THE SOAPBOX: Towers or Spheres? Democracy and/or Hierarchy

by Margaret Blanchard

The best small groups of family or friends seem inherently democratic as we sit in circles around fires or tables, each person allowed to voice feelings, express opinions, contribute to plans. (I recall how our family dynamics changed when we moved from a rectangular to a round table.) Whatever our differences in other contexts, each one of us can be valued for a potential contribution to collective perspectives and projects possible only because of unique combinations of individual experiences, visions and talents. The strength and resilience of a group is only as strong as its ability to harvest all its points of view. This openness is the root of democracy. And this collaborative form of problem solving is key to our future survival and growth as a nation, as a planet.

Why then is our democracy so often infected by hierarchical limitations? Autocratic leaders, top-down decisions, denigration of certain points of view, dismissal of the needs of workers are routinely excused in favor of elite interests, whether their privilege is based on class, race, gender, or ethnicity. Perhaps it’s because the founding ‘fathers’ were wealthy aristocrats, some even slave owners, while also overthrowing a monarchy. Perhaps it’s because wealth, with or without family inheritance of titles or funds, has become the American measure of success and guarantee of fame, rather than spiritual, emotional, physical or intellectual development. Or maybe hierarchy with its top-down authority seems the easiest, most familiar way to manage differences, conflicts and competition in such a pluralistic context.

In my movement days I hoped the hierarchy would crumble as its various defining traits — whiteness, wealth, maleness, straightness — became brittle as a result of our challenges to those privileges — but, alas, hierarchy remains firmly established, with a few token black folks, women, gay folks, even some poor folks climbing ladders behind white, rich, straight men, to become politicians, university administrators, heads of corporations, media stars … while most of us continue to struggle up from under.

Is there something inherent about hierarchy in the human psyche? Is it because we stand upright — with our “heads” on top? Is it because movement from the top down, level by level by level, ensures efficiency? Although this claim is often challenged by those who’ve worked in bureaucracies, it’s true that achieving consensus in more collaborative ventures can be time consuming. Do we rely on pyramidal structures inherited from past histories of “church” and state out of loyalty or habit? Is it because money as a measure of success ultimately requires monocratic control? Or because our combination of the American Dream and a focus on individual achievement awards ultimate power to anyone who lands (by whatever means) on top?

Circles of connection need not be intimate ones. As we spiral out from family and friends into wider spheres of neighborhood, town and community, face-to-face contacts and local networks of connection (spiritual and activist organizations, local media such as Vermont Public Radio,  the Bridge, and Front Porch Forum) still enable us to know each other in various ways — like spider webs with their horizontal and circular lines and links, or like ecological systems that allow for differences without absolute dominance. It’s only when we move into governmental and corporate realms that we settle for autocratic hierarchy.

If you believe, as I do, that our current national wounds can only be healed on the local, grassroots level, through radically democratic and cooperative ventures that connect diverse perspectives, and combine experiences and visions from all participants, then it would benefit us to learn from successful collaborations.

I’ve had two such ventures in my own history. One was our group of University of Wisconsin graduate students from a diversity of geographical, cultural, religious, and class backgrounds who chose to live together while organizing an historically white working-class South Baltimore neighborhood right next to an historically (underground railroad) black neighborhood. Eventually, while sharing our own childcare, chores and financial decisions, we were able to unite these divided neighborhoods within a tenants’ union, publish a community newspaper and prevent a highway from splitting our neighborhood.

The other was a women’s national magazine collective in which decisions were made collaboratively and democratically while allowing each person to discover and choose her own methods of contributing, whether that be interviewing, writing stories, illustration, layout or distribution, while participating in a consciousness-raising process (which the women’s movement learned from the civil rights movement) which enabled us to “speak the plural” through writing editorials together while publishing, for 12 years, a quarterly journal with an international readership.

Several contemporary, local examples of sustained, creative collaboration come to mind: Circus Smirkus, described by visionary founder Rob Mermin in his history of this unique educational and entertaining event (thanks to my friend Sowbel for alerting me to this); and The Bridge, on whose board I’ve enjoyed serving. The Bridge board is enriched by the talents of writers, editors and artists, including staff members as well as experts in organization, distribution and finance, working together democratically to sustain a miracle of print survival in our digital era, thanks to Nat Frothingham’s dedication and the loyalty of longtime friends as well as the way the paper continues to tell our stories.

There are many other examples of grassroots collaboration we can learn from as we move forward into the challenge of transforming our communities for sustainability and global citizenship. As Margaret Mead reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, that’s the only thing that ever has.”

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