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Extensive Forum Thread on Consensus Decision Making


The primary participants are Brian Dominick and Michael Albert (also known as sysop).

Brian Dominick gets the ball rolling…

In another thread within this forum, I recently wrote:

>>I do think consensus is most consistent with anarchist aims, when possible. I don’t think huge organizations can or should employ it. However, I do believe small groups almost always should.

To which Mike Albert replied:

>Why? And let me give you an example, please. Suppose you have a small organization, say five people. Should what goes on your desk, or how it is arranged, or when you go to the bathroom and for how long, be consensus decisions? If not, why not?

REPLY: Any consensus theory which so much as implies this kind of oversight or incessently detailed decision-making should take place is agreeably ridiculous. In this case, I think it is a straw argument. Whom would advocate that I do not know.

Of course there are individual responsibilities, degrees and forms of specialization, and so forth. Truly effective consensus respects individual autonomy more than any other decision-making process.

However, in theory, consensus does imply that any decision, from when you go to the bathroom to how you arrange your desk, could fall into the rubric of the group domain. That’s in theory. If you have seen this happen, and aren’t just making up a very wild “example,” I’d be very surprised. It wouldn’t sway my view of the potential consensus dm holds for reasonable, empowered and seriously dedicated people, though.

The idea is that you don’t enter into consensus processes without a relatively high degree of trust and understanding among the members of a collective. If someone in your collective says they want to “block” you from excusing yourself to the lavatory, you’ve made a clear mistake in joining that collective.

Your hypothetical example could have been posed much better. You either haven’t seen well-tuned consensus at work or are just taking stabs here. I don’t even know where you intended to take that line of argument, so I’ll stop here.

 

Albert replies

> >>I do think consensus is most consistent with anarchist aims, when possible. I don’t think huge organizations can or should employ it. However, I do believe small groups almost always should. > > To which Mike Albert replied: > > >Why? And let me give you an example, please. Suppose you have a small organization, say five people. Should what goes on your desk, or how it is arranged, or when you go to the bathroom and for how long, be consensus decisions? > If not, why not?

> REPLY: Any consensus theory which so much as implies this kind of oversight or incessently detailed decision-making should take place is agreeably ridiculous. In this case, I think it is a straw argument. Whom would advocate that I do not know anyone who says consensus is THE RIGHT WAY to make decisions, or the anarchist way to do it, and is an anarchist, should so advocate.

You are not answering, I think. Of course you wouldn’t advocate consensus for these decisions, but WHY not?

I think the answer is because consensus isn’t democratic or good at all in such a case. And that that is so because in this case the decision impacts almost exclusively the one person, so others shouldn’t have much if any say, and certainly not a veto level of say. (Suppose when you use the bathroom a gas is released that would kill everyone — now consensus is completely appropriate. the aderse affect of a positive decision on each person is so great each person should have the power to block the choice. This example, like the first, is berserkly strange precisely so that it is obviously true.)

And so the point is, whether consensus decision making is an appropriate approach to take for a particular decision doesn’t depend on size of organization but depends, instead, on whether the power and impact that this style of arriving at a decision generates for all involved is the appropriate power and impact for them to have for that decision. Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes no. It depends on the decision and the effects the outcomes will have, not on size. And it is certainly not a matter of principle but of appropriateness.

Thus, consensus is a tactic. A method. The principle might be, for example, that people should impact decisions proportionately to the degree they are affected by them. If so, then sometimes choosing consensus will be dead-on and perfect. Other times, however, it would violate the principles we care about, as in the first case I noted above, most simply — but, I think, as in MOST cases, in fact.

> Of course there are individual responsibilities, degrees and forms of specialization, and so forth. Truly effective consensus respects individual autonomy more than any other decision-making process.

This is, I think a myth, repeated so often as to begin to appear valid, but totally false. Consensus isn’t good or bad, in general. It has qualities and attributes which in turn have benefits and debits that differ in particular instances… depending on the nature of the decision for which it is used. This is true, as well, by the way, of autocracy or even dictatorship (one person decides) or majority rules, or two thirds, and so on.

> However, in theory, consensus does imply that any decision, from when you go to the bathroom to how you arrange your desk, could fall into the rubric of the group domain. That’s in theory. If you have seen this happen, and aren’t just making up a very wild “example,” I’d be very surprised.

Being in the group domain isn’t what makes a decision deserving of consensus or not. If it was then we would have dictatorship decisions (like the bathroom case) and consensus ones (whenever it is “in the group domain”) and nothing else. But there are lots of decisions, most in fact, in different type groups and organizations, that do affect the group and all its memmbers, but do so in a manner that isn’t best addressed by consensus.

I have seen consensus used appropriately, and advocated it. For example at South End Press it is used in hiring decisions, and I think that makes very good sense. (Moreover, the fact that SEP is small comes into play in this case because it means every current employee is dramatically impacted by the presense of any new person, particularly if they have a negative reaction.) (At South End virtually all other decisions, from how people arrange desks, to how committees implement collective policies, to what books to accept or when to schedule them, and on and on, are taken by various means other than consensus which, however, implement the dictum of people affecting outcomes proportionately as they are impacted by them.) But I have also seen consensus used (most often) in situations where it is quite inappropriate because no individual is so impacted (when they disagree with the proposed decision) that the affect on them warrants their being able to overturn everyone else’s desire for it.

Don’t now tell me how important it is that everyone get a chance to voice their concerns, and so on, so we have to use consensus. Achieving such ends has ZERO to do with consensus DECISION MAKING. It is instead a matter of how one cmmunicates and discusses issues and views leading up the vote, not a matter of the vote itself. One can have as much or as little discussion, delay in voting, etc., as one wants (another tactical matter related to the issue of power over the decision, but different from it) but then DECIDE by consensus or majority rules or two thirds or whatever else.

>It wouldn’t sway my view of the potential consensus dm holds for reasonable, empowered and seriously dedicated people, though.

Now consensus is deemed valid when people have certain qualities (as compared to size of project). I think this also makes no sense, when scrutinized. (I know I am being a bit strong in all this, but it is because the views are so widely held in the anarchist left, and so strongly held there, that there is no reason whatever for anyone to take anything in the exchange personally, it seems to me — or so I hope — and making the points rather forcefully is probably the only way to get this dissenting opinion clearly heard, I think.) The qualities of the people, except in the sense of whether the decision making tactic CAN be used, do not bear on whether it SHOULD be used. Whether it is appropriate or not depends, instead, on whether it implements one’s relevant principles. A decision making procedure is not a principle, it is a tactic that one chooses or not.

Yes, it could be that some decision making tactic has such nice qualities and is so flexible that it fits all or nearly all situations — but that just isn’t the case for consensus.

> The idea is that you don’t enter into consensus processes without a relatively high degree of trust and understanding among the members of a collective. If someone in your collective says they want to “block” you from excusing yourself to the lavatory, you’ve made a clear mistake in joining that collective.

This is not, in fact, what happens in practice. (I think it would be wrong in any event, even if it did happen, becuase I don’t think deciding by consensus should should depend on having shared values and trust more than using any other procedure, often quite the contrary, in fact.) Instead in practice to use consensus is a mark of being trustworthy, trustable, trusting, even good and worthy, and often left/anarchist, so one has a compulsion to do it and to put up with others doing it, even most inappropriately.

At the Media and Democracy Congress, for example, a group of about 50 or 60 people met to discuss a future project they would undertake. Everyone thought it obvious that decisions should be by consensus, yet, for the most part people didn’t know squat about one another much less have some kind of deeply established trust. There could have been fasists in the room, for all anyone knew. If the principled positition is that while consensus is formally inapplicable in many or most cases, nonetheless when used by a group of folks with a very high degree of shared background and agreement and trust it works out anyhow due to their flexibility, etc. etc., then everyone there should have and would have said, instead of let’s use consensus, wouldn’t it be nice if we could use consensus, but of course we can’t yet, and shouldn’t yet so let’s instead to whatever else they would choose.

So in your example I don’t think you made a mistake in using consensus due to not being a trusting group but that, instead, uou made a mistake in how you are deciding. Whether a person should be able to block a decision — thus alone preventing perhaps the shared will of everyone else present from being manifested — is a matter of whether the person should have that power. If you say, instead, give everyone the right to do it on all decisions, but then assume that they won’t employ it except when it is appropriate, due to trust, or whatever — you are asking everyone to reign in their negative viewpoints, supposing they have them. This is, I believe, another WEAKNESS, not strength, of consensus when it is employed for decisions where it isn’t appropriate.

In organizations, for many reasons it is generally valuable that dissenters in fact hang on to their dissenting opinions as tenaciously as they feel them, rather than moderating themselves so they don’t abuse a power they shouldn’t, in fact, have. With consensus people may express dissent in discussion, to be sure, but ultimately the aim is that everyone leaves the room thinking that everyone agrees about the deicsion when, in fact, often everyone doesn’t agree but, instead, dissenters have simply submerged their dissent because they feel it would be inappropriate to manifest it. Actually, what is generally desirable, is instead that it is manifested and voted and has the impact it deserves — but is known to all — and often persists and wins the day later.

> Your hypothetical example could have been posed much better. You either haven’t seen well-tuned consensus at work or are just taking stabs here. I don’t even know where you intended to take that line of argument, so I’ll stop here.

My example was to clarify the logic and justification for consensus when it does and doesn’t make sense. It was extreme quite intentionally. It tries to reveal that most anti-authoritarian people and pro-consensus people in fact are not pro-consensus on principle but out of a confusion between consensus as principle and consensus as tactic. Most such people, I bet, are actually in favor of something like “people having a say over the decisions that affect them proportionate to the impact the decisions will have on them.” But, if so, then whether they choose or don’t choose consensus for a particular decision or set of decisions or type of decision should be a matter of assessing whether it is the best choice for implementing that value.

Everyone, in fact, uses consensus in some cases…the issue is when to do it, and when not to do it. Disagreeing on that is a different assessment of impact of decisions — not a matter of principle.

(I am sorry for going on at such length. In fact, I have had a great deal of experience with consensus in many different venues, stretching over thirty years, nad have seen it work wonderfully and miserably — not surprisingly — and am tired of people making believe that the miserable is just some kind of aberration or function of bad practitioners instead of coming to see that consensus is simply inappropriate, given their values, much of the time.)

 

Martin offers an insight..

>I think the answer is because consensus isn’t democratic or good at all in such a case.

I tend to agree with you that straight democracy or consensus is actually not a terribly good idea applied to everything, particularly some things which are irrelevant to some of the people voting. But what about the issue of deciding who should have what degree of say in each decision. It seems like that process is terribly complex, and yet very important, even supplanting the primacy of whatever decision making process you actually agree to. For instance, the desk case is a small decision, and yet I think we could argue for some time about what degree of influence workmates should have. I certainly wouldn’t like to see, say, hard core S&M porn displayed on my workmates desk. To me, a consensus approach might actually be a good one to the desk problem, ie, where the person next to you doesn’t care, their consensus would probably be easy to obtain, and where they are really offended you probably should remove whatever it is that offends them.

Seems like the real issue is that deciding who should have what say in some sense supplants actually having a say. In addition, I would predict that often this process is more difficult, since people might argue hard for the both the right to have whatever they want on their workspace, and the right to have nothing offensive in their workplace, which could be competing principles. If you just let it slide, with a consensus approach to a small issue, there wouldn’t be many problems, and those could be resolved with a more involved/designed process. This is a trivial example, but I also worry that you double the “process” of democracy, without removing the whole problem. For example, who is affected by a nationwide referendum is surely something that could not be decided by anything less than everyone in the country. Isn’t that just a double vote? And doesn’t the same problem exist, where you are putting the design of the “tailored democracy” to a straight democracy process? With double the effort? If you put it to a smaller group to decide, isn’t that an instant elite? Maybe I’m not seeing something simple, but I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Martin

 

Albert Rejoins 

> But what about the issue of deciding who should have what degree of say in each decision. It seems like that process is terribly complex, and yet very important, even supplanting the primacy of whatever decision making process you actually agree to.

