September 13, 2016

Who uses consensus?

Consensus is not a new idea, but has been tested and proven around the world.

Non-hierarchical societies have existed on the American continent for hundreds of years. Before 1600, five nations – the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca – formed the Haudenosaunee Confederation, working on a consensual basis and which is still in existence today. Each Nation within the Confederacy selects individuals to represent them at confederacy meetings. Issues are discussed until all are in agreement on a common course of action. Never would the majority force their will upon the minority. Similarly no one could force a warrior to go to war against their better judgment.

A second example of consensus based organisation is the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The Muscogee have the oldest political institutions in North America, with a recorded history going back beyond 400 years. If consensus on a major issue could not be achieved to everyone’s satisfaction, people were free to move and set up their own community with the support – not the enmity – of the town they were leaving. This is in stark contrast to political organisation today, where the state’s need to control its citizens makes it virtually impossible for individuals disagreeing with general policy to just go and do their own thing.

Consensus can also be found throughout European history. Many mediaeval institutions, such as guilds, town councils, the influential Hanseatic trading league as well as governing bodies of countries (German and Polish Imperial Courts) required unity. There are also many examples of successful and stable utopian communes using consensus decision-making, such as the Christian Herrnhüter settlements 1741-1760/61 and the production commune Boimondeau in France 1941-1972. The Herrnhüter complemented the consensus system with the drawing of lots to choose the members of the community council, making intrigue and power politics superfluous. This tool for decision-making is unfortunately rarely used or discussed today, even though it can offer a fair way out of a decision-making dilemma.

Christiania, an autonomous district in the city of Copenhagen has been self-governed by its inhabitants using consensus since 1970. This includes regulating economic, cultural and educational issues, water and electricity supply, health and security.

Within the co-operative movement many housing co-ops and businesses are using consensus successfully, including making difficult financial and management decisions. A prominent example is Radical Routes, a network of housing and workers’ co-ops all using consensus decision-making. Through Rootstock Radical Routes raises and loans out substantial sums of money to member co-ops.

Many activists working for peace, the environment and social justice regard consensus as essential to their work. They believe that the methods for achieving change need to match their goals and visions of a free, non-violent, egalitarian society. Consensus is also a way of building community, trust, a sense of security and mutual support – important in times of stress and emergency.

In the anti-militarist protests at Greenham Common in the 1980s thousands of women participated in actions and experimented with consensus. Mass actions involving several thousand people have repeatedly been planned and carried out using consensus.