Direct Democracy GN-A2
Direct Democracy GN-A2
Intentional Communities as Laboratories for learning about direct democracy
Thomas Jefferson said,
* "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate power of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion"
Most everyone agrees with Mr. Jefferson. Attempts at effective, universal participation in direct democracy date back to early Athens at least, and possibly to the first time homo sapiens stood upright. In the intervening years, countless groups, large and small, have had a go at it, but nobody has yet succeeded in making direct democracy work consistently, effectively, economically, humanistically and/or replicably. Few empower themselves to create cooperative worlds the way they want them. This seems so even when the world in question is as small as one couple, a few children, and several friends and associates. Self -disempowerment seems as widespread personally as it is politically. Perhaps this is true precisely because people everywhere tend not to be (in Mr. Jefferson's words) "enlightened enough." The mandate therefore is to "inform their [our] discretion." The catch is that Mr. Jefferson didn't say how to do it. I think it might be the responsibility of intentional communities to try to figure it out.
Ganas, a New York City intentional community of about 60 people, of which I am a founding member, considers itself an experimental laboratory established primarily for this purpose. A lot of time at Ganas is spent learning how to exchange information effectively and truthfully enough to govern cooperatively and well. In the process, it has become necessary to take a hard look at the problems involved, and what needs to be done about them.
PROBLEMS WITH COOPERATIVE SELF-GOVERNING (PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY)
* 1. To be successful, direct participatory democracy requires everyone's participation at all levels of planning, problem solving and decision making. Also participants are required to stay actively involved most of the time, no matter what the frustrations and inevitable failures (and they are considerable). Even a small number of negative, discontented, disruptive or even just uninvolved individuals can do quite a lot of damage to the well being and the work of a cooperative group. It has been noted, and truly, that "if you're not part of the solution you are inevitably part of the problem."
2. Direct democracy requires participants to inform themselves as fully as possible about each situation. The information required should reflect not only the objective reality (as well as it can be determined), but also the subjective points of view involved (to the extent that people are willing to express them). Further, the relevance of any particular event is often apparent only in the context of the whole situation, which therefore also needs to be made known and revised or upgraded all the time.
Clearly, not only does all this information have to be available to everyone involved, but everyone has to want to receive it -- and this is not always the case.
New ideas (often good ones) can be blocked and important information refused because of competitive feelings or other experiences of threat that we're barely aware of. Such feelings are rarely known or understood. If others notice them and mention them, the tendency is to deny them vehemently. Unexpressed and unknown, the conflicted thoughts behind many of our feelings of threat don't usually get much attention, and therefore remain unresolved. The resulting damage to group process, in the form of power plays of one kind or another, tend to remain unchecked.
To really understand what's going on, we have an even more difficult task to undertake. We need to learn how to bring emotional information (feelings) together with thought, in the process of exchanging meaning. If we're not prepared to expose feelings or to be exposed to them, we are in danger of losing touch with our direct experience of our own thoughts and feelings of others. In the result, one can lose awareness of much of what is happening, before underlying causes of the conflicts and the problems they generate can e identified or understood.
New ideas that lead to new decisions usually require effective (undefensive), interactive group discussion. This is usually hard to do when pet notions, values, and habituated behaviors of any kind are criticized -- which is precisely when the new input is most needed.
Uninformed, misinformed, or defensive participation in group process can be worse than no participation at all. We have all known people who are simply unwilling to expand or upgrade their information. There are those who don't want to relate to issues, interactively, and refuse to listen with interest to opposing views at all. Some absolutely won't change their minds no matter what. We've heard the familiar statement., "Don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up." Active participation of this kind can be a demoralizing time waster and a liability for the group.
3. Good participation requires active interest in issues, even with little personal involvement or direct jurisdiction in the matters at hand. the common idea that caring requires either ownership or dominance might be antithetical to both cooperatives and participatory democracy. Issues need be important just because they matter to others in the group, or to the group as a whole. Everyone in community knows that, unfortunately, such interest rarely happens.
