An article about rehearsing alternative forms of governance
The late David Graeber talks with Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, image from London Real (2015)
The idea of “government in exile” or “government in waiting” isn’t new. And opposition parties have “shadow governments” where their elected members rehearse for their roles for when their party comes into power. But their plan is just to replace the current cast of characters with their own, within the same system.
But the idea of rehearsing parallel alternative forms of governance — completely separate systems — to be ready for when current governments go bankrupt and their political systems collapse, is new.
During the Occupy protests, an alternative form of governance was employed to help organize and coordinate actions. Here, verbatim according to ChatGPT, are the key elements of this alternative system:
- General Assemblies: The movement organized regular General Assemblies, which were open meetings where participants gathered to discuss and make decisions. These assemblies provided a platform for anyone to voice their opinions, proposals, and concerns.
- Facilitation and Working Groups: Facilitators were responsible for moderating the General Assemblies, ensuring that everyone had an opportunity to speak, and guiding the decision-making process. Working groups focused on specific areas of concern, such as logistics, outreach, or media. These groups allowed participants to collaborate and work on specific tasks.
- Consensus Decision Making: Occupy Wall Street aimed to make decisions through consensus. This meant that proposals were discussed until a general agreement was reached, rather than relying on traditional voting systems. The modified consensus model allowed for decisions to be made without requiring unanimous consent but instead used a threshold of broad agreement.
- Hand Signals: Occupy Wall Street participants used a system of hand signals to facilitate communication during meetings. For example, participants would raise their hands with fingers pointing upward to show agreement, horizontally to signal confusion or a request for clarification, or downward to indicate disagreement.
- Working Group Autonomy: Each working group had a level of autonomy to make decisions within its area of focus. This allowed participants to engage in activities that aligned with their interests and skills.
This system is a form of what has been called “direct democracy”, as opposed to “representative democracy” where the decision-makers are often distant from constituents and subject to bribes and other forms of non-democratic coercion.
Attempts to mash direct and representative democracy together have generally failed. Referenda questions and debates are very often distorted by moneyed political interests and pressure groups, and recall campaigns often deteriorate into ideological witch hunts. But what are we to do when direct democracy scales badly and representative democracy seems hopelessly corrupt and dysfunctional?
If you believe, as I do, that we are entering a period of rapid and permanent economic and ecological collapse, which will produce political, social and ultimately civilizational collapse, there is a temptation to shrug off the failures of the current systems and just wait for them to fall.
But rather than just waiting, and hoping that the systems that will replace the dysfunctional systems won’t be even worse, what if we tried setting up parallel alternative governance systems, and worked to get the bugs out of them so that, as the current systems collapse, they are ready to offer to the citizenry as an alternative to either chaos or the reinvention of the broken systems?
Roger Hallam, one of the founders of XR, who has largely left that movement behind as it’s being slowly coopted in some places into a traditional passive justice movement, has been talking about this. Roger’s belief is that we have to twin the development of alternative governance systems rooted in citizens’ assemblies, with persistent, disruptive, direct action — take it, break it, block it activities. The latter illuminates how destructive and un-reformable the current systems are, and the former offers an alternative vision, to give the movement credibility and proffer proven, practical replacements.
The general assemblies used by Occupy were a form of direct democracy. Those proposed by Roger and others (like Democracy Without Elections) for larger-scale use, are a special form of representative democracy, but one that doesn’t involve voting or elections. Instead, a group of citizens is randomly selected from the population by lot, adjusted to ensure they fairly map to the demographics of the citizens they’re drawn from. Those citizens are then briefed on one or more issues, and also encouraged to do their own research. They then meet, and using a process to ensure all viewpoints are heard and understood, they discuss the issue until a consensus arises and a decision is made.
One of the original ideas of XR was that the decisions of such citizens’ assemblies would prevail over any decisions made by elected governments on issues in critical policy areas such as climate collapse. Elected governments have shown over the past five decades that they are simply and utterly incapable of addressing such issues, and are in fact impediments to action in these areas.
Attempts to subject the decisions of assemblies to overrule, by elected officials or referenda, have undermined the whole purpose of these assemblies. If neither the politicians nor the citizens are willing or able to trust the assemblies to have the final word, they become just another layer of bureaucracy.
But of course, those with a vested interest in sustaining the current systems and power structures have frequently used their wealth and power to propagandize the citizens into believing such assemblies are dangerous and undemocratic.
So, for example, in Canada, every citizens’ assembly charged with studying the current dysfunctional “first past the post” electoral system has recommended replacing it with a specifically-identified better system, and every time their recommendation has been rejected by citizens after massive scare-mongering by politicians with a vested interest in the current system. This happened even though before the propaganda effort was launched, Canadians had been overwhelmingly in favour of an alternative system. The current abysmal PM even solemnly promised his last election would be the last under the old system, and then, once elected, he completely reneged on that promise.
So one of the challenges we will have to deal with, if we replace large centralized governments directed by elected, compromised politicians, with decentralized systems governed by citizens’ assembly decision-making, is how to take away the power of the moneyed and powerful to propagandize citizens’ assemblies as dangerous and untrustworthy. That will not be easy.
