Horizontal structures and direct democracy through consensus

In our daily lives we all are to some extent controlled by others, who don’t understand or care about our desires and needs. At the same time all of us exert power over others in varying degrees. Working on horizontal structures is an attempt to break out of this system of control. What we need is finding ways of relating to each other abolishing hierarchy and leaders. It’s about developing a different understanding of power namely people working with each other rather than seeking control and command.

“We all know that happiness comes from control over our own lives, not other people’s lives.”


The alternatives to the current system are already here, growing in the gaps between the cobblestones of state authority and corporate control.

Direct democracy is the idea that people should have control over their lives, that power should be shared by all rather than concentrated in the hands of a few. Direct democratic systems aim to find ways of balancing individual needs and desires with the need for cooperation.

As many other grassroots groups, Rhythms of Resistance bands make decisions using direct democracy through consensus. There are no formal hierarchies within the groups (e.g. presidents, representatives, privileges, fixed maestr@s…) and we aim to share the responsibilities within the group as a whole. When this is not possible we try to make sure that the responsibility rotates amongst the band members and that the skills that it requires are shared in equal conditions. Still informal hierarchies arise within our bands. Thus we periodically deal with them consciously by monitoring and reflecting our collective processes (e.g. using tools like facilitation during our assemblies, self-reflection sessions, skill sharing workshops, positive discrimination techniques, or other methods that help raise awareness…).

One very important tool to equalize power and take everybody’s concerns into account is taking decisions by means of consensus. Consensus decision making is a commitment to find solutions that are acceptable to all. Instead of voting for an item, consensus is about finding common ground with decisions reached in a dialogue between equals, who take each other seriously and who recognize each other’s equal rights and needs. No decision is made against the expressed will of an individual or a minority. Instead the group endeavors to adapt to all its members’ needs.

In consensus, every person has the power to make changes in the system, and to prevent changes that they find unacceptable. Everybody’s right to veto a decision means that minorities cannot just be ignored, but that creative solutions which deal with their concerns have to be found. Consensus is more than just compromise, it means respectful dialogue between equals.

Some Ideas

Taking a decision can be an organic process. Still it is helpful to have some guidelines for that. If we want to decide something in plenaries or smaller groups, we usually try to reach a consensus more or less that way:

To get a comprehensive overview of the issue at hand, we first gather information about it and clarify the key questions. After that we discuss it for a while, i.e. share thoughts, opinions and concerns; explore initial ideas and their pros and cons- During the discussion we already use hand signs to show our support or rejection of ideas in order to make everyone aware of each other’s mood and evaluation of those notions and positions. Hand signs allow for nonverbal and immediate expression of one’s feelings towards an issue. They are a helpful tool to also enable group members who don’t dare speaking up verbally, to still express their feelings. At the same time they don’t hinder the discussion and are helpful to ensure that discussions don’t get too emotional.

Only after this discussion we start to make specific and practical proposals, i.e. explain our suggestions of how to solve the problem, how to deal with the issue, how to continue, what to do next, and so on. Those proposals should address people’s key concerns. People now get a chance to voice remaining concerns. Amendments may make the proposal more acceptable. Finally we check whether there is an agreement or not, this includes

  • Asking for blocks (=fundamental disagreement with the core of the proposal, not being able to live with the proposal). If there are blocks, we need a new proposal (Blocks should be handled with care. Usually blocks are rare, since the concerns should be dealt with beforehand during the discussion phase)
  • Asking for stand asides (=minor objections, being unable to support the proposal, but unwilling to stop the group → “leaving” the decision)
  • Asking for reservations (= having some reservations that the others should acknowledge, but being willing to still decide for the proposal).
  • Asking for agreement (=supporting the proposal and being willing to conduct it)

If there are strong disagreements we try to find a better solution. If there is a veto (i.e. block) against what was proposed, we need to find a solution that everyone can live with. Sometimes this means trying to gather more information about the issue, discuss it more thoroughly, exchange more thoughts on it, and be creative. If we reached an agreement, we implement the decision by specifying who is gonna do what exactly, when and how.


A useful tool for decision making through consensus is facilitation. In smaller groups the facilitator’s role may be shared by everyone or rotated informally. In bigger groups or as soon as one person feels the need of a clearly designated facilitator, the whole group is to find one (the person who feels the need of a facilitator should not be urged to take that job). In any case everyone, not only the facilitator, should feel responsible for the process! We try to use facilitation to help each member of the group express hir feelings and concerns. Facilitation includes:
  • Creating the agenda of the meeting together with the group.
  • Keeping the meeting focused on one issue at a time.
  • Making sure everyone can be involved in the discussion (taking hands, encouraging quiet people to say something if they like, limiting over-talking).
  • Summarizing (also agreements and issues that need to be further discussed).
  • Testing for agreements.
  • Watching the vibes (=emotional atmosphere). If needed addressing them.