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Jaya Klara Brekke et al. :

"Dissensus describes a rupture to consensus (Rancière, 2004; Rancière, 2015). It therefore points to the possibility that incompatible positions might arise, forcing either significant negotiation and transformation in order to accommodate for these, or a split and exclusion. In the context of technology, dissensus, for example, entails foregrounding the conflicting possibilities in the context of algorithmic decisions (Crawford, 2016), or, as we discuss in this article, the possibility of many different and conflicting development pathways. The concept also points to the limits of formalized governance (whether algorithmic or parliamentary) as the established means to negotiate disputes and conflict, because governance methods and mechanisms might themselves become a site of dissensus, forcing significant negotiation and transformation of the given project, or a “fork.” Rather than a problem to be solved, the potential for dissensus to arise is better understood as an inevitable and necessary precondition for different perspectives and possibilities to emerge, and therefore for transformation, growth, and change. In the work of political theorist Mouffe, it is nothing less than the necessary preconditions for a free society (Mouffe and Laclau, 1998). The concept thereby also points to the precise limits of efforts that approach governance as a problem to be solved in any final manner through mechanisms, incentives, and algorithms."



Murray Bookchin:

"consensus silenced that most vital aspect of all dialogue, dissensus. The ongoing dissent, the passionate dialogue that still persists even after a minority accedes temporarily to a majority decision, was replaced in the Clamshell by dull monologues -- and the uncontroverted and deadening tone of consensus. In majority decision-making, the defeated minority can resolve to overturn a decision on which they have been defeated -- they are free to openly and persistently articulate reasoned and potentially persuasive disagreements. Consensus, for its part, honors no minorities, but mutes them in favor of the metaphysical "one" of the "consensus" group.

The creative role of dissent, valuable as an ongoing democratic phenomenon, tends to fade away in the gray uniformity required by consensus. Any libertarian body of ideas that seeks to dissolve hierarchy, classes, domination and exploitation by allowing even Marshall's "minority of one" to block decision-making by the majority of a community, indeed, of regional and nationwide confederations, would essentially mutate into a Rousseauean "general will" with a nightmare world of intellectual and psychic conformity. In more gripping times, it could easily "force people to be free," as Rousseau put it -- and as the Jacobins practiced it in 1793-94.


If consensus could be achieved without compulsion of dissenters, a process that is feasible in small groups, who could possibly oppose it as a decision-making process? But to reduce a libertarian ideal to the unconditional right of a minority -- let alone a "minority of one" -- to abort a decision by a "collection of individuals" is to stifle the dialectic of ideas that thrives on opposition, confrontation and, yes, decisions with which everyone need not agree and should not agree, lest society become an ideological cemetery. Which is not to deny dissenters every opportunity to reverse majority decisions by unimpaired discussion and advocacy." (http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/CMMNL2.MCW.html)

Introducing the Theory of Dissensus

"For political theorist Chantal Mouffe, it is essential to not assume consensus as the basis of a functioning society: “if we want people to be free, we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and to provide an arena where differences can be confronted” (Mouffe and Laclau 1998). Mouffe refers to this as “agonism” (Mouffe 2005, 19–21), which we for the sake of neat articulation in this article call “dissensus,” drawing on another political theorist Rancière (2004), Rancière (2015). Rancière describes dissensus as forcing a “redistribution of the sensible” (2004). The “sensible” refers both to what can be sensed and what is broadly perceived as sensible ways of doing things: who can go where at what times, or speak in which kinds of forums, what kinds of activities should happen at which times, and so on. Dissensus is a rupture or challenge to consensus: a differing perspective or way of doing things emerges that is incompatible with existing arrangements to such a degree that arrangements have to be renegotiated in order to accommodate for the difference. If such renegotiation is not possible, the incompatible difference will have to be rejected, excluded, or “forked” in the case of code.

In the work of both Mouffe and Rancière, agonism and moments of dissensus are considered properly political, which they contrast with politics: a professionalized discussion of known differences within accepted frameworks and languages such as parliaments (Mouffe, 2005; Rancière, 2015). This distinction between politics and the political points to the difference between the management of disagreements that are already comprehensible and the emergence of differences that do not fit within existing terms of negotiation. Related, Mouffe therefore takes issue with the thinking on democratic governance of both Rawls and Habermas, for their assumption of a rational agent able to argue its case in the proper manner of politics (Mouffe and Laclau 1998). Distinguishing between politics and the political means that there will always be a limit to what can be “solved” and encoded in advance. The always present possibility that incompatible differences might emerge means that governance cannot be reduced to a minimum set of known axioms as a final resolution—because the axioms themselves might turn out to be contentious. To put it in blockchain terms, there might not always be consensus about the consensus algorithm.

Drawing so explicitly from political theory in order to make sense of technological dynamics is not without precedent. Kate Crawford, a theorist of machine learning and artificial intelligence, draws on Mouffe’s notion of agonism in a discussion of the operations of algorithms. “Algorithms may be rule-based mechanisms that fulfill requests, but they are also governing agents that are choosing between competing, and sometimes conflicting, data objects” (Crawford, 2016, 86). In Crawford’s work, the intention is to foreground the aspects of algorithmic operations which are not entirely predetermined but that are contentious and therefore entail openings and decisions where things might take a different turn. Crawford thereby points to where agonism can also take place, in the context of a purely technical arrangement without explicit human decision. Here, we discuss how dissensus is navigated in relation to protocols that were designed to resolve it through the technical means of algorithms, assuming these to be beyond the political. A focus on dissensus thereby offers openings into what could, might have been, or might be different, also about and by protocols and algorithms.

