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Chapter 9

Decision Making

by Aric McBay

Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage than audacity.

—Carl von Clausewitz, strategist

Just as aboveground and underground groups have very divergent ways of structuring themselves, they also have different ways of operating. The way that a group makes decisions is crucial, and determines how that group does almost everything else.

There is a continuum of decision-making methods, ranging from the participatory consensus model to the militaristic hierarchy. The more participatory methods are deeply ingrained for those of us coming from progressive backgrounds. And for good reason; participatory methods can effectively include people of many different backgrounds in a social movement, and can help to unseat power imbalances like sexism. But, despite its appeal, the consensus model (in which everyone must agree before a decision is accepted) is not appropriate for every kind of resistance.

The more authoritarian methods of decision making—the hierarchies of businesses or the military—are common for a reason: they get things done. Hierarchies may permit abuses of power, but they are very effective at getting certain tasks accomplished. And if we want to be effective as resisters, we have to decide what we want to get done, and pick a decision-making process suited to that job.

Picture a group of people organizing to stop a new uranium mine in their area. They need to share ideas about how to organize effectively, they need to involve and mobilize many people from different backgrounds, and they need to develop a cohesive group so that they can hold together in the face of opposition. Participatory models like consensus can be great for this kind of situation because they make sure that everyone is involved, they draw on wisdom from the group, and they build a project that everyone feels invested in.1 But imagine a group of French Maquis on a sabotage mission trying to use the same methods. If the SS show up in the middle of the job, can you imagine our freedom fighters sitting down for a go-around? Can you picture Pierre blocking the decision to return fire because Juliet left him off the speaker’s list by mistake? Inclusive but rambling meetings are fine when the stakes are low, but prolonged discussion has no place in immediate life or death circumstances.

The key issues are information and timeliness. Underground resistance groups must keep secrets and make decisions quickly in emergencies. In the most authoritarian system, only one person need have all of the information to make a decision, and they needn’t discuss the issue with anyone else. That way the information won’t be spread around, and the decision can be made quickly. In the most participatory system, everyone in the group has access to all relevant information, and they need time to think about it and discuss it with each other so that everyone can agree on the specifics. This makes it hard to keep secrets, and well nigh impossible to make tough decisions quickly. And once the group gets beyond a certain size, collective discussion is impractical.

Fortunately, we don’t have to use one approach for every circumstance. There is a spectrum of options available, all of which have been used by successful resistance movements in different circumstances.

A permanent rank structure is a basic military-style decision-making system. There is an organized hierarchy with orderly promotions and a recognized chain of command. Military and paramilitary organizations use this approach because it holds together even under extreme circumstances. In virtually every situation, there is a person clearly in charge and responsible for making decisions to ensure that a group can maintain effectiveness when there is no time for discussion. The downsides are obvious. Abuses of power, the reinforcement of existing hierarchies, and a smaller pool of thinkers are all potential failings that a hierarchy must work against.

A hierarchy can be scaled to any size, while ensuring that every member of the group is as close as possible to the command. This is not possible with models like consensus, which is not very scalable, nor is it functional in an emergency. The key lesson is that certain kinds of resistance—like armed resistance—only work when there is a hierarchy in place. This is a lesson demonstrated by groups from the African National Congress to the original Irish Republican Army. If someone can’t make tough decisions fast in an emergency, then people get killed. It’s an uncomfortable lesson for people who struggle against hierarchy and inequality, but the point is ultimately that people choose the resistance they undertake. If you can’t tolerate a chain of command, choose a different group. Just remember that some avenues of resistance are only open to some types of groups.

A dynamic rank structure is a hierarchy with a difference—the hierarchy is not permanent. So when a group is actually carrying out an emergency action, one person might be in charge of giving orders. The rest of the time, another person might be in charge or the group might operate on a more participatory basis. This approach offers a compromise between the more rigid option above, and the participatory options below.

Some historical pirates followed a similar model; their “captains” were elected by the crew and were absolutely in charge during battle. Day to day operations were coordinated by the quartermaster. And if the crew was displeased with either person, they could call a vote and replace him—so long as the ship wasn’t in the middle of a battle.

A dynamic rank structure can be scaled to pretty much any size, just like permanent rank structures. The compromise is that while this model is good for dealing with emergencies, it’s not necessarily effective at building large networks for command and communication, because the “leaders” may change. It’s also difficult to keep information on a “need-to-know” basis if the people who need to know keep changing.

A majority-rules system is a good way to make decisions “democratically” in groups that don’t have time for extensive discussion, or that are too large or heterogeneous to use the consensus model. Pretty much everyone is familiar with this model, so it’s easy to implement. The problem, of course, is that for a majority-rules system to work, everyone has to have enough knowledge and expertise about the matter at hand to make a good decision. This can be a solid approach for affinity groups, but is much less functional in underground networks. It’s also too slow for emergencies.

Under the consensus model, every member of a group has to agree before a decision is made. (Some people may choose to stand aside, and there are variations, but that’s the gist of the model.) This is an excellent way of making sure that everyone is included in a decision and in discussion, and a great way of entertaining all available perspectives. It also takes time—sometimes a very long time—to discuss all sides of an issue and arrive at a decision. The more people in a group, and the more varied their perspectives, the harder it is to build consensus. Further, consensus requires that everyone involved have access to all available information. These factors mean that consensus as a model is poorly suited to serious underground work; it simply doesn’t function in emergencies.

None of these methods are good or bad; they’re just suited to different situations. And sometimes the same group may use multiple methods at different times. Even an underground group could use consensus or voting to make certain general decisions about their goals and strategy. They might appoint one person to make tactical decisions in an emergency. All of these models have a place in resistance; the trick is to realize what that place is.