Take, for example, their approach toward the “too-big-to-fail” risk our financial sector famously took on. Honeybees have a failsafe preventive for that. It’s: “Don’t get too big.” Hives grow through successive divestures or spin-offs: They swarm. When a colony gets too large, it becomes operationally unwieldy and grossly inefficient and the hive splits. Eventually, risk is spread across many hives and revenue sources in contrast to relying on one big, vulnerable “super-hive” for sustenance.

Once upon a time, in colonial New England, many a small town governed itself via the town meeting. People gathered together, discussed the issues of the day and among them made the decisions on how to proceed. Vestiges of the town meetings survive to this day in some places, but even these vestiges are threatened by low attendance and acrimony.

Invariably though, as the communities grew, the town meeting became increasingly unwieldy, the process more tedious, enthusiasm flagged, utility declined, and people stopped coming. Town after town elected a mayor and several selectmen to administer public affairs. Direct, bottom-up governance by (more or less) everyone was replaced by the top-down rule of a few “representatives.”

Now that’s mighty strange, because these colonial villagers lived within a stone’s throw from natives who managed similar problems differently. When they grew big and unwieldy, they followed the organic solution: they divided. Thomas Jefferson was well acquainted with the political ways of Indian communities and thought that their continual hiving off in order to stay small was the smart way to go, worthy of emulation. He wrote:

Insomuch that were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last: and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under the care of wolves. It will be said, that great societies cannot exist without government. The Savages therefore break them into smaller ones. [Notes on Virginia]

Jefferson dreamed of tiny ward-republics that would provide the basic structure of American governance. It was the Indian experience of creating small pockets of communities within larger tribes that gave him hope that such a thing would be workable. What if the New England small towns, rather than abruptly curtailing their direct democracy experiment, had divided instead into two neighborhoods, with a few people selected by each to act as linkers and coordinators between the two?

When I began to work on this post, it seemed so simple: division makes sense, it keeps communities “wieldy” and easy to co-govern through fairly informal means. But the more challenging issue that’s snuck up on me is this: why would any group abandon local direct democracy, shun the obvious possibility of a division, and go right over to a representative system?

In other words, there are two issues here. One is taking a good look at the advantages of dividing and those who practice it. The other takes up the question of why exactly are people more apt to jump from governance by all straight into representation by a few. What, not even an intermediary step of ‘representation by many‘?! This is what’s been baffling me greatly, and after living with the puzzle for years, I have a tentative hypothesis.

It is a source of wonder to me that the religious and social rebels known as Anabaptists all hit upon hiving off as part of their very successful strategy as they live ‘in this world but not of it’. The Amish usually split their church districts along geographic lines for horse-driven convenience, while the Hutterites start a nearby new farm colony from scratch with half their members, having prepared for the split long before it occurs.

Why is it that Anabaptists — plain folk unencumbered by political theories — naturally segued into the same pattern used by tribal peoples the world over, a pattern that’s served them well for several hundred years now? A pattern, I might add, found everywhere in nature as well. While the rest of us — abject prisoners of Babylon — tend in the direction of steady expansion, then opting for less than optimal solutions in response to the problems it causes.

The Dancing Rabbit ecovillage finds itself on the horns of this very dilemma. At about 60+ people, their full-group consensus plenary has become unwieldy, suffering attrition. Foreseeing such a time, they started an ad hoc committee three years ago to prepare the ground for a shift. The committee has explored various alternatives, and it appears that they are heading in the direction chosen by those New Englanders long ago: a town manager team consisting of eight people elected by the community (probably as a slate).

They have not explored the possibility of dividing, possibly because they see it as a fragmenting move entailing property complications. But hiving off exists on a continuum, from the creation of another completely autonomous group, all the way to devolving a neighborhood or a sister group that has only a measure of independence within the larger framework of overall community governance. An ecovillage is more like a fertilized egg than a beehive, in that it undergoes internal divisions on its way to becoming a complex social ‘organism’.

Domination memes imprinted on our consciousness trip us up. Growth. Power. Control. Command. Rule from the center… I just read that some New Guinea tribes who went over to the Big Man system called these people “center men.” Figures… But the Amish and Hutterites have followed the path of egalitarian tribes, even though, strictly speaking, their societies are a mix of patriarchal pecking orders and radical Christian egalitarianism.

