“Real Democracy”: Negotiating Difference within Consensus

Caught Between Habermas and Mouffe

From Syntagma Square to Zuccotti Park many protesters claim to be exercising a novel idea of democratic politics, one which breaks away from the worn-out paradigms of representative democracy by presenting itself as genuinely inclusive, direct and participatory. One of the most visible slogans amongst the European Indignados movements is that of “democracia real”, meaning “real democracy”. Similarly, in the US Occupy movements many speak of new kind of democracy called “consensus democracy”[1].

This new type of politics is exercised in the hundreds of open assemblies occurring worldwide in various occupied squares. It is referred to as “real democracy” because decisions are not taken by majority vote but rather through extensive deliberation over decisions which all consent to.

And yet we may ask, what is actually “new” about consensus democracy? And is it bringing any significant contribution to democratic theory? It is useful to compare consensus democracy with other democratic theories which claim to be just as participatory, direct and inclusive. Consensus democracy in fact shares many traits with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of “deliberative democracy” and Chantal Mouffe’s theory of “agonistic democracy”. From this brief analysis, we will see that the major challenge faced by these theories is the accommodation of social plurality within the process of achieving a collective consensus.

How does Consensus Decision Making Work?

Consensus decision-making offers a procedure through which participants of an assembly may take decisions collaboratively through deliberation. The decisions taken through this process are not necessarily ones that all individuals support wholeheartedly, but ones that everyone can live with[2]. As such, its goal is the facilitation of a deliberative procedure in which proposals may be reworked so as to accommodate as many interests as possible.

Consensus decision-making is an inclusive, participatory, collaborative, agreement-seeking and cooperative method of deliberation. It therefore attempts to remedy the exclusionary byproducts of majority vote and top-down approaches towards decision making[3]. However, it is not a process limiting itself to the achievement of compromise; rather, it attempts to construct new proposals from the confrontation of different ideas[4].

Participants in the assembly are helped by facilitators, which aid the smooth running of the discussion. An impartial moderator keeps the discussion on track and makes sure that anyone wanting to speak is allowed to do so. Other facilitators keep time and take down the minutes (this guarantees transparency). In order not to interrupt the discussion with applause, jeers or boos, sign language signals are practiced: the waving of open palms (twinkling) expresses consent, the crossing of the arms signifies dissent[5].

Assembly discussions produce proposals which are tested for consent. Participants have four choices when faced with a proposal. Firstly, they may express consent. Secondly, they may stand aside, signaling that they don’t fully support the proposal but that they are not against it. Thirdly, they may raise concerns and ask that it be modified. Lastly, they may block it, thereby effectively vetoing it. If this occurs, the proposal returns to assembly discussion, where it is modified/amended and re-tested for consensus until all consent to it. Blocking a proposal is a serious matter. It means that a participant deeply disagrees with it and that she/he will leave the assembly if it passes[6].

This type of democratic politics has been adopted by the Occupy and Indignados movements as an alternative to the “politics as usual” paradigm which has crippled our democratic institutions. Its leaderless and non-hierarchical mode of organization -which finds its only legitimate voice in the open, egalitarian and transparent popular assembly- provides an alternative to both traditional party-politics as well as vanguard-driven political struggle. Consensus democracy is more than anything a procedure: a process which allows for a more inclusive, direct and participatory exercise of democracy.

Habermas and Deliberative Democracy

In a similar way Jürgen Habermas’s democratic theory aims at creating a type of consensus based on extensive deliberation.  Habermas asserts that there exists a type rationality implicit in the act of communication between individuals. Communicative rationality grants legitimacy to deliberation in virtue of its intelligibility, correctness, sincerity and truth. If two individuals feel that the discussion they are having is characterized by these attributes the outcome of their deliberation will be perceived by both as rational and therefore legitimate[7].

Habermas then develops the concept of the “ideal speech situation”, an ideal space in which perfect and balanced deliberation occurs: where there is full participation, where all are equal, all have a voice, and where there are no asymmetrical power relationships. These conditions allow for the maximization of communicative rationality. If we were to re-model our political institutions on the ideal speech situation the decisions reached through such a process would be endowed with a rational consensus, and thus garner increased legitimacy. Decisions taken through this process are legitimate and enjoy a rational consensus when they are determined by the quality of the better argument rather than power[8].

He is therefore arguing that increased democratic deliberation and participation grant legitimacy to the decision making process . Introducing something akin to the ideal speech situation within our political institutions (and in civil society) would begin to restore the democratic legitimacy which they currently lack[9]. Deliberative democracy therefore attempts to produce a rational consensus between rational participants, achieved through a deliberative procedure which ensures inclusion, participation and communicative equality.

