Sunday, February 14, 2010

In which I propose a new way of thinking about Quaker business process, and consider how this relates to education.

For non-Quakers, Quaker Meeting for Business works about like this: Issues are brought before the Meeting, Friends talk about them, and try to reach unity. That unity is not expressed in a vote, and is considered incomplete when anyone feels they cannot assent to it. Quaker Meeting for Worship is conducted in silence, which is broken only when a person thinks the Holy Spirit is leading hir to speak.

Democracy might be thought of, broadly, as the attempt to design the decision-making structure of a society so that its decisions reflect the will of the society as a whole as accurately as possible. By its very nature, any attempt in this direction must be imperfect: because "the will of the society" is a pretty nebulous concept, and because the will of the society changes over time, the best we can hope for is to approximate the will of the society.

It's also worth noting that the goal of democracy should be to have decisions approximate the will of the people they actually govern. If our only goal was to approximate the will of the people making the decision, the easiest way to create a perfect democracy would be to have all decisions made by a single person, since people tend to be quite good at making decisions that approximate their own wills.

The key aspect of this that I want to draw attention to is that since people change over time, the society to be governed by a particular decision is not necessarily (in fact, is never) identical to the society that made the decision. Even if it contains the same members, those members change over time, and they may change their minds about what they want during the period governed by the decision.

Because of this, when we aim for democratic decisions to represent the will of the society, we should at least partly be aiming for them to represent the future will of the society, in addition to the present will of the society.

With this in mind, I'd like to look at methods of approximation, with a specific focus on ways of approximating the future behavior of things. In mathematics, in trying to approximate the behavior of a curve near a particular point, one of the standard tools is a Taylor polynomial.

The most rudimentary instance of this is the Taylor polynomial of degree zero, which attempts to approximate the future behavior of a curve using a horizontal line. In other words, we look at the current position of the curve, and assume that the curve will remain in that position in the future.

For example, the Taylor polynomial of degree zero for e^x near x=1 looks like this:Even though it's a perfect approximation of the current value of e^x, it's not especially good as an estimate of the value of e^x once you get even a short distance away, because it doesn't reflect the fact that e^x actually changes quite quickly.

Most traditional democratic -- i.e., voting-based -- models can be thought of as analogous to this. Since a vote can only represent an individual's view at a particular moment, the most we can hope for from any system that bases its decision-making on a vote is that it be a perfect approximation of the current will of the society (and usually it's not even that, since most of our methods of taking into account differences in strength of opinion, or of looking at multiple options, are ham-fisted at best).

The next step in the Taylor approximation process -- the Taylor polynomial of degree 1 -- attempts to create an function that not only matches the current position of the curve, but also its rate of change. It creates a tangent line to the curve. In the case of e^x near x=1, the Taylor polynomial of degree 1 looks like this (shown in blue):
It goes without saying that degree-1 Taylor polynomials tend to be much better than degree-0 approximations.

And this, I think, is part of the beauty of Quaker business process. Because the decision is shaped in exactly the same way as the actual will of the society -- through conversation, convincement, careful listening, and synthesis -- our decision-making process provides a better approximation of our future views. Because opinions don't change by voting, but by conversation and synthesis, decisions made through voting will tend to be far less effective at approximating future changes of opinion than decisions made through more organic processes.

Problems within Quaker and Quaker-like processes

Some Quaker readers might find my analysis so far disturbingly secular. Quakers don't tend to think of our business process in secular terms -- I've heard many Quakers adamantly reject the use of terms like "consensus" to describe Quaker process, because these secular terms don't accurately capture the religious aspect of our business process. I've heard Quakers refer to our business process as being about seeking "consensus not just with one another but with God," or that it's important that our decisions capture "the Light in each of us" rather than simply each of our opinions.

And, despite the lack of "God talk" in the above, I do think the religious aspect of Quaker business process has an important place in our understanding of its value. That place, I think, can be seen in looking at the times when Quaker and Quaker-like processes have failed to produce unity.

