Microsolidarity Part 4. An Unorthodox Recipe For Social Change

This is part 4 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, 2, 3

There are many components of the microsolidarity proposal that are out of step with the prevailing currents of progressive and radical thought. I’ll name five of those attributes here. I intend to acknowledge the risk of travelling off piste, and start the process of building accountability. This is a very exposing piece of writing, so please assume positive intent and check in with me if something triggers you.

1. Exclusivity

One of the most striking counter-intuitive parts about the microsolidarity proposal is that, if you’re reading this and we don’t know each other personally, you’re not invited. I invite you to start your own Congregation, but you’re not invited to join mine. That’s a bit shocking, eh! 😨

Most progressive social change actions start with inclusion as one of the top priorities. For this action though, we’re prioritising trust far ahead of inclusion. Actually there could be two barriers to inclusion: first to join the Congregation, then an even higher threshold to join a Crew.

I want to look around the circle at our first gathering and see 20 or 30 people with a specific set of traits. I’m thinking of people I can count on to contribute to the psychological safety of others, people with high emotional intelligence and good boundaries. We’re going into experimental and challenging territory, so folks need to be extra-tolerant, open to different ways of knowing, being and doing. My people know how to DIY (Do It Yourself) and DIWO (Do It With Others). We call each other to develop the highest parts of our Selves and to embrace our incomplete parts.

All of this exclusion is necessarily going to select for people with specific privileges, so it’s not a comprehensive plan to erase oppression and injustice in the world. Our collective has many responsibilities to the commons, beyond our own artificial borders. It’s critical that we use our increased resilience, resources, and opportunities to serve the needs of people outside of our tight circle. As a minimal gesture, I commit to continue doing the work of documentation, translating everything I learn into terms that make sense for people outside of my context.

But I’ve learned from long exhausting experience that there is no such thing as complete inclusion: the more permissive your entry criteria, the more you include people whose behaviour excludes others. So the question is not “should we exclude people?” but “which people should we exclude?”

2. Not for profit but with profit

Here’s another zinger: we’re going to deal with money, so that means we’re going to have to deal with people’s money traumas. I’m hoping Tom Nixon can join us at least in the early days, to help us renegotiate our relationships with money.

Most of us are clenched when it comes to money, because of the stories and experiences attached to it. This seems to be especially true of people who are committed to making positive social impact with their work (me, for instance). We see the harm done by wealth inequality and corruption, so we conflate the wealth with the inequality. Anticapitalists conflate the marketplace with capitalism. We treat money as if it were dirty: I handle cash with my left hand while my right hand pinches my nose shut against the dreadful smell. It’s as if money is a pernicious acid that is just waiting to dissolve my values. Taboos prevent us talking about it, asking for what we need, and offering to help when we can.

I’ve tried being broke, and I’ve tried having enough to be generous, and I know which one is better for the planet.

When I was 21, after reading Small Is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher’s powerful short book on meaningful work, I immediately wrote a blog post publicly declaring my rejection of bullshit jobs (if you follow that link, pls don’t read anything else on that blog because it’s super embarrassing 😅). I didn’t grow up with easy access to capital, so it took another 7 or 8 years before I started to earn a minimal wage on my own terms. (Note: this is not a “bootstraps” story though, as I certainly did enjoy the privilege of New Zealand’s social welfare system to pay my rent when I couldn’t.) Now I’ve co-founded two small worker-owned businesses which pay me to do my most meaningful work (Loomio & The Hum), and pay taxes so the state can do things like running the social welfare system.

These companies are not built for profit, but with profit. Generating our own income means we have the freedom to chart our own course. I think it takes money to do something ambitious, and it takes freedom to do something radical. So I want to be in community with people who are growing their financial resilience and co-investing in each others’ commons-building companies. I know the marketplace can be distasteful, but the situation is urgent, we need to be super effective.

3. Do Better Than Good

A lot of political strategy aims to change people’s behaviour because it is the right thing to do. If you want to be a “good” person, you’ll recycle, give to charity, and stop saying sexist things.

