problem of power

I have been suffering from a bad writer’s block, perhaps for the first time in my life. But there is an interesting discussion unfolding at Collapse of Industrial Civilization: part of it harkens to one of the favorite claims of the Doomer community: it’s not money, it’s cheap energy, stupid!

The highlighted analysis of the Greek predicament has much to recommend it. So is the author’s claim that money is not the deepest problem, but energy is. Except, where it is not the deepest deep problem. I maintain that both the money problem and the energy problem can be solved provided we solve the power problem.

The problem of power in a nutshell is this: those in power have most of the money, most of the oil, and most of everything else on this planet. How then do we solve any problem that runs into this wall? The problem of money will not be solved as long as this elite does not want it solved. And there is plenty of energy on this planet, oil-based and otherwise, provided we stop the waste, profligacy, and that giant vacuum that sucks up most of the wealth in the direction of the pathocracy.

Easter Island went down because they did not solve the problem of power. Tikopia solved its power problem and went on to thrive. Somehow — I have not heard of any legends that remember how — the Tikopians leveled their society. They retained chiefs, but humble ones, living only one notch above everyone else. And put in place many checks and balances in addition.

Having leveled their society, they could successfully address overpopulation, universal access to land (e.g. energy), as well as the bitter, murderous conflict that wracked their society before. They also tackled the pig problem and managed to eliminate every last one, despite the powerful lure of delicious bacon, because the pigs were not only ruining their gardens, but also fed the lust for power, wealth and status via elite-sponsored feasting.

Am I just another kollapsnik who thinks that “their” deepest problem is the one? Perhaps. You tell me. But you better put up a damn good argument. And how do we solve the problem of power? I have a feeling that this problem cannot be solved in the public eye, top down, in full visibility. It can be only solved in the grassroots, below the radar. I plan to make a few hints, though, for all who may be working it out. After all, the roving Eye cannot see everything, and understands far less than it sees.




We’re not trying to live like our ancestors, but to do something totally new: to preserve the most helpful complex technologies, while shifting to a political and economic system where power is fully shared.
— Ran Prieur

It seems like ages ago when I wrote about the logic of power. To sum up that post, I argued that it is not possible to fix domination by seizing power. When a group outdominates the current dominators, they become the new dominators. This really ought to be clear by now to anyone looking to “change the world.” It has nothing to do with faulty characters of the revolutionaries. It has to do with the logic of power. Boggles the mind, though; people still try again and again to grab power from their “oppressors.” And they are equally frequently admonishing fellow revolutionary spirits to “dismantle” power as though it were scaffolding.

dismantle power

What is power, anyway? It seems to me that power in its most basic sense is potency. Ability to do, to accomplish. We are all given power along with life, and all adults have, fundamentally, more or less the same amount. In the personal sense, of course, individuals vary somewhat, depending on their levels of energy, their vitality, strength and perseverance, and their specific talents. Their power also waxes and wanes depending on state of health, age, and other factors. But in the “state of nature” personal power fluctuates within a relatively narrow range.

So this type of power is often spoken of as “power-to.” Looking at the uses of power specifically within social settings, however, there appear to be two other kinds of power: power-over, the ability to force others to do one’s bidding against their will, and power-with, the use of power together with others in a variety of voluntary, collaborative ways. Much of the malfunction of “this civilization” has to do with its heavyhanded reliance on power-over.

Power is a form of energy, then. And as other forms of energy can be temporarily gathered up and stored, so can human power. Temporary power acquisition by individuals can be beneficial. The leader of the hunt is given the power to direct the day’s maneuvers. Back in the village, though, he gives that power back. He does not hoard it, bossing people around. And if he does try, tribal folk have in their repertoire a variety of tactics to put him back in his place, and will be less likely to grant him power next time around.

Even in our culture, such ad hoc power acquisition can be a force for good. The fire brigade captain alone directs the action during a fire, and the team is better off. It can be argued that temporary concentration of power in an individual or group is one of the ways healthy power can be used. It is when someone begins to accumulate power the way an alcoholic hoards booze that things go awry.

Power, like water, needs to flow to stay healthy. When it is hoarded and congealed, it goes stale and eventually poisonous. And when it turns toxic, we find ourselves in a grim fairy tale: the person who hoards it will be sickened by the power he wields, and anyone who tries to grab that toxic power away from him will be poisoned and corrupted in turn. Once you touch that poison, its evil magic will turn you into yet another marionette goose-stepping in the domination death march.

How then do we deal with power gone toxic? How can we change the world without touching that poison, without trying to “dismantle” it, without any involvement with it at all?

Congealed power is an attractor. You cannot seize or dismantle an attractor any more than you can seize or dismantle a whirlpool in a river. When the river no longer feeds energy to that particular whirlpool, the eddy will weaken and disappear. Attractors are ‘dissipative dynamic structures.’ They need constant input of energy to keep going, just like a lightbulb needs a constant flow of electricity to keep emitting light. Once the flow stops, the light goes dark. There is no need to seize the lightbulb, nor to dismantle it, right? If we want another type of light, that’s where we direct power and attention.

If we want our power to flow and stay healthy, we pass it from hand to hand; we share it. We pay it forward.


Reality and power are so mutually incrusted that even to raise the question of dissolving power is to step off the edge of reality.
— John Holloway

I started this blog with a longing familiar to many: stop the world, I wanna get off! I had a dream, a dream to find a way out of Babylon, this accelerating nightmare that has us addicted and horrified, both. The standard argument for the impossibility of an exit is simple and persuasive. Even if you move to the fringes, Babylon finds you, either to destroy, or to engulf and devour. Same thing, different time line. As we speak, the last unknown tribes are being chased out of the Amazon jungle to be wiped out. There is no place to go.

Except, I refused to believe it. My gut told me that escape is possible; we were not looking at the problem with sufficient snake-eyes. So I kept searching, imagining, looking for just the right crack in the edifice of this civilization. Here is what I found.

