Brief Note on Consensus

For those who don’t know, formal and quasi-formal consensus are approaches to decision-making in which every participant has to agree before a decision can be made. Like majority voting, there are a number of mechanics designed to facilitate the process, and others to make it work with larger and larger groups. It’s standard for U.S. anarchists, and widely adopted in some form by other activists, community organizers, etc. Advocates tend to argue that, while mechanics may differ, consensus is the only fully non-coercive principle to guide decision-making, and that anything else (i.e. majority voting, vanguardism, technocratic bureaucracy) has to rely at some point on the threat of force.

I want to respond to a common criticism of consensus, that it simply legitimates coercion by not institutionalizing the power of certain individuals (leaders, representatives, etc.) or subgroups (the majority, elites) to have final say. Instead, these factions continue to influence things while hiding — even from themselves — behind the screen of total legitimacy. Note that this is the exact opposite of the Marxist criticism that anarchist consensus is individualistic, libertarian, and undisciplined. My own (limited) experience as a participant makes the latter hard to take seriously. The facilitators were constantly talking about consensus’s usefulness as a way to “get people out of their own heads” by forcing everyone to speak. The ‘free rider’ problem was reduced, as was the possibility of disclaiming a decision that had already been made — after all, ‘you’ were equally responsible for it.

So the idea that any of this is individualistic is a pretty unimaginative position, and an insult to the commitment of group members, without which the entire endeavor is sort of pointless. Far from being idealist, consensus organizing is deeply pessimistic — as with ‘appropriate technologies’ (another popular idea with activists) the point is to design structures that are resistant to abuse by the ambitious/insensitive/imbecilic. Anything that presupposes competent oversight, resistance to corruption, and a modest degree of human decency in order to function (monarchy, nuclear power plants, oil rigs, oligarchy, etc.) only justifies an elite who will inevitably ruin everything by taking responsibility from those more directly involved (the labor force, the citizenry, etc.).

Anyway, as someone who spends most of my time inside my own head, it quickly became clear that I was not fit for membership. But the accusation that consensus is hypocritical because it’s still ‘coercive’ seems in bad faith. Consensus decision-making is not utopian. It has features common to any form of deliberation: it’s boring, tedious, uncomfortable for introverts, and a lot of hard work. It’s only as effective as the ability of the people it empowers to work together, and their sensitivity to those who might be affected by their decisions. The definition of ‘coercive’ that tends to be assumed in this sort of disillusioned, skeptical critique I’m talking about only allows pure autonomous freedom to count as ‘non-coercive,’ and in that sense discounts itself. A bit like assuming (as lazier readers of Derrida and Bourdieu sometimes do) that vigorous disagreement is a kind of ‘violence’ comparable to punching someone in the face, or blowing up a bank. It is, of course, but this is just a banal truism unless the whole notion of violence is rethought. And that would necessitate rethinking ‘consensus’ apart from assumptions grounded in the idealist justifications (and everyday experience) of representative democracy.


8 Responses to “Brief Note on Consensus”

  1. anxiousmodernman Says:

    I share this attitude toward certain anarchist criticisms of so-called coercion that basically paint any decision that has effects beyond an individual’s skull as an illegitimate application of force. All the while I’m quite sympathetic to the libertarian view, I just can’t carry it on to this radicual end. I firmly believe, after a lot of time in my OWN skull, that there is a such thing as morally correct coercion of other people and things. When talking to libertarians, I’ve decided to go ahead and self-identify as a statist. This saves a lot of time, time I used to spend circling around that term.

    When you talk about appropriate technologies, you mean being open to the possibility of different modes of decision-making according to different situations, right? I’m a big proponent of that, even as I believe that consensus is a kind of ideal that we ought to begin with. Departures from consensus need to be justified rigorously, because the anarchist critique is a serious one.

