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Thursday, July 31 2014 @ 08:42 PM CDT

Voting: An Infantile Disorder

News ArchiveI was prompted to write this essay after reflecting on decision-making techniques used by a local community center that was founded on anti-authoritarian principles. I did not focus on mentioning the facility by name; I wanted to focus on the concept of anti-authoritarian organizations or collectives using voting as a means to facilitate group decision-making.

If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal. -Emma Goldman

Voting within our organizations expresses a lack of creativity, creates hierarchy, and is largely hypocritical. For a space to be anti-oppressive, it seems that decisions being made by vote would create a paradox. After all, voting stands diametrically opposed to cooperation, as it is largely a competitive sport, i.e., a war of ideas. A non-oppressive space, as many of our community centers are called, requires egalitarian decision-making. Voting is a decision-making process that represents “democracy” (a loaded term) for the 51 % of the organization, whilst the 49% is left out of the process.

There are certainly less egalitarian ways in which decisions can be reached other than voting. I work in a restaurant as a food server. Rarely, if ever, do the servers make decisions for themselves. This is only a personification of the detriment that is private property, which subordinates the wage laborer to the property-owner, or land-lord. But even if it were collectively-owned property, and decisions always came from the top down, this represents an authoritarian, undemocratic decision-making process. Essentially, the managers use (ironically) a very egalitarian process amongst themselves to determine what their staff will do, and when.

This top-down example of authoritarian rule, what is called “leadership,” is a byproduct of an economic system in which the goal, and only goal, is to accumulate capital. It’s no surprise that the workplace in America is free of any democratic means of making decisions. If workers actually controlled their means of production in industry, we could imagine a different situation in said restaurant: worker’s councils, egalitarian decision-making, horizontalism, dignity, etc.

A more efficient way of running a restaurant might be to have autonomous councils of servers, of cooks, of dish-washers, etc. After all, in my long experience in the restaurant business, I have often heard the most clever ideas of how to bus tables, how to serve tables, how to cook, etc., come from the respective parties, not managers or restaurant-owners (especially the latter).

In my experience, this top-down, monarchist-style decision-making “process” (there’s not a great deal of process involved) is not only authoritarian, but leads to disgruntled workers with a great deal of stress, anxiety, and animosity. There’s certainly not an objective axiom of life that states that it has to be this way. Even if an organization or collective claims to be non-hierarchical, it seems that this majority, for whom the vote has landed in their favor, could create a similar situation for the minority of the organization, modeling parliamentarian politics, as well.

Voting is, without a doubt, less-worse than decisions made by a small group for the majority, or worse, decisions strictly made by one person. Those who fetishize voting and elected officials, one would think, would be outraged at the undemocratic practices that occur at the workplace of nearly every wage laborer. We rarely hear these criticisms.

Employees being allowed to vote on issues, I believe, would improve the state of affairs. But the question remains: who decides on what the employees vote? It would probably be left to the same centralized power that decides how often, how hard, and when the employees work. Many activist and “progressive” organizations, instead of thinking outside the box, still count on voting to create an egalitarian environment. These organizations have shunned the top-down decision-making practices that occur at the workplace, or in the child’s classroom. Yet they rely on clunky, inefficient ways of making group decisions, i.e., they vote on issues.

To create real, efficient, non-oppressive egalitarian collectives or organizations, I argue we must move on from feckless practices like voting. It seems that to avoid the cliché, the tyranny of the majority, the most effective decision-making process is consensus decision-making. I will discuss, in this essay, an anti-authoritarian perspective of voting, and the ins-and-outs of consensus.

