I have recently returned from a two-week adventure at the Still Waters Sanctuary in Missouri, better known as Possibility Alliance. Soon I will be embarking on a similar tryst at the Dancing Rabbit ecovillage. Been sick as a dog since returning, so a detailed report may have to wait. But I am briefly going to fill in a small gap that will prove useful in evaluating these places. It has to do with… politics.
Since Babylon’s U.S. region is currently in the grip of its periodic voting hysteria, many pundits, apologists and propagandists for Wall Street’s Lefty/Righty sockpuppets assure us that we absolutely must vote. They even go as far as asserting, as Rebecca Solnit does, that “if you want to be political you have to pay attention to electoral politics and maybe even work with it.” Gasp. You can’t be political without turning into an Obamabot or a Romney dawg (the Noz Pinscher)?! What a ghastly world some people inhabit, and by choice, no less…
Folks on the edges of empire, on the other hand, are often heard to disclaim their interest in politics because they are disgusted with the conventional political process, or because they see that process as impotent in the face of today’s challenges and the huge problems battering civilization. Other times, they want to focus on building community resilience and figure politics has nothing to offer. While I have no interest in conventional politics, I think it’s a mistake to assert one’s non-political nature, as John Robb does. Politics is everywhere, and it is one of the tools we have available as we emerge into the future. Inattention is, in fact, just as dangerous as allowing oneself to be distracted or derailed by the slime-oozing political spectacle.
Occupy folks are keenly aware of politics, but have fallen into a duality where a faction has promoted too exclusive a focus on the politics of community and its processes, while another faction devalues community as non-political and affirms as political only those things that have to do with changing “the System”. I have come up with a schema that may be of use to them, but more importantly, shines a light on how intentional communities function.
I believe that human beings are political animals. We are deeply immersed in power-dynamics in our familiar relationships, with colleagues, and in the larger groups to which we belong. Some of these power dynamics are formalized, others are covert or implied. They are ever-present. Perhaps politics can best be defined as “total complex of relations among people living in a society with a particular focus on power dynamics.” (I tweaked the Merriam-Webster a wee bit.) So given this definition, neither the focus on resilience nor on changing the System obviates the need to consider politics in all its permutations. Pretending politics only exists in a very specific subset of human activity, and not in others, seems to me a delusion that exposes community members to dangerous vulnerabilities.
I propose that when evaluating any community and the health of its functioning, we consider the following three “political realms.” All communities engage in them, whether or not their members are aware of it.
* Internal politics have to do with political behaviors and aims that deal with the community itself. Too many barking dogs in your community? Dealing with that is a political act. Or a community may decide to practice gift economy in order not to drag predatory capitalism into its inner workings. I don’t think this should be dismissed as mere community maintenance; in fact, such dismissal reminds me of the days when the power dynamics between men and women in the family were shrugged off as politically uninteresting, just part of housekeeping, and therefore not worthy of grand theorizing or attention. Community is a crucial political arena that influences all others. It is here that its members can immediately apply their political skills, learn to negotiate with their neighbors, practice power sharing, and learn from direct feedback in the here-and-now.
* External politics is the category much on the minds of revolutionaries who would like to change the System and of reformers longing for a specific re-do. It looks outward to the larger world. Even the Amish community, as isolationist as it is, has a means of dealing with the “English” system in terms of issues that threaten the integrity of their districts (in the past, two such major issues were conscientious objection during wartime, and the impact of compulsory public schooling). But not every community is aware of its external politics, and some specifically and mistakenly try to avoid such entanglements.
Within Occupy, on the other hand, many wanted a far greater emphasis on this area, and are still putting down internal politics — as self-indulgent self-admiration — in their effort to prioritize external undertakings. I would say that an overemphasis on external politics can lead a group to focus on abstractions, because by necessity external politics deals with desiderata and the future, leading people away from immersion in the present and its direct feedbacks. There is a temptation to live in one’s head, endlessly strategizing goals that are outside of one’s power and building elaborate castles in the air. Many past revolutionaries were so focused on their dreams of a better world to come, they neglected considering their very real power-abusing behaviors in the present (which they’d then inevitably drag into the future). One example is the grand theorizing about, and strategizing for, the emancipation of women while devaluing the work and needs of the actual women one deals with.
* Metapolitics is the label I’ve hit upon to describe dealing with the dynamics of power directly. The prefix “meta” is commonly used when taking a concept to another level of abstraction or reflectiveness so that it can be examined from an angle free from the contingencies of particular situations. Here are issues that transcend the concrete orientation of internal and external politics, directing our focus to the psychological and behavioral issues that arise from leadership, the tension between power-sharing and power-hoarding, the differing impact of vertical and horizontal power structures, the examination of various political processes and techniques for their consequences on the body politic, ways to make power relations explicit and visible, or how we daily give up power to others. It also includes familiarity with the “problem of power” — can we engender changes that have tremendous popular support (e.g. disabling corporate personhood laws), in the face of power? Does the problem of power have a solution, or is it a predicament we are stuck with?
Internal politics makes it possible for us to practice what we preach. External politics reaches toward the larger world, and gives room to more expansive visioning. And metapolitics informs our psychological self, illuminates hidden power traps, and deepens our political understandings. Politics is far, far larger than the miserable election year spectacle that survives only because enough people remain hypnotized into feeding it their energy and attention.
What if they gave an election and nobody came? We’d still be political in all the areas that matter. We’d deprive — by doing nothing — the corrupt electoral system of the legitimation it needs to self-perpetuate. And we’d stop obscuring an ancient truth: politics belongs to us!