Ch 4: Community empowerment: not yet a movement


Richard Moore

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I realize we are all in a state of shock, first from the oil volcano in the Gulf, and then from the barbaric Israeli assault on a peaceful flotilla of caring people. But we must not fall into despair. The more crises they throw at us, the more we must mobilize our response. To that end, I’ve made a new start on Chapter 4 of the new book. 


Ch 4: Community empowerment: not yet a movement

Richard K. Moore

This document continues to evolve, based on continuing research. The latest version is always maintained at this URL:

This chapter is under construction. Previewers invited to send in suggestions. 

Always darkest before the dawn

Our future as a species appears to be very bleak indeed. As the era of economic growth and liberal democracy is coming to a close, we face the prospect of a global feudalistic regime, along with a diabolical program of social engineering and population reduction. There is no effective way, within our political systems, for us to do anything about this state of affairs. 

The major Western political parties, and the mass media, have all been co-opted by the elite banking cabal, making elections meaningless. Protest movements are brutally suppressed, and have no effect on policy, other than to increase the intensity of so-called ‘security’ measures. If the planned new regime is implemented, then we can expect the methods of control to be still more severe, with even less opportunity for any kind of popular influence or voice in public affairs.

Nonetheless the current regime is vulnerable, and its vulnerability arises from its own excesses. By intentionally collapsing the economy, and forecasting draconian austerity to come, the regime has created a climate of widespread hopelessness, where new ideas and initiatives can take root and spread. And there are many promising ideas and initiatives emerging, as more and more people lose faith in the system, and choose to respond with hope, dedication, and creativity.

As long as the political system offered us some kind of hope, we followed the path of least resistance and tried to improve our situation by influencing the political system. Now that all political channels have been effectively closed to us, our only hope is to turn our attention to what should always have been our goal: overcoming hierarchy itself. Consider once more the closing paragraph of the previous chapter:

Hierarchy always breeds greater hierarchy; every hierarchy provides a position of power for some clique, and power always corrupts, sooner or later. In an age of technology, the inevitable outcome of the hierarchical social model is a tyrannical world government, of one flavor or another. It was always just a matter of time, as was the end of growth.

By definition, there is only one alternative to hierarchy, and that alternative is decentralized governance — the localization of sovereignty. If every community has dominion over its own affairs, and each community governs itself by a process of inclusive democracy, then and only then will hierarchy and elite rule be banished from our societies.

After 6,000 years of hierarchical governance, it may be difficult for us to imagine how decentralized governance could operate. How would large-scale issues be dealt with? What if some community starts polluting a shared waterway, or acts aggressively toward its neighbors? How would transport systems and other shared infrastructures be developed and maintained?

There are many such questions, and in later chapters we will be examining those questions in depth. It turns out that there are good answers to be found, and that decentralized approaches actually deal with such issues much better than centralized approaches. Indeed, most of our large-scale problems are caused by centralization, not alleviated by it. 

The more difficult problem is how to bring a decentralized society into existence in the first place. How can currently entrenched hierarchies, both political and economic, be displaced? How would we manage the transition to a new kind of system? How can inclusive democracy be established in our communities? What does inclusive democracy even look like? 

Furthermore, why would people be motivated to pursue such a grand undertaking, whose achievement seems impossible, and when there are so many questions to be answered about the worthiness of the undertaking?

As we proceed, we will be examining all these questions and more. And again, I assure you that there are good answers to be found. It turns out that decentralization is likely to emerge out of a very natural, unfolding process, not by some radical scheme that I or someone else has dreamed up. And in fact, that natural process has already begun! As I suggested above, many promising initiatives are emerging…

Localization: the embryonic stage of community empowerment

Around the world, there is a growing movement to pull back from the relentless march of corporate globalisation by re-rooting economic and social activities at the community level. From the burgeoning popularity of farmers’ markets and food co-ops to the revitalisation of community banking, people are organising themselves to reclaim the economy from large profit-driven corporations and instead build sustainable, local alternatives.
— Anna White, “Why Local Economies Matter

As Anna White says, there are many threads to this localization movement. For local businesses, it is about responding to the competition of mega-chains. For environmentalists, it is about reducing energy usage and carbon footprint. For those who are concerned about economic collapse, it is about basic food survival. There are several other threads as well.