Hakim Bey fired up people’s imaginations with his Temporary Autonomous Zones. His T.A.Z. is a “liberated area of land, time or imagination where one can be for something, not just against, and where new ways of being human together can be explored and experimented with.” He documents many past escapes. I just came across evidence that rural intellectuals in ancient China talked about, and tried to build into, those so-called “cracks in the system.” It saddens me to think that we know nothing else of them. Their efforts faded very long ago, and the Machine kept on grinding. Note to self: the crack must be persistent, durable.

Explorations of Amish attitudes, beliefs and lifestyle framed my search for a while. Since the Machine is an apt metaphor for the workings of Babylon, I felt that getting away from machines would be a good general direction; my feelings were strengthened by an introvert’s detestation of the increasingly deafening noise indiscriminate use of machines inflicts on most of us. Full of admiration for the famous Amish community-minded restraint when it comes to adopting new technologies, I located and romanced a very old-fashioned Mennonite group that welcomes Babylon’s escapees. Concurrently, I joined an online Mennonite community where a modified-Plain lifestyle was a reality for many. But when I found that I could be a full-fledged, outspoken member of that community only because I was taken for a man, I sobered up. Note to self: getting away from machines is good, but not as good as getting away from being dominated.

Nevertheless, “being Amish” provided a useful metaphor for my aim. I realized I wanted to be “out” as much, at least, as the Amish are out. I long to be part of another world that is palpable in its otherness.

Familiarity with Daniel Quinn’s and Andy Schmookler’s argument (viz the Parable of the Tribes) impressed upon me that going to the fringes was indeed a strategy, at best, to delay the inevitable. Fringe existence exposes one to marginalization and its accompanying vulnerabilities. The crack must defy the problem of power. (Problem of power in a nutshell: become Babylon, or be destroyed. Those who step outside it lose. Viz Aldous Huxley’s Island.)

John Holloway has spoken about spaces where a prefiguration of another world can be grown. He is among those who believe that for the underdog to grab power-over leads to yet another version of power-over. Not a path that leads to a brand new world, only more of the same. Here is how he puts it: “You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.” The crack must emerge from a new way of using power. Knocking off the old power hogs and installing our own brand new power hogs just won’t cut it.

In an interview, Holloway hints: “These cracks can be spatial (places where other social relations are generated), temporal (“Here, in this event, for the time that we are together, we are going to do things differently. We are going to open windows onto another world.”), or related to particular activities or resources (for example, cooperatives or activities that pursue a non-market logic with regard to water, software, education, etc.). The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks.” And in a recent book, he states: “A crack is the perfectly ordinary creation of a space or moment in which we assert a different type of doing.” So ecovillages and monasteries, Burning Man or the Rainbow Gatherings, coops and land trusts, and many lesser alternative spaces provide refuge. But are they sufficiently and durably “outside”? Not in my experience.

My sense of them, despite all the clamor about degrowth, “new economies” and all the rest, is that they are not strong enough to be a countervailing force against the Machine. They are, to be sure, part of the answer, but by themselves, they will eventually be pushed to conform, just like most Christians or hippies were. The spaces opened up by them turned out not to be the radical and permanent exit they had once thought it was. They themselves carried Rome/Babylon with them wherever they went and infected all those spaces they newly inhabited. And the minions of the Machine have been many and well financed; they are sent out to co-opt or crush any alternative that shows significant success. One example is the so-called “sharable economy” which is turning into yet another way to monetize the remaining few assets of increasingly impoverished people (rent your home to passing strangers, spend your free time picking up passengers with your car, why dontcha). The space must robustly resist Babylonian contagion from seeping in. And it must be a realistic strategy to slow and stop the Machine: the new world we birth will share this “one and only planet” with Babylon, and so its runaway ruination must end.

James C. Scott talks about an important aspect of spaces successfully hidden for centuries from the depredations of empire: illegibility. When those in power cannot read you right, you are effectively hidden from view, obscured by being incomprehensible. The agents of empire always, always work hard to make newly encountered cultures legible: they send in missionaries, anthropologists and medical people to “study” and “help” these folks so they can be successfully dominated and exploited in due time. With new cultures within Babylon, the system sends friendly researchers, overeager NGOs offering to make you visible, and agents provocateurs. The crack must be hard to penetrate by and illegible to the PTB.

I tried eco-village living, and while I loved many aspects of it, especially the face-to-face, walkable community, I was shocked how “hijacked by Babylon” the relationships were. For all the efforts to clean up process, our process has not been cleaned up. A new kind of social relationship must be the molten core of the new world. Nevertheless, there is great relief one experiences in an ecovillage — or an old-fashioned village — out on the fringes, despite the fact that the Machine still intrudes from the distance and Babylon is never altogether absent within. Distance from Babylon, just like distance from machines, is part of the path to sanity, at least in my view of it.

From complexity thinking I learned about emergence from tiny local beginnings. So finally, the obvious: the way out must be in our power to find, not something to petition the power brokers to bring about (as though they could or would!). It must be doable from each person, from the grassroots, outward. A tall order, ey?

There is yet another space. Having glimpsed this terra incognita, I am on the cusp of walking away into the world that emerges when at least two people, who have each cultivated the attitudes, skills and forms of thinking that allow power sharing, come to connect. This space only comes into being when human beings relate in a new way — the power-sharing way — and form a new sort of relationship. It is born when two or more people are both willing and able to leave power games behind, and their radical communion opens up a portal into what Riane Eisler, somewhat ruefully, calls “partnership.”

