Is Consensus just a rural thing?

Tuesday, 27th March 2007 at 9:00 UTC 1 comment

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.

Entry filed under: Activism, Culture, democracy, Free Space, Freedom, Indigenous Rights, Participation, Politics, Workers.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jonathan  |  Wednesday, 28th March 2007 at 10:29 UTC


    first, your analysis of the group is WAY off:
    – we’re Reading Grassroots Action (RGA) now, not RAGE, as we felt that the old name was more evocative of whiny “rebellious” teenagers than a serious political group.
    – we’re not an anarchist group – anarchism is probably the most common philosophy followed by those who choose to identify with one, but that isn’t everyone, and we made a deliberate choice from the start not to be purely anarchist.
    – I am the only one from RGA who went to the climate camp so I don’t see how you can infer any group view from that.
    – we have a broad focus, towards grassroots action and community resistance rather than any one target. we haven’t done more “workers struggle” activity than any other (ecological, anti-fascist, international solidarity) – and to be honest I find the distinction to be a false one (I don’t want a glorious workers’ revolution to inherit a smoking crater in the ground, ergo, eco struggles are workers’ struggles)

    as for consensus…

    another point you missed in the above is that we haven’t stopped using consensus per se – what we have done however is give ourselves a fallback position. proposals are made, discussed, debated, and asked for consensus; if consensus fails, we discuss some more, and so on, in the same way as many other groups. if the discussion appears to be deadlocked, and progress seems impossible, THEN we take a vote – and require a certain percentage (I think 75%) in favour before things are passed.

    so we haven’t stopped using consensus, we just use an adapted method.

    as to why…

    to be honest, IMO most of the arguments in favour of consensus work only at a very superficial level. taking the ones at the end of your post:

    majority rule means minority suffering

    This is true. Majority voting does not mean majority rule, however. Similarly, consensus does not prevent this. if anything, I find it more oppressive, in that to oppose a consensus you have to either block the decision altogether or “stand aside”, which is generally meaningless.

    consensus prevents groups controlling the structure and ensures isolated individuals are still engaged

    No it doesn’t. It ensures that those who are the best at talking are able to dictate the structure of the meeting. this is a problem with groups in general and I haven’t seen consensus do anything to mitigate the problem.

    consensus decisions are much less likely to need pro-actively enforcing, as everyone agreed in the first place.

    Which has the counter-point that the group is less likely to ensure people carry out their tasks, making it easy for people to agree with something without actually giving a fuck or doing anything to deal with it.

    there’s a psychological concept called groupthink which IMO applies to groups in general, but consensus in particular. basically the idea is, in a given group people will have a strong sense of “the group feeling” and often subordinate themselves to that feeling – the “if everyone else agrees I don’t feel I can block” mindset. what this can result in is decisions being made which no one individual is completely behind, but “the group” mutually reassures itself that this is the right thing to do and so the wrong decision is carried out. See Wikipedia on Groupthink for more info.

    This is something I come across a lot (within myself as well as within groups) – people seeing consensus as a target in itself and so being unwilling to do things that would cause conflict, break consensus, etc. even if they personally have objections to it.

    the result of this is that people give consensus purely to avoid having to stand against the group dynamic, but do not actually agree with them, resulting in all kinds of problems. I often find the consensus “group dynamic” infinitely more oppressive than majority voting situations in that it’s much easier to raise a vote against a decision than to have to give a complete veto on it.

    I don’t see consensus as being in any way more democratic than majority voting – nor less, for that matter. the issue is not the decision making method but the group which is using it, and IMO many problems arise because people come with a pre-set idea of the “most democratic” way to make decisions and try to shoehorn it into a group rather than look at the group itself and find the most effective way to reflect its mood.

    the rural argument is an interesting one, particularly in that it points out the problem of people trying to transpose tactics without regard to context. the “it worked in Chiapas, it must work here!” mindset that doesn’t take into account peoples’ backgrounds, life experience, etc. is flawed and leads to all kinds of problems.

    and don’t get me fucking started on the hand signals.

    – Jonathan


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