Yes it is very important. But it is critical to realize that social situations are not like math problems, or even like professional football games. One doesn’t even bother to try to solve problems to the third decimal place. I mean this seriously. Most situations are amenable to a quick assessment of involvement of different constituencies, etc. You do what you can, as you can.

Suppose you have an organization… You may have six tactics for decision making, say: unilateral, majority, two thirds majority, all but two, all but one, and consensus — and then you can have the decision making body be the whole organization or a part of it, within a set of policies or aims established more broadly.

Then, you categorize decision types and assign one or other approach. It isn’t perfect, but it is much better than just choosing one tactic and one size group and making that do.

>For instance, the desk case is a small decision, and yet I think we could argue for some time about what degree of influence workmates should have.

Only if we were being foolish, I think. Everyone has unilateral say on their own unless they want to do something that will impinge on others…and so on.

>I certainly wouldn’t like to see, say, hard core S&M porn displayed on my workmates desk. To me, a consensus approach might actually be a good one to the desk problem, ie, where the person next to you doesn’t care, their consensus would probably be easy to obtain, and where they are really offended you probably should remove whatever it is that offends them.

So every time you make a change you go poll everyone to be sure they are okay with it? World doesn’t work that way, not even the most diehard advocate of consensus.

> Seems like the real issue is that deciding who should have what say in some sense supplants actually having a say. In addition, I would predict that often this process is more difficult, since people might argue hard for the both the right to have whatever they want on their workspace, and the right to have nothing offensive in their workplace, which could be competing principles.

Academics interested in the conundrums they can create given a logical structure that is imperfect, might do this. But normal people wouldn’t want to waste their time. In an institution you don’t debate who does what over and over, you establish some norms and they apply for a time — until seriously challeneged or seen to be needing amendment.

>This is a trivial example, but I also worry that you double the “process” of democracy, without removing the whole problem.

I think it is because you are looking for some kind of perfect allocation of power. In reality one has a few tactics to allot, like maybe the six I mentioned, and one does so. It is not hard. Sure, at SEP you spend some time thinking about whether book decisions should be consensus, or majority, or two -third, or what — more subtle ones too. But once you decide, then it doesn’t keep changing every day.

>For example, who is affected by a nationwide referendum is surely something that could not be decided by anything less than everyone in the country. Isn’t that just a double vote?

Again, you are making the simple difficult, I think… Referendums or votes of involved constituencies might have a few norms, and those are applied by type, and so on. Mostly such things would likely be majority rule, I would think. But others may feel differently. The point is, there is nothing sacrosanct about consensus and there are reasons why, and once we look at the reasons, we can see that it applies in some cases, not in others, like other approaches–becasue what we actually care about is not a tactic, but the principles we have for participation, allocation of influence, etc.

 

Dominick Responds

> You are not answering, I think. Of course you wouldn’t advocate consensus for these decisions, but WHY not?

REPLY: I answered your hypothetical question re the bathroom example below, stating that technically ALL decisions falling within the collective domain do affect the collective and do fall within the bounds of consensus. Technically, in theory.

> I think the answer is because consensus isn’t democratic or good at all in such a case. And that that is so because in this case the decision impacts almost exclusively the one person, so others shouldn’t have much if any say, and certainly not a veto level of say.

REPLY: And *my* answer was that consensus is not something to be abused, or entered into lightly. I do not use consensus in all cases. If I am not working with reasonable people, I don’t want to use consensus. Then again, I do not want to be working with unreasonable people. The problem for me is finding reasonable people, not using consensus once I do.

Let’s break here for a second. At the end of your message, Mike, you wrote:

>[… I ] have seen it [consensus] work wonderfully and miserably — >not surprisingly — and am tired of people making believe that the >miserable is just some kind of aberration or function of bad >practitioners instead of coming to see that consensus is simply >inappropriate, given their values, much of the time.)

At another point, you mention that consensus means people are in total agreement with a decision, and that’s what consensus is. This is fundamentally wrong. Therefore, if your experience has been based on this kind of consensus, which is admitedly more popular and common than others, then it HAS to be okay for me to say consensus has been misused, and that properly used, it does not yield the negative effects you cite.

Consensus decision making works on the principle that those affected by a decision must *accept* the decision. I have consensed to countless decisions which I have thought to be downright wrong, as in incorrect, not the best way to go, etc.

Consensus is completely capable of incorporarting the principle of decision-making input proportionate to the effect of a decision’s outcomes. I advocate this maxim, and I agree with you that it is a common-sense princicple shared by many. Reasonable people have the ability to determine, for themselves, whether the outcome of a decision will impact them so heavily in a negative way that they must block. And consensus leaves that up to the individual to determine, instead of some set of rules which says “this type of decision does not affect you strongly.”

The reason I have consensed to bad decisions — after stating and having my objections recorded — is because the impact on me, in a principled/moral sense, did not justify the kind of measure that is blocking. I have maybe seen 3 or 4 blocked decisions in the entire time I’ve been using consensus, and on every occasion they were because someone felt morally compelled to hault the decision (eg, stopping the group from engaging in a measure they saw as excessively “violent”), or because they felt the decision violated them in some way (forced them to do more a disproportionately large amount of work because they specialized in the area concerned, and would be relied on for implementation).

So you’ll excuse me for thinking consensus can work, with certain groups, as a general process.

> Thus, consensus is a tactic. A method. The principle might be, for example, that people should impact decisions proportionately to the degree they are affected by them. If so, then sometimes choosing consensus will be dead-on and perfect. Other times, however, it would violate the principles we care about, as in the first case I noted above, most simply — but, I think, as in MOST cases, in fact.

Why? Any group using a form of participatory democracy, be it majority rule, consensus, or something in between, will have to figure out a method by which it is determined HOW each decision will come about. If there is going to be some mix of procedures, how do you determine which procedure is best in which case?

Consensus, done properly, allows the group, and its members, to decide on a case-by-case basis how much each person is affected by what types of decisions. You don’t block a decision because you think it’s incorrect, but because you are opposed on principle or you think it violates you in some way. Or, maybe, you think a decision is so drastically wrong you must intervene. And I’ve never seen this done, and I don’t think I’d advocate it. Instead, I’d take it as an implication that the process has broken down, or that people in the group (either the dissenter or the majority) are not being reasonable. Which is a problem, but one which can then be dealt with as such. In cases of majoritarian democracy, constant, emphatic dissent can be ignored. And it commonly is, for convenience’s sake. With consensus it’s only convenient to deal with dissent directly.

> >Truly effective consensus respects individual autonomy more than > >any other decision-making process. > > This is, I think a myth, repeated so often as to begin to appear > valid, but totally false.

So I blindly accepted it? Please. I wrote that about consensus theory before I *ever* read or heard it anywhere. My introduction to consensus was poor, I wasn’t properly trained. (Training takes a long time, and should be a formal process carried out by experienced people.) I had to think long and hard about whether consensus was the way I wanted to go, and in the process I developed and stumbled upon some new theories, shared by others, though perhaps a small minority.

> Being in the group domain isn’t what makes a decision deserving of consensus or not. If it was then we would have dictatorship decisions (like the bathroom case) and consensus ones (whenever it is “in the group domain”) and nothing else.

In order for any decision to be made, it must be brought to the table at a collective meeting. There must be a formal proposal. This means most functions of a consensus group are going to be delegated to committees or individuals. And the only time the “bathroom example” could come up is if someone actually said, ‘I want Mike Albert’s excessive bathroom trips 😉 to be brought to the collective table and decided upon.’ That’s what makes the thing so ridiculous.

It can and does happen that someone in a meeting might say, “The committee in charge of our newsletter is terrible at spelling. I’d like to discuss whether they should use the spellcheck before they go to press.” And that would bring the committee’s process, already within the group domain, to the group’s attention. And then the individual members of the group can decide how to go about the decision. Perhaps the newsletter committee will feel the need to block a decision that they must use the spell checker. If they are reasonable people, and they see that the rest of the collective is pretty upset with the terrible spelling in the newsletter, which reflects upon and thus affects them all, they will simply employ the spell checker. There needn’t be any discussion of “what kind” of decision-making process to use. There needs to be reasonable, responsible, respecting people.

>But there are lots of decisions, most in fact, in different type groups and organizations, that do affect the group and all its members, but do so in a manner that isn’t best addressed by consensus.

>(At South End virtually all other decisions, from how people arrange desks, to how committees implement collective policies, to what books to accept or when to schedule them, and on and on, are taken by various means other than consensus which, however, implement the dictum of people affecting outcomes proportionately as they are impacted by them.)

REPLY: As a publisher myself, who’s worked with quite a few collectives and made countless content decisions, i disagree strongly with SEP’s policy of not requiring consensus re what books will be published. As I see it, I don’t want to be part of a press which publishes any material which is fundamentally unprincipled in my eyes. For instance, if I were a member of SEP, I would want to be able to block a decision to publish a book which advocated speciesist solutions to ecological problems. I would also want to block the publishing of any book whose thesis was that ageism is a product of patriarchy, and thus feminism, not youthism, is the appropriate liberation methodology. These are somewhat common stances on the left, which I think are fundamentally wrong, and will not work to promote.

If there are people at SEP who would block consensus on a title because they thought the topic wasn’t important (while others strongly did think it was), or because they thought the writing style was poor (while, again, others liked the writing, which is an aesthetic/subjective elemement) — well, that’s a shame. I have never seen a group of people so unreasonable, and I doubt it would work out that way at SEP. But unless we want to restrict ourselves to participation ONLY in groups with people who share our exact values, I think consensus protects us from being compelled to engage in an action which we find immoral, say the publication of a speciesist book, for me.

> Don’t now tell me how important it is that everyone get a chance to voice their concerns, and so on, so we have to use consensus. Achieving such ends has ZERO to do with consensus DECISION MAKING.

REPLY: That’s not my stance at all. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Any democratic process can be made participatory.

> Now consensus is deemed valid when people have certain qualities (as compared to size of project). I think this also makes no sense, when scrutinized. The qualities of the people, except in the sense of whether the decision making tactic CAN be used, do not bear on whether it SHOULD be used. Whether it is appropriate or not depends, instead, on whether it implements one’s relevant principles. A decision making procedure is not a principle, it is a tactic that one chooses or not.

REPLY: Yes, and we do not choose tactics which a given group, due to the qualities of its members, cannot implement in a sound manner. It’s not only a structure matter (like size). Personalities do count. And when a group is formed, and is deciding what decision-making process to use, and settles on consensus because it seems appropriate to the structure and membership, that group has a duty to then make sure that incoming members to the collective are suitable to the process.

> Yes, it could be that some decision making tactic has such nice qualities and is so flexible that it fits all or nearly all situations — but that just isn’t the case for consensus.

I think it is the case, when consensus is intended properly, because it is highly flexible, and leaves members to be as well. In effect, many consensus decisions are basically some form of majoritarian democracy. 3 out of 5 members of a collective think we should spend $500 on project A, while the other 2 of us think we should spend $1000. There’s no matter of principle involved, and no one will be disporoportionately affected if we choose 500 or 1000. Our investment in the project is incremental by $500 (say, each unit costs $500), so there’s no middle ground. Well, the two of us simply “give in” and consense to the decision. We don’t “stand aside.” Standing aside doesn’t happen in what I call proper consensus. You either accept it or consense or you block. There’s no way we’re going to block the group’s decision, because it just doesn’t matter that much, and we must believe that three heads are better than two, that it isn’t worth the struggle to “win over” another members, and so forth. This is called being a reasonable person.

Re trust in the process: > This is not, in fact, what happens in practice. Instead in practice to use consensus is a mark of being trustworthy, trustable, trusting, even good and worthy, and often left/anarchist, so one has a compulsion to do it and to put up with others doing it, even most inappropriately.