Suddenly, we are in another world, a world of our co-making, emergent, brand new, uncolonized by any outside powers, yet to be explored, ready to be nurtured. Here is the ember of another reality, waiting to be stoked into flames. A world of mutuality where we together create customs and culture all our own, without the constant interference of power hoarders. And since the foundation, indeed the be all and end all, of Babylon — this particular civilization — is domination, once you step out of domination, you are out of Babylon.


two women

The Americans of de Tocqueville’s time, when they wanted to make something happen, didn’t march around with placards or write their legislators demanding that the government do it. Instead, far more often than not, they simply put together a private association for the purpose, and did it themselves.
— John Michael Greer

When various transitioners and change makers seek to influence the politics, economy and future course of a small town, they first organize a civic association. There are many kinds, from churches and town beautification committees all the way to activist groups and guerrilla gardener clubs. Alexis de Tocqueville rightly saw such civic underpinnings as something essential, the very foundation of American democracy.

These civic groups in turn seek to influence the official power holders — the town hall and its minions. They serve as pressure groups while working on the particular projects they have undertaken, and so act to counterbalance the power gathered by local politicians and bureaucrats. Among Transition Towners in particular, there’s been much debate whether and how much one ought to work with the folks at town hall; in Europe, there seems to be more cooperation across that particular divide than here in the States.

There is, however, another power-wielding group in every town, and it rarely gets the consideration it deserves. Professor Domhoff has done a great deal of research on and written extensively about these people — the so-called “growth coalition.”

Local power structures are land-based growth coalitions. They seek to intensify land use. In economic terms, the “place entrepreneurs” at the center of the growth coalitions are trying to maximize “rents” from land and buildings, which is a little different than the goal of the corporate community — maximizing profits from the sale of goods and services.

Unlike the capitalist, the place entrepreneur’s goal is not profit from production, but rent from trapping human activity in place. Besides sale prices and regular payments made by tenants to landlords, we take rent to include, more broadly, outlays made to realtors, mortgage lenders, title companies, and so forth. The people who are involved in generating rent are the investors in land and buildings and the professionals who serve them. We think of them as a special class among the privileged, analogous to the classic “rentiers” of a former age in a modern urban form.

The most typical way of intensifying land use is growth, and this growth usually expresses itself in a constantly rising population. A successful local elite is one that is able to attract the corporate plants and offices, the defense contracts, the federal and state agencies, and/or the educational and research establishments that lead to an expanded work force. An expanded work force and its attendant purchasing power in turn lead to an expansion of retail and other commercial activity, extensive land and housing development, and increased financial activity. It is because this chain of events is at the core of any developed locality that the city is for all intents and purposes a “growth machine,” and those who dominate it are a “growth coalition.”

Although the growth coalition is based in land ownership, it includes all those interests that profit from the intensification of land use. Thus, executives from the local bank, the savings and loan, the telephone company, the gas and electric company, and the local department store are often quite prominent as well. As in the case of the corporate community, the underlying unity within the growth coalition is most visibly expressed in the intertwining boards of directors among local companies. And, as with the corporate community, the central meeting points are most often the banks, where executives from the utilities companies and the department stores meet with the largest landlords and developers. There is one other important component of the local growth coalition: the daily newspaper. The newspaper is deeply committed to local growth so that its circulation and, even more important, its pages of advertising, will continue to rise. [And] labor unions often join the developers as part of the pro-growth coalition.

Rather obviously, the primary role of government is to promote growth according to this view. It is not the only function, but it is the central one, and the one most often ignored by those who write about city government. City departments of planning and public works, among several, become allies of the growth coalition with the hope that their departments will grow and prosper. In addition, government often provides the funds for the boosterism that gives the city name recognition and an image of togetherness, which are considered important by the growth coalitions in attracting industry, and government officials are expected to be the growth coalition’s ambassadors to outside investors.

The growth coalitions also have a well-crafted set of rationales, created over the course of many decades, to justify their actions to the general public. Most of all, this ideology is based in the idea that growth is about jobs, not about profits.

It never fails to amaze me how little these people figure in the plans and schemes of those who wish to transform towns in the direction of greater livability, sustainability, prosperity and democracy. While the civic group contingent provides checks and balances for the powers-that-be at the town hall, who minds the ballast on the side opposite the growth coalition so the boat does not capsize?

opaque power2

Political powers assembled off the radar can wreak a great deal of damage unless they are checked by another powerful group, one not under their thumb. And we all know that, right? We are all suffering from a global system where governments function, more and more, as glorified gofers and talking heads for the new sultanate: the shadowy, transnational coalition of bankers and financiers whose doings escape scrutiny and accountability. Similarly, if a town’s citizens have over generations permitted the growth coalition to turn their town hall into a servant of profit rather than common good, isn’t it utterly naïve to think that the civic group contingent could possibly provide adequate checks and balances to this formidable unholy alliance?

John Michael Greer has been making hints for some time about the benefits of old-fashioned benevolent societies from Freemasons to Moose to the Odd Fellows. Not so long ago, they played an important role in America’s public life, a role that stretches all the way back to the early days of the republic. Providing a powerful social presence in each community, they were committed to improve local quality of life above all. Most of these groups fell on hard times in the 50s and 60s as the result of the government taking over the caregiving functions which once provided inexpensive health care and other welfare benefits to member families. But I suspect there is more to the loss of membership. The 50s and 60s were also times of relentless pro-science propaganda (Better life through chemistry!) and the promotion of sober secularism (God is dead! Religion will fade by the end of the century!). In this opinion climate, the once secret inner workings of the lodges acquired a whiff of embarrassment. What I think of as the “silly hats, mumbo jumbo and secret handshakes” routine has seen its better days, and the only folks I know who still hang onto that particular style of old timey mystique and pageantry without loss of membership are the Latter Day Saints.

There was a very good reason why Freemasonry was first feared and persecuted, then infiltrated by the rich and famous (both Mozart and emperor Joseph II belonged). It had become an important locus of power through the creation of a trustworthy and united brotherhood devoted to the betterment of the human world and shielded from the prying eyes of the other powers-that-be.