Anti-Authoritarianism and Voting: On the Incompatible

It would be difficult to mend anti-authoritarian ideas and voting. Further,

general elections to a central parliament are a form of social suicide since they imply the surrender of local autonomy and local revenue- gathering to central government which throughout history has shown itself to be the destroyer, not the upholder, of communal decision-making. [ 1]

So why would any organization founded on anti-authoritarian principles borrow tactics from authoritarian models like the state? Voting is a decision that the individual makes without any acknowledgement of the group. Cooperation has little to do with voting, as it

does not encourage the self-activity, self-organisation, direct action and mass struggle required for a social revolution. There is nothing more isolated, atomised and individualistic than voting. It is the act of one person in a closet by themselves. [ 2]

Why should radical or “progressive” organizations use the same processes as our oppressors? Decisions must be made, certainly. But there is an assumption when we rush to vote on issues that voting must happen in a group, as well, as if anytime groups make decisions the process used is voting. This is an example of syllogistic argumentation, i.e., votes are used to make a decision; we must make decisions; hence, we must vote to make group decisions. Yet, it is rare in life that we vote on decisions. When a group of family and friends come to a dinner table, they never declare that a vote must be had as to who sits where. Further, when they sit down at the table, they do not decide via voting who will pass which item to whom. Prior to the meal, a cooperative effort may occur during preparation. The likelihood of delegating certain individuals to certain tasks via a vote is highly unlikely, when the group knows full well how to facilitate the process, and reach spontaneous consensus. These events occur naturally, through cooperation. No process is fetishized; there is a natural and subconscious consensus reached. In fact, “[n]o articulated process is needed, and no leadership, because of a strong foundation of trust and intimacy.” [3 ]

It’s a bit of an absurd example, but let’s look the two-person band referred to as a couple. What if couples voted in order to make group decisions? It seems that at least half the time, they would be at a stalemate. All too often, two people that live together and are in a relationship make decisions in a number of ways, but rarely have I heard of two people voting. This would be a terribly inefficient process for such a small-scale group. I know in my own circumstances, my partner and I often first disagree on a decision, if only slightly. From the disagreement comes meaningful discussion. Most couples probably check for consensus. Then, when consensus is not reached, they backtrack and discuss the issue until there is an agreement. I wouldn’t include here unhealthy relationships in which one person is being taken advantage of.

If a small group of individuals see a person in distress, perhaps stuck under a car, they make group decisions on a whim without voting. There is seemingly no good reason that small groups of individuals, especially collectives, cannot make decisions in this manner. Think about how inefficient it would be if the group took time out to vote on what to do, or how to help the person in distress? Instead they rely on mutual aid, which is the notion that cooperation “is far more important than the law of mutual contest.” [ 4]

What, really, does the voting process have to do with mutual aid? Further, doesn’t voting represent “mutual contest,” i.e., every individual fighting for an objective, personal preference? In parliamentarian politics, we see that the voting procedures represent

the opposite of direct action - they are based on getting someone else to act on your behalf. Therefore, far from empowering people and giving them a sense of confidence and ability, electioneering dis-empowers them by creating a "leader" figure from which changes are expected to flow. [ 5]

If, in our own organizations, we elect officials, or vote on specific issues, are we not falling into the same trap that is antithetical to direct action? It is doubtful that decisions are non-authoritarian if, simply, a small majority favors them. This smacks of undemocratic practices. The very notion that democracy is voting is too simplistic. While it could certainly be categorized as one democratic decision-making process, it is not the only, rest assured. It is also one of the crudest. Coming back to elections, it would likely be as messy as making sausage for macro decisions to be made by 300 million people, to use the United States as a sample size. The argument will be made in return that elections in America are made as the most efficient option possible. How could 300 million people reach consensus? To put it simply, they shouldn’t have to. What hasn’t been considered by many is the idea of empowering communities on a micro level, as opposed to simply contributing to a central authority. Imagine if instead of the nation-state, enclaves consisted of loose federations of voluntary communities that functioned as networks of collectives? In other words, there would exist simultaneously a loose federation of communities, and each community would be comprised of a number of collectives. Decision-making would be made at an increasingly local level, encouraging the participation of everyone as opposed to elected officials. Who knows what is better for communities: elected officials or the participants in those communities? I argue that my neighbor and I could do a better job deciding amongst ourselves what occurs than being at the whim of an elected official, and the same for all the communities around ours. I propose the same notion for the workplace: workers could efficiently control the means of production without bosses. On a different note, workers could determine what work should be, how much we produce, what industries must cease to exist in order to protect the planet, and how long the work-day should be, amongst other aspects. This is more than analogous to the ways in which communities should decide things for themselves.

