Saturday, November 5, 2011

Consensus and Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street might be old news by now, but the movement itself seems to be hanging in there for the time being. Good for them! Still, it's not hard to be pessimistic. The movement's consensus-based structure seems to contain the seeds of its own destruction; it's really hard to see how any sort of organization rooted in or founded on the same principles as OWS could last for long.

As I understand it, most of the various OWS "General Assemblies" require a very, very high degree of consensus before they take any sort of action or adopt sort of position. It's surely this approach that has, so far, helped hold the whole thing together -- there aren't many opportunities for the movement to schism if everyone in the movement has their voice represented by default.

But that can only last so long as there are no truly irreconcilable differences between the members. If any issue emerges pitting a significant portion of the movement against another large subset of the movement, then it's hard to see how the consensus model provides any stability.

The most fundamental purpose of any political system -- and by "political system," I mean both in the traditional sense and or the internal political mechanisms of an organization -- is to resolve conflict. Political systems, before they do anything else, must find a viable means of choosing between two competing visions of what should happen.

OWS doesn't seem to do that. It fails on this foundational level. Instead, its political system seems to adopt an almost-tautological position: so long as you're part of the movement, it'll do what you want, and if it doesn't do what you want, then you're not part of it. There's plenty of warm fuzzy feelings to go around, but when internal conflicts do emerge, there's no precedent for forcing the losing side to swallow their grievances and stick with the movement.

In a way, the most successful political systems are those that balance the two extremes: they have to effectively resolve conflict, but they also have to exhibit inclusiveness, like OWS is trying to do. There need to be political losers for anything to ever get done, but political losers also need to be included in the process such that they're able accept defeat without throwing into question the legitimacy of the entire system. OWS is protesting a system that has the former quality but not the latter, but in doing so, they've created an organization that has the latter quality but not the former.

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