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The Tyranny of Consensus (for Richmond Activists)

This article has provides some food for thought concerning how activist meetings are run. In my experience, there's some reality running through this thing. It may seem like I'm indicting FNB's organizing methods by sharing this publicly, but I'm not. FNB gets a lot done and this might help us progress further. Specificly, it might help those of us that use consensus to use it better and how to deal with complications when they arise. Print it off. Share it with a friend.
The Tyranny of Consensus
by M. Treloar

originally printed in Clamor Magazine #20 (May/June 2003)\

When election results were reported in Iraq in mid-October, 2002, it became clear that President Hussein could have taught President George W. Bush a few tricks about stuffing the ballot boxes. All 11,445,638 eligible voters stood by their Saddam. By definition, consensus had been reached.

No sane organization from anti-war or activist circles in the U.S. stood up at the time to defend those results as either democratic or honest. Yet the process by which most meetings are conducted in those same circles is as un-democratic as the charade that was conducted in Iraq.

We are referring to 'consensus process'. It is the current practice of the anti-war and anti-globalization movements and other progressive and radical organizations on this continent.

Many Clamor readers will recognize this scene, whether they have experienced it in a black bloc of five crusty punks trying to figure out how to attack a line of police or at a gathering of hundreds of well-dressed and respectable Green Party members trying to craft a resolution to Congress. The group gathers, a proposal is put before the body, and someone interjects, we have to use consensus process.

In its purest and most common form, it requires that all members of the meeting agree with the proposal. Those who do not agree are usually given a few options: They may block, or stop the proposal. Or they may step aside, which means that they will not stop the proposal. Or they may withdraw from the process altogether. Finally, they may attempt to come up with a new proposal that will win the approval of the entire meeting. (We are using here the model outlined in Starhawk's Resources for Activism web site. All quotes will be from it, unless otherwise cited. Most models in use are a variation of this, rather than the tedious Handbook on Formal Consensus or similar books, which are rarely used. My admiration for Starhawk's work does not change this critique.)

Consensus process is undemocratic. It is unwieldy. It is usually time-consuming. It is easily subject to the whims of the facilitator. It is frequently just another tool of manipulation when white activists work with communities of color.

Consensus process seems designed to promote disruption of meetings by individuals. In the last few months, the author of this article has seen a meeting of thirty people organizing against state repression brought to a halt by one person, new to consensus process, who invoked a principled block. In yet another meeting, this one to decide the fate of Copwatch in Portland, four experienced pacifist organizers kept a meeting of community organizers and activists stalled for a full four hours, merely by blocking and refusing to recognize the clearly stated mandate which had been apparent to everyone in the room in the first half-hour.

The first meeting had abysmal facilitation, with people tossing the task around the room like a hot potato; the second meeting had skillful facilitators, widely respected in the community, who hung in till the end. Yet no matter how skilled the facilitator, the flaws embedded in consensus process allow an individual or minority to dominate the outcome of any meeting.

The Myths of Consensus

When large groups of otherwise rational people continue to engage in an activity without a gun held to their head, it is because they believe in the practice or because they believe in the myths surrounding the practice.

Consensus process on the North American continent is surrounded and supported by a number of myths. Let's examine them.

The Myth of Seattle: This is What Democracy Doesn't Look Like

It is still the case, for better or worse, that many practices get over because what they did in Seattle. The successful protests of the World Trade Organization's meetings in Seattle in December 1999, mark an important point in activist and anarchist organizing on this continent. It is also true that consensus decision-making was attempted in meetings of hundreds of people and affinity clusters leading up to the actions that shut down the WTO.

But forgotten in this myth are the numerous cases when facilitators and meetings threw out consensus process in order to accomplish what was necessary.

One meeting on the evening of Wednesday, December 2, 1999 at the convergence space in Seattle illustrates this. A battle was going on outside on the streets of Capitol Hill, where the police invaded with pepper spray, tear gas, and batons. Inside the space hundreds of people representing the remnants of many of the affinity groups that had seized the downtown a day earlier, along with the Peoples\'d5 Assembly and Seattle youth, were attempting to figure out what to do next. The mayor of Seattle had declared a state of emergency and any marches downtown would risk mass arrest.