This is probably true. I’ve seen it happen. It shouldn’t happen. What do you expect from me, though? I don’t control those people or situations where consensus is entered into lightly. I don’t do it, and I don’t advocate it. I can think of no consensus proponent who has been more vocal on the anarchist Left than myself regarding opposition to careless consensus.

> At the Media and Democracy Congress, for example, a group of about 50 or 60 people met to discuss a future project they would undertake. Everyone thought it obvious that decisions should be by consensus, yet, for the most part people didn’t know squat about one another much less have some kind of deeply established trust.

REPLY: Yes, I know. I thought that was ridiculous. It was a perfect case of people entering into a decision-making process far too lightly, frivilously. I would have advocated participatory majoritarian democracy, maybe with a 2/3 rule. There wasn’t time for that, as you know, but it would have been better to use majoritarianism than consensus. You left early and missed the opportunity to witness one of the poorest uses of consenus I’ve ever seen. Decisions were not blocked, but dissent was occasionally mauled. It was horrifying, but mostly because of a process that would have sucked had it been majoritarianism, too..

Still, that example is not an argument against consensus any more than DWI statistics are an argument against driving automobiles.

>[…] everyone there should have and would have said, instead of let’s use consensus, wouldn’t it be nice if we could use consensus, but of course we can’t yet, and shouldn’t yet so let’s instead to whatever else they would choose.

REPLY: Yeah, but you and I were both there and neither of us said it. I, and I presume you as well, was aware of the rabidous reaction that suggestion would have received, which is presicely why I didn’t want to use consensus in the first place.

>If you say, instead, give everyone the right to do it on all decisions, but then assume that they won’t employ it except when it is appropriate, due to trust, or whatever — you are asking everyone to reign in their negative viewpoints, supposing they have them. This is, I believe, another WEAKNESS, not strength, of consensus when it is employed for decisions where it isn’t appropriate.

Why on earth would one “reign in” one’s negative feelings? If you are in a comfortable situation (unlike the IFIM meeting described above) using established consensus, why not voice objections? You think the only choices are to shut up and consense or to block a decision? No wonder you are so opposed.

> In organizations, for many reasons it is generally valuable that dissenters in fact hang on to their dissenting opinions as tenaciously as they feel them, rather than moderating themselves so they don’t abuse a power they shouldn’t, in fact, have.

It seems to me you’re saying people shouldn’t have the power to decide HOW much a decision affects them, as individuals. That should be up to the group, presumably by some process other than consensus (???). I see it as a simple matter of autonomy. If the “power” you are referring to is over deciding if a decision affects you to what degree, I don’t exactly think that’s a tyranny in the making, it’s a person being protected.

>With consensus people may express dissent in discussion, to be sure, but ultimately the aim is that everyone leaves the room thinking that everyone agrees about the deicsion when, in fact, often everyone doesn’t agree but, instead, dissenters have simply submerged their dissent because they feel it would be inappropriate to manifest it.

REPLY: Fine. We have no argument here. I don’t care to defend that kind of “consensus” process. If everyone has to leave any room I’m at in agreement, I’ll be the first one running out the door. I don’t value agreement, I value the knowledge that I am implementing a decision which I and all others affected find acceptable in principle and not in violation of our selves.

Mike, if you have a criticism of that kind of consensus as a default or standard dm process, the kind that values acceptance, not agreement, I’d like to hear it.

 

Albert Replies Anew…

> Consensus decision making works on the principle that those affected by a decision must *accept* the decision. I have consensed to countless decisions which I have thought to be downright wrong, as in incorrect, not the best way to go, etc.

IF that’s all it means, it is no different than any other mode of decision making. That is, majority rule means the minority accpts, thought it may disagree with, the decision.

To me the thing that distinguishes concensus, if it is to have any consistent meaning, isn’t the attitudes of those doing it, but the power that they have to impact decisions. The attiudes, good or bad, could exist with other decision making norms, likewise the tactics for getting people to express, etc. What is defining in concensus is simply that any participant, can, if they so choose, block the decision. The issue is, is that a useful and sensible power for every actor in a decision to have? I say sometimes, yes, most times, no.

> Consensus is completely capable of incorporarting the principle of > decision-making input proportionate to the effect of a decision’s > outcomes.

I can’t for the life of me see how. If there are five of us and we have consensus for your desk alignment, then I can block your preference even though it impacts you almost exclusively, or even exclusively. My input — the input I can take — is out of proportion to the affect on my. You are saying that in that instance I could restrain myself and not exercise my right. Well, of course. But when you say that then there is nothing about any system one can criticize or count as inapt for a situation. Because ANY system at all can yield the best outcomes if the actors all simply operate in lieu of they system and in terms of the outcomes, pre known.

>I advocate this maxim, and I agree with you that it is a > common-sense princicple shared by many. Reasonable people have the ability to determine, for themselves, whether the outcome of a decision will impact them so heavily in a negative way that they must block.

Fine, why not have majority rule. To say that you leave it to me to decide if I will block how you do your desk, but you can’t stop me from blocking how you do your desk, is simply to saying that I have more power than I should, I may not use it — and a dictator may be benevolent. But the form is wrong.

And consensus leaves that up to the individual to determine, instead of some set of rules which says “this type of decision does not affect you strongly.”

There are two different approaches to consensus. Mine says use it when it is the best approach , of those available, for dispersing power properly by your maxims. Yours say, consesns is the approach which lets everyone decide, in each case, each time, how much power they should exert… I think the former is sensible and has its place. I think the latter is not….

> The reason I have consensed to bad decisions — after stating and having my objections recorded — is because the impact on me, in a principled/moral sense, did not justify the kind of measure that is blocking. I have maybe seen 3 or 4 blocked decisions in the entire time I’ve been using consensus,

And I wonder in how many cases time was wasted inordinately while you or someone else came to this conclusion…or, in how many cases dissent was lost in the pressure to attain unity, or in the pressure not to block, it turned out that mild opposition from a majority disappered, which should have, in fact, blocked. And so on.

I think we have made our points…

>and on every occasion they were because someone felt morally compelled to hault the decision (eg, stopping the group from engaging in a measure they saw as excessively “violent”), or because they felt the decision violated them in some way (forced them to do more a disproportionately large amount of work because they specialized in the area concerned, and would be relied on for implementation).

Well, I have seen consensus, done with the same motivations and hopes you enumerate, lead to fiasco and to successful implementations. So, we disagree…. I think it is up to people to gauge from their own experiences.

> So you’ll excuse me for thinking consensus can work, with certain > groups, as a general process.

You are excused to believe so. So can majority rule, so can two third, so can lots and lots of approaches, coupled to various methods for eliciting opinions, etc. I quite agree. So it makes sense to choose, as we are able, for classes of decicions, the approaches that work best by our values and in terms of reaching good outcomes. I think we agree on that much….

> > Thus, consensus is a tactic. A method. The principle might be, for example, that people should impact decisions proportionately to the degree they are affected by them. If so, then sometimes choosing consensus will be dead-on and perfect. Other times, however, it would violate the principles we care about, as in the first case I noted above, most simply — but, I think, as in MOST cases, in fact. > > Why? Any group using a form of participatory democracy, be it majority rule, consensus, or something in between, will have to figure out a method by which it is determined HOW each decision will come about. If there is going to be some mix of procedures, how do you determine which procedure is best in which case?

What is so complex? At SEP you decide hiring is consensus, firing is consensus minus two, book decisions (and most others are majority but the minority, in a book decision but not most others, can hold the decision for two meetins, and, over the course of a year, say, everyones gets one veto — or whatever. Then you function.

> Consensus, done properly, allows the group, and its members, to > decide on a case-by-case basis how much each person is affected by what types of decisions.

Well. I think doing that over and over can be much — though in special instances I agree with you. But consensus leaves the choice to the individual…in every case.

> REPLY: As a publisher myself, who’s worked with quite a few collectives and made countless content decisions, i disagree strongly with SEP’s policy of not requiring consensus re what books will be published. As I see it, I don’t want to be part of a press which publishes any material which is fundamentally unprincipled in my eyes. For instance, if I were a member of SEP, I would want to be able to block a decision to publish a book which advocated speciesist solutions to ecological problems. I would also want to block the publishing of any book whose thesis was that ageism is a product of patriarchy, and thus feminism, not youthism, is the appropriate liberation methodology. These are somewhat common stances on the left, which I think are fundamentally wrong, and will not work to promote.

So, a group doing publishing has to all agree with one another on everything that is critically important to anyone. If this is so, any system of decision making will work wonderfully because everyone always has essentially the same ends in mind, immense trust and regard, etc.

But that isn’t the real world or any world I want to live in, for that matter. There people have strong and principled disagreements, whether about conditions or values, and yet decisions must happen anyhow. So you need methods that don’t presume agreement.

> If there are people at SEP who would block consensus on a title > because they thought the topic wasn’t important (while others strongly did think it was), or because they thought the writing style was poor (while, again, others liked the writing, which is an aesthetic/subjective elemement) — well, that’s a shame.

I don’t get it. You are not only allowed to say that speciesism, or whatever else YOU pick, is important but you are allowed to decide that someone else can’t or shouldn’t block for some other reason that THEY think is important. Why is that? If the definition of consensus is folks can only block for such and such reasons, otherwise the majority vote wins — then that’s one thing. But if it is anyone can block for any reason they have, even if they don’t want to voice it or are unable to (as in SEP’s consensus re hiring) then that is another thing.

>I think consensus protects us from being compelled to engage in an action which we find immoral, say the publication of a speciesist book, for me.

Well what would protect you from that is quitting, or not joining in the first place. But take your example. Suppose there are ten of us, and you come to the conclusion that such a book should be published, but the other nine feel REALLY strongly that it should. You can block. Now just reverse the vote. Suppose someone proposes that a policy be established that speciesist books will not be published. NINE vetos.

> REPLY: Yes, and we do not choose tactics which a given group, due to the qualities of its members, cannot implement in a sound manner. It’s not only a structure matter (like size). Personalities do count. And when a group is formed, and is deciding what decision-making process to use, and settles on consensus because it seems appropriate to the structure and membership, that group has a duty to then make sure that incoming members to the collective are suitable to the process.

I think it sounds like you are saying that when appropriate due to agreement, trust, the types of decisions that will be taken, etc., you feel consensus can work and ought to be used, as optimal in those lights. Perhaps so. But that is very rare…and it certainly isn’t groups of people in which few know anyone else, there are no shared principles agreed to, etc. etc. But we both know that nowadays such groups sit down and first off say, okay, we should make decisions by consensus…all in favor, everyone, horray let’s go.

> > Yes, it could be that some decision making tactic has such nice qualities and is so flexible that it fits all or nearly all situations — but that just isn’t the case for consensus.

> > I think it is the case, when consensus is intended properly, because it is highly flexible, and leaves members to be as well.

It requires, you have already said, immense agreement in matters of principle, but such agreement certainly can’t be a prerequisite for all groups working together, institutions, etc. For one thing, such levels of agreement would be horrible, in a broad community…

>In effect, many consensus decisions are basically some form of majoritarian democracy. 3 out of 5 members of a collective think we should spend $500 on project A, while the other 2 of us think we should spend $1000. There’s no matter of principle involved, and no one will be disporoportionately affected if we choose 500 or 1000. Our investment in the project is incremental by $500 (say, each unit costs $500), so there’s no middle ground. Well, the two of us simply “give in” and consense to the decision. We don’t “stand aside.” Standing aside doesn’t happen in what I call proper consensus. You either accept it or consense or you block. There’s no way we’re going to block the group’s decision, because it just doesn’t matter that much, and we must believe that three heads are better than two, that it isn’t worth the struggle to “win over” another members, and so forth. This is called being a reasonable person.

This is majority decision making with the option for minorities, or even sole dissenters, to block. Do they have the option — or must it be accepted as reasonable. If the latter it is nothing, if the former, it is something.

