Collective Book on
The Egalitarian Collective
The basic premise of any egalitarian group is that all the members of the group are valuable: everyone's opinions deserve to be heard, and everyone's input is necessary for the group's efforts to proceed in the appropriate spirit of collaboration. Ideally, the process should be different from that used by many other kinds of organizations, because it must not simply result in one side winning and the other side completely losing, which would be antithetical to egalitarian goals. Especially when an egalitarian group opts to decide by consensus, it needs to be vigilant about making sure every point of view is considered. It must discourage the kind of debate that takes place simply to push forward a particular position, because it needs to arrive at solutions upon which everyone can agree. In order for everyone to give consent freely, there must be no coercion or unequal power. Thus, the absence of hierarchy and authority is not merely an added stipulation; it’s essential to the process itself.
About This Project
This site is a work in progress. Its purpose is to build a handbook on collective process, discussing the ways that egalitarian collectives can function equitably and fairly, with an emphasis on troubleshooting problems and offering viable options when things break down. It's designed for groups committed to equality, democracy, and anti-authoritarianism. We invite everyone's input. In order to build a meaningful resource for collectives everywhere, we would like to include different viewpoints and experiences. Everyone is welcome to submit ideas, insights, problem resolutions, points of disagreement with the current authors, and personal experiences from working within egalitarian groups. Additionally, if you're in the New York area, please feel free to contact us about meetings.
Send mail to: The Common Wheel Collective
P.O. Box 371, St. George Station, Staten Island, NY 10301
Send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The handbook that we hope to put together with your input is provisionally entitled Troubleshooting the Collective Process. Initially, it will be issued in a series of booklets, to be synthesized later. Below are some preliminary drafts for the first booklets.
Booklet One: Is This What Consensus Looks Like?
Why This Booklet?
There are many collectives that claim to operate by consensus when they have, in fact, only adopted a few aspects of the process while overlooking its fundamental core: equality, respect, mutual acceptance, and an open forum for the exchange of ideas. For instance, a group might look to consensus primarily as a means of voting on proposals -- declaring, as a result, that all decisions must be unanimous -- while it fails to encourage or allow the free expression of opinions. In that situation, consensus has been subverted. Rather than being a means to ensure that everyone's voice is heard, consensus becomes a coercive tactic to shore up the power of a self-appointed elite.
In other instances, consensus is not deliberately abused but simply falls prey to vagueness and misunderstanding. For example, group members may believe that if everyone cannot agree on a particular outcome for a given situation, then the proposal that was made to deal with that situation should simply be dropped, and the issue remains unaddressed. Consensus should encourage a resolution to which all members can consent, not a form of resignation, for lack of unanimity, that leaves the status quo intact.
Collectives that use consensus often rely on the assumption that the process is intuitively understood by the participants. A group might function quite well without studying the process too closely, until a problem occurs and the group's collectivity, or sense of working together, falls to pieces. Attention to process is never more important than in times of crisis, but by the time a rift has occurred, it's usually too late to cobble together a set of procedures for the collective to follow. In most cases, the unequal group dynamics that derail a collective during difficult circumstances have been at play since long before the problems became obvious.
Our aim is to shed light on some of the imbalances and related power struggles that are often hidden under the cloak of consensus. We are doing this in order to help group members correct such problems as they strive for true democracy and equality.
Introduction To Consensus
Generally, a collective that operates by consensus holds regular facilitated meetings at which proposals are submitted and discussed. At the end of each discussion, the facilitator will call for objections; if none are made, the proposal will be said to have passed by consensus. Yet, this process doesn't always guarantee that there really is consensus, as a lot depends on the power dynamics that come into play. For instance, if members are individually approached ahead of time and persuaded on the merits of the proposal, that's a manipulation of the process, as it bypasses the open forum, which is at the heart of consensus. Or, if an influential or intimidating member voices strong support for the proposal and exhibits annoyance or impatience with anyone who raises concerns, thereby restricting the free exchange of ideas and possibly influencing the final outcome, the decision will not have been made by consensus.
If some members do not have access to the information needed to make an educated choice but have to rely on the assurances of the proponents that their plan is sound, that, too, will essentially invalidate the consensus.
The issue is even thornier when proposals do not pass. In many instances, if unanimity cannot be reached, the issue will simply be dropped and the group will revert to the status quo. That means that the matter the proposal was designed to address will remain unresolved. That is not consensus. Consensus requires that all members declare the outcome of a discussion to be at least marginally acceptable. If someone proposes a change because he or she perceives a problem that needs addressing, that person cannot simply be overruled for the sake of group agreement.
Blocking, the prerogative by one or more persons to stop a decision that everyone else would choose to pass, is the one aspect of consensus that seems to be universally embraced. It does not mean, however, that one person can hold the collective hostage to his or her whims. Blocking must be used judiciously and not as a power play. More often, however, pressure is applied by the more domineering members of the group to urge someone NOT to block and not to voice dissent. Blocking puts one in the spotlight and easily casts one as a troublemaker, particularly when it means defying powerful members who have already privately persuaded the others to go along with their agenda. Members who have established themselves as de-facto leaders (yes, this happens all the time in egalitarian collectives) and who may have attracted a following within the group through charisma or persuasiveness, or by scoring impressive achievements for the organization, don't have to resort to blocking to kill a proposal. It's enough for them to display annoyance, irritation, or agitation with the suggested action, generating distrust among others. The right individual could destroy a proposal simply by frowning at the right times, sighing in exasperation, or laughing sarcastically. Clearly, this is not consensus.
Consensus is not just the end result of the group's decision-making process, or the part where a vote is taken and the vote is unanimous, barring any blocks or stand-asides. The consensus process has to be built into the entire structure of the group or organization and form the basis for all of its activities and basic operation. This is true for all egalitarian collectives, even those who accept some form of majority vote in their decision-making and may therefore not strictly be defined as operating by consensus.
The basic premise of consensus, and indeed of any egalitarian group, is that all members of the group are valuable, everyone's opinions deserve consideration, and everyone's input is necessary for the group's efforts to proceed, in a spirit of collaboration. It differs from the group process used by conventional organizations in that it does not set up an adversarial relationship where one side wins (often the majority, but just as often the side backed up by the most authority) and the other side loses. In consensus, argument is not engaged in to defend a position but to arrive at solutions that everyone can consent to. In order for everyone to freely give consent, there must be no coercion or unequal power. Thus the absence of hierarchy and authority is not an added stipulation to the structure of egalitarian collectives but is essential to the consensus process.
The Particular Vulnerability of Collectives
The consensus process is based on the assumption that all members of the collective are making a good faith effort to work cooperatively, honestly, and in support of one another to achieve the mutually agreed-upon ends of the group. This expectation of good will can leave a collective particularly vulnerable, however, to manipulation by individuals who may seek to use their participation in the group to steer it in a direction that better suits them or as a means to further their own sense of importance or control.
We are familiar with the coercive tactics of pushy salesmen: gaining our trust by empathizing with our concerns and assuring us that they are on our side, promising to help us by providing us--at great sacrifice to themselves, they tell us--with something we want and need. When we fail to appreciate their sincere and hard-won efforts on our behalf they act deeply hurt and betrayed.
