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Review: Andy Blunden, The Origins of Collective Decision Making. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2016.

There is something way too flat about horizontalism. The political style associated with Occupy Wall Street has its defenders, including writers like Marianne Maeckelbergh and David Graeber, who find something lively and colorful in the horizontalist enthusiasm for long consensus-seeking meetings, rejection of “vertical” structures like representation or formal leadership, and conviction that a group’s actions can outline in advance (“prefigure”) the future that those actions seek to bring about. Why then does horizontalism strike me, and I think some others, as being dull, unresonant, shallow—that is to say, one-dimensional?

By uncovering their histories, Andy Blunden’s Origins of Collective Decision Making reveals a great deal about the character and feel of the consensus and majority decision making paradigms. Blunden takes up a question that has received curiously little attention from scholars: how did political organizations in the English-speaking world come to adopt the paradigms of collective decision making that they use today? Blunden rightly points out that it is one thing to know when and where a decision making paradigm was first used, and quite another to reconstruct the lines of influence by which that paradigm was traduced. It is not enough, he argues, to say that an idea is “in the air” (14): people always learn about political practices from specific sources. Somehow, majority rule became central to the “traditional decision-making procedures and structures of the social democratic and labor movements” by the end of the nineteenth century; somehow, consensus process, and the horizontalist style of which it is a component, came to define many late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century anarchist and “alterglobalization” groups (viii).

How? Blunden might have made it easier for his readers to see what the answers to that question are and why they matter. In his own description, his book proceeds by “going back from the present into the past to find origins, and then working forwards again, and on a number of occasions, stepping back again to follow up leads which would later prove to be byways”—and, he adds, doing all of this twice, once for majority decision making and once for consensus (xi). For readers who (like me) prefer Raymond Chandler’s detective stories to Agatha Christie’s, this style of investigation has a certain appeal, but its price is that the most valuable findings in this book are obscured by the book’s structure. Blunden—the secretary of the Marxists Internet Archive, the group responsible for the invaluable website marxists.org—has an archivist’s affection for details, and he sometimes gets lost in them. Nevertheless, Blunden’s fascination with the mechanics of group decision making is contagious, and, more important, his attention to the transmission of decision making practices allows him to show the contexts in which majority and consensus practices have each been adopted. That relationship between practices and their contexts turns out to be crucial.

Blunden proposes that the practice of majority decision making within organizations stems from medieval or early modern guilds. There were, to be sure, ancient polities that practiced something like majority rule, the Athenian assembly being the best-known case. Blunden argues, however, that there is no plausible line of transmission from the Athenian assembly through the Middle Ages to modern organizations, since medieval political and ecclesial assemblies operated through consultation or advice-giving, not majority rule (30-36). Blunden uncovers guild records that clearly demonstrate the use of majority decision making in the early sixteenth century (50) and that strongly suggest its use in the fifteenth (47), and he makes a case for the probable use of majority decision making within guilds at much earlier dates (36-38). Since the development of majority decision making within the guilds seems to have predated the use of majority decision rules within the House of Commons, and since the House of Lords in its early centuries seems to have played a merely consultative role in relation to its Speaker, Blunden is able to offer a plausible case for the claim that the modern practice of majority decision making, at least in England, was a product of the guilds and was transmitted from them to early trade unions, and then from unions to other sorts of citizen organizations. Moreover, if this line of reasoning is correct, it would seem that majority democracy within the parliaments and congresses of the English-speaking world was derived from majority democracy within guilds and other citizen organizations, and not the other way around. (There are only a few scholarly studies that examine the history of majority democracy, or collective decision making more broadly. Blunden does not cite them, but so far as I can tell they do not contradict his argument. See, for example, John Gilbert Heinberg, “History of the Majority Principle,” American Political Science Review 20.1, February, 1926, pp. 52-68; Jane Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary Democracy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, esp. pp. 8-18; Melissa Schwartzberg, Counting the Many: The Origins and Limits of Supermajority Rule, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.)

