One of the toughest things about organizing together is making decisions as a group. There are a lot of things to weigh: Who gets a say in which decisions? What’s the balance between efficiency and inclusion? Listen to this episode to hear about consensus decision making.
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Rose is part of Democratic Socialists of America’s Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
ACT UP made decision through consensus and describes their process here.
David Graeber’s book Direct Action includes a transcription of a consensus training the Chapter 5 “Direct Action, Anarchism, Direct Democracy” as well as interesting insights into why and how the process is used.
Check out The Final Straw’s interview with Dilar Dirik, part 1 and part 2 about Democratic Confederalism and other topics and their interview with Paul Z. Simons talks about power distribution in Rojava. And check out Radical People episodes “Bad Luck, Worse Luck” and “Charlie Foxtrot.”
Read Democratic Confederalism by Abdullah Ocalan.
Get in touch with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!
You’re listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz.
One of the toughest things about organizing together is making decisions as a group. There are a lot of things to weigh: Who gets a say in which decisions? What’s the balance between efficiency and inclusion?
Decision making may seem like a mundane place to start the season. But what I’ve found is that a decision making process and the culture around it can make or break an action or organization. You may find that the early stages of a group cruise along without a lot of disagreement. But as your group grows and evolves, there is bound to be some friction. Tough decisions come along and these tough decisions can be made even tougher when you’re crunched for time or dealing with an emergency situation. Having a process that’s understood and agreed upon is foundational to taking action together.
Most groups on the left use some form of direct democracy.
Direct democracy describes a system where people vote directly on proposals, policies, and actions. This is in contrast to representative democracy, where you vote for people who will make the decisions.
Matthew: Hi I’m Matthew, I’m a member of the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council in New York City and the Emergency Committee for Rojava.
One form of direct democracy is consensus.
Matthew: The most common decision making process I’ve encountered is consensus. Consensus seems to be the growing standard on the left. It’s one of the victories of the Anarchist movement and one of the aftereffects of the alter-globalization movement. Consensus process has become kind of the ethical norm for a lot of activist spaces regardless of their politics.
Though it has a long history, the recent popularity of consensus grew out of the Occupy Movement.
Matthew: The Occupy Movement most people know was also consensus based. That was one of its few official ideological principles and lines was this horizontal consensus-based general assembly process.
There’s a lot of different ways to practice consensus. There are so many different ways that’s difficult to pin down a good definition. But each version has some common values and processes.
Matthew: Consensus seems to be practiced in many different ways and isn’t a fully codified system. And they’re processes that focus on, not unanimity, but consent as implied. It’s consent in that everyone doesn’t have to agree on a particular proposal. Everyone doesn’t have to think that a particular idea or political line is the best and ideal line or proposal. But everyone has to find it okay, ethically viable, and politically acceptable. So you’re not reaching the lowest common denominator. But you’re reaching the best possible solution for the entire group. And you’re doing that through a process of proposals, amendments, questions, the constant reshaping of a particular proposed action. And the group is supposed to be working through these until everyone in the group feels that it corresponds to the mission of the group and corresponds to the moral and political values that they hold.
In this episode, I’m going to describe the general flow of the consensus process. Then, in part two, I’ll get to some variations.
The consensus process usually begins with a proposal. That proposal may have arisen during the meeting or it may have been on the table before the meeting, perhaps from a previous meeting or from an email discussion.
Person 1: I propose we have an anti-ice action this Saturday where we target banks that invest in ICE
There will be some discussion of this proposal.
Person 2: I like this idea. I think we should talk to other groups.
Sometimes people will offer amendments to improve or clarify the proposal.
Person 2: But I think we should do this on Wednesday instead of Saturday to block the flow of business.
This may be accepted by the person making the proposal as a friendly amendment.
Person 1: Okay, I accept that.
And the process continues with the new proposal.
Person 1: So the new proposal is we have an anti-ICE demo on Wednesday (not Saturday) so that we are disrupting the bank’s business.
Or the amendment might be rejected.
Person 1: No, I want to keep it on Saturday so we get a better turn out.
In that case, the process continues with the original proposal.
Once the proposal has been discussed, the facilitator will ask for clarifying questions.
Person 2: Are you talking about the bank on Wall Street or a different bank? Who’s available to work on putting this event together?
And finally, the proposal is re-stated.
Person 1: So the proposal we’re talking about is to hold an anti-ICE demo on Saturday targeting the banks on Wall Street that support ICE. The Immigration Working Group will support planning this event.
At this point, the facilitator asks for blocks.
Matthew: A block is when someone has such a firm moral ethical political issue with a particular issue that they think is absolutely should not be done under any circumstances and following through on it would be a violation of the organization that they’re participating in and its fundamental values. They’re intended for extreme circumstances and not for proposals that you think are a bad idea. That’s not a sufficient reason for a block. It really needs to be a foundational disagreement. Blocks are really I would say the heart of the consensus model even though they’re meant to be used rarely. Blocks existing are I think what really allows consensus to work because they require this type of universal consent and there’s a real mechanism that any individual can shut down a particular process if they feel that their fundamental values are being violated.
