Occupy and consensus decision-making

At this year’s Green Gathering festival near Chepstow I bought a book called From Democracy to Freedom. It is produced by Crimethinc, which among many other descriptions says that it is an international network of aspiring revolutionaries. Their book led me to an article on the Occupy Wall Street website called Occupiers! Stop Using Consensus! It was strong stuff, beginning with the statement that consensus, “is the absolute worst idea that has ever been introduced to the activist community. Consensus process is the tyranny of the individual. It is the most anti-social of all processes because it allows any one person to assert irrational authority over an entire group of people and block any sort of decision making.”

A response was posted, defending consensus. The two articles between them attracted some 400 comments. Out of the noise emerged… a fair degree of consensus.

The greatest agreement was that consensus was almost impossible in very large groups. Most fundamentally, this was because of the lack of trust and shared values that say a work team can develop.

This in turn spawned further problems. The first was the excessive use of the block – with correspondingly fewer stand asides. The original article gives the example of an Occupy general assembly, where a hundred people were discussing a proposal to join Verizon workers on the picket line:

People loved the idea and there was quite a bit of positive energy until one woman in the crowd, busy tweeting on her phone, casually raised her hand and said, “I block that”…. Discussion then abruptly ended… Occupy had to find a new way to do outreach.

As one of the comments stated: “Throw in the people that will block because they have friends watching on livestream who want to block, and you have a real royal mess“.

The second issue is that consensus processes are underspecified. I enjoyed this extract from the original article:

[Consensus] leaves too much to interpretation, doesn’t actually specify procedure, and doesn’t make sense! Take for instance kicking someone out of your group. Do you need consensus to kick them out? Or do you need consensus to keep them on board? Oftentimes such things aren’t clear, so the system becomes ripe for manipulation and exploitation. If you ever want to be evil and push a proposal through a consensus body, just make a compelling argument that you need consensus to not pass your proposal (rather than the other way around). If that doesn’t work, try writing your proposal with the opposite language and blocking it yourself.

Another article illustrates vividly the chaos that results when a process is unclear:

The first man that yelled at me last night tried to facilitate the meeting tonight, I blocked his facilitation on the Moral Ground that he disrespected me, and the Consensus process yesterday, bullied me, and I did not feel comfortable with him facilitating.  Some kid tried to tell me I could not Block a facilitator, I told him I could block any consensus process.

That leads onto a third point I’d not considered before, about the power of the facilitator in consensus. As one person argued, “The problem with facilitators in a consensus style is that they have more power than anyone in the actual group. Whoever assigns the facilitator has the ability to manipulate the group by the methods used by the facilitator”.

In defence of consensus, it is worth remembering that risk of abuse is there to some extent in any large group process, although the risk is lower the simpler is that process. Likewise, the following difficulty would arise with any process. A member of Crimethinc writes about “the liberals [who] showed up for an hour or two every couple [of] days, expecting to be able to dictate decisions to people who were in the camp twenty-four hours a day. Usually, they didn’t even stick around to implement them.”

I thought the most striking comment on the two articles was this: “The current consensus system… does not integrate self into community while simultaneously maintaining individualism. It instead tries to create community with hyper-individualism – an impossibility.” And that leads me to the main point of agreement between the two articles. The issue is not to do with the process. The question is this: “How can we build a culture of consensus?”