Against Consensus, for Dissensus

image of consensus assembly in Occupy Wall Street

Born out of social movement groups across the world, consensus decision-making offers the possibility of a world in which nobody oppresses anybody because we can all agree. This is not only illusory but dangerous, often producing silence or unproductive conflict as the reality. We should allow differing opinions within groups to be visible and sustained, even as we take action together.

Anyone who has been involved in ‘horizontal’ activism in the last twenty years in Western countries has by now been exposed to consensus decision-making. Consensus is, its advocates claim, the radical alternative to representative democracy, and a vital tool for anyone fighting oppression and trying to create liberatory forms of organising.

But my own experiences and those of many people I know suggest that consensus decision-making may have some serious problems. Even the current chief evangelist of consensus decision-making, David Graeber, admits in The Democracy Project that the first 20th Century attempt to adopt consensus decision-making (in the ‘70s feminist movement) failed. His claim is that Occupy got right things that the earlier attempt got wrong. Yet if you read around you will find that there is little consensus on the value of consensus at Occupy Wall Street. And I know people who lived in the Occupy camps in London who chose not to attend the general assemblies, so unproductive did they feel the consensus-based meetings were.

Now you can argue that consensus is going to be difficult because we are not used to it. We are not used to speaking for ourselves or acting together. That’s true. Maybe that is the reason it is so hard. But we need to consider some other problems too.

Flaws in the consensus model

1. One weakness of consensus decision-making is already known by those who use it: certain people who are confident, good at speaking, used to speaking, often dominate. We can compensate for that with careful facilitation, but we still have to make a special effort to stop decisions being swung by the loudest voices. Often, let’s be honest, the efforts fail.

2. The next problem is that the majority can be dominated by the minority. Hardly an improvement on the minority being dominated by the majority. There are ways to deal with this (though I have seen meetings that failed to deal with it). We can allow a ‘stand-aside’ option when things really reach an impasse – this relies on those in disagreement being willing to stand aside. Or we can go for a Consensus-1 or Consensus-2 option, in which we reach consensus with all but one or two people and that’s okay. But we still have a system where either a few people (those resisting consensus) can dominate the discussion and where people (the -1 or -2) end up feeling excluded by the decision.

3. What about if someone disagrees with the way the consensus is going, but they either don’t feel strongly enough to try to block it or they don’t feel confident speaking up? This is a very common problem, I think. The social pressure on these people not to break the consensus is immense. In the name of banishing oppression we have created an almost irresistible social pressure to keep your mouth shut, particularly if you disagree without feeling strongly about it. We can try to create an attitude of openness to all disagreement but the reality is that, in the face of social pressure felt differently by each person, we try and often fail. And so people don’t speak.

4. Now let’s consider something that consensus decision-making really struggles with: sometimes people’s views simply cannot be brought together. People are different. They see the world in different ways. Perhaps because of their experiences, perhaps because of their position in society – and perhaps you don’t know the reason. But it is dangerous to deny that real differences exist. Try putting a banker and me in the same room to discuss economic policy if you think all viewpoints can be brought together. I suspect most of the examples of functional large-scale consensus decision-making come from more communal societies than ours, where people start from a position of less divergent opinions.

5. Another more subtle problem I feel is that there is a hidden individualistic streak within consensus decision-making. In theory consensus should involve being prepared to make compromises but it is not always interpreted that way. Quite the opposite: for many people it seems to give them space to think ‘I can be part of a group while never compromising on my demands.’ In a society that propagandises the virtues of individualism (even if frequently failing to practice them) it is easy to assume that compromise is oppressive. But it isn’t necessarily oppressive if we choose it ourselves. And for collective action to happen, particularly on a mass scale, we have to get used to compromises. It simply isn’t possible to get millions or even thousands of people all wanting exactly the same thing – or only for brief moments. Good consensus working recognises that if we are to work together, we are going to have to learn to put aside our own opinions sometimes – perhaps only temporarily, perhaps for a long time – in order to agree on actions. But I think it’s important that when we do so, we are able to express our dissent, and that it be clear that agreement is partial and contingent – because that’s what real, messy collectives involve. Consensus decision-making purports to be about collectivity but in my experience it can often hinder collectivity in practice by over-emphasising the individual, allowing people to think that any decision they disagree with is oppressive and to be resisted.

