In the article Egalitarian Structure or Consensus? posted on the New Compass website, Adrien Alexander Wilkins posed the question of whether consensus-processes is the most democratic way of making decisions. Unlike many others in the current Occupy movement, he replied with a resounding no.
One of the largest scale experiments of a consensus-based organization, was the anti-nuclear movement in the U.S. in the late 1970's and early 1980's. The experiences of the anti-nuclear movement lead many to think that consensus simply does not work in large-scale organizations, nor is it a desirable way to make decisions. In a fascinating pamphlet first published in 1982 Howard Ryan describes some of the experiences with consensus in the anti-nuclear movement, and levels a comprehensive theoretical and moral critique of consensus as a decision-making tool.
Here is a short excepert of the Howard Ryan's downloadable pamphlet Blocking Progress - Consensus Decision Making in the Anti-Nuclear Movement.
I was introduced to consensus in 1977, in the Venice chapter of the Southern California Alliance for Survival (AFS). Consensus worked very well in our group of ten; in fact, I had never felt more respected and cared for within a political organization, nor had any group ever listened to me more attentively. The consensus method added to our sense of cooperation and participation. This, joined with the excitement and dedication that came with being part of a new, mushrooming antinuclear movement, helped us to build a thriving chapter.
The experience of our group was not unique; many anti-nuke activists have reported similar benefits from consensus. In a society where many people, particularly working class people, have virtually no voice in the activities and institutions around them— where we are shaped into cogs of a great bureaucratic wheel—it is a precious feeling to be part of a community group where each person’s opinion really matters. The right under consensus to block decisions seems to give an assurance that each person’s opinion will always carry weight, that the group cannot erode the power of any individual. This is the special appeal of consensus.
The method nevertheless poses problems, and did so in AFS. Each month, our local chapter would send a “spoke” (spokesperson) to a regional AFS meeting. Consensus was the decision-making method in the regional meeting, where a participant could block only if the group s/he represented had “consensed” to block on a particular point. As a result, blocks in the regional meeting posed almost insurmountable obstacles. Even if a compromise could be found that was agreeable to the blocking spoke, s/he would have to go back to his/her local group for approval. Then, the question would be reconsidered at the next monthly meeting. Proposals might bounce back and forth in this manner for months. Various remedies were attempted, such as arranging special meetings between the disputing parties, but nothing worked well. Regional decision making became increasingly frustrating. Occasionally, rather than allow the inaction to continue, the staff of the regional office would implement proposals even when they had been blocked. In these cases, the process which was designed to enhance the power of group members led to unilateral action by the staff. Although there was some grumbling about violating the process, most did not complain, as they preferred the violation to doing nothing at all. The frustrations of consensus finally led AFS to abandon it and adopt a voting model in late 1979.
Other anti-nuclear groups have been similarly frustrated by the consensus process, especially at the community or regional level of decision making. Mark Evanoff, tracing the history of Northern California’s Abalone Alliance, notes that the organization has time and again been unable to achieve consensus on important statewide issues: “Organizers are [getting] burned out by statewide travel to meetings that produce no immediately tangible results.” Others have observed that the difficulty of reaching consensus contributed to a lack of political clarity in Washington’s Crabshell Alliance: “In Fall 1977, Crabshell tried at several statewide meetings to clearly define its attitude toward nonviolence, one of Crabshell’s basic principles. When no consensus could be reached, Crabshell gave up the effort.” The Northern California Livermore Action Group had the same experience in 1982.