Community reconsidered – outcomes of Beau Sejour 2


Richard Moore

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rkm website


Some of you may recall an event I reported on that was held last summer in St Imier Switzerland, organized by Chris Zumbrunn and myself. We used Dynamic Facilitation (DF) as the process, and the things we talked about are summarized in this slide show:

This year Chris organized a follow-on event in the same venue, Hotel Beau Sejour. I participated again, and Chris put a lot of effort into inviting people from around Europe who have important ideas and experiences to share. The topic this time was ‘Building the new in the shadow of the old’, and again we used DF. 

I knew I would learn some things, and I hoped to make contributions to the conversation, but I didn’t expect what actually happened, that some of my core ideas would be shifted in significant ways by the event. Others experienced shifts as well, and I’d rank this event as one of the most useful I’ve ever participated in. We didn’t try to reach any central consensus, but I’d say our various paths are more aligned now than they were before. 

For over ten years now, as documented in my book, my own model of a new-world utopia has been based on the community, as the sovereign unit of society. Within a community, there would be direct democracy, where agreement on community issues is achieved by means of inclusive dialog processes, where everyone’s concerns are taken fully into account. 
     Agreement on issues between communities would be achieved by similar dialog processes among the communities involved. This model is ‘fractal’: the same principles apply as we go to larger and larger scales. And the model involves a cultural transformation: if we seek inclusive agreement locally as our normal method of decision-making, we’d naturally bring that same spirit of seeking-inclusive-agreement to larger scale deliberations. Humanity would in this way abandon the dominator paradigm – seeking advantage at the expense of others. 

I still think that model makes sense, if it could be magically brought into existence. But over the years I’ve become discouraged about how we could move toward implementing such a model ‘in the shadow of the old’. If we start with intentional communities, we’ve already abandoned inclusiveness, because such communities are self-selecting for only certain kinds of people. If we try to start with existing communities, as with Transition Towns, we find again that participation is self-selecting and limited. Modern day communities, in our culture of individualism and mass media, seem to be immune to any effort to ‘bring people together’. Indeed, it becomes difficult even to imagine what the territory of a community might be, in a world of cities, commuters, and sprawling suburbs. 
Despite these glitches, I came into the Beau Sejour event prepared to promote my sovereign-community model. During the course of the weekend, however, three things came to my attention that enabled me to relax the model, preserving the essentials, and bringing in a feasible path to ‘build the new in the shadow of the old’.
 The first thing may seem minor. It’s about overlapping jurisdictions. In Switzerland especially, people can be in different jurisdictions for different purposes. I think the examples were a school district, ‘Burger’ district, fire district, and energy district, each with their own defined areas of responsibility, and each with different but overlapping territories. This is working in practice, and I find it appealing that each of the districts specializes in one kind of service, and deals with its own budget. Less opportunity for mismanagement than if a single authority is responsible for everything. 
This dovetailed with the second thing I learned about, from Gian Piero de Bellis (an Italian emigre to Switzerland), who espouses a model called ‘panarchy‘ ( In this model the individual is the unit of sovereignty, and chooses which ‘government’ to belong to. Here is a brief description from the website:

…many governments freely chosen by the individuals can co-exist side by side in the same territory and supply more efficiently and cheaply all those services that are now provided (very often ineffectively and costly) by a monopolistic territorial state

However, when Gian Piero talked about the model, he didn’t talk choosing a ‘government’ to belong to, rather he talked about subscribing voluntarily to various service providers, to obtain the various needed services – rather than paying mandatory taxes for a fixed service package from ‘the’ government.
     I have serious problems with this model, in its raw form, because I see no mechanism to limit the size or power of one of these service providers. A provider that starts out offering wonderful benefits and services naturally grows larger, advantages of scale kick in, and we end up eventually with monopoly / cartel scenarios, where our sovereign citizen no longer has a real choice of service providers.
     If this problem can be solved however, the panarchy model can be seen as a generalization of the overlapping-district model. For example two school districts that overlap, with different philosophies of education. 

The third thing I learned about is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Tex Tschurtschenthaler (from northern Germany) described a community-garden co-op he belongs to, and the way it operates is very interesting. In addition to paying annual membership dues (a ‘service subscription’, per the above model), each member must put in 5 work-days a year helping operate the co-op. In return, members get bi-weekly deliveries of vegetables. Co-op decisions are made in meetings that are open to all members. 
     What I found especially interesting is the way jobs are assigned. There’s a website, where the available jobs are displayed. There are all kinds of jobs, from harvesting vegetables, to putting them in sacks, driving the delivery van, working in the office, doing the accounting, etc. Rather than 5 work days, I’d see these as five adventure days, where I can pick a job I enjoy, on a day I feel like escaping from my normal routine.

