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Assembling Assemblies

by Miriam Axel-Lute on October 13, 2011


“Collective Thinking is born when we understand that all opinions, be these opinions our own or others’, need to be considered when generating consensus and that an idea, once it has been constructed indirectly, can transform us. Do not be discouraged: we are learning; we’ll get there: all that’s needed is time.”  –“Quick guide on group dynamics in people’s assemblies,” 

Among the many things to be said about the Occupy Wall Street movement, much has been made of their lack of demands. I’m with the folks who are saying that that’s not their role. There are plenty of policy proposals and agendas out there. We know how to fix the problem.

The undeniable power of the movement lies instead in its symbolism: First, going straight to the symbolic heart of the problem, Wall Street. And then the theme of the 99 percent.

It also is leaderless, committed to a consensus-based decision-making process. Consensus, in its purest form, means that proposals are not agreed upon if there is active disagreement from a member of the group. Why does this matter? When there aren’t clear leaders to target it’s harder to attack the movement. But that’s not the most important thing.

Consensus is more democratic because it doesn’t let a slim majority dismiss the voices of everyone else. Many people will say that’s totally naïve. You can talk forever and some people won’t agree. The group will probably eventually do what the majority wants just like if you voted. So what’s the point?

One of the big things consensus is good for is it can help us think better by thinking together. The idea is not that you have to sway everyone to one point of view, but that in many cases if you can’t reach consensus you create something new together, instead of just choosing one of the ideas on a list.  Groups who are practiced at this do actually reach agreement a great deal of the time.

I’ve seen a church hall full of hundreds of people reach consensus about thorny details of the next day’s civil disobedience action. I’ve seen an organization of 700 college students divided into several different dining co-ops (and a few smaller housing co-ops) feed all its members three meals a day, cheaper than the dining halls, making all its decisions by consensus. Just last week I was privileged to see a meeting at an organizing group in Philadelphia in which a small conflict over how many slots on an advisory board should be reserved for residents was handled through consensus to a resolution that everyone was happy with. The original dissenter could easily have been voted down by the others in the room, but it was clear she might well have lost enthusiasm to support the group if so, which would have been a significant loss.

Even when a group working this way doesn’t reach full consensus, it’s likely that the plan they move forward with will avoid some serious pitfalls because they have listened to, and taken at least partial steps toward addressing, the concerns of everyone who has spoken in the process.

But it’s also hard, and it takes skills that are not widespread or cultivated in our culture. It requires a carefully structured process that ensures the same voices (especially privileged voices who are very used to speaking up and grandstanding) aren’t being heard over and over. It requires skilled facilitators who take an active role in guiding the group along. And, as the quote above says, it requires time; time to learn how to come together in a different way and time to shape the proposals.

For a group that is new to it, coming together suddenly without a common identity or history, all learning at the same time, there will be growing pains and rough patches along the way. I think all the new Occupy groups could probably benefit from reaching out to people with experience in consensus process (Quakers, veterans of the anti-globalization movement, participants from OWS)—not for leadership, but for guidance in helping the process along.

Our culture provides very few opportunities to learn the skills to work together in groups.  or participate in the commons productively. Most of us, if we wanted to accomplish something for the world that required a big group taking action, wouldn’t have much idea where to start—we’d just want a Leader to follow. I admit to the temptation myself. But this is a reason to pay attention to the Wall Street protestors. They are showing us an example of another way to do it.

The next meeting of Occupy Albany will take place this Sunday, 5 PM, at the corner of Grand Street and Madison Avenue, Albany. See occupyalbany.org for details.