A brief history of consensus decision-making

It’s not surprising that passionate proponents of consensus decision-making might want to root their ideas firmly in history. After all it gives consensus greater authority and legitimacy. However, this is often done as a few short paragraphs or even a few short lines. When asked recently to focus on the history of consensus for a course I’m involved in delivering, I decided it was time to dig a little deeper and here’s the result…. a whirlwind tour of some of the historical movements and peoples upon which consensus draws, many of whom are still there and still using their version of consensus.

In reality few of these examples show consensus decision-making as it’s used by folk like Rhizome, i.e. formal or simple consensus, but they all have important elements to them that are cornerstones of consensus. Oh, and I’m not claiming that this is an exhaustive piece of academic research – far from it.  I’ve addded the odd aside along the way, drawing out what for me are some of the lessons we can learn about our own use of consensus.

The spiritual connection

One of the most widely cited historical roots for consensus decision-making is the Quakers and to a lesser extent, the Anabaptists of which perhaps the best known descendents are the Mennonites. Ethan Mitchell’s paper, Participation in Unanimous Decision-Making: The New England Monthly Meetings of Friends is useful starting point and includes some thoughts on recent social change movements that are inheritors of the consensus traditions of Quakers and Anabaptists. He says:

The consensus process used by the Society of Friends (Quakers) has been in use for three and a half centuries.  It is a highly specific political mechanism, with its own vocabulary, ideology, and traditions.  It has to be strongly emphasized that Quakers themselves are very reluctant to describe their consensus process in political terms.  Rather, friends tend to view their decision-making process as an integral part of their religious experience.  Many Quakers… believe that consensus is so fundamentally spiritual that it cannot be secularized.  Wolff agrees, although he allows the theoretical possibility that consensus would work in a secular group with a deeply held ideology – he is thinking of anarchists…

…the heretical and revolutionary movements that we now refer to as the Anabaptists developed a similar principle: the “rule of sitting down” (sitzrecht or lex sedentium).  When a group of people meet together and agree unanimously on something, the Anabaptists argued, they are expressing the Divine Will.  The first concrete appearance of this on the historical stage seems to be at the Martyr’s Synod in 1527.

Mitchell also looks to Quaker records to try to answer the question ‘How large can it get’. It’s a commonly asked question about consensus:

The Quaker author Howard Brinton anticipates those results, and their Kohrian conclusion: “The Quaker method works better in small than in large groups….therefore, if a Monthly Meeting becomes overgrown, it should divide.”.  Such advice emphasizes the personal, face-to-face nature of consensus process.  If we want to preserve those qualities, we must stay small.

But for many political scientists, including many radicals, the question posed is how large can groups be and still function at all? In discussions of consensus, as in discussions of direct democracy, this is a quite familiar question.  It is perhaps especially pertinent because of the use of consensus by very large groups-the Clamshell Alliance, the spokescouncils at mass convergences, and so forth.

I’ll let you read the original article for the details, but for the time-pressured, Mitchell concludes

…it appears that, for Quakers, consensus is quite feasible in a polity of 5000 or 6000 people, and quite impossible at the level of 20,000 or 30,000 people.

Indigenous peoples

Another common reference in the quest for consensus decision-making’s heritage are indigenous peoples. Many peoples from different parts of the globe are cited. I think this is often motivated by a desire to say that the ‘natural’ state of humanity is one of co-operation and not competition. And there may be some truth in that. That’s a post for another day. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy are frequently mentioned (sometimes referred to as the Iroquois League – the name given to them by the French).  The confederacy still exists today, so we can hear from them in their own voice:

The confederacy, made up of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas was intended as a way to unite the nations and create a peaceful means of decision-making. Through the confederacy, each of the nations of the Haudenosaunee are united by a common goal to live in harmony. Each nation maintains it own council with Chiefs chosen by the Clan Mother and deals with its own internal affairs but allows the Grand Council to deal with issues affecting the nations within the confederacy…

Often described as the oldest, participatory democracy on Earth, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s constitution is believed to be a model for the American Constitution. What makes it stand out as unique to other systems around the world is its blending of law and values. For the Haudenosaunee, law, society and nature are equal partners and each plays an important role

Sadly their website doesn’t give enough detail of their democracy to satisfy consensus geeks, but according to Wikipedia:

political and diplomatic decisions are made on the local level, and are based on assessments of community consensus. A central government that develops policy and implements it for the people at large is not the Iroquois model of government.

Unanimity in public acts was essential to the Council. In 1855, Minnie Myrtle observed that no Iroquois treaty was binding unless it was ratified by 75% of the male voters and 75% of the mothers of the nation. In revising Council laws and customs, a consent of two-thirds of the mothers was required.

