The Consent/Consensus Debate
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Sat, 17 Mar 2007 09:35:46 -0700 (PDT)
(This is a double post to the cohousing, and sociocracy lists because it think it is very important.)

I've been reviewing the literature on consensus decision-making (again) and finding more and more very clear statements about consensus that match the description that sociocracy uses for consent. So I had another discussion with John Buck and this time he agreed that the use of consensus in the contexts in which I use it was acceptable.

His very valid concern is that "consent" is more acceptable to the corporate and government agencies in which he works. He feels the idea of consensus decision making in business is so ludicrous to many people there that he has to avoid it. Personally, I think this is less and less so, particularly when you read Larry Dressler's Consensus Through Conversation. Dressler works in some of the world's largest corporations and the forward for his book is by the former CEO of Mitsubishi Motors.

Gerard Endenburg uses "consent" and not "consensus," but doesn't make a big deal of it. He doesn't oppose "consent" and "consensus." He opposes "consent" and "solidarity" and says that consent does not imply the same kind of group unity that solidarity implies. "Consent" means that one has an opportunity to present a "reasoned no." It does not require "a yes," an affirmation, nor does it imply unanimity.

Gerard spends much more time discussing the importance of the argument, the reasoning, as the basis for a new society, than he spends on what "consent" does or does not mean. In this he follows the long tradition of other thinkers who have advocated as a "sociocracy" a social structure based not the power of the state, but on knowledge and the good of the "socius."

My reasoning for wanting to use "consensus" is that it is the accepted word for a process that has a deep commitment in the civil rights and non-violence movements. To oppose consensus in that context is to advocate drowning girl babies and encouraging oil consumption.

Refusing to use "consensus" also means divorcing sociocracy from this long and honorable tradition.

There are two points that are unique to sociocracy, however. Whether one consents is based on the individual's ability to work toward the aims of the group if a particular decision is passed. It is an _individual_ decision that should _not_ be based on the influence of others or desires to express unity or an implied "good of the group." It is an action-based, individual consent (or lack of objection) based on defined common aims. Some consensus trainers emphasize the importance of common aims but the slope is slippery. Gerard is very clear that the equivalence of the individual as a member of the group is the primary value, not the more abstract "good of the group" which in democracies often becomes the good of the majority.

The second point is more profound. Sociocracy is not just a decision-making method. It is the only governance structure that supports consensus decision-making. It is not limited to a single group making decisions and delegating tasks to its members. While Dressler, for example, is using consensus in corporations, he is only doing it for single decisions by a single group of managers. There is no self-organizing structure that governs the organization using consensus. Sociocracy is a governance structure that enables consensus decision making in very complex organizations.

Sharon Villines

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