Radical groups adopting Quaker-like processes have had mixed results. Within the peace and anti-nuclear movement, there are great accounts of the difficulties presented by Quaker-like process. Francesca Polletta, in Freedom is an Endless Meeting, talks about how in a movement whose rhetoric centered around a politics of absolute conscience, Quaker process gave the opportunity for people, based on their individual consciences, to stand in the way of the collective will, unaffected by either the arguments of their opponents or the relative unpopularity of their beliefs.

Murray Bookchin offers a different account, in talking about the Clamshell Alliance, a nonviolent direct action movement opposing the construction of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant:
I can personally attest to the fact that within the Clamshell Alliance, consensus was fostered by often cynical Quakers and by members of a dubiously "anarchic" commune that was located in Montague, Massachusetts. This small, tightly knit faction, unified by its own hidden agendas, was able to manipulate many Clamshell members into subordinating their goodwill and idealistic commitments to those opportunistic agendas. The de facto leaders of the Clamshell overrode the rights and ideals of the innumerable individuals who entered it and undermined their morale and will.

In order for that clique to create full consensus on a decision, minority dissenters were often subtly urged or psychologically coerced to decline to vote on a troubling issue, inasmuch as their dissent would essentially amount to a one-person veto. This practice, called "standing aside" in American consensus processes, all too often involved intimidation of the dissenters, to the point that they completely withdrew from the decision-making process, rather than make an honorable and continuing expression of their dissent by voting, even as a minority, in accordance with their views. Having withdrawn, they ceased to be political beings -- so that a "decision" could be made. More than one "decision" in the Clamshell Alliance was made by pressuring dissenters into silence and, through a chain of such intimidations, "consensus" was ultimately achieved only after dissenting members nullified themselves as participants in the process.
Andrew Cornell also talks about how the focus on consensus within the Movement for a New Society led to a de-radicalization of the movement, as new members arrived who were more interested in the anarchist, countercultural lifestyle MNS offered than in the nonviolent direct action that had been its hallmark early on.

Problems with this decision-making model have occurred within Quaker meetings, as well. In Beyond Majority Rule, Michael Sheeran talks about how birthright Friends (people who were members of Meetings by virtue of having been born to Quaker parents) who did not attend Meeting showed up to Meeting for Business in order to block decisions regarding integration and
anti-racist action.

I think, though, that we can think of all of these negative experiences, not as flaws in the Quaker business process itself, but as stagnation of the general will that the process is supposed to reflect. Quaker process can only work as an approximation of future changes in our opinion if our opinions are actually subject to change -- if we are actually following through on the process of re-examining our opinions by conversation, convincement and synthesis. If not, then even when people can cajole a victory out of the process itself -- in ways like what Bookchin was describing -- this victory is itself doomed to failure, since it doesn't represent actual evolution of will.

It is in the process of persuasion and synthesis that I see the action of God in our meetings. Although secular, cynical methods can be used to manipulate the business process to achieve particular results, those results will be hollow without underlying efforts to hear the Light in one another, and to allow the sense of meeting to emerge from this practice. And it's here that I see the value of the Meeting for Worship -- by learning to listen to one another speak out of the silence, to suppress our initial responses, and to listen to one another's messages as we would the sermon of a priest, we prepare ourselves to be shaped into the sort of unity which can be reflected in our business process.

What This Means for Quaker Education

In thinking about education, it's important to think about who the education process is for. Most of us agree that education must be for the student -- but not for the student as ze is now, but for the student as ze shall be.

How can we best craft a decision-making process that can approximate who the child will be in several years? Looking at the principles we were talking about above, it's important to incorporate knowledge about the direction in which the child is moving, as well as the child's current self.

Teachers are valuable in this process because they see enough children grow to understand how our priorities change as we get older. Their theoretical background in child development may also be useful, although it must continually be questioned, because most of our theories of child development hinge on the fiction of a "normal" child, a concept which inevitably confuses our notions of the way most children do develop with our notions of how all children should develop. They are also the people whose focus is most completely on the development of the child, rather than on the current state of the child.