The conclusion that I reach about voting in radical, non-hierarchical organizations is that it should simply not occur. It only perpetuates a system that focuses more on individualistic tendencies that negate the well-being of the collective, organization, or community. And it is more than a little paradoxical that any organization founded on anti-oppressive, or anti-authoritarian, principles would use such a tactic. If we’re going to build the new world within the shell of the old, I suggest that (1) it should be a radically different world, and (2) we can’t use the tools of tyrants to construct this world. Shall we have a vote on it?

Egalitarian Solutions

It is without a doubt that no decision-making process is perfect. In fact, the group should push for a constant evolution to making decisions; no single process should be deified. Maybe the world in which we seek is a never-ending experiment, or a constant transition. If that’s the case, we can never become stagnant. There are thousands of different models for making decisions, and clearly some work in situation x that would be useless in situation y. I’m currently very interested in the generic umbrella term consensus decision-making, and do not hide my penchant for it. What I am referring to is a model that specifically involves several elements, but it’s quite simple. This process is self-evident to most of us who have pitched an idea to more than one person, as it usually occurs in this direction by default. The main tenants involve simply discussing interested party’s idea before pitching a proposal to a group. After the proposal has been pitched, it is now tested for consensus. If there is dissent, and the consensus is not reached, the dissenting parties must raise their concerns until the proposal has been altered to please everyone within the group. Consensus is tested for again, at this point. This is a basic, generic overview of the process that can get much more complicated. Here I will discuss the importance of civil conflict, my defense and praise of the consensus-based model, and other egalitarian ways in which decisions are made.

, Conflict has a terribly bad rap. In many ways, however, conflict in necessary, and can lead to rich conclusions. I cannot think of any personal relationship I’ve had, which at some point, did not involve conflict. And a great majority of those conflicts were fruitful. Of course, conflicts can be inherently negative, but it seems to me that it is an impossibility to create egalitarian relations in which there is no conflict. If I may, I will return to my work situation, and the workforce in general for an analogy.

, My conflicts can only go so far with my boss. The fallacious “Just because” argument will come about at some point if I decide to start conflict with my boss (I rarely do for pragmatic reasons), i.e., my boss can tell me what to do and when without any further justification because he employees me. Equality is missing when I cannot have respectful dialogue, or conflict, with an individual who is an authority figure. This is the overall nature of the totalitarian relationship that the boss has with her or his employee. This creates a great amount of animosity towards the boss, and creates a social and economic caste system. Since many employees simply avoid conflict altogether (oftentimes because their current employer doesn’t allot them the basic freedom to join a union), this is an example of how a lack of conflict is extremely unhealthy. Workers often have a laundry list of complaints that go unchecked. Instead of having rational, respectful conflict in the workplace, workers often internalize their problems and take out their anger on other people or find other unhealthy outlets.

The “Just because” card is pulled out in many instances in our life. Police officers actions are often justified vis-à-vis their civilian counterpart’s simply because they are authority figures. The recent example of an African American Harvard scholar being arrested at his own home personifies this: the police officer did not feel the need to apologize, nor have some my white counterparts in conversation expressed that what the police officer did was wrong (very disappointing, I would add). Police officers have historically gotten away with atrocious acts because of their position, as have military men and women, politicians, and wealthy individuals. We are discouraged from having a robust, healthy conflict with an officer of the law because of fear that they can irrationally put us in hand-cuffs because we have supposedly disturbed the peace. Voting, it seems, only discourages this kind of constructive dialogue, i.e., conflict, from occurring in the same manner. Instead, the answer may be that there was a group vote, one opinion reigned victorious, while the others did not. Hence, the conversation is over. This encourages a one-sided conflict in which one party is upset and wants to discuss the problem, while the other party holds a false sense of power and authority simply because they supported the victorious conclusion of the vote. Voting, like authority in general, does not mesh very well with civil conflict.

, Conflict itself has a harsh reputation. Anarchist Cindy Milstein has an astute perspective on the concept. In a recent talk she gave about prefigurative politics she discussed the blueprint of a house: we have a room to sleep in and have sex, a room to cook and prepare food, but we do not have a room for conflict, when it is just as much a part of our life. And further, she said, it should be celebrated that a group is not always striving towards the same goals; this is a good thing. [ 6]

Conflict is something that must be embraced by the group, and encouraged to not only avoid groupthink, but homogeneity. A rational, meaningful, and fruitful conflict could occur, and would be encouraged, under consensus decision-making.

Consensus decision-making is not some abstract concept:

Adopting a conscious consensus process is significant in a number of ways. Commitment to the ideal of consensus signifies a bold rejection of society’s dominant values of order, hierarchy, competition, and formalized leadership […] Adopting an explicit process to facilitate consensus decision making signifies a new understanding of human potential. It acknowledges that we are not the slaves of “human nature” or any other tragic flaw, but that we can learn an almost unlimited range of behaviors. [ 7]

Obviously, some proposals will yield a process that goes from proposal, straight to consensus. Yet, sometimes the most meaningful discussions and civil conflicts (emphasis on civil) will come from concerns raised after a test for consensus. As you can see, this crude model expresses an anti-authoritarian framework in which each person could contribute her or his unique concerns, and hear every one’s perspective.

As mentioned, on many occasions, groups will use cooperation and a sense of spontaneous consensus to facilitate group decisions. In this case, one needn’t an elaborate process. It is analogous to the group that has dinner together or decides to help someone in distress. As previously mentioned, this personifies a sense of mutual aid, or cooperation over competition, and an egalitarian process.

Changing Community Dynamics

To conclude, it is doubtful that we can dismantle puritanical moral absolutism, oppressive hierarchies, authoritarian economic models and undemocratic places of work, or facilitate any meaningful change through our collectives and organizations, if they remain stagnant in their means of decision-making. If these are ideals to which we adhere, then our organizations and collectives should function according to them, not those of private tyrannies or the state. With a focus on the well-being of the group and the individual, not compromising either, this can be a start. And I’m not merely advocating that organizations and collectives simply switch from voting to consensus decision-making; I am suggesting that anti-authoritarian organizations should move away from using tactics used by the very institutions they stand opposed to. To create real, anti-oppressive institutions, or free spaces, egalitarianism must be stressed. It is doubtful that hierarchy, formal leadership, and voting, will achieve these things.

[1] Colin Ward, “The Case Against Voting,” May 1987; if interested, I can provide the link, as it was deleting my post as spam when I included websites.

[2] Anarcho, “Making history or just repeating it?” No date; if interested, I can provide the link, as it was deleting my post as spam when I included websites.

[3] Peter Gelderloos, Consensus: A New Handbook for Political Grassroots, Social, and Environmenal Groups (Tuscon, AZ: See Sharp Press, 2006)

[4] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolutoin (1902); if interested, I can provide the link, as it was deleting my post as spam when I included websites.

[5] Iain Mckay, An Anarchist FAQ (Oakland, CA, 2008)

[6] I paraphrased footage from Cindy Milstein’s “Anarchism’s Principles and Prefigurative Practices” talk, April 2009; if interested, I can provide the link, as it was deleting my post as spam when I included websites.

