This is part two of group decision making. The first part explored how consensus decision making usually flows and why consensus has become an important part of leftist spaces. In this half, we’ll talk about some of the challenges that arise as well as some solutions groups have experimented with.
RebelSteps is a member of the Channel Zero Network. Head over to channelzeronetwork.com for more anarchist podcasts.
Rose is part of Democratic Socialists of America’s Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
Read Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”
Learn more about Loomio on their website.
Read “Building Organizations for the Long Haul!” by Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which features a list of resources on maintaining organizations.
Read “Horizontalism: Anarchism, Power and the State,” in which Mark Bray examines the ways horizontalism and anarchism overlap.
You’re listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz.
Welcome to part two of group decision making. In part one, I talked about how consensus decision making usually flows and some of its benefits. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I recommend going back and checking it out.
As I mentioned last episode, consensus has become an important part of leftist spaces. And while the intentions are good, it has some weak points. In this half, we’ll talk about some of the challenges that arise as well as some solutions groups have experimented with.
Wayne: My name is Wayne Price. I am a long time activist and writer. I think I’ve learned a fair amount, mostly by making mistakes. And I’d like to pass on what I’ve learned through my many mistakes.
One of the things that makes me uneasy about consensus is that there’s not a lot of room for dissent and conflict without a complete stop to action. Here’s Wayne.
Wayne: The problem with consensus sometimes is that it overlooks the other aspect of democracy which is it’s valuable for there to be differences and that you want in fact to bring out when there are differences to bring them out, to clarify what the differences are. I’m for an open system of majority rule, because the advantage is that if someone disagrees, that person or that group can be on record. “We disagree, we’re taking a position, we’re taking a stand.” As opposed to actual pressure to pretend to agree or to stand aside or what not. I think it’s much better to have things out in the open, to have a clear decision. Now that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be trying, of course, always to have as much agreement as possible.
Occupy illustrated some of those weaknesses. Wayne experienced this firsthand.
Wayne: I remember I was part of a breakout group. Now our group, contrary to the other anarchists, we thought that it would be valuable for Occupy to raise political positions, to have a program, to make demands. Whether that’s right or not, that was what we thought. But there was one guy who came in, didn’t agree with that at all, and he insisted on interrupting and insisting on his point of view and was opposed to this. And instead of saying, “Well I don’t agree with you, I’m gonna go over somewhere else, and when it comes up to the whole body I will then argue and fight against your point of view.” Instead he sabotaged the meetings, because he insisted on interrupting and saying “No we’re not for that, it’s already been decided [etc.]…” And was actually quite authority in fact.
In addition to ideological differences, Occupy faced the challenge of infiltration, leading the movement to modify its process as a solution. Here’s Matthew, who I talked to in part 1.
Matthew: It was also vulnerable to a kind of sabotage, especially because it was such a major media event and so demonized in rightwing media. So occupy had to adopt a modified consensus model. I believe it was a 90% model which is essentially a super majority vote if someone blocks a proposal. They had a number of people who were coming just to disrupt proceedings and stop anything from happening, so this was a kind of necessary intervention.
Many organizations have adopted modified consensus. One example is the Democratic Socialists of America’s Liberterian Socialist Caucus, or DSA LSC.
Rose: My name is Rose. I joined DSA around the time of the Bernie campaign that many folks did, but I’ve been just generally a leftist since college. I’ve always identified as an anarchist personally.
Rose has been involved is DSA LSC since it began, both on the national level and in New York. Both the national and local caucuses work to build socialism outside of the state and seek to radicalize the DSA.
Rose: In both cases, we’re a caucus. We are a subsection of DSA, so some amount of our work is always internally focused in the sense that we’re looking to bring radical democracy to the DSA and talk about things like horizontalism, talk about things like dual power in DSA spaces. So that’s just always inherently part of our work.
DSA LSC has different thresholds for different types of decisions. These thresholds were inspired by consensus processes.
Rose: Procedural decisions are two-thirds. And then like an issue-based decision is at 75%. If there’s overall consensus, like a vast majority of people all agree, 9/10th’s, then we don’t debate it. So sometimes we’ll do a room check basically, to say like is there huge support for this and if it’s almost universal, then we’ve agreed and we move on. But if there is call for debate, then we use that 75% threshold, and then for procedural things, it’s two-thirds. An issue decision, I’ll give an example of something that I voted on today. We voted on a counter-statement towards a proposal that national DSA is considering as kind of like a DSA-wide priority. So we’re looking to publish like a counter-proposal to that potential campaign and that will require 75% majority to say yes we’re going to adopt this proposition. Something procedural might be just changing the order of the agenda, something small that isn’t gonna hit on someone’s core principles and is just kind of to move a meeting along or get an issue item checked off. So it’s a lower threshold just to kind of move things along and get it done.
Rose explained that DSA LSC has worked to uplift dissent in their organization. Having modified margins is part of making that happen.
