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produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent
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2017 was an important year in the annals of nuclear armament and disarmament. The UN Treaty to ban nuclear arms which was adopted in July (Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) may have been ignored by the nuclear powers but it set not just a standard but an international legal norm. The nuclear powers are fairly well isolated on this issue when it comes to the world of international diplomacy – as they should be since nuclear weapons are the ultimate in not just weapons of mass destruction but also weapons of global self destruction if a nuclear exchange develops.
But along comes North Korea and Donald Trump in the USA, threatening each other in a belligerent manner which was totally inappropriate, not least given what was at stake. Developing nuclear weapons has been a survival technique for the Northern Korean regime of Kim Jong-un which has both felt threatened by the possibility of military intervention by the likes of the USA to bring about regime change, and internally uses such threats as part of its draconian bolstering of its regime.
Now however we have Donald Trump’s USA ‘going for the nuclear option’ and proposing to develop new, so called ‘tactical’, nuclear weapons, thus making the prospects of nuclear weapons being used much more likely. The proposals are for new ‘low yield’ nuclear warheads for Trident missiles. And they are also proposing to loosen the conditions under which nuclear weapons can be used; they could be used in response to a non-nuclear attack with high level of casualties, or an attack aimed at critical infrastructure or nuclear command and control sites.
After various Cold War risky nuclear standoffs, the world looked like it was moving beyond nuclear terrorism – ‘terrorism’, using the possibility or actuality of terror and mass destruction, because that is what is involved with nuclear weapons – and there were limited moves towards nuclear disarmament (which Barack Obama failed to deliver more on, despite a Nobel Peace Prize). Now the pendulum has swung back to the illegal development of new weapons which risks new nuclear arms races and greater possibility of nuclear weapons use.
We can therefore say that Donald Trump is a nuclear terrorist. A ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons policy is particularly dangerous. The USA’s safety record with nuclear weapons is also appalling. Internationally we have missed nuclear weapons exchanges by a hairsbreadth more than once.
There are those in the nuclear powers or their apologists who say that nuclear weapons have ‘kept the peace’ and it is simply realpolitik to hold them. This is nonsense. Nuclear weapons are not only extremely dangerous and costly (depriving society of things which it could usefully have) but impractical and useless, and recognised by many generals as being such. There is no reason, given determination and good will, that nuclear weapons cannot be removed from the arsenals of the world. Of course that cannot happen without other moves to disarmament and international détente but the United Nations set the standard with its Treaty last year.
The thinking behind the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) thinking of the Cold War really is mad; who wants to press the button first and bring about the prospect of global annihilation? Unfortunately the reality is that some people would. Until nuclear weapons are abolished there will be a sword of Damocles hanging over humanity, a danger currently ever more present because the Commander in Chief and POTUS in the USA is a man distant from reality and whose number one priority in every case is almost certainly his own ego.
‘How we make decisions can be the most important decision we make’. While this statement might be difficult to support in an absolute sense, it has a certain degree of truth and in building any kind of group or movement for change we have to embody the values we espouse – “There is no way to peace – Peace is the way”
This embodiment of our values in our work is nowhere more important than in decision making. But it can be difficult to be inclusive when there are perceived ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. However taking as many people with us as possible is essential if we are building up any kind of long term movement for change. Of course there are more divisive ways of making decisions but these may – certainly in party political terms – lead to ‘swingism’ where the pendulum swings first one way, then back the other, and so on, with the prospect of long term gains being eroded by two or more steps backward on the issues concerned. This is what has been happening in some European countries over the last couple of decades to social and economic gains made previously.
It should be stated that is quite possible to disagree with the concept of trying to establish a consensus on matters in hand, and support a ‘swing’ model – in the case of those who want progressive social change that this is more likely to be established with ‘swing’ models of decision making. However when we look at, for example, retrenchment of health and social rights in the UK under Thatcher and the last couple of Conservative-led governments, we have evidence of not only the baby being thrown out with the bathwater but an attempt to demolish the house as well. The post-Second World War NHS and social welfare model in the UK was second to none; it is now a shadow of its former self. And yet what has happened is not what most people have wanted to happen.
