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Coming to Consensus

A powerful idea’s unexpected journey around the globe

This piece was commissioned by Contributoria in September 2015.

 

Photo adapted from Kate Ausburn on Flickr, used under Creative Commons 2.0.

“It was an extraordinarily bad camping location,” DIY technologist Richard Bartlett says of Wellington’s Civic Square. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slab of grass embedded in a concrete frame overtop of a car park in the centre of New Zealand’s capital city was not designed with camping in mind. Yet in October 2011, as the Occupy movement swept the globe, this questionable attempt at public space was repurposed and became home to the Occupy Wellington encampment for the next four months.

Among the 1,000-plus Occupy camps that scattered themselves like seeds around the globe in late 2011, Wellington’s was far from being the largest or longest-lasting. Yet it was the 40 or 50 tents in Civic Square that enabled a major development in one of the cornerstones of the Occupy experience around the world: the digitisation of consensus decision-making.

What is consensus?

Consensus is a collective decision-making process that aims to avoid the pitfalls associated with both executive decree and majority rules voting. Seeds for Change, a UK collective that offers training in consensus process, describes it as “a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. Consensus is neither compromise nor unanimity – it aims to go further by weaving together everyone’s best ideas and key concerns – a process that often results in surprising and creative solutions.” [A Consensus Handbook, pg 6]

Anthropologist David Graeber grounds this process in a much bigger picture when he argues that the consensus process – not voting – is the core of democracy:

“Voting is divisive. If a community lacks means to compel its members to obey a collective decision, then probably the stupidest thing one could do is to stage a series of public contests in which one side will, necessarily, be seen to lose… Democracy, then, is not necessarily defined by majority voting; it is, rather, the process of collective deliberation on the principle of full and equal participation.” [The Democracy Project, pp 184-186]

In many people’s minds though, the consensus process is the series of silly-looking hand signals regularly employed by activists to symbolise where people in a group discussion stand on a comment or issue. While rarely featured in most mainstream discussions of democracy and collective organisation, variations on the consensus process have been found among the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Quaker religious traditions and countless Indigenous cultures across the globe, dating back millennia. However, in 2011, the explosion of the Occupy movement breathed new life into the process, introducing it to countless new practitioners.

The growth of consensus in recent years is testament to both the efficacy of the process itself and the emergence of networked communications technology. This is part of its story.

How consensus got to Wellington

Consensus process was fundamental to the Wellington Occupy camp from its onset. There remains some contention as to whether the “jazz hands“ landed in Wellington via a two-minute clip produced by Occupy Oakland, or an eight-minute clip produced by Occupy Wall Street, but there was agreement that watching videos of others doing it was all that was needed to train up this new cadre of activists for effective collective decision-making.

CONSENSUS (Direct Democracy @ Occupy Wall Street) from meerkatmedia on Vimeo.

As with so many other places, the process had a profound impact on those involved, as many experienced the ability to make group decisions without creating winners and losers, for the first time in their lives. Richard Bartlett described experiencing “radical insights” during Occupy general assemblies, in “…these moments where you have a breakthrough that takes you to a place that no individual could have got to on their own. Once you’ve seen this three or four times, you realise that the process is actually producing that, not a charismatic leader. I had a full-on, spark-of-light-to-the-eyeballs epiphany about that process!”

A fellow Occupier and web developer, Jon Lemmon, felt similarly, but had a new insight based on his elation with Civic Square consensus. “We should be able to translate this experience into software,” Jon said to Richard at the peak of the Wellington encampment.

From this initial observation came Loomio – an online consensus decision-making platform that Richard, Jon and a crew of local social entrepreneurs calling themselves Enspiral co-developed to preserve the central process of the Occupy Wellington experience after the camp had disbanded. And though dissemination of the practice from New York to Wellington happened via a YouTube channel (with a possible stopover in Oakland, en route), the process had another key step in its recent lineage, one that would become significant as Loomio began to spread around the world.

From indignation to consensus

On 15 May 2011, five months to the day before Richard, John, Ben and a few hundred other Kiwis descended on Wellington’s Civic Square, another city square was filling with citizens. In Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, an estimated 50,000 Spaniards came out in force, sparking a new movement for “real democracy”, enraged by the human fallout of the 2008 global financial collapse and the rampant cross-party corruption that plagued Spanish politics before and since.

The media termed the group indignados, or “indignants”. However, most of the participants refused to dwell on the systems they were fighting against, quickly placing their energies into something more constructive: the creation of “real democracy” in the square and beyond.