4. Group process in a participatory democracy won't work well unless each participant is committed to presenting thoughts and feelings clearly, and to responding to whatever is presented. This commitment should hold, even when others make it difficult to do. Inevitably, whatever one says, and whatever the response, both will sometimes be unwelcome, although true (and welcome although untrue). What's worse, nobody is immune to expressing occasional absurdities that might be ridiculed. Feeling contradicted without being understood, or having well intentioned comment met with indifference, hostility or even outright aggression has been experienced by everyone involved in group interaction. It's difficult to keep trying to express oneself anyway. Such perseverance requires learning to cope with frustrations, mistakes, criticism, occasional feelings of humiliation, and possibly rages when others don't help. Continuous open dialogue also more or less assumes that people can and will effectively handle their own and other people's competitive feelings through it all.
Attempts to establish trust in order to feel safe enough to open up haven't always done too well either. When people are open they sometimes can't be trusted to be nice. Conversely, if others can be consistently trusted not to be hurtful, they're probably also not very open, but rather attempting to follow the group's norms as well as they can, often at some considerable cost of awareness, spontaneity and honesty.
Truthful exchange can only happen consistently because of trust in one's own ability to handle the consequences. expectation that nothing uncomfortable will ever come up will inevitably be disappointed.
Learning how to do these things is clearly necessary -- but certainly not easy. Intentional community has the responsibility to develop the learning opportunities that will make it possible.
5. The single most difficult requirement for effective participatory democracy is strong positive motivation to participate. We need positive motivation that comes from wanting each individual to get as much as possible of whatever they want and need in each situation -- while also serving the needs of the group as a whole in terms of its stated objectives. Positive motivation promotes joined energy and shared information. It supports exciting group thought, problem solving, creative action, and individual, as well as collective, power. Unfortunately, it's hard for most people to maintain enthusiastic positive participation when some others in the group seem narrowly self-interested, negative, competitive, and even destructive. Inevitably, some active "participants" will take their energy largely from power battles, even from raging fights that can bring everyone down.
It's important to remember that negatively motivated people won't get more cooperative when they're judged or punished. They need understanding and help. The trouble is that rivalrous individuals mostly appear not to want any help, well intentioned or not. In fact the offer of benevolent intervention is often viewed as more competitive than helpful. What's worse, most of us who have tried to maintain positive motivation have had frequent occasion to doubt our own purity of purpose.
Given all this, it is not surprising that direct democracy and cooperation don't tend to work very well -- in or out of community. In fact, it is surprising that effective cooperative effort ever happens at all, but it does -- and often.
INTENTIONAL COMMUNITIES ARE HIGHLY MOTIVATED TO LEARN HOW TO DO THE JOB OF BUILDING BETTER WORLDS FOR THE FOLLOWING REASONS:
* 1. Political motivation: Members of non-religious communities tend to be very aware of the dangers implicit in hierarchy and strong central leadership.
Some are just as eager to get rid of fixed norms and moral dictates that demand conformity regardless of current functionality. Yet, if we try to ignore them, we may become very anxious.
Many communities have evolved complex role structures and politically correct dogma that tend to become as irrationally rigid as the outmoded social norms they're trying to replace. We've all seen legislation proliferate into restrictive tangles of contradictory concepts. New rules can be more tyrannical than either controlling morals or strong leaders. What makes them dangerous is that so many people take comfort from their promise to prevent problems. In reality, rules rarely prevent trouble. Instead they often interfere with attempts to find good solutions to the problems that inevitably do come up. Laws that were meant to guide current thought too often eliminate it. The tendency to stifle new ideas by enforcing rules or agreements (either new or old) tends to feel alarmingly righteous.
Further, enforcement of rule by laws, norms or moral codes requires punishment of some kind either to deter would-be violators or control deviants. The usual leverage applied in community is peer pressure (in the form of personal rejection or expulsion of noisy non-conformers). Such measures tend to either get compliance with or without agreement, or they fail to deter or control at all. In any event, they rarely change anyone's mind about anything. If too much peer pressure causes serious internal conflict, that can result in both conformity and rebellion alternately, or in very dysfunctional people, simultaneously. Mostly, trying to enforce rules just gets rid of difficult (and often good) people. When unquestioning compliance does happen, it is often at too great a cost to creative communication, and therefore the cost to effective participation itself is just not affordable.
