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Intentional Communities as Laboratories for Learning about Direct Democracy

Knowledgebase > Intentional Communities as Laboratories for Learning about Direct Democracy


Psychologist and communitarian Mildred Gordon examines at length the challenges of creating and maintaining fully functioning democratic groups, exploring why intentional communities are uniquely poised to take up these challenges.

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.”

Almost 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 seem s so even when the world in question is as small as one couple, a few children, and several friends and associates. Failure to self-empower seems as widespread personally as it is politically, precisely because people everywhere tend not to be (in Mr. Jef ferson’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 80 people, of which I am one of six founding members, considers itself an experimental laboratory established primarily for this purpose. We spend a lot of time at Ganas learning how to exchange inform ation effectively enough and truthfully enough to govern cooperatively and well. In the process, we have found it necessary to take a hard look at the problems involved, and what needs to be done about them.


Requirements for Cooperative Self-Governing (Participatory Democracy)

(1) Direct participation in cooperative self-government needs everybody to stay involved most of the time at all levels of planning, problem solving, and decision making. This seems necessary in spite of the inevitable frustrations and failures, because e ven a small number of negative, disruptive, or even just uninvolved individuals can do quite a lot of damage to the well-being and work of a cooperative group. It has been truly noted that if you are not part of the solution, you are inevitably part of th e problem (sooner or later).

Good participation requires constant and active interest in issues, even from people not directly involved or those who have no jurisdiction in the matters at hand. There is a common idea among people in cooperatives and participatory democracies that nob ody is going to be interested in most issues except owners, those directly affected, and the people who normally bulldoze their way through group process. But issues need to be considered important just because they matter to others in the group or to the group as a whole. Everyone who has ever done this kind of work knows that, unfortunately, such interest rarely happens.

(2) To work well, direct democracy needs all participants to inform themselves as fully as possible about each situation. This applies not only to the objective matter under discussion, but also to the feelings of all those concerned. Suppose the group is discussing the remodeling of their kitchen and has not reached agreement about what kind of fixtures to use for the new sink. Everyone in the group needs to know what fixtures are available at what price, and what the higher priced ones offer that the ch eap ones don’t. In addition, however, they need to know that one person fervently believes it always pays to buy the highest quality plumbing, another has a lifetime habit of buying things cheap and has almost made a life’s philosophy out of it, two peopl e are having a jealous conflict over a rival, and somebody else compulsively disagrees with everybody.

In addition, the information needs to be up to date. Maybe the jealous couple worked out their problem yesterday, or maybe there is a new fixture on the market that solves everybody’s problem. Everybody who is in on the decision needs all this information . In its absence, not only the faucet decision, but the whole community could be the worse for it.

We also need to understand the information in context. How important is the sink fixture choice to the entire kitchen remodel, and how important is the remodel in the whole scheme of the group’s overall goals and purposes? How much time can be given to th is discussion, and what is the worst that can happen if the fixture decision turns out to be wrong? Is this the best time and place to deal with some of the emotional issues that surfaced, or should they be tabled for another 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. Not even usually. Often not even partially!

(3) Competitive feelings among the members of the group are a major barrier to good information exchange. Often we don’t understand these competitive feelings (our own or each other’s) or even acknowledge them. That doesn’t make them go away, but drives t hem beneath the surface where they continue to interfere with clear thinking and communication. What results are power plays rather than cooperative thinking. Conflicted thoughts and feelings remain unresolved. Good ideas, as well as good problem solving, get lost in the process. In fact, most of us spend most of our time dealing with the endless and fruitless competitions that plague our interactions

New ideas leading to new decisions require undefensive, interactive group discussion. This can’t happen when pet notions, values, and habituated thoughts get contradicted and people choose to feel bad or angry about the implied criticism. Unfortunately, d efensive reactions are most likely precisely when new critical input and good interactions are most needed.

Uninformed, misinformed, or defensive participation in group process can be worse than no participation at all. There are those who refuse to listen with interest to opposing views. Some will listen but 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.

(4) To understand fully what is going on, we have an even more difficult task to undertake. Interactive group process in a participatory democracy won’t work well unless each participant is committed to learning how to present thoughts and feelings clearl y and to respond to what other people present, both verbally and non-verbally. If we are 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 thought and emotion, as well as those of others (as in the faucet example). It is important that we continue to hold to this commitment, even when others make it difficult to do.