I’m more interested in strategies that can outcompete the “bad” option. I’m a feminist not because it’s the “good” thing to do, but because my quality of life improves as my relationships come out of patriarchal patterns. I absolutely believe we’ll all be better off without patriarchy, it’s not a tradeoff between winners and losers.

So I propose to outcompete individualistic consumerism with microsolidarity. I mean, how hard can it be to do a better job of meeting people’s psychological and material needs than this shitty 21st century gig economy? How many people have I met in the past few years who lack meaning and stability in their work, or who lack a sense of belonging? That’s our opportunity! Belonging is not a binary, like “yes” you’re connected or “no” you’re isolated. Belonging is a fractal: I have distinct needs for connection at each scale, from my Self, to my Partnerships, up to my Crew, Congregation and beyond. So do like the Emotional Anarchists do, and find freedom in the interpersonal.

4. Decentralised governance with not a blockchain in sight.

‘Nuff said 😂

5. Design for smallness.

In a world obsessed with big and fast, I’m designing for small and slow.

If our Congregation gets much bigger than 100 people, it’ll be time to start thinking about how to split in two. I’m starting “an independent sibling” of Enspiral rather than growing Enspiral to include more people, because I think the size is a critical success factor. I expect to be in this project for years before we see great returns.

In the past few years I’ve learned another important reason why “small is beautiful”, beyond what Schumacher wrote: our intimate peer-to-peer relationships have an extraordinary capacity for ambiguity and complexity. A high trust group can be very coherent and effective even with very low levels of explicit agreement about our state, direction and norms. It’s impossible to maintain this level of trust and connection beyond one or two hundred people. As organisations grow in size, they are governed less by interpersonal relationships and more by formal written policies, procedures, and explicit agreements. The written word is intolerant of ambiguity, and can only ever capture a tiny subset of reality, so groups that are governed by text are much less able to cope with complexity.

If you want to be agile and adaptive in a complex and rapidly changing environment, you must move as much decision-making power as possible into groups that are small enough to be governed by spoken dialogue, not written policy.

(For more on this theme, see my article The Vibes Theory of Organisational Design. If you want to go deep into the difference between written and spoken records see also Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy. For case studies demonstrating the relationship between performance and small-scale autonomy across many different industries, see Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux and Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal.)


Ok, there are a bunch of other reasons why the microsolidarity proposal could cause alarm, but I’m feeling sufficiently exposed now so I’m ready to see what I learn from pressing “publish”. One last thought before I do:

The Assembly of Congregations: A Decentralised Autonomous U.N.?

For now I’m going to stay focussed on starting this 2nd Congregation, but it’s fun to imagine what might happen at the next order of magnitude. Here’s a fun metaphor, which I gratefully borrow from my Enspiral-mate Ants Cabraal, after he shared it on Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast:

The United Nations (U.N.) is currently our best effort at global governance. There’s 190-something nation states chipping in to fund a staff of about 40,000 people trying to make the world safer and fairer. Imagine if we mobilised another 40,000 people to work on global challenges, but instead of the traditional centralised organisational structure of the U.N., with its hierarchies, department and managers, imagine if we were organised in small, decentralised, self-managing, commons-oriented, future-proof, complexity-capable networks. After all, 40,000 people is just 200 Congregations of 200…

Are! 👏🏽 You! 👏🏽 With! 👏🏽 Me! 👏🏽


Postscript

It’s been a couple days since I finished this major writing effort. For a moment I felt ecstatic: one part of my Self enthusiastically congratulating the other parts of my Self for being so confident, articulate and clever. But before I got a chance to publish, some of my other parts started speaking up. My confidence disintegrated as I listened to the voices of my uncertain, disoriented and timid Selves. They’re quick to point out that this essay is far too X or it’s not nearly Y enough. I think I’ve reached the limit of how long I can hold a monologue before I reconnect with my crewmates, check in, and add their sensemaking to mine. So I’m looking forward to improving this proposal with the thoughtful consideration and spirited dissent of my peers. Time for us to leap, trusting that the net will appear.

I’ll keep documenting what I learn along the way. Follow the #microsolidarity hashtag if you want to stay up to date, and support my Patreon if you want to free up more of my time for writing like this.


This story is published with no rights reserved: do what you like with the text. You can find it in many file formats on my website.