Humans love social games that shroud their companionate doings with a veil of secrecy and throw in a dab of useful magic. Long ago, there were the secret rituals among awe-inspiring paintings and eerie echoing music in deep caves. Much later, the early Christians celebrated their love feasts well away from public view, hid in the catacombs, and signaled to each other through graffiti of fishes and other symbols. Various “heretics” of the Middle Ages, like the Brethren of the Free Spirit and later Anabaptists, walked from town to town, hiding in the cracks of the system, opening minds. Then came Freemasons and took Europe and America by storm. And now we have millions-strong computer gamer brotherhoods like the World of Warcraft, where devoted virtual-warriors ally with and battle each other in the interest of some benevolent vision, through magic powers they acquire along the way. The might of discreet alliances with other trusted people is immeasurable. It can more than counterbalance the power of money and influence peddling, as long as it has the numbers, the vision, and the unity.

There was a time in late 19th century America when obscure rural lodges came quietly into being, first in west Texas pioneer country. Much later, they gained fame as the Populist movement. Their secret lodges had all the various customary trappings of magic and spectacle and grew like Topsy, creating wildly popular cooperative arrangements that favored the interests of small farmers and ranchers. This alliance eventually spread into many states, and provided the grassroots power that nearly came to tipping the balance not only in state politics, but nationwide.


Close, but no cigar. They made a huge mistake. Forgetting their place in the scheme of things, they “outed” themselves in the eager hope of grabbing political positions with their chosen candidates. In other words, they moved into the civic group square in the diagram, while also playing politics in the government square. Having abandoned the place that gave them power, they were coopted. The elites of the growth coalition — the large landed interests, along with the robber barons and their helpers — lacking effective counterbalance, won. Again.

Taking Greer’s advice makes sense. It’s time to learn from the lodges of old, build on their templates, and with the help of skilled young computer gamers create new ones so opaque to the powers-that-be, and so imbued with a deep kind of magic suited for the 21st century, that their power will discreetly begin to right the balance that has wronged our world for so long. Only trustworthy people grown united and fired up by the zeal to make lives good again for each other and those who come after, will be able to finally put public governance on a sound footing and stage the second American Revolution. Do you object to the secret agendas of the elites? Then let us create our own secret agendas, ones that befit a free people devoted to furthering our common weal!

christian symbols

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!

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?

[Fourth part of a series: 1, 2, 3]

This was the tremendous strength of the tribal way, that its success did not depend on people being better. It worked for people the way they are – unimproved, unenlightened, troublesome, disruptive, selfish, mean, cruel, greedy and violent.
— Daniel Quinn

Is domination in our genes? It seems very likely. After all, the bands of our closest primate relatives are “run” by alpha leaders: among chimpanzees, the strongest males dominate the troop; among gorillas, a big male presides over a harem, and among the bonobos, both alpha females and related males wield power in the band. It is therefore highly probable that domineering alpha individuals led the bands of the early hominids. Domination conferred advantages: those who could snatch the most resources and mate with the most females “won” by surviving and passing on their genes. But at a certain point along our evolution our ancestors became radically egalitarian, sharing power and economic resources among all members. They lived as near-equals, had direct access to food and basic necessities, enjoyed modest affluence along with freedom and leisure, and refused to tolerate grabs for power, wealth, and prestige. This successful and durable adaptation is documented not only by archeological evidence but also by ample ancient and recent ethnographic accounts of “primitive” societies. [A sampler of links: on human reciprocity and its evolution, on the Batek people, and on tribal egalitarian ways.]

How did this transformation come about? Here is the argument. Our distant ancestors, just like chimps have been observed to do, chafed under the rule of the alphas. Nobody likes to be bullied on a regular basis. Nobody likes to have their food stolen by the bigger fellows just because they can. While rank and file chimps put the kibosh on their alphas only occasionally, stone age hominids figured out how to do it so regularly and thoroughly that a new social system was born. This is such an important and surprising development that we may speak of an egalitarian revolution.

Humans are unique among animals in cooperating in large groups of unrelated individuals, with a high degree of resource sharing. These features challenge traditional evolutionary theories built on kin selection or reciprocity. A recent theoretical model … takes a fresh look at the ‘egalitarian revolution’ that separates humans from our closest relatives, the great apes. The model suggests that information from within-group conflicts leads to the emergence of cooperative alliances and social networks.
Understanding the “Egalitarian Revolution” in human social evolution

The conjecture has it that it happened when our ancestors became communicative enough to form discreet coalitions, well enough armed to easily threaten or kill an upstart, and motivated to fairly share the meat needed for their growing brains. Nobody knows how long ago this may have been. Computer models have shown that the change may have occurred quite fast, within a few generations. We do know that big game spears date back at least to 400,000 years ago, that the later erectus had a large brain, and that hunting is probably far older than had been thought. Some anthropologists put the egalitarian revolution at perhaps 100,000 years ago, but allow that it may well have happened much earlier. Others go back as far as 2 million years to the beginning of the Paleolithic. I am taking here the liberty of assuming, not unreasonably, that we sapiens entered our speciation in the egalitarian mold.

Before 12,000 years ago, humans basically were egalitarian. They lived in what might be called societies of equals, with minimal political centralization and no social classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators. Rather often the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers pertains more to males than females, but the women enjoy far more political potency than did the women of Athens, and these mobile foragers kept no slaves. Their highly equalized version of political life goes far back into prehistory…
Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest

For thousands of generations since the egalitarian revolution, we lived in small bands where the many set limits over the few for the benefit of all. The betas put an effective check on the alphas by wit, wisdom and alliance. Aggrandizing individuals who got out of hand were brought down a peg or eliminated. And so the evolutionary advantage went to the cooperators. In the former alpha-led system the advantage was to the strong, and the weak suffered. In the new system the advantage was to the weak(er), and most did well as a result. This state of affairs required continued vigilance, and an ongoing culture of egalitarian traditions of checks and balances. Our ancestors formed a new status quo that suited evolving human awareness, well-being and conscience better than domination. They came upon a strategy of effectively resisting power abuse by advantaging cooperative, sharing, pro-social behaviors.