Most of us are wary of salesmen and may not fall for their pitches. But when we are dealing with a fellow collective member, someone who is committed to the same cause and who embraces our shared belief in equality and fairness, we are not likely to suspect him or her of ulterior motives. Moreover, if one were to express reservations about the motivations of a fellow collective member, one might be accused of undermining the mutual trust that is essential to the collective process.
Unfortunately, we have seen ugly power plays and underhanded manipulation of the group's loyalties happen again and again in egalitarian collectives.
Exhibiting stress, anxiety or grave worry is a common way for manipulators to exert influence, since most of us are conditioned to want to help someone in distress, and we may be so eager to do so that we will overlook other priorities just to ease the discomfort as quickly as possible. By appearing fretful at the possibility that something might not get done or put upon by having to do so much himself, a de-facto leader can galvanize people to act without attention to previously agreed-upon parameters. Similarly, acting hurt, shocked, or giving the appearance that one is seething with righteous indignation in the face of a concern that has been raised is a quick way to silence inconvenient dissent.
The group's most common reaction to a faction or individual who seeks to sway the collective's will is not, as one would hope, calling the authoritarian manipulators to task, but gratitude that someone is taking on the difficult work of running the group and its activities. These members become complicit in the power-grabbing tactics of the self-appointed leader(s). Oftentimes, collective members actually offer these self-appointed elites their loyal support and become openly distrustful or disdainful of those who question the actions or authority of the leadership. At this point, the group is not only no longer operating collectively or by consensus, it has effectively become a private club.
The Formation of a Ruling Elite
Whenever a core group forms within a collective that takes on the work of managing its day-to-day affairs, like paying the rent and keeping the books, orienting new members, representing the organization to outsiders--the press, for instance--and ultimately deciding the direction of the organization without consulting the collective, members should become very concerned.
If the core faction scoffs at adherence to established procedures or ridicules people who are concerned about process, claiming that they, the hard-working, indispensable backbone of the organization, are more interested in getting things done than going to meetings, there is no consensus or collectivism at work in the group.
Domineering people often seek to disparage or discourage sticking to a written code of procedures. This allows them to act without the group's consent but without having clearly violated any rule, or even to claim that they alone know the rules and have in fact followed them. Worse, they may force someone else to act according to their wishes, again claiming that the procedural code, which no one has ever seen, requires it.
More often, however, a lack of process allows self-appointed leaders to control the collective by attrition and default. The issues they don't favor are allowed to fall by the wayside, quietly. If anybody complains, these self-appointed leaders can simply say they haven't gotten around to it yet because, since they are running the organization, they are swamped with work. Or, they can claim that that those matters that didn't get done simply didn't work out logistically. How can the other memebers, who have been kept out of the loop of any logistics, claim it to be otherwise?
Whenever a small elite has been allowed to take over, the remaining members are left to function only as worker bees. The ruling clique may seek to consolidate its power by fragmenting the organization, so that no one knows what anybody else is doing except those at the top, who have to be consulted every time a step needs to be taken that could affect another subgroup or the broader infrastructure of the organization.
In some cases, members who have been cut off from the leadership, which by rights everyone should participate in, may simply work independently on their own projects, using the group only for the resources it is able to offer. That too does not constitute operating by consensus.
Egalitarian collectives require that everyone be informed about every aspect of the organization's functioning and that each person have the skills to perform any and all of the tasks involved. This may be tedious, but without it there is no power sharing.
The Responsibilities of Collective Members
A collective requires the active and vigilant participation of all members in order to function by consensus or collectively.
Just as those who take on positions of power subvert consensus, so do the people who relinquish authority and lose interest in the workings of the group. Because a collective has no bosses to enforce the rules, everyone involved in the communal effort has to take responsibility to see to it that the operating guidelines are adhered to by all. If somebody acts in a domineering manner, it is everyone else's role to call the person to task and ask him or her to change the behavior. Failing to do so means that consensus is no longer at work in the group.
Domineering members may strive to encourage apathy and lack of participation, usually by keeping people uninformed or clueless about what's going on in the group. This is an authoritarian strategy to concentrate power within one individual or small faction. When the majority loses interest in making decisions, the few will take that role upon themselves.
It is absolutely crucial, in order for consensus to function, that all members take an active role in the functioning of the collective and that everyone keep him- or herself fully informed. Giving away power, unfortunately, usually means somebody will be ready to scoop it up.
Red Flags to Guard Against
The following is a by-no-means-exhaustive list of behaviors that should send up a red flag among collective members that the group’s dynamics may need to be reexamined to ensure equal participation (and to stop divas and ego-maniacs in their tracks).
1. Meetings are poorly attended and those who do attend appear to be sullen and bored, letting a self-appointed leader set the agenda and do most of the talking. This is a sure sign that people have given up on the possibility of having meaningful input into the group’s direction.
2. Meetings are not held at all, or not for months, because of lack of interest. (Note: Some groups get together on a regular basis to work on projects. These may count as informal meetings if decisions and issues are discussed in the course of the work. That’s okay: it doesn’t signal lack of participation.)
3. Someone or a faction denigrates meetings (boring, take up too much time, people have better things to do, meetings are for people who are only interested in process and not in actually getting things done) so that they are rarely held, hurried, or badly attended. As a result, one small group or individual can make decisions on his/her/their own without having to consult anyone else.
4. People walk on eggs for fear of upsetting the “leader.” People chastise others for having upset the “leader“.
5. Someone or a faction derides the idea of using a facilitator or an agreed-upon process, implying that “our group” is above needing all that.
6. Unsubstantiated rumors and gossip, especially attacking someone for being racist or sexist (hard to defend against) or for unspecific offenses, such as being “uncooperative,” “unreasonable,” or “disruptive” (hard to prove or disprove).
7. A sustained campaign to discredit someone, with accusations such as “thief,” “liar,” and “control freak” being tossed about without substantiation or clearly trumped up (i.e. a person who borrows or loses something is declared a thief and a ban is called for).
8. A petition being circulated for members’ signatures that vilifies someone. People signing such a petition without any first hand knowledge of the accusations--often in an attempt to be helpful: “I don’t want that person to destroy the group!“ (Or to avoid angering the accusers and becoming themselves the subjects of the next petition.)
9. Constant shit-talking about people formerly associated with the group, even in a seemingly humorous vein.
10. Calls for banning cropping up whenever there’s a problem.
1. Acting exasperated that someone would waste the group’s time with trivialities.
2. Crushing dissent by fabricating distracting excuses or creating a smokescreen.
3. Trying to create a feud by consistently slandering someone behind their back or baiting them to their face. (For instance: is there someone who takes every opportunity to always complain about the same person? “He/she is a stalker/a sexual harasser/a sexist/crazy/out to get me, etc.”)
4. Using outright intimidation such as staring down, yelling, histrionics or acting as if one is (barely) suppressing indignant rage.
5. Acting wounded or victimized when one is actually the aggressor.
6. Acting wounded or outraged whenever someone makes a reasonable request, like asking for accountability of an expenditure. (Extra-red flag: Does this person consider herself to be so far above the rules that govern the group that she might actually be appropriating the group’s funds or other resources?)
