|Caveat: This is a long article, even by this blog’s standards. Find a comfy chair, or bookmark it and come back later. I think it’s important, and I need your contribution to make its core argument more compelling.
Illustration: My imagining of how a self-organized and self-managed natural intentional community might evolve its roles and core capacities. The Only Life We Know is my in-progress novel.
Several readers like what I’ve been saying about significant change having to come from the bottom-up, but are skeptical that intentional communities, natural enterprises, and peer-to-peer information, education and action groups can scale sufficiently to have an impact on all the damage that big, top-down-organized governments and corporations are doing, and to solve the world’s most intractable problems. I want to explore that concern in this article.
Top-down organizations are (generally) hierarchically organized. That means the power to make decisions on actions rests with one, or a very few people in the organization. It also means that those people have the authority to force those lower down in the hierarchy to carry out those decisions. The reality is that while those people will pay lip service to the instructions they receive, they will often not do what they’re told, either because (a) they don’t understand what they’re being told to do, or (b) they don’t agree with what they’ve been told (it doesn’t make sense, or it’s too much work) and they’re sufficiently buffered by the bureaucracy of the organization that they can get away with not doing it.
The consequence is that these (usually) large, hierarchical organizations are utterly dysfunctional. The people at the top have the illusion (because no one dares tell them differently) that their instructions are understood and being effectively followed. The people at the bottom are (usually) just struggling to do their (usually) unique jobs the best way they can, despite ill-conceived, ill-informed, poorly-communicated and often foolish instructions from above. The customers/citizens that the organization is intended to serve are completely divorced from the top-down communication and decision-making process. If they don’t like the decisions they can buy from/vote for the other ‘choice’ in the political or economic oligopoly. That is the customer’s/citizen’s only input into the system.
The reality is that the expensive and elaborate mission statements, strategic plans, statements of core values and principles, vision documents, and other ‘change’ programs usually have no effect on the organization at all. The achievements of the organization are simply the aggregate of the collective efforts of the employees, and success depends on an infinite number of factors, few of which the employees (let alone the people at the top) have any control over. What gets rewarded gets done, however, and what is rewarded in hierarchical organizations is finding ways to sell more products at higher prices to more customers while simultaneously hollowing out the organization to reduce costs (and hence, ironically, reduce capacity). This is euphemistically called ‘productivity’, and as I’ve reported before there are six main ways to do it:
Almost all activity of hierarchical organizations is currently devoted to these six tasks. Oligopolies enable this by eliminating competition. Massive deceptive advertising and PR campaigns are used to con the customer. Intensive lobbying buys politicians, who in turn provide subsidies, deregulation, corporate indemnification from litigation, and protectionist intellectual property laws. Outsourcing, offshoring, union-busting and benefit-stripping reduce labour costs. Egregious and environmentally ruinous ‘free’ trade agreements and one-sided contracts with struggling nations extract cheap materials. Collectively this is called ‘globalization’, and it is promoted as something that is good for all of us.
The hierarchical organization is only doing what is rewarded. There is ferocious internal competition to take credit for the organization’s collective success and shift the blame for its collective failure. This adds to the dysfunction, preventing people from sharing ideas and information, and rewarding deceptive credit-taking, scapegoating and exploitation of other people and the environment (reducing costs by ‘externalizing’ them, i.e. making them someone else’s cost and problem, usually future generations’). This destructive dysfunction is papered over with absurd talk about the importance of teamwork and collaboration. Employees learn (by reward or punishment lessons) that the real objective is to use the team to produce what you can take disproportionate credit for.
This behaviour is not unique to the private sector. Governments and government organizations are pursuing the same six ‘productivity’ goals bulleted above, via user fees, obfuscation of benefits, ‘centralization’ schemes, takeover of other government entities, reducing services, deceptive advertising and PR, and privatization. Politicians play up the myth that public organizations are less ‘efficient’ than private organizations of the same size (Ralston Saul and others have thoroughly debunked this myth, but it is immensely popular among a wide swath of simple-minded conservatives and libertarians who are easy to convince that, except for waging war, government-run organizations are inherently evil and incompetent). This, despite overwhelming evidence that the defence and ‘security’ functions of government are much less competently and ‘efficiently’ run than ‘privatizable’ functions like public health care and public education.
