This is what democracy looks like.
Hands raised, fingers waggling, signals your agreement with the speaker.
Hands down if you don’t agree.
One hand if you want to speak.
Two if its urgent and directly to the point.
(You’ll jump the queue, but don’t abuse it, keep it brief.)
The triangle interrupts for a point of process.
A fist shows your objection.
Two fists crossed will block a decision – this is serious.
And so begins meeting after meeting.
Meetings of minds, embodied,
with minds and bodies that want to change the world.
‘Twinkles’, variously named1, are the most widely understood gesture of a whole set, included as techniques for consensus-based decision making. Many of them vary according to group. These gestures structure a process of deliberative discussion that aims to make inclusive decisions. Consensus-based decision making has roots in the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. George Fox described the Quaker Way in the seventeenth century, and it seeks to make decisions that are a property of the group and not the individuals – individual contributions are not minuted. The Quaker Way is inherently religious, of course – when Quaker’s ‘take a feel of the room’ they’re seeking spiritual guidance not just twinkles.
Consensus-based decision making is now often associated with direct action protest, anarchist organisations, anti-globalisation activists and most recently Occupy. It is in such sites that gestures have been tried and tested, grappled with, expressed and learned. The learning can take time – the signals are an outward display of a political or ethical commitment to consensus and so the techniques and attitude are not so easy to master. Dedicated training organisations like Seeds for Change have been successful because activist organisations often recognise the need for reflecting on practice and context.
Occupy’s embrace of gesture democracy spread rapidly through networks physical and electronic leading news organisations to explain just what was going on – spreading the gestures wider, if not the context or meaning. But the ideological grounding of gesture and practice is important.
Ultimately, CBDM is founded on a belief in preserving individual autonomy in group decisions. Every individual should have a chance to speak. Deliberation should be free from systems of prejudice, discrimination and domination. The rules of discourse mirror quite closely Jurgen Habermas’s philosophical account of the ideal speech situation. Like Habermas, proponents of CBDM take a view I call epistemic pluralism: every person has some aspect of the truth. Allowing everyone to speak – and, importantly, taking their views seriously – brings a whole range of perspectives to the meeting. If these are debated rationally and without prejudice then one gets closer to the truth. But, Habermas here was mainly concerned with rules for establishing truth rather than contesting proposals for action, so the philosophy will only take us so far.
The fact that agreement on action-focused proposals is the intended outcome of CBDM processes shapes the process in significant ways. Groups aiming at consensus should not make decisions against the will of any member – this is why I characterise individual autonomy as the most central tenet here. This is also the most challenging aspect of the process and the one that differentiates it from any vote based system.
It is most often within broad-based groups that the principles of CBDM are explicitly defended. As part of my PhD research in the early 2000s I worked with a local social forum group that was engaging in the buidling of the third edition of the European Social Forum, which took place in London in 2004, as well as organising its own local events. In the London-based ESF planning meetings there was a regular rift between the ‘verticals’ – traditional left organisations and some NGOs – and the ‘horizontals’ who were committed to CBDM. The rift centred less on the proposed political content of the ESF and more on the process for decision making as leading Trotskyist figures regularly asked for a ‘straw poll’ in large meeting rooms, taking the raising of a slim majority of hands as consensus. But that most traditional gesture of democratic decision-making was vehemently rejected by the horizontals as un- (even anti-) democratic. So, the critique of voting (and representative democracy in general) was rehearsed and developed. Voting splits a group into a majority and a minority, with the minority forced to act against their will. The result is that the majority don’t care about the views of the minority, especially when they are confident that they are in the majority. (Sometimes this is achieved by temporarily ‘packing’ meetings with supporters – c.f. the Falkirk candidate selection row.) If a group knows it is likely to be in the majority then it needn’t consider or debate alternative propositions and this has a strong effect in reinforcing many forms of discrimination. Additionally, rapidly splitting a room into ‘for’ versus ‘against’ also biases discussion against finding a compromise and the practical experience of many activist groups is that a creative compromise is often more than just something everyone can live with, but actually something inspiring for everyone.
Voting not only offends CBDM proponents desire to overcome discrimination (which in itself can be understood as an offence against individual autonomy based on fundamental human equality) but is also linked to representation. The latter cuts against autonomy because representation can rarely be done accurately. Indeed, to represent more than one other individual you must aggregate them on the basis of assumptions about how they will all feel about a particular issue. Representation also offends the belief in epistemic pluralism since those multifaceted versions of the truth are lost.
So, here we have a self-reinforcing set of ideas centred on individual autonomy – as presented in the diagram on the left – that go to justify CBDM as the preferred way of decision making. Not coincidentally, these core beliefs are also central in any account of anarchist ideology. That does not imply that every fan of CBDM is an anarchist, but it might help explain why traditional revolutionary socialist organisations are deeply suspicious of it.
Democratic Gestures or Gestures at Democracy?
