The Failure of Consensus

One of the common events taking place at the various occupations throughout the country are general assemblies. These general assemblies are basically a collectivist’s wet dream come true. As an individualist I look at them as completely unproductive wastes of time and after sitting through a couple I still hold that belief. Apparently I’m not the only one:

For the past three hours the crowd had been debating the creation of a new working group called Urban Youth. The process was laborious: While the facilitator had a microphone, it didn’t carry far, and each comment had to be repeated through Occupy’s elaborate Human Microphone system. The process was reminiscent of New England bureaucracy and legislative officialdom, procedures I’ve often panned as a local. Things were said like: “We need to see everyone’s hands in the air, because if we don’t have a quorum of people voting it won’t be considered consensus.”

At one point it looked like a decision was about to be reached. After hours of legislative meandering, the facilitator’s excitement was palpable. “Are there any points of information? No points of information. How about strong objections? I’m not seeing any strong objections. Are there any friendly amendments?” There was a long pause. An individual raised his hand, which indicated an amendment proposal. A moan rumbled through the crowd. The facilitator chuckled. “This is democracy,” he said. “Everyone has a voice.” The crowd began to cheer. “This is why we do this. Because we all have a voice!” You could feel the sense of frustration, of fatigue giving way to elation. I thought: Perhaps the essence of democracy is somehow entwined with the procedural humdrum of a Cambridge zoning board.

The biggest failures of general assemblies is the fact everything must be decided, and I mean everything. Each general assembly I viewed started with a discussion on how votes were going to be handled for that general assembly. I shit you not, an hour was spent discussing a vote on how voting was going to be done. These discussions usually revolved around whether or not 99% agreement was truly consensus or if 100% of the people present had to agree on everything.

Have you ever been in a meeting where 100% of the participants had to agree on something? If you have then you understand the impossibility of such a requirement. Have you ever stopped to wonder why a huge majority of businesses usually have a set hierarchy of power and why the military doesn’t both worrying about getting consensus of soldiers? It’s because getting such consensus takes for-fucking-ever.

Even apparently minor topics of discussion can take hours to debate before consensus within the group is reached. Ask a group of friends where you should go to eat sometimes, you won’t be out the door for an hour in all likelihood. The requirement of consensus is what ultimately paralyzes collectivist movements. Those of us who are individualists have it much easier because we simply say, “Hey I’m going to go do this, if you want to join me you’re welcome to and if you don’t that’s fine.” The only opinion an individualist worries about is his or her own and that’s why they can get things done (you can bet Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and most other successful people never asked for consensus of those they were working with before doing their thing).

During the general assemblies I bore witness to you could see fatigue spreading throughout the attendees fairly quickly. Consensus was often reach simply because those who opposed whatever measure was being put forth were sick of debating and wanted to move on so they voted in favor. While the organizers and collectivists praised this democracy in action my friends and I simply stood there with small smiles as we watched the biggest failure of collectivism in action. After all if we wanted to do something we never worry about group consensus, we just go do whatever the Hell we want to go do.

Thankfully there is no way to make people abide by the decisions of those general assemblies. If everybody had to abide by the decisions of the entire group nothing would get done.