Activism and ... Consensus

IssueJuly-August 2012

I know someone who became a committed, full-on activist because of his experience of consensus decision-making. A demo was happening and he tagged along, and it wound its way into a student union or something, and everyone sat down and they had a decision-making meeting and he was completely blown away and thought: ‘This is it! This is how things should be!’

What’s attractive is the sense that everyone is being listened to, everyone’s opinion counts. After my experiences of school and work, where I basically just sullenly obeyed, it is thrilling to be part of something so empowering.

At the other end of the spectrum, one of the worst meetings I’ve ever been to was an international event where the chair kept saying that we were making decisions by consensus, without any idea of what that meant, and without any space for dissenting views. (Conforming to stereotypes, it was a man from a Trotskyist party in the chair.)

A fringe of people were standing at the back, getting more and more agitated as random decisions kept getting announced. The informality of the supposedly ‘consensus’ process was worse, it was more authoritarian, than the rigidity of the old ‘propose, second, opposing speeches, vote’ system.

In that case, I think it was pretty calculated, but the same thing can happen with the best will in the world. In a proper consensus process, you’re meant to get active agreement from people, and to check for concerns and people being uncomfortable, and not just operate on the basis of ‘no visible opposition’. But when you’re in a hurry….

There was a great article about consensus in PN a few years ago called: ‘Is everybody happy?’ The right question is the opposite question. It ought to be: ‘Is there anyone who is not happy?’

Man, 40s

Topics: Activism
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