (which is exactly what Lih's book challenges), I think it is possible to learn from historical experience while rejecting the portions of socialist ideology that clearly didn't pan out (perhaps what you refer to as teleology?). Here's perhaps a better way of stating it (from a review of Lih's book written by a Solidarity member):
Lih’s biography is both an excellent introduction to Lenin’s and a provocative interpretation that will challenge those familiar with his life and work. But revolutionaries trying to create a socialism for the 21st century also need to ask “what is living and what is dead” in Lenin’s political legacy?

To be blunt, there is little of “Leninism” as a theory an invention of Bolshevik leaders Zinoviev, Bukharin and Stalin after Lenin’s death in 1924 that remains viable. Lenin was, by his own admission, a Kautskyan an advocate of the Marxism of the Second International before World War One. Since the Second World War, growing segments of the anti-Stalinist revolutionary left have rightly rejected Kautsky’s belief in the inevitability of socialism as the result of the continued degradation of the working class under capitalism. Instead, they understand that while capitalist crises intensify class struggle, the outcome of the class struggle depends upon the organization and activity of growing layers of the working class acting independently of the reformist bureaucracies of the unions and social democratic political parties.

While there is little of Lenin’s theory with the exception of State and Revolution and Left-Wing Communism that is either original or of enduring value, the practice of the Bolsheviks through 1917 remains relevant. While revolutionaries in the capitalist democracies today live in societies fundamentally different from early 20th century Russia and do not have to create clandestine, illegal organizations, the experience of the fusion of revolutionary socialism with rank and file worker leaders and the creation of workers’ political and economic organizations independent of the forces of official reformism (union officials and reformist political leaders) remains of enduring importance for contemporary socialists.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 6:52 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hierarchies are, definitionally, vertical structure, not horizontal structure or other types of structure. Did you mean something else that I am misunderstanding, lodurr?
posted by eviemath at 7:17 PM on May 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


The US military didn't design the Internet; they just paid for (the beginning of) it.

The US Military didn't do that.

The US Government Agency that runs the US Military did. There is a VERY big difference between the two. The Secretary of Defense is not a member of the US Military, yet they basically run it as the designated agent of the Commander in Chief.
posted by eriko at 8:24 PM on May 27, 2015


Why do people keep saying this? It's starting to creep me out. The occupy protests were put down by police raids. We saw this on the news. Calling that "fizzled out" is some Orwellian rewriting of history right there. Like do you seriously believe what you just said? How did you come to that conclusion?

I was a livestreamer on the streets of Oakland during Occupy.

I sat through the circle-jerk GAs.

I have stood between the imported lines Team Vader in their armor on one side and the fucking black-hoodie-mob hiding behind their fucking garbage-can-shields throwing paint bombs, all the while announcing "Live from the streets of Oakland, CA..."

Occupy "fizzled out" because the middle class types who were interested (and I saw THOUSANDS march on the Port of Oakland in protest) got fucking fed up with the bullshit knuckleheads and professional anarchists who saw movement purity and "being radical" as more important that making strategic progress.

I watched and filmed the attendance slip away week after week until it was just the frothing mad-folk chanting "ACAB!!!!!". And eventually, even some of the frothers walked away.

The port march happened in response to police brutality and Scott Olsen getting shot in the face by OPD while standing up as US Marine veteran.

If there was a concrete goal and plan and demands and someone standing up and saying "This is how were gonna get what we want..." people would have responded. Oakland has a DEEP reservoir of radical impulse that goes back decades.

The fucking silliness and masturbatory bullshit and outright manipulation of the "consensus process" is a HUGE part of why most of the middle class support for Occupy Oakland turned their back on the movement.

They were willing to stand up against OPD's fucking bullshit. They were willing, AFTER the assault on the camp, to say "NO!" by marching in the streets and shutting down one of the busiest ports on the West Coast.

They just weren't willing to waste their fucking time with the "Revolution LARP" motherfuckers who were more concerned with hunting snitches and confronting the cops than formulating a plan with goals.

Anarchism in America is a roleplaying game, and Oaklanders aren't willing to square off against OPD for a fucking roleplaying game.

Whatever happened at your Occupy, that's absofuckinglutely what happened in Oakland.

Fuck consensus, both the assholes who abuse the process, and the fucking kumbaya assholes who fucking believe in it, because they make shit worse.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:28 PM on May 27, 2015 [15 favorites]


what i'm taking away after following this thread for a week is that workable consensus is possible (see comments up-top, especially from quakers), but it's so hard that in practice it usually devolves into manipulative power games.

I'm torn, because while I could sit here all day listing examples from my own experience of cases where consensus processes were manipulated for political ends, I have also seen the "rough consensus" process that eriko & others have described work very well.
posted by lodurr at 10:26 AM on June 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


lodurr, the book I linked describes a consensus-based or consensus-building approach that is not so much the Quaker model, and includes case studies.

My own experience is that consensus-based processes don't devolve into power struggles at any greater rate than any other processes for running meetings or group decision-making.
posted by eviemath at 9:39 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'd say the problem isn't rate, but how badly the process can be broken by bad actors. It's pretty clear that one of the requirements of a consensus based system is that you need the people involved to work in good faith with the system, and that it's more vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:42 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]




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