I have been using the term “self-government” for a while now without really defining it. I prefer to use this term instead of a more political term because it designates not a political system or a worldview, but a kind of process, a way of looking at social relations, which can be applied to any part of society.
A good starting point, I think, is this quote from famous ethnographer Pierre Clastres:
Yes, the state exists in primitive societies, even in the smallest group of nomadic hunters. It exists, but it is unceasingly averted, its realization constantly prevented. A primitive society is a society that directs all of its efforts to preventing its leader from becoming the leader (this can even lead to murder). If history is the history of class struggle (in societies where there are classes, obviously), then you can say that the history of societies without classes is the history of their struggle against the latent state, the history of their effort to codify the flows of power.
But if the history of societies without class is marked by their ability to constantly resist the emergence of a political hierarchy, it is also true that the history of States is marked by their ability to constantly adapt to resist revolution and the emergence of anti-State counterpower.
The ability to generate loyalty and silence opposition has always been a dominant factor in the way States have been, and are, structured. The study of power in any form is primarily the study of the methods by which one can obtain obedience and bypass or eradicate dissent. What I call self-government is therefore always latent in all State societies and all command systems.
Societies are always in movement, in accordance with the laws of cause and effect, as Plato and Marx surmised. The concentration of power in the State, and in command systems in general, and the dispersion of power by self-government, can be made as a metaphor of “two fundamental forces” (similarly to the fundamental forces in physics). The history of mankind can be seen as a constant tug-of-war between these two universal social forces.
The question will necessarily arise: if that’s the case, then why is it that we see so little self-government in today’s societies?
First, I think this question misses the mark to a certain extent. It is not that there are no self-governed systems in our societies, but that they are not formal. Our formal decision-making apparatus is mostly composed of governments and corporations, both of which are command systems. But even within the tightly wound Western societies we live in, we still observe islands of cooperation, solidarity and moral independence.
But the main answer to this question is that late-capitalist democratic societies are especially well adapted to the manufacture of consent. Perfected systems of public schooling and elitist colleges, a long tradition of democratic institutions, the linkage of unions with States and corporations, the dependence of the mass media on State and corporate information, the inequality inherent to capitalist economies, all conspire to elicit obedience to the status quo. I’ve also reviewed a wide variety of ideological mechanisms of control.
There are many examples of self-governed systems for us to take lessons from. I have listed a number of them on my Vision Statement, although these are all specifically societies and not just systems in general. Other self-governed systems that merit examination include Summerhill School (on which I’ve already written quite a bit), the recuperated factories in Argentina, anarchist organizations (like many unions around the world, and publishers AK Press and CrimethInc.), and other self-governed organizations and companies all over the world.
Now, here is my comparison between self-governed systems and command systems.
|Command systems||Self-governed systems|
|BASIC STRUCTURE||vertical, hierarchical||horizontal, egalitarian|
|Command systems function by funneling commands downwards and funneling money and time upwards. Self-governed systems function by shared decision-making and sharing of money and time.|
|MOVEMENTS OF POWER..||concentration (for the elite), dispersion (for the subjects)||constant dispersion|
|Because they are hierarchical, command systems must concentrate power upwards in order to function, while keeping inferiors as powerless as possible. Self-governed systems, on the other hand, can only survive by constantly dispersing power as much as possible, both within themselves and within society.|
|FLOW OF INFORMATION..||closed, controlled, censored||open, free|
|Because of their hierarchical vulnerability, command systems must suppress information and keep it circulating within a small elite group. This leads to weaknesses such as vulnerability to groupthink and an incomplete perspective. Self-governed systems benefit from spreading information and freeing information to the general public.|
|DECISION-MAKING||decisions are taken by superiors and obeyed by inferiors||decisions are taken collectively through consensus or vote|
|In command systems, the owner or leader (sometimes a group of owners or leaders) takes a decision, with or without consultation, and their subordinates obey.
