The Theology of Consensus

Consensus decision-making has dominated social movements for forty years. Let’s try something different.

A general assembly at Occupy Boston.

Consensus decision-making, a process in which groups come to agreement without voting, has been a central feature of direct action movements for nearly forty years, from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s to the turn-of-the-millennium global justice movement to 2011’s Occupy Wall Street.

Instead of voting a controversial plan up or down, groups that make decisions by consensus work to refine the plan until everyone finds it acceptable. A primer on the NYC General Assembly website, the structural expression of the Occupy movement, explains, “Consensus is a creative thinking process: When we vote, we decide between two alternatives. With consensus, we take an issue, hear the range of enthusiasm, ideas and concerns about it, and synthesize a proposal that best serves everybody’s vision.”

Proponents make broad claims for consensus process. They argue that it is intrinsically more democratic than other methods, and that it fosters radical transformation, both within movements and in their relations with the wider world. As described in the action handbook of an Earth Day 1990 action to shut down Wall Street, which included a blockade of the entrances to the Stock Exchange and led to some two hundred arrests, “Consensus at its best offers a cooperative model of reaching group unity, an essential step in creating a culture that values cooperation over competition.”

Few, though, know the origins of the process, which shed an interesting and surprising light on its troubled real-world workings. Consensus decision-making first entered the world of grassroots activism in the summer of 1976, when a group of activists calling themselves the Clamshell Alliance began a direct-action campaign against the planned Seabrook Nuclear Plant.

Many activists of the time were well aware of what feminist writer Jo Freeman famously called “the tyranny of structurelessness.” The tendency in some early 1970s movements to abandon all structure in the name of spontaneity and informality had proven to be not just unworkable but undemocratic. Decisions still happened, but without an agreed-upon process — there was no accountability.

The organizers of “the Clam,” as it was often called, were eager to find a process that could prevent the pitfalls of structurelessness, without resorting to hierarchy. Two staffpeople from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the longstanding and widely admired peace and justice organization affiliated with the Society of Friends, or Quakers, suggested consensus.

By this, they did not mean an informal process of building broad internal agreement of the sort used, for instance, by the pathbreaking civil rights group SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the early 1960s. The consensus process adopted by the Clam was much more formal, and grew directly out of Quaker religious practice.

As historian A. Paul Hare explains:

For over 300 years the members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) have been making group decisions without voting. Their method is to find a ‘sense of the meeting’ which represents a consensus of those involved. Ideally this consensus is not simply ‘unanimity,’ or an opinion on which all members happen to agree, but a ‘unity’: a higher truth which grows from the consideration of divergent opinions and unites them all.

That unity, they believe, has a spiritual source: within Quaker theology, the process is in effect a manifestation of the divine. A 1943 “Guide to Quaker Practice” explained, “The principle of corporate guidance, according to which the Spirit can inspire the group as a whole, is central. Since there is but one Truth, its Spirit, if followed will produce unity.” Consensus process will eventually yield a decision, in other words, because discussing, listening, and waiting will ultimately reveal God’s will. Patience will lead to Truth.

This religious core was left unmentioned when consensus decision-making came to the world of secular activism. Quakers do not, as a rule, proselytize their faith, and the two AFSC organizers working on the Seabrook anti-nuclear campaign — Sukie Rice and Elizabeth Boardman — were no exception. They were emphatically not looking to impose their religion on the group.

They introduced the decision-making method because it seemed to them a good fit with the larger movement yearning for inclusive and truly democratic forms of decision-making, as well as with the philosophy of nonviolence, in which one tries to understand the heart and motivation of one’s opponent. “Under consensus, the group takes no action that is not consented to by all group members,” explained a Clamshell action manual, using italics to underscore the point: everyone’s voice would matter.

The process quickly spread among those segments of the activist left that embraced direct action as central to their strategy. Some called it “feminist process,” for it seemed to embody feminist ideals of participation, inclusion, and egalitarianism. Rice recalled, “[People] had no idea that Clamshell would be the prototype for all the other groups that took off from there, they had no inkling of that.”

But by the end of the 1980s, the Clamshell model — fusing consensus decision-making, affinity groups, and a coordinating spokecouncil — was firmly established as the prevailing structure for grassroots direct action organizing in the United States.

But while Rice and Boardman were careful to exclude any explicit theology from their trainings on consensus, something of its religious origin adhered to the process nonetheless — including a deep faith in its rightness, a certain piety in its implementation, and a tendency to treat claims about consensus as foundational truths.

A 1987 handbook produced by two founding members of Food Not Bombs, C.T. Lawrence Butler and Amy Rothstein, On Conflict and Consensus, codified the many assertions made on its behalf, central among which was the declaration that “Formal Consensus is the most democratic decisionmaking process.”

This statement of faith, presented as a statement of fact, could be heard in nearly every movement that adopted the process over the ensuing years. The conviction that consensus would produce more democratic outcomes than any other method was repeated like a catechism. “The goal of consensus,” the handbook continued, “is not the selection of several options, but the development of one decision which is the best for the whole group. It is synthesis and evolution, not competition and attrition.”

In practice, the process often worked well in small-group settings, including within the affinity groups that often formed the building blocks for large actions. At the scale of a significant mobilization, though, the process was fraught with difficulty from the start.

