Thursday, 14 April 2011

Decisions, decisions

In the last few weeks, the press has been abuzz with talk of this consensus decision-making that all the kool kids in lefty activist communities use. Although it's a little unpopular in many lefty activist communities to admit, I personally have mixed feelings about consensus decision-making.

The participatory consensus model (PCM) is a system for groups to make decisions. The idea is that everyone should work to find a mutually acceptable solution to a given problem, not settle on something which is acceptable to majority. The reasoning for this is that a majoritarian view can alienate minorities, and a group decisions should be one that the whole group can feel part of and ownership of (so "alienate" here means not only "exclude", but also the Marxist sense of "alienation"). A consensus is reached when everyone in the group agrees on a decision.

The PCM makes some basic assumptions about participants, and the decision-making context. It assumes people are willing to accommodate to each other's points of view, that everyone actively wants to find a solution that works for everyone and resolve any problems that might be standing in the way of that. It assumes that everyone has an equal right to participate, and that everyone is committed to learning from each other. In a lot of ways, it's very much like the consciousness-raising model -- consciousness-raising for decision-making. Typically, PCM discussions are facilitated, to make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak and speaking turns are allocated fairly. However, PCM is generally used in non-hierarchical settings.

On a more fundamental level: PCM assumes everyone has an equal ability to participate, and there is a very real sense in which PCM is relies on the idea that "decisions are made by those who turn up". PCM is not a representative democracy.

That presents its own problems, of course. There may be good reasons why some people cannot turn up, or cannot participate as much as they would like. PCM also takes time -- it's easy to present a case for and against something. It's much harder to invest the time and energy to finding common group that makes everyone happy. I can't help noticing that many of the stalwart campaigners in many of the PCM-based campaigns I have been involved in are men with no dependents or disabilities or waged jobs. Not all, of course. But many, and although efforts are often made to include children, disabled people, poorer people, in PCM spaces, that doesn't change the fact that PCM can be long and difficult sometimes, and some people will never have the energy to spare (although we might well have the energy to read up on material in our own time, and cast a vote).

PCM also assumes that everyone has the equal ability to be heard, and that everyone is committed to learning. I don't doubt that people strive towards this. But I sometimes doubt that it is fully achievable in all situations, because we do internalise prejudices, because we're all socialised in a very messed-up society. I'm not always sure it is the case that everyone is listened to equally, or that every group that strives to be non-hierarchical in fact ends up being non-hierarchical in practice, because people do and will associate some people with being knowledgeable, or sensible, or what-have-you more than others, and because some people will (and will be able to) put more work into group activities than others.

But many of these problems are problems also with representative democracy models (RDM). With RDMs, there maybe often be less of an effort to find the common ground, more majoritarian rule. That means that even if, say, single mothers get a vote, if they are a numerical majority, their preferences may be discounted.

In many ways, I see the test of these systems as being what happens in situations outside our feminist activist bubbles. PCMs don't really work where there is a fundamental and insuperable difference of opinion between participants. But RDM does not encourage attempts to listen and persuade.

I will say this for the Glasgow student occupation, and PCM-based groups like them, though: they have built something extraordinary. The are truly remarkable examples of community-run inclusive projects. That they do it in stark contrast to the decision-making systems of university hierarchies, which are not RDMs, but strictly hierarchical with, it seems, particular focus on what is best for the senior management staff. So when I look at projects like the Free Hetherington that are built on peaceful, if civilly disobedient, protest and community involvement, all I can say is: more power to them.




  1. Just to say, as an occupier of the Hetherington, we don't use PCM or RDM.

    We use an adhoc system that we are continually adapting for different needs. We use facilitators and stacking, hand signals are allowed but not mandatory (with thumbs up preferred to jazz hands). We use majority vote often, but only after we have tried to build a consensus.

    We do 'select' (rather than elect) representatives/delegates. But they are always recallable and have clear mandates they may not step beyond.

    Other roles (cooking, cleaning, door duties etc) are based on volunteerism and the assumption of good-will (i.e. people aren't left to do the same boring task).

    But yes, thanks for the mention! Come and see us sometime.

  2. Firstly, apology for not replying earlier.

    Secondly, yes, that's an important point that these systems can be modified for particular needs. I think you'd almost have to for most practical situations.

    When I've taken part in similar kinds of spaces, we've tended to use slightly modified versions (consensus first, then majority vote to confirm, or if an agreement can't be reached). I think the time/energy issue still applies though -- such meetings can often take a really long time, and of course it's important to make sure that we're working to find common ground, but there were also times I just could not deal with *another* long meeting.

    I've also seen situations where some people felt that they were left to do the same tasks over and over, so sometimes volunteerism has to be modified with a stern talking-to to the whole group to point out how much more some people have been doing than others (but also taking into account that some divisions of labour should maybe be adjusted to take different abilities and needs into account).

    So lots of good, and also some challenges, but yes, on the whole, I do appreciate that lots of people are engaging with these issues.

    Thanks for stopping by.