In Northern Ireland’s sectarian jungle, on the other hand, it is also possible to have the opposite of ‘swingism’ – ‘stuckism’ – where voting and decision making becomes completely a prisoner of sectarian or other voting patterns. By partly forcing people out of any sectarian corral, to choose support across the board to maximise the effect of their own vote, consensus voting can help to unblock log jams. And Northern Ireland has not just one or two log jams but an impenetrable log mountain.
Consensus decision making is derided by some, including very informed thinkers and commentators, as too messy. It also takes some time and effort but this is not a massive amount. However altering Joan Baez’ words that “The only thing that’s been a worse flop than the organization of nonviolence has been the organization of violence”, we can say that the only thing that has been worse than attempts at consensus decision making has been attempts at conventional decision making. Brexit in the UK has been taken as ‘the will of the people’ when it was anything but that, and extremely divisive. Referenda in the Republic on including abortion in the Constitution in the 1980s were divisive and simplistic. Northern Ireland has not even had a government, even one unable to make some key decisions, for a whole year. So how can people say consensus decision making is ‘too messy’ compared to more conventional methods?
The recent deliberations of the Citizens’ Assembly in the Republic did have 76% voting in favour of allowing more than two options on a ballot paper in a constitutional referendum, and 52% voted in favour that when there are more than two options on the ballot paper in a constitutional referendum the outcome should be decided by PR STV (see below). However members were only given the options of ‘first past the post’ (a simple arithmetic majority) or PR STV as the decision making mechanism – so the option of an inclusive voting method like the Modified Borda Count was not on the table.
Of course political parties will resist voting mechanisms which they see as threatening their power or not delivering the best results for them. The old Unionist Party got away with abolishing proportional representation in Northern Ireland after partition. Fianna Fáil (then very much the dominant party) eventually tried the same thing south of the border but, enshrined in the constitution, they had to take it to the people in not one but two referendums. In the first one they nearly achieved their objective but the second time around people had seen more sense and it was clearly rejected.
However once even PR STV (Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote, the system used both North and South of the border) would have been unthinkable. While it does usually deliver a fairly reasonable correlation between the proportion of seats delivered and votes cast, it still has drawbacks. One of those drawbacks is that it, along with arrangements under the Good Friday Agreement, enable the two largest parties in good old sectarian Northern Ireland to simply appeal to their own side and still come to power. At the moment it does not even enable them to come to power but to powerlessness. And when in power it does not facilitate easy decision making.
There are different arenas where we need to make decisions. If we are talking about a very large group where voting is the only sensible way to try to come to a decision, then some voting methodology is appropriate. If it is a rather smaller group, committee or board, then thrashing out the issue may be the preferred option – but here there is the danger of ‘thrashing about’ rather than ‘thrashing out’ – in other words, decision making may be tortuous and get nowhere either because of a poor process or possibly even the divisions that exist on the issue. This is where consensus decision making in small groups comes in, and there is plenty of information on that on the INNATE website.
Part of the secret for small group consensus is to have an agreed process in place that all can refer to, that is transparent and fair. However what is appropriate for one group may be totally wrong for another, so any policy should be tailor made. But when a dispute arises is exactly the wrong time to try to develop a policy. Another key element here is having different ‘gears’ or modes of discussion; life is too short to spend endless hours discussing a trivial matter but if a matter is important and/or divisive then it is another matter. Being able to shift easily from ‘normal mode’ to a slower, more reflective, consultative mode can be essential in avoiding an escalation in conflict – and resultant rise in inability to deal with the issue. Consensus voting mechanisms can also be used by small groups as deemed appropriate.
Most of the running on the issue of consensus decision making through voting has been done, in this neck of the woods (and various other wood necks as well....) by the de Borda Institute. www.deborda.org There have been some useful instances of the Modified Borda Count (MBC), advocated by the de Borda Institute, being used – one being the naming of the Rosie Hackett Bridge in Dublin.
