Anti-democratic values: Making the case for consensus

In this essay written for the June C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium, Derek Wittorff argues that the left’s focus on democracy and a falling off of interest in consensus-based approaches is short-sighted, and pushes even anarchists down paths of hierarchical control.

Democracy: the universal war cry of justice. We’re told by the left — both moderate and radical — that all socio-political problems almost always arise from a pure lack of democracy. We’re told all social manifestations of authority, inequality, and hierarchy require democracy as a political solution. If there happens to be some kind of democracy in a society, and there remains the problem of hierarchy, the problem is always attributed to there not being direct democracy, or that there isn’t free association between individuals and collectives. Either representatives of an indirect democracy are corrupting the very function of the system, and acting in their own personal interests (which is generally how republican systems devolve into a plutocracy), or the freedom of others to leave the collective if they don’t like it, ironically the “like it or leave it” motto usually held by conservatives when addressing political dissidents and immigrants, isn’t being upheld and enforced.

Most libertarian socialists tend to believe that freedom of association, or decentralism, is a cornerstone of a well-functioning democracy. They believe that individuals must first consent to the democratic decision-making of the collective by association, and that the potential choice to disassociate rules out the imposition of such majoritarian decision-making on the minority. At first glance, this appears to be fairly reasonable and consistent with libertarian socialist criticisms of the State. However, what is grossly overlooked are the internal dynamics of democracy and fundamental inquiry as to whether democratic organizing principles per se are libertarian and egalitarian in nature. Does freedom of association institutionally prevent the majority forcibly expropriating the power of the minority? Is democracy technically anarchist?

Anarchy, by definition, means “no rulers” or self-rulership in the most distributed sense: rule of each by each (“each” according to anarchist sociology includes both collectives and individual persons). It is the political opposition to all social hierarchy and centralized authority. Democracy is by definition “rule of commoners” which is assumed to be personified by the majority (i.e. rule of all by the majority). I believe that these two forms of decision-making are irreconcilable.

The English Civil War — two sets of The People

Anarchist sociology (adhering to Proudhonist theories of individual sovereignty, collective force, social contract, and federation) while being heavily influenced by classical liberal notions of free association, ultimately went further in its social analysis to conclude that “the people” was too general a concept and didn’t involve enough individual and collective sovereignty necessary for freedom from the State. Collectives and persons may be individual products of “the people” as this monolithic concept of the masses, but recognizing the autonomy of each to determine how best to compose “the people” was key in the formulation of anarchist notions of justice, equality, liberty, freedom, peace etc. The liberal notion of “the people” can just as easily include a minority of politicians, military personnel, and capitalists as much as it attempts to exclude them, in the name of granting commoners power, because of failed liberal institutional analysis of State and Capital. As Proudhon critiqued in Solutions to the Social Problem:


The sovereignty of the nation is the first principle of both monarchists and democrats. Listen to the echo that reaches us from the North: on the one hand, there is a despotic king who invokes national traditions, that is, the will of the People expressed and confirmed over the centuries. On the other hand, there are subjects in the revolt who maintain that the People no longer think what they formerly did and who ask that the People be consulted. Who then shows here a better understanding of the People? The monarchs who believe that their thinking is immutable, or the citizens who suppose them to be versatile? And when you say the contradiction is resolved by progress, meaning that the People go through various phases before arriving at the same idea, you only avoid the problem: who will decide what is progress and what is regression? Therefore, I ask as Rousseau did: “If the People have spoken, why have I heard nothing?”

Anarchism seemingly radicalized the concepts of free association and decentralization to its logical extreme and therefore destroyed the theoretical legitimacy of a liberal democratic State.

Many anarchists believe, particularly after the hegemonization of anarchist communism after the Black International, that anarchy (rule of each by each) was best expressed by communism (rule of all by all), and that some form of democracy is de facto necessary to synthesize both communism and anarchism. However, the practice of communism, if not politically consistent with anarchism, may conflict with anyone’s conception of liberty, equality, freedom, unity etc. That’s why I believe that democratic measures fail to reconcile the two philosophies. Not everyone could have access to the capital of everyone else at any given time. There would be unresolvable conflicts that only a bureaucratic ruling class, practically absolved from all blowback of its imposing statecraft, could try to solve by forcing others to share and be subordinated to the Collective Democratic Will. Nonetheless, as all anarchists know, that process of centralization institutionalizes unresolvable social conflicts that inevitably ends in war. Authoritarian communism has proven a historical and ethical failure.