Miguel Catania had never been involved in activism before 2011, but on 15 May decided that he would add his voice to the tens of thousands of others who were fed up with how politics was playing out in his country. While Richard Bartlett and his fellow Wellingtonians are still visibly enthused when recounting their initial experiences of consensus process, Miguel is much more subdued in his descriptions of Day One in Puerta del Sol:

“The first assembly we did was very natural. Maybe there wasn’t somebody doing proper moderation to get to consensus. Anyway, in a natural way, we did it, because there were no leaders, there was nobody controlling things… it is a natural way of organising people in such situations. Like when you are among friends and want to take a decision to go to the movies, you are using this kind of process. You try to see other points of view, make everyone happy. It was a bit like this. We wanted to have a decision and of course we wanted everyone to be in the decision. It was a proper, natural process.”

In this case, the decision was to stay the night in the square. The basics of the process began to emerge via the input of a small core of veteran activists. These were largely people who had participated in the Global Justice Movement in the early 2000s and who began to introduce the hand signals that had been used in the street protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.

What became clear within a few days in Puerta del Sol was that a pure consensus process was unlikely to work with such large numbers. The aim for 100% agreement continued, but with space to enable the group to move ahead if 100% consensus wasn’t proving possible.

In Miguel’s view, this was not in contradiction. Rather than a literal interpretation of the word, the 15-M activists moved towards a spirit of consensus that aimed to bring more and more of the group into dialogue and gradual agreement about a question, but without allowing a minority to prevent a process from moving forward. This process was about collaborative improvement of proposals through open discussion, rather than purely about the number of people who backed the specifics of the proposal in the end.

In the weeks that Puerta del Sol remained occupied, it quickly became clear that the square was not the right place to do the kinds of organising that were needed to confront the plethora of problems that Spanish communities were facing. The local nature of evictions, electricity cut-offs, food prices and other issues – along with ongoing police repression – led to the localisation of assemblies that summer, with hundreds of smaller groups forming in neighbourhoods around Madrid and most other Spanish cities.

And while many criticised the consensus process used in Puerta del Sol for its unwieldy and often epic meetings, variations on the method again became the standard process in each of the neighbourhood assemblies that emerged. Though challenging, the fundamental consequences of adopting any other system that offered less widespread input were consistently shot down.

But the processes used in Puerta del Sol and elsewhere in Spain didn’t just become more localised. They also spread like seeds on the wind, as several 15-M activists found themselves in New York City that summer, and brought a few significant hand gestures along with them.

We are the 99% (but let’s aim for 100%, OK?)

Figuring out how exactly consensus became the decision-making process of choice in Zuccotti Park, Lower Manhattan, in September 2011 is still a slightly contested chapter in recent activist mythology. David Graeber, who took part in the early days of Occupy Wall Street (and its precursor, the New York City General Assembly), in his book The Democracy Project attributes the choice to the presence of a mix of American Global Justice Movement veterans and some Spanish and Greek activists who’d recently hopped the pond and plugged themselves into the organising efforts.

Miguel Catania in Madrid distinctly recalls some fellow Spaniards – possibly named Nikky, Vicente and Angel – who had moved to NY after the Puerta del Sol occupation and had shared their learning with the New York occupiers. “It was very direct. They just took the process and said, ‘ok, this is very effective, so use it’.”

Another variation on the story suggests that a translated pamphlet produced in Puerta del Sol, entitled How to Cook a Non-Violent Revolution, and its accompanying appendix, A Quick Guide to Group Dynamics in People’s Assemblies, provided the practical training for the soon-to-be Occupiers.

More generally, Marina Sitrin, a fellow veteran of Occupy Wall Street who has documented and participated in non-hierarchical social movements around the globe, also includes the role of “movement media” in spreading images of the processes being used in other movements around the world. These images captured the imagination of activists elsewhere, who filled in the details themselves based on a cursory understanding of what was being done in other movements.

And back to Spain again…

While the dissemination of the process from Madrid to New York, and then New York to Wellington, was at least in some significant part the result of the emergent web of connections on the internet, the birth of Loomio was a significant shift. Whereas the tools of the web had enabled others to learn about consensus before, and to put it to use in the flesh from there, Loomio digitised the process, opening it up to countless more who couldn’t be or hadn’t been a part of the Occupy movement.