This remarkable pattern of “vigilant sharing” saw humans through severe ice ages, intense global warmings and volcanic winters. It saw them through all the hardships our species has suffered in the 200,000 years of its existence, and that’s no small thing. A social system where vigilance against Hyde-ish behaviors is coupled with sharing most of the Earth’s bounty confers an evolutionary advantage. During difficult times, tribes that look after each other survive. Those that allow self-aggrandizing alphas’ rise into dominance and resource hoarding will be at a survival disadvantage. After all, those human bands where some gorged on meat while others starved would have, other things being equal, done poorly in ice age competition with other groups whose members were all relatively well fed, or in coping with the hardships of a frozen, arid world.

There were always failures. Despotic or greedy individuals managed to snatch power for a while and disturbed the equilibrium. But this only reinforced overall the traditions and customs mediating these weaknesses. Our ancestors did not try to convert the human nature to something else. They shrewdly acted on what the human nature really was, and cultural evolution did the rest. Displaying the same sharp wit as certain astute American Founders of 200+ years ago, they understood that human society must acknowledge and be shaped around human weaknesses, vices and foibles. They built in checks and balances that curbed the — certain to occur — misuse of power and incipient greed. Their leadership patterns can be described as ad hoc egalitarian meritocracy: people rose into leadership on the basis of helpful qualities, were carefully watched, and unseated if power went to their heads.

Human beings, after all, are not created equal in ability. It is the responsibility of the community to make sure that ambitious or aggressive individuals don’t overstep the boundaries leading to power abuse, while at the same time giving these naturally advantaged people enough leeway that they may benefit the community through their talents and leadership. It’s a balancing act that requires constant care… like driving a car. All goes well most of the time, because continual vigilance is practiced, and small adjustments are easily and continuously made. If the driver stops paying attention, however, trying to right the situation will probably be hard and painful once the tree approacheth ready to smack the vehicle. And so also, once a dominant individual or a clique muscles their way into power, the cost of dealing with them can be quite high. Egalitarians understand well that power goes to people’s heads with tedious regularity, that it devolves on the rest of the community to be alert to it, and that it is the responsibility of the weak to curb the strong.

Let’s go back to the time when the ice began to let up, some 17,000 years ago. There had been occasional societies in the European Paleolithic where a measure of economic and political inequality took hold for a time. Nevertheless, the predominant pattern is remarkable. Here we are, egalitarian to the bone. We are sharers, our possessions are few, we are on the lookout for upstarts and hoarders, standing up for the weaker members of the band. We murder each other with unsettling frequency, mostly men killing other men while competing for women. We skirmish against other bands and tribes, but casualties are limited. Occasionally, a despotic individual arises, wreaks damage, and is eliminated. We live within modest abundance, and famines, as well as great many later diseases, are largely unknown. We are still both nice and nasty inside, but over the last several hundred thousand years have become remarkably nicer in our behavior within the tribe. The underdogs unite to keep the bullies in check for the benefit of all.

Vigilant sharing of power and resources has been the preferred mode of our species’ existence for most of its time on Earth. Did these cultures halt human evil? No; they circumscribed Hyde. And if they could do it, why not us? Finding a way to reconnect with our egalitarian past in the near future seems more and more like the sweetest dream worth pursuing.

We’re born in a prison, raised in a prison
Sent to a prison called school
We cry in a prison, we love in a prison
We dream in a prison like fools
— Yoko Ono

Daniel Quinn speaks of the kids of the 60s, failing in their rebellion because they could not find the bars of the cage. He was wrong. They found the bars and got out, but before they got far they were herded back. That burst of the energy that was the late 60s could not have come from prisoners. Those were, for a moment in time, free people reveling in their freedom. And sowing fear among the wardens.

The precursor of our modern Babylonish prison was the Egyptian workhouse. It was a structure daylight struggled to penetrate, where young people (most of whom never survived past their early 20s) labored from dawn to dusk at the querns or the looms. By the door was a guard with a stick who sometimes let you step out for a few minutes into the sunshine for a bribe of your food ration.

Much later prisons for miscreants and dissidents were a similar affair but for the costs to the community, did not come into use until recently. What is the traditional prison? Again, it is four walls, a door that is locked, and a guard with a stick outside. What does the prison accomplish? It severs contact between the prisoners and the outside world. It puts hard-to-cross distance between them and their fellows. But it’s expensive, obvious, produces resentment and wastes “human resources.” Not suitable in situations where great masses of people must be made to obey and in effect live permanently imprisoned, trapped within a twilight life on a treadmill going nowhere.

Babylon’s pervasive modern prison is a direct descendant of the Egyptian workhouses. Far more sophisticated, it employs many more tricks and lures to keep people in than just distancing separation and guards with sticks. Nevertheless, its basis is the same. Once trapped, you work for your food until you weaken. I feel a weird sort of admiration for those who have schemed to improve the prison system that is Babylon: they finally came up with something far far sneakier. Something very smart. Cheap, invisible, and self-maintaining, it is the dream of all jailers come true.

They began to shape culture and society in such a way as to systematically put distance between us. Think about it. A prison is a place that cuts you off from your fellows. A wall can do it. But so can …… just …………………… space. Greater and greater emptiness, stretching long and daunting. Hard-to-cross distance. Unreachable-ness. Greater and greater psychological atomization and imposed solitude around each human being makes is harder and harder to reach others, to enter into relationships with them, to trust them, and to gain the skills of working together.

Just think of the 20th century way of childhood. At birth, the baby is yanked away from the mother, cooped up in a nursery of little strangers equally distraught. The comforting breast is denied via “scientific formula” and the child spends its days in a crib, a pram, a pen, isolated from the daily activities and human warmth, human touch. Then the child enters school, another form of distancing and isolation, this time from his or her own family, the life of the community, and children older or younger. The child is even forced to sit alone, away from their fellows (at least in America; in Europe, we sat two by two, and it helped build friendships and cut the pain). Helping each other survive this institutionalized, dulled existence is called cheating. And the constant ranking and fear-mongering are among the tools that drive the real lessons home.