Communism vs decentralism

In my opinion, there seems to be a theoretical antagonism between the idea of communism and decentralism, particularly if democracy is the governing principle aimed at developing some kind of synthesis. To give anarchist communists some credit, not all support democracy, and even those that do maintain a belief that this community would be approximated by means of federalism. “Full communism” is indeed an ideal that cannot be immediately and perfectly attained, and democratically operated collectives would eventually federate to and break down conventional barriers to access between collectives to best attain it. I criticize this practice based on the topic of this paper.

Simply put, democratically operated collectives wouldn’t be able to federate in a way that destroys all barriers to access because the power dynamics of democracy internal to a collective maintain a different set of barriers to access. Namely, the barriers to access would be drawn between the activity and resources of the minority and the majority when a certain proposal is adopted, a given direction solidified, and a collective goal determined. This is essentially systemic powerlessness, a distinct form of oppression, and federating those systems institutionalizes the barriers on a massive scale to the virtual effect of a State. Freedom of association is not a remedy for power dynamics internal to a collective; it is only a remedy for those power dynamics shared between collectives. Free consent, or giving permission to be ruled, is not the same as mutually agreeing upon how to rule ourselves, or freely choosing to rule oneself. Majoritarianism is hierarchical and antithetical to anarchy, and no amount of decentralization can change that.

It seems that the anarchist notion of radical decentralization may have delegitimized the idea of the liberal democratic State, but it didn’t necessarily go so far as to delegitimize the idea of democracy in our minds altogether. Maybe our ideas of decentralization weren’t radical enough: an idea I’ll explore later in this piece. Even in the absence of the State — a centralized monopoly on oppressive violence — the idea that freedom of consent alone necessarily presents the greatest degree of anarchy within a democratically operated collective is totally absurd.

Ironically, this argument sounds like the “anarcho-capitalist” narrative that capitalist hierarchies are fully capable of being anarchist if they are not enforced as the dominant mode of organization by the State. This narrative holds that competition (i.e. free association with some capitalist connotations) on the free market ensures that no one would be forced to join a business through some kind of state, and that this somehow means that absolute authority of the capitalist over their wage-laborers, in the specific context of that capitalist business, or within the territorial monopoly on oppressive and violent force of the capitalist’s property, is technically anarchist. Nevermind whether competition eventually dissolves capitalist businesses because of economic inefficiencies; this is clearly wrong on a political level, because hierarchy exists within that specific context of the business and property. No hierarchy can be a logically professed option, or conscious practice, of anarchist philosophy because hierarchy and anarchy are not reconcilable.

Libertarian socialists recognize this, and criticize “anarcho-capitalists” on this front. However, I’ve found that certain libertarian socialists are incapable of applying this same logic to their own mode of decision-making. Even without the oppression of violence, democracy suffers from the oppression of powerlessness that prohibits and expropriates the power of each and all to determine the specific combination of labor, capital, and talents that is decidedly best for each and all. That powerlessness may reinforce the need for other kinds of oppression such as violence, exploitation, cultural imperialism, marginalization, etc.

When backed into this corner, libertarian socialists of all kinds will argue that democracy is less hierarchical than a capitalist business, and that even the worst cases of a 51-49% margin are still less unilateral than a capitalist doing anything they want without the say of their workers. This may be true. However, a person can be on the losing side of a vote 100% of the time. This might not be a normalcy, but this is a possibility inherent to democracy. Even if not everyone is a member of the minority, the minority is ruled by a majority. Whatever the circumstances may be, this is a socio-political hierarchy, and the degree of unilaterality doesn’t change that. The vote of the minority might be organizationally involved but their vote has had no effectual impact on the operation of the group when the majority forms. Obviously, most people won’t be on the losing side of the vote all the time, but since it surely happens some of the time it reveals that direct democracy isn’t so much the dissolution of social hierarchy as the continuous shifting and alternation of who composes the majoritarian hierarchy.

This kind of formal hierarchy ultimately reinforces informal power dynamics as well. People who are normally on the winning side of a vote can develop their own subgroup, forming a majoritarian tendency that antagonizes the minority voters to follow their rule. There can be an informal power dynamic of silencing the dissent of those who have an equal vote. Proposals may not even reach the table if some folks don’t feel empowered enough to propose them in the first place because some winning majority and collective direction has been normalized. This reveals a false assumption that votes necessarily indicate the full participation of everyone because there’s more to decision-making than voting on proposals that were informally pre-constructed by the majority. This is often how workers in capitalist workplaces forget how economy functions for each individual, which reinforces the outrageous belief that the organization they’re employed in is just a social body that operates for the sake of itself separately from the interests of each of those within that “unity collective”. Democracy doesn’t appear to fully recognize and change that condition. Many radicals will scoff at this point and tell me that if someone doesn’t like the group’s direction, they can find another one they do like, or essentially just bite the bullet and internalize the costs of the majority’s decisions for the sake of collective action. They defect to the free association argument. But like I’ve said, consenting to a mode of decision-making does not change the very structural nature of that decision-making process per se.