However several new examples have been added courtesy of a project on Consensual Decision Making run by St Columb’s Park House in Derry (see news section this issue). These have been in the ‘civil society’ rather than ‘party political’ sector. While the project identified interest in local councils and among local authority officials in the North on consensus decision making, again party political interests militated against significant take up.
However an incremental approach is the way to go on a methodology like this where people are unsure; suck it and see. In the St Columb’s Park House project, the MBC method of voting was used for a Department of Foreign Affairs Annual Reconciliation Conference (on priorities), Rathlin Development Community Association (naming the new ferry), Holywell Trust (deciding who should get funding from their Holywell Stews events), deciding on priorities for St Columb’s Park in Derry, and a decision on what form of democracy people wanted in Northern Ireland in a ‘Democracy Day’ event. These are detailed in the report on the project http://stcolumbsparkhouse.org/consensual-decision-making
‘Democracy’ is a peculiar concept in that it is something which many people, especially powerful groups, do so much to subvert and avoid while purporting to uphold it resolutely. And with a leader like President Donald Trump being elected in the USA, you can see why the autocrats of the Chinese Communist Party might be at least partly justified in seeing democracy as a dangerous conceit.
The way forward for democracy is to have greater participation and greater consensus. A key element of deciding on issues through a Modified Borda Count is in the process beforehand: analysis, debate, discussion, and the formulation of options are all key to a successful process. And if those who would seek to sway opinion one way or another know that the voting mechanism is a consensual one, then they will also know that persuading their own supporters to vote a particular way may not be enough, they also have to appeal to waiverers and even those on ‘the other side’. Strident or sectarian polemical flourishes will not win the day; reasoned argument is more likely to win new converts. Thus not only will the result better reflect society, it may also enable a more informed decision.
How far and how fast consensus voting methodologies can advance remains to be seen. The St Columbs Park House project indicates a bright future for general and civil society usage. With political parties and their vested interests it is another matter. However, as consensus decision making methodologies become better known and are seen as being less cranky (the examples above include very practical examples) then public demand for greater political party commitment in this area will grow. And even if and where consensus decision making is not used at one level (e.g. voting for TDs/MPs/MLAs/Councillors) it can still be used at another (deciding on issues in fora, councils and parliaments) or for what are deemed ‘contentious’ issues. And because something like MBC voting has inbuilt ‘checks’, a body like the Northern Ireland Assembly could use it and get rid of ‘petitions of concern’ or other conditionalities of the Good Friday Agreement which were introduced to achieve ‘balance’ and avoid abuse but can also be problematic in themselves.
There are various crises in democracy in the West and particular ramifications in Ireland, North and Republic. We would, rightly, be horrified if someone today tried to justify the common 19th century concepts of democracy as being sufficient in the modern world. Our descendents, literal and metaphorical, are likely to be horrified at 20th and early 21st century thinking on democracy. Our democratic concepts and constructs need to evolve to meet the needs of today’s, and tomorrow’s, society. Consensus decision making is a key area of development in relation to this.
Those of us who are radicals, social, green, peace or reconciliation activists, human rights supporters and so on should not be afraid of consensus decision making at any level. Yes, to get the changes made that we want we may have to work harder, and possibly longer or in a different way, to persuade people. But once we have achieved our goals then our gains will be much more secure from marauding reactionary attacks which seek to take society back decades if not generations.
Download an INNATE poster on consensus decision making.
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Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
Controllers of the Universe
The survival of every species of flora, fauna and micro-organism is dependent on the successful synchronisation of their needs with the opportunities and constraints of the ecosystem in which they live. When to flower, breed, hunt, sleep, hibernate and in many cases migrate is determined by seasonal events such as temperature and rainfall. In some cases the propagation of a species is wholly dependent on the close proximity of a single other organism which means that if the latter becomes extinct its own extinction is assured. Probably the most well know example is the Giant panda. It is almost wholly dependent on the leaves, stems and shoots of various bamboo. The loss through deforestation of the bamboo rich habitat on which the Giant panda is dependent is largely responsible for its demise with just 1,600 now living in their native habitat.
