[Editor's note: five or so years ago, a group of cooperators with a shared passion for the governance system knows as sociocracy came together through the educational nonprofit Sociocracy for All. As part of their work together, this Coop Circle penned an article to explain why they find the principles and practices of sociocracy such a natural fit for cooperatives. We published their 'manifesto' at the time, but recently we produced audio and video versions to increase the accessibility and visibility of this important message for co-op members looking for a better way to organize their enterprise. Below are both of those versions, along with the original article.]
Humans organize themselves in groups to reach common objectives
Sociocracy and cooperativism stem from the premise that humans thrive as social animals. Quite possibly, cooperation acts as our most characteristic trait as living beings. We need each other. No human effort, made by a lone individual, succeeds. Since the dawn of our species, we have engaged in cooperation, and we're still figuring out how to do it best. We could certainly do it better than we are now, and sociocracy sheds a light on the way forward.
Sociocracy (also called dynamic governance) means governance by the socios: those who associate together. In other words, if you join, if you participate, you get to have a voice in decision-making. This aligns itself nicely with the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) definition of cooperatives, which states: “a co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”
Coincidentally, joining other humans in the formation of groups to satisfy our needs and aspirations operates as a human need in itself. Cooperation and connection seem to act as both the means and ends of human activity. In outlining this piece, we divided Sociocracy into three key elements: intentionality, equivalence, and transparency. Merged with the Cooperative Identity, they build a solid framework for wholesome cooperation.
Intentionality drives wholesome cooperation
In order to succeed, we must define success first. Cooperatives and sociocratic organizations are characterized by being mission-driven efforts. They're shaped by their principles and values, as well as an aim: a shared purpose that the members have associated to pursue together. Aims are the common objectives that people convene around. In sociocracy, we call these groups of people “circles,” which are the basic cells that make up organizations. Circles enact policy (via consent) to achieve their aims. Policies are agreements created and implemented by circles to help them realize their aims. The aims of a circle determine its domain in an organization, granting it Autonomy and Independence (Cooperative Principle #4) to make consent-based decisions around its area of activities. For example, it adds efficacy to a large organization if only the members with experience and interest in software are making policy decisions about how to manage the organization’s software.
Intentionality flourishes in a feedback-rich environment. Inside our circles we want our aims, policies, and members’ roles to be evaluated, so we put review terms on them. We believe anything that’s worth doing is worth evaluating. This allows all members of our organization to contribute as best we can towards our efforts, fulfilling the purpose behind Cooperative Principle #5: Education, Training, and Information. Only the software circle has authority to make policy decisions about software, but they do so only with appropriate levels of feedback informing their decisions. In dynamic governance, the idea of efficiency becomes enriched by integrating a qualitative (not merely quantitative) perspective.
Equivalence is a basic precept for wholesome cooperation
We want every one’s voice to be heard. We harness the cooperative values of equality and equity to build an egalitarian society: one in which every one feels a sense of belonging. It feels good to be listened to; it’s the way that an individual becomes validated in a group. When the needs of each community member are taken into account, aims become easier to meet. After all, the whole purpose of our cooperative efforts is to meet our needs!
We believe that true Democratic Member Control (Cooperative Principle #2) relies on participation far beyond voting. Just as liberation resides in the daily behavior of humans, democracy should be played out in cooperatives’ day-to-day operations. Meaningful emotional engagement from members becomes instrumental in an organization’s effectiveness and accomplishment. Two powerful sociocratic tools to operate this successfully are “consent” and “rounds”:
Consent: Expanding upon “one member, one vote,” we practice “one member, one voice.” Voting will always create a dichotomy of winners and losers. In dynamic governance we exercise consent instead. Consent means no one is ignored and all voices are heard. It takes one member’s voice to object to a proposal. Objections are made based on a circle’s aims to discern those objections from personal preferences. The group holds with care the needs and concerns behind an objection. Together, they amend the proposal and continue their work towards common aims. We can only move forward when we have everyone’s consent (i.e. no one objects).