7. Making oneself indispensable by not allowing anyone to help or have access to the information they would need in order to help.
8. Suggesting (or insisting!) that fundamental principles should be set aside to deal with a crisis (or to appeal to important constituencies, like sources of funding).
9. Having no patience for fundamental principles (implying that they, or ideals in general, are childish).
10. Relishing verbal arguments with those less knowledgeable or more vulnerable just for the glee of crushing them.
11. Demonstrating contempt for other people’s ideas or their right to express them (i.e. by scoffing, ridiculing, or belittling). Not to be confused with honest debate, which engages. Contempt only silences.
12. Controlling situations with fear by flying into a histrionic rage at insignificant provocation (i.e. a group didn’t put away chairs after a meeting, people working on a project didn’t call before stopping by).
13. Controlling situations with fear by predicting dire consequences. People who are worried or perceive an impending crisis are much more likely to succumb to manipulation.
14. Creating and spreading doomsday scenarios while setting oneself up as the lightning rod to deflect them.
15. Paranoia. Ascribing nefarious underlying motives to someone’s apparently innocent or merely uninformed actions. Going on the attack is often the most effective way to avoid having to answer for one’s own behavior (e.g. someone who borrows without asking the right person is a “thief” and should be banned; someone who adopts a dog and moves it into the space obviously thinks the group’s space is his own private home).
16. Creating self-fulfilling prophecies that serve one’s goals. (For example: repeatedly stating that the neighbors are becoming less and less tolerant of loud punk rock shows. )
17. Flaunting one’s knowledge (esp. of anarchism, collectivism, radicalism) to set oneself up as the go-to person for advice on how to proceed.
Ploys Used To Subvert Consensus
The following are some common ploys that can come into play at collective meetings and within the organization's group dynamics whenever influential or domineering members attempt to steer decision-making.
1. Expressing annoyance or exasperation with a member's concerns, implying the person is wasting the group's time, is overly concerned with nitpicking over proper procedure, or is bringing up subjects that are not relevant. Consensus requires that all members be heard and all issues addressed. No one person or faction can determine what is or is not important.
2. Insinuating (or stating outright) that bringing up problem areas or voicing dissenting concerns is disruptive to the work of the organization or disloyal to those working hard on the collective's behalf.
3. Expressing reservations with a proposal before it has been fully explained by the proponent, in an attempt to stir up misgivings among the attendees. The focus then shifts to a discussion of the group's anxieties, and the proposal dies without the collective ever getting back to studying the plan itself. (A good facilitator should prevent this from happening. What usually occurs, however, is that the facilitator will simply let people speak in the order in which they raise their hands, thereby making any discussion, which requires back-and-forth exchange, impossible. The person making the proposal may not get a chance to speak until well after a string of misunderstandings, passed on from speaker to speaker, has killed any hope of clarification. The facilitator needs to allow two people who are thrashing out their mutual understanding of an issue to finish before moving on.)
4. Objecting to something that was never proposed. For instance, A says attendance at meetings should be encouraged by publicizing them more widely. B, who prefers low turnouts in order to exercise more weight in decisions, responds that people should not be required to go to meetings. Clamor ensues against the anti-democratic suggestion of coerced participation. A's proposal dies.
5. Allowing the group to reach a decision and appearing to support it, then quietly steering them to the next agenda item before they've had a chance to agree on a plan for carrying out the decision. Similarly, volunteering to make something happen without getting too specific, then letting it drop when the time comes to act.
6. Stating that favored projects can be carried out by only a few committed members but, when it comes to projects that are opposed by the manipulative member, insisting that these require broad participation, thereby ensuring that they will become bogged down in the logistics of coordinating a large proportion of the membership and will likely not come to pass. Similarly, insiting that some decisions require broad support, rather than just an absence of objections, in order to pass, and may therefore have to be postponed until more opinions are heard, which usually results in an indefinite (i.e. permanent)postponement.
7. Scoffing, scowling, staring down, yelling down, sighing loudly, acting wounded, worried, impatient, or put upon, and walking out.
Within the group's larger dynamic:
1. Setting oneself or one's faction up as the de-facto leader by taking on the lion's share of administrative tasks, thereby appearing to be indispensable, and refusing offers of help, particularly when that help would make the helper privy to key knowledge about running the organization.
2. Hoarding information, especially details that are crucial to the organization's functioning or compliance with important issues (like paying taxes, for instance).
3. Setting oneself up as the sole coordinator of the collective's various committees or activities, thereby becoming the only individual (or faction) to have control over the organization as a whole.
4. Setting oneself up as the sole person(s) who can act as an outside contact by virtue of being the only one(s) with access to all the organization's subgroups or projects.
5. Acting as spokesperson for the group to outside interests.
6. Making decisions without consulting the collective, usually by beginning with trivial matters (like ordering supplies), which gradually grows into deciding single-handedly about larger issues (like the direction that should be followed by the collective).
7. Scoffing at adherence to process, implying or claiming that only do-nothings are concerned about following procedures while there's real work to be done.
8. Treating meetings as pedantic and tiresome (perhaps never getting around to drafting or agreeing to a schedule for meetings).
9. Claiming there is no need for rotating tasks because the most competent people should do what they're best suited for. (Note that task rotation ensures power sharing--something that domineering members usually don't want.)
10. Claiming to know the organization's protocol (which is unwritten) in dealing with any given situation. Pulling rank (seniority, experience, or special knowledge) if anyone finds reason to object.
11. Insisting that those who do the most work in the organization have more say in decision-making. Consensus does not recognize merit nor status: all members are truly equal.
12. Stating that in times of crisis there is not the time or energy to adhere to consensus or due process because the pressing matters at hand have to be dealt with posthaste. The domineering faction may then appoint itself ad hoc leader, doing away not only with collective participation but also with transparency in decision making.
13. Using the oldest manipulations in the book: going on the attack so as not to have to defend one's actions and creating a smokescreen of accusations to deflect attention from the issues.
14. Creating scapegoats or pariahs to take the focus off the manipulator.
15. Bullying, threatening, or cajoling.
16. Martyrdom: "After everything I've done for this collective, how could you question me?"
The Problem With Politeness
Politeness, which should not be confused with respect, consideration, and common decency (all good things), has always been used as a tool of oppression--for instance, to discredit political dissenters and protesters, who are characterized as unseemly and gauche by those against whom the loud slogans and street blockades are directed. The same tactic is employed within collectives to silence dissenters. Collectivism requires openness and honesty. Politeness is anathema to building consensus.
The traditional Anglo-Saxon Protestant niceties, such as not saying anything if one doesn't have anything nice to say, never expressing negative criticism, and rushing to smooth over disagreements, are incompatible with working collectively. Conflict is absolutely essential to the process of hashing out concepts and plans. Ideas have to be throughly and honestly considered. Conversely, making nice when one doesn't mean it only breeds mistrust. A habit of straightforward, up-front truth-telling encourages the group to focus on the content of statements made rather than feeding the constant need to try to ferret out the subtext of people's remarks: "Did she say that just to make me look stupid?" and so forth.
