Scaling-Up Democracy Through Empowerment

Michael Johnson

We need to deeply democratize ourselves and others in order to move cooperation and democracy from the margins toward the center of our collective lives.

An unusual perspective

An important dialogue has emerged on the GEO web site, starting between Andrew McLeod and Thomas Hanna, about the tension between scaling-up and co-operative values. This is a core problem for advancing economic democracy as well as democracy in general. This is why I and others are joining this conversation.  It is part of an ongoing and hugely important dialogue in the co-operative and solidarity economic world.
It’s complex and constantly unfolding. Some argue that co-operative economics can have significant impact on the larger economy without having to scale up in major ways. Very roughly, I hear Thomas saying we have to scale-up to achieve any significant political and economic difference, and Andrew saying that doing so poses serious threats to our maintaining co-operative values.
I agree with both Thomas and Andrew. I think we can resolve the tension between the two, but it will be a very difficult and long haul project.
Let me be clear what I mean by “democracy.”1 I will follow David Graeber’s lead on this:

"For most people, democracy is still identified with some notion of ordinary people collectively managing their own affairs."


(I discuss some key words such as “democracy” and “culture” in Notes at the end.)
I am going to argue that we cannot scale-up both structurally and democratically without broad scale empowerment of ordinary people, like ourselves. After all, who else is going to make it happen? Who is going to start and operate democratic workplaces? Who is going to organize all the networking connections needed? Who’s going be the fiercely loyal customer base?
To do this empowerment project, however, will require a long time and major R&D efforts. Our movements need to develop transformative processes to enable ordinary people to actualize their inherent potential for cooperating and empowering themselves. At this point in time our movements don’t tend to recognize the need and the possibilities for transformative learning processes. I want to make that case here.
I have three basic premises. One, as human beings we come well equipped for developing autonomy and cooperation for managing our own affairs.

Two, we are biocultural creatures like no other species. This means that one’s culture either promotes ordinary people’s empowerment vigorously obstructs it.

Three, few cultures promote empowerment.2 Rather, the bulk of their developmental practices, ideas, values, and institutions actively work to get most of its members to live out of deference to authorities people did not establish. This results in what Michael Albert of Z-Net refers to as the 20-80 group split: 20% will more or less dominate, and 80% will mostly go along. The US is a full-blooded example of this. I would go so far as to say that democracy is, for the most part, an anomaly. That is, something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected.

Voila! If we are going to scale-up, move out of the margins, and maintain cooperative and democratic values, we need powerful ordinary people who cherish these values. And we need them in droves. Since our culture doesn’t really have this as a priority, we need to develop cultures that do in what Graeber calls “the in between places.” The Zapatistas are a sterling example.

It may be helpful at this point for me to give a concrete example of how our culture obstructs the flowering of our innate autonomy and cooperation. We could use the family, advertising, the role of military power, the total government protection and promotion of corporations, and so on. Let’s just focus on one: elementary and high school education.

The vast majority of us in this country are educated in top-down classrooms where we relentlessly practice riveting our attention on a figure at the top rather than learning how to collaborate horizontally with our fellow students. The younger we are the more space there is for such collaborative relating. However, the older we get the more that dynamic is skillfully enclosed within established norms that sustain the existing hierarchical culture. Learning to “think” in the “right ways” so that you can “win” the competition by having the “right answer” to the teacher’s question. When deemed necessary, this can be enforced brutally.
One thing that emerges from this kind of conditioning is that the vast majority of us learn to think about “getting jobs” rather than how to create meaningful work for ourselves. Thinking “job” leads people to envision their entire work life in terms of employer/employee relationships, never realizing there are alternatives. Democracy, cooperation, and solidarity have very little place in this paradigm. And this paradigm rules the economic being of the vast majority of workers across the income spectrum.
Where does this leave us regarding scaling-up and maintaining our values? To me it is clear that to do this our movements need to generate the necessary cooperative and democratic power. And that would come primarily through powerful ordinary people who cherish these values. But how would we as democratic movements do this? How would we enable ordinary people—that is, us—to move beyond their primal cultural conditioning and become much more the main character in their own life story and more deeply cooperative?
I have personally explored this problem 24/7 for 35 years. Explored it both experientially and reflectively. (You can read a “field report” about it here, and a video interview here.) Although I don’t have an answer for how this can be done on a broad scale within our movements, I can say this kind of transformation is doable personally and on a small scale. And I think I can suggest a direction we can move in. So I will try to make a strong case for it as an essential element in movement strategy.
First, I will briefly sketch out a co-operative/solidarity economic vision and the key strategic elements needed for realizing it. Then I will argue for giving a strong priority to the fifth element and suggest one kind of narrative to help us think along those lines.