All of these threads have one very important thing in common: they are not about asking governments to solve our problems; they are about doing what we can for ourselves, independent of the political system. They are about people, in collaboration with their friends and neighbors, taking responsibility for their own destiny. From a political perspective, the overall movement is about the emergence of community empowerment

This emergence, however, is still in a very early stage, an embryonic stage. We have various agenda-centered movements, each dedicated to pursuing one of the threads, with very little connection among the movements. The focus of each movement is on its own specific agenda, and the driving energy behind the movement comes from the local activist group in each community. 

Before these threads can weave themselves into a real community-empowerment movement, the focus will need to shift to the community itself, rather than any specific agenda — and the driving energy behind the movement will need to come from the community generally, not from a small group of activists. 

In a community-empowerment movement we do not start with a question like, “How can this community become sustainable?” Instead we start with, “What do we want for our community?” And then we go on to, “What can we do to move toward those goals?” Specific agendas and initiatives are the final product, not the starting point. 

In order for a community-empowerment movement to exist, there needs to be a way to answer the question, “What do we want for our community?” Any answer to this question would look like this: “We the people of community X have agreed that we share the following goals: …” In order for such an answer to be expressed, with any kind of democratic legitimacy, there must be some kind of process by which a consensus on goals can be achieved, and that process must include general participation by the people in the community. 

There are thus two formidable obstacles standing in the way of community-empowerment, as a viable movement. The first is the problem of achieving consensus: how could consensus possibly be reached, when people are so different in their beliefs, values, economic interests, etc.? 

The second obstacle is achieving general participation: how could you possibly get the overwhelming majority of people in a community to participate in any kind of consensus-generating process? It is difficult to get people even to respond to surveys, let alone get involved in some kind of process.

It turns out that the first obstacle is not as formidable as it first seems. There are various processes, ways of involving a community in dialog, that have shown very promising results. We’ll be looking at some of those processes a little later in this chapter.

The second obstacle is the one that presents the greatest difficulty. It is very difficult indeed to get very many people in a community to participate in any kind of activity. There is very little sense of community left in our societies, and everyone is busy with their own lives and their own concerns. 

As a matter of fact, the various localization movements are running into this very obstacle. Anna White talks about a “growing movement”, but unfortunately the growth is horizontal rather than vertical. More and more activists are getting involved, in a growing number of communities and initiatives, but in each community the initiatives remain marginal, mere fringe activities. Until these movements can grow beyond the fringe stage, none of them can have any significant effect on their communities, as regards achieving sustainability, self-sufficiency, etc.

In the next section we will be looking at why more people aren’t participating. It turns out the reasons are not hard to discover. And in uncovering the reasons, we will begin to see how this participation barrier might be overcome. 

Above, I described the emergence of community empowerment as being in an embryonic stage. I think the biological metaphor is an apt one. Indeed, I’ll be more specific. The localization movement, as it now exists, is like a caterpillar, and the community is the chrysalis in which it can be transformed into a community-empowerment butterfly. 

In a chrysalis, the substance of the caterpillar is transformed by a new organizing principle, resulting in a butterfly being created out of that same substance. 

The various localization agendas, together with the energy of the various activists, provide the appropriate ‘substance’ out of which a community-empowerment movement can be created. What is lacking is an appropriate organizing principle, a more effective way for these activists to apply their energies. As we proceed, we will be seeking to understand the nature of the needed organizing principle. 

Earlier I said, “decentralization is likely to emerge out of a very natural, unfolding process”. As we’ve seen, a focus on community is emerging as a natural process, a response to the crises being face by our societies. I suggest that our ‘new organizing principle’ is also likely to emerge as a natural process, as activists endeavor to overcome the participation barrier. 

Localization: the barriers to greater participation

There is a common pattern to the various localization movements. There is typically a small group of local activists who are driving some initiative in a community, and only a small percentage of the community who are participating in the initiative’s program, or even paying much attention to the program. 

There might be a weekly farmer’s market, for example, and it might even be crowded with happy farmers and happy customers. But in terms of the overall food business in the community, the farmer’s market usually handles only a negligible percentage. The early adopters get on board, and it’s very difficult to grow participation beyond that. 