Rounds: Circles operate more effectively when we participate in rounds during meetings. Not only does this allow everyone to contribute, but it also promotes active listening. In a round, we can all be certain that we will have our turn to speak. Sociocracy’s decision-making method, with the facilitation tools of rounds and consent, allows us to tap into groups’ collective intelligence more consistently.
We center the cooperative value of caring for others to redefine equity, equality, and democracy. Our organizations don’t need to strike a balance between horizontality and efficiency to improve decision-making. Instead, they need to see it as one and the same thing.
Transparency facilitates wholesome cooperation
The process we use for selecting roles in our circles is rather illustrative of sociocracy’s methodological approach to efficiency and transparency. The whole group participates (using rounds) in painting a clear picture of what requirements each role has. Circle members cast nominations openly and state the reasons for those nominations. And of course, a selected person must consent to being selected, since all participation is Voluntary and Open (Cooperative Principle #1).
Our organizations prioritize feedback in the broader structural scope as well. While each circle has autonomy and independence around its domain, we also acknowledge the interdependence that lays behind Cooperative Principle #6: Cooperation among Cooperatives. We interlink the different circles that make up our organizations through overlapping members. We want information to flow transparently between circles so that we may coordinate support for each other in the work and decision-making of our cooperative efforts. To improve flow of information, sociocracy uses a tool called double-linking, where the link between two related circles are two individual members participating in both of the circles. One person ensures flow of information in one direction while the other does so in the other direction: the exchange becomes reciprocal and the parts become a whole. Our circles are interwoven by people’s participation, in their own voices and from their own experiences, embodying the cooperative values of honesty and openness.
The dance between autonomy and interdependence is what makes dynamic governance such a scalable and adaptable model. After all, society exists as the result of all organizations woven into a whole. The fractal nature of the interlinked circle structure enables decentralized cooperation at local, national, regional, and international levels. Sociocracy could act as the operating system of a distributed solidarity network: the grassroots infrastructure of the cooperative economy. The big vision for a cooperative society that our organization dreams of can be embedded in its governance structure to be expressed in its everyday operations. Thus we no longer “work towards” or merely “advocate for” collective liberation, but rather we live it and breathe it routinely in our relationships, our actions, and behavior.
Other worlds are possible
In outlining this article, we considered saying something about sociocracy’s emphasis on transparent finances to include Member Economic Participation. We found more pertinent, however, to honor Cooperative Principle #3 by redefining economic participation: “Labour is the main factor for transforming nature, society and human beings themselves.” This concept, taken from Mondragon cooperative, hints at the enormous transformative potential of self-management: it can reach far beyond what we know today as “the workplace”, and permeate deeply into the human condition. The cooperative approach of Mondragon and many others found revolutionary success in granting workers the sovereignty to shape their workplace. But dynamic governance extends more broadly: it empowers every participant to transform their immediate environment, making each of us direct co-creators of our own shared reality. This radical paradigm shift centers dynamic self-governance as a cornerstone in the transition path towards a cooperative economy.
Ultimately, Concern for Community (Cooperative Principle #7) lays at the very heart of cooperativism and sociocracy. Each of us has a burning desire to belong and to be a part of something bigger than oneself. We want to enrich our lives by enriching others’. The realization of individual well-being through contribution towards common wellbeing shows us that social responsibility is self-responsibility. The apparent tension between the cooperative values of self-help and caring for others is resolved by the balance that dynamic governance brings. We call this framework for cooperation “wholesome” because it integrates all these values and principles, tools and concepts, feelings and ideas, into one pragmatic whole. Without preaching it as a panacea, we hope sociocracy serves as a light in our path towards a cooperative society, as we continue to make the road by walking. As we strive to create another world: a world where many worlds are possible.
SoFA Coop Circle (2023). Manifesto for Wholesome Cooperation: A Sociocratic Perspective. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/manifesto-wholesome-cooperation-sociocratic-perspective