The apparent exception to this imbedded in nature phenomena is Homo sapiens or ‘wise ape’, a term coined in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus the Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician who formulated the international system of naming organisms. The irony is that our species is profoundly unwise as illustrated by our long history of committing genocide and ecocide and throwing the climatological system out of kilter. This is a system that has evolved over billions of years and on whose predictable patterns civilization and the majority of life-forms depend.
The wise ape is the only species that employs every imaginable way of transforming the planet’s biological wonderland into a poisoned and barren wasteland. Many theorists believe that our disregard for nonhumans and the integrity of the biosphere is rooted in the widespread view that we are the superior species. The magnitude of our sense of superiority is such that the majority of people believe that unlike every species that has ever existed we alone have been endowed with one of the cardinal attributes of God, immortality.
In a schizophrenic manner, as in not been unable to understand what is real, we simultaneously acknowledge that we have commandeered the entire biosphere while knowingly behaving in a way that directly undermines the coherence of the biosphere and thereby our wellbeing and that of every other life-form.
Our sense of our place in nonhuman nature is aptly depicted by two Mexican murals. One, titled Man Controller of the Universe (1934), by Diego Rivera (1886-1952), which is on a wall of the Fine Arts Museum, Mexico City. It vividly depicts the technology world humanity has created and is thoroughly absorbed believing that the purpose of our existence is to mass produce things with no time or space for quiet reflection and for nonhuman life to exist for its own ends. In the mural a man is sitting at a control suite from where he, as the representative of humanity, confidently controls the microscopic as in bacteria and the cosmic as in the stars, planets and galaxies. In the mural Portrait of the Bourgeoisie (1939-1940) by David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), which is in the headquarters of the Mexican Electricians Syndicate in Mexico City, there is among many other narratives a monstrous machine turning workers’ blood into gold coins.
The outcome of our commandeering the planet for the exclusive use of our species is poignantly illustrated in an article titled ‘Wildlife Interrupted’ by Penny van Oosterzee in New Scientist, 9 December 2017. Oosterzee informs us how the once open African continent, which for ten million years saw the annual migration of mammals numbering in millions, has become parcelled into lots by fences to raise cattle, some of which, as in Botswana, are exported to Europe. A result of this privatisation of the commons is the decimation of wildlife. Michelle Gadd of the US Fish and Wildlife Services carried out an assessment of the impact of fencing on wildlife in southern Africa between 2007 and 2008 and was dismayed by her findings. Oosterzee writes:
“Gadd uncovered reports of die-offs along fence lines in order of 300,000 wildebeest carcasses, 10,000 hartebeest and 60,000 zebra from the handful of incidental surveys carried out. Precise numbers will never be known.”
These deaths are an example of the externalization of costs which is an intrinsic characteristic of the prevailing economic model almost universally celebrated as the most outstanding of the wise ape’s list of achievements. The externalization of human wellbeing costs includes the 18,000 people who die every day from air pollution, (Andrew Simms, The Guardian, 5 December 2017), the 1.25 million people who are killed and 50 million injured every year in motor traffic collisions. (WHO, May 2017 fact sheet.) The costs also include the millions who die from water pollution, poisonous chemicals, hunger, inadequate sanitation, lack of medical care, and the stress of living in poverty.
Siqueiros’ mural, Portrait of the Bourgeoisie, offers hope in the form of the oppressed overthrowing their oppressors and thus ceasing to be the means by which their oppressors financially enrich themselves. With reference to this Oxfam recently published a report which claims that 82 per cent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to 1 per cent of the global population.
Hope also lies in humanity awakening to the dire situation the biosphere is in and rather than accepting the absurd as normal becoming agents of constructive nonviolent change. The progressive change in a wide range of social attitudes in a great many countries over the past 50 years shows that such an awakening is possible. The question is, as in any page-turning drama, can we change our voracious self-aggrandizing culture before it is too late? If we think a messiah is going to save us and therefore we need do nothing too radical or all we need is ever-increasing economic growth as reiterated recently at the World Economic Forum at Davos, we and the species we share the planet with our doomed.