1. Vision and basic strategy
The vision is not a new one and people in the US are beginning to actively promote it in places like western Massachusetts, Philadelphia, New York City, the Bay Area, Cleveland, Austin, Madison, and elsewhere. It’s simple to state, but an awesome challenge to achieve:

to develop the people, the communities, the local organizations, and the networks that can make co-operative and solidarity economics an important and highly visible part in the whole of economic activity in our country.

How large?  Large enough so that it is so significant in quality and size that ordinary people and the public media would recognize it on its own distinctive terms. It would be the fruition of the 6th Co-operative Principle of inter-cooperation between all co-operatives, such as food co-ops, credit unions, producer co-ops, housing co-operatives, etc. And, as well, the fruition of inter-cooperation of a diversity of democratic economic enterprises: buying clubs, social enterprises, neighbor-to-neighbor exchanges, union banks, “high-road” businesses, community gardens, community economic development projects, household economies, etc. (Here’s a map that indicates the possibilities in one region, New York City.)
There is a lot of disagreement and debate among those who share this vision around how to realize vision. This GEO Theme is one of many forums for those discussions.
I deeply believe this project is doable if, and only if, we think in terms of generations and not just in our lifetime. My main reasons for this are the kinds of successes already achieved in several areas outside of the US: Quebec, Mondragon, Brazil, Emilia-Romagna, and elsewhere. The decades of dedicated work before the civil rights movement flourished in the 50s and 60s speaks to this as well. And the decades of work that have followed.
I think we can only achieve this goal by a culture-building strategy that goes beyond thinking almost solely in economic and political frames. Movements are people, and people are social, sexual, spiritual beings as well as economic and political ones. Such a strategy includes five elements. The first four are strongly recognized, if not fully agreed upon:

  1. Create strong, cross-sector reciprocity among the various kinds of co-operative and solidarity economic enterprises.
  2. Develop regional and national networks for the long-term development of production-and-distribution chains.
  3. Link across to other kinds of democratic organizations—locally, regionally, and nationally.
  4. Link up with co-operative networks and solidarity economies in other countries, especially those that are more developed democratically and cooperatively.
  5. Carry out intensive, ongoing research and development on how individuals can learn to empower themselves and to cooperate deeply, especially through the practice of solving problems and resolving conflicts together.

The rest of my article will focus on this fifth element.


2. The need for psychological and cultural narratives
Speak the word “power” and the usual thing to come to people’s mind is someone making someone else do what they want. It’s almost an “official” meaning in our culture. This is reflection of how deeply top-down thinking pervades our culture and our nervous systems. I use the word in a radically positive and democratic way. And very precisely:

Power is the capacity to raise energy to move in a desired direction.3

It takes power to get up and walk across the room. To grow our gardens. To raise our children. To start and manage our businesses. To think together and solve problems together. Each one of us has this capacity (otherwise we would not be alive) as do our groups and organizations. Empowered people create new projects, new ways of doing and thinking, new identities for themselves. Cooperative, self-empowering people are essential for vibrant communities, strong local organizations, and enduring networks. They make our movements work to the extent that they work.  
I passionately argue that a major factor limiting our movements is that we don’t know how to develop this kind of power on a large scale.4 That if we develop this kind of capacity we are more likely to be able to scale up democratically as well as institutionally. One key reason we haven’t done it yet is that we have paid hardly any attention to developing empowerment as an issue. There is great support for the idea, but no immersion in the how- to.
Pause and think for a moment. The enormous opposition from every kind of neoliberal institution and the equally enormous dead weight of cultural inertia for making transformative changes are the major problems we have to solve in order to bring another world into being. Where will we get the power to do that? My answer: learning how to develop broad scale empowerment, personally and collectively.
If I am right in this, then it’s good news. It tells us that we have great resources we haven’t yet developed. The bad news is that the task is profoundly difficult, which is one of several complicated reasons why we haven’t taken it up as a major concern. However, I believe it is doable even if it will take a long, long time and a lot of challenging work.
My conviction is based on the 45 years I have spent working with this issue and all the stuff it entails. This includes 35 years grappling with it interactively and face-to-face 24/7 with various people within the Ganas Community. Seven of us began this journey together in 1980, most of us relatively too weak and confused to lead very coherent lives in harmony with our ideals. We wanted to learn what interfered with developing personal power and its cooperative and loving use with others. We sensed that personal fulfillment could emerge from shared fulfillment, if we could only learn how to solve problems without blame and punishment.
We have achieved some substantial but quite limited success, personally and collectively. It has become slowly clear that the task is a multi-generational one. I think we have learned enough to point to the central importance of this dynamic while transforming ourselves, personally and collectively in some remarkable ways. (You can read about it here or watch a video interview here.)

