Adventures in consensus

Some people like to use consensus decision-making processes. Some like it so much that they have declared that all other decision-making techniques are oppressive. When people are first confronted with the idea of needing unanimous support to approve of decisions, hypothetical problems immediately occur to them. What if you can’t get unanimous agreement? What do you do then?

I’ve yet to actually see anyone overcome this problem. The answer that is usually given is that you just don’t go forward with it if there isn’t unanimous agreement. But this answer assumes there is an agreeable baseline for what constitutes not going forward. It requires a theory of the default, which is impossible to construct. At minimum, it is impossible to construct it without disagreement, and that disagreement then recreates the whole unanimous consent problem once again.

Consider the following real-life example. At an occupy encampment, a proposal is made to ban smoking inside the perimeter of the encampment. As many left subcultures are big on smoking cigarettes, this generates considerable opposition. Unanimous consent is not achieved, not even close, and blocks are made.

What follows from what just happened? Well, you could say that what follows is that there will be no action to ban smoking inside the perimeter. But wait a minute. There was never any proposal to allow smoking inside the perimeter either. Such a proposal would also have failed to get unanimous consent and elicited blocks.

So there is not consent to allow or ban smoking in the area. How do you proceed? Here is where the theory of the default is necessary. You’d have to have a theory of what the default rule is, i.e. the rules governing what is allowed when no proposal has been passed one way or another. What is the default rule though? Is it to allow or to ban?

I think one natural reaction is to say that you allow it. Everything is allowed by default before it is banned through a proposal passed by consent. This is the most autonomy-promoting or whatever. But this can’t be true. Surely, it is not the case that by default I can go around the encampment punching people in the face until we have a proposal banning it.

So now you have to modify the default rule. Instead of everything being allowed by default, the new rule is that everything is allowed except if what you are doing physically harms others. This ensures that I cannot just punch people by default, but it throws into doubt what the default position on smoking should be. Does smoking harm others? It seems that second-hand smoke does harm others. So shouldn’t the default rule have been that you cannot smoke in camp, and the only way to allow it therefore would be through a proposal passing with consensus?

This approach to the default seems alright, but it problematically turns on empirical assessments. We know now through studies that second-hand smoke harms bystanders. But what if we did not know that for sure? What if some folks just thought it harmed others, but there was not definitive evidence? How would you proceed then? This theory of the default will not be able to function because there will be disagreement about what harms others and there will not always be evidence to settle that disagreement. So you find yourself in another consensus bind.

More than that, even when you have evidence, members of the group might deny that it qualifies as evidence. All sorts of people reject scientific research for instance, which would include, I’d presume, epidemiological studies. The left in particular has its fair share of New Age types who have beliefs about harms that are not verifiable scientifically. What do you do if one of them says wearing blue in the camp harms them by throwing off their chakras, and neither a proposal to allow nor ban wearing blue can get consensus?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of course. There are more interesting questions in how exactly you could use this process politically, especially in deciding who belongs to the community of people from whom consent is required for approval. For instance, when you decide or don’t decide to build more housing in your area, that affects tons of people who are not in your area, e.g. those who would end up moving there to fill the new housing at some future date. Do they have to be included? If yes, how could you even possibly identify who they are in advance? It’d be impossible.

For the most part, I find it really hard to get that enthused about process stuff altogether. In a universe of physical scarcity like ours, it is impossible to avoid some kind of force on others absent unanimous consent from all people about all things at all times. Once you admit that bar is foreclosed by the mechanics of a universe with matter scarcity, it seems like substance shows itself to be of way more importance than process.

Clarifying remarks on futile leftism

I wrote a post a couple of days ago titled The death spiral of futile leftism. The basic thesis of the piece is 1) there are people on the left who are involved in a futile purity rituals that are mainly self-centered and not about winning, and 2) the existence of such people attracts more such people and repels more success-oriented leftists. The net result is a death spiral for the left because futile leftism just begets more futile leftism. Or so my speculative stylized musings go.