The facilitator will also ask for stand-asides
Matthew: And related to this there are usually stand-asides which are like abstentions and this is where you voice any disapproval with a particular proposal without preventing it from going forward. So you might have an objection, but it’s an objection that doesn’t rise to the level of really violating the norms of your group or movement.
If there are blocks, the proposal can not go forward. Consensus has not been reached. At this point, someone can introduce a new proposal as an alternative and the process starts again. Or the facilitator can move to a different agenda item.
Without blocks, the proposal has reached consensus, even with stand asides. The facilitator can then turn their attention to any details that need to be sorted out.
As you can see, the role of the facilitator is important to the process. Skillful facilitation ensures that everyone’s voice is heard and that process goes smoothly.
Rose: My name is Rose
Rose is with the Democratic Socialist of America’s Libertarian Socialist Caucus, or DSA LSC, you’ll hear more from her in part two. Here are some of her thoughts on facilitation.
Rose: First of all there has to be trust between the facilitators and the group. We try to rotate facilitators. We have a general assembly working group that is open to anyone and we do try to cycle people in and out of it so no one gets burned out. I think we’re getting better at managing the space as facilitators to make decisions happen in a way that people feel good about and not like they were drowned out or misrepresented. It’s a balance between having participation and then being accessible to people. If it is too rowdy and chaotic, then it’s not accessible. So hopefully we will implement a little more of those kinds of rules of order that will streamline the process and make people’s voices heard more effectively and more efficiently. I’m excited to see how it evolves going forward as we get better at that part of it.
Facilitation is a huge topic that maybe I’ll take on in the future. For now, check out some of the links in the show notes for resources.
Consensus turns up in some unexpected places. One of those places is Wikipedia.
The free online encyclopedia has over 18 billion page views per month and over 46 million English Language articles. There’s an average of 1,500 new articles added daily. It’s no small feat to organize. But, perhaps surprisingly, the lion’s share of the work is done by volunteer editors who run the site by consensus.
Wolf: Hi, my name is Wolf and I am an editor on Wikipedia.
Wolf is part of the 0.5% of wikipedia users that are active editors. Though Wikipedia is not an explicitly political organization, the processes Wolf describes share a lot of attributes with the processes political groups use.
Wolf: Decisions on wikipedia are made by consensus. And as part of that process, someone will propose a course of action and other editors will agree or disagree and try to form some common opinion. There’s no threshold. It isn’t like 60% or 80% need to agree. Just be the general feeling of that discussion is that certain arguments are stronger than others. And what will happen is any editor can come along and close that discussion. So say if you’d talking about how a section of a page should be titled or what should be included in it, another editor can feel the power to come back and close that discussion and summarize it so that the decision has been made. For any discussion that might be contentious, someone with extra community trust might be requested to close that discussion. Because decisions on wikipedia are made by consensus, there’s an element to writing an article in which other people leave your edits alone and that’s just an everyday form of consensus. And then there’s another form of consensus through discussion where you disagree with something and bring it to discussion.
Part of the culture of wikipedia is to just jump in where you see fit and make changes.
Wolf: One of the basic ideas behind Wikipedia is called “Bold, revert, discuss”— that you should attempt a bold action and do what you think is right to display the content that needs to be displayed on that page in order to make the best encyclopedia article. Then to revert that edit if you disagree with that. And if the original editor disagrees with that person reverting it, to bring it to discussion on a talk page, in which you state case and why you think it should be that way and try to form consensus between the two of you, if not other people who are watching the page, on what is the right way to display that content, if at all. One of the main pillars of wikipedia is to ignore all rules. And it’s a very interesting principle. And the basic idea is that if you are new and you don’t understand all the rules, you just have to do what’s common sense to you and what you think is best. And if you do something that steps on other people’s toes or that they really disagree with or they want to call you out in policy terms, they can. But that shouldn’t prevent you from attempting to edit Wikipedia. And it can be a really brutal experience to walk into that hall of mirrors of many policies. But if you’re there for the reason of wanting to contribute, all the other editors want you to be there, too, and they want to work with you, even if you have to deal with a few bad apples in order to get there.
One of the reasons wikipedia can use consensus effectively is because there is a clarity of purpose. Wikipedia is about making the world’s largest encyclopedia. This means that decisions and actions can be weighed against a clear directive. Political groups may have more pitfalls around this, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to set goals or guideposts for the future of the group. Good examples of this are Anarchist Black Cross, Books Through Bars, and Food Not Bombs. All are built around a specific action and meet regularly to take that action.
Wolf: I think that consensus is often written off as being a long arduous process with little benefit. There are a lot of prerequisites for having a good consensus-based discussion which is that you have a common goal in mind and you have a specific point toward that goal that you are discussing. In my experience, consensus-based decision making on Wikipedia has worked so well that it’s colored my experience of what I expect from consensus in other forums of my life.
