A commentary on Dave Pollard:
Like facilitation, consensus decision-making is a capacity that can be learned, but one that must be practiced over a lifetime. We owe it to ourselves, our fellow humans and to future generations to get better at it, and start using it in every aspect of our lives. Nothing less than the future of our planet is at stake.
I regularly follow the material posted by Dave Pollard on his blog “How to Save the World”. It’s an interesting blog, but it takes a very different approach than we are taking at the P2P Foundation.
Dave’s approach seems to me evidence of a gnostic and dualistic mindset. I feel I can recognize this because I was once a member of a gnostic-dualistic movement myself, and in the end found their metaphysics unacceptable. In short, this world was not created by any good creator, but by an evil one, and it is illusory to change the existing world, which is evil by definition. Instead, those who know have to prepare their ‘departure’ from the current world, preparing for their eventual transit.
While we agree that there is a lot of things that are ‘fundamentally wrong’ with our current civilisation,
and in fact with civilisation itself, as it is synomym for a class-based society, more and more it seems that David Pollard takes the attitude that there is really nothing that can be done about, because it is an expression of human evil, which is in-born, or at least his point is that the process of civilisation has genetically selected for the evil parts of humanity to become prevalent. Therefore, ‘salvation’ is the apanage of the select few who understand this, who know there is no hope within the present, but who can already prepare for the future. And that future is nothing else than the collapse of civilisation as such. Not “a” civilisation, but civilisation. And therefore this post-Peak oil period must inevitably represent some kind of similarity with pre-civilisational structures. David therefore expects a collapse, which is possible in my view, but not certain, and a disaggregation. My vision is that of keeping open the possibility of an change to a higher level of complexity, that can keep intact most of the achievements of civilisation, which I refuse to see as totally negative.
To see how such differences play out, see Dave’s take on democracy, which is wholly negative:
“As the cost of war rose, some nations decided to establish a new system for decision-making called ‘democracy’, in which the factions fighting for control would hold a staged war called an ‘election’, and then voters, responding mostly to propaganda, misinformation and bribery, would judge the ‘winners’ and install them in power for a fixed term. While less violent, the result of majority-rule democracy is the same as the result of war: the ‘winners’, and more particularly those who finance and wield influence over them, end up with all the decision-making power. In this system, the voters have no real stake in decision-making at all.”
This is a vision which gives no agency at all to the mass of the people, and which ignores to what degree democracy was the result of a long struggle for human rights, of political revolutions and struggles of the labour and other democratic movements. Of course, this democracy is flawed and manipulated, but the question is: is it only that? It is clear that for David the answer is a simple yes. My point is that if you recognize the truth that democracy is both an achievement but a flawed one, you can act with it and upon it. Otherwise, you turn away from it, ironically creating the very situation you decried as it is clear that a democracy without any engagement will become precisely that.
Now in practical terms, and despite the above example, such fundamental metaphysical differences do not necessarily mean a lot in practical terms. Because what both approaches, mine at the P2P Foundation and those represented by Dave Pollard’s style, agree on, is that we are moving to post-civilisation, and that in any case, counter-institutions and new life practices need to be constructed. But a difference is of course how you engage with the “reality-as-is”, and like worldchanging.org, I believe it is in this society, through engagement with existing social powers, including the powers that be, that change will occur. In other words, I cannot create an artificial barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’. In the end, as nobody can be sure about the future, I believe it becomes a matter of temperament, and that the respective visions attract people who are congruent in their basic temperament vis a vis the world (and as we change, we are attracted to different approaches). Let’s say that in the end, I prefer the ‘catholic’ doctrine of incarnation, that we are here in the world to change it for the better, and that there are no two universes, no two gods (in the gnostic sense of a fallen one vs. a true one) but one, and that this is the only creation we have.
All this being said, I continue to read with great interest Dave’s blog.
What prompted my little intro are his last ruminations on consensus-based decision-making, which he sees as the optimum form.
