Delfina Vannucci and Richard Singer, 'Come Hell or High Water: a handbook on collective process gone awry'

IssueOctober 2010
Review by Patrick Nicholson

The book is not a guide to collectives, or facilitation, or consensus. It presumes a certain prior knowledge and experience of all of these, and is for those who want to understand, and better deal with, the problems and pitfalls of working within collective structures.

The authors’ use their first hand experience to look at the realities of power and personality dynamics in supposedly egalitarian groups. This includes things like manipulative and coercive behaviour (both in individuals and in the group), dealing with conflicts, balancing honesty and sensitivity, and problems with consensus decision-making.

On the plus side the book is amusing, lively, and raises important issues in an accessible way. The authors’ aren’t afraid to voice their opinions on topics that will potentially raise hackles, like the merits of voting, importance of free speech and need for rigorous due process. The cartoons are great too! But on the minus side the book comes across as a bit of a rush job that would have benefited from more structure. I felt it needed more research and weight behind it, rather than just essentially a series of anecdotes and observations. Historical and academic thought on collective organisation barely gets a mention, apart from a brief digression into Bakunin’s and Malatesta’s writings on the concept of banning (i.e. exclusion of troublemakers).

On balance, though, it’s a very worthwhile and thought-provoking read and of value to anyone who wants to understand and improve how we work collectively.

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