Long appreciation of Richard Bartlett's “Courage Before Hope” – on #microsolidarity

Richard Bartlett's Courage Before Hope: A Proposal to Weave Emotional and Economic Microsolidarity is the most useful piece of writing I can recall seeing to date that addresses questions about how to work towards the human side of what is often called the “solidarity economy”. The issues raised provide a solid framework which I appreciate, will review, and build on.

Go ahead and read the whole piece, but for my purposes I will quote just the passages that to me are most useful to build on, or where there is something particularly worthy of comment.

To cue us in, near the start, he gives an inspiring summary, as “the short version”:

I intend to start a new community as a sibling or cousin of Enspiral: about 30 to 200 people supporting each other to do more meaningful work. Our method will focus on getting people into “crews”, small groups of 3-8 people that start with emotional intimacy and get to economic intimacy. There’s a sequence from psychological safety to shared ownership of productive assets. The larger community functions mostly as a dating pool for people to find their crew-mates. The crews support the personal development of their members while doing useful things like providing housing, establishing circular-economy start-ups, growing food, making revolutionary art, or whatever activity seems meaningful to their members.

This is an absolutely vital but largely missing component of what we hope can be a kind of “ecosystem” for the solidarity economy as a whole, and we need a clearer vision of how this might work. The idea that we are missing something at the level that Rich calls the "crew" resonates with with my own personal experience of the contexts of work, of living, of personal relationships, and of personal development (as in my e-portfolio book).

To participate in this kind of “crew”, embedded in a larger group of 30 to 200 people, is a very attractive proposition to me. In Rich's other writings he has said plenty about how care or personal stewardship can and does work with and through the groupings at these levels. What I'm not quite so clear about, which we may come back to later in my appreciation, is that while I feel a deep and clear “yes” to the work context, I'm not sure how exactly this may relate to my similar sense when I reflect on my living context. It's complex. Do I think that a working group should also be a personal friendship and support group, or are they distinct for good reasons? Or does this, perhaps, work differently for different people with different temperaments?

Moving along, here is a paragraph from his “Collapse” section that struck me personally...

While the biological substrate for life is disintegrating, so is our social fabric. Democratic populations are electing dictators and buffoons. Fascism is resurgent. Our ability to make meaning is dissolving. Across the political spectrum, people respond to this existential dread by retreating into anxious certainties. Political conversations feel brittle and explosive, one wrong word can trigger an artillery of shaming tactics to shut down the heresy.

I've been in that kind of place more than once, and recently too. Instead of this brittleness, what I long for is a culture where people have an attitude of learning: learning about ourselves; learning about each other. Those kinds of learning are never exhausted; they are only held back by unwillingness to recognise uncomfortable realities about ourselves, or, occasionally, uncomfortable truths about people we idealise and project onto.

Rich ends his “Collapse” section by giving three design criteria, to do with courage, with meaning, and with power. We all recognise they are not easy to fulfill...

So my humble proposal needs to produce limitless courage, make meaning from chaos, and grow enough power to counterbalance the suicidal oligarchs currently in charge. No big deal 😅

Finally, I believe that the core of this bio/socio/psycho/spiritual collapse is a metacrisis of relationship, it’s about how I relate to the different parts of myself, to other people, and to all the other creatures, life, spirit, etc. on this planet. If that’s true, then my response must be relational first. [...] there is always a “we” acting together, me and others.

Relationship is a slippery term, to say the least. To clarify what a relationship involves, we need to look carefully at what the elements are that relate together. Rich points out, quite rightly in my view, that we need to include considering relationships inside ourselves. For more of my thoughts in this area, see The Intrapersonal Commons.

What we are most clearly focusing on here is relationships between people. The focus on different scales reflects long-standing thinking about the sizes of human groups, from military unit sizes, through the psychology of friendship groups, to Robin Dunbar and his number of around 150, deriving from primatology.

Part 2: a Theory of Groups and Groups of Groups

A fractal view of belonging
A fractal view of belonging

Rich's diagram illustrates 5 levels of grouping.