As adults, we go through the motions, isolated and infantilized, hoping to find a friend or a mate who will heal the pain. But many people are too wounded to truly reconnect. Watching the spectacle medicates their loneliness. Television increases the space between people as they stare, hypnotized, at a screen and forget how to relate to the people next to them. So does preoccupation with gadgets. I was recently subjected to the airport experience after many years. Have you noticed? The travelers no longer talk to each other; they are deeply engaged with machines.

Such practices have raised generations of people forced to live as narcissists, cut off from one another where ever they go, from birth on. Narcissists do not relate. They obey those above them, command those below them, and enter into formal associations with those they think equal. They are “not available” for real relationships. Babylon has condemned us all to a form of solitary confinement without walls.

I am of course not the first to note the increasing space between human beings in modern times. Psychologists have tried to heal the resulting pain, and sociologists have studied and rued this isolation. It’s been thought of as some sort of unavoidable side effect of modern living. I don’t think so. I think it’s contrived… not via a conspiracy, but by steady application of very old strategies that insert more and more narcissist “genes” into the body politic. The narcissists each do it because they know how, and because it serves their interests. But we can fight back with reconnection “genes.” It gladdens my heart that some of the rebels now practice “attachment (or continuum) parenting,” raising a generation of sane young people who expect connections with others, and have the skills and experience to make them work.

In the 60s, with the help of … who knows?… music, drugs, luck and spunk, the young prisoners discovered the invisible bars of the prison and broke them, simply by coming together, shrinking the distance, boldly crossing the yawning chasm. To talk real stuff. To play and be silly. To expand mind and behavioral frontiers. To be honest. To practice generosity and fairness. To learn to love in ways not sanctioned by Babylon’s overseers. No wonder they turned their new culture into one long celebration!

And then the kids infected the women, imagine! Women began to meet in intimate groups, talking real stuff and changing their lives. There was so much hope then. What is “sisterhood” but stepping out of the prison and trekking across that barren plain to hug another woman, tell her a story and truly listen to hers, be honest with your own hidden truths and feelings, find shared ground, and support one another as caring humans do?

Some were able to continue. A caravan of buses from San Francisco started the Farm in Tennessee, to continue the reconnection begun in Haight-Ashbury. Groups of young women started women-only spaces where, they hoped, they could continue to relate as sisters. Some folks hung on in small back-to-the-land communities. Family power relationships were never quite the same. And temporary autonomous zones were formed; the Rainbow Family Gatherings, and now Burning Man. But all in all, most of the kids, and most of the women, were soon herded back into the invisible prison. The prison, sure enough, got a little more comfortable; the hard edges of harassment were cleaned up. Concessions to prisoners were made, while new distancing tools were put into place to prevent a future breakout.

It is instructive to take a good look at what the escapees missed. After all, if you are a prisoner dreaming of a break, there are three key issues on your mind: how to find the bars of the cage, how to get out, and how to stay out. They succeeded with the first two. They failed at the third. They forgot about the guards with sticks.

In a prison built out of social and psychological isolation, who are the guards? They are the narcissists themselves who jealously guard the only reality they feel comfortable with: one where no real relationships are needed or asked for; an impersonal culture where everything possible is commodified, institutionalized, mediated, and ranked. For simplicity’s sake, I have been calling them narcissists. But they range from sociopaths, through various misers, trolls, egomaniacs, power hogs, self-aggrandizers, to bullies and dicks of various shades. You know… the disruptors of friendly human relations. The defectors from cooperation. The dementors who seek to suck the milk of human kindness from the world.

Ah heck… it’s really simple. They are the assholes always lurking nearby to ruin your office day, your volunteer meeting, your family gathering. One such asshole will ruin the pad you’ve generously opened up to other kids traveling through the area. One or two will handily dismantle a commune started by idealists. And they will certainly have no trouble sowing dissension among women still vulnerable to bully tactics, nor will they hesitate to trash capable leaders. A crew of skilled assholes will make sure that young visionaries give up en masse and disgustedly, dispiritedly run away from their former friends, telling anybody who wants to listen that human nature is just too warped. Getting away from each other, stretching the distance again, back into the prison. Go to work, nose to the grindstone, and stop dreaming silly dreams. Money is the sure thing…

The assholes stand ready to disrupt any occasion where human beings suddenly and despite great odds come together in peace, love, and understanding. A flag goes up, and they rush to put into place the many tools of disconnection they have at their disposal. One of the most important is the “divide and conquer” strategy. The sister-women were successfully divided from traditional women who were not ready to rock the boat. They were divided from women who wanted to stay at home and raise families, and thought this, and volunteer work for their community, was a very satisfying way to live. Traitors to the cause! Some of the theoreticians of the women’s movement who had been given comfortable posts within the academic establishment were encouraged to move way out to the batshit-furious fringe, so that women began to leave the movement in droves. Women who passionately believed that safe abortion must be available, and those who equally passionately believed in nurturing human fetuses, were divided by a cultural war and bitter hatred that still simmers in the body politic. And power-hogging leaders moved into key roles of women’s political organizations that came to play prisoners’ games.

But of course, most assholes are not bigtime players. They simply act to make our day-to-day lives more stressful, more miserable; they make sure that when we do dare to come together, bridging the fearsome gap, they stand ready to make the experience unpleasant. Just imagine one of those meetings you went to for a cause you believed in… Do we need to go over the disappointing, ego driven, alienating, silencing, crazy-making, painful experience? On second thought, let’s not. Let us imagine another world instead. You come to the meeting, are warmly welcomed, and someone is asked to be your buddy, sharing with you the basics of the group. She slips you a handout that will explain in more detail when you get home. The interesting speaker keeps to 30 minutes as promised, stays true to topic, answers several questions, and then the group moves into a friendly and leisurely exploration of the issues raised where all voices are heard. At the end, your new buddy stops by again and invites you to the next gathering, maybe mentioning a really cool event they are working on; would you like to help? They sure could use your talents!