In self-governed systems, decisions are taken collectively, taking into account everyone’s preferences, values and expertise. Because self-governed groups must be small, decisions that affect a lot of people are usually taken in a federated manner (with groups sending representatives) or by global vote. In this perspective, the concept of a leader who takes unilateral decisions is only superficially efficient because it formulates decisions that only fit the expectations and knowledge of one or a few people, not dozens of people.
|SCALE||inhumanly large scale||small scale, face-to-face|
|Being predicated on boundless growth, command systems seek to become as big as possible. Large scale systems also foster the reliance on a technical elite which dictates problematics and solutions. Self-governed systems function best when they are small, or broken down into small units, and when people can communicate face-to-face (see also the point on humanization below).|
|LEADERS||appointed or voted, unaccountable||informal figures or accountable roles subject to constant rotation|
|Due to the large scale of command institutions, leaders are necessarily disconnected from the values and interests of their base, and they are not (and cannot be) held accountable for not acting in accordance with those values and interests. Because self-governed systems are run by individuals coming together to accomplish common objectives, leadership in such systems is subordinate to those objectives. In order to prevent the accumulation of power which brings about a command system, leadership roles must be regularly rotated between individuals and they must be held constantly accountable for the decisions they take.|
|ECONOMIC VALUES||profit, boundless growth||individual flourishing and collective autonomy|
|Command economies and economic units are profit-seeking and are predicted on boundless growth, which means they are antithetical to human flourishing and environmental flourishing. While self-governed economic units are also forced to seek profits in order to survive within command economies, they are more oriented towards the individuals’ values and their control over their own production.|
|OWNERSHIP||private property||common ownership|
|Command systems are based on the principle that means of production, the products that result from them, land, water and natural resources can all be exploited as property on the basis of whoever can afford them. Self-governed systems are based on common ownership, where resources as well as responsibilities are shared, usage boundaries are set by the group, and no one is deprived of enjoying a resource due to being unable to afford it. As rebuttals to the “tragedy of the commons” myth have pointed out, common ownership has worked for centuries, and still works today in factories and companies around the world.|
|INTERACTIONS||competition and/or separation||cooperation|
|Having people and corporations compete with each other, or work separately, is very inefficient but ensures obedience and the pursuit of a more competitive status (“rat race”). Self-governed systems are based on individuals pooling their intelligence, judgment and abilities to achieve their own objectives efficiently and with less stress.
Competition leads to conformity, distrust, lower motivation, and is least conducive to learning. Cooperation leads to more creativity, stronger links between people, motivates people to excel, and helps people learn better by focusing on what people want to learn and how other people come to understand it.
It’s worth noting that self-governed organizations usually do not have a competitive structure: in fact, they usually have a highly collectivist, quasi-communist structure (look at modern corporations, for example). It is one of the most paradoxical facts about capitalism that its economic units are the closest thing most people will ever experience to central communism planning.
|POLITICAL STRATEGY||divide and conquer, “us v them,” constant war||humanization, class interests, we are all equally valuable|
|Keeping the general population from realizing its common interests is a primary concern of the State (and corporations as well), which is why they keep dividing the population into criminalized groups, status groups, racial and gender divisions, and so on. At the same time, they use a constant state of war (whether it be physical wars or political wars) to maintain people’s loyalty to the group as a whole.
The first and most essential rhetorical trick that must be used in order to divide people is dehumanization. A group cannot be marginalized or oppressed if it’s not first dehumanized. This is why the first and most essential process in a self-governed political system is humanization, to demonstrate the uniformity of class interests to people who falsely believe they do not need freedom, or to show that people who are being persecuted by divide-and-conquer tactics deserve rights.
Personal testimonies are powerful, and used by all political ideologies, because they let us empathize with another human beings and imagine ourselves in their situation. Non-violence is another strategy based on humanization because seeing people getting beaten by the authorities also invokes people’s empathy for others.
|ETHICS||imposed by the elite||emergent from dialogue|
|In command systems, the rules that people use to evaluate each other’s behavior and performance are imposed from above, and have nothing to do with the values of those following the rules. In self-governed systems, those rules are established by the individuals based on their own morality.
In real life, social standards usually change according to moral upheavals, not based on command systems like law and religion. In fact, we usually see the opposite: laws and religious percepts are forced to keep up with changes in social standards in order to remain relevant.
Command ideologies see no connection whatsoever between morality and ethics, in fact they usually enforce a strict separation between the two, but that’s a bizarre belief. It’s been well understood by radicals for a while now that “the personal is the political,” and that any separation between the two is purely artificial.
|JUSTICE||punishment, revenge, threats, based on elite values||contextual justice based on collective values|
|Because command ethics are authoritarian, justice in command systems must be authoritarian as well. Its objective is to remove threats to the hierarchy and its flow of resources and power.
