The New Frontier
in Democratic Theory and Practice:
Organizational Forms that Simultaneously Optimize Autonomy & Community

©1997, Andrew Dinkelaker

Chapter 6 - Consensus: The Quintessential Methodology for Participatory Democracy

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There are many ways that the Four-Quadrant System presented in this manuscript might be used to develop assessment tools for typing organizations. One could imagine, for instance, developing two independent scales that could respectively measure 1) participation: the extent to which an organization promotes the participation of its members in the critical decisions of the organization, and 2) autonomy: the degree to which the decisions that are made in the organization use methodologies that respect individual autonomy (i.e., do not coerce consent or compliance from the individual). Although it is beyond the scope of this manuscript to create such scales, we can imagine what they might look like.1 We can also readily appreciate how, in combination, such scales can be used to determine which Quadrant an organization falls into. Using the scales organizations can be rated and assigned to Quadrants in the following way:

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A tool using the two scales could, in other words, assess the extent to which decision making practices are democratic. There is basically only one kind of decision making methodology that delivers "high participation" and "high autonomy" simultaneously and thus fulfills the requirements of a "Quadrant four" decision making methodology: consensus decision making. Although consensus decision making has been described and defined in various ways, as we shall see, it is the only method that promotes the full participation in decision making while ensuring that each individual's autonomy is respected, as no decision is reached that does not have the active consent of each participant. This should not surprise us, as consensus decision making has always been the center piece of the types of participatory democracy that we have associated with Quadrant four. Indeed, we may say that consensus decision making is the quintessential Quadrant four decision making methodology. We might even use the fact that it is the defining aspect of Quadrant four organization to help us understand the two axes that form the Four Quadrant System. If we assume that consensus processes will be coterminous with Quadrant four, and therefore all fall above the horizontal line and to the left of the vertical line, then the horizontal line must be the dividing line between processes in which there is full participation (above the line) and less than full participation (below the line), while the vertical line distinguishes between processes in which the individual actively consents to decisions affecting her (to the left of the vertical axis) and processes in which decisions affecting her are taken out of her hands (to the right of the vertical axis).

Above the horizontal line all people participate in the decision making process (although perhaps not "equally", in a qualitative sense). Below the line all people are not seen as legitimate "participants" in the process. As one moves further into the area above the horizontal axis then the quality of participation improves. As one moves progressively below the horizontal line the number of groups considered eligible for participation in the decision making process dwindles to where, at its furthest point for the horizontal line, it is but one individual who may legitimately participate. "Participation" below the horizontal line is understood as a privilege that "must be earned" or "bestowed", and it is the object of organizational hierarchies and structures to determine who participates.

To the left of the horizontal line the individual's active consent to the decision is required if the decision is to be considered legitimate and binding. In other words, the individual effectively has veto power over the decision. Of course, there will be instances in which, the individual to the left of the vertical line can legitimately delegate their authority to others, reserving the right to withdraw it at any time. So to the left of the line are some limited "representative" forms of democracy -- ones that are based on the active consent of the individual. However, to the right of the vertical line are what might be called "passive" forms of "representative" democracy, in which the individual is believed not to be able to legitimately withdraw consent at any time, and so is considered "bound" by the decisions made by the representatives and/or majority vote.

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Types of Consensus

Now let us take a look at the space within Quadrant four. There are different types of "consensus" that we can, more or less, locate at various places on the section of the map. For instance, if the square below is Quadrant four, then we may distinguish seven distinct types of "consensus" identified with positions on the map that indicate the relative importance of "autonomy" and "participation" for each specific definition.

For instance, those whom we might locate at point A on the map because they emphasize social cohesion over autonomy (high interdependence, medium autonomy) will tend to think of consensus in terms of undisputed agreement amongst group members -- and will speak of it in terms of accord between members, a working together with others while respecting their differences. Those who, conversely, emphasize autonomy over social cohesion (high autonomy, medium interdependence), we can locate at point B. They will tend to construe consensus as a decision making process in which each individual has "veto power" over the group decision. It is presumably this definition of consensus

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that Bookchin has in mind when, in recent years, he argues against consensus decision making and in behalf of "majority rule".2 One may assume alternate positions (points C through G on the chart) and argue against Bookchin in the following way. Consensus decision making is not primarily a matter of individual veto power. Nor is it even primarily a matter of voting, which is the way in which someone with relatively low interest in both social cohesion and autonomy would construe the process -- as voting is primarily a Quadrant three methodology and point C is, within Quadrant four, the closest point to Quadrant three. Consensus, rather, is primarily a matter of interacting with one another in such a way that individual differences are actively expressed, synthesized, and incorporated into the actions of the group. The requirement that the group establish the active consent of each individual is never ignored or "magically" supervened by invocation of alternate (and ultimately coercive) methodologies such as "majority rule."

