Consent vs. Consensus

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Consensus vs. consent


See the related entries on Consensus and Deliberative Democracy

Comment by Michel Bauwens

"The following items give contrasting views on peer governance. In the first, a neo-anarchist tradition promotes consensus. It is an approach that in my mind constitutes the dictatorship of a minority over the majority, and I do not see how the reconcile it with individual initiative and a dynamic society. The second item is about consent, which is different, cfr. the following quote.

"The consent principle says that a decision can only be made when none of the circle members present has a reasoned, substantial objection to making the decision. The consent principle is different than "consensus" and "veto." With consensus the participants must be "for" the decision. With consent decision-making they must be not against. With consensus a veto blocks the decision without an argument. With consent decision making, opposition must always be supported with an argument."

I find consent, which is a form of governance explicitely taking into account the equivalence of participants, very closely related to the peer to peer mode, which is based on the equipotentiality. Sociocracy, see item 2, may well be the breakthrough form of governance I had been looking for."

The neo-anarchist consensus approach

Excerpt from a video-interview with Ralf Burnicki: The anarchists that I refer to in "Anarchismus und Konsens" are more from the neo-anarchist realm. Among them are: Jan Stehn, Burkhard Keimburg, Charlie Blackfield, and Gunar Seitz. That is the question: how can we imagine an alternative anarchist society that is able to exist without a Soviet system, a society that forms at the grass roots, at the grass roots of everyday life, in daily mutual cooperation. The upper social classes are entirely done away with. The issues are: how we can arrive at decisions free of political authority and how we can survive without an "above."

The neo-anarchy that has developed in Germany since 1968 is mainly non-violent. Also in anarcho-syndicalist contexts and in non-violent contexts, the motto is that the goal of revolution, namely, freedom and equality, should be reflected in the means for achieving revolution. Accordingly, these means cannot rest on violence because violence is not a goal of an anarchist society.

Furthermore, anarchy is so difficult for people to understand because many people can't imagine life without control, the organs of the State, control from above. They haven't learned to develop self-administered organizational structures; they haven't learned to realize dominance-free decision-making, beginning with their private affairs. The anarchist principle of consensus democracy foresees a very different principle that can be understood in two ways. First, in an anarchist consensual democracy, affected persons would have the right to be consulted on decisions. Second, all persons who are disadvantaged by a decision - I'll call them dissenters - would have the right to veto in this decision-making process. This right allows them to nullify the decision so that discussion can begin again. Through their right to veto, dissenters would have great significance within the decision-making process, and the possibility to avert disadvantages. Waste transport, for example, as it takes place in a representative democracy, would never occur. With today's waste transport and radioactive waste dumping, the affected population living at the site has no veto rights whatsoever. It has no right of any kind to nullify these decisions by the government, although it is very strongly affected on site by the effects of radioactive contamination and accidents. In an anarchist consensual democracy, such decisions would be impossible because they could be nullified at any time by those affected, and in these cases the affected population would simply use their right to veto. Three basic elements provide a rough picture of how the principle of consensus functions: there is a meeting of the affected persons, or of those who bear any consequences of a decision. It is possible to react to a decision by either rejecting it through a veto or accepting the decision. The latter means that this issue affects me now, but I can accept the consequences because the impact is not significant, or because I don't want to hold up the process and I see a rationale in it. Ideally, there is consensus, or unanimous agreement and adherence to a decision or a perspective on the decision. Unanimous agreement represents the ideal of consensual democracy. In practice, however, there are often compromises for which all sides are able to notch up half or three-quarter advantages. Consensus is, however, the intended goal in an anarchist consensual democracy. The aim is to eliminate overriding majority-based decisions. The anarchist consensus model, like anarchy as a whole, represents a view of society that focuses especially on the micro-level of society. Concern is not with relations between the government and the governed, but solely with the governed that dispose of the government. The idea is for people to come together at a grass roots level, independently and autonomously, and in cooperation with others, make decisions on the so-called micro-level of society. Anarchist theory actually has two fundamental critiques of the State: first, the State constantly produces governments, regardless of whether they can be voted out of office after a certain amount of time, and, second, this creates a hierarchically structured upper and an affected lower class. This is unjust and runs counter to any concept of egalitarianism and also to a demand aired in democratic theory - that ultimately, the main concern is the people's interests.

Consent-based methods: Sociocracy


Consensus is a good idea. So why am I trying to sell you Consent and Sociocracy instead of Consensus? Well, one reason is that one of the people who laid sociocracy on me has been a Quaker for many decades and is quite familiar with consensus and she believes that consent works more efficiently, at least, for her group, in their situation. She is also part of an ecovillage that struggled along with consensus for three years and had a lot of problems. Here is a quote from their website: "Initially the group used consensus to make their decisions. This proved inefficient and exhausting and led to serious rifts. Introducing sociocracy was a relief. The group became more efficient and subsequently has been able to make many difficult decisions in harmony with one another." This may not be the case for every group that uses consensus. The size of the group, their backgrounds, and their aims could make consensus a more appropriate choice. Sociocracy is a fully developed model of governance. It's hard for me to picture mainstream corporations replacing their autocratic decision-making processes with consensus, whereas the sociocratic model is similar to a lot of theories that have been developed in the field of organization development in the last few decades, especially 'learning organizations.' I don't know how most organizations that use consensus structure their governments, but the sociocratic model provides a well-defined set of patterns and agreements to use to obtain optimal equivalence. Sociocracy resembles organic systems. I've been looking around to try to create a list of qualities of organic systems.