An absence of conflict is almost always a sign that dissent, or even honest input, is being suppressed, usually by an atmosphere that disapproves of making waves.
A manipulative person will invoke social niceties when it's convenient, accusing anybody who raises questions of being disrespectful or disruptive as means to silence them.
Politeness gives bullies free rein, since the social compact says we should respond with quiet composure to someone who attempts to intimidate us by shouting us down. Anyone who responds in kind to verbal attacks is subjected to the group's censure for escalating rather than defusing the hostilities, yet the original attacker, if he or she is a habitual bully who has earned a position of power and deference in the collective through domineering behavior, will get off scot free. People may even come to his or her defense for being so put upon and vilify whoever dared to confront such a beloved and respected member. This behavior is more characteristic of a club led by a charismatic personality than an egalitarian collective, yet something very similar to this happens time and time again in groups that say they operate by consensus.
In consensus, it is essential for members to hear and consider the content of a grievance, even if it is delivered in a flash of anger. In a collective in which there is an atmosphere of intimidation, members who may have concerns will routinely keep their mouths shut. Issues may rise to the surface only when someone has been pushed to the limit and blurts out his reservations by yelling. When that happens, it’s very easy for the domineering person(s) to paint the complainer as “crazy” or “out to get me.“ In fact, a particularly sneaky control freak may intentionally bait the person whom she sees as a threat to her power just to get a heated reaction, which she can then sell to the group as a reason to expel the dissenter.
Collective members must also, on the other hand, determine whether anger is being deliberately used as a tool of intimidation. Speaking honestly will oftentimes raise someone's hackles. The group has to create a safe and open environment in which this is okay.
There is a misconception that because collectivism is based on honesty, equality, and shared ideals, group dynamics will be always loving and supportive. The opposite is true. Collectivism allows people to give voice to their dissent, which can sometimes happen in ways that are not pretty.
A collective that indulges in bland expressions of insincere affection or empathy and frowns on displays of grumpiness, anger, or dislike of another person or idea is not operating by consensus nor by the basic premise of mutual respect. Consensus requires that everyone be given room to vent, for better or worse. Otherwise, there's an authoritarian premise at work in the group.
People get angry. People get frustrated, fed up, confused, defeated, vindictive, resentful, spiteful, and so on. They must be allowed to be, to blow off steam, then maybe apologize later if that's appropriate. On the other hand, if someone deliberately uses histrionics as an authoritarian ploy to frighten potential dissenters, then that person should be called to task.
Collectivism requires respect, which means honest listening and consideration for another's differences and feelings, but not conventional politeness, which is just a veneer of agreeableness, often used deceitfully to conceal one's true opinions or motives.
The Need For Kindness
Although collective members should not subject one another to fake sentimentality and cloying praise, the shared effort of being in a collective presupposes good will and genuine consideration for each person involved. If the basis for interactions among the group is not kindness, tolerance, and acceptance in spite of unavoidable flaws, then there is a dynamic at work which does not support consensus. The basis for consensus is not shared decision making (that’s an outcome), but fundamental respect for the concerns of each member and for the person herself or himself. Whenever there is bullying, ridiculing, or grandstanding, there is no consensus.
In “The Problem With Politeness” we stress the need to allow members to express anger and other unpleasant or difficult emotions and opinions. It’s okay for a member to be angry, annoyed, or wrong. People make mistakes; the collective should consider that a normal part of functioning. Those who commit blunders should strive to correct them and then move on. What is not okay is bad behavior that is intentional: that is, it has been devised to create a particular outcome, whether it’s to intimidate dissenters, prove a point, or demonstrate one’s supremacy in a given area. It’s also not okay to upset other people just to amuse oneself.
Even those of us who elect to participate in egalitarian collectives have been living in a society that places people in positions of authority and submission with respect to one another. Most of us understand that equality means neither giving nor taking orders and rejecting any form of established hierarchy, but when it comes to informal hierarchies, collective members sometimes fall back onto what they’ve been accustomed to by mainstream culture. For instance, if someone seems particularly knowledgeable in a given area and willing to take on high-visibility tasks, he is sometimes allowed to attain a position of informal leadership. What makes this possible (in addition to garden-variety laziness) is the mainstream notion, especially difficult to shake among those of us who took pride in doing well in school and being recognized for it, that people should be praised and acknowledged for their talents and successes. In a truly egalitarian group, everybody contributes according to his or her ability and availability, and no one expects to get or take credit for his or her achievements. Hero-worship is incompatible with consensus. All accomplishments are somehow built on someone else’s shoulders.
Loyalty, which on its face might seem like a good thing, has no place in egalitarian collectives that strive to be fair to all members. Loyalty is what causes us to stick up for someone close to us, even to the detriment of another, when we know our crony is wrong. Or to overlook facts and forego investigating a matter even when it would mean clearing an innocent person of wrongdoing. Fairness requires that we listen to all and consider all possibilities before arriving at an opinion.
One of the ugliest and most reprehensible tendencies that we've seen in egalitarian collectives is the creation of pariahs: A small group decides that some individual is undesirable, then he is singled out for vilification and expulsion. This practice might seem odd for groups supposedly founded on equality, mutual respect, and acceptance, but it happens remarkably often. In fact, this matter deserves a much more thorough treatment than it will receive in this brief chapter.
Often this process of expulsion is justified by reference to the anarchist notion of "banning." According to a typical anarchist vision, people will live or operate in small groups with no leadership, making all community decisions by means of direct democracy. (In other words, everyone should be able to participate in such decisions and, ideally, consent to them.) If somebody somehow sabotages the community or otherwise causes or threatens serious harm, there are no police or other authoritarian forms of enforcement to handle the matter; therefore, the best way for the community to deal with the offender is to simply, democratically banish her. This practice is said to be less authoritarian than the conventional methods of criminal justice and attendant imprisonment, since the person is still free to seek out association with other communities. The crucial factor that is often overlooked by present-day collectives is that banning is meant to be reserved for extreme, dangerous, or criminal behavior, not as a way to get rid of someone whom some group members simply find annoying or inconvenient.
It's normal for people sometimes to be obnoxious or awkward. The basis for collectives founded on equality is that people have the right to be themselves, regardless of whether their attitudes make them popular or not. That is not to say that members have to accept being mistreated by boors. If somebody is bothered, he or she should let the offender know that such behavior is bothersome and ask that it change. It may not, in fact, change, in which case these two people simply must find a way to put up with each other. Human interactions are rarely perfect.
What so often happens, however, is that one or both people will make a federal case of the issue, start slinging accusations fast and loose, and demand that the collective intervene to remove the supposed culprit. It is not uncommon for members to be sleazily manipulated so that one side might gain advantage over the other. A hapless person who wouldn't think of devising strategies or masterminding plots may suddenly find that she is universally hated, perhaps without even knowing why. Sometimes secret meetings are held, without the knowledge of the accused, at which the attendees will hatch a plan to ostracize her. Usually, this is done for no other reason than that the complainants are too cowardly to confront the person directly and simply ask her to alter her demeanor.
