This is not What Democracy Looks Like! rethinking consensus at #OccupyWallStreet

Posted: November 9, 2011 in OccupyWallStreet

*Occupy Wall Street is the biggest chance we have had to change society in half a century. Please let’s learn from history. Radical Feminists, Situationists, Autonomists, and Squatters all adopted the horizontal consensus model that is being used by Occupy Wall Street. It was a disaster. Consensus models bring Orwellian NewSpeak. It is not to late to institute transparent democratic structures. Please read this plea from someone who has seen this before.

via I cite: The Tyranny of Consensus –Mark Read.

The Tyranny of Consensus –Mark Read

The occupiers have inherited and adopted a decision-making process that has come down from earlier left movements and is lauded as the most democratic form of decision making. Of courser those who wish to see a more democratic society naturally gravitate to what has been billed as the most democratic way to make decisions.  Consensus is what the radical left has responded with, for generations.  Those of us that have worked within a consensus process model should know better by now, and we do a disservice to younger activists by allowing the myth of consensus-as-always-most-democratic to persist.  We were told that the trade off was less efficiency for more democracy, and this simply is not borne out by experience, and most of my long-term comrades have come to recognize this.  The only place where I believe that consensus process is genuinely more democratic than a majoritarian aka voting process is within a close and closed community of collaborators/co-habitants that have practiced the process for years.  In virtually every other instance it yields less democratic decisions and processes, not more.  The consensus process, when applied to large heterogenous groups such as the one at #occupywallst, yields hierarchies at least as persistent and pernicious as other forms of decision making, probably more. I, and many others, would argue that voting yields more truly democratic outcomes, if practiced responsibly and ethically ie requiring 75% majorities and allowing ample time for discussion.  In the current context the consensus process favors those that feel comfortable addressing crowds, and feel entitled enough to argue endlessly for their point of view. This does not describe most people, and these traits are most prevalent in people that come from privilege, particularly educational privilege.  I hate to coin a Nixonian term, but the “silent majority” are those that don’t feel such confidence.  For most people voting on something is the best way to ensure that they have a say in the outcome.  The very idea that a marginalized, or even just shy person should be expected to feel confident enough to participate in an alien and confusing process, much less powerful enough to block a consensus decision is just plain ridiculous.  So, in practice, the very people that are intended to be emboldened and empowered by a consensus process, are in fact marginalized and silenced.  They cede the floor to the loud and the confident and the certain.  That is not what democracy looks like. The other problem that many of us know all too well is the creation of “invisible heirarchies.”  These come about in large measure due to the cumbersome nature of the decision making process.  Consensus process simply does not scale well, and it becomes so inefficient that groups of people begin to take decisions on their own, because they are essentially forced into that position. This leads to problems of accountability, accusations of betrayal, etc… And for what?  A decision making model that falsely claims to be more democratic than voting? Many of us from earlier movements are very familiar with these problems, and yet too many of us uncritically jump on the bandwagon of consensus.  Without some hard headed honesty about this, the fetishization of consensus will damage any efforts to build a more powerful, broad and diverse movement.


  1. Heather says:

    My own feeling is that there is too little effort to try the consensus process in Occupy. As I see it the consensus process is about getting all the ideas out there, finding the common ground and getting to the bottom of the differences. Maybe part of what makes it hard is that while the consensus process is occuring, the conclusion is unknown. It reminds me of something that one of my math professors used to say: “It is good to be confused.” What he meant is that to get to a deeper truth, you have to dwell in the realms of what you don’t understand completely. I know that can be uncomfortable for people who are not used to it. The other thing he used to say was “Think deeply of simple things.” To me that is about going all the way back to the fundamentals and questioning everything on the way up. Wish there was a greater tolerance for and encouragement of that sort of questioning in Occupy.
    For better or for worse, the one place I have seen consensus really work is in my corporate workplace. The head of my team actively tries to draw out any concerns or disagreements any of us may have with the models we produce and really encourages us to speak our mind.

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