Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Occupy Movement, Modified Consensus vs Simple Majority Democracy

The decision making method chosen by Occupy Wall Street, and later adapted by all Occupy groups in one manner or another, is the General assembly run by modified consensus. All decisions are made by the General Assembly. Some people claim this is too time consuming and "undemocratic", since an idea supported by a majority may not be enacted because of minority opposition. Much of this complaint is "sour grapes" from people unhappy their positions have not been adopted. True, some Occupy groups do consensus better than others. Full consensus is unworkable, but "modified consensus" makes time consuming obstruction more difficult. "Blocking" can only be used very rarely and the blocker has to come up with an alternative solution to achieve consensus. Furthermore, positions are not just reduced to "yes" or "no" . Opponents are asked "can you live with the (majority) decision, even if not in favour?" If most do, then the position is adopted.

We understand the drawbacks of simple consensus, but what about those associated with simple majority democracy (SMD) ? We don't hear about those. Yet, consensus arose precisely to overcome the severe problems with SMD.

In a voluntary organization a vote of 51 to 49 percent is a disaster in waiting if the minority is deeply opposed and the majority determined to get its way. A state can always used its armed wing to terrorize the minority into obedience, but with a free association, a split will occur, or people will leave en-mass. It is much better to leave such a decision until the time comes when the overwhelming majority agrees rather than pushing ahead, consequences be damned. It is far better to remain united over what you do agree on, than dividing over one issue, an issue that may not seem so important in the future anyway.

For a mass organization, the worst problem with SMD is the ease with which a small disciplined sectarian group can take over and destroy it. ( During the initial planning meetings back in August, political groups tried to impose their views on OWS, but were unable to do so.) A mass of diverse and otherwise unconnected individuals can be swayed by a seemingly coherent, disciplined and highly ideological group. The take over techniques are simple and are not limited to sectarian groups but are also used by right-wing social democrats.

You make sure all your members show up, and can "stack" the meeting with people brought in from wherever. Then through endless procedural wrangling you drag the meeting out so most of the unaffiliated start leaving. When you think you can win, you call the question, and even if victory is by one vote you have captured the organization. With modified consensus or super majority democracy, such take overs would be very unlikely, if not impossible.

Simple Majority Democracy can work without fear of such colonization within a very specific situation. That is an organization that is both highly decentralized and has a constitution that prevents changes hostile to the intent of the organization. This is the case with the IWW. In 106 years no sect has been able to penetrate it to any extent. A hostile group might take over a branch, but in order to stay within the union, they would in practice, have to act like any other branch. If they decided to act in a manner contrary to the constitution, say give union funds to a political party, they would be expelled immediately.

Mass organizations like Occupy are neither membership organizations, nor do they have constitutions protecting them. They are essentially open, mass assemblies and thus open to colonization. Modified consensus or super majority democracy prevent this occurring.

Finally, it should be noted that the critique of SMD is part of the whole new extension of democracy and democratic values that began in the 1960s with the rather vague concept of "participatory democracy." It is part of a whole package which includes self-management, the assembly, and the subsidiary concept. For most of today's activists SMD is seen as outdated and authoritarian.

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