Many are probably wondering what I propose for decision-making in the context of collective action. Surely anarchy as the “rule of each by each” cannot be individualist in the sense of atomizing each person, as if they’re isolated beings! It’s obvious that each individual is born from a social context with complex relations that progressively develop their personhood, conditions, groups, organizational forms, etc. The alternative would be the flawed (and indeed it is) Crusoe economics of Austrian and classical political economy!

Well, I propose consensus

There are probably cries of opposition from all directions: “consensus doesn’t work in large groups,” “it takes too much time and energy to develop consensus on every decision,” “consensus suffers from the same informal power dynamics of a core group that you mention about democracy,” and more. In reality there are many forms of consensus — many of which are problematic — but I think that some forms are very broadly applicable to most economic functions of a society where politics is not the institutionalization of oppression, or the exercising of power and manipulation, but rather the mutual process of liberation and freedom. To interject here, an individual and federal model of consensus-based groups also outlines a conceptual distinction between historical notions of anarchist decentralism/federalism (often involving democratically elected delegates of groups and regional federations up to international congresses) for a potentially more theoretically coherent notion of distributism, illustrated here:

That being said, consensus processes can become hierarchical, and to that extent of course antithetical to anarchy, but I think there is fundamentally more room for experimentation. Let’s imagine that an informal power dynamic within a consensus-based group practically forms and subordinates either a minority or majority to the will of authoritarians, or forcibly pushes certain individuals out of the association by the barriers to access created by its social hierarchy: for example, because of some kind of white toxic masculinity discouraging the participation and membership of women and POC. At least this power dynamic is not being crystallized as it would be under the mechanisms and structure of some democracy! Not all consensus models practically become hierarchical, which cannot be said about democracy. That being said, small affinity groups can easily be inclusive and reach consensus without the necessity of formal structures preventing conflicts from breaking down communication, goals, or agreements on proposals. Individuals and even subgroups can break off from the initial group to pursue their own goals. This breaks down the very notion of formal organization, and makes informal organization an obviously important tool for anarchists. However, when certain goals require large-scale organization, and no matter the goal we do not want to sacrifice our principled support for anarchy, I propose a specific form of consensus known as “formal values-based consensus”, or “formal consensus.” This was most notably adopted by Food Not Bombs4: arguably the largest and most effective anarchist project in recent history.

A few years back I had the pleasure of meeting C.T. Butler (a cofounder of Food Not Bombs) who formulated the formal consensus model in his book “On Conflict and Consensus”5. We discussed the history of Food Not Bombs, the common problems identified with various consensus models (such as the Quaker model used by 1970’s anti-nuclear activists and David Graebers “modified consensus” which was often used during the Occupy movement), and the dimensions of his model and how it attempted to resolve those problems. The central problem that he found in most consensus-based groups, which has become the common critique among proponents of direct democracy, is the lack of participation that creates a core group and system of minority rule. This is largely caused by the ability of any one person to block a proposal, coupled with the group’s value for unanimity often promoting discussion but not resolving to consensus. There’s also the problem of repressing certain conflicts, which causes problems down the road. This institutionalizes conflict, and creates an environment of exclusiveness, competition and secrecy. C.T.’s solution was to create more procedural mechanisms designed to facilitate the greatest amount of participation, promote extreme clarity on the unified collective goal, and foster agreement on new proposals. The more effective these mechanisms, the greater the amount of participation there would be, therefore ensuring the horizontal, inclusive, transparent, and effective nature of the process. I won’t go through all the details, so here’s a depiction of how the process works:

It may seem fairly complex, but I won’t argue too much about the details here. Not coincidentally, oftentimes the disadvantage to this model is having everyone understand the process and underlying agreements of the organization (i.e. high compliance costs and barriers to entry). I’ve made my criticism of democracy partially about internal barriers to entry/access, but those barriers are constructed by the hierarchy between the majority and minority. In the case of formal consensus, its barriers to entry are not the result of hierarchy, but instead the nature of self-management: at least self-management associated with the highly skilled workforce and complex division of labor of a large-organization. Formal consensus simply reveals the real costs of individual responsibility and self-management in large organizations. As anarchists, that’s a cost we’d be willing to pay for freedom. And why complain? The costs are arguably less than a democracy with its institutionalization of conflict, exploitation of the minority, lack of freedom, and other issues. Down with democracy!

This essay was first released at under a Creative Commons license.

Leave a Reply