Category Archives: The Folkmote System
David Korten, author of books like “When Corporations Rule the World” and “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community,” is one of our wise elders, if anyone is. He has an article in the current “Yes!” magazine that cuts through all the chatter and gets us back to what is perhaps the key question: Why are we knowingly heading toward the extinction of our (and many other) species? The answer is probably that one of the traits of our species is to focus on the short rather than the long term. But, like Korten, I believe we can, if we really want to, make some very important, much saner choices that will enable us to avoid falling off the cliff. As Korten says in his article, “Transformation begins with clarity on the nature of the choice that confronts our species.”
Korten believes we’ll survive only if we answer the following question: “Why does the current system deprive so many of opportunity for a fulfilling life [or life at all] that could and should be everyone’s birthright? Our prevailing cultural choices favor extreme individualistic competition for material goods. Our institutional choices reward the destruction of Earth’s capacity to support life and concentrate control by fewer and fewer people over what remains of that capacity. The many are thus pressed into lives of desperate servitude to the few. The obvious alternative begins with the recognition that individually and collectively, we survive and thrive only as interdependent, sharing, and mutually contributing members of Earth’s community of life. We’re better served by working together to create a world that works for all, than by competing for what remains of a shrinking pool of real [natural] wealth. Our defining cultural value must become cooperation. And we must transfer power from institutions that reward predatory competition to ones that facilitate and reward cooperation in service to the common good.”
Of course, the big question is how to make these changes? I think it’s pretty obvious that we earthlings can only do it by creating grassroots, bottom-up democracies all over the world like the kind the United States has always crushed at home and abroad. Of course, other regimes have and are crushing democracy, too, but I focus on our country because that’s where I live and because the US is so powerful. (Check out other articles on this site for examples of its democracy-crushing — US policy in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America comes to mind — as well as ideas about creating real democracy. One definition of the latter would be a system in which if a decision affects you or your community, you have real input in making it.
These are changes that can only take place in the long term. So take your eyes off most of the short term — like the daily “news” stream — and focus on what makes it all happen: what really matters.
This morning I direct your attention to an editorial entitled “Should the Occupiers Stay or Go?” by Rick Salutin in today’s Toronto Star. Salutin says, “The Occupy movements have largely become dramas revolving around the excellent question posed by The Clash: Should I stay or should I go? It’s become a story about a place. Some, like London (Ontario) are gone. Others, like London (England) are on notice. Occupy Wall St. is gone but it’s back, in a different form. We’ll know about Occupy Toronto, apparently, tomorrow. But it’s possible that this is the wrong question. Let me offer another view based on a recent visit to Madrid.
The 15-M movement began there last May 15th with a protest held in Puerta del Sol square over the economic crisis that became an overnight occupation. When it was dismantled by authorities, a conflict ensued over whether they would stay or go. A month later, when they finally went, it was by choice. One veteran of 15-M (there are no leaders) said: ‘It was a strategic move that led to the survival of the movement.’ Almost happenstantially they had evolved another preference: to fan out into districts of the city (and elsewhere in Spain) and conduct regular meetings with local residents. These then forwarded proposals to a weekly assembly held in the square.
If you wander around Occupy sites, like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, as I did this week, you often see signs saying, Join Us. It’s hard to imagine many of the people who pass by and warily eye the huddled tents, doing so. The Madrid option in a way is the opposite. It’s: Join Them. Go into your neighborhood, try and talk with your neighbors, different as they may be from you. Listen to them as they talk to you and each other.
This is different from a campaign to simply carry the Occupy message (99 per cent versus 1 per cent, etc.) out to ‘the people.’ Some organizers of the Occupy movements, according to the New York Times, are heading in that direction: ‘trying to broaden their influence by deepening their involvement in community groups.’ But there’s a difference between trying to make a point (the organizers quoted by the Times) and trying to engender a social phenomenon (15-M). It’s the difference between trying to win an argument, and focusing on the process of discussion itself, in the hope that something transformative might emerge. ‘We are going to create a new social category,’ says one 15-M participant, the aim of which is not to convince people to vote a certain way or embrace particular views: ‘It’s simply a widening of the political landscape.’
A new layer of political process wasn’t 15-M’s agenda at the start. It came to what you could call its democratic emphasis gradually; the stress on process emerged from the process. It was never called an Occupy movement, so it had the advantage that its very name didn’t press it to stay where it was born.”
A similar phenomenon, that some friends and I have been discussing and are putting into action, involves elements of “the people” forming affinity groups based on location, workplace or work situation, or any other common interest, which meet to talk about needs and problems, and send spokespersons to connect with other groups – at Occupy sites or elsewhere. The public space we/the Occupy movement are claiming, using, and defending doesn’t have to be specific and permanent, day after day, month after month – though it can be for those who want to try to make it so. The same or other public spaces can be used periodically to connect groups who want to communicate with each other and to provide regular focal points for community meetings. At the same time, Occupy and other websites – some yet to be created – can provide virtual meeting places, offering discussion forums, interactive maps showing community resources, and needs/offerings listings of goods and services available for gift or barter.
The important thing is having the conversations, “widening the political landscape,” considering alternatives to the current, unacceptable system, and creating a new one by using this respectful, democratic, and inclusive process. We’re learning the ways of a better world already. It’s here now. “We make the path by walking.”