In the context of governance discussions in the digital realm, Lessig (1999) described four forces that regulate individuals’ actions, namely: 1) law, 2) social norms, 3) markets, and 4) architecture/technology—in the case of the Internet, code. This led to Lessig’s famous maxim “code is law,” taken to heart by many digital communities, and, in particular, by those attracted to blockchain-based online communities (De Filippi and Wright, 2018). The attraction was that anyone who could code would essentially be able to write their own governance rules for their own digital spaces. Digital networks and the idea of direct, unmediated interactions are contrasted with forms of governance imposed by a third party, including an authority or government, to impose sanctions, and block or manipulate communications. Instead, networks were understood to enable forms of self-governance. ‘Self-governance’ in the context of network communities in the meantime has come to signify several different things. At times, it refers to the ability of online communities to determine and enact their own rules and processes according to their own priorities. At other times, it refers to self-regulating systems whereby networks, protocols, and applications are understood to coordinate actions between otherwise distributed and isolated actors, facilitating emergent forms of systemic organization. In practice, oftentimes, both of these understandings are at play, even in the same projects. In both, the idea is that simple network protocols will minimize the need for governance as imposed rules by a third party, instead enabling intrinsic forms of organization.

Dissensus and the Evolutions of Governance Ideas and Ideologies in Blockchain

Jaya Klara Brekke, Kate Beecroft and Francesca Pick:

"The histories and ideas of governance forming through blockchain technology are particularly powerful for discussing the relevance of dissensus as a concept, because blockchain so explicitly came to be understood as a technology for resolving dissensus and settling differences by technical means—initially as a functional necessity of ensuring coherence in Bitcoin transactions, but then also expanded as an ideology to many other realms (Atzori 2017; Reijers et al., 2018). Blockchain emerged out of a longer history of peer-to-peer technologies with the promise of disintermediating digital payment networks and applications. Rather than having to rely on financial institutions and major platform providers who could control the conditions of interactions, the intention was that these could be replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer networks, governed through consensus algorithms. A decentralized network topology would ensure that no one entity can control the network; incentives would organize and secure the system by rewarding those who contribute and making attacks expensive; and cryptography would be used to secure, organize, and enforce consensus across the network. Such networks could then be self-governed by those operating them, with overall coordination achieved by adhering to simple protocols, encoding and automating rules, and the arrangement of consensus between nodes.

Governance more broadly is defined and discussed in governance theory as having three evolutions (Mayntz, 2003; Klijn and Koppenjan, 2012). These evolutions describe different ideological perspectives on the scope and remit of governance, which to a large degree are reflected in the ideas and ideologies around blockchain. Governance was initially considered the process of deciding which rules and regulations will be enacted by a sanctioned authority in a top-down manner: usually the state to the people (Mayntz, 2003; Kim, 2006). This resembles early governance ideas in Bitcoin, now referred to as “bitcoin maximalism,” where the absolute sovereignty of a state would be replaced by the absolute sovereignty of a neutral technical architecture of consensus algorithms and code. A second evolution of governance theory in the 1970s emerged as a critique of the steering actions by political authorities shaping socioeconomic processes and structures (Mayntz, 2003). And so today, governance theory is primarily concerned with how actors organize and decide about what they do in a politic (Stoker, 2019). Governance is considered a feature of any group or organization who have something in common that they need to govern, referring to the development of various governing styles in which boundaries between and within public life and business have become blurred (Rosenau and Czempiel, 1992; Stoker, 2019). This second evolution is characterized by the idea of markets influencing and directing social and political life. It points to the creation of a structure which cannot be imposed but which is the result of the interactions of a multiplicity of governing and influencing actors (Kooiman and Van Vliet in Stoker 2018). This resembles a second stage in Bitcoin governance ideologies, following a number of forks in the Bitcoin and Ethereum protocols. Rather than a Consensus protocols became a socio-technical design space expanding into experimental fields of cryptoeconomics, token design, mechanism design and more, in contrast to Bitcoin maximalism, where the consensus protocol is assumed as absolute universal sovereign. A third evolution of governance theory is looking at the horizontal, self-organizing aspects of networks, gaining increasing prominence in the wake of the many reports of government and market failures (Torfing, 2005; Kreutler, 2018). Here, governance is being analyzed and developed in the context of horizontal and reciprocative means of coordination where people participate in networks or groups to decide about what to do and how to do it (Kim 2006). It incorporates the impacts of networks and insights from network theory (Klijn and Koppenjan 2012), referring to what happens when groups of all kinds seek to achieve something together through networks of interdependent actors. In blockchain governance, this relates to practices where networks, protocols, and markets have emergent properties, and are part of and affected by forms of social consensus arising from interactions between different stakeholders. Below, we discuss these different stages as a materialist, an emergent and a design understanding of technologically mediated forms of governance."