“Trading one superstition for another”

Should we really abandon consensus-based decision-making?

Filed under: Essays

by David Summerhays

My first thought on reading The Theology of Consensus by L. A. Kauffman—which recently appeared in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, and then reached a wider audience in Jacobin Magazine—is that I have rarely read an article so important, thoughtful, and well-researched that nonetheless does little more than trade one superstition for another. The concerns she raises are critical and seldom discussed yet the author seemingly fails a test of basic critical thinking: she never asks if the problem she deftly analyzes might be pandemic. That is the fatal flaw of Kauffman’s well-researched article.


The Good

Kauffman’s article begins by tracing the origins of consensus decision-making within activist circles to two Quakers in the 1970s who adapted the practice from Quaker tradition.

Kauffman describes consensus decision-making as “a process in which groups come to agreement without voting… [G]roups that make decisions by consensus work to refine the plan until everyone finds it acceptable.” She adds that it “has been a central feature of direct action movements for nearly 40 years.”

The first crucial and thoughtful concern the author raises is the danger of moving practices from the religious realm to the secular realm. Kauffman points out that when this occurs such practices can become superstitious, a sort of magical technique, rather than the contemplative practice or symbol they were intended to be. I could not agree more with the author: taking religious material (e.g. myth) as a blueprint for practical action is a recipe for disaster. She writes: “Consensus can easily be derailed by those acting in bad faith. But it’s also a process that is ill-equipped to deal with disagreements that arise from competing interests rather than simple differences of opinion. The rosy idea embedded in the process that unity and agreement can always be found if a group is willing to discuss and modify a proposal sufficiently is magical thinking, divorced from the real-world rough-and-tumble of political negotiation.”

Indeed, Quakers do await a kind of “unity” to appear among us, but that unity is inseparable from the presence of the divine, so to speak. In other words, unity should be seen as a miracle. We could say symbolically that we have some control but not final say over unity happening. Unity is not literal, in the same way Christians should not read the Bible literally; nor should we expect unity to necessarily fully arise in reality, just as it would be unwise for a Christian such as my brother to hold his breath until Christ returns.

Any “faith” in consensus necessarily arising is indeed misplaced and would create quasi-magical expectations for consensus practice and occult its limitations. Like any superstition, this would lead to a lack of realism and therefore ineffective action that poorly serves the cause of justice. Rituals and prayer cannot replace thoughtful action. Nor can a superstitious view of consensus sustain hope and courage in the long-term. As superstitions are exposed, the only options are apathy, cynicism, or fanaticism.

Just as we must protest when an organized religion discourages us from acting on urgent social problems, Kauffman is right to call us to be just as critical and suspicious of superstition with regards to consensus. The symbolism concealed in these superstitions may provide necessary meaning and direction to our lives, and that is worth celebrating, but superstition as a plan for action does not ultimately serve the oppressed. Kauffman convincingly shows that superstitious understandings of consensus do exist within activist circles and do cause problems, even if she perhaps exaggerates how widespread the problem is.

The second concern the author raises is even more important: consensus process is an expression of middle-class, white culture and can be alienating to others. I could hardly agree more when Kauffman notes:

“[The consensus] tradition has been imbued with whiteness. The Clamshell Alliance was, after all, an overwhelmingly white organization, bringing together white residents of the New Hampshire seacoast with white Quakers and an array of mostly white radicals from Boston and beyond for action in a white rural region…

“Time and again, activists of color found the use of consensus in majority-white direct action circles to be alienating and off-putting, and white activists’ reverent insistence on the necessity and superiority of the process has exacerbated difficulties in multiracial collaboration and alliance-building.”

When white activists insist on decision-making practices that are a profound expression of white, middle-class culture, a kind of white supremacy results—a white supremacy that endlessly claims to stand for racial justice while viewing its own culture as universally valid and therefore refusing to negotiate its customs. This leads to strained relationships and low motivation for cooperation.

Kauffman’s critique of consensus correctly states, moreover, that this practice does not remove all lines of privilege. It favours people with the time, energy, and patience to deal with a consensus process. Particularly if these processes are poorly facilitated, they can be lengthy and draining.

