A brief history of consensus decision-making: Part 2

We covered a fair bit of ground in the first part of our tour of consensus past and present, but it was never going to be a complete survey of all movements and peoples who use consensus or consensus-like decision-making. So here’s a second installment. In it we look at

  • The Aymara people of Bolivia
  • The sociocracy movement, particularly the work of Kees Boeke
  • and the Movement for a New Society, who heavily influenced modern consensus

The Aymara

The most useful source I found beyond fleeting references to the Aymara and consensus was Emily Hedin’s paper Voices from the Bolivian Altiplano: Perspectives on empowerment amongst Aymara women. In it she quotes a local NGO worker as saying:

Photo: Micah MacAllen

“There are certain characteristics of Bolivian culture that make us distinct and give empowerment a different meaning. First, we see the community as an entire whole. Community includes everyone. The process of dialogue and consensus is important. Everyone participates in the decision-making process”

And then goes on to write:

Claims of consensus in community participation must not be accepted uncritically. In her study on indigenous politics, Van Cott (2010) warns that the tendency to depict indigenous communities as consensus-driven masks diversity and conflict among different unions, associations, and groups. Nonetheless this perception of community consensus building as an Aymara cultural trait emerged during interviews as women articulated their idea of empowerment as closely related to an already-existing tradition of collective action.

The everyculture website has a bit more to add:

Political Organization. In pre-Conquest time… the Aymara dominated the Andean highlands… The independence of these nations was lost as the Quechua-speaking Incas extended their influence, but on the local level little of Aymara life changed. Decision making in the traditional ayllu was of the consensus type. Leadership authority was executed by the jilaqata, chosen yearly among adult men according to a rotating system. In the new community organization, connected to the national governments, the headman is theoretically chosen by the subprefector in the provincial capital, but in practice he is often elected by his community members. He is merely the “foremost among equals,” and actual decisions are made by the reunión (assembly), where consensus is still a goal.

Once again we have a picture, like that of the Haudenosaunee or the San people, of leaders elected and held to account by the will of the wider community and not regarded as having power over, but borrowing power from. It’s not all perfect. everyculture suggest that there was a high level of gender equality in Aymara culture, but Hedin’s paper demonstrates the modern-day struggle of Aymara women to be heard and to be given leadership roles.

Kees Boeke and Sociocracy

From the high Andes to the low countries of the Netherlands. One of the books I’m currently reading is We the People: consenting to deeper democracy – a guide to Sociocratic principles and methods.

The book defines sociocracy as “simply a method for organising ourselves to live and work together more efficiently and more harmoniously. It can be used by one person, two persons, a corporation, a religious group, a neighbourhood association, or a whole community”

According to Socionet sociocracy is “The vision of sociocracy is a society in which all members are equivalent in their ability to consent to the conditions that govern their lives.”

We the People has a chapter on the history of sociocracy which started to grab my attention when it turned to Kees Boeke (1884-1966), Dutch educationalist and peace activist. He grew up in a Mennonite family and became a Quaker. Given the contribution of these two denominations to consensus perhaps it’s not surprising that he explored models of consent based decision-making and was unhappy with existing European democracies. In 1945 he published Sociocracy: Democracy As It Might Be. We the People quotes that text:

We are so accustomed to majority rule as a necessary part of democracy that it is difficult to imagine any democratic system working without it. It is true that it is better to count heads than to break them…but the party system has proved very far from providing the ideal democracies of people’s dreams

His adaptations of the ideas of sociocracy developed by his predecessors brought it much more in line with what I understand by consensus. He tested his theories in the school he founded, aiming to develop “a sociocratic environment to implement the values he felt would lead to a peaceful society and allow human beings to develop naturally. The school was self-governing community of almost 400 adults and children. He founded his work on Quaker practice:

There are three fundamental rules underlying the system. The first is that the interests of all members must be considered, the individual bowing to the interests of the whole. Secondly, solutions must be sought which everyone can accept: otherwise no action can be taken. Thirdly all members must be ready to act according to these decisions when unanimously made.

The Movement for a New Society (MNS)

I recently happened to come across Andrew Cornell’s article Anarchism and the Movement for a New Society on Anarchistnews.org (can’t remember how I got there, but thanks for the tip whoever it was that drew it to my attention). I’ve had a copy of an MNS publication on my bookshelf for many years – Resource Manual for a Living Revolution. It’s the nearest thing I have to a facilitation and group work bible. So it was great to read more about the work of MNS and draw out some of their contribution to consensus here. In terms of our tour of consensus, we’re now up to the 1970s and 80s. Cornell writes:

Though rarely remembered by name today, many of the new ways of doing radical politics that the Movement for a New Society (MNS) promoted have become central to contemporary anti-authoritarian social movements. MNS popularized consensus decision-making, introduced the spokescouncil method of organization to activists in the United States, and was a leading advocate of a variety of practices—communal living, unlearning oppressive behavior, creating cooperatively owned businesses.

He sets the context to the emergence of the MNS and gives us more history of consensus along the way. I’ll leave you with Cornell for a while because he does such a good job:

Radical pacifists created the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942 and were important conduits of participatory deliberative styles and the tactics of Gandhian non-violence to leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Meanwhile, the Beat culture, incubated by anarchists in the 1940s, fed into the more explicitly political counter-culture of the 1960s. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) drew on SNCC’s participatory structure and the ethos of the counter-culture to formulate two of the defining demands of the New Left: the implementation of participatory democracy and the overcoming of alienating culture. Yet, in the later 1960s, both the Black Freedom movement and the student movement, smarting from repression on the one hand, and elated by radical victories at home and abroad on the other, moved away from this emergent, anarchistic, political space distinguished from both liberalism and Marxism. Many civil rights organizers took up nationalist politics in hierarchical organizations, while some of the most committed members of SDS returned to variants of Marxist-Leninism and democratic socialism. If participatory democracy and cultural transformation could, together, be seen as a ball about to be dropped, the Movement for a New Society was one of the most important groups diving for it, working hard to keep it in play. The emergent women’s liberation movement likewise placed a premium on developing egalitarian internal relationships and making changes in daily life; not surprisingly, then, feminism left an enduring impact on MNS…

…The impetus to change the internal dynamics of radical organizations stemmed from a variety of sources. Inspired by SNCC—who in turn had been influenced by pacifists such as James Lawson and Bayard Rustin—SDS had promoted the demand for a participatory form of democracy, but had never formalized the concept into a procedure. The early women’s liberation movement responded to the sexism that marred New Left groups by roundly criticizing patriarchal leadership tendencies and attempting to craft egalitarian organizations of its own. The founders of MNS sought to build on both of these initiatives by developing and teaching a formal model of “democratic group process” which drew on the Quaker tradition in which many were steeped as well as the conflict resolution techniques some early MNS members practiced as professional mediators. Beyond adopting a formal consensus procedure with delineated roles, MNS drew on “sensitivity training” techniques, “role playing…listening exercises, and trust games” to increase awareness of group dynamics and challenge members to excise oppressive aspects of their traditional patterns of behavior. Members saw at least three benefits in this process: it helped empower more reserved and less experienced participants; it kept in check the sometimes competing egos of movement veterans involved in the organization; finally, the organization found the highly deliberative aspect of consensus useful in the group’s early stage when it was “searching” for new ideas, and building unity amongst its members.

There is so much for current advocates and practitioners of consensus to learn from MNS. When was the last time you consciously engaged in sensitivity training? Their work has fed into many other movements and groups. I hope it’s influenced Rhizome. It’s there in the work of UK-based Turning The Tide and in US-based Training for Change, which in turn has influenced Australia’s The Change Agency and Plan to Win.