Mouffe and Agonistic Democracy

Chantal Mouffe wholeheartedly rejects the possibility of a consensus reached through the procedures of deliberative democracy. For her, Habermas fails to recognize the true nature of the political, which is not underlined by rationalism but rather by political antagonism. Mouffe believes that society is irreducibly plural, in the sense that there exist a multiplicity of different identities and ideologies which often possess irreconcilable and diametrically opposed positions. The idea that all identities may deliberate on the basis of a shared communicative rationality is therefore implausible. Also, the idea that an unadulterated and unbiased ideal speech situation should serve as a model is unrealistic[10]. Mouffe’s main critique is that Habermas understands of a rational consensus specifically in Eurocentric and liberal terms, a consensus founded primarily on individual rights and the rule of law. This excludes, a priori, individuals and collective identities who do not fully identify with liberal tenets. Such groups are therefore perceived as irrational or premodern (aboriginal peoples or Islamist movements for example) whom often react antagonistically towards impositions of liberal consensus. As such, a rational consensus may perversely exclude difference as it would not allow irrational ideas into the deliberative process[11].

For Mouffe, the future of democratic politics lies in the transformation of antagonistic social conflict into agonistic political confrontation. Instead of absorbing social plurality into a universal liberal-democratic framework we must erect the democratic institutions and discourses which allow for increased political confrontation between different ideas and identities. The sharing of the symbolic spaces and participatory democratic institutions in which to exercise our democratic rights attempts to defuse antagonism by transforming it into “agonistic” confrontation. This implies a confrontation not between enemies but between political adversaries[12]. Mouffe concludes that the “stuff” of democracy is political confrontation. Attempting to reach a final rational consensus spells the death of democracy because it puts an end to political confrontation which is the life-blood of democratic politics[13]. The type of consensus emerging from such a Mouffe’s theory is therefore not a universally shared consensus but one emerging from democratic confrontation:

“This is how I envisage the agonistic struggle, a struggle between different interpretations of shared principles, a conflictual consensus: consensus on the principles, disagreement about their interpretation”[14]

Occupy: deliberative or agonistic?

While Habermas justifies his democratic theory on the possibility of an universal rational consensus, Mouffe founds hers directly on political confrontation. The first seeks the absorption of political confrontation within consensus, the second makes political confrontation its raison d’être. But where does consensus decision-making enter this debate?

Deliberative and consensus democracy share the fact that they both offer a procedure through which to democratize decision making. However the main difference between them is that underlining deliberative democracy is the assumption that all participants share some understanding of what constitutes rationality. Yet, Mouffe has revealed that the understanding of this alleged universal rationality is specifically a liberal one, and hence is capable of excluding individuals whom do not identify with it. Contrarily, consensus decision-making makes no such assumptions. Its primary goal is to create the space and process in which egalitarian deliberation and decision-making between different political identities may occur.

In respect to the accommodation of social plurality, consensus democracy as practiced by the Occupy and Indignados movements is closer to Mouffe’s agonistic democracy. It does not seek to absorb different political identities into a rational consensus but attempts to accommodate difference temporarily precisely through deliberative confrontation. The assemblies in the Occupy movements are very confrontational as their participants hail from disparate political positions on the ideological spectrum, from the liberal to the anarchist. Discussions are both lively and intense. And yet, consensus is more than often reached precisely because they are allowed to confront each other politically and forced to reach temporary collective decisions – which may always be improved and modified in the future. This allows the assemblies to recognize what Mouffe calls the irreducible plurality of the social; they understand that we are all different politically, culturally and socially, and that difference cannot be absorbed by any idea of universal consensus.

Moreover, the ability of any participant to block a proposal forces the assembly to recognize and negotiate with minority views, an issue which most democratic orders systematically ignore and overrule. The consensus reached in the Occupy movements is therefore a contingent one: the product of temporary and negotiated discursive articulations and the child of an open, egalitarian and participatory democratic procedure. And these few facts alone, are truly breaking new ground within the field of political theory.