Nonetheless, as a Quaker and environmental organizer, there are some less impressive parts of this article.


The Bad

Something akin to consensus is a frequent practice in many North American aboriginal cultures (cf. the Iroquois Confederation). Even as a Quaker, I learned about consensus in a restorative justice training, heavily inspired by aboriginal cultures. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the development of consensus in activist culture was influenced by a few centuries of cohabiting North America with aboriginal peoples. Moreover, anarchists have been inspired by Quakers since the 19th century, so although I have not analyzed the author’s source material, it seems unlikely that consensus was helicoptered in—out of nowhere—by two Quakers in the 1970s as Kauffman claims.

The author also doesn’t mention that consensus seems to have been a reaction against relatively top-heavy organizing of the 1960s that, of course, also favoured people with privilege. The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King reminded activists that charismatic organizing can be stopped cold by lopping off the heads of leaders and offending organizations. The challenges involved in organizing for justice in our world are immense. So although it is important to know the limitations of consensus, Kauffman’s article would have been much stronger if it included any reason to believe that the difficulties many experience when practicing consensus are inherent to consensus rather than inherent in the difficult nature of the problems activists seek to solve through consensus.

The author also claims that “better practices” than consensus exist but did not give any examples—which was unfair and I thought suspicious. She accuses consensus of magical thinking, but it would be magical thinking on her part if she believes that any quick-fix replacement for consensus will magically generate an egalitarian, multi-cultural revolution, or even necessarily get us one step closer. It is impossible to evaluate her claim that better practices exist without an example. This omission is fundamental, diminishing the value of her article, which is excellent in so many ways.

The activists I work with know that consensus isn’t magic. Nor have I been to many consensus sessions (or Quaker meetings) that lasted 4-8 hours… this concern does not seem entirely insurmountable and it is obvious that consensus benefits from training and reflection.

In addition, while her exposition of superstition inherent in consensus is excellent, her rejection of consensus-process generally seems exaggerated and polemical. It is quite possible to have a successful and efficient consensus process that has zero expectations of “unity” arising by magic. As Kauffman notes, consensus would be ill-advised when parties have differing material interests or a power imbalance (e.g. divorce proceedings in cases of domestic violence). But consensus is used every day, quite frequently to everyone’s satisfaction. My experience is that usually it works just fine, particularly in situations of relatively low diversity of opinion or when well-facilitated.

Nor have I met many people who seemed to have the dogmatic attachment to consensus the author seems to think is widespread. The activists I work with know that consensus isn’t magic. Nor have I been to many consensus sessions (or Quaker meetings) that lasted 4-8 hours. The long ones I can think of were, not surprisingly, poorly facilitated. Kauffman is correct that “consensus-specialists” can become arcane to outsiders, but this concern does not seem insurmountable and it is obvious that consensus benefits from training and reflection.

But let us move on to far larger problems.


Source: New Yorker

Source: New Yorker


The Ugly

Despite the misgivings above, I find the author makes a very interesting and plausible link between consensus and Quaker theology, but this raises the entire problem with the article: Kauffman is implying that every other activist practice besides consensus emanates from entirely secular and rational sources, having no religious roots and certainly no superstitions. She implies that it’s easy or even possible to find an activist practice that is free from the kinds of superstition and white culture brilliantly illustrated in her article. This assumption is fundamental to her article, for otherwise, if she was aware that activist practice was rife with superstition and almost inextricable from white culture, her article would simply be a baffling call for us to exchange one superstitious expression of white culture for another. Her implicit assumption is necessary for her article and it is wrong.

Kauffman has therefore put her finger on a whale of a problem: Enlightenment superstitions underlie a vast majority of leftist thought and activity. Enlightenment culture, the tragic bedrock of the radical left, is inextricable from white culture, and even white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.

We know that modern culture and activist culture in particular is filled with superstition and is a profound expression of white culture, and perhaps even white supremacy. Many historians, political scientists, and philosophers have already explored the problematic ways that ideals of democracy, freedom, equality, and even the modern project of “rationally remaking the world” are rooted in Christian myths, superstitious, and inextricable from those superstitions (cf. Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Schopenhauer, Paul Tillich, Charles Taylor, Adorno, etc.). They are equally inseparable from white culture. This work may not be well known and its implications for activist practice may be very little explored, but it is a solid and respected body of literature.