Can CBDM really live up to all of these claims? There are some tensions that I believe are central to this set of ideas, and result in some of the critiques of CBDM that come both from sympathetic allies and less sympathetic opponents. I’m firmly in the former camp, but think that recognition of these tensions offers a realistic appreciation of when and how CBDM might be best applied. I think they also raise quite serious questions about the notion of CBDM as a demonstration of democracy beyond certain sorts of groups.
The first issue results from CBDM’s requirement on presence. The process has been developed out of traditions of meeting in person (hence the gestures) and tends to get mangled when applied to email discussion lists and the like. However, when working without any form of representation there is a real danger of exclusion of those who – for all sorts of reasons – may not be able to attend in person. The problem is that for many social problems it is those same people who are most effected.
The second, related, issues is that CBDM requires voice. There have been reports of ethnic, class and gender discrimination at Occupy with well-educated white men often coming to the fore in debates. (These shouldn’t be overstated – on my own visit to Zuccotti Park I was impressed at the diversity of voices taking part, which may have been partly due to the group adopting an ‘affirmative action’ approach to facilitation. There were evidently some very real challenges, however, about genuinely including the urban poor.) But confidence in articulating one’s views in public is clearly something that is most easily felt by the most privileged. Returning to Habermas’s ‘ideal speech situation’ briefly, that was recognised as ‘ideal’ precisely because it demanded certain skills and attitudes of participants that may be unrealistic before significant social changes have already been addressed. Exclusions due to requirements on presence and voice suggest that CBDM clearly needs to be based on the real, not the ideal, in order to be genuinely inclusive.
Perhaps more fundamentally, the third issue is that when consensus processes hit a blockage, the outcome is often an intentional exclusion. A group may work through its differences but any individual member always has a strong veto power. However, this is potentially so debilitating that guidance on CBDM tends to suggest that if one or two individuals frequently find themselves blocking group decisions then they may be in the wrong group and can be asked to leave. This doesn’t necessarily offend the importance of individual autonomy discussed above – after all, any individual could go elsewhere and start a new group – but it is a tension that potentially leads to fragmentation. Occupy showed an impressive approach to including practically large numbers of people in discussion through the ‘human mic’ – but the vast majority were often as audience rather than active decision makers. While it is possible for large-scale CBDM to occur relatively efficiently, this still requires a minimal number of blocks. In practice, CBDM works best when group members’ goals and assumptions are pretty well aligned from the outset. It is this that makes it possible for someone to ‘be in the wrong group’.
All this hints at a bigger problem in relating the individual to the collective – which is ultimately what democracy is always about. To what collective does an individual belong? Beyond the category ‘humankind’ all our relevant collectives are socially constructed (with greater or lesser degree of biological constraint) and most are imposed by social structures. CBDM operates in groups of individuals who have chosen to belong to that group and usually have quite a wide range of shared goals, attitudes and interests. Individual autonomy functions well in such circumstances but the problem of applying it to large groups is not primarily a practical one but a more categorical one. In a group with much fewer shared characteristics and an increased tendency to question assumptions and find contradictions at quite a fundamental level, is it enough to suggest splintering off into a separate group? Small may be beautiful, but what happens when all of these small groups with well defined interests come into conflict?
None of these tension are, to my mind, disastrous for the practice of CBDM as it frequently takes place. CBDM does really lead to more creative decisions, and does really improve on voting systems in terms of inclusion (at least of those who are actively taking part). Yet despite the use of CBDM in large groups through ‘hubs and spokes’ delegation systems the translation in scale required for this to really be what democracy looks like remains a huge challenge.
Particular gestures can have many meanings. For the activists I’m concerned with here, the context of CBDM attaches this set of bodily movements to a developed, complex set of political beliefs. Democracy – and indeed, ‘the political’ in general – are always about the connection between individual and collective. Although I’ve raised a couple of critical notes on CBDM on this point, the gestures attached to the practice at least aim to enable mediation of individual and group thought, feeling and, ultimately, action.
Twinkles signal agreement.
Twinkles are creative.
Twinkles promise emancipation.
Twinkles express individual freedom.
Twinkles demonstrate democracy in action.
Is this what democracy looks like?
The gesture I’m calling ‘twinkles’ here is referred to in many circles as ‘jazz hands’. A contributor to discussion on this at the recent Activist Performance Blogging Event pointed out that this term has a history in the Black and White Minstrel Shows, where jazz hands were a signature visual cue. So, given its roots in deeply racist entertainment I’m avoiding use of this term here. For me, the conversation over this raised an interesting question of the unspoken (and often unknown) history of particular gestures. Gestures clearly don’t have fixed meanings – they vary according to context. If a choreographer employed ‘jazz hands’ in a musical or comedy might we expect them to be aware of the history? Perhaps. There might be a case for reappropriation of the gesture in entertainment – but only a careful and knowing reappropriation. Among some activists the gesture is also known as ‘silent applause’ with inspiration from sign language. If activists are appropriating this gesture from anywhere then that, for me, is the more relevant context as it is a communicative performance with an explicit translation into textual language rather than a gesture aimed primarily at entertainment. But what ‘twinkles’ also demonstrate is that once a particular gesture is given meaning in a specific setting, that meaning takes on a life of its own, distinct from its past.