The masters make the rules, for the wise men and the fools.
– Bob Dylan
As long as we live in hierarchical societies, there will always be some kind of elite clique at the top, running society for their own benefit. As we’ve seen with the USA over the past 50 years, a nation can be brought down rapidly from prosperity and constitutional law, to economic decay and official lawlessness, if that serves elite interests. If we want to create a better world, the change we need to be working toward is a total transformation of society. If we do not somehow rid ourselves of hierarchy, and learn how to govern ourselves, any gains we make can only be temporary and provisional.
A decentralized, self-governing society may sound utopian, but in fact that is how we lived for most of our existence as a species. Humanity has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, while hierarchical civilization has only been around for about six thousand of those. Before that we lived in relatively small, autonomous bands, and we made decisions by talking things through, until we all agreed on what was best for the whole group. A self-governing society would be quite natural for us – it would be like coming home – if only we can manage to bring about the transformation.
In my book Escaping the Matrix (published in 2005), I explored the question of what a decentralized, self-governing society might look like in today’s world, and how it could deal successfully with large-scale issues. I concluded that a global, self-governing society could be stable, prosperous, and sustainable – if it is based on autonomous, sovereign communities, and if each community is governed by an inclusive, participatory process that ensures everyone’s concerns are taken into account.
I also explored the question of what kind of movement might succeed in bringing about the necessary transformation. I concluded that the movement would need to be based on the following principle: we need to manifest locally the culture we want to create globally. Rather than a national movement aimed at decentralization, we need a grassroots movement aimed at bringing people together in their communities. The cultural transformation must come first, and then the political transformation can follow.
Since then I’ve been engaged in various initiatives, with others, following up on the ideas in the book. I joined first with activists in the ‘wise democracy’ movement, who have developed the kind of processes that enable everyone’s voice to be heard, and for agreement to be reached. I found that the processes really do work, and will ultimately be the key ingredient of cultural transformation, but they aren’t enough on their own.
The effect of good process means little unless there is a context of community engagement, within which the process can make a valuable and visible contribution. I began thinking in terms of a movement that could spark engagement, as well as introducing process. Some new ideas emerged along these lines, in a series of seminars hosted by my colleague Chris Zumbrunn, and I wrote two articles attempting to outline such a movement: The Transformation Project, and Building the new in the shadow of the old.
Very recently a new breakthrough idea has emerged, out of conversations with some fellow change agents: we don’t need a new movement, one able to spark community engagement, in order to pursue the project of creating self-governing communities. Instead, we simply need to look for communities where a context of engagement already exists – for whatever reason – and to then investigate further, to see if it would be appropriate, and welcomed locally, to introduce processes that could make the most of the engagement energy, and do the most to bring the whole community together in common purpose.
I’m very excited about this new approach, and am eager to find others to work with in pursuing it. It’s a very high-leverage approach, as it rides on existing energy and an existing, local, activist infrastructure. It doesn’t require selling anyone on the idea of transforming society, or even on the idea of self-governance. It’s simply about helping communities do what they already want to do, and helping them think more deeply and inclusively about it. And yet, the effect of a successful intervention would be to help shift the community toward a collaboration-oriented, self-governing culture.