Many times a person who is expelled does not even know what he has done wrong and might very well have corrected himself if only he'd been told about the offending behavior. Too often groups gang up against someone only because he has awkward social skills and unwittingly comes off as impolite or bossy. Do we need to say that this does not constitute consensus? We've seen junior high students who behave more maturely.
An uglier form of creating pariahs occurs when a domineering member or faction intentionally seeks to discredit and eject someone whom they consider a threat to their hegemony. Sometimes, someone is targeted this way after she has been outspoken in condemning the control that the self-appointed elite has wrested from the collective. In other cases, however, the targeted person may have merely insisted that the group follow proper democratic procedure. If taken seriously, that recommendation might have the potential of removing power from the leading faction -- therefore, it must be suppressed.
The easiest way to impeach the credibility of a dissenter is to accuse him of having a personal grudge against the person he is calling to task. The manipulator can then bait the dissenter with personal insults, and if the poor soul is ruffled and responds in kind, our Machiavelli will have proven her case: "See? He is just out to get revenge on me -- that's what all of this has been about!"
There is never a wrong time to call into question someone's actions as they relate to the integrity of the collective's process. In fact, it is every member's responsibility to do so if and when he feels the situation calls for it. Unfortunately, few people ever do. People find it easier not to stick their necks out to speak out on what they think is right. They may even join in the condemnation of a dissenter, because they don't like to have their little bubble jostled. They may readily agree that the troublemaker is not raising an issue but making a personal attack. Consensus cannot operate in such an atmosphere. It's likely that anyone who makes waves under these circumstances will find himself out the door.
It is the responsibility of all collective members to listen carefully and consider every matter that is brought to their attention, and to hear from all sides. Members should assume that every concern is sincere and treat it as such, but, particularly when one person's concern involves condemning another individual, everyone in the collective has to make every effort to get to the bottom of the issue without jumping to conclusions. Ask questions. Investigate. Look to possible motives to help you ferret out the truth. This is almost never done. People are usually all too happy to jump on a bandwagon of character assassination and are unlikely to be dissuaded from whatever stance they have chosen.
In cases of outright nastiness or bullying, it's appropriate for the collective to help address the behavior (although it still does not mean the offender should be summarily expelled!). Rarely, however, does the group come to the defense of an aggrieved member. As long as group censure consists of dumping on an unpopular person, especially if it's by e-mail or out of the individual's earshot, then people gleefully jump in. But when it comes to confronting a bully, then -- poof! --everyone disappears. Even if the bully has been, until that point, generally acknowledged as such, when somebody actually asks for help in calling her to task, suddenly nobody remembers having had any problems with her.
Too often, ugly banishments happen because the collective has no guidelines for dealing with disagreements or dissension. In the absence of a grievance procedure or a forum in which differences of opinion may be openly discussed, the only options for the group are either trudging along in some unstructured, undefined manner, with everybody swallowing whatever concerns they may have and silently suffering any insults, or forcibly expelling whoever brings up a problem. In such situations, the promise of inclusion and openness intrinsic to a consensus-based group has been subverted and narrowed down to Shut Up or Get Out.
Sometimes, however, even when it seems that the right rules and guidelines are in place, these can be ignored or rendered useless. Especially in a smaller group, it is not all that uncommon for the rules to be overtly disregarded as members decide that those regulations are nothing more than technical trivialities. Thus, regardless of the rules, the individual who has been vilified or ousted has little recourse when the whole small gang (which might call itself a collective) has simply turned against her. Almost inevitably, she will end up giving up the struggle because it just doesn't seem worth it to dredge up rules that nobody cares about, simply to remain among people who obviously don't want her around.
Established rules can also be easily subverted through the usual techniques of manipulation, as described in other chapters. A group might earnestly intend to follow the established procedures for exploring grievances or granting due process, yet those procedures will become irrelevant if the whole collective has already been convinced of the accused person's guilt. Unchecked binges of character assassination and rumor mongering can psychologically nullify many "fair trials" before they ever happen.
Ironically, some people use the belief in anarchism as their excuse to flagrantly ignore rules that were designed to ensure fairness and democracy. Anarchists who break the rules might go on the defensive by saying that they don't always have to follow the law, because they are anarchists. Yet, while it may be true that anarchists can reserve the right to reject laws that they think are unjust or are the product of an unjust system, anarchists must also reach a collective understanding about basic democratic principles.
Rules can become very important, not simply because they are the rules, but because they can serve as guidelines for achieving democracy. Those guidelines might be very much needed during harsh or complex conflicts, when people are more easily confused or misled into forgetting the most basic principles or even basic logic.
Perhaps someday, everyone will have a strong enough conviction in -- and knowledge of -- true democratic principles never to be misled (or to do the misleading, for that matter). In some golden age, perhaps after the revolution, everybody will be so psychologically and socially advanced, that it will simply be unthinkable -- and impossible -- for them to contribute to the creation of pariahs or other acts of collective injustice. Yet, in the here and now, we probably should do everything we can to keep those tendencies in check.
Respect for Differences
Many collectives are aware that they need to do better in addressing racism, sexism, and homophobia within their own ranks, but too many fail to address the reality that lack of respect for differences does not start with its ugliest and most glaring manifestations but is present whenever room is not made for another person’s viewpoint, situation, or life experience.
Prejudice does not come in separate compartments. It’s not okay to be against racism, sexism, and homophobia but be indifferent to xenophobia, ageism, nationalism, classism and the myriad other ways that people are suspicious of and discriminatory toward one another.
The hand-wringing and self-blame that collectives engage in as an attempt to address their own internal problems with insensitivity are unlikely to yield useful results. Tolerance begins with the acknowledgement that people other than ourselves may see things differently than we do, and suspending judgment while those with whom we may disagree or whose point of view we may not understand are given a forum to explain their perspective and are actively listened to. No one can presume to know how someone’s life has shaped him or her. Group dynamics fail to respect differences whenever assumptions are made about another person.
Collectives that are built around a particular issue are often quite homogenous. Members would like to embrace differences, in theory, but when they’re actually confronted with someone whose life is unlike theirs, many find it difficult to see beyond their own limited experience. A dissimilarity as slight as an awkward social manner, imperfect language skills, or a reticent personality can be enough to cast someone as weird or tiresome, and her opinions therefore pre-judged as unimportant. When we do poorly even at accepting personal differences and quirks, how can we expect to reach out to one another across broader differences that arise from race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and gender?
In a collective that is, for example, made up primarily of college students or recent graduates, an older person with a family to take care of can be shut out of the group’s work simply by scheduling meetings at night, when he has to be home to put the children to bed. Members’ disabilities are also often unacknowledged by healthy people: it’s hard to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and realize it may be hard for a person to attend regular planning for events or work late hours. When a member cannot contribute fully to a group’s activities, he may be left out merely due to careless disregard for his difficulties: “Well, you weren’t there so we decided to do it this way.” Or, worse, groups may consciously and deliberately marginalize those who don’t do as much work or are not present as often, without giving any consideration to the individuals’ circumstances. Illness, family, work commitments, and financial situations are all differences that an egalitarian collective must attend to if it is to truly operate by consensus.