Here is my hypothesis. I propose that there are two things mediating against using division to maintain direct democracy:

  • If a community is not attuned to hiving as a possibility, as it grows, its simple “talking it out” governance will bog down. As the discomfort turns to unpleasantness, anger and frustration, the group becomes vulnerable to “efficiency”-based solutions in the form of permanently assigned political offices.
  • If a community has not internalized the value of horizontal power handling and is willing to overlook the dangers of vertical power, top-down managerial solutions may seem like a handy answer to their increasingly urgent dilemma.

Both egalitarian tribes and the Anabaptists are people who cultivate profound humility, and strongly discourage self-aggrandizing, “rising above your fellows,” power-seeking behaviors. Among the Amish, candidates for the ministry are recommended by the whole community — men and women — based on their character. Final selection by lot stymies any incipient political favor currying. And when the lot falls, the new minister is often in shock, appalled by the lifelong responsibility that has been placed upon him. What a difference from Babylon where power-seekers turn into celebrities and their races into a lurid spectacle! This, in my view, is where the crux lies: in a culture of humility rather than personal aggrandizement.

Vertical power, to be sure, has its uses in acute, crisis-like, short-term situations. You want the captain of the firefighter team to be in control during a fire. But this kind of power creates mischief when it’s extended to long term governance. From the point of view of horizontal power, formal representation opens a Pandora’s box with far-reaching consequences.

When Argentina went bust around 2001, people took over stalled factories to be able to continue to make a living. The managed them through “horizontalidad” — essentially refusing to use bossism and switching to more or less level relationships in the process of running the business. The concept has been spreading, and is provoking various activist groups to rethink representation. As some of them put it: “On the one side, ‘verticals’ assume the existence and legitimacy of representative structures, in which bargaining power is accrued on the basis of an electoral mandate (or any other means of selection to which the members of an organisation assent). On the other, ‘horizontals’ aspire to an open relationship between participants, whose deliberative encounters (rather than representative status) form the basis of any decisions.”

Horizontal power is shared power. If the practice of hiving off permeated our entire permaciv culture, then none of our businesses or governance organizations would ever grow out of control to become “too big to fail.” Direct democracy coupled with local autonomy is one of our treasures. Let’s not squander it on the altar of short-term efficiency.

If we lodge horizontalidad deep in our hearts we’ll be able to resist the siren song of vertical leadership. We’re all afflicted; the siren sings within as well as without.

Hiving off is a proven way to handle problems created by increasing community size. It promotes local autonomy, self-determination & decentralization, and keeps decisions at the lowest optimal level. It’s a millennia-tested way to defuse conflict. All community members remain power-holders and active participants.

Hiving off is organic and fluid. When the house-church pews start getting crowded, when the Gore-Tex parking lot fills up and people start parking on grass, when the town meeting begins to lose attendees, the hiving process begins. The group can split more or less in the middle, or a few in-the-know individuals can start another group with interested newcomers. It makes sense to pay attention to the bees: it is the old queen and her more experienced daughters who set off and guide the uncertain adventure, leaving the established home ground to the young queen. But they bring along plenty of young blood for longevity. Similarly, the Hutterites always make sure that the new colony has plenty of resources and a proven mix of experience and youthful energy to thrive from the start.

Hiving off makes bold yet small and contained experiments possible. And experienced members who guide the new group during its early days act as anchors to keep the group from “getting out of hand” or spinning too far from the rest of the community; strong commitment to a common vision (several key agreements) is even a better guarantee.

Hiving off leads to self-organizing diversity. Regional populations of animals — say, a few flocks of Galapagos finches — cultivate a certain niche, differentiating themselves and gradually interbreeding less. Voilà: diversity-within-unity. Cultural differentiation works the same way. And diversity is the key to resilience.

Centralization breeds sameness, while local autonomy breeds a multiplicity of local micro-cultures and ways of approaching common problems. Dancing Rabbit is aiming to grow into a small town of perhaps 500 or more. Wouldn’t it be lovely if each tiny neighborhood had its own co-governing “design team”, and its own special character and feel? All, of course, within the boundaries of the overall Rabbit Vision. Perhaps even my own dream of a neo-Amish hamlet could be accommodated. Isn’t that what true diversity is, making room for many local paths in our midst?