Weighing up the pros and cons of “consensus decision-making”.
The anti-capitalist movement is a rich and diverse place, encompassing a broad range of ideas and political philosophies. In reaction to what they see as a fractured, sectarian Trotskyist movement, the anti-capitalists focus on building consensus for action.
People come to the anti-capitalist mobilisations united only by their willingness to take part in the organisational strategies of the movement and by their general opposition to capitalism. The failures of “Leninism” are seen as an overemphasis on political argument (as opposed to political activity) coupled with a hierarchy that stifles the creativity, spontaneity and autonomy of the individual. The solution is found in new organisational strategies that militate against hierarchy and allow all participants full freedom of expression.
These strategies have had plenty of success in their own sphere; but there is a tendency within the movement to fetishise organisational process to such an extent that the most important thing becomes not what you do or think, but rather how you do it. If process is held up as the be-all-and-end-all of anti-capitalism, then this places limits on the efficacy and potential of this dynamic new movement.
The fetish of process manifests itself in the consensus decision-making which has become a hallmark of the movement. I will focus on consensus for the purposes of this discussion piece. However, similar criticisms can be levelled at the tactic of non-violence (which in the minds of its proponents quickly evolves into a whole political philosophy). If Marxists are accused of being doctrinaire in the realm of theory, then a similar accusation can be levelled at the anti-capitalists in the realm of strategy.
Consensus decision-making is a method for building unity for an action in a way that every member of the collective feels valued and empowered. A variety of hand signals, a facilitator, and a few basic rules mean that on any number of issues consensus can be formed and decisions taken forward. The process can be quite arduous but it is generally a very positive experience for planning action.
It cuts against the traditional Marxist forms of debate in that contributions are made with the view of getting everyone on board, rather than clarifying the terms and positions of the debate. Dissent is aired but a lot of time is spent creating formulations that people will be happy with.
People can absent themselves from the process; a minority of one could in theory scupper every decision but that never actually happens, as there are no fixed membership.
There are many positive aspects to this approach, not least because there is an expectation that every individual will take personal responsibility for the decisions that are made. The maxim “If not us, who? If not now, when?” is a lived reality in this movement.
The positive aspects of this method of organising are well-recognised within certain sections of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty as many comrades have become used to this process through work in Feminist Fightback, Workers Climate Action, No Borders, the Campaign Against Immigration Controls and other organisations. However, for all the positive benefits of consensus we cannot treat this method as a universal answer for our times.
Consensus might be a valiant effort at overcoming the problems of hierarchy in a particular circumstance, there is something quite sinister in the idea that it actually achieves this goal in general. When it works, it is only because those who come to the meetings already have a degree of consensus, and those who don’t, stay away, do not want to be there or are busy working on alternatives.
Some people are “in the know” but you are never quite sure who they are or what they know. Even if everyone is entirely committed to non-hierarchical ways of operating, and even with the best of intentions and a great deal of work to “include” newcomers etc. etc., the “tyranny of structureless” allows room for an unaccountable clique to control proceedings behind the backs of those involved.
In this sense there can be echoes of Bakunin’s “secret pilots”, unelected leaders who masquerade as “Joe worker” whilst in fact manipulating the movement to their own scheme. Hierarchy may not be particularly desirable, but better to have a democratically elected and accountable leadership who are open about their ideas and encourage debate, dissent and spontaneous activity, than secret pilots.
A communist society will be marked by a transparency of human relationships that are not mediated by money or the state — it will be clear why society works the way it does and how decisions are made. Consensus lacks that transparency. If the anti-capitalist movement ever became a mass revolutionary force, then its organisational strategy contains no safeguards against creating a form of socialism-from-above. At the moment everything relies on everyone’s “good will”. It can only work with relatively small groups that already have a degree of consensus and which are focused on more or less one-off actions, rather than ongoing organisation and daily agitation and literature production of the type that, for example, an active trade union does.
The false belief that consensus has successfully abolished hierarchy means that political debate is relegated to the after-meeting drink. As there are no official leaders, there is no need to thrash out political ideas and indeed a pressure not to: it could disrupt the consensus. What matters is that everyone is on-board with the action in hand, not what they think about the state of the world.
Politics is reduced to a private affair for the individual, in a way akin to how secular society treats religious belief. We do action collectively and then scuttle off to read books on our own in our bedrooms, discussing our findings in private conversation. This is a massive limitation on the potential for the movement to grow and develop into a revolutionary force.
From a Marxist perspective it is understood that there is a dynamic relationship between the leadership and the rank-and-file of any political movement. Individuals do not get their ideas from the ether, there is no equality in our education system and no position outside of the world from where we can examine what’s going on and choose a political position accordingly. Political ideas form in the process of political activity and critical reflection of that experience.
We do not come to revolutionary struggle as equals, we come with different levels of class consciousness, different skills, education and personal experiences. The ideas of any individual will be determined by any number of factors but will be largely dominated by capitalist ideology. This is especially true in our own time when the history of previous class struggle has been largely forgotten; a collective amnesia on a scale not seen for many generations.
In such times mass movements are built by shouting above the cacophony of capitalist propaganda, appealing to the interests of the mass of humanity, the working class and their supporters. We cannot make this happen at will. Economic and political factors beyond our control will mobilise people in a way that our pitifully limited revolutionary media cannot. But even with these economic and political factors there is a need for leadership, direction and someone to issue the rallying call. Or to put it another way: if we as revolutionaries do not organise to issue our rallying calls then the rallying calls of others, fake-left, or kitsch-left, will prevail by default.
The battle for revolutionaries is to get leaders who mobilise against interests of capital and a rank-and-file movement that fights for such leadership. Anyone with even a little experience of trade unionism will understand this dynamic, which is played out at all levels of the movement from the relationship between inactive members and workplace reps, to the relationship between activists and the national leadership.
The history of challenges to the capitalist world order is one marked by failure, cowardice and betrayal by the leaders of the movement. Look to Germany in the 1920s and 1930s where the strongest workers’ parties in history capitulated in different ways and paved the way for Hitler and the genocide of 6 million Jews.
Look to Spain in 1936-7 where Stalinist forces destroyed the revolution while the anarchist leaders put their faith in the bourgeois government.
Look to Iran in 1979, when the working class reached for power and then, finding no leaders to challenge Khomeiny, rallied behind the banner of clerical fascism.
If we want a mass revolutionary movement of millions of workers, then it is inevitable that leaders will emerge who will play large parts in determining events. The task of revolutionaries is not to delegate responsibility to these leaders in the mode of Stalinism, or to pretend leadership can be avoided like the Spanish anarchists, but rather to struggle for an accountable, alert, broadly-based experienced, determined and revolutionary leadership. This requires that we learn the mistakes of the past and educate ourselves in our revolutionary traditions, not shy away from politics as if it is an irrelevance.
The consensus process is a useful tool in the activist toolbox for organising action in a participatory way. Meetings built around consensus often feel good, you leave the meeting buoyant and enthusiastic about the activity ahead. It provides a good introduction for those seeking out anti-capitalist activity as you can hide your ignorance of Marx (or Proudhon) behind a good idea for action.
However, consensus is not the golden pill that is going to cleanse the left and create a mass movement. If the anti-capitalist movement is going to move forward, then it needs to tap into the revolutionary potential of the workers’ movement and in this process it must be open to different forms of organising that have been developed in this movement over centuries of anti-capitalist struggle.