Our various democracy movements basically agree on most of our common political and economic goals. Unfortunately, in my opinion, these kinds of issues pretty much constitute what we think of as necessary for advancing democracy. But they really aren’t. The expansion of political and economic democracy are substantially throttled in this country. This in spite of all the progressive efforts during the 20th century, even the wonders of the New Deal. You know this and I know this. We are bursting with all kinds of alternative economic vehicles pregnant with democratic possibilities like co-operatives. Yet, we have not realized them to a degree that would make them a significant force in our country’s life.
I want to persuade you to consider the possibility that these approaches are seriously inadequate precisely because they are almost solely framed in political and economic terms. For example, consider this invitation to join a regional project for economic democracy (I have edited it to use it here as a general example rather than give a public critique to the initiators):

A new project in an urban area is being launched to bring together faculty from colleges and universities who do work on economic democracy. The objective is to create and cultivate collaborations among faculty, students and community partners to further research, teaching and organizational projects pursuing a more equitable, inclusive and empowering political-economic system.  Areas of focus include economic and workforce development; participatory governance and administration; environmental justice; public housing, banking and financing; renewable energy; immigrant and worker rights; ecological resilience; and the regional food system.

This project design is representative. Note that it makes no reference to learning how to “cultivate collaborations” and participate in governance, that fifth element. Such a need is either completely unperceived, or there is a conviction that we already know how to do that well enough. Do we? I don’t think so. How goes the collaborations and participation in your groups and organizations? How well do they manage personal and priority policy conflicts? Distribution of money and other resources? Authority struggles? Envy and jealousy? All the kinds of dynamics that drain energy, attention, and collective power. Your answers will pretty much decide whether you and I are on a similar page.

I believe that we are rich with political and economic narratives about cooperation and democracy, but hardly have any psychological and cultural narratives to go with them.5 That is, narratives that can help in the research and development of ways to unlearn so much we have been conditioned to, and to learn how to tap into our innate capacity for autonomy and cooperation. I am not thinking in terms of a developed plan or programs. We are not up to that yet. Just narratives which can point us in good directions.


3. One cultural narrative: fear and power
No one empowers someone else. Individuals alone empower themselves, but they need a culture highly dedicated to their empowerment. That includes structures, processes, mutual support, time, money, and so on.

Capitalism and “politics as usual” dominates our lives because the people seeking to dominate and exploit—consciously and unconsciously—will be culturally supported in empowering themselves to do so. Monetary rewards. Acclaim. Security. Many resources. Talk about “scaling-up,” think of Facebook. It became a global giant in a matter of a few years. Meanwhile, alternative economic projects scramble for years to get a foothold at local levels. As a result, our predominantly deferential and oppressive culture replicates and renews itself. This cultural dynamic is the primary engine of capitalism’s success.
We do not have a culture that replicates and renews cooperation and democracy even remotely as effective. I believe we have to create that kind of culture in many forms, if we want to significantly advance democracy in our world.

Creating a culture involves much more than its political and economic structures. It will never be enough to be genuinely committed to the political and economic projects that we believe can scale-up cooperation and democracy, justice and fulfillment. We need to give high priority to figuring out how people can collectively grow transparency, empathy, trust, mutuality, critical feedback, accountability, tolerance, and the like. These qualities are valuable in all areas of life. At the same time, learning how to weave this growth and personal empowerment together in developing political and economic projects is just as essential.

