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!

Please send your comments and suggestions to:

"Is This What Consensus Looks Like?"

"Is This the Just Society We Want to Model?


[Why This Booklet?]
[Introduction to Consensus]
[The Particular Vulnera-
bility of Collectives
[Power Sharing]
[Red Flags to Guard Against]
[Ploys To Subvert Consensus]
[The Problem With Politeness]
[The Need For Kindness]
[Creating Pariahs]
[Respect for Differences]
[Personal vs. Group Issues]
[Micro-Managing Behaviors]
[Skepticism is Healthy]
[There's Hope]

[A Model for Justice?]
[The Dearth of Due Process]
[What About Free Speech?]

[Codifying the Collective Process]
[Relinquishing Control of Projects and People]
[Staying True to the Mission]
[What’s a Lone Person to Do?]







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