Parents are also really important, because they ideally have the most complete knowledge of the child's environment, and are best equipped to predict the future shape of that environment.

And, of course, we mustn't leave out the child. The child ideally has the most complete knowledge of who they are now (although the reflection that leads to this knowledge is an important skill in itself) -- and who the child is now is an immensely important component of who the child will become.

It's crucial that none of these components be left out of our decision-making process. When we assess children's current status and plan for their future, we must endeavor to base that decision on the best possible approximation of what the child will want to have happened, when they look back. And none of those parties is equipped to provide that picture independently.

This process of unity-seeking among teacher, parent and child is the most important component of education. Ignoring children can lead us to ignore the need for individuality, and to see children as clay to be shaped rather than as people to be nurtured. Ignoring parents can lead us to ignore the child's social and emotional development by neglecting the importance of developing relationships with others. Ignoring teachers can lead us to a self-absorbed cowardice, which cares only for present well-being and flees from challenge and conflict.

As Quakers, we believe God makes Hir will known through our corporate life, and that each of us has an irreplaceable contribution to make to that Whole. Let's not forget that, when we think about how we teach our children.

Postscript: I had in my mind while I was writing this post the following quote from G.K. Chesterton, which I first found in Dorothy Day's autobiography:
Tradition is democracy extended through time. Tradition means giving the vote to that most obscure of classes, our ancestors. Tradition is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who are walking about.
I couldn't find a way of using it, in particular because I'm talking about the exact opposite conception of "democracy extended through time" -- one which attempts to enfranchise those who do not yet exist, rather than those who no longer exist. I think this is the truer conception of democracy, as I defined it above, but I confess I find something beautiful in Chesterton's conception as well.

For the record, just in case: When I'm dead, don't worry about making sure I'm enfranchised. You fuckers do whatever the hell you want.


  1. I agree completely with the importance of the parent-child-teacher relationship.

    To start with, I don't understand what the word "democracy" really means or why it is important. I question the source of the impetus to build governmental structures whose main goal is to enfranchise future generations. (Ego?) To me, this desire implies a projection of one's own conception of a "perfect society" or "perfect world" onto what one might perceive as being a current, imperfect reality. What does "perfect" mean? Even if you use another word, the idea of perfection is one of some future state beyond which further growth is impossible. Striving for perfection, in my estimation, is at its core no different than striving for control.

    Holding up an improved, future world the main goal of our work is counterproductive as it hinders us from Being in current time. If we live and work in the here and now, the future will take care of itself.

    The following quote from "The Illinois Nation" by James Scott, describing the life of Illinois's indigenous peoples, comes to mind:
    "The social unit of survival was the tribe. The success of the chase or of war depended on cooperative efforts. The good and the bad had to be shared, also the work, the sacrifice, the bounty of the hunt and the spoils of war. There was a strong community spirit even without written laws. The almost unbreakable power of tribal customs and traditions assured survival from generation to generation."

  2. Interesting reflections. A couple of thoughts.

    First, I liked the idea that, "Because the decision is shaped in exactly the same way as the actual will of the society -- through conversation, convincement, careful listening, and synthesis -- our decision-making process provides a better approximation of our future views." I expect approximation to future views wouldn't be the only aspect of the underlying will that was better represented/treated through this process. HOWEVER, what do you say of situations in which, due to numbers, such genuine conversation is not possible? I see it, personally, as an abdication of thought to reply that, well then, society will just have to be structured in small units. This is initially attractive, but the down-sides really come through when you think about it.

    Second, it was interesting listening to the first-hand accounts of problems with the process of "standing aside" etc. Your response seems to be to say, broadly, that this procedure can only work if people treat it properly. I don't know that I feel this is sufficient. I mean, fair enough, it's not like the process itself was shown to have a flaw, like a faulty machine. But shouldn't a procedure be...robust enough that it can cope with the full range of characters that inhabit this earth, within reason?

