Consociation is a well-established and potentially democratic, liberal and fair means of achieving self-determination for communities in deeply pluralist or deeply divided places. It is especially appropriate where the residential mixing of populations make outright sovereign independence for each community in their own nation-state - or territorial autonomy for each community in their own regional state - difficult to accomplish, let alone justify. But this is a controversial view because consociation has its critics as well as its exponents. The etymology of consociation derives from the Latin for “with” (cum) and “society” (societas). Consociatio in Latin was usually translated medieval usages as “union” or “connection.” This etymological legacy survives in the notion of consociation as a “society of societies”, or “union of societies”. Consociation involves both self-rule for each partner to the consociation, and shared-rule, between the representatives of each partner. In combining autonomy and power-sharing consociation has conceptual affiliations with federation, but it is not a synonym for federation: consociations can exist in nonfederal states; and federations can be organized in non-consociational ways.
Consociation was first developed in political theory by the Protestant jurist and philosopher Johannes Althusius (1557–1638), who sought co-operation and co-existence among the cities of post-reformation Germany. In the twentieth century the Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart revived the term to describe political systems in which parallel communities, differentiated by ethnicity, language, religion, or culture, share political power while retaining autonomy in matters of profound concern to them (Lijphart 1968; Lijphart 1977). Lijphart recognized his ideas had antecedents in the writings of the Austro-Marxists, Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, and the Nobel laureate Sir Arthur Lewis. The Austro-Marxists had argued for the recognition of each of the nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the ‘personal’ principle – allowing each individual to retain their rights as a particular national wherever they resided (Bauer 1907; Bottomore and Goode 1978; Bauer 1996 (1906); Bauer 1996 (1924); Bauer 2000). In the 1960s the Nobel prize-winner Arthur Lewis had argued that the British and French democratic systems, based on empowering strong single party or single bloc governments, were proving disastrous in post-colonial Africa, and advocated multi-party coalition governments that might deliver a more inclusive and less antagonistic politics (Lewis 1965). Lijphart’s argument is that consociation names a phenomenon that constantly recurs in politics, especially in democratic politics. Diplomats and politicians frequently “re-invent” consociational practices in the course of practical dispute-resolution or in negotiating constitutional or political settlements. He believed they had done so in the small European democracies of the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as in Switzerland and Austria. He also argued that examples could be found in post-colonial countries in the developing world, such as in the Netherlands Antilles. Today many political scientists observe and support or criticize consociational practices in Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, and Macedonia. So what are consociational practices? Consociations have three necessary features: executive power sharing across and among representatives of specific communities; proportional representation and allocation in governmental posts and resources; and autonomy community self-government, especially in cultural domains, for example in schools with different languages or religions of instruction (O'Leary 2005). In short, cross-community executive power-sharing, proportionality, and autonomy. Fully fledged or what we may deem more rigid consociations empower representatives of named communities with joint and separate veto rights over constitutional or legal changes that might threaten their identities or interests. Consociations are promoted to prevent, manage, or resolve conflicts, especially between communities divided by nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, or language. They are especially promoted as alternatives to standard democratic majoritarianism, under which executive, legislative and judicial power may be abused by a permanent governing majority or bloc to abuse the human rights of minorities and to deny them meaningful autonomy. Consociationalists and their critics, however, differ radically over the merits of consociational practices, and also over how consociations are established, maintained, or break down (McGarry and O'Leary 2004). Let us give the critics their voice first, as that will help make clearer precisely what consociation does and does not entail.
Some critics condemn consociational ideas as futile, and claim that consociational institutions have no (or no long-run) impact on deeply rooted, identity-based conflicts. This criticism suggests consociational practices either will not work or that they will not address the underlying causes of conflict – at best leading to a temporary respite. Others attack consociations as perverse, claiming that they achieve the opposite of their ostensible purposes by institutionalizing the sources of conflict, by allegedly freezing the relevant collective identities, they are held to encourage a politics of gridlock. These critics suggest that consociationalists are primordial pessimists, who take people as they are, and not as they might be, or worse force people into categories which they do not themselves accept. These opponents of consociation invariably say they prefer “integration”, the creation of a common citizenship and public sphere, and the non-recognition of cultural differences in the public domain. Critics of consociation also usually claim that consociation jeopardizes important liberal values. They suggest that it leads to the irreversible formation of ethnic, communal, or sectarian parties. They imply that because it will lead to the legalization of the use of quotas, affirmative action programs, and preferential policies, that the merit principle, and individual human rights will be sacrificed - creating new injustices and inefficiencies. Yet others claim that consociation is undemocratic because it allegedly excludes opposition and inhibits alternations in power, while others claim it is elitist, overly focused on bargains between elites who benefit from the maintenance of antagonistic mobilizations of groups (Brass 1991; Jung and Shapiro 1995). Another common argument, remarkably, is one that denies the existence of consociations – the claim is that no place fits the criteria, or, less radically, that no place examined by Lijphart fits the criteria. Proponents of consociation point out that their