In my last post I noted that after a lifetime of calling himself an anarchist Murray Bookchin a few years before his death rejected the label in favor of what he called “Communalism,” in part because he understood anarchism to insist on “consensus” rather than majority rule as the only legitimate basis for governance, and he believed such an insistence if carried out in practice would lead to the destruction of society itself. I also noted, however, that in an earlier essay Bookchin expressed his belief that consensus was achievable in small groups of people who were familiar with each other, and that consensus if achievable was obviously preferable to majority rule as a basis of governance.
A few observations: It always remains true that natural justice is necessarily the only law. All the black robes and star-spangled banners sewed by all the seamstresses in the world can’t change that. Put John Brown in a Hundred with 99 slave-owners and John Brown will still be right and all the slave-owners wrong. The only value of democracy, whether based on consensus or based on majority rule, is in its relative likelihood of enacting justice.
Contra the later Bookchin, consensus doesn’t put in the hands of any one individual in a society a veto power over whatever the rest of the society might want to do. If 80 want to take some course of action and 20 don’t, the 80 may of course still do what they like so long as they don’t try to compel the 20 to do likewise. And indeed, there is the heart of the matter, for the proper business of government is compulsion, by force if necessary. And therefore government necessarily precludes complete unanimity as a prerequisite for the exercise of its proper function. Government by “consensus” can’t require so much. Certainly the man caught in a crime, for example, will not ordinarily “consent” to the punishment the rest of society might visit upon him. Consensus therefore doesn’t entail universal consent.
It requires something close, however. There is no reason in the world that the vote of 51% should be deemed sufficient to justify forcibly compelling the other 49%. The ancient forms listed in the title of this post point the way to a government by consensus. A tithing was ten men, generally neighbors if not kin. A hundred was 10 tithings, or 100 men. (Incidentally, a hide was land sufficient for one family, and provided a basis for land value taxation.) Certainly a group of 10 would have been small enough to make consensus regularly achievable. One imagines that, given that the very nature and purpose of government is to compel when necessary, 9 out of 10 would have counted for all practical purposes as a consensus, as would by extension 90 out of a 100 in the Hundred.
However these tithings and Hundreds might choose to operate, even if they adopted as part of their constitution and by laws some form of majority rule, their real value would be in providing a forum for what Bookchin called “face-to-face democracy,” bottom-up confederal governance, and relative ease of exit (i.e. voting with one’s feet).