These diagrams reminded me of Robert Kegan, the developmental psychologist, and his book “In Over Our Heads”. Kegan writes about five “orders of consciousness”, and there's a curious similarity between Kegan's diagrams and this one here. Could it be that mastery of interaction in the increasing sizes of group goes hand in hand with progressive stages of human social and psychological development?

Back to Rich now, who is focusing particularly on the “crew” and the “congregation”.

3: the Crew

A Crew is a group that is small enough to fit around a single dinner table, around 3-8 people. This is about the same size as a nuclear family, but without the parent-child power dynamics. This is a long-term set of relationships with singular purpose, like a co-op, shared house, or affinity group. The size is important, because it is small enough to stay highly coordinated with minimal explicit rules & roles, and large enough that your enhanced impact is worth the cost of collaborating. If you observe many interactions in a Crew, you get many opportunities to learn about different ways of being a Self and being in a Partnership.

4: the Congregation

There’s another crucial size somewhere between 30 and 200 people: small enough that most of the members can know each other’s name, big enough to support many Crews to coalesce. Coordinated impact at this scale requires some formal rules & roles, but mostly you can hold coherence just by putting a bit of extra effort into the relationships. In my experience the best way to find your Crew is to spend some time in a Congregation. Coordination gets a lot more complicated beyond this point.

So, Loomio is a crew; Enspiral is a congregation, in these terms.

Here's a little of my own personal recent experience to throw into the mix. In the cohousing community I live in, there isn't much clear structure at the scale between the household (typically one or two adults) and the community as a whole. We do have “service teams”, looking after various aspects of community life, and these are indeed typically between 3 and 8 people. But because we lack the structure for friendship groups in this “crew” scale, I suspect that some of the service teams end up either being muddled friendship groups, or having to deal with tensions coming from a lack of friendship groupings. I'm not sure that either end serves the community as a whole very well.

The Crews and Congregation are in reciprocal co-development. I can absolutely say Loomio wouldn’t exist without Enspiral, and Loomio’s success has made major contributions to the development of other Crews. So my proposal is to work at both of these scales simultaneously.

Yes, I agree, work on both levels at once.

Another side of this has been in my mind for even longer: work at inner change and outer change at the same time. Inner change without the outer change is fragile – the inner changes can be set back, losing the battle with the unchanged environment. And outer change without inner change risks alienating the individual, rather than drawing them along.

There’s an empty space between Self and Crowd

From where I’m standing, it looks like contemporary neoliberal urban westernised society is mostly designed for Selves and Crowds. There’s a little space for Dyads, and almost no room for Crews and Congregations.

We completely agree. The cohousing community I live in provides a decent congregation-like community, which is a great advance on most of society, but hasn't fully solved the issue of crews. The same could be said of the Quaker Meeting I attend.

So this brings is the core of my experiment: can we create the conditions for many excellent Crews to coalesce?

A great question indeed! Rich doesn't go straight in to answering the question, but gives more motivation to why good Crews are important.

A good Crew is not only super efficient. It can also be a potent site for personal development. In a Crew you can experience human difference as a resource, which is our best antidote to bigoted tribalism. It’s a place to practice multiple Partnerships simultaneously, a rich source of belonging, acceptance, recognition, and accountability, a place to start coming out of my traumatised patterns of behaviour.

Yes, and the point to me is that a partnership of two doesn't have that same power. It's relatively easy to ignore or dismiss critical remarks from one other person, no matter how friendly, because it's easy to imagine that it is the other person who has the problem. If you keep getting the same message from a number of close people, it registers much more clearly.

You begin to see how Crews play such an important role when you view courage and meaning as social phenomena.

Simply, I believe courage is developed when we encourage each other, with our enthusiastic listening, praising, challenging, cuddling, gazing, regarding, acknowledging and reminding.

So, how do we either (a) find people who are going to spontaneously encourage each other, or (b) help the people who do come together to learn about encouragement?

Meaning, too. I make sense of a phenomenon by considering how my peers respond to it. If I know them very well, and I know myself well, I can interpolate the meaning of an event from the scattered data of my peers’ reactions. My stable membership in a few Crews gives me great confidence in my ability to make sense of this chaotic world.