[7] Peter Gelderloos, Consensus: A New Handbook for Political Grassroots, Social, and Environmenal Groups (Tuscon, AZ: See Sharp Press, 2006)

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Voting: An Infantile Disorder | 8 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Voting: An Infantile Disorder
Authored by: nali on Monday, August 31 2009 @ 05:18 AM CDT
"If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal. -Emma Goldman"

But if voting is replaced by compulsive consensus, nothing significant will change in a big scale.

In a small intimate and homogeneous group it is sensible. In a big group of people which is active daily in changed circumstances with lot of people with their own ideas and ego, you need a mean to over ride stubborn opinions, without reverting to purification.

The sane and political appropriate decision mode for antiauthoritarian anticapitalists is the striving for consensus, and using vote whenever the preferred consensus fail to be reached in due time.

Just imagine that about half of a big group support one version and the others support a different one.

How to decide in time if no consensus possible... and some times only after voting it will be possible to find what version is the more popular...
Voting: An Infantile Disorder
Authored by: redsdisease on Monday, August 31 2009 @ 04:05 PM CDT
"Just imagine that about half of a big group support one version and the others support a different one."

Have you ever actually used consensus before? it doesn't work this way.

Consensus isn't just some idealized, utopian decision making structure, it exists, at least in part, to prevent factions within groups. Without a state, majoritarian democracy doesn't make any sense. Who going to enforce the decisions made by the majority? Who going to stop the minority from disobeying the decision, who's going to prevent them from leaving the group? Consensus removes the competition that is inherent in majoritarian democracy and focuses on making decisions that the entire group can be satisfied with.
Voting: An Infantile Disorder
Authored by: Brennus on Monday, August 31 2009 @ 06:00 PM CDT
Consensus still falls into the pit-trap of trying to make a decision for a group so large it doesn't want one decision made. There are still factions within a consensus decision-making group. Or at least, the potential is still just as much there.

Any group that really needs a formal decision-making process is probably too large/diverse a group. Things tend to work better without such a process.
Voting: An Infantile Disorder
Authored by: redsdisease on Monday, August 31 2009 @ 08:31 PM CDT
Even the smallest groups can have disagreements, does this mean that they shouldn't try to mediate towards a consensus? Consensus does not have to be a formal structure.
Voting: An Infantile Disorder
Authored by: Brennus on Tuesday, September 01 2009 @ 07:51 AM CDT
Consensus is great. Formal Consensus Decision-Making, as put forth by food not bombs in the days of yore, is boring and what I'm referring to when I say "consensus" above.
Voting: An Infantile Disorder
Authored by: ScavengerType on Tuesday, September 01 2009 @ 04:32 PM CDT
What an article. I'd love to see an even longer article about consensus that refuses to discuss how consensus dynamics work or different ways for facilitating consensus or integrating consensus models into organizations or current organizational structures. Well done, do you think it would be possible to see similar articles about autonomy, gender relations, race or class? We see far too few general rants in favor of an abstract and undefined concept nowadays and definitely over the years as well.
Voting: An Infantile Disorder
Authored by: Alex Bradshaw on Tuesday, September 01 2009 @ 07:55 PM CDT
The point of the essay was not to define and elaborate on formal consensus decision making processes (there's certainly more than one), but to advocate moving on from voting as a means of making decisions. The reason I didn't simply say that the answer comes in the form of some elaborate decision-making process in place of another is because, as I mentioned, the process shouldn't be deified. There are many different ways in which decisions can be made that are more egalitarian than voting. As far as it being too abstract for you, well, I guess that's just my nature. But if the essay was called "Framework for Consensus Decision-Making" and I didn't give one, then I feel like your argument would have merit. I also feel like anti-authoritarians have done it pretty damn well, eg, the work of Peter Gelderloos.
Voting: An Infantile Disorder
Authored by: ScavengerType on Wednesday, September 02 2009 @ 03:43 AM CDT
fair enough, but for fuck sakes, we've got all this talk of consensus decision making, but no articles on actual consensus decision making. I frankly think that articles that make cases for this are shit, they can make cases for themselves if they are adequately explained.