The elusive quest for democracy

About 3,200 years ago something extraordinary happened: a group of people formed a new society in a unique way.  Where they came from is open to debate.  Some say the indigenous people rose up and overthrew their oppressors.  Some say the idea came with nomads from the east.  The descendants of the society’s early members believe a man named Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt.  Regardless of where they came from, they did an astounding thing: in a world ruled by pharoahs and kings, for two centuries the state of Israel existed as a loosely organized group of self-governing communities with no central government.

What happened to this unique experiment in community-based primitive democracy?  Security concerns led the people to give up their relative freedom and institute a strong central government in the form of monarchy.  (Sound familiar?)  The spiritual leader Samuel warned of the burden a monarchy would bring:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle£ and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

But fear prevailed, and after two hundred years (1200BC – 1000BC), Israel’s experiment with primitive democracy ended.

Over the years, democracy developed further in other experiments: Greece (500BC), Rome (500BC), India (750CE), the Iroquois Nation (1570CE), Ukraine (1650CE), and later the United States and France. In most cases, democracy ended or became restricted not because of an outside conqueror, but because its practitioners became afraid and chose security over freedom.

Community-based democracy is still practiced in intentional communities around the world, from Mondragon to the Hutterites.  But can it exist outside a closed community?  Imagine an organization that is entirely decentralized and democratic.  Any group can choose to do anything.  No one can get kicked out.  The organization has no rules, only a set of voluntary guidelines.  It has no central government or leadership– though it does have a main office funded by voluntary contributions of the membership which coordinates communications and publishes literature.

This may sound like a recipe for chaos, but such an organization does exist, and has remained healthy and growing since 1935.  It’s called Alcoholics Anonymous.  Regardless of what you may think of its philosophy, as an organization it is astoundingly successful.  It is an intentional community in that people choose whether or not to attend (or to participate).  Yet it has virtually no membership requirements.  “You are a member when you say you are.”  And the members are all alcoholics! If a group can function under those conditions, it can probably handle about anything. Sure, there are occasional power struggles in which some supposed leader will stack an AA meeting with supporters in order to win a vote.  But such events rarely last, because there’s no real power to be had.  The key to AA’s organizational structure is its 4th Tradition: “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.”  In other words, as long as certain basic principles are followed– to protect the organization as a whole– the group can make whatever local decisions it wants.

AA is one of many examples of successful democratic organization.  Yet when searching for a foundation for community-based democracy, one could certainly do worse than AA’s Twelve Traditions.