Whatever we say, no matter how we say it, there is a good chance our input will be received inappropriately. It may be unwelcome (though true) or welcome (though untrue.) Worse, nobody is immune to expressing occasional absurdities that might be ridiculed . We have all experienced feeling contradicted before being understood or having a well-meant comment met with indifference, hostility, or outright aggression. Politeness, masking of negative feeling, comments withheld or feelings submerged to avoid offen ding — all these contribute to still more misunderstanding. It is hard to keep on trying in the face of all this. The ability to persevere depends on learning to cope with frustrations, mistakes, criticism, feelings of humiliation — even occasional rage s.

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 people can be trusted not to be hurtful, they are probably also not very open. They’re just trying to follow the group’s norms, often at considerable cost of awareness, spontaneity, and honesty, not to mention thoughtful intelligence.

The trust that is needed is trust in our own ability to handle the conseqences of an interaction, even if it goes badly. If we need to be sure that nothing uncomfortable will come of it, we probably won’t engage, or at least not very truthfully.

(5) The most difficult requirement of all is maintaining a strong positive motivation to participate. This dream is hard to attain, and even harder to maintain, given the predictable presence of a few “participants” who take their energy largely from powe r battles. Occasionally we even have to contend with the senseless raging fights that can bring everybody down, because it is hard to resist the strong desire to counterattack.

It is important to remember that negatively motivated people won’t get more cooperative when they are judged and punished. They need understanding and help. The trouble is that rivalrous people usually don’t want any help, however well intentioned. They a re likely to view benevolent intervention as more competitive than helpful. Worse, most of us who have tried to maintain positive motivation have had frequent occasion to doubt our own purity of purpose.

Given all the above, it is not surprising that direct democracy and cooperation don’t tend to work very well, either in or out of community. In fact, it is surprising that effective cooperative effort ever happens at all, but it does.

Learning how to do these things better than we do or have done is clearly necessary, but certainly not easy. Intentional community has good reason to be motivated to try to develop the learning methods and opportunities that could make it possible.


Intentional Communities Have Good Reason to Learn How To Do the Job of Building Better Worlds.

(1) Political Motivation: None of the governmental approaches used by today’s communities is really fully satisfactory. Each offers some benefits, and each has its problems.

Strong Central Leaders. There are many good reasons for a community to avoid the kind of government in which a single person holds all of the authority and makes all the decisions. These days community people are generally in agreement that this kind of d ecision making is undesirable and probably dangerous, so there is no reason to preach to the converted by drawing out the arguments here.

Moral Law. Relying on agreed-upon religions or moral principles has only limited value. True, it provides some stability and can occasionally still the anxieties that we all struggle with. But it cannot itself effectively relate to the problems that need answers every day. Somebody has to interpret, and in the interpretation the group faces the same problems as groups without a guiding vision. Generally speaking, inherited or even group-evolved fixed morality lacks the flexibility demanded by day-to-day i ssues.

Philosophic or Political Dogma. Many groups that consider themselves far beyond the strictures of religion or traditional morality still use some of the same assumptions and techniques called by more modern names. Particularly noticeable are the dogmas of the political left or the various faces of environmentalism. Neither of these movements stands still long enough for any systematic approach to become popular, and in the meantime, it is up to leaders to interpret what any particular community does with them. In one place, recycling is everything; in another, getting off the grid is the overall goal. Some groups are principally concerned with diet, others with occult powers. People are attracted for a variety of reasons to all of such groups, and their c onflicting views present each community with decision-making problems that often are beyond the ability of their presumably shared belief systems to manage.

Rules and Agreements. Many communities have evolved complex rule structures that tend to become as irrationally rigid as the outmoded social norms they are trying to replace. We have all seen legislation proliferate into restrictive tangles of contradicto ry 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. They are more l ikely to interfere with attempts to find good solutions. Laws that were meant to guide current thought too often eliminate it.

Furthermore, just as with rule by charismatic leaders, enforcement of rules, law, norms, or moral codes requires some kind of punishment as a backup when people defy them, as somebody inevitably will. The usual leverage applied in community is peer press ure (in the form of personal rejection or expulsion of noisy nonconformers). Such measures tend to either get compliance without agreement, or they fail to deter or control at all. In any event, they rarely change anyone’s mind about anything. Too much pe er pressure can result in both conformity and rebellion alternately — or, in very disfunctional 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 effective participation itself becomes unaffordable.

Moral codes, norms, policy guidelines — even the written law itself — are weak substitutes for good group process. Any of them may work for a while, but when they fail, dangerous chaos, bad management, poverty, and ultimate failure to survive as a group are likely results.