Habermas, J. 1996, Between Facts and Norms. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK

Hartnett, T. The Basics of Consensus Decision Making [online] Group Facilitation, available at http://www.groupfacilitation.net/Articles%20for%20Facilitators/The%20Basics%20of%20Consensus%20Decision%20Making.html

Mouffe, C. 2000, The Democratic Paradox. Verso:  Essex, UK

Mouffe, C. 2005, On The Political. Routledge: Abingdon, UK

Mouffe, C. 2005, Articulated Power Relations – Markus Miessen in conversation with Chantal Mouffe [online] available at: http://roundtable.kein.org/node/545

Seeds for Change, 2010 Consensus Decision Making. Seedsforchange.org.uk, available at: http://seedsforchange.org.uk/free/consensus

Seeds for Change, Making Decisions by Consensus. Seedsforchange.org.uk, available at: http://seedsforchange.org.uk/free/practicalconsensus.pdf

[2] Making decisions by consensus

[3] Hartnett, Tim. The Basics of Consensus Decision Making, http://www.grouopfacilitation.net

[4] Consensus decision Making seedsforchange.org.uk

[6] Consensus Decision Making, seedsforchange.org.uk p6

[7] Habermas 1996,  p119

[8] Habermas 1996,  p226

[9] Habermas 1996,  p304

[10] Mouffe 2000, 49

[11] Mouffe 2000, p46

[12] Mouffe 2005, p16

[13] Mouffe 2005, p31

[14] Mouffe interview


Filed under Chantal Mouffe, democracy, Democratic Theory, Habermas, Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, Participatory Democracy, social movements

9 responses to ““Real Democracy”: Negotiating Difference within Consensus

  1. Lincoln

    I enjoyed “Real Democracy”: Negotiating Difference within Consensus, however I think you confused the difference in Habermas between the form and content of deliberation, that is, the rationality and background consensus that is pressuposed when undertaking deliberation and the actual outcomes of deliberation. Habermas agrees that consensus is not expected from the outcome of deliberation, and thus we must employ the type of consensus mechanisms/procedures you speak of in relation to Occupy. At the end of the day Mouffe and Habermas are not that far apart. However, I think the participatory deliberations practiced by Occupy have something to teach both Mouffe and Habermas with respect to the actual workings of deliberation (which Mouffe in particular avoids detailing).

  2. Hi Lincoln, thanks for reading my work.

    You rightly point out a key issue in the Habermas-Mouffe debate, namely, that it is easy to confuse what Habermas assumes a rational consensus is. I think that the strength of Mouffe’s critique of Habermas lies in her questioning the a priori possibility of a hypothetical rational deliberation.
    I agree that Habermas does not presuppose that a rational outcome is actually possible in every deliberative procedure.
    Mouffe’s might be a relativising maneuver, but it is necessary for her to assert the primacy of contingent power articulations over abstract ideas such as the ideal speech situation. And you’re absolutely right: she never describes or mentions how new deliberative, direct and participatory processes would work, which I find very frustrating…

    • Lincoln

      Agreed. Do you think Mouffe’s (and Laclau’s) embrace of an ontology of radical contingency means they are hamstrung when it comes to making specific ontic level proposals – i.e. proposals of how to do politics as opposed to the nature of politics [The Political]? While I believe Habermasian focus on universal reason leads to a focus by deliberative democrats on rather narrow deliberative experiments (that often ignore issues of political-economy, specifically state-capitalist systems), Im also struck by the power of Habermas’ thought that every-time we choose to debate as against enter another form of resolving dispute, for example physical violence, we call upon certain pressuppostions – like backing up claims with reasons (in a general sense), strikes me that there is a universal aspect standing behind democratic debate, but the question is what is its nature and how then to call upon it explicitly.


  3. Again, I think Laclau and Mouffe’s analysis of the nature of politics is fantastic. However, when they attempt to make specific proposals, such as when they talk about equivalential chains, they keep their discourse on the symbolic level and never really get into specifics. I think they re-deploy Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in a radical and novel way, but again it seems to concentrate always on the discursive dimension of politics and not on concrete proposals.
    As for Habermas, I like how you point out that there is a universal aspect behind the democratic debate. I think Habermas, in his later work, refers to it at times as a “horizon” which is never really reachable but always visible- thus serving as a point of reference as opposed to a dogmatic guideline. I find that idea very appealing, especially if it serves to inform any conceptualization of rational consensus.


  4. Cal

    How do I cite you? Whats your name?

  5. benjaminknob

    I am very interested in the topic you wrote about here, but I have to say I strongly disagree with your views. I invite you to take a look at my own article on the subject.

  6. Occupy did not break new ground with consensus decision making. The same system was used by the Quakers in the 17th century and even in old English communities based on open field agriculture. There is nothing new under the sun my friend.