This is what I call building cooperative and democratic cultures within the burdensome shell of our received culture of deference and oppression that is now embedded in us. A culture that we not only embody, but replicate daily because we do not know how to replace it in deep, transformative ways. (See my blog series Tales of Two Under-Cultures beginning here).

Becoming the Change is the name I frequently use to refer to any projects doing this kind of personal and cultural transformation work. Becoming the change that we want to bring to the world. Evolving personally and collectively to the point where we can stand and say with Gandhi, “My life is my message,” whether we fully make it to that point or not.

Fear is a major factor preventing deep empowerment. I am referring here to the fear that arises from seeing a tiger in my room when it is actually in my eye. When I am imagining consequences that may not be nearly as dangerous as I suppose. So here is a narrative to help us understand some core stuff in the relationship between fear and power.

Where someone’s behavior is not conflicted by their fears, they will be more powerful than those who are fearful. Reality-based fear is a response that alerts us so that we can quickly assess a situation and be ready to take action. Fear not founded in reality tends to paralyze us, or limit us in many ways. If I panic in the face of three bullies in a dark alley, I am less likely to find a good exit than if I don’t. It will diminish my ability to think and act—my power.

This fact has enormous consequences in all human affairs. Roughly speaking, there are three possible outcomes. Almost all of us can identify with each one from our own experience, past and present. Here, however, for ease of discussion, I describe those three outcomes in terms of three states or roles. Just keep in mind that these are overly simplified, and that all of us can flip into and out of any one of them depending on the particular situation we are in. However, most of us operate out of one of them most of the time.

Exploitive. In this state we tend not to fear having high energy or using our aggression to get what we want. We are also seriously short on empathy, and will permit ourselves to dominate and exploit situations we are a part of.
Deferential. In this one we do fear our energy when it gets high, and especially fear our aggression. We usually prefer to defer to the dominating leadership whether it is coming from a) others; b) from the set structure of the status quo (“this is the way it has always been done”); or c) the structures of our own internal conditioning, especially the conditioning that has emerged from traumas. They are probably the most obstructive force to the advancement of cooperation and democracy.

Assertive. Finally, there are the states when we are not usually afraid of our high energy even when we feel aggressive. In addition, we tend to be quite empathetic, creative, caring people. We are not likely to defer to anyone, or to seek domination and exploitation.

Those of us who are predominantly exploitive play such roles as “captains of industry,” “freeloaders,” and “sneaky manipulators” live mostly out of the first role. The usually constitute a sizable minority in groups and organizations that wields outsized influence.

Most of the time the vast majority of us--like 80%-- live our lives out of the second state, deferring to those in the first grouping. One blogger put it this way:

At the end of the day, it all probably comes down to our culture’s fascination with money. Make enough of it, and people will always assume you must have deserved it one way or another. And you will always get another shot (see Spears, Britney).

The poet William Butler Yeats put it another way:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Those of us who live mostly out of the assertive state play key roles in making our worlds work well wherever they are. They are emotionally open, reasonably confident of who they are, and prefer to respect others and find the best in them. A few are giants. King. Mandela. Mother Theresa. Most, however, are ordinary men and women who quietly stand out among us, at least when they are performing out of this mode. They are the ones who implement good and great ideas. They sat at the counters for civil rights. They do the major work in our projects, run our co-ops, teach in the schools. They are the ones who step out of a crowd to confront bullies or start organizing people in an emergency.

If we want to scale-up our cooperation and advance our democracy, our movements need them in droves. We need to figure out how we can help them empower themselves even more, and to help others learn to empower themselves, cooperate, and think on scales larger than themselves. And enjoy living that way in spite of the costs. We need them to model everyday democracy block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, workplace by workplace, agency by agency, legislature by legislature. All the way up and all the way down.

Each of us can be any one of these three in different situations. The cultural challenge is to create--no, to learn how to create--environments that move us to re-evaluate our exploitive tendencies and re-think our fears which lead us to defer and defer and defer until apathy overwhelms us. That move us to understand we can be the lead character in our own life’s story, and that support us in taking the risks to do so.

