Egalitarian Structure or Consensus?

Consensus and Anarchism symbol

As a part of the autonomous left where I’m from, my first experience was using consensus to reach decisions. I still think this way is vastly superior to delegating decision making to “representatives”, which is common in most organizations and political parties. But I still think consensus has several defects, and that it based partly on misconceptions. Especially the notion that consensus is “more horizontal” than voting on decisions.

The problems I will address are meant to illustrate why consensus is indeed less democratic than direct democratic voting and why “loose organization” is not synonymous with “egalitarian organization”.

The one sided coin

Put a little poetically, one could say that consensus requires the belief that a coin could have only a single side. This notion reveals itself when we look at certain of the arguments and practices. I will provide a few examples.


Luckily I’ve never had the misfortune of being in a group that as a principle is against exclusion, but they do exist. The thought behind it is that it would be “hierarchical” or “authoritarian” for a group to decide that a member, a peer and an equal, is no longer welcome in the group. In other words, that exclusion takes away the excluded’s right to voluntary association.

To see the other side of the coin, all we need is a hypothetical example: A group of activists are protesting against an inhuman immigration policy. One of the group’s members speaks to the press on behalf of the others, without any such mandate, and blames the country’s policy on trans-dimensional reptiles.
Should this single member be allowed to torpedo the group’s credibility with raving madness? Of course not. The right to disassociate must be inherent in the concept of voluntary association.

Blocking decisions and supermajorities

Anyone who wishes to be taken seriously must concede that there will be situations when people simply cannot agree and there are no compromises everyone can live with. There is put bluntly no consensus. What happens in these situations, depending on the situation is either A) A suggested change or initiative is blocked or B) The group does nothing faced with a situation.

The idea is that if one has not reached consensus it would be “majority tyranny” to implement a decision over the heads of the disagreeing minority. However if you flip the coin, you will see that on the contrary it is minority tyranny when a minority can block an initiative that is wanted by most of the group.

The same is true for supermajorities. As a kind of hybrid between voting and consensus, proponents of supermajorities think it is unacceptable for 51% of a group to “dictate” what 49% should do. Therefore the majority must be 2/3 or in some cases even 3/4. The other side of the coin is glaring. Is it horizontal or democratic for a little bit over 1/3 or 1/4 to be able to block a desired change?

If one uses consensus, anyone who is against a decision can decide to block an initiative. With supermajorities a small minority can but itself in the way of decisions that most of the group want. Put bluntly both make possible sporadic minority rule.

Horizontal structure or hidden structure?

But it’s not only formally consensus is not egalitarian. My own experience has showed me that consensus does not necessarily mean talking to agreement is reached. It could very well mean “talking until we’re sick of it”, with a large amount of uncertainty regarding what was actually decided.

If anything.

Even if this wasn’t the case, consensus is a strictly verbal process. This means that the well articulated will be put ahead of the less articulated. Anyone who has spent a certain amount of time in a group utilizing consensus will have noticed that the same people usually talk the most. In contrast with voting you have no way of knowing what is on everybody’s mind unless you employ a round where everybody gets to speak.

A group where decision making is done through consensus is vulnerable to a number of informal hierarchies. If the first five to speak about a theme are all for an initiative that you’re against, how easy is it to raise your hand and object? If the meeting has dragged out and you know putting your hand up and voicing your concern will start a long discussion, where is the threshold for making yourself heard? Depending on who you are the threshold could be different places, but in a process where verbal prowess is all that counts I dare say the driving necessity of unanimity may quiet dissent, and damper healthy discussion.

Romantic “consciousness”

Not only is the group vulnerable to hierarchies. If they occur the group will have little chance of discovering them, so little of the process being formalized.
How do you see that a member is not raising his or her hand for fear of too many others disagreeing? How do you see that a member will not speak because of fatigue after a long and fruitless meeting? How do you perceive that someone is silent because they are not comfortable with their own abilities of articulation?
The answer I hear is not reassuring. I have been in meeting where the group has picked up on the fact that a few people did most of the talking. In the evaluation one arrived at the conclusion that in the future we must all be more “conscious” and “supportive” of others in the group talking. …OK? AND?

I’ve heard activists who are obviously aware if the defects of their own organizational structure, but formal remedies remain lacking. The loose form of the organization makes implementing formal checks and balances difficult. Loose organization does not rid a group of hierarchy but masks it. Without mapping the process with rules, it’s hard to find the kinks and reflect on the consequences of your organizational structure.

Consensus and growth

In my own organization I sometimes feel that our direct democratic structure with voting feels redundant. This feeling often correlates with the number of people attending the meeting. In small groups where everybody knows each other, it’s easier to detect dissent, and easier to share it. I also find that the more people there are at a meeting utilizing consensus, the more unmanageable, confusing, and time-consuming the meeting tends to be.

In addition I’ve also been a newcomer to a group, and experienced how disorienting it can be to learn how the decisions are made without formal rules. The meetings seem almost like a chemical process, and yourself like a new foreign element that everybody wonders if will disturb the balance.

In sharp contrast it took me a very short time understanding a formalized direct democratic decision making process employing voting. There were simple rules to follow; they were written down, and one could easily observe if everybody followed them.

From all this I can but conclude that consensus is incompatible with growth. If one wants to engage new people and grow the structure must be formalized and transparent. A group of activist can’t operate as a clique of friends and expect to attract others.

The alternative

A horizontal alternative to consensus is voting. This means that the group votes over what decisions they want implemented. This has the advantage that one quickly knows where everybody is on the issue, either they’re for and vote yes, or against and vote no, or don’t care and refrain from voting. There is no requirement for articulation, or much else for that matter.

If a decision wins by a very slight majority and is very important, like changing the platform or rules for example, there can be a formalized rule that in such cases one must open for new discussion before having another, final vote.

Anyone can read the rules and participate, and voting takes little time even when there are many present. Therefore groups electing decisions are more prone to grow.

To be able to act both collectively and effectively we must have a realistic and mature understanding of rules as a tool to ensure a horizontal structure. We cannot in a romantic daze deny the hierarchies we create with a decision making process which is neither egalitarian, nor structured.

Editorial Comment

This article was first published in Norwegian at