What can movement organisers learn from small group democracy?
I have a hunch that 21st century democracy is going to be characterised by much more participation. I don’t mean mass opinion gathering: I’m thinking of a kind of participation that is transformative for the participants. Deliberating, sharing your experiences with others, changing your mind, growing shared understanding through difference.
The democracy I care about is a social process not a statistical one.
The democracy I care about has nothing to do with voting and everything to do with caring, listening, trusting, challenging, bonding, changing, tolerating, confronting, educating, negotiating, growing, listening, listening, listening.
It’s about relationships not categories.
It’s about meaning not winning.
I’ve experienced this form of democracy in small groups. My first taste was in the General Assembly of the Occupy movement, where I learned that my perspective can only ever apprehend one facet of any complex issue. Inspired by the General Assembly and frustrated by its limitations, we started the Loomio co-op, where I’ve been practicing small group democracy for the past 5 years. We’re 10 people, committed to each other, committed to a project that is bigger than any of us, committed to working in a way where we can be greater than the sum of our parts. At a slightly larger scale, I’ve seen this work at Enspiral, a network of 250 people all learning to work together with maximum autonomy and minimum hierarchy.
As we tour through the USA, I’m testing if the lessons we’ve learned in these small groups can apply at a much larger scale. What kind of technology, what kind of culture is required for millions of people to participate in making meaning together? Can we reimagine government as mass collaboration?
We had a great time last week in Washington DC, the latest stop on our US tour. We were hosted by Stephen Larrick from the Sunlight Foundation, who helped us organise a terrific workshop at the OpenGov Hub. The Hub is a massive coworking space with more than 40 different organisations all working to make government more participatory, transparent and accountable.
On Wednesday night we gathered a wonderful diverse crowd in the Hub. We had an environmental lawyer who’d been camped at Dulles Airport fighting the Muslim Ban; international development people; someone from Occupy Wall Street who moved on to Indivisible; an educator working to enrich Egyptian democracy.
The session started with two presentations, one from me, and one from B Cordelia Yu.
Cordelia is a self-described political science nerd. Lately she has been researching the historical conditions that put Taiwan at the forefront of participatory democracy, just 21 years after their first presidential election. These days, any proposed legislation must go through a substantial participatory process before it can become law. Take for example this case from last year where 2000 citizens collaborated to write the new legislationthat now governs ride-sharing services like Uber. That’s an inspiring glimmer of what 21st democracy could be. Cordelia’s research question is: how did that happen? Why Taiwan, why now?
I was struck by a theme from her talk: that Taiwanese people value democracy so much because they remember not having it. For 40 years until 1989, Taiwan was subjected to the “White Terror”. Under martial law, political dissidents were routinely imprisoned, “disappeared” and assassinated for working to make the state more participatory, transparent and accountable. I was moved by Cordelia’s recollection of being a kid, sitting with her father after he became a naturalized citizen working through the Oregon Voters’ Guide and meticulously filling in the postal ballot. After growing up under an authoritarian regime, this was the first time he’d been allowed to vote. It’s no wonder he approached the task with such reverence.
Like other commentators I’ve worked with, one of Cordelia’s answers to “Why is this happening in Taiwan?” is “Confucianism”. She described this as the shared understanding that the success of the individual is equally important as the success of society. I wonder how on earth could this understanding be fostered in a Western context where freedom and fairness are seen as polar opposites?
After Cordelia’s story, I shared some lessons from Enspiral and Loomio, identifying six organising patterns I’ve seen spreading between participatory groups.
After the presentations, we hosted a “fishbowl” discussion: a participatory process to engage the collective intelligence of the people in the room. You can hear a recording from the discussion here. I thought the conversation was fascinating: we talked about growing trust without face-to-face interactions, techniques for redirecting old institutions with a lot of inertia, and how to overcome the tribal identities of small groups to form large coalitions.
I understand this to mean something like: the product of the [D]isatisfaction with the current situation, multiplied by a compelling [V]ision for the preferred future, and the effort required for the [F]irst steps in the right direction, must be larger than the [R]esistance to change.
Applying this formula to the US: it’s obvious that Dissatisfaction is steeply rising across the political spectrum. Beyond New Zealand and Taiwan, I’m personally inspired by pro-democracy movements all across the world, from Spain to Korea to Kurdistan. They’re all incomplete and imperfect, but I hope by sharing these stories with each other we can inspire the Vision factor. With our workshops offering tools and processes for participatory culture, we’re offering some easy First Steps for people to make their everyday organising a little more democratic. The big question I’m left with is: can these 3 factors can add up to overpower the Resistance to change before the collapsing biosphere gives us no other choice?
And with that big question burning at the back of my mind, we board another flight: next stop Arizona…
Unsustainable suburban development in Houston, TX