Non-Coercive Collective Decision-Making: A Quaker Perspective
This piece is the twenty-fourth essay in the June C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: “Anarchy and Democracy.”

In previous articles in this symposium, a sticking-point has emerged, among both pro- and anti-democracy anarchists, concerning the presumed impossibility of a collective decision-making process that doesn’t resort to coercion. I believe the anti-democracy camp are rightly hung-up on this point; if collective decision-making is necessarily coercive, such a process cannot be reconciled with anarchism, where the core tenet is the rejection of coercion. On the other hand, this anti-democratic stance seems to betray a deep pessimism toward the very notion of community and to the possibility of collective action of any sort. Meanwhile, the pro-democracy camp appear to accept (with some discomfort) the necessity of coercion, in the interest of permitting collective decision-making, assuming that such coercion will be relatively minimal and benign in practice. I don’t wish to rehash the larger debate here – though I do place myself squarely in the pro-democracy camp. Rather, I challenge the assumption that non-coercive collective decision-making is unfeasible. I belong to a religious group, the Quakers (a.k.a. the Religious Society of Friends), that have been grappling with this issue over the past 350 years. We have developed a non-coercive collective decision-making process that works for us. It does not always work smoothly, and sometimes it operates rather messily, painfully, and slowly. However, as I will explain, it does work, and often quite miraculously. In this article I present my personal understanding and experience of the Quaker “business” process, as we call it. My broader goal is to defend a vision of anarchism that allows for vigorous community and powerful collective action, without squelching the autonomy of individuals.  

The Quaker business process has a strong formal resemblance to the consensus decision-making processes used by many “horizontal” activist groups. There is a historical reason for this: Quakers have been involved in many activist movements over the past fifty years, and we’ve had a corresponding influence on the structure of these groups. I know that consensus decision-making can be truly awful. As has been pointed out by other contributors to this symposium, when practiced badly it can be mind-numbingly boring or otherwise deeply off-putting. It can also mask various forms of covert power, resulting in serious group dysfunction. The same could be said, even more strongly, of Robert’s Rules or more overtly hierarchical decision-making processes. But there are significant differences between consensus decision-making as it has percolated through activist communities and the original Quaker process that inspired it.

But before examining Quaker process, it is necessary to give some background on what Quakerism is about. First, we have a rather distinctive method of worship, based on silence: we sit together in an attitude of ‘expectant waiting,’ in which we seek to come nearer to God and each other.1 There are no programmed hymns, prayers, recitations, readings, or other liturgy. There is no clergy. During silent worship, anyone who feels a deep inner prompting to do so may give ‘vocal ministry:’ a message, reflection or prayer, usually quite brief.

Quakerism began in the late 1640’s in the aftermath of the English Civil War, a period of great social and religious upheaval as a reaction against both the authoritarian, high-church Anglicanism of King Charles I and the dour, Bible-thumping Puritanism of those who overthrew him. Quakerism thus arose out of a Protestant English milieu, as a radical expression of Christianity. But today, there is a great diversity within Quaker meetings on how we think of God and our relation to Christianity, and we use different kinds of language to describe our religious experiences. Some Quakers have a conception of God that is close to that of  mainstream Protestant Christianity and would describe their beliefs using similar language. Others are happy to use God-centered language, but they conceive of God in very different terms from the Christian trinity. Some use feminist language. Others are influenced by Buddhism. Some identify as non-theists and describe their experiences without using the word ‘God’ at all. Quaker faith is built on experience, and Quakers generally hold that it is the spiritual experience which is central to Quaker worship, not the use of any particular form of words (whether that be ‘God’ or anything else). Nevertheless, our method of worship itself presupposes certain working assumptions. These are:

  • That there is, within us and among us, a Divine Presence or Higher Power (however we may conceive of and name it) that is bigger, deeper, more powerful, more complete and more timeless than our individual egos.
  • That this Presence is directly accessible to everyone who seeks it.

Quakers therefore say, ‘There is that of God in everyone.’ We often refer to this sense of Divine Presence as ‘the Light.’ Some of our spiritual insights, which we call our ‘Testimonies’, spring from this deep experience and have been reaffirmed by successive generations of Quakers. These Testimonies include:

  • Simplicity: We avoid encumbering ourselves with material possessions, addictions, and lifestyles that keep us from following the leadings of our inner Light
  • Peace: We favor conscientious objection to war; for some Quakers a commitment to complete Gandhian non-violence, including abolition of police and prison systems.
  • Integrity: We strive to speak and act in accordance with Truth, as fully as we are able to perceive it, under all circumstances
  • Community: Our ‘leadings’ and personal experience of the Light must be tested and lived out in relationships with others.
  • Equality: All people are of equal worth; some would extend this to all living creatures.
  • Sustainability: We must live within the ecological constraints of our bioregion, fostering biodiversity rather than degrading it.

