Way of Council

(excerpt from UG dissertation)

Whilst conducting my ethnographic research into eco-communities I found that they all used a form of direct democracy in their decision-making processes. At Diggerville, they adopted a system called Way of Council. In Western civilisation, politics, synonymous with decision-making, is both outsourced to and coveted by official paid representatives. These representatives enact their political decisions based upon their political philosophies, from the top down in a vertical manner. The rise of the alterglobalisation movement (Maeckelbergh 2009) gave birth to a renewed interest in alternative forms of decision-making and horizontal politics. Horizontal decision making processes attempt to instantiate the alternative world that is desired and is often understood as a form of prefiguration, which “is a practice through which movement actors create conflation of their ends with their means” (Maeckelbergh 2009:66–67).

Boggs (1977:101) stated that this could be achieved by the creation of “local, collective small-scale organs of social democracy”. In this mode of politics, the focus is shifted away from the desired result and placed upon the process of achieving that desired result; the belief being that it is in the process that the nature of the end is determined. Due to the involvement of all who wish to participate, horizontal politics can involve much deliberation as it seeks to achieve a consensus in opinion.

An example[i] of an effective non-Western, horizontal political form is found in the historical accounts of both the northeast Native American Haudenosaunee (The People of the Long House, also known as the Iroquois) and the Pueblos, who once dwelled where Mexico City now stands. They practiced a form of council based egalitarian politics, which saw women as absolute equals. These decision-making processes would often result in the women having the final say, in the case of signing important treaties, the consent of two thirds of the mothers was required (Roesch Wagner 1993:241). The study of the political practices of the Iroquois confederacy and the Pueblos was carried out and disseminated by a largely forgotten group of female, American anthropologists, ethnologists and equal rights activists at the end of the 19th century. This group included Minnie Myrtle, Erminnie A. Smith, Mary Elizabeth Beauchamp, Rose Yawger and Matilda Joslyn Gage. These pioneering women, active in the women’s suffrage movement, were, “looking for a model on which to base their vision of an egalitarian world…” (ibid: 232). What they found was ample evidence of both gender equality and egalitarian modes of consensus decision-making processes, enacted through a system of councils (ibid: 240–241). Despite the virtual elimination of the various indigenous peoples of the Americas by European invaders throughout the development of modern capitalism, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy has survived, and in its 21st century manifestation it still retains its ethical foundations. There is an ambiguous lineage, which can be traced back to the Haudenosaunee and Pueblo councils, in the Way of Council practiced at Diggerville.

Anthropologist Dr. Joan Halifax[ii] developed Way of Council, in the late 1970s, with the community at the Ojai foundation. The Ojai Foundation at that time was “a unique experiment in community living, holistic education, and spiritual practice”. Jack Zimmerman and Virgina Coyle, who had been an integral part of the community since its sociogenesis, established Way of Council as a system that could be replicated and implemented outside of the community with the publication of their book of the same name in 1996. Although Way of Council was directly inspired by both Halifax’s own anthropological studies and the stories of the Pueblos and the Haudenosaunee continued to resonate, Zimmerman was aware of the potential for cultural misappropriation,

In implementing council in contemporary settings, we have shared the concern of many people, Native American and other, about the appropriation of one culture’s sacred ceremonies by another. Our aim has always been to practice a form of council that honors the spirit of the ancient ceremonies without the pretense of being traditional. We believe that the many forms of council belong to all people who gather in the circle to embrace the challenge of listening and speaking from the heart (ibid: 5)

In its simplest form, Way of Council consists of “four intentions”; “speaking from the heart”, “listening from the heart”, “being of lean expression” and “spontaneity (ibid: 28–37). Facilitated by a ‘talking stick’ or something similar; you only talk when you are in possession of the stick. The stick is then passed to whoever has something to say and the council listens. If there is a decision to be made then the talking and the listening will continue in a deliberative manner until a consensus is reached.

For several years Diggerville had regular weekly site meetings to “discuss practicalities.” However, they didn’t use any process to address “interpersonal relationships and emotions” and consequently there was a lot of tension in the group dynamic. Initially most the members were reluctant to formalize a process of talking and listening. Eventually one of the female members persuaded the group to engage in a week of Way of Council held by a dedicated facilitator. It proved to be very effective, “after this week a whole load stuck energy moved and got spoken about and it just felt like unblocking the sink. After that week, even those that had been reluctant agreed to carry on using this process on a regular basis”.

The core members currently have a one day Way of Council every six weeks and a week long Way of Council once a year. Jo waxed lyrical about its function,

“It’s important for a community to have a process. Whichever one suits […] talking is important; but listening is important also; the sense of sitting together can be quite powerful just in itself. Sitting together is a physical representation of community […] no-one has physically forced anybody to be there. It is a requirement to attend but people attend ’cause they respect the requirement. They understand that nothing is going to get better by not attending and that as an individual component of the community it makes one realise how important the individuals are. So, if I really don’t want to go to council I only have to think about what an enormous statement not wanting to go to council is […] it’s saying I reject you. I reject my community”.

Jo elaborated on the nature of the process,

“if enough people said ‘actually council is not working for us’ and explained why and we got to a point of consensus and we’d be ‘ok have we got any other ideas?’ and we’d try out some other ideas and see or we’d go ‘okay for the next 6 months we’re not going to have any community process but it’s quite likely that after 3 months somebody would be going aaarrrrgh or they’d be an enormous row and we’d go ‘shit we need a council to sort this out!’”

Consensus is always desired, however, occasionally decisions go to a vote. The atmosphere of egalitarianism was persuasive, although with only three of the founding members remaining I wondered if the community was free from hierarchy. I asked Albert if he struggled to retain his egalitarian principles as a founder of the community who had invested over ten years of physical and psychic energy into the project,

“I think there’s always hierarchies but I think it’s probably more to do with, in some areas, some people know a bit more or, you know, we might hold a bit more knowledge about how and why things were set up; but I don’t think we’re sort of, holding onto the reins and not letting the new people make decisions”.

Finally, Peter, a long-term volunteer, summed it up perfectly,

“the interplay between people is endlessly subtle, but there’s nobody in charge […] The nature of a community is dictated to some extent by the physical landscape and also by the people that live there and actually to quite a large extent by the people who found it… the founders tend to set the criteria, then you attract people who fit into that criteria […] if I want to stay here and people want me to stay I will. Nothing is set in stone it’s a sort of fluid process, because maintaining community cohesion is absolutely predicated on who comes into the community, so that has to be a protracted process […] a subtle, complex, relational process”.

[i] Another example can be found in Silberbauer’s study of the G/wi bushman in Central Kalhari. He notes that, “[t]he style of band politics is facilitative, rather than forceful, seeking ways of getting things done, means of accommodating dissent and transposing discord into harmony without drowning out the dissenter’s distinctive melody. Leadership is authoritative, rather than authoritarian and what an individual strives for is cooperation in the activities he or she wishes to undertake” (1982:34).

[ii] Joan Halifax is now better known as a Zen Buddhist Roshi.


Boggs, C. 1977. Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers’ Control. In Radical America, 11, November. Available from http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1125404123276662.pdf

Maeckelbergh, M. 2009. The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement Is Changing the Face of Democracy. London: Pluto Press.

Roesch Wagner, S. 1993. The Iroquois Influence on Woman’s Rights. In Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Dropout Culture, ed. Ron Sakolsky and James Koehnline, pp. 225–250. New York: Autonomedia.

Silberbauer, G. B. 1982. Hunter and habitat in the Central Kalahari desert. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Zimmerman, J. & Coyle, V. 1996. The Way of Council. Las Vegas: Bramble Books