  2. traxus4420 Says:

    hi again –

    appropriate technologies are technologies that are supposed to be more sensitive to their context, including things like wind power. stuff that (in theory anyway) can more readily adapt to local needs, doesn’t have as drastic of an impact whether things go right or wrong, etc. i’m not necessarily opposed to the state either (my sympathies are usually more marxist than anarchist, though that’s been changing) but as with any compromise it’s all in the details.

    “the possibility of different modes of decision-making according to different situations” is what consensus is supposed to do, but has its analogue in appropriate technologies.

  3. anxiousmodernman Says:

    I love this theory stuff. My identification of “technology” with processes of formal deliberation is probably a Freudian slip that I’d do well to own up to. ๐Ÿ™‚

    It is all in the details, but also all in the constraints. We can imagine time constraints in emergency situations where consensus might render worse results. For times like these, we could reach consensus on contingency plans, but also on some sort of vested ‘authority’ authorized to act, and, subsequently, accountable to the whole group.

    Call me an egalitarian liberal in the G.A. Cohen vein, then.

  4. jonesbeach Says:

    stuart hall has some interesting and similar thoughts on the dirtyness – and the fighting spirit – of the organizing movement in the late 80s against Thatcherism, etc. his point is like yours – that it is precisely the “in your faceness”, the inability to have a utopian consensus and live together in harmony, etc, that makes this kind of politics worth it… a vision of politics where everyone agrees (and moreover, everyone’s “identity” is aligned) is a bullshit one that won’t survive.

  5. traxus4420 Says:


    hey, thanks. i should have put this more strongly — anarchist consensus organizing, far from ensuring the success of the liberal dream of perfect utopian consensus, is actually its practical rebuttal. it is constant struggle, within procedural limits the basis of which is ethical rather than bureaucratic.

  6. I hereby punch your bank in the face. That’s right, I’m disagreeing with you…! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Actually, I think you have a fair point about the unfair criticisms of consensus. There are two things I’d like to hear more about, though. First, you talk in the beginning about consensus advocates who make an argument about consensus process being particularly useful or laudable. I’m not quite sure if this is what you’re referring to, but I’ve run into people who basically elevate use of consensus procedure to the level of a principle. That seems to me deeply mistaken. Second, you talk about how you decided you were not fit for membership. This is ambiguous; it follows immediately after a discussion of likely group dynamics tied to consensus process, with implications about how consensus shapes the groups and individuals who participate in it. In any case, is there a link between consensus process and your decision that you weren’t fit for membership?
    take care,

  7. traxus4420 Says:

    hi nate, thanks for commenting, sorry for the late response –

    “elevate use of consensus procedure to the level of a principle”

    i have encountered this too, and probably share your misgivings about it — but i haven’t talked about it with anyone who wasn’t willing to defend consensus on the basis of efficacy.

    the “not fit for membership” thing was a cop-out, it’s true. just felt i had to register my instinctual resistance to the pointed exclusion of certain kinds of ‘antisocial’ affects, attitudes, etc., even if it came off as coy or unsatisfactory in the post. i experienced it as a refusal on my part to repress my general tendency toward introversion, and with that the role i tend to perform in group situations, which is to play the detached, critical intellectual. and i’m really not sure if this reflects a basic immaturity on my part or not – no space for political deliberation can function without discipline of some sort.

  8. jimmie rodgers Says:

    “The Long Hot Summer
    seems to know everytime you’re near.
    And the sound of a breeze
    seems to stir all the trees
    and a bird wants to please my ear.
    The Long Hot Summer
    seems to know what a flirt you are.
    Seems to know your caress
    isn’t mine to possess.
    How could someone possess a star?


    …And meanwhile
    The Long Hot Summer
    slowly moves along.
    Oh so slowly moves along…”

    I think ‘The Long Hot Summer’ was the first Newman/Woodward film, it’s based on a Faulkner short story, but has some character names from the Trilogy, like ‘Eula Varner’, played here by Lee Remick, but no relation to the original character.

    Who’d have ever thought a LONG HOT SUMMER would be one’s favourite season to the point that one dreads the ending of a heat wave, that one would be upset that it’s already July 25. For real, man, for real.

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