Non-Coercive Collective Decision-Making in Quaker Communities

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* Article: Non-Coercive Collective Decision-Making: A Quaker Perspective. By Robert Kirchner. Center for a Stateless Society, 2017



Robert Kirchner:

"In previous articles in this symposium, a sticking-point has emerged, among both pro- and anti-democracy anarchists, concerning the presumed impossibility of a collective decision-making process that doesn’t resort to coercion. I believe the anti-democracy camp are rightly hung-up on this point; if collective decision-making is necessarily coercive, such a process cannot be reconciled with anarchism, where the core tenet is the rejection of coercion. On the other hand, this anti-democratic stance seems to betray a deep pessimism toward the very notion of community and to the possibility of collective action of any sort. Meanwhile, the pro-democracy camp appear to accept (with some discomfort) the necessity of coercion, in the interest of permitting collective decision-making, assuming that such coercion will be relatively minimal and benign in practice. I don’t wish to rehash the larger debate here – though I do place myself squarely in the pro-democracy camp. Rather, I challenge the assumption that non-coercive collective decision-making is unfeasible. I belong to a religious group, the Quakers (a.k.a. the Religious Society of Friends), that have been grappling with this issue over the past 350 years. We have developed a non-coercive collective decision-making process that works for us. It does not always work smoothly, and sometimes it operates rather messily, painfully, and slowly. However, as I will explain, it does work, and often quite miraculously. In this article I present my personal understanding and experience of the Quaker “business” process, as we call it. My broader goal is to defend a vision of anarchism that allows for vigorous community and powerful collective action, without squelching the autonomy of individuals.

The Quaker business process has a strong formal resemblance to the consensus decision-making processes used by many “horizontal” activist groups. There is a historical reason for this: Quakers have been involved in many activist movements over the past fifty years, and we’ve had a corresponding influence on the structure of these groups. I know that consensus decision-making can be truly awful. As has been pointed out by other contributors to this symposium, when practiced badly it can be mind-numbingly boring or otherwise deeply off-putting. It can also mask various forms of covert power, resulting in serious group dysfunction. The same could be said, even more strongly, of Robert’s Rules or more overtly hierarchical decision-making processes. But there are significant differences between consensus decision-making as it has percolated through activist communities and the original Quaker process that inspired it.

But before examining Quaker process, it is necessary to give some background on what Quakerism is about. First, we have a rather distinctive method of worship, based on silence: we sit together in an attitude of ‘expectant waiting,’ in which we seek to come nearer to God and each other.1 There are no programmed hymns, prayers, recitations, readings, or other liturgy. There is no clergy. During silent worship, anyone who feels a deep inner prompting to do so may give ‘vocal ministry:’ a message, reflection or prayer, usually quite brief.

Quakerism began in the late 1640’s in the aftermath of the English Civil War, a period of great social and religious upheaval as a reaction against both the authoritarian, high-church Anglicanism of King Charles I and the dour, Bible-thumping Puritanism of those who overthrew him. Quakerism thus arose out of a Protestant English milieu, as a radical expression of Christianity. But today, there is a great diversity within Quaker meetings on how we think of God and our relation to Christianity, and we use different kinds of language to describe our religious experiences. Some Quakers have a conception of God that is close to that of mainstream Protestant Christianity and would describe their beliefs using similar language. Others are happy to use God-centered language, but they conceive of God in very different terms from the Christian trinity. Some use feminist language. Others are influenced by Buddhism. Some identify as non-theists and describe their experiences without using the word ‘God’ at all. Quaker faith is built on experience, and Quakers generally hold that it is the spiritual experience which is central to Quaker worship, not the use of any particular form of words (whether that be ‘God’ or anything else)."