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"Occupiers! Stop Using Consensus!"

A very important post (and no doubt soon to be opposed). Read it all, but here's the proposal:

When it comes to deliberative process for larger groups that can’t be considered teams, start off with what's been known to work and has stood the test of time, like Robert's Rules of Order. It’s not the ideal system to prevent all forms of hierarchy, but it’s at least been proven to work in organizing democratic assemblies that are capable of functioning. Why must we reinvent the wheel? The only clear explanation is that it’s fun to fetishize process rather than accomplishing work. There are actually people who've devoted much of their careers as activists to unnecessarily reinventing process, and for years they've been using entire activist communities as guinea pigs in their experiments. Why must we allow ourselves to be pawns in someone else's game? Our goal should be fighting power and injustice, and we should settle for no less than the best tools for the job.

Yep. The Archdruid posted the same idea a while back. I commented:

So, the social context for Roberts Rules is America's westward expansion (slaughtering as we went, I grant): That's how we ended up with a requirement for a lot of new organizations, all over the country, to adopt rules, and to adopt consistent rules, because geographical and social mobility meant that meetings would find it harder than they otherwise might to get themselves bootstrapped. Notice that Occupy faced an equivalent organization problems: A sudden or at least new requirement to organize meetings on a continental scale, in a context of geographical and social mobility. The 1860s solution was to write and distribute an operating manual or rule book. (This was the solution for AA in the 1930s as well.) The Occupy solution to bootstrapping, so far as I can tell -- readers with more experience please correct! -- was to rely on volunteers with practical knowledge to initiate the bootstrapping process; sometimes these volunteers were enthusiastic newbies; at other times, they came from other Occupations, in a form of apostolic succession. (I'm guessing that when the history of Occupy is written, Occupiers traveling between cities, by bus, bike, or on foot, will seem more important than they do today. [Adding: See this "Eulogy for Occupy"] The problem with Occupy's approach is two-fold: (1) It relies on the personal authority of whoever bootstrapped the meeting, and for myself, I'd rather have a rule book to refer to;** and (2) it doesn't, based on outcomes, scale continentally. As a result, Occupy seemed like a canopy fire that, paradoxically, never reached the ground and burned out prematurely.

It's also worth noting that knowing how to run a meeting is one of those skills that's going to atrophy -- along with spelling and making machine tools -- if we don't exercise it.

Average: 5 (2 votes)


DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

Here! Here! I second the motion!!! You know what is worse than consensus? The human microphone. The human microphone kills back and forth discussion. The German Green party had no leaders and consensus in the beginning. Then they decided that they would rather win elections and changed.

Submitted by lambert on

... and it does solve the problem of being heard in a public space. (I remember being very impressed by it in the early days of OWS, because it really was different from the "One person with a megaphone" in front concept.

But there ought to be some kind of middle ground and there's no reason to make a fetish out of a tactic.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

Consensus the way Occupy was trying to do it was never going to work. I said so at the time, here and on my own blog. Anyone who's sat through meetings like that could see why:

1) The bigger the group the more lethally tedious and boring they are.
2) They wind up as platforms for the loudest-mouthed, almost invariably guys suffering from the Dunning-Krueger Effect.

It was heartbreaking to watch the best movement in a generation walk straight into such an obvious quicksand.

Still, it is a movement. We'll be back.

Submitted by lambert on

Have to quote it all, since it's such a spectacular poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round

This is also very interesting, from the Wikipedia article:

Although the Dunning–Kruger effect was put forward in 1999, Dunning and Kruger quoted Charles Darwin ("Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge")[3] and Bertrand Russell ("One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision")[4] as authors who have recognised the phenomenon.

I'm immediately reminded of the insistence of the POTB that with "confidence" everything can be solved. And it does seem that they're willing to make us all stupid in order to achieve that.

So thanks for a very suggestive comment.

danps's picture
Submitted by danps on

From p. 274 of The Dark Side of the Left:

The ideal that we should all participate in every decision that directly affects us is a profoundly democratic one, but carried to extremes the ideal can undermine democratic institutions. More democracy can lead to less. In small groups with limited aims and minimal disagreements, having each person participate in and consent to every decision may be workable. But in large-scale social movements committed to sweeping change and characterized by vigorous differences of opinion, adherence to strict egalitarian norms of participatory democracy almost invariably incapacitates the movement. Repeated failure to reach decisions discredits the process and strengthens the hand of the self-appointed revolutionary vanguard willing to disregard democratic norms in pursuit of egalitarian ends.

Some nice thoughts on doubt vs. certainty in that area too.