liberal democracy vs. consensus building

as we’ve seen, some societies experience a lot more difficulties implementing liberal democracy (or any sort of democracy) than others, and very often the ones that have these difficulties have a history of cousin marriage (see here and here).

liberal democracy (fwiw) is, of course, a relatively modern invention, but it’s not as though democratic tendencies weren’t around before the enlightenment. many societies have, or have had, democratic elements to them even if they are/were not fully functioning democracies, probably mostly because people will have a say in matters. there’s even been talk that the ancient sumerians engaged in a “primitive democracy” so … well … there you go.

in The Tribal Imagination, robin fox described so well what is so ODD about our modern liberal democray. i quoted him once before on liberal democracy, and here i go again [pg. 60 – bolding added by me]:

“Again in England, it was not until 1688, after a bitter civil-religious war and a period of hard totalitarianism, that we were able to set up a system whereby political factions could compete for votes and, most amazingly, the loser would *voluntarily cede power*. This transformation took a long time and hard practice with many missteps.”

to voluntarily cede power. very odd system, indeed!

in digging around for stuff on mating patterns in different societies, i’ve found that i keep coming across an alternate democratic system that seems to pop up again and again in places with more inbreeding than the anglo world, and that is consensus democracy. and if it’s not a democratic system, it’s a system of governing that involves getting/having a consensus in some shape or form. i don’t know if this is an actual general pattern or not — i.e. more consensus building in more inbred societies — it’s just something i’ve noticed lately.

tribal societies, like those in the arab world, definitely seem to operate with consensus building systems [pg. 212 – emphases added by me]:

“Arab society during Muhammad’s day and for more than a century afterward never really developed a stable political order worthy of being called a state. There was no state per se and no administrative structure of government. Arab society remained what it had always been, a tribal society characterized by personal leadership and appointed retainers that drew no distinctions between the social, religious, and military aspects of life. Indeed, there was never a formal army as such. Instead, there was an alliance of powerful tribal chiefs who led their personal retinues in battle. There was no financial system, and what treasury there was came from gifts and booty obtained in raids. Government was essentially an enlarged tribal system of negotiated consensus among powerful tribal chieftans, and it was these warrior chiefs who controlled the Arab populace and the army. Governance was effected indirectly through tribal intermediaries. This system of indirect rule plagued the Muslim Empire until its end. Power ebbed and flowed from the center of authority, but no caliph ever was able to retain control of the tribal and regional armies for very long. Revolts and insurrections rooted in jealousy, political interests, religious apostasy, and blood feuds went on for centuries.”

but i’ve also noticed the concept of “consensus” in other places like in the medieval republic of novgorod which is meant to be one of these examples of early democracy in eastern europe. however, consensus was a big part of novgorod’s democratic system [pg. 47 – link and emphasis added by me]:

“Another source of stability in the region which is grounded in the historic inheritance of Novgorod is the concept of democratic consensus. Although, in Novgorod’s history, consensus was sometimes achieved through violent means (the medieval chronicles depict how recalcitrant minorities within the assembly, or veche, might face physical assault, including being hurled off the principle bridge of the city into the river Volkhov), the idea that elected representatives have an obligation, once in power, to seek consensus for the good of society beyond narrow partisan, ethnic, or geographic interests has been critical in helping to achieve stability…. As former First Deputy Governor Valery Trofimov put it, ‘all of civil society’ — elected officials, academics, entrepreneurs — worked together to forge a policy commonly referred to as ‘politics of the round table.'”

and poland’s era of golden liberty — another example of early democracy in eastern europe — was undone by its consensus building mechanism, the liberum veto [emphasis added by me]:

“The liberum veto (Latin for ‘the free veto’) was a parliamentary device in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. It allowed any member of the Sejm (legislature) to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting Nie pozwalam! (Polish: ‘I do not allow!’). From the mid-16th to the late 18th century, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had the liberum veto, a form of unanimity voting rule, in its parliamentary deliberations….