6. There is also an honesty problem. Let’s go back to the idea that sometimes people’s viewpoints are genuinely different. If they are too different to bring together, are we going to pretend otherwise? Or perhaps we’ll find we have tried to ensure our views are all heard by forging them into a consensus, but then lying in bed later we realise that the ‘consensus’ isn’t actually what we want. Perhaps everyone will have that realisation (The Abilene paradox is the name for when a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many of the individuals in the group). At what point would it be best to raise this doubt, having spent hours hammering out a consensus? What is the right moment to reveal that our viewpoint breaks the consensus we ourselves helped create? And if we dare to do that, what if consensus is never achieved? Are we never going to admit that we can’t get there?

7. Then there is the issue of meetings, how long they take, and whether they become an endurance test. My suspicion, having spent a lot of time around groups that use consensus, is that consensus often doesn’t exist. They are fake consensus groups. You can hear it in the mutterings after the meeting, or the sighs during it. But in the end you just want the meeting to end, particularly after it hits the third hour, and sod it, why not just go along with it? At the very heart of your process is the notion that all views will go into the consensus, but now you’re sick of the meeting, you’re hungry, you’re tired of arguing, and you want to go home. I’m not sure this is even the exception. I suspect that those who love meetings often win out, and most consensus isn’t real.

8. Finally we need to look at how decision-making structure affects a group or institution in the long term. It seems to me that the harder it is to make a decision, the more (small c) conservative the group will be. To fail to make a decision maintains the status quo. To get change requires positive agreement. Requiring consensus will, in many circumstances, dramatically raise the bar in terms of how difficult it is to get a decision. The effect of this over the long term will be to make it difficult to institute changes within the group or changes in behaviour.

So, recognising all these flaws, is consensus decision-making so fantastic and radical that we should wear ourselves out trying to make it work? If you do it properly it won’t wear you out, says Graeber, but I want consensus on that from a meeting of a hundred people who’ve used the process for a year – that’s when I’ll believe it.

If you can make consensus decision-making work for you, great, but it just isn’t so wonderful that the rest of us should kill ourselves trying to make it work. I have seen it work best in small groups of people with a fairly constant membership. I think personal relationships can give a depth to consensus decision-making that almost make it live up to the radicalness ascribed to it. But I know it rarely works in large groups, and in groups where people are constantly passing in and out.

Dissensus as an alternative

I used to be in a group that encouraged dissensus rather than consensus. That is, we admitted that sometimes people have differing views and we should let the conflicts between them emerge and play out, potentially over long periods. The actual decision-making process went like this: we would make an initial attempt to reach consensus. This would enable everyone to have a chance to speak and discuss the issues. Then, if it was apparent we didn’t have consensus, and if all the points of view had been expressed, we would vote in an open vote (A two-thirds majority may be reasonable, though note the possible conservative tendency in point 8 above). The vote shows who is for or against a particular course, and the positions of opponents are known. They aren’t being ignored. The group has tried and failed to take their point of view on board – perhaps for good reasons, perhaps for bad reasons – but the disagreement cannot be brushed over and it will not disappear. That’s a good thing, because the disagreement is real, and consensus would not be.

