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Consensus is a means, not an end

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“The problem is not that of taking power, but rather who exercises it.”

Subcomandante Marcos
In Sum

The two foundational values of consensus decision making are empowering every person’s full participation in decision making, and respecting and accommodating diverse opinions. These values are more important than the form itself, which activists should modify as needed to uphold these values.

Consensus decision making is an egalitarian and inclusive method of reaching agreement based on the active participation and consent of group members to collectively reach a decision. Consensus decision making focuses as much on the underlying processes and values as the decision itself. The word consensus has its roots in the Latin word consentire, meaning “to experience or feel together.”

Consensus is rooted in many decentralized models of direct democracy practiced across the world — from village panchayats in India to the indigenous Haudenosaunee Confederacy (aka Iroquois), from Quaker meetings to anarchist spokescouncils.

Consensus stands in stark contrast to simple voting procedures or Robert’s Rules of Order, in which proposals are debated and then voted on, with majority rule. Consensus, on the other hand, is a prefigurative affirmation of our power to organize ourselves in accordance with the principles of direct democracy: horizontal, participatory, inclusive, cooperative and non-coercive. As author David Graeber has written of consensus, “Ultimately it aspires to reinvent daily life as whole.”

A common abuse of consensus, however, is a dogmatic attachment to the structures and forms with which it is associated, which can sometimes be as exclusive and alienating as the systems it seeks to replace. If this is happening, the response should not be “Well this is how consensus works!” Instead, it is our collective responsibility to delve into the dynamics that might be creating these negative reactions.

There are five common problems with consensus that can create frustration. First, consensus often reproduces majoritarian rule by creating sectarian camps of those in agreement versus those who are blocking. Contrary to popular belief, consensus does not necessarily mean unanimous agreement. This misconception causes us to wrongly view dissent as a distraction or obstacle, and increases the pressure toward homogenizing opinions. Second, a few voices can dominate the discussion, a problem that tends to perpetuate power imbalances around race, class, gender, and education level. Third, there is often a faulty assumption that silence implies consent, which can end up stifling broader discussion and the consideration of alternative proposals. Fourth, facilitators have an unfortunate tendency to exercise covert forms of power-over rather than power-with by steering the conversation based on their own biases.

The fifth problem with consensus is more fundamental and structural. Ironically, the seemingly benign notion that all voices are equal can hide the uncomfortable truth of systemic inequality. Almost inherently, the consensus process can absolve us of actively examining how privilege and oppression shape our spaces.

In an effort to address these problems, many communities and collectives use modified forms of consensus — for example, prioritizing and taking leadership from women, people of color and those directly affected by decisions being made; facilitating small break-out groups to ensure more engaged participation; encouraging more debate and discussion rather than just asking for blocks; and actively incorporating anti-oppression principles to prevent harmful opinions from further marginalizing historically disadvantaged peoples.

Consensus can be beautiful and transformative, but only when the structures and processes are meeting the needs and desires of those engaging in it. Otherwise, it can be just as shackling as more conventionally authoritative decision-making systems. Remember, consensus is a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist, facilitator, writer and legal researcher based in Vancouver, occupied Indigenous Coast Salish territories. She has been active in (unpaid) community-based grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous solidarity, anti-capitalist, Palestinian liberation, and anti-imperialist movements for over a decade. She works with women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. Her writings have appeared in a number of newspapers, anthologies and academic journals, and she recently co-created a short film on poverty and violence against women. Harsha believes in overgrowing the logic of the state.

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