Author: Nathaniel Whitestone
I want to share a story with you. It is a story of global transformation; a story of neighbourhood democracy and a movement that has gone around the world at least twice. It is a story of my past and it may be a story about our shared future.
During the first half of the twentieth century, three great movements began - two vast and one (relatively) tiny. The vast movements were Liberation Theology, which developed in Catholic communities in Latin America, and Gandhian village swaraj ("self rule" or "self reliance") which developed as part of the Indian independence movement. The tiny movement was the development of Sociocracy, which first took its modern form in the De werkplaats school of Betty Boeke (nee Cadbury) and Kees Boeke.
Much has been written about Liberation Theology and Gandhian village swaraj, so I'll leave the details of these movements to other storytellers. I will describe the origins of Sociocracy, however.
Kees and Betty Boeke applied a radically egalitarian approach to education in their school in the Netherlands, building on a foundation of Montessori practices and adding Quaker decision-making and a form of self-management where students took responsibility (alongside the teachers) for the structure of their education. Kees called their practices in the school "Sociocracy", borrowing the term from 18th century philosopher and scientist Auguste Comte (who also coined the term Sociology).
During the 1940s, in Nazi-occupied Holland, Gerard Endenburg attended their school as a child. Gerard Endenburg went on to become an electronics engineer focusing on cybernetic system design, working for Phillips Electronics. In the late 1960s, Endenburg's parents wanted to retire from their family firm, Endenburg Electrotechniek, and asked Gerard to take it over as chief executive. He did, but experienced a shock: while he had grown up making decisions in circles during his schooling, and as an engineer he designed circuits where power and information flowed in circles, he was now being asked to run a company in which all authority and decision-making was expected to be linear, flowing outward from him! Over the course of the 1970s, Endenburg worked with his colleauges to develop a new system of self-governance in Endenburg Electrotechniek, combining Quaker decision-making, cybernetic designs for mutual influence and goal-achievement through feedback loops, and the then-emergent new science of complexity, particularly the work of Ilya Prigogine on dissipative structures.
This system was stable and successful by the start of the 1980s, and presented a collaborative alternative to the labor-management disputes so common in larger industrial organisations at that time. Through a new consultancy firm, the Dutch Sociocratisch Centrum, Endenburg began training and certifying consultants and sharing the method, at first in the Netherlands and then around the world.
Also during the 1970s, a young Catholic priest from Tamilnadu (a state in Southern India), Fr. Edwin Maria John, was encountering the influences that inspired the Neighbourhood Parliaments movement. As is common for young priests, he was sent to do work in the community - in this case in Latin America, where he experienced the Liberation Theology movement first hand.
The Liberation Theology movement was all about communities helping themselves, supported by the church. It was an alternative to the authoritarian view that the Catholic church should mostly support the existing power structure and focus on saving souls within that structure.
On his return to India, Fr. Edwin Maria John saw a deep connection between the Liberation Theology communities he'd served in Latin America and the Gandhian village swaraj movement in India. When he brought his ideas to the local Catholic hierarchy, they responded as hierarchies so often respond to young idealists: they gave him an impossible task where he wouldn't disturb things. They asked him to try out his ideas in a village where poverty and violence made life very difficult, far from the centres of culture or work.
But his ideas did work. The villagers solved problems of poverty and violence and began to develop their community together with new efficacy. So to their credit, the local Catholic diocese asked Fr. Edwin to do this in 1,000 villages in their area. He did, and by the early 1980s the results were impressive. This was the beginning of the Basic Christian Communities movement.
During the 1980s, in the state of Kerala (just to the west of Tamilnadu), there was a robust communist party, and the Marxist activists were inspired by what they saw happening in Tamilnadu. With the help of Fr. Edwin, they borrowed many of the Basic Christian Communities practices and began organising secular community self-help circles. Often consisting mostly of women, these circles were so influential that they spread widely, and they created a federation - first of neighbourhoods, then of districts, then of larger areas (panchayats, similar to Wards in England)! The next level would have been the level of the state of Kerala, and rather than see the current government of Kerala challenged, the state politicians agreed with the these neighbourhood circles that if they did not federate at the level of the state, the state government would hand over 40% of its revenue for these circles to use through their participatory budgeting processes. Many articles have been written about the "Keralan miracle", and this is its source.
During the 1990s, partly influenced by his collaborators in Kerala, Fr. Edwin came to see that his inspiration should not only apply to Christian communities. He began spreading Basic Human Communities. When businessman-cum-politician-cum-community democracy activist Joseph Rathinam joined him in the mid 1990s, together they began calling the way of organising that they were teaching "Neighbourhood Parliaments."
From the late 1990s onward, the Neighbourhood Parliaments movement was spread by NGOs more than by the Catholic Church, and started to take on the structure that it has today - except that it was still using a deliberative majority voting process, rather than the sociocratic consent process that's now preferred today.