Rose: Something that’s also important to us is making sure that people who aren’t in that 75% have room and allowance and encouragement to voice dissent and we have provisions. Like if a small group has a dissenting opinion from whatever the overarching opinion ends up being, we will publish that right alongside the consensus opinion so to speak. So that’s also really important to us. Trying to build consensus but also have room for dissent, and that we encourage dissent and publish it alongside. We don’t try to suppress it if there is a group that wants to make that point.
In addition to the issues a local group might face with consensus, being a national organization makes it a little more complicated. To make decisions across distances and also just between meetings, DSA LSC uses Loomio.
Rose: At the most simple level, Loomio is a voting tool and it works really well for us, looking toward radical democracy. There’s lots of different ways to decide to have a democratic decision and Loomio offers like many different ways of doing that. And it really has worked well for us at the national level.
It’s important to DSA LSC to keep everyone involved. These tools and processes support that goal.
Rose: One thing that always really sticks out for me is that we, in the LSC, we really try to have large decisions in the sense that we try to include everyone. And that means a week long voting period, a week long discussion period, in the national LSC. And then in the local, it really mean highlighting the general assembly where we’re all together in one place, discussing things together, so we do have an online space where we collaborate, but focus on the GA, and that’s where we discuss and collaborate.
Another thing to consider is who needs to be involved in a certain decision. Decisions that effect the entire group need the input of the entire group. But that doesn’t mean every decision needs everyone’s input.
Rose: If they want to do anything that’s sort of on behalf of either the LSC if you’re at the national level or our NYC LSC section, it does have to be brought back to the whole group, either at a general assembly or hopefully we’re gonna set up a Loomio at the local level too, although that hasn’t happened yet. So it has to go back to the group if you want to say like “This was endorsed by or this is a project of NYC LSC or LSC” so that the group can weigh in on you know what the pros and cons are, there’s checks and balances, and all of that. If that working group is doing something just on behalf of that group, it only concerns that group essentially, or that group has some kind of expertise in an area, our working groups has some leeway to do that on behalf of that working group, but it’s not on behalf of the section or the local. It’s not on behalf of the LSC as a whole. It’s really just for that group and of course the reach of that is limited, because that group might just be five people in the working group. And we also at the national level has something called initiatives that doesn’t even follow that process. It’s like, initiative just means you have a project you wanna do, and you can do it, and you can call it an initiative, and we would like it if you announce it to everyone, so that people can participate, but it doesn’t concern anyone else’s sort of decision making, unless you’re asking for LSC endorsement over all.
When determining your group’s structure you will need to make trade offs. A way to navigate these is to focus on your group’s values. A common issue is efficiency versus inclusion. DSA LSC has chosen to focus on inclusion.
Rose: Other groups, other liberatarian socialist groups, have ways for small groups to make decisions kind of autonomously and independently. We don’t really have that. And it’s possible we could develop something like that in the future, but I’m not sure it kind of sticks with really our core values of having everyone involved in the process. Because the small group decision making, just is inherently is exclusive. So what that means is that kind of flexibility and ability to make decisions quickly and efficiently if you will, we don’t have it. You know that has limitations. I don’t know that I see a way to fix that I think is good. But it’s definitely a limitation that has come up.
Selecting a smaller group of people to make a particular decision can be a practical tool, but it has to be used carefully. Often, it can cause friction between a larger decision making body and people executing a certain decision.
The Love & Rage federation, a group that Wayne was part of, experienced this problem. The Love & Rage federation was a revolutionary anarchist federation in North America during the 80s and 90s. Wayne describes some of the struggles the federation had around running their newspaper. This conflict demonstrates how important it is to have a good underlying structure, no matter what decision making process you’re using.
Wayne: What Love & Rage came together around, was the idea of putting out a continental anarchist newspaper. And so that became an issue, well who is going to edit the newspaper? Who’s gonna make decisions about that? And it came to be those that were willing to move to one spot, mainly New York City, and spend time on the newspaper were the ones who got to make the decisions. And in a way, that was kind of unpolitical, because it wasn’t based on well who agrees with this basic such and such a position or program and so forth. And there was enough general agreement for most of the time. Except at certain points, these things, as I said, tend to come apart when political disagreements came up. During the big newspaper strike in Detroit, some of our comrades put out a leaflet, were very involved in supporting the strike, and had put out a leaflet calling for a general strike. And some of the other people were against this. Therefore they didn’t want to reprint the leaflet. So there were disagreements about that, and there wasn’t a clear basis to resolve that because the editorial board was actually people who happened to be the ones willing to put the effort in.
I won’t dive too deeply into group structures, but I do want to highlight a couple things to consider.
One thing that’s clear is that common ground is an important condition for working together. Trying to create consensus or even a supermajority like DSA LSC in a group without a shared project or ideology is nearly impossible. Here’s Wayne.