There are currently about 20,000 Loomio groups operating in 33 different languages, enabling more creative, inclusive and collaborative decisions to be made among a massive array of users. The Loomio platform has facilitated group decisions at a community art gallery around the corner from its office in Wellington for more than three years, while also helping aggregate public opinion to push Statistics New Zealand – a national government department – to produce the first national census in the world that offers respondents non-binary gender options (i.e. not just male or female). Current users range from schools and grocery co-ops, to activist groups, community gardens and even a few local authorities, who have seen the value of consensus process, even while stuck in stifling hierarchical bureaucracies.

In yet another unexpected twist, though, Loomio also reintroduces 15-M activist Miguel Catania to the narrative, having found Loomio while organising with Podemos, the new leftist political party in Spain that won five seats in the 2014 European elections. Podemos had emerged as one of the spin-offs of the 15-M movement. It was founded on the desire to bring the (relatively) radical perspectives and processes of the country’s massive street movement, into the corridors of power. This was always contentious among some participants, but activists like Miguel saw the transition as an important part of bringing direct democracy into new places.

Initially, Podemos spread like wildfire and many of the neighbourhood assemblies that began after the Puerta del Sol occupation, morphed into Podemos “circles” – democratic groups that continued to take local collective action while also feeding into national policy debates and priorities.

Podemos offered political opinions that were well beyond the existing political consensus, and showed signs of bridging the gap between the direct democracy of the street movements and the shambolic representative democracy of first-past-the-post elections and political parties. The party held assemblies at every level, offered countless inroads for new volunteers (not just door-knocking and making phone calls) and practised consensus process in most of its local circles.

The initial excitement around the party led to five seats in the European Parliament and a membership in the hundreds of thousands. When Miguel came across Loomio through an article in the tech press, he and fellow 15-M technologist, Yago Bermejo Abati, invited Ben Knight, one of Richard and John’s Loomio co-founders, to pay them a visit in late 2013. Ben gave a couple of small talks there and Miguel and Yago began to tell other Podemos activists and local circles about it, encouraging them to use it to support local organising efforts.

By June 2014, hundreds of new groups and thousands of new members were flowing to Loomio from across Spain. At one point that summer, 60% of Loomio’s global web traffic was coming from the country. Today there are more than 1,600 Podemos-related discussion groups on the site.

However, with its growth, a centralising force set in, gradually asserting top-down control over the party’s direction. Miguel had joined Podemos as part of its participation and outreach group, from working on technology and collective process in Puerta del Sol. But from the start he had seen elements of the party that were only interested in achieving better governmental policies, rather than also creating directly democratic structures. In some cases, there had been open high-level contempt for assemblies and the directly democratic organising processes that they represented.

This became vastly more prevalent with the creation of the National Citizens Council, a body that was in many ways rigged to consolidate support for the existing party leadership, and that, at the very least, drew power away from hundreds of thousands of regular members and into a much smaller group of elected representatives. “The power of the circles disappeared,” Miguel says over Skype, and so “most of the circles stopped using [Loomio].”

Miguel moved his efforts away from Podemos and towards one of the smaller new local parties that emerged after 2011, Ahorra Madrid. Now he finds himself in the role of “director of participation” in Madrid’s new city council, since Ahorra Madrid came to power in May. A loose network of parties that had made stronger efforts to keep the consensus-based methods of 15-M at their core, ended up winning in countless local elections across the country this spring, with Podemos’ influence far weaker than many had predicted, failing to win any local elections.

The lesson from May was clear to Miguel: “If you turn to more traditional structures where things are done in a more traditional way, people just don’t want to work anymore, if they don’t have the space to work and support… [The local elections were] a bit like proof that it was much more effective to have this more open structure, a more open way of taking decisions.”

While Miguel had put his efforts into Podemos, whose media-savvy campaigning had helped capture the national imagination, he is clear that without consensus, change is impossible:

“It’s the only way we can organise these kinds of movements, where everybody is really at the same level. It’s the only structure that can really take all the collective intelligence of a lot of people and create better ideas and better proposals and better actions, that include all the collective intelligence of the people around it.”

Fundamentally, Miguel says, consensus “is the most powerful way to get the best ideas”. It is a process that allows for better processes and ideas to emerge, so even when the process is flawed, collective deliberation can help to find, create or adapt something that works better.

While decision-making processes can seem relatively inconsequential with all the big issues and questions that the world is facing, changing the process through which decisions are made can in turn change the ways we ask and answers so many wider questions. As Richard Bartlett at Loomio so eloquently said of one of his key moments recognising the importance of the consensus process: “We used the consensus process to improve the consensus process… holy shit! This thing can fix everything!”

 

Photo adapted from Kate Ausburn on Flickr, used under Creative Commons 2.0.


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Posted in equality and hierarchy and power and trust.

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