> > At the Media and Democracy Congress, for example, a group of about 50 or 60 people met to discuss a future project they would undertake. Everyone thought it obvious that decisions should be by consensus, yet, for the most part people didn’t know squat about one another much less have some kind of deeply established trust.

>  REPLY: Yes, I know. I thought that was ridiculous. It was a > perfect case of people entering into a decision-making process far too lightly, frivilously. I would have advocated participatory > majoritarian democracy, maybe with a 2/3 rule.

Then what the hell are we arguing about? That means you think that consensus and lots of other options are available, and in different situations different options should be employed — which means consensus isn’t a manner of principle, but one of accomplishing other principles…which would mean we agree.

> Still, that example is not an argument against consensus any more than DWI statistics are an argument against driving automobiles.

Ahh, it could be and in the same sense. If one could connect DWI stats to features of driving per se, and if the effects were too horrible to persist, case closed. If one connected them instead to things other than driving — one still might argue that driving, while those conditions in the world persist, is a dud.

Same for consensus. Both due to the actual built in tendencies of consensus which seem to me to yield bad outcomes even with people who think they are well suited to it, and due to the fact that in the world we inhabit what people bring to decision making is most often way far from what you describe as needed for consensus, it seems like a tactic best employed infrequently.

> >[…] everyone there should have and would have said, instead of let’s use consensus, wouldn’t it be nice if we could use consensus, but of course we can’t yet, and shouldn’t yet so let’s instead to whatever else they would choose.

What is so NICE about it. Why is it NICE that we agree so much on principle that we can use it. Sometimes it is better that we don’t, that we have differences, deep ones, and so on.

> REPLY: Yeah, but you and I were both there and neither of us said it. I, and I presume you as well, was aware of the rabidous reaction that suggestion would have received, which is presicely why I didn’t want to use consensus in the first place.

I think I might have made some progress had I tried, but I didn’t think it was my place. But, ultimately, yes a radibous reaction — like telling people don’t be democratic, don’t be just, don’t be humane, or whatever. But that is my point. Advocates of consensus have, wittingly or not, elevated it to some kind of badge of being just, a necessary part of being left, etc. and the result is bad as in the case you describe.

> >If you say, instead, give everyone the right to do it on all decisions, but then assume that they won’t employ it except when it is appropriate, due to trust, or whatever — you are asking everyone to reign in their negative viewpoints, supposing they have them. This is, I believe, another WEAKNESS, not strength, of consensus when it is employed for decisions where it isn’t appropriate.

> Why on earth would one “reign in” one’s negative feelings? If you are in a comfortable situation (unlike the IFIM meeting described above)

But the whole point is most situation are like that…they were good even wonderful people, all with very progressive and left intentions, etc. etc.

> It seems to me you’re saying people shouldn’t have the power to decide HOW much a decision affects them, as individuals.

You can’t, ultimately, if there is a disagreement. I can’t say 10 and you say 80 and we both get to act on it. Impossible.

 

Dominick Rebuts Back

I had written:

> > Consensus decision making works on the principle that those affected by a decision must *accept* the decision. I have consensed to countless decisions which I have thought to be downright wrong, as in incorrect, not the best way to go, etc.

To which Mike responded:

> IF that’s all it means, it is no different than any other mode of decision making. That is, majority rule means the minority accpts, thought it may disagree with, the decision.

REPLY: There is a key difference, though: the option to have a higher say in a decision if the outcome might violate you in some way, which is precisely the reason your “participatory democracy” model, which I like, affords input proportionate to the degree affected by outcome — to protect minorities from being violated, yes?

> To me the thing that distinguishes concensus, if it is to have any consistent meaning, isn’t the attitudes of those doing it, but the power that they have to impact decisions. The attiudes, good or bad, could exist with other decision making norms, likewise the tactics for getting people to express, etc. What is defining in concensus is simply that any participant, can, if they so choose, block the decision. The issue is, is that a useful and sensible power for every actor in a decision to have? I say sometimes, yes, most times, no.

REPLY: And I agree, except I cannot be the one to judge what power an individual should have in a given decision. I am not necessarily aware — or capable of being aware — of how things affect others, how they’re perceived, etc. Just because I don’t think something has a significant enough effect on someone to warrant them having the ability to “impede” it’s implementation, or even when “I” is the rest of the collective, doesn’t mean I am right, and they should be forced to submit to the will of the majority. I think, ideally, this is best determined by the dissenter her or himself. Further, I think this ideal can be respected in certain circumstances, particularly small collectives with high degrees of trust and familiarity between participants. Even with those elements present, majoritarian democracy will tend to override the compelling objections of dissenters, on some occasions, say when the majority just doesn’t see the concern being raised. It is a simple but, I think, important difference.

> I can’t for the life of me see how [consensus is capable of incorporating the maxim of decision making input according to impact of outcome]. If there are five of us and we have consensus for your desk alignment, then I can block your preference even though it impacts you almost exclusively, or even exclusively.

I did not say it would always, with all groups, respect this maxim. I simply said it is capable. It is just as capable as any collective which decides, by whatever process, to assign values to particular classes of decision. If it’s possible for a group to sit down and say “logistical decisions will be majority rule, hiring decisions will be consensus, editorial decisions will be 2/3 majority,” etc, it’s possible for a group of reasonable people — or for individuals speaking for themselves, to sit down and do the same thing for every decision. Indeed, it won’t have to be spoken in most cases, because properly facilitated consensus “naturally” promtotes fair levels of input. Or, at least that’s my thesis. It’s less technical, but as I see it, the human mind is less technical and mathematically logical than it is rational in more qualitative manner, rarely requiring quantitative assignments of input/value for assessment non-mathematical decisions.

My input — the input I can take — is out of proportion to the affect on my. You are saying that in that instance I could restrain myself and not exercise my right. Well, of course. But when you say that then there is nothing about any system one can criticize or count as inapt for a situation. Because ANY system at all can yield the best outcomes if the actors all simply operate in lieu of they system and in terms of the outcomes, pre known.

> There are two different approaches to consensus. Mine says use it when it is the best approach , of those available, for dispersing power properly by your maxims. Yours say, consesns is the approach which lets everyone decide, in each case, each time, how much power they should exert… I think the former is sensible and has its place. I think the latter is not….

There are more than 2 approaches to just about every issue in life, and this is one of them. My approach says consensus is sensible sometimes, other times not. But it also says that consensus can be used as the standard process by some groups under normal circumstances.

> And I wonder in how many cases time was wasted inordinately while you or someone else came to this conclusion…or, in how many cases dissent was lost in the pressure to attain unity, or in the pressure not to block, it turned out that mild opposition from a majority disappered, which should have, in fact, blocked. And so on.

See, this is where I start to question whether you actually apply fully participatory processes to decisions. It shouldn’t matter whether a decision is consensus or vote, there should always be plenty of space for people to “waste time” holding up decisions if they’re not comfortable. I don’t know why, given participatory process, you pin this on consensus and not voting.

For example, if dissent is lost in the pressure to attain unity — which happens — that isn’t a criticism of consensus. In majority rule, that dissent is simply overriden. In consensus done well, dissent is always recorded and recalled, so where’s the tyranny?

> Well, I have seen consensus, done with the same motivations and hopes you enumerate, lead to fiasco and to successful implementations. So, we disagree…. I think it is up to people to gauge from their own experiences.

I agree wholeheartedly that people should guage this by their own experiences. I think it would be sad if anyone read our theoretical ponderings and chose one process over the other based on what we’re saying here, without considerable experience with various processes.

At the same time, I’d just like to remind you that I have seen majority rule, most often in cases where consensus was forgone due to the persistence of difficulty reaching it, turn into horrible cases of majoritarian authoritarianism, where a majority blindly exploits the interests of the minority.

> So, a group doing publishing has to all agree with one another on everything that is critically important to anyone. If this is so, any system of decision making will work wonderfully because everyone always has essentially the same ends in mind, immense trust and regard, etc.

No, I didn’t say they have to agree with everyone. Looking back, I didn’t even imply it. What I said was any publication produced should be — in my opinion, for groups I’m working with — acceptable to all involved. I don’t have to agree with someone’s methods for, say, ecological sustainability and recovery — I just have to find them consistent with my values, whether the methods are rational or not. In my example, there are plenty of workable eco-visions which are also anthropocentric to the core, indeed most are. Whether I agree with them or not is inconsequential, provided they’re well-expressed, etc. But if they are oppressive, then I find them unacceptable, and I certainly won’t expend my energy promoting them, and can’t fathom why any free-thinking person would.

> But that isn’t the real world or any world I want to live in, for that matter. There people have strong and principled disagreements, whether about conditions or values, and yet decisions must happen anyhow. So you need methods that don’t presume agreement.

I don’t want to repeat myself for, literally, the 5th or 6th time. Agreement is not presumed at all. I will argue with people about issues like gender, age, sex, race, species, etc, till the cows come home. You know I thrive on that, like you. However, that doesn’t mean in the end, if we still are at odds, I am going to promote someone’s racist, sexist, speciesit, etc, book, or participate in a project that is exploitative, etc, etc, even if those concerns are very minor or marginal to others involved in a decision.

> I don’t get it. You are not only allowed to say that speciesism, or whatever else YOU pick, is important but you are allowed to decide that someone else can’t or shouldn’t block for some other reason that THEY think is important. Why is that? If the definition of consensus is folks can only block for such and such reasons, otherwise the majority vote wins — then that’s one thing.

Well that IS the definition I provided days and days ago. Did you miss that? Is this all for naught? There needn’t be a vote, but people MUST express their reservations. If they are deemed not valid (ie, they boil down to quantitative disagreement, etc, even thought the decision is acceptable on principle and doesn’t violate anyone’s freedom), then that will be pointed out. If the dissenter insists on blocking anyway, the group has a problem highlighted, and that problem is that someone is unable to function in a fair manner. Then the group deals with that problem, in sensible ways.

>But if it is anyone can block for any reason they have, even if they don’t want to voice it or are unable to (as in SEP’s consensus re hiring) then that is another thing.

Whose argument is this? This is from Mars, and I can’t imagine why you would attribute it to me. I’m sure somewhere people operate on these principles, but I would think them as outrageous as you do.

> Well what would protect you from that is quitting, or not joining in the first place. But take your example. Suppose there are ten of us, and you come to the conclusion that such a book should be published, but the other nine feel REALLY strongly that it should. You can block. Now just reverse the vote. Suppose someone proposes that a policy be established that speciesist books will not be published. NINE vetos.

We don’t need a policy regarding speciesist books. But how can you ask me to support a project I find to be fundamentally contradictory to my values?

> I think it sounds like you are saying that when appropriate due to agreement, trust, the types of decisions that will be taken, etc., you feel consensus can work and ought to be used, as optimal in those lights. Perhaps so. But that is very rare…and it certainly isn’t groups of people in which few know anyone else, there are no shared principles agreed to, etc. etc. But we both know that nowadays such groups sit down and first off say, okay, we should make decisions by consensus…all in favor, everyone, horray let’s go.

Mike, please. I’ve been saying this all along. What gives? I said earlier, in no uncertain terms, that consensus is not for collectives with unfamiliar members, is not for collectives without shared principles, etc. You are repeating *me*, of all things.

> It requires, you have already said, immense agreement in matters of principle, but such agreement certainly can’t be a prerequisite for all groups working together, institutions, etc. For one thing, such levels of agreement would be horrible, in a broad community…

It doesn’t require *immense* agreement in principles. It requires members respect one another’s principles. If there were immense agreement in principle, consensus would be even less necessary, as no one would need to object to the violation of their principles. If there is any possibility that I am going to be morally violated by a majority, I want to be able to block that majority’s conclusions. Seems fair to me.

> Then what the hell are we arguing about? That means you think that consensus and lots of other options are available, and in different situations different options should be employed — which means consensus isn’t a manner of principle, but one of accomplishing other principles…which would mean we agree.

