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+2 votes
(credit for this question to lawrence, of course.)
by (240 points)
edited by
i don't think consensus is necessarily opposed to hierarchy (your question makes it sound like it is). i think that different processes all have ways that they be used hierarchically, and consensus can too. consensus can totally be subject to the same dynamics that operate in  democracy, with people responding to peer pressure and competition (not that peer pressure and competition are necessarily bad, mind you), rather than to a respect for individual concerns.
transposing consensus process on a group that operates with a capitalist time frame/efficiency model is a bit like putting a dog nose on a giraffe.

2 Answers

+3 votes
Best answer
Consensus means full agreement reached between all persons within a group or set.

The term is used by anarchists as well as many others to refer to internal decision-making processes in which full agreement is required in decisions that (significantly) affect others in the group or are made in the name of the whole group.

Generally it is understood that individuals and affinities always have the power to act autonomously, and that consensus is needed only to claim the approval of a larger body or make decisions that affect others in the body. Unfortunately, however, consensus practice often finds individuals and affinities acting subservient to the larger group and unnecessarily requesting approval for insignificant decisions or for decisions that would better be done autonomously. Individuals also often forget that if they want something to happen they may have to do it themselves. (A group cannot do anything unless individuals within it take initiative).

A common argument for why using consensus process opposes hierarchy is something resembling: "It allows us to make decisions in the process of fighting against systems of hierarchy while also not making those decisions hierarchically."

But the word "hierarchy" originally refers not to authorities having power of decision-making, but rather to spiritual beings holding a sacred power (of closeness to God). This meaning was transposed to the Catholic hierarchy (made up of persons supposedly having sacred power), and this transposition gave hierarchy an embodied and systematic force. Following this, it could be argued that hierarchy originates in the power that ideas have when held above us as sacred, and that this power can take on a social and material form. (This would be too long of a divergence to go into depth on here, but you could refer to Max Stirner for more on the topic.) Perhaps, then, the issues I described above concerning consensus, such as the inability of the individual or affinity to feel able to act autonomously from the consensus-making group, are related to a kind of hierarchy in which the sacredness of consensus can have a power over the will of each individual who's part of the whole.

Others will point to issues of social status, identity politics, and so on as "the hidden hierarchies within consensus." These claims may be true but often the approach seeks to lower everyone to a lowest common denominator called equality in which everyone is meek and inoffensive, and walking on the eggshells of their so-called privileges, which certainly is no way to live freely, much less constitute a force to destroy the immense institutional structures of hierarchy that are this society.
by (20.5k points)
–3 votes
Consensus is a type of group decision making where anyone can make a proposal, any one person can block any proposal, and any proposal is agreed upon if no one blocks it.

This is the most basic format for consensus and it is often modified to combat oppressive dynamics within the decision making process.  One example of this is the Caucus/Auxiliary model where people facing a common oppression will meet with each other to talk about how the decisions made by the larger group affects them specifically, and how the decision making process has been affecting them.  Auxiliaries are the groups who don't face the oppression of whichever caucus is meeting at the time.  
There are a few models for auxiliary meetings.  In some models the auxiliary will talk about the oppression that they don't face and the privilege they have and how to fight oppressive dynamics.  In some models the caucus group sets the agenda for the auxiliary or poses questions to them which they later answer.

These are some ways that consensus process has been used to confront internal hierarchies.
by (1.7k points)
is there a group size over which consensus becomes unpracticable?
Yes, unacknowledged hierarchies can exist in consensus organizations. Consensus is not a panacea for heirarchy.

edited to make comment