In a word, we need to deeply democratize ourselves and others in order to move cooperation and democracy from the margins toward the center of our social lives.


4. Advancing democracy  
Many people come at this business of advancing democracy from a moral perspective: we should be more democratic because it’s the right thing to do. To me taking this approach seems very similar to dieting. If you want to lose weight, dieting seems to be the obvious thing to do. Yet, it hardly ever works. More often than not it ends up being an attempt to overpower the conflicts involved in the problem. What works more often than not is, embracing a lifestyle change that can lead to losing the weight while getting healthier, happier, and gaining more zest for life.

I am deeply pragmatic about democracy and co-operative principles. I believe they can work better for humans to live fulfilling lives than the fixed, disconnected, alienating, top-down structures we have now. If we knew how to make those ideas work more broadly and deeply, then we wouldn’t feel the need to haul in moral weaponry to make the case. The overarching problem for me is that we don’t know how to make a major difference well enough. At least not nearly as much as our substantial successes over the years and our incredible potential suggest we could. We are not morally deficient or anything like that. Rather, it’s primarily because the emergence of consciousness has changed everything for evolution. And we are out there on that cutting edge trying to figure out how to make the most of it.

We aren’t going to defeat neoliberal capitalism, and we shouldn’t try. We can, however, create more cooperation and democracy within us and between us, if we make learning how to do that a top priority. I can't think of anything that might be more inspiring for the many who live mostly out of deference and apathy.


Go to the Scaling-Up the Cooperative Movement theme page

  • 1. The word "democracy" opens up a can of mutually exclusive meanings. It is so abused by so many in so many places that one wonders whether anyone can use it in any meaningful way. For example, many modern nation-states freely call themselves “models of democracy.” Dictators in many places have to claim the mantle of democracy to fig-leaf the brutal realities of their projects. Marty Heyman has even raised the question as to how democratic we can consider many of our movement partners including Mondragon. So my term “to deeply democratize” refers to ordinary people learning to empower themselves in order to 1) effectively manage their local affairs collectively, and 2) extend that cooperative and democratic capacity into dynamic solidarity with other communities of ordinary people who share those values and practices in various ways.
  • 2. By “culture” I very much like how Fritjof Capra describes it in The Hidden Connections:  …culture arises from a complex, highly nonlinear dynamic.  It is created by a social network involving multiple feedback loops through which values, beliefs, and rules of conduct are continually communicated, modified, and sustained.”
  • 3. Please note that I have defined “power” in a very precise way, and that this definition has nothing to do with the frequently used definition of power as getting others to submit to what one wants them to do.
  • 4. In making this claim I do not in any way minimize the enormous opposition from every kind of neoliberal institution and the equally enormous dead weight of cultural inertia for making transformative changes. They are the major problems we have to solve.
  • 5. I use the word “narrative” to refer to a frame for thinking about particular things, especially behavior and experience. I am not comfortable with theories and blueprints, especially in these matters of personal and cultural transformation. And I certainly don’t have any to offer. In fact, I would advise all of us to flee whenever they are proposed.
About the author: 

1. Born in the panhandle of Texas in 1942 of an Irish lass and a Mississippi gentleman...Grew up deeply Catholic in a bible belt with a nurse, a doctor and three brothers, on land as flat and rolling as the ocean, under an enormous vault of sky either full of sun or moon, and in the face of constant wind...Got the message at 16 that "the world doesn't work."

2. Entered a Kansas monastery in '63, left in '66; entered law school in NYC in fall of '67 and left in winter of '67; became an 'outside agitator at Columbia in April of '68 and discovered that the far left can be as top/down as the middle and right...deeply involved in group dynamics and community organizing in NYC '68-'73...bottomed out in Phoenix '73-'76. A member of the desegregation unit of Austin school system '76-'80.

3. Co-founded an intentional community in Staten Island, NY in '80, in part an experiential research center in democratic culture...still there 30 years later...immersed in the worker co-op and solidarity economy movements since 2007 with the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (New England), GEO, and the Community Economies Collective.

When citing this article, please use the following format: Michael Johnson (2014). Scaling-Up Democracy Through Empowerment. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume II, Theme 17,
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