There is no mystery as to why these localization initiatives are not progressing beyond the fringe stage. In order to understand the causes we need to consider what motivates activists to participate, and what motivates — or fails to motivate — ordinary citizens to participate. Let’s take the Transition Towns movement as an example.

This movement is focused on the need to move toward local self-sufficiency, based on the beliefs that peak oil is imminent, that this will cause a collapse in our existing supply chains, and that governments are not likely to respond effectively to this crisis. Those who become activists in this movement share these beliefs, and they also share the belief that significant progress toward local self-sufficiency is an achievable goal. It is these beliefs that motivate the activists.

When the activists try to promote participation in the movement within the community, they do so by trying to inspire the same motivation in others, by explaining to people why they should embrace these same beliefs. This approach seems to be quite reasonable and natural. Unfortunately, however, it does not turn out to be an effective motivator.

There are a variety reasons why people generally don’t respond to this approach. For some, it’s because they are convinced peak oil isn’t a real threat. For others, it’s because they assume governments will find a way to deal with the crisis, and there are others who don’t think local self-sufficiency is a feasible objective. Still others may be politically conservative, and may perceive the movement as a left-wing liberal affair, with which they don’t want to be associated. 

The early adopters are the ones who do respond to the movement’s approach. Perhaps they were already of a similar mind, or perhaps they were persuaded by the promotional efforts. But once these early adopters get on board, continued promotional efforts of the same kind will not have much success. The same reasons for not responding continue to exist, and repetition of the message is unlikely to change that. The various localization movements all have this same problem: the very beliefs and attitudes that motivate the movement are also barriers to its growth

In addition, there are all those people who are ‘too busy’, or too apathetic, to pay much attention to any kind of community initiative, regardless of whether the motivating beliefs make sense to them. 

The fact is that most people will not respond to a new initiative of any kind unless they can see a clear benefit to themselves in doing so. Only a few early adopters will respond on the basis of long-term hopes, or on the basis of ‘doing the right thing’. 

As things stand, the various localization movements have not been able to offer the necessary clear benefits. The mere idea of a farmer’s market may be enough to bring in the early adopters, and get a farmer’s market up and running. But even an operating farmer’s market does not offer enough immediate benefits to bring in the majority of the community’s business. And so it goes with all the agenda-based movements: the incentives offered are insufficient to generate widespread participation.

In order for any of the localization initiatives to achieve significant results, a way must be found to provide real and immediate incentives for participation. None of the agenda-based movements, on their own, have been able to provide such incentives. An entirely new approach is needed if localization is going to escape from the fringe and make a real difference in communities.

Localization: recognizing the radical nature of the movement

In order to understand what kind of ‘entirely new approach’ is called for, it is useful to consider why it is that so many activists and movements have clustered around a focus on localization. Anna White, in the quote above, suggests this is because people are seeking to “pull back from the relentless march of corporate globalisation”. There is truth to that of course, but I don’t think it gets to the heart of the matter. 

The various localization threads have this in common: they all represent attempts to bring about radical social transformation, of one kind or another. The Transitions Towns movement seeks a sustainable society, and that is a very radical, anti-capitalist, anti-oil-companies agenda. The local-currency movement seeks democratic control over the money system, and that is a very radical, anti-banking-elite agenda. The buy-local movement is also radical, and in this case globalization is a good characterization of what is being radically opposed. 

From this perspective, we can see that the emergence of the overall localization movement has its roots in some very radical analysis, even though most of the activists wouldn’t characterize themselves as political radicals. 

The analysis begins with an understanding that the current system has become dysfunctional, and that radical transformations are needed in how our societies operate. Each of the various movements has focused on one particular radical shift as being ‘the most important one’. 

The analysis continues with an understanding that these radical agendas have no hope of being accomplished through the existing political channels. The decision to then pursue these agendas by other means is itself a radical act. It represents an essential abandonment of hope in the so-called democratic process. 

The analysis then goes on to identify the community as being the place where it is possible for people to work together toward radical objectives, without needing to depend on the support of government. The activists are thus adopting a very radical perspective: society can be radically transformed, and the way to accomplish this is by community mobilization: the people themselves transforming society, from the bottom up.

Taken altogether, the localization movement is a very radical movement on several different levels. And yet it is easy to understand why most of the activists do not see themselves as political radicals. 