As is his custom, Dave starts by positing an ideal-type situation in the pre-civilisational past. I’m not sure he is correct about individual freedom, as it was very much constrained by custom and kinship, and gender and age differentiations in social roles. However, I think he describes perfectly what is going on now in peer production communities. This means: 1) primacy of self-directed allocation of tasks; 2) consensus when the first is impossible.
This is necessarily so because in a context of voluntary self-aggregation, there is no basis for traditional hierarchical command and control, since there is no wage and livelyhood dependency.
Dave Pollard writes:
“There is evidence that, prior to the advent of civilization and overcrowding, when resources were abundant and accessable to all, society was largely anarchic: that is, individuals (even within tribes) made their own decisions and lived with the consequences. At the local level in anarchic societies, with no regulatory system to prevent it, bullying by psychopaths could occur, but in a world of abundance individuals were free to leave the influence of such bullies at will. In pre-historic and indigenous societies, consensus methods then evolved to deal with disagreements and to manage psychopathic members of those tribes that settled in cohesive communities. ”
Follows a history of decision-making, the condemnation of democracy that we cited above, and the conclusion that consensus is the best alternative, and then a good description of what it is and how it works, with references for further reading. Well worth reading.
But I would like to add an extra question, which in my view rehabilitates democracy.
And that question is: what if consensus does not work, or that it is too time-consuming?
Here then my conviction:
– peer governance is first of all a mechanism to avoid common decision making and conflicts, by allowing for the maximum amount of self-directed decision making, within a common framework
– practical difficulties are solved through mostly informal consensus, but which may solidify in rules that become binding for next generations (as in the Wikipedia example)
– however, when we step from decision-making in the field of abundance, i.e. the immaterial work itself, to the field of the infrastructure of cooperation, which is a costly economic good, the community may decide to create a formal democratic structure. This is in fact what happens empirically with free software communities, who created formal NGO’s, democratically governed, to manage that infrastructure.
Is there still a place for a more direct command hierarchy in this context. Well, historically, for example in the tribal context, it does seem that once a war broke out, the war chiefs would take over, but only for the duration of the struggle (but it is probably this process which led to consolidation of power into more permanent hierarchical structures). So far though, I have seen no evidence of this in peer production projects. (though what we see is that the founders of open movements such as Linus Torvalds and Jimmy Wales, act as arbiters of last resort, though a lot more is flawed in Wikipedia’s governance processes, as we reported here before).
One more comment on Dave take’s on consensus, which I see as one form of desired governance, but by no means the only one. Does Dave realize how much time and energy consensus takes, how debilitating it can be in real-life institutions, where the so-called consensus meetings are usually but a cover for hidden power negotiations behind the scenes.
But even in more ideal situations, consensus may not always be the best, see this critique originating from the Twin Oaks ‘intentional community’:
“Consensus is a good idea. So why am I trying to sell you Consent and Sociocracy instead of Consensus? Well, one reason is that one of the people who laid sociocracy on me has been a Quaker for many decades and is quite familiar with consensus and she believes that consent works more efficiently, at least, for her group, in their situation. She is also part of an ecovillage that struggled along with consensus for three years and had a lot of problems. Here is a quote from their website: “Initially the group used consensus to make their decisions. This proved inefficient and exhausting and led to serious rifts. Introducing sociocracy was a relief. The group became more efficient and subsequently has been able to make many difficult decisions in harmony with one another.” This may not be the case for every group that uses consensus. The size of the group, their backgrounds, and their aims could make consensus a more appropriate choice. Sociocracy is a fully developed model of governance. It’s hard for me to picture mainstream corporations replacing their autocratic decision-making processes with consensus, whereas the sociocratic model is similar to a lot of theories that have been developed in the field of organization development in the last few decades, especially ‘learning organizations.’ I don’t know how most organizations that use consensus structure their governments, but the sociocratic model provides a well-defined set of patterns and agreements to use to obtain optimal equivalence. Sociocracy resembles organic systems. I’ve been looking around to try to create a list of qualities of organic systems.”