The women held real power, particularly the power to veto treaties or declarations of war. The members of the Grand Council of Sachems were chosen by the mothers of each clan. If any leader failed to comply with the wishes of the women of his tribe and the Great Law of Peace, the mother of his clan could demote him, a process called “knocking off the horns”. The deer antlers, emblem of leadership, were removed from his headgear, thus returning him to private life.

Councils of the mothers of each tribe were held separately from the men’s councils. The women used men as runners to send word of their decisions to concerned parties, or a woman could appear at the men’s council as an orator, presenting the view of the women. Women often took the initiative in suggesting legislation.[38]

There’s a tendency to want to date consensus as far back as possible – Wikipedia again:

Most archaeologists and anthropologists believe that the League was formed sometime between about 1450 and 1600. A few claims have been made for an earlier date; one recent study has argued that the League was formed in 1142, based on a solar eclipse in that year that seemed to fit one oral tradition.

The confederacy’s own website states simply that the Haundenosaunee Confederacy has been in place since time immemorial.

Other indigenous peoples are quoted as using consensus, for example African Bushmen. Usually, this seems to be defined as a system of decision-making in which a council of elders makes decisions based on a consensus of the wider community. Search online and you’ll find plenty of references to communities such as the San using consensus , both now and historically:

“There is no formal leadership structure among the San bushmen community. Decisions are arrived at a consensus and issues are deliberated upon and discussed communally. Certain roles may require leadership from individuals with expertise such as hunting. No single group member holds positions of general influence over the rest of the community. This set up proved to be problematic to white colonialists when they wanted to enter into agreements with the San communities. The San bushmen are therefore free to do and go as they please within the constraints of their customs. If there is a disagreement within a group, the group may split and go their own separate ways with little or no coercion” Saharan Vibe

European examples

The Hanseatic League is another example of a group that show strong elements of what we understand to be consensus in their governance structure. The League were

“an economic alliance of trading cities and their merchant guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and early modern period (c. 13th–17th centuries)” Wikipedia

Perhaps like the San, there was no need for everyone to be committed to the same course of action. According to Sebastian Mallaby quoting James C. Bennett’s The Anglosphere Challenge

The Hanse was a coalition of the willing. It never required unanimity for action, nor did it act by majority vote. Those parties that felt a need to do something consulted each other and upon reaching consensus, proceeded to execute the decision, while those who remained outside the consensus disassociated themselves from it. Often Hanseatic communications would list those cities that exempted or disassociated themselves from the matter at hand.

The only common institution was the Hanseatic Diet, which was strictly a forum for mutual discussion and the formation of suballiances to accomplish specific tasks. However, a consensus would emerge from the Diet that effectively shaped Hanseatic policy. Some cities seem not to have attended a Diet at all in the five hundred years of the Hanse’s existence, though they were considered to be Hanseatic cities in good standing; most attended sporadically.

My favourite discovery on this journey into the history of consensus was in Autumn Brown’s world map of consensus where she mentions pirate ships. A few clicks later I was reading a New Yorker article on The Pirate’s Code and following their link to Peter Leeson’s An-arrgh-chy paper. I’ll include it as a European example because so many of the well-known historical pirates are European in origin.

Leeson argues that:

historical pirates displayed sophisticated organization and co-ordination…Pirates could not use government to enforce or otherwise support co-operative arrangements between them. Despite this they successfully co-operated with hundreds of other rogues. Amidst ubiquitous potential for conflict, they rarely fought, stole from, or deceived one another. In fact piratical harmony was as common as harmony amongst their lawful contemporaries who relied on government for their social co-operation.

He goes on to describe a system of checks and balances for ensuring that no one pirate held oppressive power over the rest of the crew. But what about the captain? Leeson suggest that unlike merchant ships which had a strict hierarchy with the captain at the top (and a high degree of cruelty and repression to keep the crew in order), pirates only required a captain for specific tasks – making snap decisions in the heat of the chase or of combat, for example. Pirate captains were elected, “the Rank of Captain being obtained by the Suffrage of the Majority” according to one historical source, and could be deposed by popular will:

The historical record contains numerous examples of pirate crews deposing unwanted captains by majority vote or otherwise removing them from power through popular consensus

Other power resided elsewhere to balance out the captain’s power – so a crew might democratically elect a quartermaster to take charge of  the day-to-day running of the ship. Pirates even went as far as developing written constitutions. Indeed they did so well before the governments that are known for such documents. These grew out of “articles of agreement” originally relevant to a specific crew, but eventually becoming a common code shared amongst the wider pirate community.

Articles of agreement required unanimous consent. Consequently pirates democratically formed them in advance of launching pirating expeditions

Leeson backs his articles up with plenty of source material. Articles included such regulations as limiting “drunken raucousness to allow non participant pirates to get sufficient sleep”. Possibly not the stereotype we have of life on a pirate vessel.