Hierarchies scale well in one respect: They concentrate power and wealth in a few hands, where it can be used to acquire even more of it, using the techniques described above. This is known as ‘leverage’ (financial and political) and, like the overweight kid on the teeter-totter, they have a lot of it. This leverage compensates for the inherent lack of effective communication, lack of information-sharing, inertia, vulnerability (in the face of sudden catastrophe), destructive politics, and unresponsiveness and indifference to the needs and well-being of people, that renders hierarchies so dysfunctional. In the wake of hierarchies’ leverage, innovators, entrepreneurs, and imaginative alternative ways of doing things are crushed. Choose Tweedledum or Tweedledee, or drop out of the system. As citizen, as customer, as employee, that is the only choice you have.
Enough about hierarchies. Let’s look now at networked systems, what Jon Husband calls ‘wirearchies’. The power in networked systems is decentralized, or as Searls & Weinberger put it ‘at the ends’. The obvious advantages of this are responsiveness (power distributed more broadly to people in touch with citizens, customers and employees are more aware of and more capable of responding to these constituencies’ needs) and resilience (when part of a networked system ‘goes down’, it is relatively simple to ‘work around’ it).
The purpose of networked systems is, like the systems in nature, not ‘efficiency’ or ‘productivity’ but effectiveness. Look at the seeds of a tree, or the redundancy in any ecosystem, and you see how well it gets the job done, no matter what eventuality may occur, but in an extremely ‘inefficient’ manner.
So imagine we were to evolve a new social, political and economic system, bottom-up, networked and non-hierarchical. Could it contend with the existing hierarchical system? And could it solve some of the intractable ‘wicked’ problems that the hierarchical system contends with now, and would have us believe it is coping with as well as is possible? In other words, can a Networked Society scale to do what it must to out-perform and replace our Hierarchical Society in dealing with the world’s intractable problems?
I think there is broad dissatisfaction with the existing hierarchical system, but great skepticism about whether there is any alternative. Communal and socialistic societies don’t have a very good track record, even though there may be some argument that the hierarchical societies deliberately crushed them because they represented a threat. The reality is that people, as citizens, customers and employees, do not buy into theories or ideals. They want to see evidence that some alternative system actually works. They believe their peers, not pundits (whether those pundits be at the top of a hierarchy or out on the Edge).
We do what we must. People will be inspired to stop voting for, buying from, and working for Tweedledum or Tweedledee only when they perceive they have no other choice, when the pain begins to considerably exceed the comfort that comes from the status quo. What’s more, they need to have some other choice presented to them, not just the idea of creating one. As I’ve said before, we need to start with local experiments of intentional communities (alternatives to the hierarchical political system), natural enterprises (alternatives to the hierarchical economic system) and peer-to-peer information, education and action groups (alternatives to the hierarchical social system). Just as the first life on our planet needed to brew in the primordial soup for a long time (probably with lots of false starts), we need to monitor and learn from these experiments, and let them evolve naturally. We cannot be concerned with whether we have the luxury of time for this to happen — one cannot invent a new Networked Society overnight, and evolution takes time.
The Internet (so long as it remains free from hierarchical tolls) will allow these experiments to be watched more effectively and by more people, and will allow us to share ideas, experiences and learnings more effectively with other people on the Edge. This could accelerate the evolutionary process of the Networked Society somewhat. The way I see it evolving is more and more people slowly weaning themselves off the Hierarchical Society as real alternatives become available to them regarding:
These are the most important decisions most of us make in our lives, so the emergence of alternatives is likely to attract a lot of public interest. The powers in the Hierarchical Society are aware of this, and are trying to offer us some easy (for them and for us) alternatives (like houses with solar panels and organic products) to keep us from abandoning them. They don’t understand that this is far deeper than a fleeting yen for counter-culture or a new form of consumerism.
There are, of course, many experiments in all these areas going on now. Should we be concerned that none of them have ‘caught on’ yet? I would be more concerned if some of these experiments had caught on. There is not yet a broad sense of urgency — we do what we must, and there is not yet that kind of imperative for the majority of people that they must do something other than what they’re already doing.