The dilemma is that if strong leadership and/or centralized rule of moral or civil law fail to fill the void left by an absence of good group process, then dangerous chaos, bad management, poverty, and ultimate failure to survive as a group can result. In order to avoid the emergence of strong leaders, or the disasters that can happen without them, and because good group process is so hard to come by, most communities ultimately do rely heavily on rule systems. But rules are never wiser than the people that create them. They are not necessarily responsive to here and now reality, and for the most part just don't work very well. The leaders that do appear mostly stay "behind the scenes." Combinations of open and hidden leadership, some political dogma arrived at by vote or by consensus, and a proliferation of rules or agreements are the clumsy, but commonly accepted compromises.
When such settlements are arrived at, the need for widespread effective participation in economic and political management may not come up for consideration again for years. For a while, people think they've solved the problems. Everyone tends to get more content and to bother less about the issues, because things seem to be working well enough (as long as nobody looks too closely).
Maintaining the status quo in this way is often possible long after real trouble has set in, but before the consequences of that trouble are visible. In business it often happens that sales may be done, costs up, and productivity a disaster. In fact, the undertaking may have already failed. However, all the bills may not be in yet, and the cash flow may sill be good enough for the people involved to be unaware that their venture is already bankrupt, possibly irretrievably. The same process can happen to relationships, families, or society at large. They happen frequently in community.
In Mr. Jefferson's statement that he knows of "no safe depository of the ultimate power of society but the people themselves", perhaps the key word is safe. The failure of "the people themselves" to learn how to accept and intelligently exercise "the ultimate power of society" has repeatedly put that authority into the hands of good or bad leaders, backed by codified morality. And still the planet moves inexorably toward the brink of disaster, regardless of quality of our intentions, our leaders, or our moral and civil law. There really seem to be any safe way to govern but for "we the people" to do it ourselves. Many intentional communities have undertaken the task of learning how to make that happen.
2. Economic motivation: Communities are composed of people who got together to satisfy their personal and collective life style desires. As groups they tend to want to maintain economic stability, secure a moderate standard of living, and enjoy a range of occupational choices. It's important to have the opportunity to develop skills, employ talents, and allow for preferences. This can't happen when management positions are held too long by inexperienced people who are not sufficiently accountable to those they manage. When input to problem solving and planning is poorly coordinated and lethargic, and management is weak or badly motivated, almost inevitably destructive power struggles surface. Dialogue tends to turn to argument and argument to fights. People blame each other for work problems instead of getting together to solve them. Everyone gets discouraged, productivity is low, waste of resources gets high, and economic deterioration follows. If strong, wise leaders don't take over, there is a pretty good chance that poverty and/or bankruptcy will. Therefore, communities aware of such threats are (or should be) motivated to keep the direction of their lives where it belongs, in the hands of "the people themselves."
3. Secure, happy, mutually supportive relationships are a major value in communities. Economic, political, or personal interactions, all call for relationships that are strong enough to handle open exchanges of feelings and perceptions, without too much anxiety. They all rely on trust. If we choose to lie to each other by omission (to prevent hurt feelings, or to avoid trouble of whatever kind) , inevitably other more explicit lies by commission tend to proliferate in the cover up.
Intentional communities can be free of moral absolutes. Therefore we have the option to create the emotional and social climate necessary to nourish truthful communication and meaningful relationships, if we want to.
For example, it's possible to create a social environment in which individuals risk rejection, and never lose awareness of each other's value. We can agree to try to welcome the process of understanding what's happening, what's wanted and what's to be done, whether the issues are personal, economic or political. We can help each other keep the connections between these things in clear focus.
As groups, we can empower ourselves to allow a vast range of differences between individuals. As individuals, we can agree to negotiate the compromises that are always available to aware people who care for each other. As communities, we can arrange our interactive lives so that we create safe space for whatever behavioral learning we decide we want.