With this background, we are now in a position to examine Quaker business process. Once a month (typically), each local congregation (styled as a ‘monthly meeting’) meets ‘for worship with attention to business,’ generally after the rise of our regular worship meeting, facilitated by a clerk. Anyone who is part of the meeting may attend and participate. Decisions are made without voting. Rather, the participants may each speak to the matter at hand (preferably only once), and listen to one another for a sense of spiritual unity on the issue. We try to maintain an attitude of worship, the silently prayerful ‘gathered stillness,’ throughout the process. Once everyone has had an opportunity to speak, the clerk attempts to draft a ‘minute’ that expresses the ‘sense of the meeting’ on the issue. They then ask if the minute is acceptable to the meeting. If there are no objections or proposed changes, the minute is recorded. Otherwise, the discernment process may continue until unity is reached, if time permits, or be held over for ‘seasoning’ and taken up again at a subsequent business meeting.

Higher-level Quaker bodies, encompassing regional groupings of monthly meetings, meet less frequently and may transact business as well. My home monthly meeting of Edmonton, Alberta, for example, belongs to Western Half-Yearly Meeting, covering Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, and Canadian Yearly Meeting for all of Canada. Any members or attendees of a monthly meeting may participate in business meetings of the higher-level meetings to which their monthly meeting belongs. The business process is substantively the same at the monthly meeting level and higher levels. Quakers who are not able to attend business meetings are expected to trust those who do attend to follow Quaker process and arrive at good decisions, for both the monthly meeting and higher level meetings.

Formally, there are similarities of the Quaker business process to ‘consensus decision-making.’ In both processes, a single individual has the power to block a group decision. But, the underlying attitude is quite different. The process is not a debate. We are not trying to reach ‘consensus’ among ourselves. Rather we seek to discern what the Holy Spirit – that sacred Wisdom deep within us and among us – is leading us to do as a group.2 Sometimes we go into the meeting thinking our options are either A or B. ‘Consensus’ would suggest trying to find some middle ground, a compromise position between A and B, that perhaps nobody is entirely happy with. The Quaker discernment process often leads us to realize that there is another option altogether, superior to both A and B, which we can all unite behind. Something about the attitude of worship and detachment from the outcome seems to foster a certain openness of mind and heart that allows these group epiphanies to happen. They feel quite miraculous. Moreover, the goal of reaching a decision is distinctly secondary to the goal of developing the health and vigor of the relationships among the members, thereby creating a stronger, more loving, and more resilient community.

The process is not easy nor is it always comfortable. Spiritual discipline and great patience are required for the process to operate well. There exists within each of us, I believe, a ‘shallow self,’ a complex of unexamined wants and belief systems, often fraught with defense mechanisms, often heavily shaped by the conventional wisdom of the surrounding culture.  This shallow self must be kept out of the driver’s seat during business meeting. We must avoid reacting superficially to the words coming out of others’ mouths and listen with empathy to the intentions underneath the words and to the deep response of love and truth within our own hearts. That is how we discern what the Spirit is leading us to do. Effective participation (actively and passively) in the Quaker discernment process is a skill that grows with practice. And it cannot be reduced to a set of rules; it depends upon the good-will and openness to the Spirit of the participants.

Sometimes, of course, a difficult conflict will arise within the meeting. But there are some strategies that help to move us through such conflict.

  • Give it time: Quakers are comfortable taking a long time, if necessary, to reach a good decision. We call this ‘seasoning’ the matter. For example, Quakers took fifty-some years, in the early eighteenth century, to decide that slaveholding was impermissible, Once they reached unity, Quakers quickly became the most active opponents of slavery outside the African-American community itself.
  • Use this time constructively: Between meetings, pray about the issue, learn more about it, engage in one-on-one discussions with others in the meeting, particularly those on the other side of the issue to better understand where their perspective.
  • Take feelings seriously: The disagreement may be partially rooted in personal conflict between members. Personal feelings should not be suppressed but dealt with honestly and compassionately. This is probably best done off-line, perhaps with someone acting as a mediator. Use the conflict as an opportunity to deepen bonds between members.

There exists a controversial last-resort option. The clerk may propose that ‘the sense of the meeting’ is to go ahead with some decision, over the objection of a small minority, if the rest of the meeting strongly supports doing so. This move is more likely to be viewed as legitimate by the meeting if the seasoning process, described above, does not seem to be leading towards resolution (e.g if the minority refuse to engage constructively with others in the meeting about the issue), if there is some urgency to the decision, and if the minority’s opposition does not appear to be grounded in any principle consistent with the Quaker Testimonies. So a Quaker meeting may, as a last resort and with discomfort, engage in coercion towards a minority. But this state of affairs should be regarded as a breakdown of Quaker process rather than its successful operation. It is a wound to the fabric of the meeting. In the aftermath of such a decision, members will have to work to remain in compassionate dialogue about this issue, to revisit the decision if necessary, if the wound is ever to heal. Most Quaker meetings will therefore go to extraordinary lengths to avoid using this coercive option.