    It is probably true to say, as you do, that cynical, manipulative methods win only hollow victories. But the problem has always been that, because we are half animal, manipulation/violence etc, whilst it may not have right (or the common will) on it's side, has unfortunately, with the power granted it via victory, done so much damage. It would be nice if there were a way, without killing the process entirely, of at least making it a bit more resistant to this. (This is rather abstract without examples. Hope it makes sense).

    My feeling is, that we are not yet ready. Or at least, that massive changes must occur, sociological or technological or both-and-more, before we are. ...I suppose there is an ever ongoing, ever spreading 'light'. Slow though.

  3. Ted,

    I think striving for democracy is, in a lot of ways, the opposite of striving for perfection. It's ceding control rather than cementing control. It centers on the acknowledgment of the need for others' wisdom, and the creation of structures that allow that wisdom to be expressed.

    Where I agree with you is that we can't only base our actions on the hope of an improved future world -- a principle I interpret as relating to the unity of means and ends, but it seems like what you're talking about is the wholesale abandonment of ends.

    I'm not sure how broadly to interpret your "If we live and work in the here and now, the future will take care of itself" comment. How do we tell which work is valuable, if not partly through reference to its intended effects? For example, a naive reading would suggest that cooking is a violation of this principle, because I'm only cooking out of the desire for an improved future world (one in which I have food which is ready to eat).

    I understand that this isn't what you mean, but I'm not entirely sure where to draw the line between cooking and organizing decision-making structures. (It's worth noting that I'm not mostly talking about setting up decision-making structures for future generations, but for our future selves.) Can you clarify?


    The best answer I can give is that I don't think there exist structures that are impervious to abuse. Looking at Angel Economics, I can see a number of ways for a few individuals acting in bad faith to hijack collective goals. I don't think this is a flaw in the system -- rather, I think it speaks to the fact that when we try to create abuse-proof structures, those structures inevitably become oppressive, because they always paint with too broad a brush.

    In other words, rather than trying to create abuse-proof structures, we need to work on not being abusive people -- and our forms of organization should be aimed at enabling us to act in good faith, rather than preventing us to act in bad faith. Peter Maurin talked about building a society "where it is easier for people to be good."

    So no, I don't think we're ready for this kind of democracy. But I also don't think we're going to get ready by waiting until we're ready.

  4. True enough

    I wonder - do you have any references/links to more detailed accounts of these processes? Like, from maybe the point of view of a reflective participant. It's very interesting.

  5. The two that I've liked have been Sheeran's book (linked above) and Bradney and Cownie's Living Without Law.

    Sheeran's a Catholic, but did fieldwork in American Quaker meetings for years; Bradney and Cownie are British Quakers.

    There are also some resources released by, e.g.,, but they tend to take a more religious approach, which I'm not sure is what you're looking for (I'm currently catching some flak in other fora for even talking about Quaker democracy -- since its purpose is to discern the will of God, some argue, Quaker Meeting for Business should be considered a theocracy, not a democracy, and shouldn't be thought of as part of the same tendency as radical participatory or deliberative democracy).

  6. Thank you, appreciated. (I'm not averse to a religious approach btw. But I think I believe that more has to be done to bypass ordinary ways of thinking, to get at anything higher...more than mere stillness/silence. I don't trust reason).

    By the way, what do you say on this issue of numbers?

  7. It's true that most of the methods of radical democracy tend to assume fairly small numbers, and that it can often seem that they wouldn't work with small large numbers. I also agree that we shouldn't be doctrinaire about this, and justify it by saying, "Well, we'll just have to abandon large-scale organization." For one thing, that involves forgoing a lot of nice things that come with large-scale organization; for another, this abdicates our responsibility for inequality among communities.