“This rule evolved from the principle of unanimous consent, which derived from the traditions of decision making in the Kingdom of Poland, and developed under the federative character of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Each deputy to a Sejm was elected at a sejmik (the local sejm for a region) and represented the entire region. He thus assumed responsibility to his sejmik for all decisions taken at the Sejm. A decision taken by a majority against the will of a minority (even if only a single sejmik) was considered a violation of the principle of political equality.

in other words, there had to be consensus.

i might be wrong, but it seems to me that consensus building systems have something to do with the presence of different interest groups — in the case of tribal societies, different tribes — in the case of clannish societies, different clans. i think you might wind up with liberal democracy arising naturally only in places where these interest groups have been removed from the system — like in england where society was “atomized” into bunches of individuals and their nuclear families in the early medieval period.

let’s see — who else likes consensus? oh, yes — some north american native americans in canada, eh! probably have a history of mating endogamously. the sveeedes. late outbreeders. and, my personal favorite, one of those rabble-rousing scots-irishmen, john c. calhoun!:

“The ‘Disquisition on Government’ is a 100-page abstract treatise that comprises Calhoun’s definitive and fully elaborated ideas on government; he worked on it intermittently for six years before it was finished in 1849. It systematically presents his arguments that 1) a numerical majority in any government will typically impose a despotism over a minority unless some way is devised to secure the assent of all classes, sections, and interests and 2) that innate human depravity would debase government in a democracy.

“Calhoun offered the concurrent majority as the key to achieving consensus, a formula by which a minority interest had the option to nullify objectionable legislation passed by a majority interest.”

hmmmm. that “innate human depravity would debase government in a democracy.” how true.

previously: consanguinity and democracy and pathogens and consanguinity and democracy and “hard-won democracy”

(note: comments do not require an email. wild man, john c. calhoun.)


  1. consensus was sometimes achieved through … being hurled off the principle bridge of the city into the river Volkhov…



  2. “Government was essentially an enlarged tribal system of negotiated consensus among powerful tribal chieftans”

    Couldn’t we have formalized something like that in places like Afghanistan and Iraq (probably too late now) and called it peace? Some kind of parliamentary council that agrees to a certain set of ground rules.


  3. re: Sumerian democracy

    I’ve speculated (here for instance) that the city councils referred to in ancient Sumerian texts may have been defensive formations organized to resist conquest from military states in northern Iraq, where the institution of conquest first developed.

    The oldest word for freedom incidentally is a Sumerian word amargi (sp?)which means literally “return to the mother.” Primitive horticultural societies in the Middle East before conquests began were matrilineal, as was often the case in other societies around the world at a similar stage of development (before the plow, animal domestication). The status of women was relatively high (like with the Iraquois?), the decorative arts, especially pottery, at an apogee (indicating leisure) and fertility goddesses prominent. You see this, I’ve noticed, with the Halafian culture in ancient Iraq, with those Arizona indians that just disappeared (starts with an A?), the pre Han cultures in northern China, and I bet plenty of other places.


  4. @redzengenoist – “bahahah!”

    (^_^) well, it’s certainly one way — a very persuasive way! — of reaching a consensus, isn’t it? (~_^)


  5. @luke – “Couldn’t we have formalized something like that in places like Afghanistan and Iraq (probably too late now) and called it peace?”

    yeah, absolutely! i don’t know why we have to impose our form of democracy (liberal democracy) on these societies that simply aren’t built for it, and where most of the people there probably don’t want it anyway. work out a fair system of governing that would take into account how their societies work — not try to shoehorn them into some alien system. sheesh. anybody would think that our real goal was to introduce instability into these countries….

    the other thing that’d need to be done, of course, would be to redraw the national boundaries. like they ever represented any on-the-ground reality!


  6. @luke – “what is the difference between anarchy and consensus?”

    well, anarchy is having absolutely no government at all of any sort — or as very little as possible, no? lots of “government” in consensus systems — probably a very lot — like modern sweden — government coming out of their ears i should imagine.

    but i take your point.


  7. @luke – “The oldest word for freedom incidentally is a Sumerian word amargi (sp?)which means literally ‘return to the mother.'”

    how interesting! i never knew that.


  8. But not to believe in the tabula rasa is RACIST!!! And that’s bad-bad-bad-bad-bad-BAAAAAD.

    The West has been conducting a huge experiment in bio-politics for the past sixty years or so. I hope there’s someone left to write up the results after the experiment is over.


  9. @candid k9 – “But not to believe in the tabula rasa is RACIST!!! And that’s bad-bad-bad-bad-bad-BAAAAAD.”

    oh, oops! i forgot. (~_^)


  10. @justthisguy – “Quakers govern by consensus too. One or two obstinate guys in a Friends meeting can block a decision.”

    ah ha! didn’t know that. thanks! (but they make such nice furniture…. (~_^) )


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