We associate radical activism with confrontational activism. The radicals are the ones who confront the police at demonstrations, who block loggers from clear-cutting, or trawlers from killing whales, etc. The radicals are the ones who push the envelope of protest, extending even to sabotage and the destruction of property in some cases. 

Because the localization movement is non-confrontational, the activists don’t think of themselves as radical. But in fact a non-confrontational, non-adversarial approach to radical social transformation is itself a very radical development! It represents a radical departure from traditional transformational approaches, such as revolutionary movements, or third-party movements. 

Those traditional transformational strategies are hierarchical approaches, based on centrally led movements and parties. The localization movement is pursuing instead a decentralized approach to radical social transformation. 

Once again we see that the theme of decentralization is emerging as a natural, unfolding process. First, we saw a shift toward the local community, as a focus of activist attention. And now we see a shift toward decentralization, as a model of movement process.

Localization: shifting the focus from agenda to community

I suggested above that the various localization movements share the following perspective: “Society can be radically transformed, and the way to accomplish this is by community mobilization: the people themselves transforming society, from the bottom up”. 

In fact, it would be more accurate to say that each of the localization movements subscribes to a special case of that perspective. For example, in the case of the Transition Towns movement: “Society can be made sustainable, and the way to do that is to mobilize the people in each community around making themselves locally self-sufficient”. 

I offer now a suggestion to all the localization-oriented activists: consider for a moment the more general perspective, regarding social transformation. This shift of focus, from a specific policy agenda to the general notion of social transformation via community mobilization, is a very important shift. It has the potential to bring together the various threads of the localization movement into a coherent fabric of social transformation. 

Again, let’s use the Transition Towns movement as an example. From the special-case perspective, sustainability is the identified goal, and community mobilization is seen as the means of pursuing that goal. From the general perspective, social transformation is the identified goal, again with the community mobilization as the means of pursuing it, and sustainability becomes simply one of the many good ideas regarding the nature of the desired transformation.

From the general perspective, the various movements can come into collaboration with one another, rather than competing for activist attention and community attention. Self-sufficiency, local currencies, local food production, co-ops, etc. are all good ideas, and they are all complementary to one another. 

A sound local currency, for example, can enable local producers to become economically competitive within the local marketplace, particularly in bad economic times, when official currency is hard to come by. And worker-owned co-ops are a very good way to organize any new undertaking, whether it be a food-growing enterprise, an alternative-energy enterprise, or an energy-efficient shuttle service. There is a tremendous amount of potential synergy among the various threads, and as we go on we will be exploring that potential in some depth.

If social transformation via community mobilization is accepted as the common goal of the various localization movements, and if all of the threads are accepted as useful contributions to transformational thinking, then a path is opened to a much more effective strategy of achieving community mobilization

The first step on this path is for activists to shift their focus from their agendas to the community itself, and its unique circumstances. For any kind of problem, it always makes sense to start by examining the problem, rather than starting with a favorite solution. You don’t begin by asking, What can I hit with this hammer?, but rather, Which tools are needed for this particular job? In terms of localization, we need to begin with the question, How can this community be mobilized around social transformation?, rather than, How can we advance our favorite policy agenda in this community?

In order to mobilize the community around any initiative, as we observed earlier, “a way must be found to provide real and immediate incentives for participation”. As we also observed earlier, none of the agenda-centered movements has been able to provide enough incentives to achieve mobilization beyond the early adopters. Thus we were stuck behind the participation barrier, or what we might now call the mobilization barrier.

When we focus directly on the goal of mobilization itself, and we have in our toolkit the whole repertoire of localization threads, then we can approach the problem of providing incentives in a very methodical way. We have a toolkit, and with our tools there are any number of initiatives we could propose — taking advantage of synergies among the threads — that could improve the local economy in one way or another. 

What we need to do is survey the problems our community is facing, the potential opportunities that are available, the things people are wanting, the things they are complaining about, the things that are dividing people, and the things that might already be spurring them into activism. After we understand the overall situation in the community, we can seek to come up with customized initiatives that could bring immediate pay-offs for the community, and therefore provide immediate incentives to participants.