Hang on a moment, Rich! You didn't tell us that people could belong to a few Crews, but OK, neither did you ever say we were restricted. But it came as a bit of a surprise to me. I guess that, given that Crews aren't going to be perfect, we get some needs met by one, other needs met by another?

But your point on meaning – yes, certainly! We are social beings, and the meaning we make for ourselves is bound up with the responses of the people close to us, who we trust.

Unfortunately, Crews are often dysfunctional

Too right! (Rich gives a list of types of disfunctionality. Refer to them if you feel you don't have enough personal experience of the dysfunctions!) They have a book of relevant ideas:

Nati and I have spent the past 2 years helping groups to recover from some of these dysfunctions. I’m writing a book of practical solutions for the common failure patterns of collaborative groups. Hopefully these ideas can help a little, but what’s needed most of all is practice.

And the ideas have been the topics of some very stimulating workshops they have given. Go to one if they give one near you! It gives a start on the practice.

So, the question is still hanging in the air, can we create the conditions for many excellent Crews to coalesce? are there some answers coming now?

A Sequence to Crystallise new Crews

The first step is to start a Congregation localised to one geographic region (I’m starting in Western Europe). Nati and I will invite about 20 or 30 trusted people to a first gathering where we can co-design the minimum viable structure to govern our community.

I'm all excited now, because I live in Western Europe. That is, if Britain is still in Western Europe – Brexiteers? 😩

But wait another minute. Skipping forward a little, I read...

Most of the people we plan to invite have already got a sense of what work is most meaningful to them, but almost all of us are financially precarious.

Am I precarious enough to fit in, then? Sure, many of the most interesting and energetic people in this space are in their late 20s or 30s, and are financially precarious. I know and get on very well with many of them. But shouldn't we be bringing together some of the precariat with the older, often more fortunate and less precarious age cohort? I mean, the ones who care about more than their own home, their own pension and their own so-called security? OK, some of the baby-boomers dropped out from dropping out, and took on establishment values. But, equally, some didn't, and are still living lives that are consciously unfulfilled. And many of this older generation have accumulated most of a lifetime's worth of relevant experience. Hopefully a little wisdom to go with it. It's really worth collaborating across generations. Seriously.

Anyhow, the idea marches on. I completely get what Rich is wanting, for people like him. I've been there and longed for something similar, and got perhaps a bit of it. More meaningful work. Oh yes indeed, that's what so many of us want, not just the younger and/or precarious ones.

If the 20-30 people subsequently invite 1 or 2 more, we’ll have a first cohort of up to 90 people, which should be a big enough dating pool for complementary Crew-mates to find each other. Hopefully we can immediately launch a handful of new Crews and run many micro-experiments in parallel.

This is one of the places I really want to stop at and take a closer look.

We have the idea of a dating pool. Well, I'm responding partly yes and partly no. If all the people in the pool already share some core values, it may well work, and people with shared interests and complementary skills will find each other. This method could work, of asking the people you know and trust, and asking them to invite a few other they know and trust. Enspiral seems to have managed it. But is it that easy? Something I didn't quote earlier, from Rich's introduction...

I’ve spent most of the past 2 years travelling with my partner Nati, trying to discover what is the most strategic & wise action to take in a world t hat seems to be accelerating towards collapse.

So if they have spent that time travelling round, meeting and talking with people, it's not surprising that they have filtered out 20 or 30 people who they most trust. But look at the investment of time! In contrast, I think of some tales of woe, horror stories even, in the past of networks I have got into in recent years, in cases where the people haven't got to know each other deeply enough before joining in the network. This is a particular danger with networks that are built up on-line only, with no extensive personal face-to-face contact. So, how do we guard against that in a new congregation? That question remains: how to bring together a congregation most effectively, particularly in a noisy counter-culture where there are many voices, often strident.

Perhaps we can work partly the other way round? If there are no central traveller-networkers, doing the cherry-picking, and if we aren't in the context of an organisation with a pre-ordained set of common values (e.g. a religious body), is there another way of choosing candidates to build up a good congregation?

So I'm agreeing that probably the best way environment for Crews to coalesce is a suitable Congregation, but maybe we should return later to the question of how to congregate suitable people.

On to the dynamics of Crews.