While the facilitators skillfully attempted to keep hundreds of people on topic, people choking from the tear gas outside came into the meeting with what proved to be false reports that the police were coming to attack the space. Calls of we've got to take the whole meeting to the streets arose.

In consensus process as it is supposed to be practiced, the affinity group representatives who wanted to take the whole meeting to the streets would have been considered to be blocking any proposals then on the floor and urging a counter-proposal.

In reality, what happened was that the facilitators correctly let security deal with the rumors and ignored the proposal to take the meeting outside.

A decision was reached to surround the jail the next day, which helped to break the mayor\'d5s ban and put thousands of people in the streets for the rest of the week. Other proposals, which had no support beyond one or two affinity groups, such as an insistent one that everyone should go out and clean up the anti-corporate graffiti put up on corporate Seattle during the seizure of the downtown, were similarly ignored. The facilitators simply refused to acknowledge that these proposals had been made.

This was not consensus process. If the blocks had been recognized, we would likely still be meeting, three years on.

The Myth of Anarchy

A number of anarchists and non-anarchists seem to believe consensus process comes from the theory and practice of anarchy. A recent AP story about anarchists cobbled consensus together with dumpster-diving, the black bloc, and Chomsky. Yet, no one ever cites any of the major theorists of anarchism as the source of consensus process. They can't.

None of the records of the International Anarchist Congress of 1907, for example, show the use of consensus process. Instead, an account of the Congress, which featured speeches by Emma Goldman and Errico Malatesta, among others, states, "These motions having been read out in French, Dutch and German, a vote was held." Several measures failed. Several passed unanimously.

The Spanish National Confederation of Labor (CNT), which is frequently held forth as a model by modern social anarchists, didn't hesitate to vote. In 1919, the year that it unanimously endorsed libertarian communist principles, it rejected two structural motions. The first was defeated; the second fell 651,472 to 14,008.

Love and Rage, the last attempt to forge a national anarchist grouping in the U.S., did not function by consensus process.

It is only in the last 20 years that consensus process has appeared as a given among anarchist circles in North America. Food Not Bombs has been a source of spreading the new gospel. For them, anarchism and consensus go together like hot vegan soup and a good day-old bagel.

But before those good folks, the first major use of consensus process in radical circles was in the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance of the 1970s. In those gatherings, consensus process was introduced from Quaker pacifist tradition, a notion that would horrify many non-religious and non-pacifist anarchists.

The Myth of Inclusivity

A major ideal of consensus process has always been: (our emphasis) people to be able to express themselves in their own words and of their own will.

The tedious nature of consensus process and much of the foo foo associated with it has the effect of driving away the very people who most desire democracy and social change.

People who have homework, one or two jobs, children or elderly parents to deal with, lovers to kiss, meals to make and eat or all of the above are not eager for five hour meetings, especially when two hours would accomplish the same goals.

Anyone who has ever seen a group of young, usually white activists begin to practice consensus process with all of its frills in meetings where mainly working class or poor people are present has undoubtedly witnessed a lot of "What the fuck?" looks being exchanged. Dropping a whole new culture, with coded words such as "vibes-watcher" and secret signals, such as "twinkling" (waggling fingers to indicate assent), into discussions that affect people's lives, is one reason though not the only one that some well-meaning activists never get invited back to meet with "real" people.

Here are recent scenes from Portland: A white anti-globalization activist explaining to an African American community organizer at a meeting against police brutality that clapping was "violent" and voting was "competitive." A neo-liberal Democratic female mayor, noted defender of the same police who routinely shoot Black and Latino men, threatening to remove those who clap at public City Council meetings and instead, asking that the audience "twinkle."

There is also a notion embedded in consensus process that everyone will eventually agree if they talk about it long enough. This premise comes as a complete and unpleasant surprise to many groups with roots sunk in the working class or communities of color. Allowing meetings where any one or two individuals, including the police who are sent to infiltrate, can outweigh the wishes of hundreds of community members seems suicidal to these groups. Organizations that have learned by painful experience that there are clear divisions in society have also learned that no group in history has ever given up its wealth or power through consensus process.