Consensus as groups like OWS practice it, in contrast, is of quite recent origin. Blunden argues convincingly that it was invented in the early 1960s by participants in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC’s consensus practices, of course, did not come out of nowhere: they were influenced by “shared decision making” at Myles Horton’s Highlander school (180) and by consensus-like practices among some African-American religious groups before the 1960s (161, 170). Blunden notes that the decision making method that the Religious Society of Friends developed in the seventeenth century has often been seen as a precedent for contemporary consensus decision making. However, he argues—conclusively, I think—that the Quakers’ pursuit of a Spirit-infused “sense of the meeting,” in which members of the group speak as little as possible and aim to “lay aside” their differences, is fundamentally different from the consensus paradigm’s pursuit of total agreement through lengthy discussion. Given this difference, it is not surprising that, despite the links between Quakerism and the civil rights movement, decision making practices do not seem to be among the ideas that Quakers transmitted to SNCC (210-214).

Within SNCC, consensus worked because of the unusual relationship among SNCC’s members and between those members and the public: this is where the link between practices and their contexts proves crucial. Blunden quotes Casey Hayden’s recollections: “I think Consensus in SNCC grew mostly from the idea that if folks were going to risk their lives they had to be able to do it for something they agreed with. And the ethical notion that if one disagreed with a plan, one might have to leave as a matter of conscience” (160). Being guided by conscience rather than by strategic reasoning, taking direct and risky action that expresses one’s conscience rather than acting through representatives or making calculations about means and ends, joining and leaving groups with ease: these are the hallmarks of horizontalist groups today as much as of SNCC a half-century ago. Blunden wants to train his readers’ attention on what he calls the “germ cell” of politics, the experience of “a group of people in the same room, deciding what to do together” (2), and when he writes about consensus this concreteness is especially important: the vivid sensory bond that exists among people who sit through an exhaustingly long discussion and who emerge with a decision on which all agree is a powerful feeling. Thus a member’s commitment to a group like SNCC or OWS will tend to have an intensity and immediacy unlike the experience of membership in other sorts of groups.

Although Blunden does not say so, if we picture the “germ cell” of consensus as he asks us to do, we can easily see the affinity between consensus decision making and the idea of prefiguration (11). In the sensory intensity of a consensus meeting, the world outside the meeting pales in contrast with the people inside, an experience that invites participants to imagine the future they seek as nothing more than an enlarged repetition of their present actions. Supporters of prefigurative politics would probably say “nothing less than,” but “nothing more than” seems more apt: prefiguration collapses the distinction between means and ends, trapping the future in the present. Seeing the present as an advance image of the future, a prefigurative group (which is generally also a consensus-based horizontalist group, as Blunden notes [viii, 11]) turns in on itself—not in the sense that its members do not want to change the external world, but in the sense that they experience the face-to-face equality of their group as the changed world they are seeking. Prefiguration is a “what you see is what you (will) get” principle; consensus is a “what we decide is who we are” practice: it is no surprise that the two tend to go together.

In majority decision making, however, the decision makers tend to turn their attention to the world outside their meeting room and to the future. Here, again, Blunden’s story of origins helps us understand how the decision making paradigms function. He notes that majority decision making arose in groups formed to make decisions about matters like trade rules and craft apprenticeships, funeral expenses and sick relief (44), and were later adopted by trade unions interested in organizing a broad membership for collective action in the face of employers’ power. Where membership in horizontalist groups, from SNCC to OWS, has characteristically been limited to volunteer militants who already share a worldview, membership in groups that practice majority democracy characteristically carries with it a feeling of having been, as it were, drafted into the group by one’s circumstances. Guilds and trade unions alike deal with issues that their members must confront, alone if not together. The members of such groups do not necessarily share a worldview. What they have in common—what mediates their commitment to one another—is a concern with certain problems that are happening, or will happen, outside their meeting room. One consequence of this mediated commitment is that groups like guilds and unions use majority decision making because it is more conducive to large-scale, inclusive, collective actions. Blunden writes that majority decision making within trade unions has, “over generations, managed the conflict between opposing social and political currents,” allowing union members to “act as one despite often deep political and ideological differences within their own ranks.” For unions, “nothing is more alien…than the idea that compliance with a strike vote is a matter of individual conscience. Once the question is put to the vote, [the majority] decides. Anything else spells the end for a trade union” (111).

