Horizontality and Consensus: Group Decision Making for a True Democracy at the

by Tom Ellis

WASHINGTON, DC: 50,000 of us marched on Washington DC on Sunday, February 17, 2013, the largest climate demonstration yet, called “Forward on the Climate.” As Reverand Yearwood, who MCed the event said “ 50 years ago was very important, right here, Dr. Martin King marched. We marched for jobs and food. We marched for Equality. ….We all came together as humanity. But guess what? This rally 50 years later is as important or more important because, as they were fighting for Equality, We are fighting for Existence.”

Protesters came from all over the Northeast, Appalachia, the Midwest, Alaska and Canada to say NO to the Keystone Pipeline and its threat of oil spills, NO to mountaintop removal and the childhood cancer rate escalation surrounding those mines and NO to an further development of Fracking (hydraulic fracturing of shale for natural gas.)

For me, this was a real inspiration, a reminder that we are not alone in this struggle. Conversing with some of the 300 Fossil Free Appalachian State students, or discussing the Pipeline with folks in Nebraska, or talking to Mount Holyoke students and Binghamton residents or riding with Skidmore students and Vermont Wobblies, my spirit was lifted by their strength and resolve.

We are reaching a consensus as Americans. Our energy usage is the problem and our responsibility is the solution. We are responsible for our lifestyle choices, but perhaps even more responsible to stop the defilement of the environment by the fossil fuel industry. If we do not halt this last frenzied attempt to suck the last lethal greenhouse gas generating fuel from the ground, we are surely sunk.

I am looking forward to witnessing increasing action all over this country in defense of the atmosphere, the web of life and the future. I am looking forward to marching and laboring side by side with all my fellow beings determined to create a sustainable world.

ALBANY: A small group heard 24-year-old Dan Platt discuss Horizontality and Consensus: Group Decision Making for a True Democracy at the March 21 SPB dinner at the Westminster Presbyterian Church. 

Dan, a veteran of the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Albany groups, compared and contrasted top-down and consensus decision making processes. He defined horizontality as a “flat structure for the equitable distribution of management … participation and exchange between individuals for a larger group outcome.”

During the economic meltdown in Argentina of 2001, he said many workers experimented with this non-hierarchical decision making process.   Horizontality allows for “personal autonomy within a framework of social equality”  and is a form of direct democracy.

In a traditional or vertical decision making structure, the boss(es) control the process, limit the options, and decisions are top-down, often with little or no input percolating up from those impacted by the decisions.

In a horizontal decision making structure, everyone is on the same level.  A strong facilitator often guides the process without controlling it, keeps the process functioning efficiently, includes everyone, and avoids wasting time.

Dan used a common example of cooperative decision: a group deciding on which restaurant to eat at.   In some cases, all will agree and every one’s needs are met.   A second option is the group may follow the suggestion of one person – perhaps a strong leader, an easy process.   Another alternative is to vote with the majority deciding, a process that leaves many unsatisfied.   Dan said consensus and voting have nothing in common.   A fourth option is the group may take the time necessary to select a restaurant that meets every one’s needs.

Dan mentioned three benefits of reaching consensus decisions: the decisions are better, it is non-violent, and this process gets us to true democracy. He explained that consensus based societies are and were common among rural peoples who live(d) outside the industrialized world [such as indigenous peoples].

In the United States, consensus based groups have a long history including the Quakers.   During the 1960s and 1970s  the New Left and feminist movements utilized it.  The direct action groups organized in the late 1990s to oppose the World Trade Organization, are a third example . Most recently, the New York City General Assembly that initiated the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) utilized horizontal decision making.

Dan said consensus works best in groups of ten or less and becomes very difficult with large groups, especially groups of 100 or more. An example of it not working occurred on the day after the NYC police department expelled OWS from Zuccotti Park.  Forty OWS people spent six hours discussing a visions and goals document, never getting beyond the first paragraph, and leaving all involved angry and frustrated.

He said consensus is a process that can be learned via practicing it.   He concluded saying that with horizontality, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He ended his lecture with two graphics: the first with good governance as the hub of a wheel and accountable, transparent, responsive, equitable and inclusive, efficient and effective, follows the rule of law, participatory, and consensus oriented the eight spokes. The second graphic was a circle with arrows leading from justice to democracy to fairness to justice, etc.

During the discussion, Tom Heckman said OWS came in response to a realization that politicians were (are) not dealing with the important issues and that their victims could challenge them and change the national conversation.   He said this is an ongoing project.

Lou Ismay urged people to cease using words such as socialism and anarchy that can be easily confused and misused by our adversaries.

Dan said OWS mismanaged its money in a big way by allowing people who were not trustworthy to handle the funds, although OWS did not know they were untrustworthy in part because OWS did not know each other well; OWS formed very quickly and the organizers never envisioned such quick success or the vast quantities of monies that would suddenly flow in.

Published in May/June 2013 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter