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A little anecdote
Some time ago, I was strolling down the park with a friend of mine and had briefly explained to her about sociocracy, a governance system that distributes decision-making power to decentralized, autonomous groups of people who participate in rounds as equals to deliberate and use consent to make decisions. After nodding a bit, she said “so… how’s that any different than anarchy?”
“Radical simply means grasping things at the root”
To answer the question thoroughly, let us take a step back and ask: what is Anarchism? Etymologically, from its Greek roots, “an-archy” simply means “no ruler”. With time, Anarchism has come to denote a political philosophy and social movement which advocates stateless societies based on free and voluntary associations. Sadly, the term “anarchy” has also been co-opted and misused as synonymous with “chaos” or lack of order, often associated with images of people breaking windows or setting things on fire. The reality is that “Anarchism” on its own is an umbrella term that can encompass a wide array of political and philosophical ideas and practices, oftentimes in deep conflict with each other. The type of anarchy that I dream about, is the kind that revolves around cultivating communities with the capacity to self-determine by satisfying their own needs (material and immaterial), based on values like cooperation and mutual care. Thus, the anarchist exercises that I’m interested in tend to practice self-management as a political venture. This type of anarchism could be enunciated as “we govern ourselves” more accurately than by the more rudimentary (and overly simplistic) “no government”.
And what, then, is sociocracy? The etymological roots of the term “sociocracy” (which are also greek) are “socios” (same as in sociology) and “kratia” (same as in democracy). “Socius” means peer or partner, and “kratia” refers to governance, or, more specifically, to the use of power (“kratos”). So, at its core, sociocracy stands for “peer governance”, or, deeper yet: “shared power”– which lines up nicely with the type of anarchism I believe in.
What I responded to my friend at the park the other day is that I see sociocracy as one particular way to put anarchist values into practice. It can be one of many tools used to get closer to that free, self-governed, stateless society. Sociocracy gives us a taste, through direct experience, of what that emancipated society could be like. Self-governed organizations give us a place to rehearse that society, to practice the skills necessary to both build it and live it. Additionally, I think sociocracy fits into a broader, braver, tactically diverse, revolutionary political strategy to accomplish the anarchist utopia.
Let us make the road by walking
What do I mean by “rehearse” the anarchist society?
I start from the basic premise that organizations are a hyper strategic point to build social-political change. Firstly, because organizations themselves are often an instrument to effectuate change in the world: their aim usually revolves around making some type of transformation or desired impact. Secondly, because society is a collection of organizations, and structuring our organizations differently could be a grassroots approach to changing the whole of society. Lastly, our individual self is shaped by the organizations we participate in; our organizations and relationships are where we show up in the world, where we exhibit behavior, thus, also the place to transform it, ie to deconstruct and reconstruct ourselves.
An anarchist organization, be it a squat, a worker-cooperative, a mutual aid network, a Food Not Bombs chapter, or whatever, is an anarchist exercise not just in the groundwork of their activities and the values behind it, but also as Propaganda of the Deed: the idea of preaching by example and inspiring others with our revolutionary actions. Any self-governed project is putting to the test the idea that we can indeed self-organize the satisfaction of needs and the reproduction of life without centralist institutions (like police and other state apparatus) that justify themselves in the paternalist logic of doing things “for” the masses. If the main thesis of anarchist theory is that we could scale the “Do It Yourself” (DIY) ethos and apply it to society at large, then self-governance means taking that to heart and putting it to praxis.
The processes and operations of organizations (the “what” and “how” they do it) ought to align with their purpose (the why behind the other two). If “what” the organization does is its ground operations or main activities (which can vary greatly from another), the “how” is the organizational structure and processes of the endeavor, which is where the anarchist praxis of self-governance lies.
The great failure of more traditionally militant 20th century revolutionary movements (I’m thinking primarily of Marxist and Syndicalist movements) was to attempt to institute, from the top-down, liberatory values like egalitarianism through overtly oppressive and inefficient structures. The inherently heteronomous nature of said structures, namely centralism and vertical hierarchies, made them more easily corruptible in time. By contrast, in a seemingly dialectal reaction to that, the tendency that I have noticed in anarchist groups has been to run away from structures, demonizing structures as inherently oppressive.
In short, aspiring to have “no structures” (or claiming not to have them) is a fallacy. Two particular articles do an excellent job explaining this: The Tyranny of Structurelessness, by Jo Freeman, outlines it in the context of the feminist movement in the 1970s, and The Myth of Natural Flow, by Ted Rau, addresses it through the sociocratic lens. The basic idea is that any time we are in groups (which is most of the time), there’s power involved, and it tends to be configured in some way. So, when we claim to have “no structures”, what we end up doing is invisibilizing the structures under which we are operating, and will tend to fall back to what feels familiar to us, which is the status quo.
When we simply deny structures instead of transforming them, we find ourselves replicating the toxic patterns that we have all too much familiarity with: hierarchy, domination, centralization, power-over, and so on. I like to call this last phenomenon “the fractality (or self-replication) of violence”: we yell at students because our teachers yelled at us, and they yelled at us because their teachers yelled at them, and so on; the cultural inertia of habit makes the vicious cycle of violence difficult to break and transform.
Let’s stop pretending to have “no structures” – because oftentimes that just lead to even steeper power imbalances due to a lack of explicit ways of addressing and altering our own power structures. Instead, let’s design our own structures with intentionality and be transparent about them, reviewing them constantly to see if they’re meeting our needs in alignment with our political purpose and adapting them accordingly.
Sociocracy provides one said structure, incorporating a number of tools and practices from different traditions and integrating together into a sound whole, a system for self-governance. Additionally, groups’ capacity to reappropriate sociocratic methods and tweak the practices according to need is baked into the system; which is partially why it is also called “Dynamic Governance”. The governance system is constantly being adapted to the needs of its context by its members, particularly through two of its primary components: the consent decision-making method, and the feedback and evaluation processes.
The basic unit of decision-making in sociocracy is called a circle. Circles are groups of people with a defined aim and “domain”, an area on which they have the authority to make decisions. Those who work together, decide together. During meetings, circle members participate in rounds to help ensure equivalence in the use of voice and make decisions by consent.
“Consent” is defined in sociocracy as having no objections. It is different from consensus (often used in anarchist spaces) in one very small, yet definitory way: there are tons of ways to practice consensus (a lack of formal definition also makes it ambiguous), but it generally tends to be interpreted and practiced as unanimity, or “everyone agreeing”. Consent, on the other hand, in the sociocratic tradition, is more explicitly defined as “no one objects.” This helps to ensure the basic sociocratic credo of “every voice and everyone’s needs matter”, but also has a more pragmatic implication: when we strive for “everyone to agree” we implicitly involve our personal preferences, which are harder to fit together. When seeking consent on a decision that is “good enough for now and safe enough to try”, we actually widen the possibility for our ranges of tolerance to overlap.
Consensus is more easily perverted by asymmetrical power dynamics, since there is no clear definition of what counts as a valid objection, and if there’s no clear agreed-upon structure to ensure all voices are heard (like rounds), the traditionally hegemonic identities will dominate the conversation. In consent, we define objections as “the concern that carrying out the proposal at hand will have a negative impact on the circle’s ability to meet its aim.” That way, every objection is seen as a gift to the group: some relevant piece of information that we would have otherwise missed.
Handling objections with care requires some serious emotional intelligence. This is another aspect in which I think sociocracy allows us to rehearse anarchist values like mutual care at a deep interpersonal level, and get a taste of liberation in our relationships. In a world where arguing is a common way to assert hierarchy and domination, committing to embrace the needs and feelings of every circle member is a revolutionary act of care and kindness. Since most of us are not accustomed to these practices from childhood, it takes time and space to practice these socio-emotional skills (like Nonviolent Communication, active listening, deep empathy, and so on), that are required for emancipation. Through constant practice in our daily lives in organizations, hopefully, we can make them more of a habit and embody an “interpersonal anarchism”.
The two main principles of sociocracy are equivalence and efficiency. The first one lines up nicely with the egalitarian values of anarchism, embodied by participating in rounds and embracing mutual care by committing to consent. The latter, however, may meet more resistance in anarchist spaces. It is important to note that “efficiency” here is not meant in the capitalist, exploitative notion of getting more work done in less time. I prefer to frame it as “How close are we to meeting our aims?” Efficiency in sociocracy is measured in terms of satisfying the needs that we set out to meet as a group or organization.
This is the part that got me hooked on sociocracy and had me spending less and less time in anarchist spaces. So many anarchist spaces I experienced often stayed on a theoretical, intellectual plane, and spent too much time arguing in debate-style of conversation in assemblies without shared focus, rarely leading to any concrete action. This was exhausting and inefficient, and often had me asking myself “when are we actually going to get around to doing the things we set ourselves out to do?”
If the anarchist movement is serious about missions as ambitious as abolishing the state, then our organizations need to be a lot (A. WHOLE. LOT.) more efficient in more than one sense. We could be a lot more competent and self-disciplined in holding ourselves and each other accountable on basic things like starting and ending meetings on time, taking clear minutes, following up on tasks we committed to, and so on. I understand why these practices are associated with the rigidity of hierarchical settings, but they also have a clear purpose of addressing certain needs that can not be simply dismissed. Efficiency is in great part about holding ourselves accountable to our agreements and intentions.
Under this paradigm, sociocracy provides a number of processes for efficiency, mostly through regular feedback and evaluation mechanisms.
At the beginning of every meeting, we have one round to share how we are doing (checking in with each other in the spirit of mutual care), and in the end, we share how we are leaving the meeting, holding space for immediate evaluation on our meeting process.
Every policy decision also has a review term, to assess how its implementation met the need it was aimed at satisfying; that way we can readjust based on empirical learning.
Similarly, every time someone is selected into a role, as facilitator or note-taker, the role has a term date. When the term is over, the circle holds a performance review, an act of radical honesty where we name what worked well and what could have been different to meet our needs, always in the spirit of constant improvement. Of course, these processes require deep emotional skill and resilience, but also lead to astounding levels of human connection. Every time I have participated in one of those, I leave with a renewed sense of community and comradery.
To me, these feedback processes show that efficiency is not in conflict with mutual care. Quite contrary: in needs-centered organizations, they are one and the same.
Towards Territorial Autonomy– Some Possibilities
It is clear to me –as I have experienced it in my own flesh– that sociocracy can give us a taste of liberation and community by the radical sense of connection and interdependence that it generates in circles. I am convinced of its transformative power at a personal and interpersonal level. It is still an open question, however, if sociocracy (or other similar practices) could be part of a broader political strategy, with more overtly anarchist aims such as abolishing The State and its most horrid apparatus like police, military, prisons, and so forth. Could sociocracy really be used by communities to self-govern their own territories and build true autonomy at scale?
This is a broad and open question, far beyond the scope of this post, but I have some points that may shed light on the conversation. The main way I see it fitting into a broader and revolutionary political agenda is through what has been called “Dual Power”: the idea that in order to reach self-determination under the current circumstances, we should both build political autonomy outside of the hegemonic establishment, as well as make efforts to seize power within the already established forms of centralist government, specifically at the hyper-local level.
In other words, if we can self-organize the satisfaction of the most basic economic and political needs of our communities, that would render state apparatus obsolete. For example, if we can self-manage our own communities’ needs for peace, justice and security, for example through restorative justice circles, then police presence would no longer be justified in our communities. And, as a complement to that, if we “sociocratize” our local government organs, like the city council, for example, members of our community could have a voice in (and actually, the right to object to) the presence of police in our communities.