Which I said earlier, in almost the same exact words. The only difference is that, as I’ve said but will repeat again, some groups can use consensus as their standard process.

 

Albert Still Again

> REPLY: There is a key difference, though: the option to have a higher say in a decision if the outcome might violate you in some way, which is precisely the reason your “participatory democracy” model, which I like, affords input proportionate to the degree affected by outcome — to protect minorities from being violated, yes?

Yes, the principle working in participatory economics is that one should have input in proportion to the degree one is affected, and yes, as YOU describe consensus, when one vetos a decision one is doing. or trying to do, precisely that. But there is another difference. In consensus you let each individual unilaterally and with no recourse whatsoever from anyone else determine their OWN right to or even responsibility to veto.

For any decision, however couched, opposition takes precedence and one dissenter is enough. Violating, in your words, one individual is sacrosanct and cannot be done. That we can take the same decision and reverse its wording and now, perhaps, have a situation in which a group of one is violating (could be even more so, by their assessment and pretty much anyones) all the others, doesn’t matter.

This is a large step, and a strange one when it is fomulated as somehow principled or nearly ideal or worth aspiring to in all situations and only to be foregone if one and one’s group cannot attain the level of trust or whatever needed to operate in this ideal manner. Which is how consensus is generally portaryed and advanced (sometimes by you, sometimes not — almost always by most of its advocates).

But freedom isn’t just the freedom to dissent, it is also the freedom to DO THINGS. So, one can have a very strong need for action, even an overwhelming need for action, as well as to avoid it. For a choice, as well as against one.

What if you have religious opposition to taking drugs, or to abortion. Someone in your project needs a drug to survive, or desires an abortion. The person needs a loan from the project and asks. The decision is to be made. It violates your norms, etc. (And, indeed, it does.) With your view when you dissent the rest of us, if we carry out our prior agreements, etc., must decide either to not provide the load, or we must disband having violating our decision making norms.

With other methods of decision making, if you dissent in this decision, and the decision to provide the loan is passed, YOU must decide whether to stay or leave, but others have no such problem. This is no small difference. It is a graphic illustration but actually quite indicative. Important decisions that NEED a system of decision making are precisely those on which parties on all sides comparably strongly….

In concensus opposition has this special place. For some decisions that makes good sense (re opposition to a new employee being hired in a small project, for example — because the effects are very asymmetrical and the person opposing the change should be able to veto it). But in other choices it makes no sense.

You say, no problem, the actors know this and will act on it.

Well sure, that is often going to be true. BUT, it doesn’t tell us anything useful at all. Because there is NO decision making mechanism that won’t yield perfect outcomes in your eyes, or my eyes, or whoever’s eyes, if that person is able to define the mechanism as a system in which everyone will always see things and balance things as they do….which is really what you are doing.

Suppose you feel it is entirely in your rights and encumbent on you to dissent to the extent of your ability on a decision to DO something…whatever it may be. I am in the same group and I feel, and so does everyone else, that that decision is absolutely critical and must go forward, despite your heartfelt and unwavering objection.

In consensus you win — or we dissolve our group or violate our norms. And before we do that, we spend lots of time (as much as YOU want) hearing you out, struggling with you, and so on — which sometimes is a good thing, and sometimes is a totally useless exercise in futility and frustration for everyone (not to mention sometimes being a way for a dissenter to garner attention or bludgeon others, etc., which you call invalid consensus and I call an intrinsic possibility of the decision tactic, just like problems associated with others).

In many other decision systems than consensus, the dissenting group now, one or many, doesn’t WIN like that. Rather you urge the asserting group (if it has won by the norms of the decision making approach), to give in, but if they don’t, they win, unless we dissolve or violate our norms, regardless of how adament the dissenter may be.

Your approach has as its logic (which is sometimes sensible) that the single dissenter takes precedence, other approaches may give the power to a group of dissenters only (like majority rule but two or four or whatever can veto, if adamant enough), or may retain it for those who have won the “vote” (by whatever norm).

Making it all quite abstract, it seems entirely arbitrary to say that IN ALL CASES we should rely on the wisdom of the dissident, on their maturity and assessment, when there is disagreement. It seems wrongheaded, as well, to even take the lesser stance that this is some kind of higher way of operating, or more principled way, or whatever…

Thinking about it this way puts it in perhaps an interesting light…

The strong consensus advocate — who urges it as examplary rather than one among many useful approaches — is saying, in some sense, that individual action is primary, even if it means that the collectivity of others must be disbanded so that all inividuals are left operating in isolation. No individual should ever be overruled, if they don’t want to be, by a group. Dissent takes precedence over assent, regardless of the extent of either. And so on.

Contemporary anarchists and others as well often express sentiments like this–more so in practical circumstances than in the abstract, but sometimes both. That somehow when compromise time comes, the individual is sacrosanct — I don’t get it. (a) The group is a lot of individuals–why is it only the dissenting one that garners this level of validity? (b) Society is not a bad but a good thing, properly pursued. And the desire NOT to do something is no more principled or important, by definition, than the desire TO DO something.

I think that in conception and in practice, consensus (meaning that ultimately a dissenter has a veto) is a very individualist and conservative (blocking change is sacrosanct) structure, appropriate at times, completely inappropriate at other times.

> > There are two different approaches to consensus. Mine says use it when it is the best approach , of those available, for dispersing power properly by your maxims. Yours say, consesns is the approach which lets everyone decide, in each case, each time, how much power they should exert… I think the former is sensible and has its place. I think the latter is not….

> There are more than 2 approaches to just about every issue in life, and this is one of them. My approach says consensus is sensible sometimes, other times not. But it also says that consensus can be used as the standard process by some groups under normal circumstances.

If this is all you are saying, we have no disagreement. But you have a very strong disagreement, like mine, with MOST advocates of consensus. I don’t think it is all you are saying, however…

This view, you wrote above, doesn’t elevate consensus as compared to other tactics. It says it is one, with particular properties, and when those properties fit a circumstance (a group and its decisions) the approach can be and perhaps should be utilized. So? No one disagrees with this, that I know of, I think.

Now the issue is what circumstances? And here, in practice, almost all strong advocates of consensus I have ever encountered become kind of religious about it. It is a wonderful thing — IF we are together enough and politically sophisticated enough and trusting enough to do it we ought to do it. If we can’t do it, haven’t quite got ourselves together enough, we are in some manner defective compared to the ideal us. And on and on.

If you can say out loud, instead, that consensus is INAPPROPRIATE for making many types of decisions, by many groups, and that in such cases using it is a mistake — that it is one among many options, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, then what are we arguing about?

How about this as a way to proceed? Don’t bother with detailed answers to the rest of this message– it is more than either of us have time for, no doubt…. Instead, how about just answering the above question. Put down your view. And put down my view. And indicate the difference that leads us to debate… When I receive that, I will agree, or I will offer a contrasting account. Then we can see where we are at. How’s that?

> > And I wonder in how many cases time was wasted inordinately while you or someone else came to this conclusion…or, in how many cases dissent was lost in the pressure to attain unity, or in the pressure not to block, it turned out that mild opposition from a majority disappered, which should have, in fact, blocked. And so on.

> See, this is where I start to question whether you actually apply fully participatory processes to decisions. It shouldn’t matter whether a decision is consensus or vote, there should always be plenty of space for people to “waste time” holding up decisions if they’re not comfortable. I don’t know why, given participatory process, you pin this on consensus and not voting.

No, Brian, this is not obvious at all unless it is make clearer what the terms mean. Sometimes it is absolutely and unequivically correct that there should be huge space for dissent, or whoever, to voice their views. But other times the pain and suffering of delay, the loss of delay — for all those wanting to proceed, simply outweighs the need for people to make known their views in infinite detail, or over and over, or in some very circumstances, where time is very short, even at all.

Suppose you have a large group trying to decide on a political action or demonstration to be taken soon, say a rally, or whatever. There are a hundred people involved, or even just ten, for that matter. It is a big deal choice…. 10 percent strongly dissent. Okay, now what? Well, it depends. In your view if they keep on “feeling bad” or “feeling that they have more to say” the rest must abide and listen listen listen. Dissent takes precedence. Being upset over the prospect of DOING is more important than being upset over the prospect of NOT DOING. The status quo is defended against alteration with an immense burden on going in new directions.

Don’t make it out that someone who isn’t interested in listening forever to people who disagree with an overwhelmingly supported plan is somehow, for that reason, uncaring…or non-participatory. They may be, but they may not be. And the consensus advocates “high ground” accusation that they are, ocnveyed in tone, manner, and sometimes just explicit statement, is why conflicts between advocates of consensus and others sometimes become so strident — the consensus folks somehow think it is inhumane or uncaring or non-participatory for others to say, okay, we have heard out all the dissenters, their views are on the floor, the votes are in, it is time to go forward. Their continued complaint, if heard any more, would be the oppressive force…enough is enough.

> > I don’t get it. You are not only allowed to say that speciesism, or whatever else YOU pick, is important but you are allowed to decide that someone else can’t or shouldn’t block for some other reason that THEY think is important. Why is that? If the definition of consensus is folks can only block for such and such reasons, otherwise the majority vote wins — then that’s one thing.

> Well that IS the definition I provided days and days ago. Did you miss that? Is this all for naught? There needn’t be a vote, but people MUST express their reservations. If they are deemed not valid (ie, they boil down to quantitative disagreement, etc, even thought the decision is acceptable on principle and doesn’t violate anyone’s freedom), then that will be pointed out. If the dissenter insists on blocking anyway, the group has a problem highlighted, and that problem is that someone is unable to function in a fair manner. Then the group deals with that problem, in sensible ways.

WHAT???????

All of a sudden consensus means that we take a vote, the majority (or whatever other required number we agreed on wins) and then a dissenter can urge and plead that they think it would be wrong to go forward, and IF THE OTHERS AGREE the dissenters will is followed, but if not, then not?????

I give up. No one I know on the left, even the most diehard and vociferous opponent of consensus, would oppose such a statement of how people ought to act, in every case, if time permits.

> >But if it is anyone can block for any reason they have, even if they don’t want to voice it or are unable to (as in SEP’s consensus re hiring) then that is another thing.

> Whose argument is this?

Mine. It is what consensus means at SEP. Precisely. No reason even needs to be given. People have a veto. It is a good tool, in certain instances.

If a dissenter’s reasons must be accepted, that is no longer a veto.

This is just a matter of simple logic. I am at wits end in this dicussion…a point I often reach with advocates of consensus.

They — whether this is you or not — advocate it as a kind of principle, a superior tool to aspire to, then, in discussion, they eventually recognize that it can only be a superior tool to aspire to if it doesn’t, in fact, involve a veto, so they start to weaken it to — pay attention to dissenters in a heartfelt and sincere manner, perhaps changing a decision to accord if their hurt or logic is powerful enough. Big Deal. Everyone believes in this. But now real consensus, real and useful tool that SHOULD be employed, with a real and uncontestable veto for dissenters, is gone.

And then I am in the strange position — of trying to restore it to the decision-making tool chest, where is should reside, for careful use….but only in appropriate conditions.

Brian, I simply can’t go on with this….it is like Alice in Wonderland to me.

>This [view] is from Mars, and I can’t imagine why you would attribute it to me. I’m sure somewhere people operate on these principles, but I would think them as outrageous as you do.

But I DON’T think it is outrageous to give people a veto, on some decisions, with no recourse for the rest to override them, regardless. I think REAL CONSENSUS, meaning everyone has a veto that is uncontestable if they are adament and that a decision is only taken if EVERYONE votes FOR IT, is a perfectly well conceived norm and is actually appropriate for certain types of decision. Then there are other norms, ALL of which include what you now seem to be talking about — that someone can make a desperate and heartfelt appeal based on their principles, or whatever else, and if folks abide their, they essentially change their votes and, thus, the decision is overturned.

