Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Consensus, Hierarchy and the #Occupy Movement

A friend of mine posted this video on Facebook:

It explains the consensus process used by the Occupy Wall Street folks.

I lived in a cooperative house in college that relied on this process to make all decisions, so I am familiar with both the theory and the practice behind it. The basic notion, if you haven’t worked with consensus before, is that it is the only way to make decisions which affect an entire group in a way that allows everyone to express their opinion and agree to—or at least agree not to block—a particular decision.

Why does consensus appeal to people? It appeals because zero-sum decision making processes such as voting can often lead to an intense frustration and a concomitant sense of disempowerment. Just ask anyone who voted for Kerry in 2004. When Bush won and crowed about the “political capital” he had thereby gained, I was angered and disgusted. 44 million people can vote against you and, because 45 million voted for you, you can basically give the 44 million the finger? That’s just not right.

I have a deep sympathy for the ideal of consensus and, when you’ve actually made group decisions using that approach, you know how different the outcome can feel, especially when it’s not the outcome you initially desired.

Still, and I’m reflecting on why this might be, the one line from the video that stuck in my craw was this: “There is no hierarchy.”

What is hierarchy? Sometimes it means “order of rank” and implies a “chain of command,” as we find in the military. Justified in the name of efficiency, it can mean that those in the lower ranks must sometimes carry out bad or stupid decisions or face the consequences of their insubordination. (To be fair, it also means that those who make decisions are accountable to those above them in rank. The fact that the “higher ups” don’t seem to pay for their actions to the same degree as the rank and file frequently makes this aspect of hierarchy less than comforting).

Because, in theory, consensus allows “all voices to be heard,” you can avoid such abuses of power and, ideally, bad decisions.

The question is, though, does everyone deserve an opinion on every decision? Hierarchy’s answer is, “No” — in certain instances, some people have more of a right to influence a decision than others.

I agree with hierarchy on this front, though only when rank in the hierarchy is legitimately conferred. What do I mean by that?

If a group of people are building a bridge, I believe that engineers who understand design principles of load-bearing structures as well as the inherent strengths and weaknesses of various materials should have more influence over it’s construction than someone like myself who would be best suited to carrying stuff around the building site.

Similarly, if I’m on an airplane, I will leave the decision-making to licensed, experience pilots, rather than allowing the passengers to decide via consensus what will happen when.

In other words, when trying to accomplish something involving physical or temporal constraints and real risks, then I will defer to those whose knowledge and experience put them in a better position to assess risks and direct action.

The anti-hierarchical impulses of the #occupy movement are, I assume, driven in part by the fact that there are people in positions of authority who seem to have attained these positions solely based on the power of their wealth or the strength of their connections to those already in power. I do not believe that wealth or connections are a legitimate basis for an order of rank and, thus, too oppose this kind of illegitimate authority.

I also, however, believe that we should not reject any notion of hierarchy out of hand because, frankly, there are legitimate reasons for some to direct the actions of others. The problem, naturally, is coming to consensus on these legitimate reasons.

End Note

I found it telling when one young man in the video said, “I want us all to agree on something.” I think this wish is at the heart of the #occupy movement. People are hungry for a sense of reconciliation and unity. This is a natural human striving and one that has been frustrated of late by the seemingly intractable ideological conflicts here and abroad. It is a striving that will not be fulfilled, however, if we create a false sense of equality by suppressing legitimate differences via a dogmatic rejection of hierarchy in all its forms.

Category: Ethics, Uncategorized

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4 Responses

  1. kathy ziegler says:

    Thanks for this. I have the feeling that the reason consensus is appropriate right now is the empowered feeling it gives. Many have felt helpless in the face of money buying everything and all of the destruction in its wake.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Kathy.

    Society enters a stage of crisis when people believe they should have a say in what’s happening but feel shut out, or feel that, without money to back it up, they effectively have no voice at all.

  3. Jeanne Supin says:

    Really nice piece — thanks!

    When I teach consensus to companies I stress the differences between sharing your interest & being heard (which is so important) versus holding onto your opinion for dear life. Opinions are just opinions — they don’t define us, and we should allow them (especially our own) to be fluid & flexible, appropriately deferring sometimes – as you nicely describe – to more informed or skilled opinions than our own.
    It’s even true in traditional Robert’s Rules of Order gigs: don’t cast your vote for the person that parrots your opinion (especially if you honestly don’t know much about public policy) – instead vote for folks you believe will govern with integrity, honesty and deep knowledge about how to handle current issues. Opinions run amok can be so dangerous.

  4. admin says:

    I appreciate that comment Jeanne.

    I absolutely agree that, whether practicing consensus or just working in a large organization, people need to have the presence of mind to understand when they are allowing emotions and attachment to their own opinions (ego, in other words) get in the way of recognizing the ability, insight or experience of others. At the same time, you also need to have the courage of your convictions and, when you know you’re right, make a stand.