A single strand of fiber has its inherent strength. When strands are braided into a cord, they become more reliable and useful. This is the essence of synergy. The whole becomes stronger than the sum of its parts. Free Synergy is the name of an ultra-democratic system of governance that increases the social and economic power of people who choose to work together. It combines three elements: Sortition—the selection of a council by lottery—Consensus within that council, and the ratification of its decisions by Referendums. By making decisions using Free Synergy, groups could engage in enterprises for mutual benefit without hierarchy.
The inspiration for this system grew out of my experience in a village community that uses a secular form of Consensus. More than just a housing cooperative, it encourages its sixty members to seek higher levels of personal and economic unity. Although this group has been successful for over forty years, I believe its decision-making process has shortcomings. These are due to the group’s size, uneven participation among members, and the lack of clarity about the Consensus process itself. It is difficult for me to imagine this form of direct democracy working in larger communities. I am convinced that organizations with hundreds of members could achieve more prosperity, greater personal freedom, and higher levels of solidarity by using Free Synergy as a model.
Starting an anti-authoritarian organization involves an irony—the first members of this group will have almost dictatorial control over the initial recruitment process. Forging a coherent program or structure with diverse individuals would be difficult. Instead, I am raising a flag. This banner represents a preliminary model that will be used to attract activists who are in basic agreement. Free Synergy will not appeal to everyone wanting radical social change. It is intended as a vehicle that will empower those who choose to follow this path. If we are successful, those who come later will be able to use this model to solve their problems and live well.
The Basic Elements
Sortition. In ancient Athens and in the Venetian Republic of the Middle Ages, representation by the drawing of lots was at the heart of the political system. It is still used today in forming juries. Impartiality and equal opportunity to serve are its goals.
Consensus decision-making has been a tradition in small, interdependent groups since the beginning of human history. The Quakers have made it central to their worship and governmental processes for over four centuries. In recent years, small secular groups have adopted their own variations of it. Inclusion and unity are its primary values.
By voting, Referendums allow large populations to affirm or reject constitutional changes or specific legislative programs. They have been advocated as a form of direct democracy and, while they have been used as agents of progressive reform, they have also been employed by despots to legitimize their rule.
Each of these elements has strengths and weaknesses. When the three are combined, they reinforce one another, creating a system that has greater strength and efficiency.
An organization practicing Free Synergy could employ a number of components: a decision-making body, which would include all members and a Council, a common fund, and various kinds of property and enterprises.
- The Council would consist of eight to twelve individuals selected by lottery.
- Every year, one third (the senior members) of the Council would be replaced by lottery.
- All members of the Council would be committed to practicing a specified form of Consensus.
- The deliberations of the Council would be transparent, recorded, and publicly available. Because of this openness, the organization would be unable to engage in violence.
- Frequent Referendums would require the approval of 75-90% of the membership before policies became official.
For members who are not on the Council, active participation is crucial. This might take different forms:
- Suggesting agenda items,
- Providing Council members with information and opinions,
- Circulating petitions,
- Campaigning among members at large, and
- Voting for or against Council decisions in Referendums.
Forming an Organization
The following sequence would be involved in launching an organization governed by Free Synergy.
- The governing structure: Initially, a small group of founders would be involved in publicity and recruitment. The founders would have to loan their own funds or solicit donations for these early efforts.
- Once people pledged support, membership dues would be collected and placed in a designated, transparent bank account. The amount of the dues would be determined by the founders initially and then be revised or ratified by the first Council and by the members at large. Without the initial collection of dues, it would be difficult to determine the identity or boundary of committed members.
- The first Council would be chosen by lottery from a list of all dues-paying members. Every member would have a place on the list. Going down the list, the first eight to twelve willing to serve, would form the Council. Several alternates might also be selected in this way. These numbers represent a maximum because easy communication and Consensus would be facilitated in a group of this size. The founders of the organization would have the same chance of serving on the Council as all other members. Once a council member had served, they would not be eligible again for three years.
- The deliberations of the Council would be recorded in multiple ways and be observable by all members. The first item of business would be to select a form or style of Consensus that would bind them. As with every important decision, all members of the organization would have to ratify this choice through a Referendum. The percentage required for ratification (probably between 75 and 90%) would also be promulgated by the first Council.
Once these steps have been taken, an organization governed by Free Synergy will have been formed. The structure and management of the organization’s other activities will be determined by Consensus in the Council and ratified by Referendum.
Failure to use Consensus
Consensus is more than just a word meaning “general agreement.” It is an inclusive, cooperative process —one that is fundamentally different from the argumentative style used in conventional political institutions. It depends on sensitive communication and on the willingness of individuals to acknowledge the group’s center. If deliberations involve exchanges that are consistently competitive, the basic tenants of Consensus will be violated. The legitimacy and moral force of the decisions that emerge will be diminished. The Council must be bound by a clear understanding of the behaviors that Consensus requires.
If the Council cannot reach Consensus, no decision will be reported to the whole membership for ratification. Transparency assures that this situation will be openly communicated to the whole membership. They will be able to judge the cause of the problem and recommend possible solutions. An impasse will generate a high level of communication among all members. If no resolution takes place, the organization will be unable to act on that particular item.
When a decision of the Council is not ratified by the required percentage of the membership, the matter will be returned for modification or tabling. If the disagreement is strong enough, individuals who are disappointed may choose to leave the organization. In some cases, forming a different group, with a new focus, will offer a positive resolution for everyone. If the new group were dominated by popular leaders, however, it would be difficult for it to govern itself without hierarchy.
Articulate, energetic and self-confident people are important to any organization. They reach out to others, helping them understand and evaluate issues. Because of their commitment, they often do a great deal of work for the group. Wherever they serve, on the Council or in the organization as a whole, they will always be valuable. Free Synergy is distinctive because it distributes power among all its members. In a cooperative governing process, people with different talents and temperaments make it truly representative. The demands of the Consensus process, selection by lottery, the limited tenure of Council members, and Referendums all promote radical equality. Without this structure, there is a danger that the life of the organization will be dominated by leaders who stimulate rivalry and jealousy.
Normally, a Council member who resigns for health or other reasons will be replaced by an alternate. If a particular member is unwilling to admit physical or mental incapacity, however, this will create stress within the Council and the organization as a whole. This will also be the case when a Council member has consistently violated the group’s standards. The organization ought to be able to protect itself in such circumstances by circulating a petition which is affirmed by a higher than usual number of votes. The replacement should not be made from the alternates who are known, but by someone chosen at random from the whole organization. This will act as a check against the deliberate shaping of the Council by means of expulsion.
Small groups can deliberate easily and may not need to use a council-referendum system like Free Synergy. On the other hand, if an organization becomes too large, it will offer its members few options if it were to disintegrate or become corrupt. For reasons of security and flexibility, five 150-member groups would have an advantage over one 750-member organization.
Inevitably, ultra-democratic organizations will be exposed to the failures and stresses of the society which surrounds them. By operating outside of traditional political institutions, groups practicing Free Synergy will be able function when normal governments cannot. In many situations, conventional political action and protest may be appropriate. At other times, however, societal violence and the lack of a free press will make these options unwise. Because they are not threatening, groups committed to openness and self-reliance offer positive alternatives to violence.
Often, when someone first joins an organization, they will contribute at a high level. Later, as their life-situation changes or if they lose interest, they will become passive and less involved, ceding their power to others. Voting frequency and dues payment could be ways of determining who remained committed to the goals of the organization. Another way to stimulate participation would be to have various forms of direct solicitation.