I have heard some Quakers assert that this business process can only be used successfully in the context of Quaker meetings and that it cannot be used by groups with other sorts of beliefs or with a secular agenda. I clearly disagree, or I wouldn’t be touting the process in this article addressed to non-Quaker anarchists. There already exists within Quaker meetings a wide range of beliefs about God, including non-belief. So it’s hard to see how any uniquely Quaker beliefs or traits are necessary to the operation of the process. Many non-Quakers – particularly, I should hope, many anarchists – would also affirm the equality of all people, as a sacred (i.e. deeply valued) principle. Quakers aren’t the only folks who have a commitment to some sort of Higher Power, something larger or deeper than themselves, whether they speak of this in terms of religious metaphors or other sorts of metaphors. Quakers aren’t the only folks capable of deep patience, compassionate listening, and openness of heart. On the other hand, these spiritually-grounded attitudes, values and behaviors – patience, compassion, openness, etc. – are not optional. Without them, the process degenerates into acrimonious debate, or other dysfunctions. Cultivating these attitudes, values and behaviors is certainly part of the Quaker ethos; but Quakers have no monopoly on them.   

As for the supposed inapplicability of the Quaker process to ‘secular’ matters, the traditional Quaker position is that all of life should be experienced as a sacrament; there is no distinct realm of purely secular pursuits to which spiritual values are inapplicable. Consider an affinity group engaged in nonviolent direct action to protect water and oppose oil pipelines. As the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies have recently demonstrated to the world with stunning clarity, this is a deeply spiritual undertaking. There is no inherent reason why a spiritually grounded method like the Quaker business process, perhaps adapted and supplemented to suit the cultural style(s) and preferences of its members, could not be used by such an affinity group. Consider a workers’ cooperative business, endeavoring to provide livelihoods to its members while offering some needed products or services to the broader community. This too is a spiritual undertaking. Consider a group of neighbors, endeavoring to build a more inclusive, culturally vibrant, environmentally and economically resilient community. This too is a spiritual undertaking. Indeed, I cannot conceive of any constructive human pursuit requiring collective action that is unworthy to be called ‘spiritual’. Accordingly, the Quaker business process (mutatis mutandis) and the spiritual values and skills underlying it ought to be applicable to all such collective decision-making. It is to be expected that the process might be awkward for those who are unused to it, but skill in the use of this process comes with practice, for Quakers and, I would assume, non-Quakers alike.

As a postscript, I’d like to offer some thoughts on a related issue: the supposed tension between the needs of the group versus the needs of the individual. I see this as a false dichotomy. I find that I cannot be strong, healthy individual without the support of my community. Likewise, my community cannot be fully strong and healthy if I am being inauthentic as an individual. Communities, like individuals, have shadow sides – aspects of identity that are hidden, repressed and denied – and that can lead us into dysfunctional behavior when the conscious part of the identity (individual or collective) is looking the other way. It is not the normal, healthy operation of a group to oppress and exploit any of its members. Rather, such behavior represents a manifestation of a group’s shadow identity. It is incumbent on individual members who see what is going on within such a group to speak up and challenge this shadow behavior. This truth-telling requires courage, for such individuals may encounter rejection and other retribution from the larger group. However, without such individual courage, the group will slide into more and more serious dysfunction. As I see it, this responsibility is an unavoidable part of being human.

Footnotes

1 This describes unprogrammed Quaker meetings, the predominant form of Quakerism in North America and Europe. In Africa and South America, it is more common to find programmed meetings, which are more evangelical in their theology, with a worship style more like a low-church Protestant service.

2 I admit to cringing somewhat at this traditional Quaker language, as it suggests the necessity of submitting to some sort of divine dictator. In practice, however, I find this process in complete accordance with my anarchism because I don’t conceive of the Holy Spirit (or whatever it might be called) as a separate, external being at all. Rather, it is the deepest part of myself; it is the me that is not just me that connects me to you and to the rest of the universe.


Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s goal in two senses: We favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to C4SS’s audience.

Online symposiums will include essays by a diverse range of writers presenting and debating their views on a variety of interrelated and overlapping topics, tied together by the overarching monthly theme. C4SS is extremely interested in feedback from our readers. Suggestions and comments are enthusiastically encouraged. If you’re interested in proposing topics and/or authors for our program to pursue, or if you’re interested in participating yourself, please email C4SS’s Mutual Exchange Coordinator, Cory Massimino, at cory.massimino@c4ss.org.

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