Members of any group who don’t have a computer are often rendered into nonentities because they cannot participate in email discussions. Many times no one even bothers to keep them apprised of events and meeting times. A computer is a tool that costs approximately $1000, plus a monthly internet subscription. Assuming that everyone in a group, especially a political collective dealing with issues of economic inequality, should be able to afford such a luxury is completely at odds with the realities that social activism exists to address. A collective cannot function by consensus when some of its members are systematically excluded from its activities.
On a related matter…
Using ugly societal ills like racism and sexism as a pretext to assassinate the character of perceived enemies is reprehensible. When a fellow collective member has acted inappropriately, his particular actions should be addressed by the complainant. Calling him a sexist, even when it’s arguably true, is unhelpful in resolving conflicts. Such charges are impossible to defend against: being sexist is too ugly to be excused, therefore no one can go to the person’s defense without appearing to condone sexism, and too unspecific to be refuted. As a result, all dialogue, which is necessary in order to come to an understanding of the issue and seek fair solutions, is silenced. An allegation of sexism or racism can be used as a ploy specifically to silence dialogue and force group censure or ostracism against an undesirable individual. If, instead, an offender is confronted with specific bad behaviors, the possibility exists that he will understand his mistakes and work to rectify them. After that hurdle has been crossed, it may well be appropriate to address whether his actions were the result of broader racist or sexist beliefs and to discuss the role that sexism and racism play within the collective’s interactions.
Personal vs. Group Issues
Sometimes, two people caught up in a personal and emotional kind of war will insist on dragging the whole collective into their squabble, each (or sometimes only one) person demanding that the group censure the other. The person who has greater power within the group, a stronger personality, or the ability to make the best case for being the most aggrieved might then very well succeed in gathering an indignant, angry mob to rally against the other party.
It is sometimes helpful for a small number of collective members, perhaps one to three, to intervene as intermediaries between the warring parties and help them find an appropriate means to resolve the conflict, at least to an extent that will allow them to continue functioning as collective members. For instance, it may be useful to find neutral mediators outside the group. But it is altogether inconsistent with the spirit of consensus and egalitarianism, which presupposes equal respect for each individual and his or her contribution to the group, for the collective to act as judge and jury (or bloodthirsty villagers carrying torches) in a situation that is emotionally painful for those involved and about which the collective cannot and should not know all the details.
Public conflict resolution, while certainly a better alternative than jumping to collective conclusions and decisions based on rumors and innuendo, puts the parties in the embarrassing position of having to explain private choices (of which they may not be particularly proud) in front of everybody. This tactic is likely only to lead to defensiveness, refusal to yield one's ground for fear of losing face, and further hurt feelings.
A collective may come up with the argument that internal disputes harm the image of the group to potential outside supporters and must therefore be suppressed by distancing one of the parties from its activities. Yet, this idea is highly authoritarian, and it is likely to do greater damage to the collective by breaking it apart rather than working to bring it together. Moreover, it leads us to the logical conclusion that the best way to preserve harmony in the group is simply not to tolerate conflict.
A converse sort of problem also occurs fairly often: Someone raises a legitimate grievance about the inappropriate way another member is conducting herself within the sphere of the collective's activities, then finds himself being accused of bringing the complaint up to the collective merely because of a personal dislike.
This instance involves an abuse of the collective process, usually by a self-appointed leader who does not wish to answer for her actions--who will therefore seek to distract from any criticism by claiming that the complainant has a personal problem rather than a legitimate concern. And soon, the poor soul who had the audacity to call the leader to task might find himself slandered, vilified, or attacked with verbal invectives meant to frighten him into submission.
At this point, some well-meaning collective members might respond to all the interpersonal tension by urging everyone to chill. They might even spout a bunch of well-meaning platitudes such as, "What's important is the group's work" (which should not be sidelined by "petty bickering," of course). And to uninformed passersby, this might seem like a good assessment, a reasonable answer given in the interest of peace. In truth, however, such a reaction is simply callous and insensitive. It's symptomatic of the kind of thoughtlessness that results when gullible people allow their leader to manipulate them. (Although, that's not to say that it can't also sometimes be used as a deliberate tactic as well...)
We believe that in this kind of situation, the collective must simply encourage the dissenter to speak up. The group should not allow a dissenting opinion to be stifled simply so that they can avoid further conflict. That is a false kind of peace, a perpetuation of injustice that does not suit a group that's (supposedly) seeking to create a more democratic society.
Micro-Managing Other People's Behavior
In a well-intentioned attempt to establish guidelines to prevent disrespect of one another and abuse of process, some collectives fall into the authoritarian trap of dictating which specific, often minute, behaviors collective members may or may not display. Those who do not strictly adhere to the regulations, perhaps even unwittingly, may be frowned upon, smarmily chastised, or rendered into undesirables.
Self-appointed leaders who are adept at working the consensus system can use strict adherence to nit-picking rules as a way to put themselves up as role models (since they always follow the letter, though not the spirit, of the rules). Then, they can paint those who may not be so versed in the minutia of the guidelines, or so slick about appearing to follow them, as saboteurs of consensus. The hapless or gauche, who might commit blunders like using inappropriate terminology or speaking out of turn, thus become easy victims for the “process tyrants.”
Behavioral guidelines cannot substitute for basic respect, decency, common sense, or an honest attempt to listen, understand, and strive for fairness. Any attempt to codify and restrict normal human interactions can create a tightly wound atmosphere of coercion and disapproval.
A lot has been made in activist circles about the inappropriateness of interrupting someone when he or she is talking. Interrupting is almost always obnoxious and can be used, sometimes intentionally, to dominate, but it is also a common human fallacy. Some people are chronic interrupters: they may be so brimming with exciting ideas or information that they just can’t contain themselves. Such individuals can usually be handled with joking, light-handed rebukes or by simply interrupting them in return. Others are long-winded droners. While everyone should be given their space to speak, it’s not necessarily wrong to gently interrupt those who have been boring the collective with endless, repetitive speeches. They should not be silenced, of course, but they can be made aware of the effects of their verbosity.
Not everybody has the same skill at navigating interpersonal exchanges. Some people are not good at recognizing that split second when someone has finished talking and it’s okay to jump in. They are the ones who are most likely to interrupt, and be reprimanded for it, while they also, ironically, are the least likely to get a word out and have their opinions heard. While facilitation and hand-raising should prevent this, there will always be circumstances when people are engaging in informal conversations, whether in or out of meetings.
It’s also fairly normal, in everyday speech, to interrupt someone to nip a misunderstanding in the bud: “Oh, no, no. I’m sorry I made it sound that way. What I meant was….” Collective process needs to take ordinary interaction into account, not try to dictate actions that are awkward and artificial, then frown on people who don’t immediately take to them.
Prohibiting any and all interruptions can become a problem at meetings when added to the strict stipulation that members can only speak in the order in which they raise their hands. Hand-raising is a good idea, since it stops people from merely shouting over each other to be heard, as is making a list, or stack, that determines whose fair turn it is to talk. Yet, these practices, if applied too rigidly, can easily stifle discussion or facilitate abuses.