> > I think it sounds like you are saying that when appropriate due to agreement, trust, the types of decisions that will be taken, etc., you feel consensus can work and ought to be used, as optimal in those lights. Perhaps so. But that is very rare…and it certainly isn’t groups of people in which few know anyone else, there are no shared principles agreed to, etc. etc. But we both know that nowadays such groups sit down and first off say, okay, we should make decisions by consensus…all in favor, everyone, horray let’s go.

> Mike, please. I’ve been saying this all along. What gives? I said earlier, in no uncertain terms, that consensus is not for collectives with unfamiliar members, is not for collectives without shared principles, etc. You are repeating *me*, of all things.

I think what you say varies, Brian, depending on context. Sometimes you are saying virtually what I am, it seems. Sometimes you are saying something quite different, it seems.

Advocates of consensus — you aside — can either say it is X and it is one of many options and it is good in such situations, and not in others.

Or they can act as though consensus is somehow the optimal way to make decisions that all should aspire to and that to now use it means we are somehow FALLING SHORT.

Your words sometimes point to the first formulation, sometimes the second. The overwhelming dynamic with anarchist and many circles is to point toward the second….this is what I find objectionable and unthought out.

If we agree, great, let’s move on.

> It doesn’t require *immense* agreement in principles. It requires members respect one another’s principles.

See, now our agreement falls apart. If I refuse to accommodate your veto that apparently means, to you, that I don’t respect you. If we respect each other, then why can’t we have consensus? That simply denies that I can feel as strongly about pursuing a decision as you do about blocking it.

It begins to introduce this moral onus or at least of inadequacy on the condition of being unable to use consensus — we lack sufficient mutual respect.

>If there were immense agreement in principle, consensus would be even less necessary, as no one would need to object to the violation of their principles. If there is any possibility that I am going to be morally violated by a majority, I want to be able to block that majority’s conclusions. Seems fair to me.

Nope, We really do disagree. I think this is an anti-social and wrong-headed conception, to be very honest and forthright about it. It views things, as noted earlier, from one side only. Society is not and cannot be perfectly consistent with every participant’s desires or morals in all things that it does. Ditto for projects, movements, groups, organizations, etc. That an individual feels some proposed act is bad, vile, or whatever, cannot by definition preclude that act from being undertaken by lots of others who feel as strongly, even more strongly, that it is essential — except in those instances where this is a sensible norm, where the status quo or non action should prevail if there is even a single powerful dissenter, a relatively rare situation.

Sometimes what you seem to be saying is the person should always be able to say they are upset, violently opposed, would have to leave if the act were taken, or whatever, and HOPE that others see the force of this and abide it by holding the decision, or overturning it. No one I know, even among right wingers, objects to this. This is where respect and hearing and caring come in. If people have these qualities, then more often a powerful voice of dissent will sway others, if not, not. But these qualities have nothing to do with the voting norms, only with how people behave using those norms.

Other times you seem to be saying (which is what I think the word consenssus ought to mean if it is to be real…)the dissenter simply has a veto.

> > Then what the hell are we arguing about?

> Which I said earlier, in almost the same exact words. The only difference is that, as I’ve said but will repeat again, some groups can use consensus as their standard process.

More power to them…. I doubt I would WANT to be in one…though would certainly compromise my views and do so, if I had no other recourse. There you go.

 

Dominick Getting Nnear the End

Okay, I think we both agree this discussion has gone on long enough, unfortunately with nowhere people seem to feel comfortable joining.

However, I am compelled to respond to your last post because, on the one hand, I find your arguments to be outstanding and very convincing, in many respects, on many points.

On the other hand, I think you have very severely, in at least one spot, violated my position by, in an overwhelming manner, putting words in my mouth which, after careful re-reading, were never there, and then trashing those straw arguments to a well-deserved bloody pulp — the problem being they were never my arguments but you attributed them to me.

I implore you to read my entire message before responding to it, as I expect you will be surprised by some of my conclusions and see no need to respond on other points contained within.

> What if you have religious opposition to taking drugs, or to abortion. Someone in your project needs a drug to survive, or desires an abortion. The person needs a loan from the project and asks. The decision is to be made. It violates your norms, etc. (And, indeed, it does.) With your view when you dissent the rest of us, if we carry out our prior agreements, etc., must decide either to not provide the load, or we must disband having violating our decision making norms.

This was an excellent case example, and I don’t have much of a counter-argument. Even my version of consensus could, conceivably, even among a group with a relative amount of shared principles, come to a tragic conclusion. Indeed, when I first got involved with activism I was pro-choice but anti-abortion (meaning I wouldn’t have supported it financially). I don’t remember how compelling that was at the time for me, but it’s possible I would’ve blocked my affinity group’s financial support for a member’s abortion, based on my own values, which would have been tragic, I think, provided that gourp could have done something to help but was prevented by my objections.

And, while maybe a few days ago I would still have thought the individual’s prerogative to NOT support something deemed “immoral” or unacceptable on principle should override a group’s initiative to carry out such an action, the following statement by you was what swayed me:

> With other methods of decision making, if you dissent in this decision, and the decision to provide the loan is passed, YOU must decide whether to stay or leave, but others have no such problem. This is no small difference. It is a graphic illustration but actually quite indicative. Important decisions that NEED a system of decision making are precisely those on which parties on all sides comparably strongly….

Indeed, also, were the dissenter to have used her/his blocking prerogative, s/he would have clearly been acting disproportionate to the affect on her/him of the action in question, and the structure of the process wouldn’t have allowed for anything different. That is, even according to my previous assertions that consensus (my version) allows the individual to judge the effect on her/himself, it does deny to an extent the group’s (more “objective”) weight. Two days ago I would have called this a misjudgement on he dissenter’s part — and it would be, but it might be unavoidable. The scenario is simply too possible to brush over.

> Contemporary anarchists and others as well often express sentiments like this–more so in practical circumstances than in the abstract, but sometimes both. That somehow when compromise time comes, the individual is sacrosanct — I don’t get it. (a) The group is a lot of individuals–why is it only the dissenting one that garners this level of validity? (b) Society is not a bad but a good thing, properly pursued. And the desire NOT to do something is no more principled or important, by definition, than the desire TO DO something.

Yes, I have held consensus on a pedestal as an ideal, one to be aspired to, while acknowledging its inappropriateness in the majority of current cases of organizations making decisions, especially mass-based organizations (large size, open membership, etc). That difference has rarely been noted by consensus advocates, I admit (not as if I’m responsible for what they say, but I used to say it myself, as you probably recall, and as may be cause for some of the confusion here this time around).

The above quote, and others peppered throughout your message which I’ve opted not to quote here, is a very important argument. I’ll let it stand without further comment, while recommending others reading this thread and agreeing with me thus far re-read the above section, plus what follows:

> I think that in conception and in practice, consensus (meaning that ultimately a dissenter has a veto) is a very individualist and conservative (blocking change is sacrosanct) structure, appropriate at times, completely inappropriate at other times.

> This view, you wrote above, doesn’t elevate consensus as compared to other tactics. It says it is one, with particular properties, and when those properties fit a circumstance (a group and its decisions) the approach can be and perhaps should be utilized. So? No one disagrees with this, that I know of, I think.

Well, I have been elevating consensus, without claiming it is appropriate in all cases. My position has been that it is always “appropriate” whenever it is possible, as in, whenever it can be used effectively — ie, not by a large group, not by a group of people without respect for one another, etc.

Further, people do disagree with consensus in general, my version, your version, any version, at least as a formal process for groups. Indeed, people disagree with participatory democracy in general, especially those who happen to carry certain powers of morality, etc. Some people don’t even advocate democratic organizing, saying it is too tedious, so they form hierarchical organizations. And I am talking about so-called “progressives” and even “radicals.” They abound!

> If you can say out loud, instead, that consensus is INAPPROPRIATE for making many types of decisions, by many groups, and that in such cases using it is a mistake — that it is one among many options, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, then what are we arguing about?

I can say this, but there has still been a valid argument about whether any group should use it as their standard, ie default without the option for other d-m methods, process.

> Instead, how about just answering the above question. Put down your view. And put down my view. And indicate the difference that leads us to debate…

My view has been: Some collectives can and should use consensus all the time. Most organizations cannot, but some can. I’ve already explained the necessary conditions (size, familiarity, etc).

You believe, I presume, that no group should ever use consensus as its standard (all the time) method, because in some cases it simply doesn’t make sense, even as described by me.

> When I receive that, I will agree, or I will offer a contrasting account.

> Then we can see where we are at. How’s that?

Fine, except you responded to the rest of my message, in some cases quite coherently, in some cases carelessly, so I need to reply. You’re right, I don’t have this kind of time, but it is turning out I’m benefitting much from this discussion, so I’m making the time.

Please read what follows very carefully:

> > Well that IS the definition I provided days and days ago. […] There needn’t be a vote, but people MUST express their reservations. If they are deemed not valid (ie, they boil down to quantitative disagreement, etc, even though the decision is acceptable on principle and doesn’t violate anyone’s freedom), then that will be pointed out. If the dissenter insists on blocking anyway, the group has a problem highlighted, and that problem is that someone is unable to function in a fair manner. Then the group deals with that problem, in sensible ways.

> WHAT???????  All of a sudden consensus means that we take a vote, the majority (or whatever other required number we agreed on wins) and then a dissenter can urge and plead that they think it would be wrong to go forward, and IF THE OTHERS AGREE the dissenters will is followed, but if not, then not?????

No, I clearly said there is no vote. I said dissenters always have to express their reasons. I would never be in a group that allowed people to dissent without fully explaining themselves, for security reasons, and because such a group doesn’t empower people to express their concerns. I realize there are liabilities here as well, including that some people will be uncomfortable expressing their views publicly, perhaps for fear of offending others in the room, but there are all sorts of processing tools and exercises which can make this problem less and less severe.

On the other hand, if no one has to be accountable for their dissent, if there needn’t be discussion, the invitation to tyranny of a minority is wide open, and other members of the group will never be able to say they want a constant yet unforthcoming dissenter excluded from group decisions because of fucked up views, values, etc, because that person’s privacy is being protected. This, to me, is VERY conservative, and very dangerous for any group doing the kind of work which might draw infiltration by agents or wingnuts.

What’s more, you misrepresent (perhaps just misread, in this case) my view further when you suggest in my view everyone must agree that the dissenter’s choice is correct. Indeed, they must only accept that it is valid, meaning they are dissenting on principle, not on disagreement.

For instance, we have a direct action affinity collective of 6. Five of the six want to break into an army base and cause a disruption. One dissents, claiming this is too risky for her or him, or even that breaking and entering is against his/her moralis. These are valid reasons, whether the others find the proposed act risky or immoral or neither is of no consequence. They disagree, but that isn’t the issue.

Now, let’s take the same example, but the dissenter says s/he thinks it’s a bad idea because: (a) that the probable outcomes of the action won’t justify the risks; or (b) that it is tactically unsound in some details; or (c) that instead they should break into a town hall; or etc. These are simple disagreements, not based on principle but on judgement of tact, etc. These are not valid reasons to dissent.

The group must be satisfied that the dissenter’s reasons are valid by these kinds of standards.

> I give up. No one I know on the left, even the most diehard and vociferous opponent of consensus, would oppose such a statement of how people ought to act, in every case, if time permits.

It seems to me you are giving up because you are continually attributing to me silly arguments, as if I am doing it for the sake of argument. Perhaps it would be best if you do not assume you know what I am saying, especially when I clearly state the opposite (as in, “there won’t be a vote,” and then you saying “so we take a vote”), and you actually respond to what I write.

> Mine. It is what consensus means at SEP. Precisely. No reason even needs to be given. People have a veto. It is a good tool, in certain instances.