Behavioral learning as complex and threatening as self-governing seems to be a high risk undertaking that may require a truly secure physical, sexual, and social base. Some intentional communities have the resources, and might have the capability, to create such a base. Good rational/emotional dialogue seems to require that people maintain consistently positive motivation and ability to empower themselves to think creatively. Both of these options can appear very frightening. Because people living in intentional communities tend to know the importance of good personal and work relationships, we have the responsibility to try to create a safe environment in which they can happen.
4. Experimentation with alternative lifestyles is the stated purpose of many non-religious communities: Historically, small communities have regarded themselves primarily ass path blazers and social innovators. Because dreams of these kinds are common to so many intentional communities, they are the logical choice of places in which to build our laboratories for learning how to learn the art of autonomous self-governing.
The Foundation for Feedback Learning, of which Ganas is a part, has viewed itself as such a laboratory for over 15 years.
5. Intentional communities have control of many of the social reinforcers that facilitate or prevent change. In fact, we are literally in charge of creating our worlds as we want them to be. In community, it's possible to learn how to take charge of and reshape the forces that shaped us in the first place. In the big world, it's not uncommon to get approval, material rewards, and even security i relationship for "winning". This is true even when the action that resulted in the competitive win is known to be socially destructive. Mostly, emotional expression is discouraged. The outcome of telling the truth can be ostracism. Intelligent input to economic management can get you fired. And meaningful participation in politics is at least disheartening and generally just not an option.
Because we are empowered in community to decide most everything together, it is possible for us to allow and reward individual self-empowerment. We can change these things. We can support honesty and understanding in dialogue, and celebrate occurrences of whatever behavior we choose. We can open up to performance feedback and feel good about it. Maybe we can learn to joyfully welcome new ideas. If we're lucky, we can even stop using punishment to teach ourselves a "lesson". Punishment has proven itself a bad learning tool. It teaches nothing except what not to do.
With some obvious exceptions, people act where they expect the pleasure and rewards of approval. Conversely, action is usually avoided if pain is expected. Essentially we repeat what felt good and avoid doing what felt bad. Eventually this can develop into repetitive behavioral patterns that don't go away.
At Ganas we theorize that many of our most influential feelings of pleasure and pain come from expecting good and bad outcomes of the approval and disapproval or mainly imagined wins and losses that trigger so much of our emotional experience. Therefore, if we can change our minds about the trouble we expect in the future, our feelings are very likely to change in the present.
Most of the time, the actual consequence of the things that happen to us are not that bad at all. At least they're almost never as bad as we though they were going to be. Therefore, it should be possible to change our minds about expectations of dire consequences, if we get the feedback that this kind of thing is happening.
THE GANAS EXPERIMENT WITH FEEDBACK LEARNING involves exploring the hypotheses that widespread resistance to giving or getting performance feedback (criticism) has created an almost universal deficit of on-the-spot information exchange of all kinds. In turn, this deficit interferes with current thought, and effectively prevents self-determined behavioral learning from becoming a part of everybody's every day experience.
The estimates are that as a species, we use about 10% of our potential ability to think, love, learn, and enjoy life.
The Ganas working premise is that we humans can actualize considerably more of that potential, if we can access the natural, ongoing, adaptive behavioral learning or change capability that is part of our basic equipment. The task at hand is to learn how to use that equipment efficiently and hopefully relatively painlessly. We assume that this waits on learning to receive new data with enough pleasure to make us willing to hear it at all. Receptivity to performance feedback may be the key that will unlock our ability to give up old destructive behaviors and learn new and better ways of doing things whenever we want to. Evidence to support this premise is plentiful.
Physical feedback is the necessary self-regulating system employed in all physical functions. we couldn't live without it for more than a hew minutes. As previously indicated, we speculate that emotional, feeling experience is derived from assumptions and expectations that are often associated to old events, and are not necessarily reflective of current reality at all. Yet, it is this feeling experience that shapes our personalities, provides the basis for most of our relationships, and ultimately prevents us from governing ourselves wisely. Feedback of our response patterns in the context of current reality can bring us into the present where adjustments and change are possible, and therefore good decisions can be made.