I suspect the first thing to do within a Crew is to establish psychological safety, a space where all the parts of your networked Self are welcome to show up. From there, the job is just to respond to the needs in the group.

And falling out is conversely related to a sense of psychological unsafety. The unsafety may result from falling out, but in any case falling out drastically reduces the sense of safety. In my experience, a sense of psychological safety is itself fragile, or precarious. Sometimes a false sense of safety is established on shaky foundations by a group process a little like falling in love, with all the overlooking of problems that can involve. Too often, sooner or later, reality bites painfully. This I know from harsh experience.

Mostly I’m interested in experiments that produce deep deep trust.

So am I. Trust is so central to these matters. It's not exactly the same as psychological safety, but closely related. Maybe psychological safety is the experience of trusting a group as a whole. So, perhaps, even if you don't trust particular individuals in the group, there are group processes that you feel you can rely on to provide you with an environment in which you can function, learn and develop.

Just search for “how to build trust” in a search engine (e.g. Google) and you can find dozens of lists of helpful approaches, principles, and activities, towards building trust between individuals in relationships, and building trust in working groups or teams.

Personally, I don't believe that any of these approaches can automatically generate trust. There are some people whose values diverge so radically from mine that I might not trust them in any circumstances that I can easily imagine. And if there are people in whose company I feel psychologically unsafe, that would put a huge obstacle in the way of developing any deep trust.

Rich offers a game to help with this.

The Reciprocity Game

Building trust is not rocket science. It’s mostly about reciprocity i.e. building a track record of doing each other favours. Here are some versions of the reciprocity game I’ve tried. If you know some more, please share ‘em!

After reflecting on this, I am now thinking, maybe the key is to find people who are prepared to play the same trust, or reciprocity game. Then form Crews from people who accept playing the same game. If people are ready to play the same game, that filters the ones whose values are sufficiently aligned to be likely to be able to form good Crews.

Widening the thinking still further, what people need to do is to search hard for the grounds of their common humanity. If they can find that, and agree on it, then maybe they are ready to start building trust.

A very general principle for building trust would be risking trusting others, and yourself behaving trustworthily.

I'm not going to reproduce here Rich's particular ideas on his Reciprocity Game. But the aspect I find most useful is the fact that he spells out levels, so I'll keep just the level headings and reflect on those.

Level 1: Listening

Listening skills are talked about quite a lot in many places these days. Rightly so, as they are highly important. In my experience, the essence of listening well is to give the speaker not only the space to speak, without interruption if possible, but also the sense of being heard, being understood even. Some of this can be done non-verbally, but more can be done explicitly at the next level.

Level 2: Money

Rich focuses on money, I imagine because it is one of the more conflicted areas of life for the people that he mixes with most. Talking about any conflicted area of life is hard, and what gives me the courage to speak about my internal conflicts is some trust that what I say will not be sat on in judgement, but that all the sides of what I say will be received with some kind of understanding of where I'm coming from. Or just call it psychological safety again.

Or, as many people say, I need to be heard with empathy. The listeners don't have to agree with you; they don't have to say they would think or do the same thing, but they have to find enough common humanity and understanding of your position to be able to understand, at least in outline, your feelings and needs, and to find some words to express that, to reassure the speaker that they care, rather than judge or reject. There are many approaches, many people able to help us with that kind of empathy skills.

Level 3: Consistency

Deeply seated fears take quite some time to work out. A few experiences of empathy can be cancelled out by one session of dismissive negative judgement. The deep-seatedness can come from depth of traumatic experience in the individual, but also it can come from the deeply-rooted practices in the culture. Sufficient to say that if we are dealing with embedded unhelpful patterns in society, they can be very hard to see, particularly from those who gain from them, and it is all the more difficult for the listeners to keep with empathic responses. Consistency is therefore all the more important.

Level 4: Conflict

Ideally, conflict teaches us, and we can choose to learn more both about ourselves and about the parties on the other side of the conflict. But also, it can be highly challenging to do things that build trust in the midst of conflict in which you are on one side or the other. And don't make believe that you are never on one side or the other.