You think you died and went to heaven. Turning to the person who organized the meeting, you pop the question. My goodness, an enjoyable meeting that works! How did you do this? The friendly bear of a man who goes under the name of Dwight Towers cracks a big laugh. Simple, he says. We put in place the “no asshole rule.” It changed everything.

I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes.
– Paul Stamets

Over on Dwight Towers, “abeyance structures” have been mentioned in a spirit of gloom. DT tells us: “Essentially, what I am advocating is “abeyance structure” work. It’s not sexy, it’s probably pointless. But I don’t see the extremes of continuing to make Big Plans for Big Demonstrations and “Giving Up” as options. This seems like the Third Way?”

What are abeyance structures? “The political organisations and networks of people who keep a political movement alive in times of relative inactivity. Abeyance structures are often hidden from the wider public, but they play a special role in ensuring the continuance of radical ideas, tactics, identities and traditions.” – from Activist Wisdom, by Scalmer & Maddison

These good folks have it upside down. The real, living, critical, nurturing, necessary, primary work is the one that happens in the dark, in the grassroots, in the fertile soil, underground. Let me offer, by way of analogy, the lowly, crafty, possibly immortal mycelium. Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae, living in soil and decaying wood.

One Armillaria mycelium in Oregon is estimated to be at least 2400 years old and spreads over 890 hectares. While we may admire a delicate morel growing out from the soil or a cluster of honey mushrooms emerging out of a stump, it is the out-of-sight (and often forgotten) mycelium that is the essential part of the organism.

Mycelium begins its revolutionary, life-enhancing work by spreading widely yet inconspicuously, branching and linking, waxing strong. Then, when the conditions are right, the show begins. Mushrooms and toadstools – the colorful and multifarious fruits of the mycelia – rise overnight from the nurturing substrate and bloom forth in amazing profusion, lasting but a few days, feeding critters, opening minds, gifting the world with beauty, seeding other mycelia, and subsiding. You pluck one here, ten others pop up over there. You kick one apart, and the spores spread even more lavishly. No wonder fungi are among the most successful organisms on the planet.

Mycelium is pure fairy magic. Paul Stamets (of Mycelium Running) speculates that mycelium functions as a natural internet. There is no doubt it can remediate poisoned land. Could it also help us remediate a society poisoned by unrelenting abuse of power?

In the world of resistance activism, creating political events full of high energy and drama is a lot of work, and when these “fruiting bodies” die down, nothing’s left. The masses, somehow, go on their same old same old way. The legislators keep on passing toxic laws, undeterred. And the living planet keeps on being killed, piece by piece. Disappointment, over and over.

On the other hand, guerrilla dissenters are the spores and hyphae, sinking through the grassroots into the soil, grouping, flowing, forking, communicating, forming under-the-radar alliances… growing a resilient power-sharing culture. And when the conditions are right, fruiting bodies – guerrilla theatres, carnivals, flashmobs, encampments, and many other unique happenings — emerge, often spontaneously; they blossom for a time and vanish. Forget about boring marches and angry, futile protests. These showy, one-of-a-kind, playful excrescences bring fun and creativity to the streets, and draw people from all walks of life to join in. They are a play of light and color and sound; ephemera. Cut loose, cut loose from the dreary quotidian! Just like we have taught one another when and how to use nonviolence, we can teach each other to spark joy. Show the passers-by you’ve got something special; contagious, ebullient, irresistible. The vaster the mycelium, the more extravagant the fruiting bodies arising from the fertile undergrowth. Freed from the need to make the show into something big and lasting, we can play. When the mycelium thrives, the mushrooms take care of themselves.

UKUncut? Ephemeral. Anti-nuclear action to stop the train bringing spent rods into Germany? Ephemeral. Climate camp? Ephemeral. Tunisian la Qasba, Tahrir Square? Ephemeral. No sense regretting their fading and disappearance. The ephemera, like other intense moments, are to be lived to the hilt. They are not meant to be extended into the everyday. If, inconspicuous, we seed an abundance of afterculture undergrowth now, every warm and moisty morning will see fruiting bodies emerge. The fruiting bodies offer up their spores to the breezes and fade. The mycelium endures.

Rob Hopkins writes in his recent rebuttal to those who would push resistance activism into the Transition movement:

What I am trying to say I guess comes back to that quote I keep using from Tove Jansson’s ‘Comet in Moominland’:

“It was a funny little path, winding here and there, dashing off in different directions, and sometimes even tying a knot in itself from sheer joy. (You don’t get tired of a path like that, and I’m not sure that it doesn’t get you home quicker in the end).”

What I take from the Moomin quote is that perhaps an approach which approaches change like inoculating a community with mycorrhizal fungus that runs and spreads and pops up in the most unexpected places but which operates below the radar will, in the long run, be more successful than traditional activism.

Listen to the mycelium. Mycelium knows.

Guerrillas can do it to you in ways you’ll never know.
— Rosemary O’Leary

“Most subordinate classes through most of history have rarely been afforded the luxury of open, organized, political activity. Or, better stated, such activity is dangerous, if not suicidal. Formal, organized political activity is typically the preserve of the middle class and the intelligentsia; to look for peasant politics in this realm is to look largely in vain.