What I've come up with is: 1. Cooperative mutual dependence (networks) .2. Any holon is never completely independent (hierarchy) 3. Changes constantly 4. Expresses Diversity 5. Cannot be controlled and dominated 6. Self-maintaining and self-renewing (Autopoietic)

Capra discussed four principles of sustainability: 1. Interdependence 2. The cyclical nature of ecologies 3. Partnership - the tendency to associate, establish links, live inside one another, and cooperate 4. Flexibility and diversity

HOW SOCIOCRACY WORKS: The sociocratic method is a way of giving form to our lives and society. The sociocratic method is an "empty" (or "generalized") method. That is, it can be applied to every kind of organization. The sociocratic method starts from the concept that people are unequal, unique persons who should be equivalent by decision-making.

The Dutch businessman who developed sociocracy, Gerard Endenburg, has been striving to create a system that maintains equivalence" between participating members. He come up with these FOUR MAIN PRINCIPLES used to form a sociocratic organization:

Governance by Consent

Circle Organization

Double Linking and

Elections by Consent.

Governance by Consent: The consent principle says that a decision can only be made when none of the circle members present has a reasoned, substantial objection to making the decision. The consent principle is different than "consensus" and "veto." With consensus the participants must be "for" the decision. With consent decision-making they must be not against. With consensus a veto blocks the decision without an argument. With consent decision making, opposition must always be supported with an argument. Every decision doesn't require consent, but consent must exist concerning an agreement to make decisions regularly through another method. Thus, many decisions are not made by consent. Rather, with consent, persons or groups are given the authority to make independent decisions. Consent can also be used with non-human elements.

Circle Organization: The organization arranges for a decision making structure, built from mutually double-linked circles, in which consent governs. This decision-making structure includes all members of the organization. Each circle has its own aim, performs the three functions of directing, operating and measuring (feedback), and maintains its own memory system by means of integral education. A good way to evaluate how well a circle is functioning is to use 9-block charting. Every circle formulates its own vision, "mission statement" and aim/objective (which must fit in with the vision, mission and aim of the organization as a whole and with the vision, mission and aim of all the other circles in the organization).

Double-Linking: Coupling a circle with the next higher circle is handled through a double link. That is, at least two persons, the supervisor of the circle and at least one representative of the circle, belong to the next higher circle.

Sociocratic Elections: Choosing people for functions and/or responsibilities is done by consent after an open discussion. The discussion is very important because it uncovers pertinent information about the members of the circle.

Some agreements he has come up with besides the four main principles are:

- No secrets may be kept

- Everything is open to discussion - limits of an exec's power, policy decisions, personnel decisions, investment policy, profit distribution, all rules....

- Everyone has a right to be part of a decision that affects them.

- Every decision may be reexamined at any time

Another important element that is not one of the four basic principles is that sociocratic organizations are connected to outside organizations by external double links. Also the top circle has outside "experts" as members. These experts sometimes come from other circles within the organization.

History of the Sociocratic Circle-organization Method

Kees Boeke, a Dutch educator and pacifist, originally envisioned sociocracy in 1945 as a way to adapt Quaker egalitarian principles to secular organizations. Gerard Endenburg, a pupil of Kees Boeke, developed Boeke's vision into a body of well-tested procedures and practical principles. After World War II, Gerard Endenburg's parents (Socialists before the War) established a company to try out their advanced ideas about management. Gerard trained as an electrical engineer, gained expertise in cybernetics (the science of steering and control), and worked briefly for Philips Electronics before accepting his father's challenge to manage a small, failing business he had purchased.In less than a year Gerard had made the business profitable and merged it with his father's company. When his father retired in the late 1960s, Gerard became manager of Endenburg Electrotechniek with the mandate to run it both as a profitable business and as a real time laboratory for testing innovative management ideas. Sociocracy is a product of that experience. Gerard has retired from day-to-day management of Endenburg Electrotechniek to devote his time to running the Sociocratisch Centrum, a consulting business that assists a wide variety of companies and organizations to implement Sociocracy. Gerard is also a professor at the Economic Science and Industry Department of the University of Maastricht where Sociocracy is part of the curriculum and academic practice. He holds a chair in "The Learning Organization, Specifically the Sociocratic Circle Organization".

See the sociocratic network at

Key Books to Read

  1. Jon Elster, ed. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 282 pages.
  2. Nino, C. S. (1996)The Constitution of Deliberative Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press

More Information

  1. In defense of Consensus by Dave Pollard at