Friday, September 09, 2016


Last May, I was permitted the "stage" for a few minutes at the Play Iceland conference in Reykjavik. In part, I spoke about what I often call "deep democracy," a term that for me embraces the sort of day-to-day-neighbors-talking-over-their-back-fences kind of retail democracy that was envisioned by at least some of the founders of modern democracy. Some folks complain that I discuss politics too much in this space, but I don't understand how I cannot share my thoughts and opinions on the issues of the day. If democracy is really going to work, or so goes my theory, it will only work when we all take part, daily, discussing the issues with our families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues whenever we come together. In part, of course, we seek to persuade one another, but more importantly, the goal ought to be to simply understand one another.

Yesterday's post about how the community of children resolved a festering problem, I think, is an excellent example of what I mean by the term "deep democracy."

Immediately after my talk in Iceland, I was sitting at dinner with one of the other presenters who asked, "You talk about democracy, but aren't you really talking about anarchy?" I knew he meant the term "anarchy" in the academic sense, as a political ideology. I had studied the writings of Emma Goldman and others at university and had a general idea of what he was talking about. I also know that the term can refer to any number of strains of political thought that range right across our modern political spectrum, all of which intersect at the ideas of self-governance, voluntary participation, and a lack of leaders or permanent hierarchy. I answered that I reckoned he was right, that my democratic idealism tended in the direction of anarchy, in the best, most utopian sense of that word. I said, "I've never thought about it before, but I guess I tend to use the term 'deep democracy' because 'anarchy' has become a non-starter for a lot of people."

In response to yesterday's post, several commenters wondered why adults can't be more like those kids who were able to listen to one another and come to agreements without having any sort of compulsion. Part of the answer to that is that we adults have been conditioned to turn to "the rules" as the tool for organizing ourselves, while children tend to view them simply as one of the tools at their disposal. Of course, in our case, our classroom rules are made by the children via a process of consensus and implied in that is the idea that those rule, those agreements we've made with one another, are a living breathing thing, subject to change should circumstances call for it. Indeed, as we live with our agreements, as these children had for the better part of two full school years, we come to at least intuitively understand that the rules will always be inadequate for every circumstance. And since physical violence (which the children usually reject on day one) and the compulsion of hierarchy are off the table, what we're left with is to talk and to listen.

At our all-school spring orientation meeting earlier this week, with the entire parent community together, speaker after speaker emphasized that this is "our" community; that this is "your" community. The ideals of "deep democracy," of anarchy, stand at the heart of not only how we run our classrooms, but also our organization as a whole. I sometimes joke that we're actually a communist society, because sometimes it looks like that as well, as those of us with the wherewithal or the time or the energy carry the burden for those who, for whatever reason, can't carry their share. Yes, sometimes we vote on things, but for most of us, most of the time, we make decisions via consensus, often after long discussions. Everyone may not always agree, but like the kids in yesterday's post, we are willing to compromise and even sometimes set aside our own "best interest" in favor of those of our fellow citizens.

Anarchy, democracy, communism, socialism . . . I don't really know what to call what it is we do: no one's the leader, everyone's the leader, we're all in this together, and we're all both equal and individual. It's hard not to reflect on what I know of hunter-gatherer societies, the conditions under which humans thrived for more than 90 percent of human existence, where life was lived in smaller groups, not exactly voluntary, but not compulsory either, and were characterized by a free-form, ongoing negotiation among people of goodwill whose continued existence depended upon one another.

The children don't care what it's called and perhaps neither should we. Life is best for the most when it's about talking, listening, and always looking for ways to agree. We can never expect utopia, but this is the only way we will ever approach it. I suppose I'll keep calling it "deep democracy," but it probably doesn't need a name because, at bottom, it's not about theory, but rather a day-to-day practice, which stands at the heart of what we try to do in our school.

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1 comment:

Viv W. said...

It sounds like you actually have been practicing Quaker decision making or discernment, although Quaker process is based on the concept that if each person present is open to listening to/for the Divine in everyone, the group as a whole will come up with the right response to a particular concern. There is no hierarchy, although often someone will be designated to "clerk" a meeting, a role that you have taken, to ensure that folks are staying focused and that those who feel that they have something to say get a chance to do so. Decisions are made in and for a specific community in place, time, and culture, so the "rules" change and what one group of Quakers decides is right for them could be very different from what another group of Quakers decides.

Your students may not have been thinking "What is God trying to tell us to do in this situation?", but kudos to you and your co-op parents for giving these young people the time, space, and support to naturally develop a strong sense of equality and mutual respect within their community.