L.A. Kauffman’s critique of consensus decision making in The Theology of Consensus is a rather perennial argument in lefty circles and this article makes a number of logical leaps. Still, it does map out the half-forgotten Quaker roots of activist consensus and she does a good job mapping out some of the pitfalls to using it dogmatically:
Consensus decision-making’s little-known religious origins shed light on why this activist practice has persisted so long despite being unwieldy, off-putting, and ineffective.
All that said, it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes while reading this. Perhaps I just sat in on too many meetings in my twenties where the Trotskyists berated the pacifists for slow process (and tried to take over meetings) and the black bloc anarchists berated pacifists for not being brave enough to overturn dumpsters. As often as not these shenanigans torpedoed any chance of real coalition building but the most boring part were the interminable hours-long meetings about styles. A lot of it was fashion, really, when you come down to it.
This piece just feels so…. 1992 to me. Like: we’re still talking about this? Really? Like: really? Much of evidence Kauffmann cites dates back to the frigging Clamshell Alliance—I’ve put the Wikipedia link to the 99.9% of my readers who have never heard of this 1970s movement. More recently she talks about a Food Not Bombs manual from the 1980s. The language and continued critique over largely forgotten movements from 40 years ago doesn’t quite pass the Muhammad Ali test:
Consensus decision making is a tool, but there’s no magic to it. It can be useful but it can get bogged down. Sometimes we get so enamored of the process that we forget our urgent cause. Clever people can use it to manipulate others, and like any tool those who know how to use it have an advantage over those who don’t. It can be a tribal marker, which gives it a great to pull together people but also introduces a whole set of dynamics that dismisses people who don’t fit the tribal model. These are universal human problems that any system faces.
Consensus is just one model of organizing. When a committed group uses it for common effect, it can pull together and coördinate large groups of strangers more quickly and creatively than any other organizing method I’ve seen.
Just about every successful movement for social change works because it builds a diversity of supporters who will use all sorts of styles toward a common goal: the angry youth, the African American clergy, the pacifist vigilers, the shouting anarchists. But change doesn’t only happen in the streets. It’s also swirling through the newspaper rooms, attorneys general offices, investor boardrooms. We can and should squabble over tactics but the last thing we need is an enforcement of some kind of movement purity that “calls for the demise” of a particular brand of activist culture. Please let’s leave the lefty purity wars in the 20th century.