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.