    On the other hand, it often seems like the question, "Can consensus be used with millions of people?" is often used to derail conversations about radical democracy -- unless you have millions of people handy, let's hitch the cart we have to the horse we have. There is some evidence that Quaker and Quaker-like decision-making processes can be used in groups with size ranging at least up to a thousand (I think Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting tends to be somewhere between 500 and 1000) -- which is more anarchists than I can muster.

    For now, I suppose, what I'm saying is that it's really not my job to be planning a decision-making process for millions of people. This doesn't mean that there will never be a situation in which millions of people need to make a decision, but it does mean that it will be much easier for them to conceive and execute a process that will work when all (or most) of those millions of people have had experiences of radical democracy on the scale of a thousand people, or ten thousand. If, before we can begin using and advocating for a particular democratic model, we need to know for sure that it's going to work in a vast set of mostly hypothetical situations, we're doomed at the outset.

    But let me try to give a real answer.

    In general, when consensus is obstructed, it's because people have opinions which are more important to them than the process, the decision and/or the community (or because they've been conditioned by voting-based systems to not consider the effects of their vote on the body as a whole -- there is no "symbolic no" vote in a consensus-based system). So when problems arise from large sizes, I think it has a lot to do with the abstractness of the decision-making body: since "the United States" as a concept isn't meaningful to me, I'm less likely to be cooperative in a decision made by "the United States."

    I think problems of size can largely be solved, not by refusing to be involved in large-scale decision-making, but by insisting that decisions be made on the smallest scale possible. For example: let Group A be all the teachers, administrators, parents, and students at a particular high school, and Group B be all the math teachers in Chicago. Even though Group A is probably somewhat larger (say, about eight thousand rather than about two thousand), I'd expect Group A to be an easier body in which to make decisions -- because there are some decisions which really require all of those people to be on board and involved in their execution, whereas there are few things that evey math teacher in the city needs to be agreed on (although discussions among all those people might be useful). It is, for me, reasonable to imagine a consensus among all the people in a school -- because the people involved recognize the necessity of working together to make the school work. But as a math teacher, I could easily imagine myself walking out of an atempt to make citywide decisions about math curriculum -- because I felt they were being insensitive to my particular needs or views, and I realized I could get along perfectly well without them.

  8. [continued]

    The point is, people generally have three options in a consensus process: (1) refuse to come to agreement; (2) leave the decision-making community; (3) make some compromises. The more unappealing options 1 and 2 look, the more likely we are to have the political will to make the compromises that need to get made. I haven't seen it on a large scale, but in principle it's possible.

    I'd also say that there are technological advances being made which make the prospect of radical democracy on a large scale look much more appealing. Our increasing capacity to circulate, in real time, multiple drafts of a proposal, and to compile comments and proposed changes in a single document (I'm largely thinking about stuff like Google Wave here), are huge steps toward making this process accessible to large numbers of people. I haven't had any chances to try something like this, because of Wave's exclusivity and compatibility issues, but I think there's a lot of potential there.

  9. I think your initial point is fair enough. Humans are hugely complicated, and human institutions are most wisely approached with a practical mindset, exploring the possibilities that are within fairly short, achievable range. Maybe it will turn out that fully-participatory forms of decision making have a numbers limit, maybe something else will emerge. But any long-range theoretical answer is likely to be very superficial.

    The only problem I have with this is that things are in a pretty bad way right now. I'm not an apocalypse-monger, but still, I'm not sure we've got, you know, a few centuries for the human spirit to mature through patient building. The destructive technological power in men's hands now changes the game.

    I was thinking about your point that, in consensus systems, people must value the PROCESS over any particular opinion/position; or at least, the value of the process must have a lot of force and weight with them. And about the kinds of things that would enter into them valuing the process in that way.

    One of the issues that scale introduces is a detachment. Your example with the teachers is informative. What makes the difference is a common culture, mutual concern about something, and so on. This would fade over large scales...unless there was a strong civic culture in which people felt deeply implicated. That's not an impossibility though, as I see it.



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