“The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it.”
–Edward Dowling, 1941
“The masters make the rules, for the wise men and the fools.”
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. One very interesting initiative was a series of three Wisdom Councils, which were held in Victoria BC. 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 in Mt Soleil Switzerland. Inspired by the ideas that emerged, I wrote two articles after different session, each attempting to outline how such a movement might be sparked: The Transformation Project, and Building the new in the shadow of the old.
At this point I’ve run out of ideas for transformative initiatives. However I remain convinced that hierarchy cannot be other than oppressive, even if subtly so, and that real human liberation can only happen in a context of stable, participatory, decentralized governance. Such a world would be operating with a transformed culture, where collaboration and mutual respect are naturally seen as the appropriate principles to guide our approach to challenges and opportunities. If such a culture is to be the ends of some grassroots movement, the movement must embody that culture from the beginning – the means always become the ends.