For instance, someone may intentionally make grossly untrue and damaging statements about a project in an attempt to denigrate it. The person who made the original proposal may be desperate to say something, but he mustn’t interrupt, and there are others in line to speak. If the proposal-maker speaks up for himself out of order he will, in all likelihood, be looked at with opprobrium, only adding to the denigrator’s case that his project is suspect. If he waits until it’s his rightful turn to talk, it may be too late to undo other members’ already-solidifying, inaccurate perceptions. It makes no sense to use hand-raising merely to make a list without allowing for the fact that discussions require an exchange. When questions go unanswered or falsehoods unchallenged, there can be no discourse.
What often happens is that someone will raise his hand to respond to something that has just been said; by the time it is his turn to speak there may have been another ten comments made on other matters, and what the person had raised his hand to say is no longer on point. Since it will be his only chance to talk, however, he will still take his turn. Multiply this by the number of people in the meeting, and you have a random list of utterances on various topics and no semblance of a discussion.
The door is opened to speech-making by the self-important while the meek or shy may only get a few words out and not receive another opportunity to explain themselves more fully.
There has to be some way for people to be allowed to clear the air when necessary without exposing themselves to outraged censure.
Many collectives have made rules that require facilitators to give priority to members of traditionally oppressed groups. While the intention is commendable, in practice it’s not an easy task to determine which individuals in a particular group are more or less likely to be overlooked or silenced. Power inequities within a small group of human beings can stem from a great many factors that are not easily reduced to race, class, or gender. Thus, anyone who attempts to combat injustice by applying overly simplistic criteria might actually perpetuate even more injustice. And many collectives, from what we have seen, need to be more conscious about avoiding that kind of mistake.
It is important to make sure that those who have been quiet get a chance to be heard. But, once again, the rule must not be applied in the absence of common sense. Everyone should feel free to say, “I have no comment,” without being made out to be a deferrer to oppressors. In addition, people who are directly involved in a given issue, or are themselves raising a matter for the group to consider, are likely to have more to say when it comes up for discussion and may even be questioned by the group to elucidate and clarify relevant points. They should not be silenced because someone else has not said as much on the topic. It makes no sense for someone who brings up a concern to be prohibited from participating in the ensuing discussion simply because he or she has used up the allotted speaking time.
Skepticism is Healthy
Being skeptical is not the same as being distrustful or suspicious, both of which can undermine a collective’s honest interactions, as well as play tricks with one’s own judgment. It simply means not jumping to conclusions, neither positive nor negative, before having investigated an issue.
Coming to a hasty, negative opinion of another person, as many of us know, is often ugly and can turn out to be grossly unfair. Furthermore, since most of us don’t like to admit it when we’re wrong, the bad reputation can actually persist even after the facts have proven the condemnation to be unwarranted. But a thoughtless positive judgment can be damaging too. We might give somebody’s words too much importance, because she gives the impression of being exceptionally knowledgeable or effective, for instance, and unwittingly follow unwise advice or even turn over control of the group (always a bad idea).
Some of the most despicable injustices that happen in collectives are perpetrated by those of us who were only trying to help. A fellow collective member comes up to you, clearly upset and outraged, and tells you about someone who’s been making his or her life hell. As a good friend, your reaction is probably to sympathize, listen, and ask what you can do. You may even take it upon yourself to alert others of the problem. Thus, the wheels of a rumor or--worse--a baseless character assassination, have just been set in motion. By you.
We are not suggesting that you be stingy with your sympathy and emotional support, only that you keep in mind that every story has two sides, and that it’s usually not prudent to act until the matter has been explored a little more thoroughly. In many cases, whenever two sides of a story are clearly divergent and emotions are running high, it’s best to begin a formal grievance or conflict resolution proceeding.
It’s not uncommon for members who feel they have been aggrieved in some way to circulate a petition, asking other members to sign off on some kind of sanction against the presumed transgressor, whether it’s a temporary ban or a demand they seek counseling. In our experience, people are generally all too happy, in an effort to be supportive and mindful of the best interests of the group, to sign their names to an accusation about which they have absolutely no first-hand knowledge, sometimes even excoriating a person they have never met. Needless to say, this is not a sign of healthy group dynamics. Even if the persons doing the signing are well meaning, they are abdicating their responsibilities to the collective by acting without having done their homework. And those circulating the petition may feel they have been genuinely wronged, but they are circumventing group process when they bypass due process and an open forum for the airing of complaints. Unfortunately, we have also seen instances in which getting rid of someone is an intentional, calculated act, where the group is manipulated into believing it is acting in the collective best interest by participating in an undemocratic ostracism.
Ironically, a converse kind of phenomenon is also not uncommon, where a member who has had to tolerate victimization and abuse by someone in the group seeks help from the collective and is roundly ignored. Personal power politics tend to come into play in these cases: an unpopular or not highly regarded person who complains about someone who is seen as a leader or a more valued member may find himself alone and a target for ridicule. The proper way for the group to proceed in either circumstance (whether they believe the accused or the accuser) is to investigate the situation, call for formal procedures, such as previously agreed-on conflict resolution protocols, and allow all parties to air their concerns. Regardless of who you believe to be right or wrong--whether it’s the defendant or the complainant--making hasty judgments never serves the interests of fairness. Neither does calling for sanctions (such as ad hoc banning, the popular favorite) which are excessive or not necessary for resolving a given circumstance.
It may not be possible to know exactly what the truth is in a particular situation, but one can come to an educated judgment based on ascertainable facts and the probable likelihood of certain events having taken place rather than others, for instance by considering the motivation that someone might have to dissemble or stretch the truth.
Vagueness Leads To Authoritarianism
Often, there is not enough clarity among members of egalitarian collectives regarding how consensus is supposed to work. Because the individuals involved do not know exactly what to do, there is inaction and frustration, leaving the door wide open for someone or some small cabal to rush in like a knight in shining armor and rescue the collective by taking charge.
A number of people whom we've spoken to about the difficulties of consensus are not concerned with power inequities, which they do not see as a particular problem of their own group, but with slow meetings and fruitless discussions of trivialities; not knowing who is supposed to do what or how to delegate functions; and, in the end, either things not getting done or only one or two people doing all the work.
People get tired of waiting around for every issue to come out into the open and get thoroughly discussed at meetings. A lot of the time the meetings aren't even held, or the people who have an interest in the particular matter don't show up, or not enough people show up, which means the discussion has to be postponed once again. Sometimes it simply seems easier to allow decisions to be made by a few, even without asking the rest of the group--at least that way, things get done. These common problems, however, create a fertile ground for an authoritarian to take over, to bring order and function to the group--often to everyone's relief and gratitude.
When that happens, there has been a serious breakdown of consensus and basic egalitarian principles. There may be one of two dynamics underlying this phenomenon (or, possibly, both occurring at once and reinforcing each other): either someone is manipulating the group to grab power for himself or his little clique (which he might even be doing unconsciously -- some people just have bossiness and leadership in their blood); or many (maybe all) of the group's members are afraid to take responsibility for making decisions and doing the work that is needed to move the group forward. When everyone waits for someone else to decide what to do, nothing happens. The result is recriminations and mutual resentment, which can destroy a group. In consensus, there are no leaders to light a fire under your collective butt: everyone has to be his and her own motivator, initiator and carry-through-ator.