This is just the first half of the episode on decision making. In the second part, I’ll explore some pitfalls, some solutions, and how it all gets more complicated. But for now, I just want to take a moment to celebrate the promise of radical democracy. What would it look like if these sort of structures not only existed in our political movements, but also in our everyday lives.
In Starhawk’s book The Fifth Sacred Thing, she describes the council meeting that runs a Utopian version of San Francisco. Early in the book, the council discusses handling a virus that healers are unable to cure. A representative of the Healers Councils gives a report. Various community members offer ideas. One suggests doing the healers’ housework to allow them to focus on the epidemic. The other councils add their own information and ideas to the discussion. Reading this passage felt familiar. Any political group I’ve been a part of might run a city much the same way.
With that in mind, it’s been exciting to see experiments with new types of democracy happening on a larger scale. One example of this is the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, sometimes known as Rojava. It became autonomous from Syria during the civil war and at that point the region began organizing itself using the idea Democratic Confederalism. It’s a pretty complicated situation and I won’t get into the details now. But it is an example of a society trying to do something radically new.
Friend: I am veteran of the YPG. YPG stands for the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel which means People’s Defense Forces. I did two tours that totalled to about a year and a half. And before that I was active in many antifascist and left-leaning political spaces.
My friend explained how Democratic Confederalism is set up in the region.
Friend: I guess to take it all the way out from the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and go in, there’s 3 cantons, Jazira, Kobanî and currently I’m really sure where they’re falling on Affrin used to be a full canton. There’s more or less 3 cantons depending on where we’re at you know in history. From that down, it sort of goes to a system of local cities and counties in more rural areas and then from the counties goes down to the individual villages and then theoretically all the way down to the individual block and house.
The higher level structures might sound familiar, much like states or counties in the US. But what really sets Democratic Confederalism apart is the townhall-style meetings.
Friend: So everything is organized sort of in the townhall sort of way of bringing up problems that you have and organizing your daily life. For instance, I was once in a meeting where an off-duty traffic police officer pulled a pistol on someone and he was I’m pretty sure immediately kicked out after that. And then he sort of went to the county meeting for this area and sort of petitioned to be rehired. Saying “Look I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.” And then they have a very long discussion basically with everyone in very sort of consensus way sort of standing up and saying “I support this” “I don’t support this…” I’m pretty sure anyone can go to those meetings, but it’s mostly representatives from other villages and labor unions and sort of political entities, tribes and ethnic groups in the area.
As a sidenote, just like anywhere else, there’s a feeling that meetings can get a bit too long.
Friend: They’re far more disciplined in how they have meetings. I mean obviously cause they’re coming this sort of 40 year long guerilla culture. They don’t give you a lot of slack in sort of wasting people’s time and stuff like that. So it’s a little bit different than here. But yeah the general feeling that meetings go on to long and you hear things you don’t want to hear and that just obscruct things in a universal feeling no matter what language or people your organizing with in these methods.
You can learn more about Democratic Federation of Northern Syria on some other Channel Zero Network shows. Check The Final Straw’s two part episode Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish refugee living in Germany. Or check out Radical People’s episodes “Bad Luck, Worse Luck” or “Charlie Foxtrot” for interviews with international volunteers who travelled to support the struggle in northern Syria. Check out the show notes for links to these episodes or head to channelzeronetwork.com for more anarchist podcasts.
The nuts and bolts of consensus can feel tedious. Remembering the benefits can inspire us maintain and develop our processes. The processes can create better groups and better decisions. And participating can develop us as people in ways a top down structure can’t. Here’s Wolf & Matt:
Wolf: I think there’s something insidious to being part of a group and feeling like the decision isn’t your own, but you go along with it anyway. Because if you go through that repeatedly in your life, you lead toward feeling powerless or like the decisions weren’t yours.
Matthew: It’s a way of making sure that movements or organizations really are speaking from the bottom up through the entirety of their membership or constituency however they’re organized. And that there’s no movement leader or central committee or top down command that is telling people how to act and what political ideals they need to adopt. Also developing new and interesting political ideas and strategies. You might have someone who discovered they wanted to be anarchist organizer a week ago and someone who’s been involved for 10 years in the same space with an equal say. And while of course, one might have more particular ideas or strong opinions, ultimately they both can contribute in exactly the same ways.
Even though these questions of process and structure can be difficult, they’re an important part of organizing that can’t be glossed over. Our structure and methods will demonstrate the type of world we want. We are strengthening our capacity to cooperate. We are expanding our imagination. Decision making of any kind is complicated and processes don’t solve everything. But we can continue to develop these ideas as we seek to build a better world.
You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps, I’m your host your Liz. Believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.
This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Music for this episode was kindly gifted to us by Sephy, Tutlie, & Ellen Siberian Tiger and also includes a few songs that I created. Special thanks to our interviewees, Matthew, Rose, and Wolf and their organizations. For more resources, check out the show notes for this episode on rebelsteps.com.
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