Later on we’ll be exploring in depth this realm of mobilization strategies, inter-thread synergies, and immediate pay-off initiatives. What I’ve said so far is only a brief introduction, a small part of the picture. Also, in what I’ve said so far, the focus has been on the localization activists as the change agents, the planners, the initiators. Let’s now devote some attention to the question of participation by the community generally, in orchestrating its own path to transformation.

There is one thing we can be sure of. If the efforts of the activists are successful, if their initiatives mobilize a significant level of participation, and if the community’s economic life is changed in significant ways, then we can be sure people will begin to take an interest in the overall change process. When people experience that they have the power to improve their local situation, then we can be sure more and more of them will want to have their voices heard, and exert some influence over the community’s direction.

And of course this is exactly what we want, as social-transformation activists. When people generally begin participating in their community’s planning activities, that represents the emergence of a real democratic process. As that process matures, the community becomes its own change agent. The spotlight goes off of the initial activists, and they become peers in the ongoing community process.

In fact, ‘participation in planning’ is simply one more flavor of participation, along with ‘participation in a local currency’, ‘participation in energy production’, or whatever. And just as there are appropriate tools with which to manage local currencies, there are also appropriate tools with which to accommodate popular participation in planning. Indeed, one of the very valuable threads in the localization movement is an explicit local-democracy movement, and we will be looking at that later in this chapter.

It is always important to use the tools that are appropriate to any given undertaking. This is particularly true in the case of engaging the community its own change process. The methods of engagement, such as public meetings or whatever, must from the very beginning adhere to legitimate democratic principles. There must be a way for all viewpoints to be expressed; there must be a way to reach general agreement, etc. The local-democracy movement has a great deal to contribute in this regard.

Let us pause and review how we got into this discussion about focusing on community, rather than agendas. We began by reviewing the stuckness of the localization movement as it is currently operating, unable to break through the participation barrier. We then stepped back and looked at what the various movements have in common, the assumptions and beliefs that underlie their focus on localization. 

We identified one central assumption that underlies all these movements: community mobilization is a viable approach to achieving radical social transformation. This is not an assumption that is expressed in general terms by the movements, but it is the implicit motivator that causes them to focus locally, in pursuit of their transformative agendas. 

Once we become aware of this shared radical assumption, then shifting our focus directly to mobilization and community, rather than specific agendas, is a very natural step. How else does one approach a problem, other than by focusing on the problem, and bringing to bear the available tools in an appropriate way? That’s just common sense, something we’ve all understood since childhood.

And once we do shift our focus in this way, the whole movement comes into coherence. The path is opened to collaboration among the various movements, the unleashing of the potential synergies among the threads, and the more effective pursuit of mobilization.

And when the movement starts to have a real impact in a community, based on this more synergistic approach, it is inevitable that people in the community will want to get involved in the process of the movement. Mobilization of the community, regardless of the initial mobilizing agendas, naturally leads to the mobilization of the community as an actor in its own change process. This will clearly become a self-fueling process: the more participation, the more results; the more results, the more incentive to participate, and so on.

Earlier I suggested that the localization movement is like a caterpillar, and the community like a chrysalis. I suggested that a new organizing principle was needed, that could transform the substance of the agenda-centered localization movement into the butterfly of a community-empowerment movement. The new organizing principle turns out to be the very shift of focus we have been discussing, from agendas to community and mobilization. 

Once the community begins to engage in its own change process, we are seeing community empowerment beginning to unfold. Community empowerment, as a movement, is the natural direction toward which the localization movement is heading, whether the activists involved realize it yet or not. It is only their lack of success so far, the scarcity of participation, that has prevented this fact from becoming apparent. 

As I suggested in the previous section, the localization movement is a very radical movement on many levels, much more radical than the activists seem to realize. One of the most radical aspects of the movement is its non-confrontational approach to social transformation, and this aspect makes the movement very strong from a strategic point of view. The less confrontational a movement, the less likely that it is going to be opposed by the powers that be. 

As people increasingly realize that the current system is not going to solve our problems, they are reaching out creatively to find ways to solve the problems themselves. One could almost suspect that some kind of universal unconscious is expressing itself, inspiring the threads that will eventually weave into a tapestry of species liberation. 

Next to come in this chapter: a survey of the various localization threads, and identification of the many potential synergies among them.

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