I understand that the example may be overly simplistic, as particularly the case of policing is full of complex dimensions like violence, race, power, etc., but the point rests in building Dual Power and the role that sociocracy (as well as many other tools) could play as one of many tactics used in that pluralist strategy. The part about “sociocratizing” already existing government institutions is even further problematized by the fact that sociocracy was designed for aim-centered organizations; whereas striving to meet the needs of everyone in a delimited territory may result in several different aims instead of a more simple focus upon which to base our decision-making. A radical sense of interdependence among neighbors would have to be revolutionized in order to move past the current paradigm of fragmentation and begin to organize communally.
There are already several implementations of sociocracy being used to govern co-housing projects like intentional communities and ecovillages, but no large delimited territories yet. One might ask the question “to what scale is sociocracy adaptable?”
The sociocratic circle method is based on delegating decision-making power from circles to sub-circles as much as possible. Thus, decision-making power rests in the hands of those most affected by the decisions at hand, and organizations can act in a decentralized yet coordinated fashion. Sub-circles can form sub-sub-circles recursively as much as needed. This adapts well to the notion of different levels of local government (going from neighborhood to ward, to city, to municipality, and so on) as well as to the anarchist notion of federations and confederations. The “hierarchy” of the circles and sub-circles is not a matter of vertical power-over, rather one of abstraction. Sub-circles are “nested” sub-elements of their parent circles. Subcircles have autonomous decision-making power on a more specific or detailed set of elements, while the broader circles do so on a wider scope. Visualize zooming in and out of fractals.
The biggest experiment with the circle method so far is the Neighbourhood Community Networks in India. Children and young people from neighborhoods gather in a circle that is small enough for everyone to hear each other’s voice without the need for amplification. Every circle chooses a representative for the next immediate level of abstraction, whether it’s more focused or broader. In sociocracy, we call this “double linking”, which ensures the bilateral flow of information throughout the whole organization. The individuals performing as links between circles are full members with consent rights in the circles they participate, so, more than a voice merely “representing” the interests of the circle, they’re a part of decision-making with equal power to consent or object. The circle method is about delegating power to the places that have the most relevant perspective to make decisions on a given topic; those who will be most impacted by the decision are the ones formulating the proposals and who have the power to consent or to object to them.
Many Voices, Many Worlds
In conclusion, I want to make a note of saying that I do not believe sociocracy to be a panacea. It is one of many tools that could help us to transform ourselves and our society as a whole. For me, it’s had a particular impact because it is the most concrete and effective way to implement anarchist values such as radical egalitarianism and mutual care in an efficient and actionable manner. Thus, it feels alive and real.
Sure, it makes use of concepts (like authority, domains, roles, power) that anarchists tend to be allergic to. But the reality is that these concepts have a source, an underlying need that they strive to meet, and incorporating them into our structures with clarity and intentionality can keep them useful for us (as the technologies they are), instead of putting us at their service. Additionally, the adaptability of the system is one of the key features that come with sociocratic governance: we have the freedom to decide –by consent– not to use consent in a given situation and use another tactic more fitting to the needs of the context, for example in the execution of a plan for direct action.
Sociocracy has been for me the most satisfactory way to integrate the pragmatic with the utopic so far. It does a great job of synthesizing some of the dialectics that I see at the heart of the anarchist struggle; the balance between decentralization and coordination, autonomy and interdependence, freedom and mutual care. That’s why we like to call it a governance system that is as effective or efficient as it is affective or affectionate.
Of course, sociocracy on its own does not put an end to gigantic systems of oppression such as capitalism, colonialism or patriarchy. But it does lay a foundation for people to use their voice and have an effective say in their reality, the capacity to effectuate change. This is power in its most foundational form, and I think we can take a hold of it, together.
The lunatics are running the asylum. It hasn’t yet occurred to them to leave it.”
– Crimethinc Contradictionary