practices cannot simultaneously be perverse—that is, reinforce and re-entrench ethnic antagonisms—and jeopardize all key liberal, democratic, and international values, and, yet, all the while, be futile. The futility thesis is evidently the weakest criticism. It scarcely explains the passionate (and logical) criticisms of consociational theory and practice in the last three decades. Consociationalists understand themselves to be realists and counselors of necessary political triage. They believe that certain collective identities, especially those based on nationality, ethnicity, language, and religion, are generally fairly durable once formed(Esman 2000). That does not mean that all consociationalists think that these identities are primordial or immutable – though they may be believed to be such, and what is believed may matter most. Nor does it mean that consociationalists must regard all collective identities as intrinsically desirable. The consociationalist outlook is however realist: in the first place we must manage politics with people as they are, and not as we might like them to be. Consociationalists observe that durable collective group identities are often mobilized in a politics of antagonism, especially during the democratization of political systems – Protestant versus Catholic, black versus white, Sinhala speaker versus Tamil speaker. They also believe such antagonisms cannot necessarily be easily “transcended” through new over-arching identities, or diffused through the sheer number of potential conflicts which may weaken individuals identifications with particular groups. It is not always the case, in short, that either super-ordinate identities are available, that multiple complementary identities exist, or that mutually canceling identities exist in the right mixes. Consociationalists believe that politicians, parties, and communities will interpret their histories and futures through narratives, myths, and symbols, but they think these political agents may have realistic rather than merely prejudiced appraisals of past group antagonisms. There may well have been religious, racial or linguistic oppression in the past – it is not merely a constructed past that motivates fear. Consociationalists maintain that it is their critics—“social constructionists” and certain liberals and socialists—who are too optimistic about the capacities of political regimes to dissolve, transform, or transcend inherited collective identities. Some consociationalists question the cosmopolitan protestations of many anti-consociationalists, who may cloak a partisan endorsement of one community’s identity and interests (into which others are to be encouraged to integrate or assimilate, in their own best interests). Consociationalists argue for consociation, where it is appropriate, on grounds of necessity, democracy and justice. The necessity argument rests, usually, on the alternative to power-sharing being prolonged war, in which no party can be certain of victory. Consociation provides good incentives for cooperation—a share in power, in proportion to group numbers, self-government in what matters for your group, and veto rights if your group mistrusts the potential power-holders. Consociationalists do not embrace cultural pluralism for its own sake. Sometimes, they say, the effective choice is between consociation and much worse alternatives: armed conflict, genocide and ethnic expulsion, imposed partition, or control by one group or coalition. The real choice in many deeply divided regions is therefore between consociational democracy and no (worthwhile) democracy—or breakup. The target of consociationalists is integrationism and majoritarian democracy, which only work well, consociationalists argue, as political recipes in societies that are already homogeneous, or in immigrant states where immigrants are expected to integrate. Consociationalists therefore are skeptical about the current celebration of civil society as the (or even a) vehicle of transformation, peace making, and peace building. They point out that in deeply pluralist or deeply divided places there is often more than one society, and their relations may be far from civil. Those who embrace a politics of deliberative democracy are reminded that deliberation takes place in languages, dialects, accents, and ethnically toned voices. Consociationalists respond to left-wing critics by observing that consociational ideas are present in the more thoughtful socialist traditions (Bauer 2000; Nimni 2004), and by observing how working-class and popular unity have been rendered hopeless by national, ethnic, religious, and communal divisions. They maintain that within consociational arrangements trust may develop that may enable wider working-class or popular unity behind the welfare state or other forms of distributive politics. Consociationalists therefore insist that they are indeed friends of democracy, but critics of its palpably inappropriate versions in deeply divided places. They want majorities rather than the majority – usually the plurality - to control government. If a majority in each major collective community in a divided places has clear stakes in the executive and other political institutions this is far more democratic arguably than having one group (Protestants, Whites, Sinhalese) governing the state. Elite bargaining and adjustment, which are imperatives with consociational arrangements, need to be organized to achieve widespread consensus—to prevent the possibility that democracy will degenerate into a war of communities. Consociationalists, in short, endorse a politics of accommodation, of leaving each group to its own affairs where that is possible and widely sought—“good fences make good neighbors” ( Noel 1993; Esman 2000) –– but also a politics of mutual adjustment through shared rule where sharing is necessary. Consociations, they maintain, protect the basic natural rights of individuals and communities—especially their right to exist. Consociationalists argue positively for consociation, not just by pointing to the horrors of the alternatives. Consociation provides autonomy for communities, and enables sensible shared inter-community cooperation. It offers a more inclusive model of democracy—more than a plurality or a majority influence or control of the executive. More than a majority get effective “voice.” Consociation does not eliminate democratic opposition, but enables such divisions and oppositions as exist to flourish in conditions of generalized security. Nothing need preclude democratic competition within communities, and the turnover of political elites, and shifts of support between parties. In a liberal consociation nothing blocks the voluntary dissolution of historic identities – if that is what voters want. Consociations that work may, they observe, eventually heal antagonisms and permit the voluntary dissolution of previous collective identities.
