David Graeber on the consensus process

… consensus, unlike voting, is not just a way of making decisions. It’s a process. Coming to a decision is just the final step. If one respects the process, the “spirit of consensus” as some like to say, the exact form of that final step is not all-important.


.. I spent a lot of time trying to understand what this “spirit of consensus” was really all about. It was clearly not just about decision making. It wasn’t even just about conduct during meetings. It was more an attempt — inspired by reflections on the structure and flows of meetings – to begin to imagine how people can live together, to begin – however slowly, however painfully – to construct a genuinely democratic way of life.


How often does the average American actually sit down, even with a group of four or five people, and try to make a collective decision in which all have equal say? True, children often do it while playing.

But, for adults, the experience of democracy is largely limited to decisions involving food, or maybe movies. For the college-aged, it probably does, indeed, happen most often when ordering a pizza; for older people, mainly when choosing restaurants.


It seems to me that the conception of “opinion” – personal opinions, public opinion – also follows from the absence of any real experience of participatory decision-making. In American schools, children are always being asked to express their opinions. It’s a heritage of the Deweyan tradition, a quite self-conscious attempt to imbue children with a democratic spirit.

The problem is that these opinions generally have no effect. Schoolchildren may be asked to decide, and express, what they think about everything from US foreign policy to the organization of gym class, but they are also perfectly well aware that these opinions have no influence on those actually making decisions, even within the school. This continues throughout life.


.. theorists from Rousseau to Rawls always assume that citizens start with a set of pre-existing interests (usually presumed to be basically material) and then see political deliberation – what an anarchist would call “process” – as the way they compete, compromise, maneuver, and generally try to get as much as possible of what they already know they want.

The notion of “opinion” fits perfectly with this logic. Opinions are also presumed to be pre-formed. At best, they can be manipulated or influenced. They can only be seen that way if no deliberation is really going on, apart perhaps from conversations in bars or over dinner. If one observes how processes of deliberation actually work, it’s completely impossible to see the actors as simply bringing pre-existing “opinions” or “interests” into some political marketplace.

In the process of deliberation – any political deliberation, really, though consensus process is designed to maximise this – everyone is changing their minds constantly, learning new information, identifying with different perspectives, reframing issues, measuring and weighing considerations in different ways.


“Well, at the risk of contradicting myself, let me try a different approach,” Alexis announced during one debate within Ya Basta!

“Why not?” replied Moose, “Hell, I’ve already contradicted myself at least three times just in this one meeting.”

From David Graeber: Direct Action — an ethnography, p. 318-320.

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