Common Misunderstandings of Consensus
The most fundamental misunderstanding of consensus is that everybody has to agree. There is often a lot of pressure not to express any disagreements or reservations so as not to appear uncooperative. Proposals pass simply because no one dares to raise an objection. That is not consensus. What should happen, in a nutshell, is that someone makes a proposal, people ask for explanation and clarification, the merits of the proposal are discussed, and maybe small amendments are made as the discussion proceeds. The final version of the proposal is brought to a vote. (Yes, you still vote in consensus. The difference with majority voting is that in consensus everyone has to vote for something in order for it to pass. We find that actually taking the time to vote makes it clear what people's wishes are, rather than assuming consent if all just keep silent.) If everyone agrees to the proposal as is, it passes. If someone has objections or reservations, the proposal needs to be amended in such a way that it will meet the concerns raised. The crucial element is to ask the person objecting to explain what he or she objects to so that the group can find a solution for which everyone will give their consent.
Many groups fall into a quagmire of disorganization because they feel that creating a structure for getting things done is somehow authoritarian, especially if it is accomplished primarily by one person. Not so. As long as all actions are transparent and everyone is given a chance to question them, to voice their concerns and see them addressed, and as long as decisions are put to a vote by which everyone consents to them, initiatives that are the brainchild of one person are perfectly acceptable. It's okay for someone who has a knack for keeping things in order to create a schedule, for instance, or a file of useful addresses, as long as she brings it to the group for approval. The thing to look out for is covert intimidation, e.g., if someone acts all hurt if everybody does not show unmitigated appreciation for her efforts by rubber-stamping whatever she wants to do. And a lack of transparency is also a major red flag: any information that anyone has put together must always be available to the entire collective, and any action a member undertakes on the collective's behalf must be with the collective's knowledge and approval.
On the other hand, when there are small decisions to be made that do not relate to fundamental principles, it's perfectly OK to delegate them to an appropriate committee. For instance, if a planning committee receives general approval from the collective on how much to spend for an event, that committee does not have to get a vote from the whole collective on every type of supply it wishes to order. Nonetheless, it does have to present a list of expenditures and revenues after the fact.
Another reason things sometimes get bogged down in inactivity is inadequate skill-sharing. Tasks like organizing an event, planning the group's activities, figuring out how to pay for things, and doing outreach all require skills that should be learned by working with someone who already has some experience. "Skills" are not just manual abilities like sewing, woodworking, or cooking. Organizational, technological, and interpersonal skills also must be shared and learned.
Sometimes consensus-based collectives assume that because everyone in the group is equal, everyone can be counted on to autonomously take over any and all tasks without any prior knowledge and without any assistance. There is often a misconception of what “autonomy” and “DIY” stand for, which can lead to the belief that everyone should be able to work independently, without ever asking for advice from someone more knowledgeable or experienced. The whole idea that some people may be more experienced than others is looked on as suspect. Indeed, even offering guidance may be seen as paternalistic and hierarchical. That point of view is healthy in some respects, since no one should be looked at as being somehow more important, nor should anyone’s opinions carry more weight, but it is self-defeating when it leads to denying or ignoring reality. It doesn’t make sense for members with no experience to be left on their own to take on responsibilities that are completely new to them. The result is general frustration among members because things are not getting done or getting done poorly, feelings of anxiety and guilt among individuals for having rashly volunteered to take on a project that one is not actually able to bring to fruition, and the all-too-common result that the usual suspects take over and save the day. Or the group’s hopeful efforts get lost in mediocrity and ineffectualness.
Clarity is the antidote to muddling through. If a group spells out as clearly as possible how things will be accomplished and through whom the necessary skills will be passed down, a lot of problems that can eventually lead to power struggles in the collective will be avoided. We have actually seen groups in which the more senior members scoffed at the idea of training newer members, claiming they had no time to waste on babysitting. That is a blazing red flag that neither consensus nor the most basic notion of egalitarianism are operating in the group!
It is our belief and hope that virtually all problems in collectives can be overcome by applying compassion, tolerance, and patience, and by being thorough and even-handed in our thinking.
Recognize that some people are a big pain in the ass, but that doesn’t mean that they are agent provocateurs. And even if they are, the best way to deal with disruptors in either case is probably to give them a certain amount of leeway to be themselves, to let them carry on instead of demanding that they cease. Provocation can be defused simply by not engaging it.
If the level of annoyance is such that it cannot simply be tolerated, then talk it over with the person: let him know what behaviors of his are causing problems for you and help him find ways to change them. Actions that we may see as negative usually arise from a need on the part of the person engaging in them: whether it’s the need to be listened to, to get to the bottom of issues, etc. Our job is to help find a way for the person to still be able to have his need met if he agrees to drop the offending behavior. The only way to do that is to talk to him. People who are being a nuisance don’t see themselves that way. They have a reason for what they’re doing. Try to learn their perspective. Some people act in bad faith. Learn their perspective too, so you can expose it for what it is.
If we care, genuinely, about mutuality and inclusion, if we believe this to be one of the basic reasons why we want to work for a better, more just world, then we need to ask ourselves a simple question: if this person whom we cannot stand were a member of our family, would we turn her out into the street? Or would we put our hearts ahead of our frayed nerves and learn to deal with her annoying character traits? Likewise, if a member of our family spoke frankly and unkindly to us (“Look, you’re driving me nuts: could you please just shut up?”), would we demand that the whole family intervene to sanction her?
Because most of us tend to throw caution or our sense of fairness to the wind whenever someone has made us very angry, we recommend having clear and concrete protocols in place that can be called upon whenever conflicts, differences in approach, or hurt feelings crop up. Rules, however, though they can help us keep our priorities in order, cannot take the place of basic human qualities: compassion, patience, tolerance, and the desire to seek out the truth. Without our humanity as our foremost guiding principle, no set of guidelines can come to our rescue. We need to always keep referring back to what’s important when striving to make decisions on how to proceed, especially in a difficult or trying situation. What’s important is not the work of the group nor effecting political change: it’s the fact that we care about and value one another, as we do all people. That’s why we’re in the struggle for social justice, after all.
Some groups may have no patience for tending to the weak and the whiny. They may feel that those who do not contribute or are slowing or bringing the rest of the collective down need to move on and get out of the way. Any group can choose that path, of course. But if they do, they have a responsibility to do so honestly and openly. Such an enterprise can no longer call itself consensus-based nor egalitarian. The premise of consensus and equality rests firmly on the belief that everyone in the group is valued and necessary to maintain the integrity of the whole. It presupposes a shared effort and mutuality which cannot be undermined by picking and choosing who is valuable and who is not.
Despotism by the collective, which rests on groupthink, whereby everybody has to agree, no one can dissent, and those who dissent or who simply are not well liked are outta here, does not equal consensus.
Home Continue to Booklet Two Continue to Booklet Three
The Egalitarian Collective