    Consensus democracy has agrarian roots. It grew naturally out of the needs of a self-sufficient and inter-connected rural community. This is the system that existed prior to private enclosures of farm land and widespread industrialization of the economy that begin in the 16th and 17th centuries. Its natural logical premise is local self-government by small farming villages with only a few hundred people. Which raises our main problem: How do we implement participatory democracy in modern society? We are not in small villages practicing subsistence agriculture anymore. We have big, centralized government and we survive by the market economy. How can this transformation of the world possibly be undone?

    When you observe the occupy movement and you see people bungling around with process points and internal issues while spending very little time discussing anything of substance, you begin to realize that this system perhaps wasn’t meant for us. 17th century farmers used it effectively. Why? Because they were directly concerned with their subsistence. They had a connection to the earth. They were used to thinking in concrete, practical terms. And under their circumstances, they knew that cooperation was necessary for survival. I expect also that they had a sense of urgency about it. You had to be efficient. Don’t meet too often. Don’t allow meetings to drag on too long because this is time we need to work our land or else we will starve to death!

    My second point, you’ve said the Occupy system is closer to the ‘agonistic’ or adversarial democracy that emphasizes confrontation. Well no, this is not true. It requires unanimity, therefore it’s going to place more emphasis on cooperation than debate.

    If it’s debate that you want, then you better go with majority rules. Debate first requires that you agree to disagree. If you can’t even agree to do that, you can have no debate. Habermas’s theory is quite mistaken. You don’t get a ‘rational consensus.’ But requiring consensus actually undermines the very foundation of rational discourse and therefore the capacity to make any rational decision.

    Think again about what you said in your last paragraph. A single person is allowed to block, therefore the majority is “forced” to negotiate and recognize the minority views. Does this sound like a system that says decisions are determined by the quality of the better argument? I would think that in such a system, people persuade each other of the merits of the views, they don’t “force” them to agree. What happens when you have given the minority views a perfectly fair and reasonable consideration, but you still are not persuaded by them? You are still under the power of force.

    In Occupy assemblies, often the most watered down option is taken, to make it agreeable to everyone. Every proposal is de-clawed. People are afraid to say anything of substance, because invariably it’s going to be controversial, someone will block and then you’ll be stuck in assembly for another 3 hours. The threat of a block is looming over everything you say.

    Habermas is not taking into the account the coercive pressures this puts on people. He give agreement a very high priority. But how high should it be? Is agreement more important than soundness of argument? More important than critical thinking? Sadly a lot of people are going to think so under these types of pressures, and it’s going to interfere with an otherwise rational thought process.

    In majority rules, there is a clear objective of the assembly. You are trying to make the best decision. Therefore you want the decision supported by the best arguments. How do you know which argument is the strongest? That which convinces the most people. Not coercive pressure, not boring people, not waring them down, but convincing them. That is the only way you have a society based legitimately on the moral principle of consent.

    I would suggest that the whole occupy/anarchist scene take another look at the traditional models of democracy. The attacks now being made against it are entirely unfounded. And what’s more, you are trying to replace it with something a lot worse.

    • Hi,

      Sorry for this late answer.
      I took a look at your very thorough and interesting history of participatory democracy and of the new rules you propose. I thank you for pointing out the agrarian roots of consensus democracy, and I have learned much from your detailed and empirical exposition of similar consensus-based models of democracy as presented by 60s student movements.

      First of all, the purpose of my blog is to explore different concepts in political theory which frequently get displaced by mainstream political discourse. Occupy presents a new-found exposition of (older) political concepts which are purposefully excluded by the neoliberal hegemony in which we live in. I believe that exploring these alternative political options serves the purpose to pluralize political discourse, thereby demonstrating that this status quo is not the only political paradigm available to us.

      The point in exploring different democratic conceptualizations is not to advocate them and wish for their wholesale adoption but rather to break the stranglehold that neoliberalism exerts on political discourse. Believe me, I have attended and participated in the assemblies of the “Indignados” in Europe and by no means do I think that they work perfectly or that they should be heralded as a functional or viable democratic articulation. I therefore agree with much of your criticism of them.

      However, looking at the Occupy assemblies from the lens of political theory I do think that the issue of difference of members (be it political, ethnic, religious, etc.) is what sets occupy aside from other movements. With the decline of the great political parties as channels for political contention and the changing demographics of today’s world, politics must deal with this intrinsic difference. I see the Occupy assemblies as recognizing and attempting (however problematically) to come to terms with this new reality. No other political movement does this.

      I am no enemy to traditional models of democracy. I do however believe that they fall short of coming to terms with social plurality. Traditional representative democracy is facing a serious crisis of legitimacy, and I believe that it may be rescued solely through increased democratic participation. Although Occupy does not have a functional democratic procedure, it is however a step in the right direction.



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