Wayne: Without clear agreement and a program and something, you can say well then people who are new and joining will learn about the program and then they can you know make up their minds and say well I want to change this or change that. I want to implement it this way and you want to implement it that way or something. But without a clear program, it’s very hard to do any of those things, so we tend to come to consensus about activities.
Wikipedia is a perfect example of this, which I talked about in the last episode. Their goal is to make the world’s largest encyclopedia. It provides a clear common ground for discussions.
Once a structure and process is decided on, figuring out how to implement it transparently and consistently presents another set of issues.
Wayne: There’s always a difference between the formal structure and the actual way things are organized. For example, in Love and Rage, we’d elect a steering committee without discussing first well, what were their political points of view? In fact, the organization was dominated by a small group of people who may or may not have been elected to positions, which was really kind of unfortunate. You should try to get the real power structure to be reflected in the actual way the organization is so you can see it and discuss it and relate to it.
In Jo Freeman’s essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” she explores the issues that arose in various women’s groups when a group didn’t formalize processes and instead aimed to be “structureless.” She writes “…structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement [it] is usually most strongly advocated [for] by those who are the most powerful.” She goes on to write “”Structurelessness” is organizationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one”
DSA LSC has grappled with some of the issues around informal structure and power dynamics. One of their solutions is keeping conversations about the organization accessible to the whole group. Here’s Rose.
Rose: What I see as a pernicious problem is informal power networks, where it’s not even like those people are pushing for one decision over another it’s almost like they’re just talking about general things more with each other than the rest of the group, such that when a decision does come, it looks like there’s this coordinated presence, whether those people realize it or not. When we were first setting up this section, we had people who were on the organizing committee trying to set it up. And we had various kinds of messaging going on between us that really did have the appearance of being exclusive to the rest of the group. And one of the things we tried to do really quickly as soon as we had the first general assembly was dissolve those chats so that it didn’t continue to be a separation. There had to be some element of it just to get started and get off the ground. But we really have tried to like shut that down and push it to the open collaborative space that we’ve all decided to use.
Like Rose is describing, the culture of a group plays a crucial role in supporting formal structures. Here’s Matthew again:
Matthew: The reality is for a lot of groups, people will act autonomously constantly. And as well as formal process, which some groups have more thoroughly and some don’t, there’s also a process culture or a political culture. To have this kind of culture, I think you do need formality somewhere. And sometimes I think people get really hung up on “Well, we committed to this thing or we wanna have this focus, or we consensused on a particular political line, and I don’t think this represents that.” Sometimes people try and make the solution more process or more forms of kind of checks and balances and more formal process. Frequently, I think that’s a mistake or it’s a way of getting bogged down rather than advancing on particular issues. And there’s always a necessity to slowly implement decisions or change culture and that’s a much more difficult process then saying, “If you didn’t follow our decision, then you’re expelled or punished.” I think usually the more informal mechanisms, the more people are educated about the way horizontal processes are supposed to go, the more people improve communication and make sure decisions and discussions trickle down to other groups, the more effective decision making is, and the less you need really formal controls to direct a group.
In this episode, I discussed some of the ways decision making gets complicated, as well as some of the solutions groups have tried. I want to end by emphasizing that this is a process of creation. There’s no perfect system that always works. Our processes will have to evolve as our groups and movements change.
Matthew: I think all organizing is an experiment. The forms people are taking are changing all the time. People who were coming up in 70’s, 80’s, probably didn’t expect to see the kind of organizational forms that alter-globalization took, which was very network, heterogeneous, horizontal. Things like Occupy, which I think many of us never imagined was possible in the US, especially with the consensus, directly democratic process, and it turned out it was intuitive and natural to all sorts of people, including non-activists. Keep in mind that things might work that you never imagined were possible and that movements are constantly growing and roiling under the surface. And feel free to experiment and try new things.
By being flexible and creative, we can find processes that work for the situations we’re in. We can build a culture and a process that respects our comrades and enables us to achieve stronger actions.
And it’s also important to note that we’re coming from a world that only gives us experience with very hierarchical structures. Transitioning to highly democratic and horizontal structures is learning a whole new skill. This means that, as individuals, we’ll have to come to the process open to new ideas and ready for new experiences.
This can feel hopelessly mundane sometimes and overwhelmingly challenging other times. But making decisions as a group is a fundamental part of working together. And the problems we’re facing are just too big to solve on our own. We have to do it together.
You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, 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, & Morgane Fouse from Lady Media Co. and also includes some songs that I created. Special thanks to our interviewees, Wayne, Matthew, and Rose and their organizations. For more resources, check out the show notes for this episode on rebelsteps.com.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider supporting us on Patreon or sharing this episode with your friends or via social media. This podcast is part of the Channel Zero Network, an anarchist podcast network run by radical media makers. Head over to ChannelZeroNetwork.com for more podcasts.