Consociations may operate within entire states (e.g. the Lebanon) or federations (e.g. Belgium), or they may be confined to particular regions (e.g. Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom). Their exponents prefer them to operate within fully democratic systems, but recognize that consociational practices may occur within authoritarian governments – e.g. the recognition of nationalities within communist party dictatorships, or the recognition of religious self-government within the Ottoman empire. Consociations may also be distinguished by the degree to which they are liberal or corporate (O’Leary 2005). In liberal consociations voters and groups are free to identify themselves, wholly free to form their own parties either around ethnic platforms or ideological programs or both, and voluntarily engage in power-sharing, proportionality and autonomy practices. In corporate consociations names groups are parties to the bargain, individuals presumptively belong to particular groups, and there may be incentives that operate against non-ethnic parties, and a certain degree of enforcement of power-sharing, proportionality and autonomy practices (Lijphart 1995). Addressing Common Misconceptions It is a fallacy to suppose that consociation mandates that governments be wholly encompassing, grand coalitions of all communities (O’Leary 2005). One should distinguish among complete, concurrent, and “pluralitarian” consociational executives. In a complete consociation, all parties and all groups are included in the executive and enjoy popular support within their blocs. This is the very rare case of the grand coalition, which may indeed preclude effective opposition, and may be made necessary by wartime conditions or post-conflict state-building. In concurrent executives, by contrast, the major parties, which enjoy majority support within their blocs, are included within the executive, but opposition groups exist in parliament and elsewhere. In “pluralitarian” executives, the major communities may be represented by their strongest parties in the executive, but one or more of these parties may enjoy just plurality support within its respective bloc. What matters, therefore, is not the wholesale inclusion of absolutely every one in a consociation, but meaningful cross-community or joint decision making within the executive. This clarification resolves a recurrent misunderstanding that all consociational practices preclude opposition. Consociational arrangements may facilitate greater justice, and it is here where the idea fits most closely with the concept of self-determination. Groups govern themselves in agreed domains of autonomy. Distributions that follow proportional allocations may be very fair: to each according to their numbers. There is a correlation between numbers and potential power that makes such distributive justice likely to be stable and legitimate. Consociationalists need not endorse the view that justice is “each according to their threat-advantage,” but in some cases proportional allocations of public posts and resources are regarded as fair distributions, and will be robust as a result. Consociationalists observe that consociations occur without their urgings: people do not need to be versed in consociational theory to bring about consociational settlements. They are reinvented by politicians as “natural” creative political responses to a politics of antagonism. Politicians, Lijphart observes, invented consociational institutions in the Netherlands in 1917, in Lebanon in 1943, in Malaysia in 1958, and in Northern Ireland in 1972 (Lijphart 1990) and again in 1998 (McGarry and O’Leary 2004, 2007). They were reinvented by American diplomats to end the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina at Dayton in 1995; by Lebanese politicians with external promptings in 1989; and by European Union diplomats in promoting the Ohrid agreement between Macedonian Slavs and Macedonian Albanians. The United Nations and the European Union have been trying to mediate a consociational and federal settlement in Cyprus. Within academic political theory, many contemporary multiculturalists advance consociational agendas, including inclusivity (cross-community power sharing), quotas (proportionality), and group rights (autonomy and veto) (Kymlicka and Norman 2000). The rival evaluations of consociation are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. They probably are not amenable to decisive falsification or verification. Anti-consociationalists fear (or claim to fear) that consociation will bring back racism, fundamentalism, and patriarchy. Consociationalists fear (or claim to fear) that integrationists will provoke avoidable wars and are biased toward dominant communities (McGarry and O’Leary 2004). The intensity with which this debate rages attests to the influence of consociational thought. Exponents of consociation, when their case is put carefully, successfully rebut the wilder charges made against their positions. Consociations are difficult to love and celebrate—even if their makers often merit intellectual, moral, and political admiration. They are usually the product of cold bargains, even if they may be tempered by political imagination, e.g. the recent innovation in Northern Ireland’s executive that uses a proportionality rule both to share out the number of ministries to which each party is entitled and the sequence in which they select their ministerial portfolios (O'Leary, Grofman et al. 2005). As for the explanation of consociations, although significant preliminary work has been done, a comprehensive comparative historical analysis of consociational settlements and their outcomes remains to be completed. One intriguing line of enquiry suggests that consociation and other collegial institutions are largely explained by international forces, which encourage people to hang together rather than face the prospect of hanging separately (Collins 1999). Another geopolitical line of inquiry suggests that consociations are imposed by great or regional powers who would refuse such arrangements in their own states (Kerr 2006). The debate over which internal factors, if any, best predict the formation – and maintenance – of consociations is not over (Lijphart 2008). Further discussions of current controversies over consociational theory may be found in Taylor (2009), McCrudden and O'Leary (2013), and McEvoy and O'Leary (2013).
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