So Why Consensus?\

It's easy to see why consensus process was invented as an alternative and why it has such appeal to young anti-globalization or peace or environmental activists. Most of those who invoke it have attended meetings where Robert's Rules of Order
was used or misused to bludgeon minority blocs or even majority groups that are challenging the status quo. Anyone who has seen an organization or meeting split because of a 50 percent-plus-one vote being enforced and leading to suppression of the minority would want a less divisive process. Anyone who has borne the brunt of tedious, long-winded harangues (usually from men) will want a more disciplined, yet inclusive process.

Democracy is not easy. Nor is it only enforceable by a written set of rules, despite our need for those. Robert's Rules of Order, as any who has taken time to study their history would know, arose as an attempt to prevent "the uselessness of attending meetings which began late and dragged on overbearing chairmen and ruthless small cliques."

What Does Democracy Look Like?

But the alternative to Robert's Rules of Order being strictly enforced should not be a system where a clear minority must withdraw a sincerely held position in order not to obstruct action. Often minorities are proven right by the course of history. Allowing their position and vote to stand while a majority vote determines the group's action is a workable alternative in many cases.

Some simple steps are in order for our movements. In the Bay Area and elsewhere, anarchists and other activists have undertaken to train decent facilitators for their meetings. Recognizing the importance of this skill, which can be learned by those willing to do so, is a first step for any serious movement. Many of the techniques advocated by consensus process are worth preserving, such as those which call first upon people who have not spoken to go ahead of those who would speak incessantly.

But if the facilitators are learning a basically flawed model, even a great facilitator won\'d5t be able to preserve democracy.

Many activist organizations have recently been driven to chuck out the model of pure consensus process that this article has criticized. They are moving to a much more realistic model where an attempt is made to reach consensus. Once that fails, as it frequently does, the group moves to a vote, setting a threshold of three-fourths or 80 percent in some groups.

This model recognizes that the goal of most activist groups is action. The minority is allowed to retain their position without apology and is also guaranteed a record of their position.

Some have suggested different rules for affinity groups and collectives, which typically are small in number and demand a high degree of unity, versus organizations or coalitions, which may be hundreds or tens of thousands in number and demand less unity. If a group of five people is risking arrest or injury or prison together, then consensus makes perfect sense, as does the ability of one person to block an action. When two or three or more lovers are trying to work out their relationship, few of us would suggest taking a vote.

But when five thousand people are busting to go out on strike, then allowing five dissenters or fifty to stop it makes no sense. As those of us who have gone through such struggles know, the possibility of victory recedes fast when there is only a simple majority. It is a legitimate and not simple question to ask what should be done when there is no super-majority available, when there are 55 percent in favor, 40 percent against and 5 percent completely undecided. Different organizations will choose different thresholds for decision-making. Starting off with an absurd standard of total agreement will guarantee only frustration or defeat.

None of the uprisings and organizing of the past that we honor would have occurred if they had used consensus process. Whether it was the Stonewall Rebellion, the Selma bus boycotts, the Flint sit-down, the Underground Railroad, the storming of the Bastille or the high school student walkouts and sleep-ins that are happening in Portland as this is being written, we can be certain of a few things. In order to accomplish those efforts, people argued, they probably prayed and cried and, with their back to the wall, decided to act. But they didn't wait for consensus.

It is time to face this reality if we wish to change society completely.


This essay was written as the U.S. prepares to invade Iraq. Opposing the U.S. empire in words and deeds does not mean we have to be blind to oppression elsewhere.

The title honors Jo Freeman's useful work, "The Tyranny of Structurelessness."
This piece came out of discussions with Heather Ajani of Phoenix Copwatch and Bring the Ruckus. Joel Olson, also of those two groups, contributed major insights. Thanks to the Cobras and E.J., who corrected my grammar and watched over me in Seattle.

The anarchist history came from No Gods, No Masters, an essential work by Daniel Guerin.

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