Blunden’s point is sound, but I want to emphasize something else here: the observation, which he makes only in passing, that majority decision making tends to go along with strategic, rather than prefigurative, understandings of political action. Groups whose members have been (to borrow John Locke’s phrase) “driven into society” with one another have a relationship defined by what happens outside, before, and after their meetings. They are brought together by, and thus tend to keep their minds on, the grievances or worries that compel their membership in the group, and by the problems they want to solve, or at least confront, together. Majority decision making thus does not fit well with the assumption that one’s worldview or one’s conscience ought simply to determine the actions to which one commits; it fits, instead, with the more ethically complex idea that means and ends—however much one might like to bring them closer together—cannot be collapsed into one another, and thus also with the idea that actions might yield results that do not resemble them.

Horizontalism’s proponents like to think that they are engaged in a politics of imagination—“Another world is possible!”—but, reading Blunden’s account, I want to argue that horizontalism is better described as a politics barren of imagination, as political literalism. Each part of the horizontalist package—consensus, prefiguration, opposition to formal leadership—rests on literalist thinking. Consensus decision making assumes that the decisions one accedes to and the directives of one’s conscience ought to be exactly the same. Prefiguration asks its adherents to imagine more of what their senses already present to them. Perhaps even more explicitly than do consensus and prefiguration, the horizontalists’ rejection of representation proclaims a lack of confidence in invisible things: in the links between representatives and constituents, elections now and policy change later, those in the room where a decision is made and those elsewhere. Those bonds are meaningful, the tradition of majority democracy insists, even when they are tenuous and unsatisfying, and even in a country, like the United States, where majority democray is as much an aspiration as an accomplishment.

We are so accustomed to majority democracy that we do not think of it as being imaginative. Nevertheless, it depends on powers of imagination or, more precisely, of metaphorical and analogical thinking. To say that a majority vote stands for the decision of the whole or that the people make decisions through their representatives is to think metaphorically. Horizontalism says of these sorts of claims: they are not literally true, therefore they are not true at all. This impatience with metaphor is all too common today: religious fundamentalists, New Atheists, readers who prefer memoirs to novels, and horizontalists all, in their own ways, exhibit it. I have no theory to explain this phenomenon. I would like to suggest, however, that, whatever its source or sources, the failure of imagination typical of this moment correlates somehow with a declining sense of the possibility of public life and of politics as such—politics as a sphere distinct from private life, a category of relationships dependent on invisible bonds, an activity through which something other than what our senses already show us can come to be.

Majority democracy has a vertical dimension, that bane of horizontalism, not only in that it grants dignity to the distinct activity of leadership—what the ancients called “rule”—and thus to the distinct needs of the kinds of decision making most appropriately called “political.” (“Majority is at home on the scale of the entire community,” Blunden writes [241].) That is important enough already, but it seems to me that majority democracy has a vertical dimension in another sense as well. A readiness for imaginative and metaphorical thinking allows for a sense of depth; it allows for attention to the sorts of questions that most unsettle us and are most necessary for us. Taken seriously, majority democracy leaves us acutely aware of the gulf between the world as it is and the world as it should be, between ourselves and those frighteningly different beings who are our neighbors and fellow citizens, between what we want and what we can actually achieve. Some ordinary, prosaic experiences, entered into with thought and receptivity, open up—beneath our feet, so to speak—the immeasurable fathoms of what we cannot know and cannot do. Majority democracy, a politics that depends on imagination, is like that, although we rarely take it seriously enough to notice. Horizontalism—political literalism—is not.


Geoffrey Kurtz is associate professor of political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, and is the author of Jean Jaurès: The Inner Life of Social Democracy.

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