The limits of consensus

The consensus model of decision-making comes from good motives, but can hamper a struggle. This article was first published in 2000 during the global justice movement.

WHEN TRYING to come to a decision--whether it is a trade union meeting or a group of student activists organizing against sweatshops--participants naturally are happiest when everyone ends up on the same page.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [email protected].

In other words, consensus is always a preferable outcome to a group trying to make a real decision about something than being divided. And often consensus is the result after a thorough discussion, because the group already has some level of basic agreement over goals.

But hoping for general agreement after a thorough discussion is very different from requiring it to move forward.

Consensus with a capital "C" is a method of operation that requires everyone to agree before a decision can be made. It is a practice that has a long history in the United States, and is often associated with the Quakers.

Though its popularity reached its zenith in the 1980s, its use has become widespread among green activists, many anarchist groupings, and some student activist in various campuses. It was the method of decision-making used among many of the activists who went to Seattle to shut down the World Trade Organization.

Though consensus comes from the best motives--a desire that everyone agree--it is inferior in practice as a method of operation to democratic majority rule.

In many cases, consensus is put forward consciously as an alternative to democracy, which is characterized as "the majority wielding power over the minority," to quote one defense of consensus.

What is not usually acknowledged is that consensus, by denying majority rule, offers in practice its opposite--minority rule.

A description of how consensus works will make this clear. To quote the same defense of consensus cited earlier: If individuals "have STRONG objections to a proposal...they can block the proposal...The block gives each individual ultimate power to influence decisions that affect him/her."

Any individual or group of individuals can hold up the decision-making process indefinitely. That is rule of the minority, sometimes a minority of one.

This method of operation--as any participant in the meetings in Seattle to plan the November 30 action will attest--produces meetings that last a very long time, sometimes six hours and more.

Three results are possible: either the individuals who are "holding up" the meeting feel compelled to give in just so a decision can be made; the group splits up into smaller groups who "do their own thing"; or a soft compromise is reached to try and hold it all together.

The idea behind consensus is that no one should be compelled to do what they do not want to do. But what is consensus if not a compulsion to agree?

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THE OTHER defense of consensus is that with it there are "no leaders, no followers." But all struggles produce leaders--people that others look to because of their experience and ideas to move the struggle forward.

The question is--what kind of leadership will develop? One that is democratically and publicly accountable, or one that is undemocratic, unnacountable and behind the scenes?

Consensus ensures--by driving out most ordinary people who can't afford to stay in endless meetings, and by refusing to vote for and hold accountable formal leadership--that some kind of informal leadership will make many of the decisions.

Consensus historically has never been the mode of operation in workers' organizations, and the reasons should by now be clear.

Workers depend on their success in fighting for their rights against employers that they wield power as a collective. If consensus were used to debate whether or not to strike, most strikes would never get off the ground. And a union certainly could not tolerate a situation where a minority of workers who opposed a strike were permitted to "do their own thing" to defeat it.

Democracy is a superior method of organizing in struggle. Democracy encourages the fullest debate and discussion, followed by a prompt majority decision and action. The minority is not compelled to change views, but merely to abide by the majority's decision.

Once the decision is implemented, its success or failure can then be opened up for renewed discussion. After such a debate, the majority might decide that the minority was right after all!

By this method of operation, participants in the struggle learn from that struggle and by their own decisions and actions how best to move the struggle forward. By adopting, in most cases, a compromise, consensus prevents such sharp assessments from ever taking place.

Where democracy encourages open and sharp, clarifying debate, consensus tends to minimize debate and differences in order not to upset the possibility of consensus being reached.

That is why in virtually any mass struggle--whether it be the Flint sit-down strikes of 1937 or the French strike wave in 1995--workers have instinctively organized their struggle on a democratic basis.

Once you accept that complete unananimity is the exception rather than the rule, then you must also accept that decisions will be made either by the majority (democracy) or the minority. Consensus, in permitting a minority even of one to prevent a decision supported by the rest, is based in the final analysis on the rule of a small minority.

This article was first published in the April 2000 issue of Socialist Worker.