The Throw Away Society

The DC Chapter of Point A is moving rapidly towards the birth of the first commune. As we approach the moment of our launch we’re hammering out the foundational mechanics for our group. And arguably the most foundational, most essential policies are for membership and expulsion: how people are included and excluded. Thinking about expulsion is not a fun topic and many democratic and collective groups don’t really think about it. Some (like Kommune Niederkaufungen in Germany, apparently) seem to get on just fine for years. For other groups, not having thought much about expulsion eventually causes a conflict to blow up into an explosive crisis and, with an unfortunate frequency, destroy the group.

A community is a web of relationships, and a healthy community reinforces and weaves those relationships thicker and tighter. The complexity and strength of this web is the source of the value and power behind a vibrant community: it brings meaning to our lives, it enriches us socially, and it gives us access to support and assistance when we need it. It can include our closest allies, collaborators, audience, and friends. But it’s the very importance of our community that makes it that much more painful when an assault or serious breach of trust occurs within it. The bigger we are, as it were, the harder we fall.

When a member of our community hurts us or breaks our trust, it is common and reasonable to want them to leave and never come back. Maybe we fear that they’ll hurt us again, or maybe seeing them reminds us of the pain they’ve caused us, or maybe we feel like they’ve broken their side of the social compact and so don’t deserve membership any more. However, in a deep and vibrant community, and especially one with any history, ostracizing a member is messy because inevitably important relationships exist between other members and the perpetrator of the offense, relationships which are not destroyed by the offense. If the aftermath of a serious offense is not handled with sensitivity and care to all sides, it is all too easy for the community to divide into camps and begin to attack itself. If the perpetrator is ostracized and their remaining relationships are not honored, then damage can cascade through the web that is the community. That damage can cause other members to lose their faith in the community’s ability or desire to care for them and frequently results in an exodus of people from all sides of a conflict.

Additionally, although ostracism is sometimes appropriate, it often has the same problem as the throw away society that it resembles: it assumes that there’s an “away” where you can throw people where they won’t do harm (much like we assume there’s an “away” where we can throw trash where it won’t do harm). That’s not always true and if we don’t deal with the root cause of the offense and the perpetrator has not taken on the project of self-reflection and change we want them to then we might just be passing our problem on down the line to the next community they end up in. Similarly, this “throw away justice” assumes that the person who has committed the offense is no longer of value. They are trash and not worth saving.

napolean in exile

In light of all this serious thought about the process of expulsion is of obvious value. Especially knowing that often when an offense occurs emotions run high, people are in pain, and quick and skillful action is necessary to prevent harm from spiraling out of control. It can be difficult or even impossible to conceive of, design, and execute such a response if it has not been discussed by the community in advance. When we design such a process, then, there are a few deep questions we need to consider. If we choose to not just get rid of people whenever they harm someone, how do we respond to offenses in a way that takes care of the whole community and leaves us stronger and better people on the other side? When and why is the work to do that beyond our ability and how can we tell? If it is beyond our ability… what do we do then?

Merely a Trellis

The desirability and use of consensus decision making is widespread these days on the radical left and is nearly universally used at the newer communes (one of two brilliant techniques Acorn stole shamelessly from the Quakers). For people concerned with consent, freedom, autonomy, and agency, consensus decision making is a likely optimal.

However, on its face consensus is a totally ridiculous way to make decisions. Think about trying to decide what movie to watch with a group of friends or, gosh, think of the US congress doing anything and the idea that nothing can be decided unless everyone agrees sounds like madness, a recipe for disaster. And yet, the experience of the communes I know who use it (and that’s communes up to 80 members large) is that it works brilliantly and smoothly. Major decisions are regularly discussed and made quickly and painlessly. Surprisingly complex operations (combining housing, food, accounting, businesses, grounds, childcare, etc etc) are run and managed with only a couple hours of meeting a week. And that is where we begin to see the answer to our riddle. As my friends at Las Indias noted, consensus is clearly the best decision making system available and yet it is important to also think of it as the decision making system of last resort.

 

Like the finger pointing at the moon, the consensus process itself is not our aim. Our aim is to cultivate a community of empowered, empathetic, free people who are working with the collective good in mind and who are always looking for the clever solutions that work best for everyone, consulting with each other as necessary to accomplish this. The consensus process is merely a Trellis that pushes us to grow, as members of the community, into the shapes that are our true aim. It pushes us this way by cutting off all other options for making the things that are important to us happen. In a consensus run group, if we want to have our way in the world we need to develop empathy for others, deep listening skills, trust in each other, and a dedication to finding the creative solution that works for everybody. There is no other way.

The commune is a particularly fertile ground for this work because by collectivizing our work and our lives, making the consensus process work becomes essential to our happiness and our ability to get things done. And of course, even if our goal is to cultivate a community that can act and make most decisions without the need for everyone to sit down together there will likely always be reasons to meet: novel situations we need to consider deeply, big commitments that we need to be very sure of, and the building of relationships and our sense as a group. In fact, the decisions that are nearly impossible in a consensus process are precisely the decisions that cost nothing if they are not made, the ones people can walk away from: what to name the group, what color to paint the room, what movie to watch tonight.

In this light, maybe the US congress would work better if it used consensus after all. There’s a garden that could use cultivation and trellising.