Consensus, keeping it small and federating

Dave – the editor

This post was first published on our sister blog, Alternative Estuary. It’s a follow up to this post: You won’t change the world if you’re not organised! which was published towards the end of 2020 as part of an occasional series on organising.

Anyone who’s ever met us at a fair or an event will see that as a group, we’ve all got a fair few years on the clock as activists. All of us come from differing activist backgrounds and we all bring our experiences of those to the table, not just in terms of planning what we do but also to guide us when advising and supporting other groups. Having said this, we realise that we can still learn from the experiences of other groups.

One lesson all of us have learnt over the decades is that consensus is vital in taking a project forward. Some of us have had the dubious experience of being involved in groups and projects that turn out to be little more than an extension of someone’s ego. Trust us when we say that this is not the way forward for any project that’s intended to have a long term future and to make a real difference. It’s not just because we’re anarchists that we don’t like the power dynamics of working under a leader who may well have an inspiring vision but is reluctant to listen to new ideas and suggestions. It’s because after a while, anyone with any degree of self respect will not tolerate their ideas for moving things forwards or solving a problem being dismissed. The group/project will inevitably implode…

We’ve published this list of resources on consensus and involvement from Seeds for Change before but make no apology for publishing it again:

Anarchic Agreements

A Short Guide to Active Listening

A Short Guide to Making Changes in your Group

Checklist for Encouraging People (to Be (and Stay) Involved in Your Group)

Consensus Decision Making – Short guide

Consensus Decision Making – Long guide

Effective groups

Working with Conflict in our Groups: a guide for grassroots activists

Keeping it small. This isn’t us being fluffy – it’s because small is manageable. Having a project that’s ‘manageable’ isn’t a cop out because we want an easy life. It’s because the bigger a project gets, more time inevitably has to be spent on running it as opposed to actually getting stuff done. This is why, as we’ve written before, it’s worth spending time on getting the structure of a group/project right at the outset so things run smoothly. A key part of that is transparency and accountability towards each other. The bigger a project gets, the harder it is to maintain accountability and that can lead to the emergence of a clique who think they alone have the right to run things while keeping other volunteers at arms length. Cliques, like self appointed leaders, are bad news…

As a bit of an aside, it’s important to differentiate between someone with dubious leadership ambitions on the one hand and on the other, someone with genuine expertise and experience in a particular area. While I know a fair bit about producing and distributing propaganda, when it comes to erecting a poly-tunnel, I’m not going to pretend I know how to do it because I don’t! I will happily defer to someone who has had experience of and success with erecting them and follow their guidance.

Back to keeping it small…it can’t always be done! If a project on one site is attracting a lot of volunteers/activists, it may be worth setting up a range of work groups with various specialities whose members are accountable to each other. Each group can then pick a delegate to send along to any meetings discussing the project as a whole. This ensures transparency and accountability are maintained and everyone involved feels they have an equal stake in the project.

If the idea behind a project is so inspiring that people in other locations want to try it where they are, that’s great. However, running a geographically dispersed project from the original location is going to create a hierarchy and inevitably a power imbalance. A better way of managing this would be franchising the idea out on a federated basis so all the locations have full equality with each other and there’s no hierarchy. As and when the different locations need to meet up to exchange experiences, ideas and move the project forward, they can send delegates to any meetings that are required.

The reason we’re putting our thoughts out on group/project organisation is because as far as is possible, we want these projects as working examples of the kind of society we’re striving for. That’s one in which the ultimate authority is yourself with decisions being reached collectively on the basis of consensus. In the dysfunctional, dystopian world we currently have to endure, every day we can see the havoc and misery that get unleashed by leaders and rulers… If we’re serious about building the new world we want, we need to get rid of leaders and any wannabe leaders!

None of this is going to be easy. Mistakes will be made and lessons will be learnt – some more painfully than others. Everything we do as activists is a learning curve. None of us are perfect. However, there are things we can and should be doing to build the new world we want from the grassroots upwards. It’s in this spirit we’re putting out these pieces to add to the discussion about how we go forwards, to learn from each others experiences and to be inspired by each others ideas.

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