In my report on the Occupy Richmond assembly, I discussed the shortcomings of the consensus model versus majority rule. I think I came down too hard on the consensus model at the time of its writing. I shared the frustration of the assembly that its business was held up by commitment to a principle – the 90% threshold – that they had not chosen for themselves. But the consensus model has a very sensible background, and an appropriate application. However, there are simply limitations to the human capacity for the extended reasoning that consensus requires. Let’s take a look.
The fundamental problem of political philosophy is, to quote Rousseau from book I, chapter 6, of the Social Contract: “to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” Strangely enough, Rousseau did not consider himself a democrat, but nevertheless he believed that only the assembly of the people could grant legitimacy to the acts of any organ» , whether that organ was a monarchy, or aristocracy, or democracy. Rousseau advocated an ‘elective’ aristocracy, by the way, thinking that elections would produce a government of the wisest men. That hypothesis has been defeated, I think. In any case, what we would call democracy is the solution to the fundamental problem of political philosophy because “obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty” (book I, chapter 8).
From this claim it is reasonable to conclude that one ought not to submit to any law that does not have a unanimous consent. How then can we live by laws passed by the majority?» Rousseau’s answer is that the majority is always correct about constitutes the “general will,” which I have discussed before. The short version is that the majority is always right about the general will of the community is. I suggested in that linked article that the aim of the general will is the freedom of each of its associates, and thus the decisions of the majority are correct in the sense that the law that had been passed is what the majority of individuals is going to do.
But I have a much less philosophical and more practical answer that I suggested in my previous post on Occupy Richmond. We must make concessions to the practical considerations of the sort of animal that we are. Consensus is desirable for the most important decisions, including the determination of procedure and process and other constitutive features of an assembly, as well as any issue that the majority might think requires consensus. Consensus works well in small groups, and is therefore practically appropriate for committees, councils, and working groups. But to ask an assembly to make every decision by consensus is going to wear people down. People are subject to cognitive limitations, like the “decision fatigue” that I mentioned, that make extended deliberations arduous. The momentum of a revolution is already a fragile thing, and popular energy must be conserved.
It’s the procedures for a clear and precise deliberation that are really important, in which every side of any proposal is articulated. This is why breaking into small committees is so important. Deliberation functions as a process of interpersonal transformation, in which a diverse people can come to understand one another through having to actually face someone from a different background. If the deliberative procedures are strong enough, then the minority in a decision will respect the legitimacy of the majority decision. I’m speaking empirically (and broadly) here, from the various research in deliberation from people like James Fishkin.
In any case, both consensus and majority decision have a role in collective decision-making. The more vital and fundamental the decision, or the smaller the group, the closer to consensus we may desire the decision. But practical considerations, the way that human beings are actually limited, requires that most of the minor decisions that assemblies make ought to be through majority. Proper procedures for deliberation will ensure that the minority will not be aggrieved.