rkm: The story of my quest for understanding

My career was in the software industry in Silicon Valley, working mostly for startups, and ending up at Apple and then Oracle. On my own time I read extensively about history and public affairs, wanting to understand how things really work in the world, how policies are really made and who benefits. Early on I adopted the hypothesis that the big decision makers are not stupid: if policies fail to achieve their stated objectives, it means the real objectives haven’t been revealed. This hypothesis has been confirmed time and time again. Like America’s always-failing policy of stopping terrorism, whose real purpose is to justify illegal military interventions.

My jobs were always satisfying and challenging, and the pay and stock options were always very good. But I began to see myself nonetheless as a cog in a machine, and began yearning to be instead a person in the world, someone who is engaged with real problems, not the problems of some corporation. In 1994 I packed it in, with my retirement account as funding, and moved to Ireland. I wanted to become a writer, to begin sharing my ideas. In Ireland I figured there’d be few distractions, as I knew no one there. This move was a reckless plunge into the unknown, and the best decision I’ve ever made.

If one is to write about public affairs, the work is partly about writing, and is mostly about learning things, or figuring out things, that are worth sharing. It becomes a quest to achieve understanding, and I chose an ambitious goal for my particular quest: to find out how the world really works, and to figure out how we could change it. To pursue such a quest, I suppose the recommended path would be research, research, and more research – delving into every available source until you find the answers you are seeking.

I’m far too impatient to follow such a path however, and I came up with a faster way of learning. My approach has been to act as if I already know the answer, to whatever particular question I’m investigating. I’d take into account what I’d learned so far, and come up with a theory. Then I’d put the theory out there, in postings to relevant online forums (aka email lists). My learning came from the responses I received to my postings.

I’d learn the most when people shot my theory down, with arguments, with counter examples, and with more attractive theories. This would then send me into research mode, but very selective research, related to the theory and its rebuttals. Then I’d come up with an improved theory and start pushing that. When you take into account that there are lots of folks out there, who collectively know a lot about any particular question, my approach turns out to be a very efficient one. I get the benefit of all that collective wisdom, because people online generally like to argue and prove they’re right. My latest theory is the bait that hooks in those who know something I need to learn.

My theories of ‘the problem’ and ‘the solution’ have evolved by this process over the years. Originally I thought ‘right-wing thinking’ was the problem, and I figured educating the right to accept liberal values would be the solution. My understanding of the problem advanced rapidly from that primitive beginning. At one point I thought the problem was about wealthy elites corrupting our political process. Then I focused on capitalism as a big part of the problem – a system that channels wealthy elites into exploitive pursuits, as they must always pursue growth at any cost.

Eventually I reached the position that still dominates my thinking: the problem is hierarchy itself. I wrote an article about this, The Story of Hierarchy. I argue – looking at both history and system dynamics – that political hierarchies have a natural tendency toward internal concentration of power, and external expansion of power. I conclude the article this way:

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.

This is when my real quest began. I started exploring some very deep questions: How can we function in this complex world without hierarchy? What kind of better system could replace it? What kind of movement could bring about the transition?

Unlike with my earlier investigations, there aren’t ‘lots of folks out there’ who ‘collectively know a lot’ about such questions. We’ve lived under hierarchy ever since civilization began; indeed history has been largely driven by the evolution of hierarchy – a competitive struggle, leading to the survival of the baddest. Hierarchy has been so much a part of ‘how things function’ and ‘how things have always been’ that few people can even imagine its absence. How many fish can imagine the non-existence of water?

Whereas my first quest was as a student learning from the knowledgable, in this second quest I’ve been forced into the role of searcher: exploring unknown territory, pursuing new kinds of activist experiments, and seeking out people and groups I could work with at various stages along the way. The quest has been going on for twenty years, and someday I may write about it. For now I’ll skip to the chase, and share my conclusions, my list of principles:

• If a society is to operate without hierarchy, then it needs to be based on inclusive participatory democracy. We’d be required to govern ourselves, by talking through issues together, with all voices included somehow in the conversation.

• Such a participatory process cannot happen on a large scale. It can only be made to work on a small scale, the level of community.

• A non-hierarchical society must be based on decentralized sovereignty, with each community having full autonomy over its affairs.

• The world of facilitation has developed proven processes, processes that could enable a community-sized entity to operate as a participatory democracy.

• If a community were to adopt and use such processes, it would at the same time be undergoing a cultural transformation – the paradigm of collaboration replacing the paradigm of competition, engaged personal empowerment replacing citizen passivity, a sense of community replacing a sense of isolation.

• Such a community would be taking us back to our evolutionary roots, taking us back home. We evolved from primate bands, and most of our existence as humans, according to anthropologists, has been in non-hierarchical, supportive communities, engaged collaboratively in the group’s activities –  which back then happened to be hunting and gathering. Lacking supportive community, we are today like orphans who have lost their homes. In the psyche of civilized people lies a persistent undercurrent of anxiety.

• If communities were operating in this way, having undergone cultural transformations, then relations among communities would naturally follow the same principles. Collaboration rather than competition would govern those relations. Collaboration would be seen by everyone as the most effective and satisfying way of dealing with challenges.

• Any movement aiming at such a global cultural transformation must itself embody that transformation. The lesson of history is that the outcome of a transformational movement always has the same structure as the movement itself: the means always become the ends; a Bolshevik movement yields a Bolshevik regime.

• The required movement would need to be decentralized, with each local group operating autonomously and by an inclusive democratic process. The movement would need to spread as a viral meme, not as a coordinated project. The seed would be a few communities that have found a way to transform their cultures. Emulation of their success is what would drive the new culture’s viral expansion.

• There have been activist projects aimed at bringing communities together, attempts to create the seeds of a viral movement. These projects have not succeeded. People have been so conditioned to isolated disempowerment that drawing them into community has become seemingly impossible. Only if this obstacle can be overcome, and a few seeds created, do I see any hope for overcoming hierarchy and rule by elites.

My book, Escaping the Matrix, expresses these ideas in much more detail. However the scheme presented there for creating seeds has not proven to be successful.

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