The Healthy Democracy movement has been piloting Citizens’ Initiative Reviews as one step in this direction. They organize citizens’ assemblies, by lot, to review major ballot initiatives in Oregon and Arizona, and the state then prominently features their recommendations on the ballots for such initiatives. In Oregon, the assemblies’ recommendations were approved in 11 of 12 initiatives to date.
These assemblies are usually (and best) not standing governance groups. Different assemblies are selected, by lot, for each critical issue. Non-critical issues are delegated to autonomous working groups (another idea used in the Occupy movement) where decision-making is made, apolitically, by those with the experience and expertise best suited to exercise it.
My sense is that collapse will inevitably lead to a massive devolution of power from large, inflexible, dysfunctional, expensive centralized systems to community-based systems that will eventually ‘flop up’ everywhere to fill the power vacuum and to meet citizens’ needs. And so I like the idea of focusing these alternative governance systems at the community level.
The problem we face right now, though, is that, particularly in the west, we have almost no real communities. We live in atomized, disconnected cities where we often don’t even know our neighbours.
So, as is happening with the experiments in Oregon and elsewhere, we have to, for now, rehearse these alternative governance forms at the regional or national level. That should be fine, since it is far easier to scale down successful experiments to the community level than to scale them up.
If a citizens’ assembly based governance system is a possible replacement for our broken political systems, is there some similar experiment we could be doing with our economic, educational, health care, and social systems?
My sense is that the answer to this question will most likely be found by studying communities that, mostly by necessity (collapse is well-advanced in some parts of the world) but in some cases because it’s in their historical culture, are already successfully modelling effective radically local economic, educational, health care and social systems.
So, for example, many cultures still embrace a gift economy, based on our collective responsibility to provide the necessities of life to all in our community, to develop local self-sufficiency, and to gift our knowledge and our surplus goods and skills and time to others. With currency collapse being a likely consequence of economic collapse, we have a lot to learn from studying these alternative economic systems that are neither capitalist nor socialist, but instead responsible, and based on generosity. Such systems actually exist, and they work.
A community-based educational system that is based on self-directed learning nurtured by a community-based mentoring network that allows us to learn continuously through hands-on practice, trial and error, demonstration and dialogue, would almost have to be better than one that isolates learners in expensive, inflexible institutions with fixed curricula. Many home-schooling and unschooling networks can show us how this is done.
The idea of small community health clinics with a diversity of providers, caring for the whole person, instead of huge hospitals and disconnected ‘specialists’, is used in much of the Global South. Combine that with better self-diagnostic and self-treatment systems, which could be online and accessible anywhere, and we might actually start to see healthy lifespans increasing again.
And, of course, single-tier health care should be funded by the community, and hence free for all.
Social collapse is much harder to predict and rehearse for, since it’s so unpredictable and will vary enormously by community. What some communities are doing, replacing police with teams of multi-skilled crisis respondents, will inevitably be part of whatever emerges, and these pilots are worth studying. As with all our other systems, we are going to have to learn to deal with social issues without using large, expensive, and usually dysfunctional institutions, such as prisons. I’ve visited communities that have neither police nor jails, and at a small scale, where everyone knows each other, they work quite well. We humans are better at self-managing things at the community level than we might think.
So what do we do to string all these new radically relocalized community-based systems together as collapse deepens? We know for sure that some communities will fare much better than others, for all kinds of reasons.
It is possible that, as city, regional, and larger-scale governments go bankrupt as a consequence of deepening economic collapse, we might replace them with federations of autonomous communities, with each community ‘governed’ by citizens’ assemblies focused on their community’s unique situation and needs.
The federation would of necessity be loose, much as many First Nations federations were in North America before the Europeans arrived and destroyed them. Such a federation could share and trade excess resources, and knowledge, ideas and technologies between communities. But it would probably, and hopefully, not be able to reinstitute neoliberalism’s worship of ideological homogeneity and centralization, with their commensurate diseconomies of scale. Many, perhaps most post-collapse communities will fail. That’s a tragedy, but collapse is not a problem that any political, economic or social system can “fix”.
I’m not sure I agree with Roger that direct action will significantly advance public acceptance of the need to scrap and replace our current dysfunctional systems, though I hope he, and other activists, are correct about this.
But I do like the idea of having viable, tested alternatives handy as these systems go down. And while we should be studying and learning about possible proven relocalized replacements for all of our existing, crumbling systems, political/governance systems seem to be as good a place as any to start.
As someone who has lived in small rural communities for most of my life and who has participated in local governance from the school board to the planning commission, I strongly disagree about “direct democracy” or “consensus democracy”. Most people will not have the time or energy to be constantly attending meetings to thrash out policy. Representative democracy is far more efficient and useful at anything above a family or tiny village level (less than 50 people).
Representative government by citizen assemblies chosen by lot might work a little better, but why not stick with the people who do a good job and why not select them by voting? Look how many people try to avoid jury duty, which are selected by a very similar method, and which involves less work than a governing assembly.
The issues you raise about representative democracy at the scale of the nation state are valid. It may be that there is a scale above which it is impossible to create an enduring representative democracy, but don’t let the failures of national-scale governance condemn representative democracy for small communities.
In our rush to try to find something “better” than representative democracy, we risk defaulting to the systems that have been proven to work at all scales, hereditary aristocracy and despotism. I’d rather struggle a bit getting the representative democracy to work for my communty than have to endure life under those systems.