This seems to have ruffled more feathers than I thought it would, if twitter and the comments on the post are worthwhile indicators. I think my remarks are basically correct. I just want to clarify that these remarks are not necessarily targeted at any particular ideology. As Sarah Jaffe mentioned on twitter: there are people of all ideological stripes who act this way. Liberals, Maoists, Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists, Avakianites, Beyists, Bookchinites, Mutualists, Bakuninites, and all the others have people in their ranks who do this kind of stuff. It is not constrained to any group: it’s a behavioral tendency.

For what it’s worth, I don’t actually think there is that much you can do to turn these kinds of people. I think the reason they behave this way is because they are motivated by different things than other people in those same groups. Their leftist politics provides them identity, activities, peers, and an aesthetic — a complete subcultural group. It provides to them the same things fraternities and sororities provide to others. Granted this is just my amateur psychoanalysis here based on personal experience, but that’s all anyone’s got on a topic this narrow.

The death spiral of futile leftism

The left-left side of the blogosphere is chattering about lefter-than-thou sniping that is apparently aimed at people associated with the Jacobin. For readers who don’t pay attention to that stuff, Jacobin magazine is a socialist magazine that is popular. The lefter-than-thou crowd is comprised of people who do everything they can to throw bombs at left-wing projects that are successful. The goal of the bomb-throwing, it appears, is not to actually achieve anything substantive; rather, it is to make damn sure everyone knows they are different from them, those leftists who aren’t the real leftists like they are.

I’ve written about the left purity cult before. From what I have seen, there is a non-trivial number of people for whom leftism is nothing but a personal affectation, a substitute for a personality, a way to get personal meaning, and so on. Me, me, me, me. This is especially true among the rich kid protester types. Their politics is one of personal self-actualization. They want to Do the Right Thing for themselves and make sure they are fighting the good fight. Just doing something that is nominally fighting, even if it lacks strategy or any theory of change, is enough because it means they are on the right side and their complicity with The Bad is extinguished. This purity ritual is as fun for them as it is useless for the actually suffering.

But the effect of this futile leftism is bigger than one might imagine. I suspect that futile leftism generates its own vicious feedback loop that generates yet more futile leftism. The problem is simple: there are people interested in masturbatory purity rituals and people interested in winning. When the left is dominantly in the clutches of the purity cultists, the competent have no interest in it.

The biggest challenge facing the left or any minority movement is convincing people to spend their time, energy, and other resources working with them. Most people, especially those people you should want to attract to your side, do not want to waste their time doing things that will achieve nothing. It is hard enough convincing someone that a minority movement can win, but that difficulty is compounded many times over when the movement itself is full of the type of people who do not actually care about winning. A person who remarks that they do not want to get involved because it looks like a bunch of self-congratulating actions that never lead to anything has a totally accurate assessment of the state of things.

What you get when the futile purity cultists take hold is a death spiral of increasing incompetence and futility. Those interested in futile nonsense are basically the only people attracted to thing: so their numbers hold steady or swell. Those opposed to futile nonsense flood out or never join to begin with. Futile leftism just begets more futile leftism because anyone halfway sensible would never bother to waste their time with it.

That is not to say that you have to become some sort of half-baked liberal to be successful. But you better have some notion of how A leads to B, and if you’ve pressed the denim-vest-with-patches-wearing contingent on the left, you’d know full well that there is no such story. Winning things from time to time and being able to articulate a vision of how this is supposed to work that is halfway plausible is the only way to attract the kind of people who are able to moderate leftist dipshittery.

As a postscript, let me say this. If you want to find examples of competent leftist organizing, it might make sense to check out regions that are the most hostile to it, and see how the leftists there do it. Cushy bubbles like New York City that are hospitable to left youth subcultures and have enough people to comprise a sizable left contingent are exactly the kinds of places where futile leftism seems most likely to fester. Leftists in other parts of the country, especially the South and Midwest, do not have the luxury.