Self-governed systems are egalitarian and cannot administer justice in an authoritarian way; their egalitarianism means that every individual is able to evaluate a person’s actions in their context and to respond to them in the most appropriate manner. Punishment is generally undesirable because it weakens trust between individual and therefore the system as a whole.
Furthermore, justice in command systems must always be based on a double standard: by virtue of their power, the elite and their lackeys must be allowed to do things that the subjects cannot be allowed to do. Justice in self-governed systems cannot have a double standard, if every individual is to have equal power.
|EMPOWERMENT||willingly agreeing with one’s exploitation and getting some benefit out of it, “agency”||having actual power over one’s production and one’s conditions of life|
|One of the most powerful mechanisms for manufacturing consent wielded by hierarchies is the belief that one is empowered by agreeing to be exploited. This belief underlies much of the discussion around gender, race, class, and religion.|
Strong hierarchies (including hierarchies of prejudice like gender and race) and class warfare are crucial factors in preventing the formation of self-governed systems. If people are busier hating each other than they are hating the elite, then they will have no interest in joining up to fight the elite. A fragmented populace is a weak populace, because the elite is always very well aware of its status and is always to a large extent united in values; the areas of disagreement within the elite is usually about tactics, how best to manufacture consent and suppress dissent, either through bribes (welfare, employment, abolishing repressive laws) or punishment (taking away welfare, using police violence, passing repressive laws).
Within self-governed systems, a likely imminent danger (unless we’re talking about a small group or organization tolerated by the State) is police violence or war. Beyond these, the most dangerous internal factor is the formation of a leadership class. This is why self-governed structures are as horizontal as possible and generally rotate important positions, so that no person or group of people may accumulate enough power or importance. Because people are conditioned to respond to authority, informal leaders are useful to present a unified PR front to the public while maintaining the dispersion of power within the organization.
All these properties I’ve listed above are relevant differences, but any given organization will not necessarily fulfill every attribute of command systems or self-governed systems (e.g. ancient Iceland, Scandinavian “third way” economies, liberation theology). But it seems that the more closely an organization fits one or the other side, the less likely it is to change.
While obviously slanted towards command systems, social institutions can operate in one or the other direction. One of the remarkable features of recent revolutionary actions have been their basis in specific ethnicities and cultures. This proves that culture can not only be a divisive construct which bolsters racism, sexism, and class warfare, but also a way to rally people together against their exploitation. I suppose it all depends on the culture you came from…
Religion and patriotism (and many other belief systems) are strongly symbolic (by which I mean that there is little relation between their content and people’s behavior or beliefs), and therefore can serve any end from genocide to liberation. The only thing you can truly say about religious and nationalist fanatics is that they have no qualms performing evil acts.
The family structure can be a self-governed unit, as long as there are no children and the adults involved consider each other as equals. When children enter the picture, all families become command systems.
Economic systems can be anywhere on the gradient from command systems to self-governed systems. I already gave Scandinavian “third way” economies as an example of a system that is not completely one or the other, as well as the fact that capitalist economic units are quasi-communist in nature. Even the most brutal and unequal capitalist economies contain within themselves the seeds of a better world.
Democracy is another ambiguous term; people of many different ideologies use it positively because there’s really a gradient of democratic processes which leads to very different results. “Democracy” as defined in self-government ideologies means small groups of individuals with shared objectives discussing face-to-face to vote for, or agree with, an optimal course of action. “Democracy” as defined in command ideologies means forcing large groups of people (up to hundreds of millions of people) to vote for individuals who can’t possibly represent them even if they wanted to do so. So it’s entirely possible to be both for and against democracy, as expressed by advocates of different positions.
Another advantage to the self-government framing, I think, is that it cuts through the confusion between Anarchism with anomie, which seems to be very common. I’ve already explained why anomie is tyrannical in nature: it is a strong command tendency.
Anomie is the absence of rules, a state of lawlessness. Self-governed systems are the exact opposite of anomie, in that they represent the position that rule-making power should be in the hands of the people who are subject to the rules. Command systems are more lawless, less legitimate, due to their double standards and their arbitrary source of authority.