Sounds preposterous to me. I would never participate in such an activity, and I, in all honesty, can’t fathom why any radical would. How can it be unimportant — indeed, not vital — to be aware of the reasons for people’s dissent, or their assent for that matter, if those reasons might be he least bit controversial or have an impact on the group in even the slightest way?

For instance, if someone at SEP, during a hiring decision, doesn’t want to hire someone because they are slightly annoying, even though this member can’t discern why, or it’s just a hunch, the prospective member will be dismissed, no questions asked — and no reasons offered. Well, I say that’s absurd. Why should the group not be able to confront the minority? I’m not saying they should be able to override the dissenter, so DO NOT go telling me we’ve switched roles here, as you predicted, and now YOU have to defend “true” consensus from the misguided anarchist ideologue. What I am saying is that disclosure is very important. This example would raise a much larger issue, and the rest of the collective should have the prerogative to state their disagreement that a “hunch” or bad feeling should be the reason someone is not hired.

> If a dissenter’s reasons must be accepted, that is no longer a veto.

And I don’t know if you recall the discussion we had on this 1 or 2 years ago, but then, as now, I have never — and I don’t know any consensus advocate who does — considered blocking to be veto power. I have stated this repeatedly over the years. I didn’t want to dredge it up this time, so I let you have that word, but the fact is, veto power is, IMO, very authoritarian. THAT is unilateral power of one over the majority if ever there was such a thing.

Blocking, also a potentially dangerous tool, is a tactic which is employed to prevent a certain conclusion, with expressed reasons, *with the express intent of reaching an alternate, universally acceptable, conclusion.* It is not saying “we can’t go forward,” it’s only saying “we can’t go forward *that way*.”

> And then I am in the strange position — of trying to restore it to the decision-making tool chest, where is should reside, for careful use….but only in appropriate conditions.

I am no longer satisfied with your use of the term “consensus” when referring to a decision-making process. Your version should be called “universal agreement,” or perhaps we should find another term for my version. In any case, I now see them as very different processes altogether, and I definitely think your process is not only inappropriate in some cases, but inappropriate in any case I can think of, though maybe I’m missing something. There, I guess we DO have an argument after all.

> >This [view] is from Mars, and I can’t imagine why you would attribute it to me. I’m sure somewhere people operate on these principles, but I would think them as outrageous as you do.

> But I DON’T think it is outrageous to give people a veto

I apologize, then, for suggesting the view is lunacy. I really didn’t think any radical would suggest such a thing. I want it to be known I respect your right to advocate this and not be considered crazy. 🙂

Still, I think we’re highlighting a serious difference. As I’ve suggested in discussions past, I believe there is a definite difference in our approaches. The power of “veto” is typically reserved to adversaries so that they can prevent a decision unilaterally. Whereas blocking power is the tool of comrades who wish to acheive an acceptable solution becaue they share similar goals. By your definition, the UN Security Council uses consensus dm for resolutions. But it is an adversarial process, where one vetoes because wars and such are at stake. In an activist group, there is no need for such antagonistic, secretive processes. I think it would be (and is) a sad statement that activists come together for common purposes but don’t trust each other enough to insist that expression be a prioity.

> >If there were immense agreement in principle, consensus would be even less necessary, as no one would need to object to the violation of their principles. If there is any possibility that I am going to be morally violated by a majority, I want to be able to block that majority’s conclusions. Seems fair to me.

> Nope, We really do disagree. I think this is an anti-social and wrong-headed conception, to be very honest and forthright about it. It views things, as noted earlier, from one side only.

Swiching gears, I am beginning to come around and see your point regarding this aspect.

> > Which I said earlier, in almost the same exact words. The only difference is that, as I’ve said but will repeat again, some groups can use consensus as their standard process.

> More power to them….  I doubt I would WANT to be in one…though would certainly compromise my views and do so, if I had no other recourse. There you go.

But I’ve been saying the above all along. Why did it take you so long to say this, which i think is fine, an opinion, no argument required?

UNCOMFORTABLE CONCLUSIONS:

My idealistic belief (not invalid, per se, as idealism) in the potential of groups to use consensus process on every decision has, indeed, been eroded by your arguments. I am beginning to believe that perhaps no group should use consensus — of any form — in every case. Perhaps we should classify decisions and apply appropriate d-m methods to each type. As you say, DOING is as important as not DOING. Again, my insistence on consensus has always been protection of the individual, not some kind of individual will overpowering all. However, as in the abortion example, protection of the individual can in some cases mean not just the dissenter(s), but someone else profoundly affected by a given outcome.

All along we’ve agreed about the necessity of participatory processes, so there’s no issue there. I guess what I need to do, for myself, is spend more time figuring out how processes can be structured to very fully respect the autonomy of individuals while also furthering the collective interests of the group — this is something I’ve long been concerned with, but which perhaps I have overlooked as THE factor of primary importance.

And, still, the “new” point of contension is on the table, namely whether consensus is universal agreement among adversaries (as I see your view) or universal acceptance among comrades with shared goals, as I think it should be. We can bypass the discussion of WHEN consensus is applicable, and maybe move on to WHAT consensus is.

 

Albert, Last Time Around

> > Contemporary anarchists and others as well often express sentiments like this–more so in practical circumstances than in the abstract, but sometimes both. That somehow when compromise time comes, the individual is sacrosanct — I don’t get it. (a) The group is a lot of individuals–why is it only the dissenting one that garners this level of validity? (b) Society is not a bad but a good thing, properly pursued. And the desire NOT to do something is no more principled or important, by definition, than the desire TO DO something.

> Yes, I have held consensus on a pedestal as an ideal, one to be aspired to, while acknowledging its inappropriateness in the majority of current cases of organizations making decisions, especially mass-based organizations (large size, open membership, etc). That difference has rarely been noted by consensus advocates, I admit (not as if I’m responsible for what they say, but I used to say it myself, as you probably recall, and as may be cause for some of the confusion here this time around).

But I am not arguing so much with you, throughout, as with advocates of consensus, as I think I made very clear last post. I am claiming re your words themselves, that to me sometimes they seem to be like those of others, sometimes rather different.

In any event regarding the above, yes, it is good that we agree it isn’t universally applicable, but it also isn’t “a superior goal” in any sense that I can think. Using one person one vote and other mechanisms can be done with or without sensitivity, full knolwedge, etc. etc. etc., as can any variant of consensus. So, they can all be done well, justly, humanely, or obnoxiously. Each is exemplary and appropriate, for certain situations, when done well and when it fits the situation. Each is bad, or even horrific, if done badly or used when inappropriate.

I think there is something “higher” about the principle of decision making input according to effect on one, but not about any particular means of attaining this end in different circumstances. Confusion about the end and the means makes discussions that should be about tactics — such as consensus (veto) or processes of communication — take on the appearance of being about values, morals, etc.

> Well, I have been elevating consensus, without claiming it is appropriate in all cases. My position has been that it is always “appropriate” whenever it is possible, as in, whenever it can be used effectively — ie, not by a large group, not by a group of people without respect for one another, etc.

I don’t know what this means. It seems to me it either means when it is best use it – in which case it applies as well to other modes and doesn’t distinguish consensus from any other, and I agree, or it means whenever it can be used, use it, which would place us back in disagreement. I think it means the former, for you as well, and so, again, the asymmetry between this tool and others is false. But I think that in dispute you lose track of this meaning, sometimes.

> Further, people do disagree with consensus in general, my version, your version, any version, at least as a formal process for groups.

The way you posed it, the time that this is relevant to, consensus for you was a behavior wherein at some point one or more people might say to a group, “though you are overwhelmingly for option a, I am deadset against it — please reconsider in that light.” In fact, even facist lunatics would say, sure, that’s okay to do, but the group (or dictator–I guarantee Bill Gates allows and even welcome this, are probably pays quite close attention, as well) needn’t give in. That is what I meant by saying no one would reject out of hand your (reduced) version of consensus, and I still feel that way….

Thus, people who disagree with participatory democracy, or even minimalist democracy, or who are even very authoritarian, could agree with the idea of the dissenter pleading their case and could even be very understanding and yielding about relating to it (this is what a benevolent dictator is, in some real sense).

> …but there has still been a valid argument about whether any group should use it as their standard, ie default without the option for other d-m methods, process.

I can’t see any reason for this (where consensus includes blocking by one) unless the group is of such a kind that all its decisions warrant it…which I doubt any organization is.

> My view has been: Some collectives can and should use consensus all the time. Most organizations cannot, but some can. I’ve already explained the necessary conditions (size, familiarity, etc).

> You believe, I presume, that no group should ever use consensus as its standard (all the time) method, because in some cases it simply doesn’t make sense, even as described by me.

More, I think it rarely makes sense…and the conditions have to do with size and familiarity only peripherally, but have to do primarily with whether the decision is such that the impact of taking it can be overwhelming for an individual (relative to all others), such that their lone will should be permitted to prevent its being taken, to prevent that overwhelming effect.

What I would add to our difference is that though you are moving pretty rapidly, I still think you feel that there is something morally advanced, shall we say, about a group functioning with single person blocking (which to me means veto). I suspect there are also differences, of some weight, about the “rights of the indivdiual” vs the “rights of the group (or individuals).

I have to include an excerpt here, to make sense of the exchange, I think…..

> > > Well that IS the definition I provided days and days ago. […] There needn’t be a vote, but people MUST express their reservations. If they are deemed not valid (ie, they boil down to quantitative disagreement, etc, even though the decision is acceptable on principle and doesn’t violate anyone’s freedom), then that will be pointed out. If the dissenter insists on blocking anyway, the group has a problem highlighted, and that problem is that someone is unable to function in a fair manner. Then the group deals with that problem, in sensible ways.

> > WHAT???????  All of a sudden consensus means that we take a vote, the majority (or whatever other required number we agreed on wins) and then a dissenter can urge and plead that they think it would be wrong to go forward, and IF THE OTHERS AGREE the dissenters will is followed, but if not, then not?????

> No, I clearly said there is no vote. I said dissenters always have to express their reasons.

What does “no vote” mean?

We have ten people, we are deciding whether to do a sit in or not. All but one or for it. (9-1) The one blocks. You are saying the one must now give a reason. If the nine decide it isn’t acceptable because it isn’t in THEIR EYES a princple, it doesn’t stand and the 9-1 majority prevails. Or, is it that it is in the eyes of the 1 that it has to be a principle.

(Note another problem, mentioned by me earlier but ignored. With consensus of your sort, the outcome is always 10-0 — that’s why you seem to think there is no vote. You are simply sublimating away that there is a vote, silent, that people decide warrants a 10-0 claim… We don’t know, for the record if it was 6-4, or 8-2, etc., if there was “no vote.” However, in practice what happens is there ARE ALMOST ALWAYS A BUNCH OF STRAW VOTES, and as they get past majority there starts to be a pressure for everyone to assent. Now there are no more votes, just dissenters dropping out of their dissent.

(I don’t want to go on with this endlessly. For the most part, I don’t even like the process aspects of what a lot of advocates of consensus favor. I think it is often nominally respectful but very clubby, coercive, etc. And I also think these ills are fed by some of the intrinsic and favored dynamics, rather than countered by them…)

Anyway, once there is one dissenter and nine favoring a decision (in a group of ten), if it is the 9 who decide whether the dissenters opposition is going to prevent the decision, this is just sensitivity. There is no blocking, no veto, no nothing unusual. And no one would argue against it unless time is so short the minority shouldn’t even get to plead. If it is the 1 who decides, however, then this blocking and is in fact a veto power. The latter, in my opinion, should be called consensus decision making. The former is just a process of communication, a kind of addendum that can be added to any vote algorithm.

As to whether folks must give reasons for dissent — my answer is no. If there is a veto for a certain type decision, then there is. You might find it anti-social for a person to withhold their reasons, but that’s different from requiring them to speak up. If there is no real veto, but only pleading, then of course reasons are required so that the others can decide whether to accept the plea or not.