At the 1977 Seabrook blockade, where consensus was first employed in a large-scale action setting, the spokescouncil spent nearly all the time before being ordered to leave the site, bogged down in lengthy discussions of minor issues. A similar dynamic played out in Occupy Wall Street almost a quarter century later, where the general assembly proved ill-equipped to address the day-to-day needs of the encampment.

Though On Conflict and Consensus assured organizers that “Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming,” experience suggested otherwise. The process favored those with the most time, as meetings tended to drag out for hours; in theory, consensus might include everyone in all deliberations, but in practice, the process greatly favored those who could devote limitless time to the movement — and made full participation difficult for those with ordinary life commitments outside of their activism.

Movement after movement found, moreover, that the process tended to give great attention and weight to the concerns of a few dissenters. In the purest form of consensus, a block by one or two individuals could bring the whole group to a screeching halt.

Sometimes, that forced groups to reckon with important issues that the majority might otherwise ignore, which could indeed be powerful and transformative. But it also consistently empowered cranks, malcontents, and even provocateurs to lay claim to a group’s attention and gum up the works, even when groups adopted modifications to strict consensus that allowed super-majorities to override blocks.

Consensus can easily be derailed by those acting in bad faith. But it’s also a process that is ill-equipped to deal with disagreements that arise from competing interests rather than simple differences of opinion. The rosy idea embedded in the process that unity and agreement can always be found if a group is willing to discuss and modify a proposal sufficiently is magical thinking, divorced from the real-world rough-and-tumble of political negotiation.

Groups hold on to ingrained practices in part because they help reinforce their sense of identity. The complex liturgy of consensus process — from the specialized language and roles (“facilitators,” “vibes watchers,” “progressive stack,” and more) to the elaborate hand signals (“up-twinkles,” “down-twinkles,” and the like) — has functioned as much to signal and consolidate a sense of belonging to a certain tradition as it has to move decisions forward.

And because consensus process was marked from the start not just by its religious origins but also by its cultural ones, that tradition has been imbued with whiteness. The Clamshell Alliance was, after all, an overwhelmingly white organization, bringing together white residents of the New Hampshire seacoast with white Quakers and an array of mostly white radicals from Boston and beyond for action in a white rural region.

Few of the groups that would adopt consensus in the decades to come would be quite as starkly monochromatic as the Clam, and the use of the process is hardly sufficient to explain the reasons for racial divisions within activist communities. But time and again, activists of color found the use of consensus in majority-white direct action circles to be alienating and off-putting, and white activists’ reverent insistence on the necessity and superiority of the process has exacerbated difficulties in multiracial collaboration and alliance-building.

During the campus anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s, for instance, the use of consensus drove a major wedge at UC-Berkeley between the mostly white Campaign Against Apartheid (CAA) and United People of Color (UPC), a multiracial student group. UPC organizer Patricia Vattuone explained at the time, “We felt it was undemocratic to have these long meetings — four hours, eight hours — when, I have things to do, other students are not only active in their own organizations, but can’t spend hours and hours and hours on Sproul, and that was the only way you could have input or provide leadership.”

UPC proposed shifting to a representative decision-making method — but CAA, believing consensus to be intrinsically better and more radical, refused. Two other UPC activists, Sumi Cho and Robert Westley, later wrote, “As a result, planning meetings and political actions . . . became virtually devoid of student-of-color participation in the name of radical hyperdemocratic (consensus-only) decision-making.”

Two decades later, similar though less acute tensions arose when white activists streamed to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to participate in the Common Ground relief effort “with a preconceived notion that collectives use consensus as the decision-making process,” according to participants Sue Hilderbrand, Scott Crow, and Lisa Fithian.

Local black activists preferred a different course of action, in which “the group defines itself and establishes the decision-making process collectively,” particularly since “the consensus process brought in by white activists confused many community members, who were often unfamiliar with the ‘rules’ of participation.”

The irony here, of course, is that activists have adopted consensus as part of a larger aspiration to prefigure the world they hope to create — presumably not one as racially bounded as the practice of consensus process has been. There’s long been a deep yearning at the heart of that prefigurative project for a kind of community and connection otherwise missing from many movement participants’ lives.

In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, where consensus process played out with such dysfunction, Jonathan M. Smucker considered what role this yearning might have played in skewing movement practice:

I began to wonder if the heightened sense of an integrated identity was “the utopia” that many of my fellow participants were seeking. What if the thing we were missing, the thing we were lacking — the thing we longed for most — was a sense of an integrated existence in a cohesive community, i.e., an intact lifeworld? What if this longing was so potent that it could eclipse the drive to affect larger political outcomes?

The prime appeal of consensus process for forty years has been its promise to be more profoundly democratic than other methods. This promise has been repeated again and again like dogma. But let’s face it: the real-world evidence is shaky at best. Perhaps the reason why it has endured so long in activist circles despite its evident practical shortcomings has something to do with the theological character it carried over from Quaker religious practice, the way it addresses a deep desire for transcendent group unity and “higher truth.”

If the forty-year persistence of consensus has been a matter of faith, surely the time has now come for apostasy. Piety and habit are bad reasons to keep using a process whose benefits are more notional than real. Outside of small-group settings, consensus process is unwieldy, off-putting, tiresome, and ineffective. Many inclusive, accountable alternative methods are available for making decisions democratically. If we want to change the world, let’s pick ones that work.

Originally published in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology.

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