For me, the 1990s was the time I was beginning professional work. I was the youngest co-founder of the Ecovillage Network of the Americas in 1996, and led on the development of our governance structure. I was both disappointed and fascinated in 1998 when I discovered Sociocracy. Due to my own issues with authority, I couldn’t see the value of top-down (or center-outward) coordination; I really thought using only bottom-up (or periphery-inward) representation would be better. Since Sociocracy combines bottom-up representation with top-down coordination, and it had been invented before I came of age, I was reluctant to acknowledge its value. It took me almost a decade to be willing to admit that somebody else had truly solved the challenges of governing large scale networks of communities (or workplaces) in an inclusive way.
By 2007, I had moved to England and was teaching facilitation. Some local Transition Towns were requesting help with group decision-making, and I began to engage with communities again. I began studying Sociocracy in earnest with my mentor John Buck, teaching Sociocracy to my facilitation students, and bringing Sociocracy to the UK. John Buck was a senior student of Gerard Endenburg. He was the first native English speaker to be certified as a Sociocracy consultant, was the head of the English-language division of the Sociocratisch Centrum, and was co-author with Sharon Villines of the first widely available book on Sociocracy in English: We the People.
In the early 2010s, John was teaching in India when he met Fr. Edwin for the first time. By this time, Neighbourhood Parliaments in all their incarnations (from the Basic Christian Communities to the Children’s Parliaments and beyond) comprised almost 400,000 groups - a vast number of loosely connected community groups!
When Fr. Edwin learned about Sociocracy from John, he declared that the sociocratic system of governance was the approach that he'd been working toward: a way to ensure that every voice would truly be heard, combining direct, representative, deliberative, and participatory democracy over multiple scales. When John learned about the Neighbourhood Parliaments movement, he saw that Fr. Edwin (and Joseph Rathinam, and all the thousands of people involved in the movement) had been building the kind of society-wide participatory democracy that Gerard Endenburg had been trying to create through Sociocracy.
One interesting area of common practice is the similarity between Children Parliaments and sociocratic schools. Although Endenburg Electrotechniek developed Sociocracy for organising a business, it has been adopted as a way of organising by primary schools, secondary schools, and universities around the world, influenced by the model of De Werkplaats. Independently, Joseph Rathinam, Fr. Edwin, and other Neighbourhood Parliaments organisers developed a framework of Children's Parliaments, a complementary way for young people to lead in their community in connection with their schooling and with the Neighbourhood Parliaments.
Over the past decade, the Neighbourhood Parliaments movement has been gradually adopting Sociocracy, and the global Sociocracy movement has been developing forms of the Neighbourhood Parliament that work well in other contexts. We've played with ways of integrating the two approaches with other approaches to democracy such as sortition, liquid democracy, and Taiwanese strategies for e-democracy in policy formation. One example is the United People paper I had the pleasure of co-authoring, which explored a possible strategy for restructuring the United Nations.1
Starting in 2020, an Erasmus-funded program in Europe has translated the Indian concept and practices into forms that have been proven to work in Europe. My worker cooperative, A Fairer Society, has been one of eleven partner organisations in nine European countries delivering this project. This Sociocratic Neighbourhood Circles project (SONEC) will be releasing its final report at the end of 2022.
It’s tempting to say that this represents some final point in the story that I’ve laid out, but really this is only the beginning. The Indian Neighbourhood Parliaments movement, while large in European terms, includes only a small fraction of the 1.4 billion residents of India. Similar community networks - the Global Ecovillage Network, for example - also cover only a tiny fraction of the communities in areas where they have developed. If this way of organising is really to offer us a viable path to resolving the global and local challenges we face in coming decades, it must be available to almost everyone.
This movement does offer an opportunity for weaving together the wide range of similar projects and networks of communities that are doing similar work. You can think of a SONEC as a specific form of neighbourhood democracy (as promoted and supported by the Neighbourhood Democracy Movement), which is a specific form of Community Agency Network (as promoted and supported by The Alternative UK).
This implies a sort of hierarchy of shared purpose:
SONEC and Neighbourhood Parliaments networks are examples of neighbourhood democracy, as are Cohousing networks and Ecovillage networks.
In practice the Sociocratic Neighbourhood Circle is a form of resident-led holistic community development, combining:
The emphasis on developing this alliance, as an essential part of the model, means that wherever the SONEC network develops we must also nourish and support allied communities and partner organisations that have similar objectives. For example, in the UK we work closely with a range of partner organisations through the CTRL Shift network to provide support to local groups - whether or not they choose to adopt the SONEC model.
I believe that this active mutual support, together with a heart-centred practice of developing meaningful connections with our neighbours, a commitment to learning, and a well-structured form of local governance, is what we need in order to live well into the turbulence of the 21st century. I hope that you feel similarly!
If you'd like to know more about the details of this practice or to get more actively involved please add your name here.
And you are welcome to contact the SONEC project via our website, visit: https://sonec.org/
1. Journal of Asian Scientific Research, United People Designing a New Model of Governance
2. A Community Agency Network, also known as a Citizen Action Network, can take a wide variety of forms. For more on this concept, view the relevant Appropedia page.
The publisher is Citizen Network Research. Neighbourhood Parliaments and Sociocracy © Nathaniel Whitestone 2022.