Wanting to do more than just write and talk about the Occupy movement, I’ve been thinking I should go to one of the General Assembly meetings of our local group, (anticipating the frustration I’d probably feel as one of 200 people trying to be heard has kept me away so far). I told my friend J. I thought there should be some system of meeting in smaller groups (like the talking-stick circles I’ve mentioned before on this site) that could then send a representative to a similarly small group at the next level. The next day she sent me a link to a post on our local Occupy website about the Folkmote system, apparently a “cultural universal” until industrial capitalism started taking over more and more of our lives and world.
A few days later, J., C., and I went to a meeting at a downtown park at which Warren Weisman, a local proponent of the system, explained it to about 20 interested people. He said the folkmote system extends the natural trust and cooperation found within tribal groups to voluntary 20-30-person groups of family, friends, and neighbors who see each other on a regular basis and like and trust each other. The groups make decisions by consensus and, when appropriate, send representatives to adjacent or “higher”-level groups. Federated groups are organized in a wheel rather than a hierarchy, with the original groups on the outer circle and intermediate groups on spokes leading to a central hub. The “federated communities are responsible for all public services and manage all aspects of village life.” Folkmote members are “bound together by an unwritten, voluntary mutual aid agreement: ‘When you are in need, I will come to your aid; when I am in need, I trust you to help me; and I agree to meet my own needs to the best of my ability.’ Groups can be territorial, work-related, or based on any other interest or affinity, and, ideally, an individual would be a member of more than one group.
A folkmote system can also be organized quickly in a large group of strangers by asking people to move to a group associated with their favorite color, then to a group associated with their favorite fruit. Folkmote is a “robust system in a catastrophe, government distributed down to the neighborhood level.” We would all benefit by taking more responsibility at the local level for meeting needs, but – barring catastrophe – we can take as much time as we need to do this, just as the nonviolent nature of the Occupy movement allows us to take our time.
The basic meeting discusses who needs what and who has surplus to share. In the Cairo Tahrir Square movement people used this system to defend and care for their own neighborhoods. “Leadership comes up from below, and everybody has a say,” Warren told us. “It’s like you’re constantly plugged into craigslist. It’s community building – building trust up over time.” He gave the following historical examples of folkmote organizations: medieval guilds, the Committees of Safety and Correspondence in the original 13 colonies, the Paris Commune of 1871, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and the Zapatistas. He added, “We’re all already in one or more of them. Who do you call on in an emergency?” Interestingly, according to Warren, Occupy Wall Street is switching from the General Assembly format to a spokescouncil, a localized folkmote. (“Folkmote” means “a gathering of ordinary people.”)
Warren mentioned that Marx had anarchist Mikhail Bakunin kicked out of the 1st International because the latter was against strong centralized leadership and believed people could govern themselves best. The folkmote system and mutual aid are inherent in anarchist theory and practice, as is decentralization in all spheres (decentralization militates against takeover by a minority or conquest by an alien force). Anarchist Peter Kropotkin advocated decentralized food production, as have many concerned about “energy descent” and/or economic collapse. Warren reminded us that anarchy doesn’t mean “chaos;” it means “replacing government with self-organization.”
Thinking again of the Occupy movement, someone asked, “How do you keep solidarity?” and Warren answered that there are no guarantees, but that organizations moving in the same direction could form common “fronts.”
J., C., and I plan to talk to our neighbors – maybe by inviting the closest ones to a purely social event – and others interested in sharing or bartering resources. (See also your local freecycle list – ours can be found by Googling “Freecycle Eugene.”)
I thought it was interesting that halfway through Warren’s presentation we had to move to another area of the park, because a noisy group of about 20 tough-looking young adults, mostly male and some passing a marijuana pipe, started congregating near us. People just naturally form into groups.
To summarize, I quote from a letter Warren wrote to the editor of our local weekly paper prior to our meeting. “I hope the Occupy Wall Street movement maintains its beautiful, diversified, vibrant anarchist roots and doesn’t become just another worthless reform movement. Representative democracy is inherently vulnerable to corruption and needs to be replaced with something better. Like the mutual aid societies people have lived in since Paleolithic times…where everyone has a say in government and we can be responsible for our own administration and public services at the neighborhood level, even in the biggest cities. Where there are work-at-home and cottage industry opportunities for people to not have to be wage slaves. A system that can never be hijacked by any self-appointed ‘superior’ minority.” In the same letter, Warren notes that the Occupy movement is ‘propaganda through deed,’ though more nonviolent than earlier American anarchists, shut down by the government, along with anti-war protestors and ‘Wobblies’ (member of the International Workers of the World) during World War I.
Warren said our local Occupy movement didn’t seem that interested in switching to a folkmote system right now, but if others organized that way they could send representatives to the local General Assembly meetings and ask to form committees, if appropriate, with the local movement. I’ve also recently experienced great responsiveness via e-mail from local Occupiers to a site suggestion I made, and have yet to explore all the possibilities of using our local Occupy website.
To be continued…
P.S. Re: ‘propaganda through deed’ and the Occupy movement, a local Occupier told a university official that the movement isn’t “camping;” it’s occupying. (Our local group is currently occupying an area owned by the state university.)