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Building movements for social change
There have been many successful movements — including the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970’s — that have used directly democratic structures enabling everybody participating to engage in decision-making about what they and their group will do in relations to any action or call to action. This requires organization and clear process.
The clear process is consensus-based decision making. If people come with good intent, common vision, honesty and compassion, it is amazing what a consensus process can yield. Consensus allows everyone an opportunity to shape the decision and to make a decision even if not everyone is in full agreement. Consensus is a more natural way for people to make decisions. And when we are working in large groups on important issues, using a formal process can serve your group well.
Affinity groups are self-sufficient support systems of about 5 to 15 people. A number of affinity groups may work together toward a common goal in a large action, or one affinity group might conceive of and carry out an action on its own. Sometimes, affinity groups remain together over a long period of time, existing as political support and/or study groups, and only occasionally participating in actions. Affinity groups are composed of people who have been brought together at a nonviolence training or have existing ties such as friendship, living in the same area, or working together.
Affinity groups form the basic decision-making bodies of mass actions. They are usually considered “autonomous,” independently entitled to develop any form of participation they choose, as long as they remain within the nonviolence guidelines. Groups of affinity groups working together are sometimes called “clusters.” A large action can have several large “clusters” all working together. In large actions, affinity groups usually send “spokespersons” to a “spokes council” meeting, to communicate and coordinate the different groups’ decisions and then bring the coordinated information or proposal back to their respective groups for their final discussion and approval.
Affinity groups also serve as a source of support for the members and reinforce a sense of solidarity. They provide a solution to the isolation or separation that can come to individuals acting alone. By including all participants in a circle of familiarity and acquaintance, the affinity group structure reduces the possibility of infiltration by outside agents or provocateurs. If anew person asks to join an affinity group, s/he should find out what the group believes in and what they plan to do, and decide if s/he can share in it.
A cluster is a grouping of affinity groups that come together to work on a certain task or part of a larger action. Thus, a cluster might be responsible for blockading an area, organizing one day of a multi-day action, or putting together and performing a mass street theater performance. Clusters could be organized around where affinity groups are from (example: Texas cluster), an issue or identity (examples: student cluster or anti-sweatshop cluster), or action interest (examples: street theater or lockdown cluster).
A spokes council is the larger organizing structure used in the affinity group model to coordinate a mass action. Each affinity group (or cluster) empowers a spoke (representative) to go to a spokes council meeting to decide on important issues for the action. For instance, affinity groups need to decide on a legal/jail strategy, possible tactical issues, meeting places, and many other logistics. A spokes council does not take away an individual affinity group’s autonomy within an action; affinity groups make there own decisions about what they want to do on the streets (as long as it fits in with any action guidelines.) All decisions in spokes councils are made by consensus, so that all affinity groups have agreed and are committed to the mass direct action.
What is consensus?
- A decision-making process. Consensus is an inclusive and participatory model of decision making that seeks to address the concerns and needs of an entire group, and synthesize these into the best possible solution. By using consensus, we engage in a co-operative approach to decision-making, and seek to build sustainable and mutually satisfying decisions through discussion, creativity, and compromise.
- A way to communicate. Consensus is a non-coercive, egalitarian mode of communication. There are no leaders, and all are empowered to affect the decisions that affect them As we use consensus, we are deconstructing hierarchy and authority in our daily lives and interactions, and actively seeking to replace them with relationships of trust, equity, support, and strength. Consensus builds community and trust by involving and valuing all in the decision making process.
- A simple, facilitated process. The process has several basic steps.
- First the group formulates or accepts a proposal.
- This is followed by clarifying questions to ensure that everyone understand what is being proposed.
- Next, the group articulates concerns, and there is often discussion around concerns. The original proposal is then developed or modified through this process.
- Once all concerns appear to be addressed there is the final call to speak. Are there any other major reservations, stand asides, blocks and if not then consensus — which is often accompanied by a twinkling of fingers — the “silent clap” in American Sign Language.
The latin root-word of “consensus” is consentir: con meaning “with” or “together with”, and sentiremeaning “to think and feel” consentire effectively translates as “to think and feel together”.
Consensus is a participatory process by which a group thinks and feels together en route to a decision.
The tradition of consensus decision-making employed by North American activists seems to go back originally to the Quakers, who in turn say they were inspired by Native American practices. Some civil rights and peace groups of the ’50s and ’60s used consensus decision-making, but much of the current interest emerged in the ’70s, largely, in reaction to some of the more macho leadership styles typical of the ’60s New Left. The feminist movement played the crucial role here. More elaborate forms of consensus decision-making, involving affinity groups, spokes councils and the like, first emerged within anti-nuclear groups like the Clamshell Alliance. These forms have proved so spectacularly effective in Seattle and elsewhere, and so libratory for those who operate within them, that most activists involved in direct action-notably within the globalization movement-see the forms in which their actions are organized as themselves the most promising existing models for what a truly democratic society might be like. Consensus also tends to hold a particular appeal to both anarchists and pacifists, since it is the form of decision-making most consistent with a society not based on compulsion. In fact, there is no known case of a stateless society which used majority voting as a form of decision-making; whether in Asia, Africa, or Amazonia, all developed one or another form of consensus.
What’s wrong with just voting? Conventional, majority rules models work with several negative behavioral patterns:
- Voting is competitive. Voting is a win or lose model that pits one decision against the other rather than seeking to synthesize the two into a mutually satisfying decision. This mentality is very divisive, and can become aggressive — a win/lose model has the potential to disrupt an entire group.
- Voting is quantitative as opposed to qualitative. Voting is a quick and more mindless procedure that tends to work with the easiest solution rather than seeking to create the best, most sustainable agreement.
- Voting is often uncompromising. In majority rules there is rarely room for compromise or amendment of an idea — an individual is forced to make a distinct, inflexible choice between two options. It is one or the other, support or oppose.
- Voting is impersonal and does not take into account an individuals feelings needs, or desires. Majority rules models tend to dissociate the decision from everyday life, and the individual from the decision-making process
- And at the end of the process, voting can be disempowering because the individual is left to the tyranny of the majority, and is left no empowering forum to address decisions that affect them. One individuals concern, no matter how strong or relevant, can be completely disregarded.