The Polder Model

A more recent example of consensus at work is the Dutch polder model. According to the Bookrags website:

The Dutch polder model is characterized by the tripartite cooperation between employers’ organizations such as VNO-NCW, labour unions such as the FNV, and the government. These talks are embodied in the Social Economic Council (Dutch: Sociaal-Economische Raad, SER). The SER serves as the central forum to discuss labour issues and has a long tradition of consensus, often defusing labour conflicts and avoiding strikes.

It’s not clear exactly where in history the model arose. Bookrags say that:

One explanation points to the rebuilding of the Netherlands after the Second World War…Another explanation points to the dependency of the Netherlands on the international economy. The Netherlands is a small state and it is very dependent on the international economy. The Dutch cannot afford protectionism against the unpredictable tides of the international economy, because it is not an autarkic [self-sufficient] economy. Therefore to cushion against the international economy, the Dutch set up a tripartite council which oversaw an extensive welfare state. A third explanation points to a cultural tradition in the Netherlands of consensus decision-making. Some point to the Middle Ages, as in those times it was necessary for farmers, noblemen, cities, and others to cooperate in order to maintain the polders from getting flooded. Without unanimous agreement on shared responsibility for maintenance of the dikes, the polders [areas of low-lying land] would have flooded and everyone would have suffered.

Recent history

The feminist and anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s are often credited with the pioneering of consensus as many activists know it today. Ethan Mitchell cites 4 US-based organisations – the Federation of International Communities, the American Friends’ Service Committee, the Clamshell Alliance, and Food Not Bombs. There are many equivalents here in the UK. There’s no doubt these groups are the direct ancestors of the social change groups that now choose to use consensus. They developed specific models, gave us the language we now use around consensus, initiated training programmes and so much more. What’s also not in doubt though is that they drew, consciously or unconsciously, on a much longer tradition of communities using decision-making models that enshrined many of the values core to consensus.

Lessons learnt?

Here’s a few thoughts on some of those values.

Whilst few if any of these examples (and these are just a few, there are more) are of communities using formal consensus decision-making, there are themes here that have come through to our modern-day consensus….

This belief that consensus requires a deep spiritual bond highlights one of the biggest challenges of consensus decision-making then and now: the need for group mind (which we’ve discussed before on the blog). And of course many secular groups with deeply held ideology have attempted to use consensus and continue to do so. But so do a fair few groups without deeply held spiritual or ideological roots, and of course many struggle for this very reason. That’s not to say that the presence of a deeply held foundation in itself guarantees good consensus, but it gives a group a fighting chance.

What I take from the Haudenosaunee confederacy to the present day practice of consensus is the need for a co-operative process of searching for unity. So many cultures impose unity and, on one level or another, many groups fall back on the imposition of unity when faced with seemingly intractable conflict (and this goes hand in hand with the expulsion of anyone who fails to accept ‘unity’).

The confederacy also gives us an example of the veto being used to preserve the wellbeing of the community. The veto, when used in this way, is the absolute bedrock of good consensus – equalising power and preserving the very essence of the group.

As with the Quakers and Anabaptists, the confederacy’s decision-making is also rooted in deeply held spiritual values. One such value, explained on their website, is that of the seventh generation – making decisions with seven generations of descendents in mind. This concept of looking outside of the immediate group for other ‘stakeholders’ and taking into account their needs and wellbeing is rare in our use of consensus today – we often struggle to co-operate to enough of a depth that those present feel their needs have been met. The confederacy gives us something to aspire to.

The San challenge us to respect and value the experience and expertise of our community without getting hung up on these things equating to the oppressive use of power. Some non-hierarchical groups have become so afraid of hierarchy that any expression of expertise is shot down as leadership which in turn is branded hierarchy and is therefore oppressive. Of course this can be the case, but does it have to be?

The San also allow the community to disagree amicably, something essential to the fluent use of consensus, but often missing from our practice of it.

Similarly the Hanseatic League’s model respects the autonomy to get on and do without needing full agreement on every course of action. Both demonstrate the ability of a community to be comfortable with difference, not having to all do the same thing.

And as for our pirate crew? They were bound together for a strong common purpose (however distasteful we may find it) and created a model of decision-making that was strong enough to support them in that. They required that every member of their community be respected, and that any power vested in an individual be used for the common good. They gave clear mandates to their officers, and withdrew those mandates and held officers accountable whenever they felt the common good wasn’t being served. There are lessons in there for consensus-based groups that mandate working group to undertake certain tasks – clarity of mandate, shared understanding of the common good, structures for accountability.

The polder model isn’t alone in bringing together different groupings that could so easily be in conflict, and challenging them to hold the higher good central to their work together. Many of these historical examples model the ability of groups to work through difference to consensual solutions if that higher good can remain central to their vision. At the risk of overdoing the ‘lessons learnt’ here, it shows the power of consensus to support us in overcoming our own interests for higher interests. That’s what makes consensus transformational and powerful, after all.

Read A brief history of consensus decision-making: Part 2

Read our other posts on consensus