Kauffman has therefore put her finger on a whale of a problem: Enlightenment superstitions underlie a vast majority of leftist thought and activity. Enlightenment culture, the bedrock of the radical left, is inextricable from white culture, from superstition, and from white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.

To understand this, let’s take, for example, the Christian myth of the “end times,” the mythical events “after” the Last Judgment under the reign of Christ. In Christian theology, the mythical “end-times” remove the possibility for human reason to err and to sin but rather human reason is reunited with the ability to perfectly discern truth, justice, and love. Within this state of ecstasy, humanity could leave behind all symbol, ritual, and myth, freely discarding all its traditions, for they would no longer be necessary when God is “transparent” (symbolically speaking) to all through every bit of creation. Humanity would arrive at a fully Rational culture that is rich, inexhaustible, and totally liberated. A culture that is Rational would be universally valid, rather than particular and relative.

Although they did not say so explicitly, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, the intellectual founders of modern society, were in effect claiming that these “end-times” are nigh. The Enlightenment, with its optimism about the power of real-life reason to overcome error and selfishness, began a project of “rethinking everything,” a universal application of Reason. This is the modern project. They predicted that we have the power today to bring about the Kingdom of God. The coming of Reason would mean that the world’s cultures were unnecessary and could be discarded as part of a global (colonial) effort that was at first missionary before it was educative and liberatory. The European Christian traditions of white supremacist, cis-hetero-partriarchy were called Rational and universal; everything else was seen as inferior and irrational. “Liberation” and “education” has always meant some genuine liberation and genuine edification mixed with oppression and the undermining and destruction of traditions throughout the world. That is why the victims of this Enlightenment superstition have always primarily been the oppressed, be it through colonialism that sought to educate away other cultures or through a “liberation” that in fact ensures the domination of European tradition, e.g., the European economy or cultural norms.

It is therefore not easy to find any political ideal that is not drenched in this founding superstition of the Enlightenment, the confusion of Reason with reason.

For instance, the Enlightenment ideal of maximizing freedom (liberalism) makes no sense without the confusion of Reason with reason. When different actors are liberated to compete, freedom without Reason can just as easily lead to oppression and destruction as it can to harmony. Economic liberalism (commonly known as the ideal of capitalism) cannot be maintained without a faith that Reason will prevail once liberated. The same goes for social liberalism and even utopian anarchism: they depend on a faith in Harmony-through-freedom.

Many, when rejecting liberalism then turn to the Enlightenment ideal of a progressively more Rational state governed by “the People.” But meritocracy, linked to the ideals of democracy, equality, education, technology, objective science, and Rational policy, suffers the same problem: a faith in Progress as Reason begets greater Reason.

The problem of consensus is simply a subset of the superstition of Harmony arriving through the respectful and free competition of ideas, aided by Progressively more skillful facilitation and participation. Kauffman’s article seeks to “liberate” us from the hidden oppression of consensus or help us Progress to an improved practice. In other words, she trades one superstition for another. She correctly exposes one superstition but with seemingly zero awareness of how giant the problem is.

Kauffman’s article seeks to “liberate” us from the hidden oppression of consensus or help us Progress to an improved practice. In other words, she trades one superstition for another. She correctly exposes one superstition but with seemingly zero awareness of how giant the problem is.

It is as if she discovered dead the canary in a coal mine and suggested we replace the canary. In fact, we need to evacuate the mine before the fumes that killed the canary kill us. Certain understandings of consensus contain superstition, to be sure, but consensus-superstitions are only a tiny subset of Enlightenment superstition.

This leads us to Kauffman’s other point—that consensus contained white practices that were alienating to other races. We could make the exact same argument about the Enlightenment—that it took white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchal values and called them “Rational,” and therefore transcultural and universal. Any Enlightenment political ideal (freedom, democracy, Rational policy) contains some element of white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchy.

