Microsolidarity Part 2: a Theory of Groups and Groups of Groups

This is part 2 of a 4 part series about ‘microsolidarity’: a plan for people supporting each other to do more meaningful work. The other parts are here: 1, 3, 4

A fractal map of belonging

Definition of terms

For me to explain my theory, I need to invent some language. Unfortunately in English, we are missing words for different kinds of group. When I say “group of people” I could mean 3 people, or 300, or 3 million. These missing words are symptomatic of missing ideas.

So I’m going to propose some new words, to access new ideas. I’m not attached to the specific terms, and this is not a comprehensive map of all the different kinds of group, it’s just a subset of terms that will be useful for this argument.

1: the Self

The first group has only one person, it’s Me (or You). In this article, when I say “Self” I’m thinking of a tight network of overlapping identities who share custody of this body we call Me. Viewing my Self this way invites me to treat all my parts as worthy of respect and compassion. We’re all lifetime members of the consciousness called Richard D. Bartlett, even the ones I try to disown and shut down.

For more on this, Emmi’s article on consent and autonomy is a good introduction to the idea of a “networked self” and it’s implication for your relationships.

2: the Dyad

A Dyad is a relationship of two. If you can forgive the tremendous oversimplification: let’s imagine society is an enormous Lego structure, but the only building blocks we have are Dyads. And now let’s say a Dyad can only be in one of two states: Domination or Partnership. Domination is imbalance, coercion, abuse, colonialism, the most controlling parent of the most acquiescent child. Partnership is like the balanced and consenting intimacy of two interdependent adults. Could also be a best friend, sibling, therapist, mentor, imaginary friend, spirit guide, etc. Because we learn so much through mimicry, an intentional Partnership Dyad is the best method I know for growth, healing, and development of the Self.

If you want to follow this logic that domination relationships are the root of all injustice, and partnership relationships are the root of all freedom, here are some juicy links: check out ‘NO! Against Adult Supremacy’, an anthology of zines available online & in print; Transactional Analysis is a therapeutic method for understanding interpersonal behaviour as parent-, child- or adult-like; and Aphro-ism is a Black vegan feminist argument that all oppression can be understood through the human-subhuman divide.

I reckon if the old domination society is finally disintegrating, let’s grow the next one around partnerships. I’m talking adult-to-adult, not parent-child relationships, from home to school to work to community to government. Are! 👏🏽 You! 👏🏽 With! 👏🏽 Me! 👏🏽

3: the Crew

A Crew is a group that is small enough to fit around a single dinner table, around 3–8 people. This is about the same size as a nuclear family, but without the parent-child power dynamics. This is a long-term set of relationships with singular purpose, like a co-op, shared house, or affinity group. The size is important, because it is small enough to stay highly coordinated with minimal explicit rules & roles, and large enough that your enhanced impact is worth the cost of collaborating. If you observe many interactions in a Crew, you get many opportunities to learn about different ways of being a Self and being in a Partnership.

4: the Congregation

There’s another crucial size somewhere between 30 and 200 people: small enough that most of the members can know each other’s name, big enough to support many Crews to coalesce. Coordinated impact at this scale requires some formal rules & roles, but mostly you can hold coherence just by putting a bit of extra effort into the relationships. In my experience the best way to find your Crew is to spend some time in a Congregation. Coordination gets a lot more complicated beyond this point.

If you use my language for a second, you can think of Enspiral as a Congregation of Crews. We fluctuate around 200 people, all supporting each other to do more meaningful work. We have a big annual gathering, a coworking space, a participatory budget, and many experiments in developing systems for mutual aid. Loomio is one of about 10 or 20 stable Crews in the network, each one focussed on a specific purpose, like fixing the diversity problem in the tech sector, or providing accounting services to social enterprises, or building an intergalactic communications network.

The Crews and Congregation are in reciprocal co-development. I can absolutely say Loomio wouldn’t exist without Enspiral, and Loomio’s success has made major contributions to the development of other Crews. So my proposal is to work at both of these scales simultaneously.

5: the Crowd

There’s probably a couple more useful distinctions beyond 200 people, but for the purpose of this map, all human groups bigger than Dunbar’s Number get lumped into this one category: the Crowd. This includes corporations, neighbourhoods, regions, nations, multitudes, swarms, and many different kinds of networks, conferences, festivals, etc. All of these groups share some important characteristics. Only a minority of people can expect to be recognised in a Crowd. To develop and maintain trust, peace, coordination & coherence over time requires a lot of infrastructure: formal articulation of rules and roles, enforcement of norms, and checks and balances to ensure the just application of that enforcement.

There’s an empty space between Self and Crowd

From where I’m standing, it looks like contemporary neoliberal urban westernised society is mostly designed for Selves and Crowds. There’s a little space for Dyads, and almost no room for Crews and Congregations.

Anywhere you look: government policy, media narratives, conferences, employee performance management, UX design, the healthcare system… in all these different fields you will usually hear people being treated as either individuals or anonymous mass populations. Check any story in today’s newspaper and you’ll see what I mean. Climate change will be fixed by “you recycling” or “government policy” or “a social movement”.

That’s what individualism looks like: the vast majority of our conversations are about individual people (you, me, a public figure, your boss or lover), or about very large groups (Americans, progressives, women, programmers), which are so populous that the individuals have lost their distinct identity. Individualism is a metaphysical virus that allows us to only see trees, never the forest. This virus leaves us poorly equipped to work in groups.

Over the past 7 years of working with people who are trying to make the world a safer, fairer, healthier place, I’ve concluded that membership in a good Crew is a critical success factor. People enmeshed in really great Crews are most resilient to the psychological cost of doing social change work, and therefore the most able to think and act strategically. It’s at this small scale that we decontaminate each other, recover from the individualist virus, and start to learn a new way of being together.

So this brings us to the core of my experiment: can we create the conditions for many excellent Crews to coalesce?

Read all about it in Microsolidarity Part 3: The Reciprocity Game


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