The Ganas experiment assumes that performance feedback is just as vital to healthy cognition and social interaction as body feedback is to physical survival and as emotional feedback is to relationship. Receptivity to feedback in all these areas is pre-requisite to inheriting our long lost capability for the self-determined behavior without which cooperation remains an illusion.
We've learned from working with these concepts every day, for years, that most people just don't want to hear negative or critical information about their behavior at all. Apparently, feedback is especially abhorrent when it's accompanied by strong emotion. Even more than not wanting to know how people perceive us and what they think of what we do, we most especially don't want to know how they feel about it. In the face of feedback, the first impulse is to resist hearing it and/or to deny that it could possibly be true. If the initial resistance is overcome, and feedback is accepted as being of possible value, almost inevitably the next step is to lower energy and feel bad about the whole thing. Whatever the information, if we accept that it's true and conclude that it's our fault, we'll tend to be angry at ourselves. If we conclude that it's untrue, the anger is with the messenger.
Since we cause knowing to feel bad, the impulse is to avoid hearing. Not hearing and not knowing, our decisions are poor and our influence minimal. In the result, we tend to be available to respond on cue to the many forces bidding to make us "feel" good and bad almost out of habit -- at their discretion. This happens mostly without much awareness of what's going to. Therefore we can't and don't usually do much about it. In a very direct way we are therefore subject to random influence precisely because we avoided the direct feedback we feared would unduly influence us.
In the larger world we have little control of the social structures that determine what is approved or disapproved, and therefore what we'll probably feel good or bad about. Yet these are the factors that tend to direct how we feel about what we do, and therefore determine our behaviors, evolve our personalities, and largely pre-determine our values, preferences, and decisions. This random, very old shaping process keeps happening every day, without our input or consent, and often without our knowledge.
Of course it is possible to resist the social pressures that create us as we are, but with great difficulty. Even those of us who have somehow learned to disregard public opinion -- are rarely strong or wise enough to handle the huge impact of the regard or disregard of the significant others in our lives. For the most par, we are not sufficiently autonomous to withstand the inevitable onslaughts of judgments and demands. In the end, most of us take our direction from those who are themselves also responsive to the demands of society at large, just as we are.
Our work at Ganas is to try to reverse the process by accepting negative information with the excitement of discovery. Progress is slow, but it's happening.
Once motivated to accept the possible value of all information, and the special importance of personal, particularly critical feedback, the next step is learning to focus undistracted attention on whatever is happening. We've had good success with this objective. Space out is less, group energy is often high, and attention is quite good for most of the people al lot of the time. However, upgrading the skill of clearing one's mind of noise, in order to be ready to receive what's happening in the present, is wisely accepted by most as a life-long endeavor at best.
When people get better at focusing well enough to hear what's being said, non-verbally as well as verbally, they're ready to concentrate on learning how to respond to what they've heard.
The Stumbling block there is that very often, once people start responding, they find that others are not necessarily interested in their responses. Commonly people speak for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with what's supposedly being discussed, and they often don't need (or want) and answer. The primary motivation for speaking are too often interest in looking good, avoiding disapproval, winning competitively over others, controlling the agenda, and determining the outcome. Obviously these things have little relationship to exchanging the information we need of each other to make our lives and our worlds work well.
At the present time, the Ganas group communication work focuses on learning to postpone disagreement, argument or defense of one's position, until what's been said by others bas been fully understood and assigned as much positive value as possible. Everybody has agreed to give up opposing new ideas they have not yet heard or understood.
The Ganas learning experiment takes place in the context of the ongoing life and work of the community. Many techniques have been tried -- and many more will be explored. About five hours of feedback learning work every day include two to three hour breakfast meetings, nightly dinner discussions and after -dinner get-togethers as they're needed. Everyone is welcome to attend, and no one is required to participate in this activity. The purpose has been more to learn how to solve problems together than to resolve any particular issue. Group interactions at Ganas are often intense, usually interesting, and sometimes just an excuse to have a good time together.
Openness to new information effectively processed in a group is thought to be the missing, indispensable, workable ingredient for good problem solving and direct democracy. Perhaps these are also necessary pre-requisites for loving relationship. These objectives have met with only moderate success so far -- but the effort continues, and as of the time of writing, things are going well.