This method gave us the advantages of consensus through the attempt to reach consensus initially. And there are advantages to consensus – it creates a process in which we try to work collectively towards a position we can share, with everyone valued within that. But I feel that departing from pure consensus allows us to be more honest with each other. We never had to be terrified of breaking the consensus and accidentally extending a meeting already at 3 hours to 5 hours. Dissensus also – and this is an important point – worked. By which I mean we reached decisions without constantly wearing ourselves out. If your meetings are too long, people will stop going. Meetings are always, however we try to lighten them with good friendships and cake, going to be something of a necessary evil. Most people can’t take too much boredom, or friction, or sitting still, or arguing. If you can, good on you. But you will be the remnant who end up pushing decisions when others are so tired of the meeting they’ll just shut up in order to end it. And how democratic is that?

As an aside, within dissensus decision-making, as in consensus, there also remains the option (though we didn’t use it often) of those who agreed on a course of action taking it, while those who disagreed stepping out. It’s something that can be done where the group itself isn’t bothered by some members taking that action. As soon as it requires, for example, use of shared and limited resources, it doesn’t work. I hesitate to recommend it as the ideal path because, as I said above, I think it awakens our inner individualist again. Ah! we think, Here’s a way I will never have to compromise on what I want! That is dangerous, because we need to compromise or we will never organise together. But it will sometimes make sense to implement a stand-aside option.

So here’s a more complete depiction of dissensus decision-making procedure:

1. A proposal is made, the group tries to reach consensus. Modifications may be made to the proposal. Consensus may be reached, or it may be decided that no consensus is necessary in this case – a few members of the group can implement the decision without bothering the others.

2. If, after reasonable attempts by all sides to accommodate each other have been made, no consensus is reached, a vote is taken using the agreed voting method. The facilitator will decide the right moment for the vote. The right moment can be the subject of debate, and people may raise objections, but if you have a facilitator who can be held accountable then they need to be trusted to make the final decision. Making a group decision on how to make a group decision when in the middle of a contentious meeting is not a viable option.

3. The group considers how those who lost the vote can be accommodated – this may have been dealt with already in the stage 1 discussions but it is often worth raising again after the vote.

4. The debate between differing views continues over the long term, and decisions can always be re-considered if appropriate.

The advantages of dissensus

An important message here is that we do not need to reject all voting as wrong. I understand that representation doesn’t work. I understand that majority voting in the absence of proper discussion is oppressive. But I think that consensus decision-making has equal and sometimes worse problems. It is too unwieldy to take decisions effectively, allows egotistical people and meeting-lovers to dominate, and ultimately it can make us lie to ourselves and to each other. In the long run, to oppose the current global order, I think we need to build large-scale local, national and international organisations. We simply won’t do that with consensus decision-making.

To illustrate the difference between consensus and dissensus, let’s imagine a group is trying to reach consensus on whether we should make decisions by consensus. Sounds silly? It’s actually kind of logical. If you can’t reach consensus on that, there’s bugger all else you’ll be able to reach consensus on. Problem is, I’m in this group. I’m against consensus, for the reasons I have outlined above, and I won’t allow consensus to be reached on this, because I feel the viability and self-honesty of the group is at stake. In fact, I will agree to consensus decision-making over my dead body, because I actually care about the group being effective. Stalemate.

There is a way out of the stalemate. Someone could propose that the group operate on Consensus-1 instead. Problem solved. But would you really feel the problem had been resolved? Doesn’t it just leave something simmering away under the surface? What is the price of ignoring the dissensus? What if one member of the group changes their mind next week? Would they dare mention it? Would they rock the boat? Would they force it to a decision again? And if they did, would someone simply propose Consensus-2 instead? And would that make the problem go away?

One of the advantages of dissensus decision-making, and to me a signal of its viability, is that it has the ability to contain its own opposition without tying itself in knots of dishonesty. We don’t all agree dissensus decision-making is the right answer but, after much discussion, it satisfies the most people at the moment. The contingency of decisions is implicit in dissensus; we are constantly reminded that the debate is ongoing. We are reminded, too, that sometimes people simply don’t agree, and we might not all be agreed on that, but that’s fine. At least we all know where we really stand, and are not under pressure to conform to a consensus the reality of which we can never feel sure of.