Dropping Enlightenment superstitions would be a gargantuan task for anyone and discarding one’s own culture is quite unlikely. The entirety of modern culture needs a radical reevaluation that keeps its truth but scraps its superstitions and supremacy, which is an enormously complex task.

The radical left needs a radical transformation. For the past century it has criticized liberalism but replaced it with the ideal of democracy (economic or political), which is inseparable from the superstition of Progress. But then it criticizes totalitarianism but replaces it with the ideal of liberalism, which is also inseparable from the superstition of Harmony-through-freedom.

In short, the radical left has been exchanging superstition for superstition for the past century but now we are stuck: socialism is widely viewed as an ideal that “doesn’t work” but liberalism is also an obvious failure. Now, nobody cares to listen to the radical left, and for good reason. This leads to articles such as Kauffman’s which correctly criticize current practice but are utterly unable to propose something free of superstition that is also equal to the massive problems of modernity.

What might this shift in the radical left look like? Although it would be out of the scope of this article to describe it in detail, we can look at how it would impact consensus. First of all, the shift needed would look nothing like what Kauffman proposes. Kauffman’s approach to consensus is typical of the Enlightenment: for her, practices involving superstitions are to be entirely dropped, since no symbol, myth, or ritual will be necessary in the Rational end-times, which apparently are nigh. Consensus for her is something to be entirely discarded. Certainly I agree with Kauffman that superstitions make a poor blueprint for practical action but superstitions do make excellent myths, symbols, and rituals—the type of meaning-making activity that gives order and direction to our lives and has the power to comfort us in difficult times in ways that literal language struggles to do. In the “meantime” we humans need myths, symbols, and rituals and so do activists. Communities, after all, are built on them. And a community of resistance, at least in my opinion, is precisely what we need.

The real solution to consensus, and for the radical left generally, is to explicitly transform superstitions into explicit rituals and symbols—rituals and symbols that express the ideals of white, middle-class culture. We must then affirm that many people need these symbols and defend them while firmly rejecting a purely literal understanding of them. We must equally reject white supremacy by affirming white symbols, ideals, and rituals as important to those who are moved by them but denying their universal validity.

Consensus needs to be finally recognized as having ritual elements, with its symbolic meanings expressed. Doing so clarifies that it is not only a blueprint for rational action but linked to meaning-making cultural activity through ritual and symbol. Saying it has ritual elements does not to deny that it also includes practical and technical function, in the same way that saying it has symbolic and metaphorical elements does not deny that it has literal elements. For instance, sitting in a circle symbolically expresses the white, Enlightenment ideal of equality but also practically arranges people so that they can hear and see each other. Seeking everyone’s opinion is a symbol for the kind of justice we seek to create within a world where billions simply don’t count, but also as practical within the goal of building power.

The superstitions that Kauffman mentions about consensus—that expecting Harmony to arise through “non-hierarchical space”—can be seen as a symbol for our shared ideals of liberation and caring for all of creation that we feel called to fight for. Although it would be utopian to expect such a world to ever come to pass, we are called in this moment to seize the opportunities around us to move toward such a world. Understanding the symbols and ritual involved in consensus is inextricable from rejecting any superstitious expectations about its results. No matter how perfect the world consensus symbolizes, consensus-practice will always be messy as a blueprint for rational action in the “meantime.”

Consensus needs to be affirmed as a beautiful and effective ritual of white culture, its history as appropriated from indigenous people must be recognized and thanks given. By recognizing consensus as an expression of white culture (and it is white culture now, even if the form was inspired by other cultures), a genuine negotiation of practices can happen when doing interracial or intercultural work. The intuitive appeal of consensus to white people—rooted in ritual and symbol—can finally be expressed humbly and without implicit white supremacy. Consensus would no longer be seen as Rational but rather white.

It’s a very worthwhile task to perform a religious analysis of modern culture and activist culture in particular. I’m glad to see the author doing it but she stopped about a light year short of finishing the job. I have rarely found an article that raises such important problems with such well-researched points that was so completely inadequate to the task of even beginning to resolve them. Yet I must say I am grateful for her very fruitful effort.

David Summerhays is a Quaker and environmental organizer who organizes community conversations and teaches piano.