Mark Lance will tell you. (Todd sent me the link.) I think the article is awesome. But I’ve got some small quibbles.

Lance begins by noting the unproductive character of many debates in north american anarchist circles for and against consensus. Lance attributes this character to both sides of the debate making a category mistake. Each side compares the positive qualities of their practice to the (often magnified) negative qualities of the other side’s procedure.

He defines practice as “the complex process of discussion — a process about which much can be said, but the proper functioning of which is unlikely to be definable via a set of precise rules” and procedure as “formal rules that define a method of taking a decision.” The latter works when the former works, essentially. Lance refers to the conditions of or amenable to good practice as ‘virtue’ and ‘virtuous’.

Lance notes that “any formal procedure can be abused” such that diatribes for and against consensus both miss the vote.

Lance writes that

“according to consensus procedure, a proposal is formulated, and then it must receive unanimous support – ignoring stand-asides – to be adopted by the group. That is, if one person opposes it, the group cannot adopt it. (…) Suppose, for example, that a group is faced with a situation in which they would normally engage in some sort of protest action. Perhaps they are an anti-war group, and the US has just launched an invasion. Say for purposes of argument that all but one of the people thinks that a protest should be held, but one strongly opposes this for whatever reason. Here are two ways to formulate the disagreement.
Formulation 1:
Group A endorses protesting the invasion.
Group B (one person) opposes protesting the invasion.
Formulation 2:
Group B (one person) endorses remaining quiet about the invasion (doing nothing)
Group A opposes remaining quiet about the invasion. The difference between these formulations comes to nothing under a majority voting procedure, but is absolutely crucial under consensus. If the proposal is “Let us hold a protest” then the one person opposing can block and nothing happens. But if the proposal is to do nothing, then any one of the many who support protesting can block, thereby forcing a protest. Now in a case like this, it is probably natural to think that formulation 1 is the right one. What we need consensus for is to do things, and if we cannot reach consensus on what to do, the group will do nothing.”

Lance then questions the action/inaction distinction:

“Isn’t it a staple of our analysis that inaction is a form of action? When one goes about one’s life and ignores political, economic, cultural disputes, don’t we consistently argue that one is thereby supporting the status quo, playing a concrete role in keeping the system functioning? Sitting on one’s ass may be the right thing to do in a given situation, but we radicals always insist that it is nonetheless doing something, something that calls just as much for justification as anything else.”

I rather like this. I think there’s an error here, though, when Lance continues:

“How strange, then, to endorse a decision-making process that essentially privileges doing nothing over doing something, for that is exactly what consensus procedure is, on the current understanding. If we insist that the formulation of a proposal must be in the positive – a proposal to do something rather than to remain inactive – then we are legislating that one strongly held opinion can prevent action, while all-but-one’s equally strongly held opinion is still insufficient to force action. Thus, if the earlier argument about the role of inaction in an institutionalized setting is correct, consensus process is deeply conservative, privileging acquiescence with the status quo far more than does voting.”

Lance makes a slip here. He first argued that inaction is action, which essentially means there is no such thing as inaction. One is never “doing nothing.” A person and a group is always acting. The question is what action(s) are good. “Doing nothing (…) we radicals always insist (…) is nonetheless doing something.” Lance formulates this position then takes it back when he says consensus favors doing nothing. That’s a mistake. He shouldn’t say that consensus is weighted toward doing nothing or that there is a “procedural asymmetry between action and inaction” within consensus. Rather, consensus is weighted so as to allow a small group – in his hypothetical example of antiwar organization, a group of one – to decide for a larger group.

This procedural weighting, combined with a procedural requirement to formulate proposals in positive rather than negative terms (such that “I propose we do X” is acceptable while “I propose we do not do X” is not), does not mean that consensus privileges inaction, but rather, in Lance’s view, privileges actions in “acquiescence with the status quo.”

This could be avoided, I think, by dropping any rule on positive rather negative formulation. In that case, a positive proposal (“let’s go on strike!”) which is blocked could be reformulated in a negative proposal (“let’s not go on strike!”) which could in turn be blocked. That double blockage would be grounds for a split or many other options. At this point, and this is part of Lance’s point, a group runs into limits in the efficacy of procedure connected to the (contextual) limits of a group’s practice.

Later in the piece, Lance asserts that the best decision making process “is to have a discussion the end of which is a consensus on what is the right decision.” We sometimes do not have access to this best decision making process – remember, process is a matter of practice here, not procedure – due to “local lack of virtue.” This is why groups need decision making procedures, and should have resort to whatever procedure works best for us from our “well stocked tool kit” of procedures. In so resorting, though, we need to pick some tool, which is itself a matter of deciding.

“If we cannot come to consensus on a given issue, then the issue becomes how to make a decision, and consensus is demanded on this. Though we will likely vote, such a procedure can only be just on the basis of a rationally and morally arrived at consensus on the appropriateness of voting in this case. Voting is often the right procedure to turn to, and far more likely to be procedurally correct than is consensus procedure, but whatever authority voting procedure has will derive from consensus practice.”

There’s still a problem here, though. If we don’t have consensus on an issue prior to resorting a given decision making procedure, that is, we do not achieve consensus via pre-procedural practice, then there is no guarantee that our procedure will work either. In fact, if practice animates procedure (that is, if successful procedure depends in large part upon practice which is, to use Lance’s term, virtuous) and practice has already come to an impasse, then why should procedure work where pre-procedural practice has failed? Granted, in some cases, empirically, this simply does happen. Given that that is so, inquiry into those cases, what happens in them and how and why, would be of some use. Also of some use would be addressing what happens when procedure choice breaks down.

Breakdown of procedure choice is implied in Lance’s account: a group operates with pre-procedural practice and when practice needs supplementing the group turns to procedure. Procedure choice should result from consensus, so that the choice of procedure is as just as possible. But procedures are resorted to when groups fail to achieve consensus. If the group can’t achieve consensus on an issue, there’s no reason they’ll achieve consensus on procedure choice. Again, empirically, in some cases groups fail to achieve consensus on an issue without using procedure, but do achieve consensus on which procedure to use. What if they don’t, though? There can be no procedure for choosing a procedure, since procedure choice itself has failed. What to do then? What are the conditions that make this more and less likely?

Presumably this is where Lance’s ‘virtue’ comes in. Virtue is presumably that which is conducive to good practice, and good practice is part of what makes consensus in practice (pre- or nonprocedural) possible, as well as consensus on decision making via means other than concensus procedure. Inquiry into such virtue and how to cultivate is another matter of some use. Another such matter is how to (as virtuously as possible) deal with ‘vice’ (by splitting or purging, perhaps?)

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