What will precipitate this sense of urgency? Not likely a political or economic or environmental event — terrorist fear-mongering aside, these events just don’t get at us where we live. Unless you live(d) in New Orleans, it’s doubtful that global warming has yet changed your life-style or even made you wake up every day thinking you must, soon. Remember, this movement is bottom-up. What will precipitate this sense of urgency will be small successes communicated peer-to-peer. Peer-to-peer alternative music sharing shook an industry to its roots (and that industry reacted in the prototypical, hostile, hierarchical organization way). Imagine if we start sharing alternative ways to live, that require purchase of much less, and then nothing at all, from multinational corporations. That allow us to live comfortably, joyfully, with 90% less income and 90% less consumption of standardized, packaged, imported commercial products — and 90% less consumption of energy. That make starting your own business easier and more pleasurable than working for The Man. That eliminate your dependence on outside suppliers of good and services, and your dependence on ‘experts’. That are more fun.
As I’ve mentioned before, these alternatives and changes could essentially starve the Hierarchical Society to death. That society depends utterly on our ‘consumerism’, on our tax dollars, on our Learned Helplessness, and on our psychological addiction and financial indebtedness to it. Show people that there is an alternative to that addiction and helplessness, one that is healthier and happier, and you need not do any selling. It will happen, growing slowly (too agonizingly slowly to suit most of us!), until people opt out of the Hierarchical Society and opt into the Networked Society, not out of political or ideological conviction, but simply because it’s easy and because that’s what their friends are all doing.
So imagine that happens, and the starved Hierarchical Society crumbles. No more globalization and big multinational corporations. No more standardized, centralized systems for anything: health, education, utilities. All replaced with local, community-based, self-managed alternatives. How will this transitioning new world of self-sufficient communities deal with global warming, with terrorist threats, with foreign despots, with world poverty and hunger, with pandemic diseases, with natural disasters, with the End of Oil, with social security, with immigration, with national transportation? The (federal) government won’t be able to help — it won’t have enough revenue to do these things. Of course, we could argue that they’ve been useless at addressing these problems anyway, making the situation worse, if anything, with every intervention. But surely someone has to at least put on a brave face and try, lest these problems get away from us entirely and our countries be overrun with unwanted foreigners and fundamentalist crazies? Who’s going to negotiate for, and between, and coordinate and represent these little communities in situations of larger-scale conflict and catastrophe?
We will still have a world in which most of humanity lives a marginal, dependent life in lands desolated by short-term, ill-considered economic and political activity. It is only we privileged few, a subset of the inhabitants of affluent nations, with substantial access to knowledge, resources, and collective organizational processes, who can hope to build and show off the experiments and models of a Networked Society. So how can we hope to not only scale these models to accommodate most humans in our own countries, but show them and introduce them to people who have none of the ingredients on which these models are built? How will a fledgling Networked Society ‘play’ in Darfur, in Tajikistan, in the South Bronx?
Well, perhaps better than we might think. The people in ignored and devastated areas of the world (and within our own countries) have learned that community is everything, that if they don’t look after themselves no one will. All we need to do is help them remove the obstacles (poverty, pollution, corruption, warlords etc.) to making intentional communities, natural enterprises, and peer-to-peer information, education and action groups work for them, in their own way. How do we do that, in a bottom-up, peer-to-peer, non-hierarchical way?
As I suggested the other day, if we can find ways to ‘solve’ poverty, pollution, corruption and crime in our own disenfranchised neighbourhoods, where these problems have defied all top-down approaches to alleviate, we should be able to apply the same ‘solutions’ to solve problems on a global scale: global poverty, global warming, despotism, terrorism etc. After all, neighbourhoods are complex systems.
In a previous article I suggested a four-step methodology for doing this, built on Open Space and a group of other methods that seem best-suited to addressing complex system problems. The four steps were:
Pretty idealistic, huh?
A few years ago the people of our neighbourhood got together and rebuilt a barn (actually a large garage for one of the neighbours, but it was originally a barn), which was close to falling down, and pretty sad to look at. No one in the neighbourhood is an expert in construction, but between us we knew a fair bit about different aspects of the job, and we had access to the Internet, and to others in our collective networks. We did an exemplary job, using precisely the four-step methodology noted above. We taught each other, we learned what we needed to learn, the invitation was so compelling and delightful we had a huge turnout (the only thing we ran out of was food, and that was quickly solved by self-organization), and the outcome was extraordinary. We did that!
I am, as you probably know, a great believer in The Wisdom of Crowds. It makes enormous intuitive sense to me. This methodology is merely a facilitated application of that wisdom.
