Our Grand Consensus

People create society through consensus decisions.

There's a decent chance you don't like the sound of that statement at all. After all, you can easily point to power disparities among people, meaning that some people have more or less say. That's not a consensus, right?

But that's the trick. Rich people have status because we want to be rich, we imitate rich people, we respect rich people. Their power spring from consensus. Equally, deviant and despised people have less power because we treat them as such. Here, look at this progression:
  • Joe is a slightly better hunter than the others in the village.
  • Joe is known as the best hunter in the village, and is imitated and listened to.
  • Joe is the Chief Hunter of the village; he leads hunts and instruct the boys.
Now, each step on that line is an obvious progression from the steps before it; you can imagine those items as a timeline, pretty easily.

Notice there is no guarantee in that progression that Joe is a better hunter because of a quality that can be taught or imitated. If Joe is a better hunter despite bad technique because he happens to have far better eyesight, some of his status is misplaced - others should not be imitating his technique (though if being the Chief Hunter means he'll have lots of kids, that might be good for the tribe in the long run). Of course, it's very possible that Joe really does have better technique, and merit wins out after all.

This progression happens in every society, at every level. We have goals, and choose those we wish to associate with, imitate, learn from - often based on their apparent success at those goals. We also choose which qualities we want to avoid - often by looking for those who appear to be failing.

Which is a nice, confusing way to say that whenever get together to achieve their mutual goals, one of the first things they will agree on is inequality. We don't build consensus as equals. When we're operating as equals, it's usually inside some structure designed to treat us as such - the voting booth, for example. And even then, the inequalities that we have helped create and perpetuate from outside the structure leak in and affect us.

When Marx said that people have a "false consciousness" about what's best for them, he was missing the trees for the forest. We often have very good ideas about what's good for us in the very immediate sphere. It's just that it doesn't scale well.

I don't vote for a candidate because they will produce far-reaching policy that will help create economic stability. I vote for him because I want to say that I did so. And I want to say this to people that are much nearer to me than the economy. I might even just want to say it to myself, to reaffirm my identity. I make the decision based on what is best for me, right here, right now.
And that's how we get a social consensus.