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 the rules are never wiser than the pe ople who create them. They are not necessarily responsive to here and now reality, and for the most part they don’t work very well. When leaders do appear, they mostly stay behind the scenes. Some combination of open and hidden leadership, some political policy arrived at by vote or by consensus, a proliferation of rules or agreements — these 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, sales may be down, costs up, and productivity a disaster. In fact, the undertaking may alrea dy have failed. But maybe not all the bills have come in yet, and cash flow may still be good enough for the people involved to be unaware that their venture is already bankrupt. The same process can happen in relationships, families, or society at large. It happens frequently in community.

(2) Economic Motivation. Communities are composed of people who got together to satisfy their personal and collective life style desires. They need to maintain economic stability, secure a moderate standard of living, and enjoy a range of occupational cho ices. It is important to have the opportunity to develop skills, employ talents, and allow for preferences.

Poor management often gets in the way. People frequently take positions they are not qualified for and may not even like, but hang onto because of the authority or status involved. Fearing to be found out, they avoid exposure or feedback and do an even po orer job. Eventually someone objects, dialogue turns to arguments, and arguments to fights. People blame each other for work problems instead of getting together to solve them. Power struggles proliferate, everyone gets discouraged, and productivity sinks . Resources are wasted, and economic deterioration may follow. If strong, wise leaders don’t take over, there is a pretty good chance that poverty and/or bankruptcy will.

Communities aware of such threats ought to be motivated to keep the direction of their economic lives where it belongs, in the hands of “the people themselves.”

(3) Loving relationships that are secure, happy, and mutually supportive are a major value in communities. We can all agree on that, but how to get them is not well understood. What is needed are truthful exchanges, freedom from moral absolutes, a rejecti on-free social environment, and a flexibility sufficient to allow individuals to be different from but supportive of each other.

Economic, political, or personal interactions all call for relationships that are strong enough to handle open exchanges of feelings and perceptions. They all rely on truth. If we choose to lie to each other by omission (to prevent hurt feelings or to avo id trouble of whatever kind), other, more explicit lies tend to proliferate in the cover-up.

The kind of complex behavioral learning that a community needs in order to make participatory democracy work is a high-risk undertaking calling for a truly secure social base. Creating such a base requires us to keep up the positive motivation for the tas k of learning to think together creatively.

(4) Intentional communities can create the kind of environment needed, because we have control of many of the social reinforcers that facilitate or prevent change. Since we are literally in charge of creating our worlds as we want them to be, possibly we can learn how to reshape the forces that shaped us in the first place.

Most of that shaping was done in the past by usually random approval and disapproval. Essentially, we tend to repeat what felt good and avoid anything that threatens disapproval. We need to realize that we ourselves created the rush of pleasure we associa te with approval, and our fears of the consequences of disapproval are almost never realistic.

In the big world, “winning” is rewarded with approval, material goods, or even security in relationships. Competitive “wins” may be applauded even when the action involved is clearly socially destructive. Emotional expression is almost universally discour aged. Learning from mistakes is often viewed as weakness. The outcome of telling the truth can be ostracism. Intelligent input to economic management can get you fired. Meaningful participation in politics is at least disheartening and generally just not an option.

In community, because we are empowered to decide almost everything together, we can hope to change these things. It is possible for us to allow and reward individual self-empowerment. We can celebrate occurrences of whatever behaviors we choose. We can su pport honesty and understanding in dialogue. We can open up to performance feedback and learn how to feel good about it, because we want to. We can learn to listen as actively as we speak, as eager to hear and understand as we are to speak and be understo od. Maybe we can even learn to welcome new ideas.

We need to learn to allow others their responses of approval and disapproval of our behaviors, be glad to have their input, and give them a full hearing. We need to weigh it all out and then chart our own course, accepting that everyone else will also do whatever they decide, and that each of us has the responsibility to learn to accept and adjust to whatever comes of it. When these things are possible, we can finally hope to make open dialogue a reality instead of just an exciting dream.

(5) Experimentation with alternative lifestyles is the stated purpose of many nonreligious communities. Historically, small communities have regarded themselves primarily as path blazers and social innovators. Because so many intentional communities hold these dreams in common, they are the logical choice of places in which to build our laboraties for learning the art of loving, cooperative autonomy, and creative self governing.

About the Author

Mildred Gordon was one of the cofounders of the Feedback Learning Institute in 1978. Her community interests include Feedback Learning and communications skill development, negotiation and conflict resolution, group facilitation, systems, product design and display, food purchasing, and gardening.

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