You’re concerned about the places it doesn’t work — the places where the concentration of power and the abuse of that power is so extreme that bottom-up processes can’t overcome them. And so, they breed despots or terrorists or economy-wreckers and then we have a global threat to all of our communities and neither the time nor the ability to mobilize community-by-community to address that threat. Or you’re concerned about the surprises, like pandemic disease or tsunamis that wreak havoc before there is any chance to get together to work out an approach to them. Or you’re concerned about the cumulative effect of millions of communities, each by themselves not contributing much to global warming or The End of Oil but collectively threatening the survival of the planet and our civilization. Don’t we need some top-down powerful ‘force’ that can focus on just those problems? After all, even a radical communitarianist like Peter Singer says, advocating a ‘lite’ world government in his book One World:
It is widely believed that a world government would be, at best, an unchecked bureaucratic behemoth that would make the bureaucracy of the EU look lean and efficient. At worst, it would become a global tyranny, unchecked and unchallengeable. These thoughts have to be taken seriously. How to prevent global bodies becoming either dangerous tyrannies or self-aggrandizing bureaucracies, and instead make them effective and responsive to the people whose lives they affect? It is a challenge that should not be beyond the best minds in the fields of political science and public administration.
I’d love to know what you think about this. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible. It requires an altruism and a resistance to the temptation of power that is simply not in our nature.
How does nature deal with such catastrophes that overwhelm its inherently self-organizing balancing mechanisms? It lets them happen, and shrugs them off. Or it adapts to them. These catastrophes, in the face of an enormously resilient ecosystem, are (except for the odd extinction event every 50 million years or so) ultimately limited in their impact, and unsustainable long-term. They burn themselves out. Indeed, that is precisely what nature is doing now, in the advanced stages of the Sixth Extinction in the planet’s known history, the first caused by the actions of a single species, us.
We are, I suspect, too arrogant to just allow these things to happen, to wait for them to pass and ‘solve’ themselves. We couldn’t sit back and just allow Iraq to invade Kuwait, even though the reasons for that invasion were vastly more complex than the simple act of megalomania our politicians and press would have us believe was behind it. We can’t sit back and allow the Bush ideology to catapult the world into the Second Great Depression, even though the fuse is already lit and, if we turf him out of power and catch it, it will blow up in our face anyway. We can’t allow the wretched prisoners at Guantanamo to kill themselves, even if that means force feeding them until we concoct some excuse to execute them. We can’t shrug off 9/11 even though the trillions of dollars we’ve spent on ‘security’ and retribution in response to it have done nothing but make us less secure and have increased the popularity of the (surviving) perpetrators. We can’t accept that the solutions to global warming and the End of Oil that aren’t conceived and implemented in each local community according to its unique situation and needs, will never be acceptable enough to be implemented in any widespread way at all.
We do what we must, but to the humanist in all of us, that is never enough. Foolish or futile as it may be, we have to do more. Try something. Do something. Anything. Make someone responsible. Appoint a committee. Draw up a plan. Get revenge, even though it changes nothing. Hang someone. Stop it from happening again.
I’m not entirely satisfied with this ‘if you can’t do anything objectively useful, shrug off your grief and your outrage and get on with your life‘ answer. Not so much because it doesn’t make some intuitive sense to me that sometimes bad things happen, and last a while, and that attempting to either prevent or avenge them simply compounds (complexifies?) the problem. My dissatisfaction with this answer is more because I can’t sell this answer to people who might find the rest of the Networked Society elegant and compelling, but will find this sticking point intolerable. I’d welcome your thoughts.
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 145 Posts, by category, from newest to oldest ---
Dying of Despair
Notes From the Rising Dark
What is Exponential Decay
Collapse: Slowly Then Suddenly
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Making Sense of Who We Are
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
If We Had a Better Story...
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
A Short History of Progress
The Boiling Frog
Our Culture / Ourselves:
The Lab-Leak Hypothesis
The Right to Die
CoVid-19: Go for Zero
The Process of Self-Organization
The Tragic Spread of Misinformation
A Better Way to Work
Ask Yourself This
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
May I Ask a Question?
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
Learning From Nature
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
Several Short Sentences About Sharks
How Change Happens
What's the Best Possible Outcome?
The Perpetual Growth Machine
We Make Zero
How Long We've Been Around (graphic)
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
Reminder (Short Story)
A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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