Is Consensus just a rural thing?
I’ve been meaning to address this for a while. I’ve been finding lately that, with the exception of activist groups which are bringing Consensus into urban contexts, often with large difficulties, that Urban/Industrial-Worker groups will go for majority vote based decision making and Rural/Indigenous groups will go for consensus based decision making. While many claim consensus to be morally superior, is there a different factor in when it is and isn’t used?
This occurred to me most strongly when hearing that a group of anarchists in a city down south, with whom I’ve hung out a bit and done the odd action, have stopped using consensus in their meetings. For those who don’t know, consensus decision making means that no decision is made until everyone in the room is able to accept the proposal ‘on the table’. For many anarchists, its the only way of making a decision. But why does a split appear when considering the urban/rural difference in contexts which use either consensus or majority voting.
In December 2001, Argentinian workers rose up and declared that they wanted their country free of all politicians and capitalists, including all politicians who claimed to be able to get them out of the mess the capitalists created. Naomi Klein’s film, The Take, provides useful background information on this. Often idealised as a way of making the anti-revolution of the Zapatistas work in an urban-industrial context, it is interesting to note the use of majority voting rather than consensus in running the factories from day to day.
The Zapatistas make a big point of having consulted nearly 2 million indigenous people in order to undertake their claim of autonomy from the Mexican government. The consensus was to push ahead with the move. Admittedly, with 2 million people given a potential veto, its not surprising that they used a form of “consensus minus one”, counting a 98% vote of support as consensus. The local communities and autonomous districts are run through popular consensus; that is, everyone in the community takes part in deciding, by consensus, what is to happen.
The Argentinians are also using popular rule, though at a factory level. Every worker is entitled to vote on every decision. However, they only require a majority to make a binding decision. I’m left to wonder why this is.
One possibility is that these people have been used to the workings of a Union which has used majority rule for decision making, so consensus is a far fetched idea. The method of taking decisions in the Union has become the method of taking decisions in running the occupied factory.
Another possibility is the culture of timekeeping and the pace of life experienced by each group. Cities tend to move faster, factories tend to need to produce as much as possible, and often have clear deadlines. Villages have a very different situation, where life goes at a pace dictated by nature and people accept that not everything can happen immediately.
Either way its curious how this translates around the world. Nunavut is a province of Canada which has now been placed under first nations (aka indigenous) rule. The ruling council is made up of 14 (I think) councillors of equal standing who must make decisions by consensus. Again, its Indigenous and Rural (or maybe barren is a better term!).
Rage, the collective of Anarchists I referred to at the start, are based in a city context, and most of the members show more connection to workers struggles than to the radical ecological movement (though some do show more than others). They tend to get annoyed by the processes of, say, the Camp for Climate Action (which in 2006 attempted to shut down Drax Power Station), which uses Consensus as a point of principle.
While it may seem more principled to use consensus, the key trend in all my examples is towards radical open democracy: everyone can attend key meetings and make decisions. Perhaps there’s more to the choice between majority voting and consensus than the simple arguments normally given.
For those who don’t know, these are: majority rule means minority suffering, consensus prevents groups controlling the structure and ensures isolated individuals are still engaged, consensus decisions are much less likely to need pro-actively enforcing, as everyone agreed in the first place.
Perhaps more research into why different groups use the two different processes is needed before we judge one as morally higher than the other.