Why would a sane leftist favor using REAL CONCENSUS in the sense of a one person veto on decisions? I think the SEP hiring example is a good one. In a small but intensely interacting group any new hire will have huge impact on anyone who doesn’t like the person, due to the close proximity they MUST work in. Horrible impact, perhaps. So if you are at the meeting discussing a new person you might feel, I just don’t want that person. I don’t even know why I don’t. But I know I don’t. Thus you have no rational discussable reason. But, at SEP, that carries the day. And I think that is quite appropriate.

What you are describing under the label consensus (when you are syaing it doesn’t include blocking or veto) is a PROCESS for communication which, in fact, can be utilized with many voting options, and should be, no doubt, given time and seriousness of issues. When you include veto, however…then it is a decision making mechanism, and, I think, the thing that most consensus people advocate in practice, until they don’t like the results…..

> What’s more, you misrepresent (perhaps just misread, in this case) my view further when you suggest in my view everyone must agree that the dissenter’s choice is correct. Indeed, they must only accept that it is valid, meaning they are dissenting on principle, not on disagreement.

We are in a kind of endless circle. What matters is who decides. That is all. If the lone person decides if their reason is valid, they have a veto. If the group decides, then then lone person has nothing more than a right to plead loudly as a defeated minority for others to change their minds. This is a humongous difference.

What is principle for one, or ten or a hundred, can be insanity in the eyes of another, or details, or whatever.

In any event, even if we somehow had an objective meter to use to determine if reasons offered (which, of course, might not be real reasons, in any event) are based on principle, we still have all the problems mentioned earlier regarding why the dissenter’s principles count for so much — the stop action versus pursue action bias.

> For instance, we have a direct action affinity collective of 6. Five of the six want to break into an army base and cause a disruption. One dissents, claiming this is too risky for her or him, or even that breaking and entering is against his/her moralis. These are valid reasons, whether the others find the proposed act risky or immoral or neither is of no consequence.

Why is being risky for the lone dissenter principle? It could be cowardice, it could be paranoia or misperception, and so on. Why is immoral in the eyes of the one dissenter principle if the person’s moral reason is rejected? How does one know that what the person says is their reason is their reason? And on and on.

If the decision warrants veto power for individuals, they ought to have it–which we now seem to agree is quite a rare situation (indeed, you think it is rarer than I do, you think it is never). If they shouldn’t have a veto, they shouldn’t. The rest is about process, and has nothing to do, ultimately, with the formal structure of “voting” — the final terms that decide.

> Now, let’s take the same example, but the dissenter says s/he thinks it’s a bad idea because: (a) that the probable outcomes of the action won’t justify the risks;

This sounds potentially more principled to me than personal fear…

>or (b) that it is tactically unsound in some details; or (c) that instead they should break into a town hall; or etc.

Even these two could be more principled — ie. the choice stinks because it compromises our beliefs by doing so much worse than we could do.

>These are simple disagreements, not based on principle but on judgement of tact, etc. These are not valid reasons to dissent.

Who decides what is valid and what isn’t, what is principle and what isn’t? The lone dissenter? You? A majority? Another consensus decision?

> The group must be satisfied that the dissenter’s reasons are valid by these kinds of standards.

In this case, there is not only no veto, all you have is a strong right of the minority, however few, to argue their case to the majority…that is all. They can reject it.

> It seems to me you are giving up because you are continually attributing to me silly arguments, as if I am doing it for the sake of argument. Perhaps it would be best if you do not assume you know what I am saying, especially when I clearly state the opposite (as in, “there won’t be a vote,” and then you saying “so we take a vote”), and you actually respond to what I write.

I believe I am addressing your words and sometimes general views, which I try to distinguish. In the above case I simply didn’t take the care to say, what do you mean there is no vote. If the group arrives at a decision there is a “vote” even if it is implicit.

> > It is what consensus means at SEP. Precisely. No reason even needs to be given. People have a veto. It is a good tool, in certain instances.

> Sounds preposterous to me. I would never participate in such an activity, and I, in all honesty, can’t fathom why any radical would.

I would and have. It is because I honestly believe in the idea of decision making input in proportion as one is affected and have no problem whatever accepting the will of those more affected than I, in this case, for example.

I in fact actually believe in consensus, as a tool, and am quite able to abide it. But not all the time….not in all circumstances…and not elevated to some higher moral plane (losing real principles in the process), nor in some phoney way that pressures everyone unduly but then collapses at the last minute, whenever some “leader” doesn’t like an outcome, either.

>How can it be unimportant — indeed, not vital — to be aware of the reasons for people’s dissent, or their assent for that matter, if those reasons might be he least bit controversial or have an impact on the group in even the slightest way?

Sometimes reasons are very amorphous, even unknown to the person in question. Sometimes they are incommunicable. Or there is reason to not want to communicate them. Rarely, agreed, but sometimes — as with the hiring situation. In such cases pushing for reasons can be downright obnoxious, as well as not one’s right.

> For instance, if someone at SEP, during a hiring decision, doesn’t want to hire someone because they are slightly annoying, even though this member can’t discern why, or it’s just a hunch, the prospective member will be dismissed, no questions asked — and no reasons offered.

Well, you use this mode of decision making in appropriate situation and because you believe people will utilize it rationally. However, yes, this is possible. I accept it as a risk, a low one (why would someone want to reject a possible employee who was otherwise excellent for a silly reason?) because I believe no individual in the group should have their firm opposition to a hire outweighed by the collective, however strong everyone else’s desire to hire may be. The procedure fits the decision… Every decision mechanism is capable of being abused. You want to pick ones that are least susceptible and whose logic, in the situation, is most likely to result in people impacting outcomes proportionate to the degree they are impacted by them.

>Well, I say that’s absurd. Why should the group not be able to confront the minority?

In practice it probably would ask the dissenter for reasons, if it really liked the applicant. But if the dissenter sticks, even without expressible reason beyond I don’t want that person…their will carries. I think that is good and appropriate for hiring decisions in a small collective organization, so I like using consensus in that case.

If I thought there should only be very strong attention to the dissenter (as with many other SEP decisions) I would opt instead for some procedures to ensure that, to force people to think twice, to delay decisions, or whatever…but not allow blocking/veto.

>I’m not saying they should be able to override the dissenter, so DO NOT go telling me we’ve switched roles here, as you predicted, and now YOU have to defend “true” consensus from the misguided anarchist ideologue.

Well, I have to tell you, I actually think that that is more or less what IS happening. That is, you are not abiding the principle that due to the overwhelming impact on the dissenter (something entirely subjective which only he or she can gauge, in this case, and about which there is little or no reason to dissemble) their will should carry the day. You are saying their reason has to appeal to you–which to me is just saying that the power rest with you, or the majority, or whatever, but not the lone dissenter.

I don’t know how to be more clear…. There is a difference between the process of communication and discussion and weighing, which can be attached to most decision algorithms, and the final accounting or algorithm determining the decision.

>What I am saying is that disclosure is very important. This example would raise a much larger issue, and the rest of the collective should have the prerogative to state their disagreement that a “hunch” or bad feeling should be the reason someone is not hired.

Again, we differ. In certain contexts I believe a lot in hunches, feelings that lack rational explanation, etc. People’s right to have views, strong ones, that they can’t debate on behalf of or don’t want to. Particularly, as this case involves, regarding questions of interpersonal relations, but certainly not only those.

> And I don’t know if you recall the discussion we had on this 1 or 2 years ago, but then, as now, I have never — and I don’t know any consensus advocate who does — considered blocking to be veto power. I have stated this repeatedly over the years. I didn’t want to dredge it up this time, so I let you have that word, but the fact is, veto power is, IMO, very authoritarian.

I continue to feel we are having a kind of alice in wonderland exchange. You have asked me to read carefully and think…I have to ask the same.

As to a veto being very authoritarian…we just disagree. If it isn’t authoritarian for you to decide, willy nilly, with near zero input from anyone else, how your desk will be arranged on grounds that it impacts you so much more than everyone else (please notice, effectively you have a VETO over any proposal whatsoever that anyone else might make about what goes on your desk, so obviously rightfully that no one in their right mind would even try to test it), then clearly having a veto isn’t apriori authoritarian. It can, instead, be a clear manifestation of the proper allocation of decision making power. I think it is in the SEP hiring case.

>THAT is unilateral power of one over the majority if ever there was such a thing.

Exactly, And properly so, in some cases.

> Blocking, also a potentially dangerous tool, is a tactic which is employed to prevent a certain conclusion, with expressed reasons, *with the express intent of reaching an alternate, universally acceptable, conclusion.* It is not saying “we can’t go forward,” it’s only saying “we can’t go forward *that way*.”

To me this is just word wrangling. Can the person, on their own account, block or not? If yes, it is what I would call consensus and would use as a decision making methodology in certain situations. If not, it is what I would call a commmunication process appendable to almost any accounting mechanism for decisions, and a non-controversial process, at that, unless it is used excessively to beat issues into the ground and waste time.

> > And then I am in the strange position — of trying to restore it to the decision-making tool chest, where is should reside, for careful use….but only in appropriate conditions.

> I am no longer satisfied with your use of the term “consensus” when referring to a decision-making process. Your version should be called “universal agreement,” or perhaps we should find another term for my version. In any case, I now see them as very different processes altogether, and I definitely think your process is not only inappropriate in some cases, but inappropriate in any case I can think of, though maybe I’m missing something. There, I guess we DO have an argument after all.

Yep. Because among other things, my version isn’t a process. It is a rule for arriving at the decision, and not a process for communicating, respecting one another, sharing information, etc. Yours (when you are disallowing veto) is a process which, in the end, has no specific rule whatever, that I can see, for actually settling on a conclusion — unless it is stated to be either that no one dissents (in which case your consensus is my consensus) or the winning majority accepts the dissent of the losing minority, in which case we are left with whether the winning majority has to be 51 or 75 or whatever else.

>I think it would be (and is) a sad statement that activists come together for common purposes but don’t trust each other enough to insist that expression be a prioity.

Again, your way is somehow morally superior. But why? I think rather the opposite. That trusting someone means, in some cases, respecting their desires to be quiet, to choose to not speak, or to feel or be unable to do so.

> My idealistic belief (not invalid, per se, as idealism) in the potential of groups to use consensus process on every decision has, indeed, been eroded by your arguments.

What I am saying is that there isn’t anything idealist or otherwise superior about it. If you said groups should be able to be mutually respectful, to be able to honor one another sufficiently to make room for expression and to pay attention to it, to guarantee people an impact proportionate to the degree they are affected, etc. Okay. I would agree.

But when anyone says groups should be able to operate with consensus all the time — ideally — it makes no sense to me. And I think it leads to all kinds of harmful views.

>I am beginning to believe that perhaps no group should use consensus — of any form — in every case. Perhaps we should classify decisions and apply appropriate d-m methods to each type.

Indeed.

>As you say, DOING is as important as not DOING. Again, my insistence on consensus has always been protection of the individual, not some kind of individual will overpowering all.

Protection from what is perhaps the big question.

> And, still, the “new” point of contension is on the table, namely whether consensus is universal agreement among adversaries (as I see your view) or universal acceptance among comrades with shared goals, as I think it should be.

I find it hard to comprehend what the latter can possibly mean. If we have a group making a decision and everyone agrees, every possible conceivable decision making mechanism that isn’t outright insane will yield the same outcome. What matters is cases where there is REAL DISAGREEMENT up to and right through the time of settling on a decision.

>We can bypass the discussion of WHEN consensus is applicable, and maybe move on to WHAT consensus is.

If it is a process–that is, it doesn’t involve a veto or otherwise affect the final ultimate terms of decision–it is no doubt useable with lots of norms of decision making. Whether to use it or not probably depends, then, on importance, time, etc. If it is a decision making norm –that is, it incorporates veto–then it is a decision making mechanism and one that is rarely appropriate, but sometimes optimal.

I think the word ought to mean the latter…it is what it connotes, quite obviously.

 

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