by | 13 Dec 2011

I have been critical of the consensus-based, horizontal practices associated with contemporary anarchism. My criticism has been based on what I’ve viewed as an underlying individualism–no one has the right to speak for any other, each person must speak for themselves, etc. Graeber sometimes describes the virtues of anarchism in terms of an underlying individualism (no one can change another person’s mind). When I was at a GA in Washington Square Park last month, I was taken by the fact that people echoed the speaker regarding each person’s autonomous choice on whether or not to occupy the park that night (a deliberation of a few thousand people).

But lately I’ve experienced another side of consensus that is making me start to think differently about it. The fact that it takes so long to come to a decision is the benefit. It’s what let’s people get to know one another in a way that is neither commercial nor familial. The inefficiency is crucial–it’s not capitalism; it’s not subject to capitalism’s dynamics, values, and imperatives. Maybe there is something here that is appealing to a residual Habermasianism that I have yet to shake–discursive will-formation. But I don’t think so insofar as that argument relies more on reason than the affective ties, the truth, the solidarity that builds after hours and hours of deliberating with a common purpose in mind.

Seeing the unions come together in struggle as they’ve done in Ohio and Oakland has also made me think again about solidarity (the subject of my first book). It’s what is missing in our neoliberalized society, the society that makes each treat the other as a competitor or a tool, that remakes all relations into efficiencies, means, something to capitalize. There is nothing efficient about hours and hours of conversation. But it is the way, perhaps the only way, to build solidarity. You need to know if someone will stand by you on the front line, that people are behind you when you tear down the barricades or break down the doors. You can’t know this from a donor list or list of friends or followers. Who will be there? Who will show up? Likely the people who have spent hours and hours already because of a shared commitment.

This isn’t a communist thing (or if it is, it is because there is an underlying communism in many kinds of politics and sociality). Tonight there are local elections in Geneva. The people who are active in the parties are trying to get the vote out; they’ve been going door to door, meeting about what to say in ads, discussing editorials in the papers. Now they are calling, making sure the people on their lists get out and vote. In a small town, elections can be one or lost in under 10 votes. They demonstrate and experience solidarity–the people with the big ideas who are in and out like a flash, they aren’t reliable. They think of politics as “someone else” carrying out their ideas, but they aren’t in there for the interminable, frequent, meetings, the discussions and conversations crucial for building solidarity.

The difference may be voting–voting lets you stop discussion and build resentment. It also lets you get much more accomplished. Since the time of politics is always pressing, necessary, too early, and uncertain, it generally seems like the best way to deal with disagreement. But maybe the cost is too high. It probably makes sense in settings where there are no common ends, where conflict is the presupposition.

But for a party, cause, or movement (rather than a state), it may be that consensus is a better process.

Which would also mean that consensus requires prior exclusion.

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