On the periphery of Quadrant four we have views on consensus that treat it primarily as a "voting" procedure. But a vote -- to state the obvious -- is only, after all, a rather crass procedure for forcing closure to an incomplete interpersonal process. As we move away from the boundary areas that Quadrant four shares with Quadrants one, two and three, and deeper into its recesses, we are less apt to see consensus as a mere vote, and begin to appreciate it as a complex and subtle interpersonal process.


At point D, one step removed from the notion of consensus as a unanimous vote (point C), we might treat consensus as a state of affairs in which diverse points of view of various individuals are in a static balance formed by negotiation and compromise. Point D shares with point C the notion that consensus is a "final state" to be arrived at by group interaction even if it does not conceive of that final state as the result of a "vote."


As we move further inward along the diagonal we begin to appreciate the dynamic aspects of the consensus process. At point E we can use the metaphor of musical harmony to describe the complex dynamics of a group in the process of forming consensus. The multiple voices, singing different tones, are nonetheless in agreement (i.e.. harmony). And they continue to be in harmony despite the fact that each voice sings different tones from the others and is itself in a continual process of shifting from one tone to the next in its personal melody. The individual melody interweaves with the melodies of other voices. Opposition is incorporated into this process through the practice of "counterpoint" -- not unlike the process that Slater has in mind in articulating his views about democracy: "Democracy means participation -- it is a matter not of sacrifice, but of contribution, which is a form of self-assertion. Democracy requires maintaining one's point of view 'until it has found its place in the group thought. ...The only use for my difference is to join it with other differences' "[note, by the way, how in

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this passage Slater hints at the two dimensions -- participation and autonomy -- and their subtle interplay].3 The metaphor of musical harmony is more than apt in describing the interpersonal interactions of point E. For our fascination with music is, basically, a fascination with our innate ability as human beings to form such complex patterns of dynamic consensus!

Note that the views that are being voiced by individuals at point D may often be called into existence as a response to the chord that is being sounded by the group as a whole. Arnie Mindell observes that this phenomenon frequently takes place in group dynamics, where an individual will fill a particular compensatory psychological role that is missing in the group at the time. Indeed, we have seen in the work of Wilner, how individuals of a certain type (which we have identified as "NF") will typically respond to group crisis by assuming new roles and enacting new visions that "revitalize" the stagnating group.

As we move to point E we step back from the process to observe it from a meta-perspective where we perceive larger cultural patterns. The exploration and understanding of the "revitalization processes" that we noticed at point D begin to attract our attention at point E. We study the dynamics of larger scale shifts in paradigm and are particularly interested in the dynamics of such social transformations in larger groups and in the culture as a whole. We are especially interested in investigating their occur in groups or cultures that are more or less free of the inhibitions imposed by artificial hierarchical structuring, for it is in these situations that we can study the natural confluence of individuals' processes and gain comprehension of the subtle dynamics of the complex reciprocal processes that we see occurring at point F.


At point F we have individuals who are involved in complex patterns of reciprocal interchange, much of which is occurring at unconscious levels that take full advantage of the individuals' advanced feeling functions -- their abilities to assess subtle changes in the socio-symbolic "field" of the group. Individuals at point F, through the experiences gained in unstructured interaction, have developed the personal skills required for what we might call socio-political improvisation. Consensus, at this level, is a series of temporary agreements, each emerging out of the improvisational interactions in the group. Here consensus is no longer limited (as it is at point D) to a situation in which people bring to a negotiation table prefabricated positions that are cast in stone. In so far as the group is free of individuals with hegemonous ulterior motives (persons interested in usurping control and asserting "power over" others) the consensus process at point F will be considerably more fluid. This is not to say that strongly maintained positions will not, or should not, occur. But even when, at point F, a group in the consensus mode finds itself hopelessly deadlocked it is, at the very least, capable of acknowledging its departures from consensus mode and is not tempted to try to justify such failures by conceiving of whatever decision making practice to which it reverts (e.g.. majority rule) as ethically superior or of greater legitimacy or validity.

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At point G, a kind of "ideal" in consensus processing occurs. The larger culture to which the group belongs will deeply embody the principles of individual autonomy and collaborative actualization. Such a culture will not only permit, but encourage, a situation in which new compensatory paradigms "intuitively" arise in answer to whatever novel problems historically or ecologically arise, threatening group survival or cohesion. The incorporation of consensus process at such a fundamental cultural level in society would manifest in a continual dialectical stream of compensatory paradigms and social revitalizations. Unhampered by hegemonous hierarchy, it would be flexible and directly responsive to individuals in a myriad of ways that our present non-democratic society is simply incapable of doing.

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1. In the first half of this century Jacob Moreno (1944) pioneered methods for measuring and diagramming the participation of individuals in a group, opening the field that he called "sociometry". Theodore Adorno (1950) developed the "f-scale" for measuring authoritarian personality types. We might take these scientific methodologies as starting places for the development of the two scales we have in mind.
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2. Murray Bookchin. "The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism". Democracy & Nature. Vol. 3, No. 2 -- Issue 8 (1995). pp. 5-9.
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3. Slater. (1991). p. 154.
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