Peasant rebellions are few and far between. The vast majority is crushed unceremoniously. When, more rarely, they succeed, it is a melancholy fact that the consequences are seldom what the peasantry had in mind. Whatever these revolutions may achieve, they also typically bring into being a vaster and more dominant state apparatus that is capable of battening on its peasant subjects even more effectively than its predecessors.” – James C. Scott

When it comes to radical political opposition, we are all peasants. The middling classes have been seduced by the propaganda of democracy into thinking we can work through the system to effect significant reform. It’s a mirage. Flinging ourselves at the rigid, malfunctioning bureaucratic institutions we have inherited, writing petitions, calling politicians, marching, speechifying, vote monitoring, we expend energies feeding the very system we oppose. It’s as though democracy has become a myth that binds us rather than an ideal that frees us.

The time has grown late to set hopes on grudging concessions from a rotten system that desperately wants to keep going a while longer. The ruling elites have so much power and such an intense web of debt in place that they may well be coming close to returning to the naked brutality of past ages, enabled by all the magic of fabulous technical and scientific know-how and wealth at their disposal. Power-mad people armed to the gills with fancy gadgets are a dangerous force to contend with indeed. We are facing a vast Thing that is corrupt and bloated almost beyond our imaginings. It’s a prison on wheels, an out of control, runaway monster-train heading for the cliff, intending to take us all with it. And we fiddle-faddle in our second class carriages with protests, a basketful of good ideas, wishful thinking and slogans?! Get real.

Take, for example, the Women in Black who had emerged in the US as a way of protesting the war in Iraq. Standing near a local landmark every Friday with their placards and black togs, they hoped to ignite something bigger. That something never took off. What they did well was signal to government agents charged with sabotaging anti-war activists: “We want to make your jobs easy! Here we are! Come get our names, start your dossiers, send in agents provocateurs, and make our lives difficult.” Isn’t this utter drop-a-brick-on-your-head idiocy?

When Napoleon Bonaparte marched his 50,000 pillaging soldiers into Spain in 1808, he thought he’d seize an easy victory. By 1811, there were some 300,000 soldiers, still getting nowhere, and by 1814, the demoralized remainder slunk back to France. Dreams of a quick conquest had turned into Napoleon’s “Spanish ulcer.” How did it happen? Perhaps the most important factor was one of the most successful and widespread uses of guerrilla warfare in the West. The Spaniards knew they could not best the French in open combat. Instead, they bedeviled the enemy troops in thousands of little raids, using the twists and turns of the land to their own advantage. The French could hold a piece of territory, but as soon as they moved, the guerrillas, spontaneously volunteering from all levels of society, took back that ground. They interrupted the invaders’ supply and communication lines, revenged brutality to local populations by sudden small yet damaging attacks and quick retreats, and tied down French troops with much lesser expenditure of men and energy. It was these doughty Spaniards who gave irregular, sneaky warfare its name. Guerrilla warfare is a form of conflict that has a solid history of significant victories in grossly unequal situations. Cuba (vs. US-supported Batista), Yugoslavia (vs. the Germans, and later as an effective threat to the Soviets), and Afghanistan (vs. the Soviet Union) are but three samples highlighting a long and impressive history.

How would we do it if we were serious about winning? Serious about taking the planet back from the plunderers? Serious about ending our complicity and cooptation? Serious about not settling for shiny crap in corporate servitude, and moving on to a life worthy of human beings? Serious about defending this livingness to which we belong… with all we got? If we were serious, wouldn’t we take lessons from all the successful guerrilla campaigns of the past? Not to wage war, but to engage (or rather disengage!) the Leviathan on a level favorable to our cause. Not face-on. Never face-on.

Let me repeat: I am not advocating a war against the Leviathan. As I have argued elsewhere, forcible overthrows of current orders usually install another version of dominator elite, and resistance tends to ricochet. I am trying to highlight the difference between “in-your-face” resistance versus something else that is already growing in the grassroots. Guerrilla dissent.

Noting with alacrity the historical success of guerrillas in David vs. Goliath type of struggles, I wonder: how is it that revolutionaries have flocked to give their lives at the barricades or, more ignominiously, in plodding resistance to bureaucracies without a heart? Institutions, no matter how big or powerful, are poorly equipped to deal with guerrilla action! To address gross public mismanagement and malfeasance by those who are vastly more powerful than the people on the receiving end, what else but guerrilla dissent can succeed?

American Revolution began as guerrilla dissent. People quietly talking with trusted kin and neighbors, and discreetly building the incipient political infrastructure (committees of safety, committees of correspondence) that gradually evolved into more and more responsibility, local power and regional intelligence. As British abuses intensified and pro-American sentiments grew, they were ready to respond to new opportunities. Bolder acts were undertaken. Tories were noted, watched, and often disarmed. Local loyalist officials were hounded to resign. The situation never degenerated into chaos. The people themselves gradually assumed new political roles.

Savvy guerrilla dissenters avoid direct confrontation because they are neither interested in losing nor in making symbolic gestures. Would Fred Hampton still be alive if Black Panthers had followed guerrilla dissent strategies? Hampton worked hard to build up the black communities in Chicago through nonviolence and mutual aid, but the organization’s brash, militant, in-your-face stance had so alarmed the establishment that it was closely followed by law enforcement, and eventually, many of its leaders were eliminated. Hampton was assassinated point blank in his apartment, lying down, unarmed, simply because he was a capable and rising leader with a good sense for bringing people together.

We must never forget that the powers aligned to guard status quo do not need the provocation of violence or vandalism to mount their powers to sabotage and disable us. They have a vast network of spies keeping track of little old Quaker ladies who are against the war; why would they put up with anti-Leviathan rebels who want to bring about a very different social order? They don’t care if we are nice nonviolent middle class folks. When their radars are touched by the whiff of mutiny, they spring to action. They have the personnel and the snoop tools. Let’s not underestimate them no matter how reasonable or innocuous our actions are.

The job of guerrilla dissenters is not to resist the Leviathan, but to stop feeding it. Our job is not to resist the PTB, but rather to grow another kind of power and another way of life. Because both will be vigorously undermined if done visibly and loudly, guerrilla tactics are called for. It’s as clear-cut as that.

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