The shift in my thinking involves generalizing this co-op concept. The co-op has several important characteristics:
(1) The co-op owns or leases property (van, land, office, etc.), which we can call ‘the commons’.
(2) The co-op has members, who enjoy the benefits of the commons, and who accept the responsibilities of membership.
(3) All members participate directly in governance / decision-making.
(4) All members participate flexibly in the operation of the co-op.
(5) The job-rota system is in effect a local currency, in that it replaces the role of salaries in the world of the co-op.
(6) The co-op generates a stable level of economic activity and provides a stable level of ongoing services.
(7) The co-op needs investment capital from members to get started and obtain its commons.

I see great potential for building the new in the shadow of the old, by making creative use of this model. In particular, it can be seen as a sound business model, applicable to all kinds of businesses. It does not require idealistic people to pursue an idealistic vision: the model makes good sense here and now for practical reasons. Let me suggest an imaginary example, to illustrate why I see so much potential here.

Let’s say we have a co-op, following that model, which owns or leases the following commons:
– several retail shop spaces
– a warehouse-type building, suitable for light industry and other uses
– an apartment building
– a childcare facility
– a wind turbine for electricity (that’s a lot of electricity)
– a few taxis, a couple of vans, and a truck (all electric)
– an acre of arable land nearby
– a small supermarket
– a fund to provide credit-union-like services, done in a way that escapes government regulation
– an accounting system (like local currency) for internal transactions
– a few office spaces for co-op administration

Such a co-op could be the provider of quite a few of the things members need, such as housing, food, shuttle & hauling service, space to run a business or manufacturing facility, childcare, electricity, etc. All would be at a considerable discount over market prices, since everything is operated on a non-profit basis for members, and labor is provided by members on a labor-sharing basis, not adding to the cost of services. At the same time, excess capacity of the commons (e.g., unused apartments, unused taxi time) could be used to generate revenue for the co-op, reducing or perhaps eliminating membership dues. The local currency could be used to account for member use of commons services, reducing the need to possess official currency.

If a group of activists wanted to promote such a co-op project, they’d be doing so with a business plan that makes sense in terms of immediate self-interest, rather than trying to promote a project on the basis that it’s good for idealistic reasons. At the same time, such a co-op is good for idealistic reasons. It empowers its members to take control over many of the conditions that affect their lives. It helps encourage the emergence of a co-operative, participatory culture. It transforms labor from something repetitive to something that allows flexibility, variety, and choice. And labor becomes something that contributes directly to your life style, rather being some disconnected thing you do for some company, so you can use the salary to support your life style – at full market prices.

I can see hope for a ‘co-op commons’ movement. Such a movement should make sense to existing activist groups, who support things like Transition Towns, local currencies, community gardens, etc. It provides a vehicle in which those kind of ideas can be pursued. Such a movement should make sense to ordinary people (non-activists) if the activists put together a sound business plan, tailored to local circumstances. Such a movement has growth potential: when the benefits are seen from some initial experiments, others would be inspired to pursue similar initiatives, as I have been inspired by Tex’s experience. We’d want to include good group processes in our co-op model, so that the open decision-making meetings would lead to outcomes satisfactory to all members.

The most interesting thing to think about is what would happen if such a movement went viral, if such co-ops grew to become a significant part of the economy, even a majority part. I don’t see any legal barriers; there’s nothing confrontational or overtly radical about such a movement. The radicalness comes in the subtleties of how the co-op operates, and the culture it engenders. If such co-ops were everywhere, each specializing in some collection of services and resources, we’d essentially have the panarchy model, where people can ‘subscribe’ voluntarily to various ‘partial societies’, each of them participatory and operating by direct democracy. 

As regards my concern about the panarchy model – the rise of monopolies and cartels – that concern can be dealt with by borrowing lessons from the Mondragon worker-owned co-ops of the Basque region in Spain. Here’s a good BBC documentary on Mondragon: 
Over the years the Mondragon model has evolved, as they have learned what works well and what works not so well. The things they have learned can be incorporated into our ‘co-op commons’ movement. In particular, they have learned that co-ops should be limited in size, depending on the kind of co-op. Below a certain size, a co-op can maintain a sense of community and team spirit. If it grows larger, it loses some of that magic, and it’s harder to maintain consensus and harmony. In the Mondragon model, if a co-op grows past a certain size, it splits into two independent co-ops. Thus the monopoly/cartel problem can be eliminated.

I haven’t said anything about politics yet, but I suggest that a viral movement of this kind would in fact have a transformative political effect. It would lead to a culture of empowerment, participation, and cooperation. The co-ops would be places where people regularly come together to collaborate in dealing with collective issues (their decision-making meetings). If we think of these co-ops as ‘partial societies’ people would be learning how to govern themselves within these partial societies. 

There would be nothing political about the movement at first, nor even when the movement begins to go viral. But if the movement ever got to majority scale, where most people were participating in at least one co-op, I suggest it would  naturally become also a political movement. The experience of self-governance would be transformative. People would see that running a society is like running a business; it’s about doing what needs to be done, not about partisan politics as we now know and hate it. How this would emerge as political action, I won’t try to predict. But come election time, I can imagine we might see a new kind election campaign, with co-op-sponsored slates of candidates, aiming for decentralization and a new kind of governance, and I could see people abandoning the corporate-c0ntrolled political parties.