Socialist Worker

Consensus, voting and democracy

Issue No. 2276

We’re told that we live in a democracy—but it doesn’t feel like it.

The only say we have is when we get to put a cross on a ballot paper twice a decade. And once politicians have our vote, they quickly go back on their promises.

For socialists, democracy is not about the ins and outs of voting systems, but about who has real control over society.

But it’s no wonder that those fighting the system want to organise differently—to give the millions excluded by capitalist democracy a chance to have their voice heard.

Consensus decision-making is one way that some activists try to organise. This is a method where, instead of voting, nothing is decided unless everyone consents to it.

Consensus first came to prominence through the feminist and environmental movements, who took it from the Quakers, who say it came from indigenous people.

But it was the dawn of the anti-capitalist movement in 1999 that saw consensus spread like wildfire.

The method uses a set of hand signals, such as waving your fingers (“twinkling” or “jazz hands”) to agree, or using your fist to “block” (a veto). If someone blocks, a decision isn’t made until their concerns have been addressed.

“Consensus is neither compromise nor unanimity,” say consensus trainers Seeds for Change. “It aims to go further by weaving together everyone’s best ideas and most important concerns.”

In this way, the theory goes, everyone can feel empowered by knowing they can stop things they don’t like. But in practice, the method presents a number of problems.


To begin with, a group of any size is unlikely to come to entirely agree about pretty much anything.

In pure consensus systems, it is far easier to stop things than to start them, and discussions frequently don’t reach any conclusion.

Decisions that are wanted by overwhelming majorities can be delayed, weakened or blocked.

This can mean missing the moment. If you’re about to get arrested, it can have far worse effects.

Occupiers in Wall Street, for example, know this. They use a modified version of consensus where it is possible to override a block by getting a 90 percent majority vote.

The consensus method also claims to allow movements to be horizontal and non-hierarchical. But this is, unfortunately, an illusion.

“Leaderless” movements are in reality led by whoever turns up.

In a society where no one had other commitments that might be alright. But under capitalism, it hands power to those with more time.

As the process is made ever more complex, the confident and even privileged can come to dominate.

An informal leadership always emerges, not least among the method’s facilitators. Accountability is then a must.

This was shown in the European Social Forum organising process, which had consensus meetings in a different European city each time.

As Alex Callinicos has argued, this “tended to ensure the dominance of large organisations … with the resources to send delegates to these meetings”.

Watching a meeting use consensus well can be impressive. It’s certainly a world away from the farce that is parliament.

And for socialists to be part of these movements, knowing how consensus meetings are run—even learning the hand signals—is useful.

But consensus carries with it ideas that relegate the role of politics.

“Ideology must left at home,” says the Puerta del Sol Indignados camp’s guide to the process. “An assembly should not be centred around an ideological discourse. Instead it should deal with practical questions.”

This makes it hard to discuss the strategic direction of the movement. Radicals are expected to compromise with the most right wing elements.

But a living, breathing democracy is about more than discussion—it’s about decisions that have a real effect. It is instructive to consider the democracy of a strike.

In the best strikes, mass meetings of workers hold a full debate on all positions, then vote. Leaders are elected and can be held to account.

Then, if they decide to walk out, they all do it together—and set up a picket line to enforce the decision. This unity, forged in struggle, points to a better way of running the world.

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Tue 1 Nov 2011, 19:35 GMT
Issue No. 2276
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