In terms of handling conflict, I've recently been helping to host Restorative Circles as a community member. I find it a very helpful and positive practice. The other relevant authors I have tremendous admiration for are Amy and Arnold Mindell. I recommend looking up their books. I've read “Sitting in the Fire” carefully, and I'm in the process of re-reading it, because it is so rich and powerful, and hard to take in all at one reading. When Rich wrote above, that at levels larger than the congregation, “Coordination gets a lot more complicated beyond this point" I immediately thought of the Mindells. They tackle it.

Level 5: Co-owners

The essence of this level is making shared large investments in something. In our society, couples often make shared large investments in a joint home, and sometimes also with their time, in raising children. It is perhaps unlikely to be at that scale in a Crew, but you get the point. Whatever it is for a crew – starting a business, buying some substantial resource in common, or whatever – it's about doing something that requires a high level of trust and, hoping that trust isn't misplaced, the resulting experiences can help to deepen that trust further.

That's all great material. As you see, it's been a very helpful framework for me to write many things that I've been wanting to write on these matters. And I hope what I've written works well alongside Rich's original. But then, ... well, maybe it's my turn to practice some empathy?

Part 4. An Unorthodox Recipe For Social Change

There are many components of the microsolidarity proposal that are out of step with the prevailing currents of progressive and radical thought. I’ll name five of those attributes here. I intend to acknowledge the risk of travelling off piste, and start the process of building accountability. This is a very exposing piece of writing, so please assume positive intent and check in with me if something triggers you.

The trouble is, I largely agree with what Rich writes. I'm finding it so easy to identify with his point of view, that it's hard to empathise with what he sees as the prevailing currents, and it's challenging to identify with his feeling of exposure.

Maybe this is one place to re-emphasise the value of inter-generational alliance?

1. Exclusivity

One of the most striking counter-intuitive parts about the microsolidarity proposal is that, if you’re reading this and we don’t know each other personally, you’re not invited. I invite you to start your own Congregation, but you’re not invited to join mine. That’s a bit shocking, eh! 😨

Actually, this doesn't shock me at all. There are two things for me here. First, we know from experience that there are people out there who are in the habit of wrecking things, or exploiting them for their own ends. Of course we have to filter them out! And second, there is the exclusivity of experience and expertise. These are, I suspect, easier to accept the more life experience one has.

2. Not for profit but with profit

My own experience with people of my own generation suggests that we have this well under control. Take Unlike Minds, for example. Their stated threefold ambitions:

  1. to make a big difference for people and their communities;
  2. to have fun doing it;
  3. to earn sufficient to sustain 1. and 2.

This is similar to what I have heard in many settings. We all recognise the importance of making sufficient money, as a means, and not as an end.

On the other hand, what I don't think has changed much is generosity, or the lack of it.

3. Do Better Than Good

And what does that mean?

A lot of political strategy aims to change people’s behaviour because it is the right thing to do. If you want to be a “good” person, you’ll recycle, give to charity, and stop saying sexist things.

OK, so definitely, being good is so much deeper than surface behaviours that conform to some social norm that is supposed to represent good. No argument here.

So I propose to outcompete individualistic consumerism with microsolidarity.

That's a lovely idea, hardly shocking, but it remains a puzzle how we actually do it. That's where I believe the productive discussion can be focused. How, in detail, can we outcompete?

4. Decentralised governance with not a blockchain in sight.

We know from experience that the challenges of governance are about people, not about technology. Maybe this is the one idea that is somewhat risky to promote at present, because so many people have invested (literally or metaphorically) in things which rely on blockchains.

5. Design for smallness.

Are radicals stuck with big and fast? It's not something I've noticed. It's a great idea, of course. Apart from “Small is Beautiful” (which did feel radical when it first appeared) The pattern “small pieces loosely joined” has been around for quite some time now.

What I really like here is that Rich is consolidating the reasons why we need to look at the small scale in human groups and their governance.

I think I’ve reached the limit of how long I can hold a monologue before I reconnect with my crewmates, check in, and add their sensemaking to mine. So I’m looking forward to improving this proposal with the thoughtful consideration and spirited dissent of my peers. Time to leap and trust the net will appear.

This is all great stuff. I sense myself wanting to change to direct address...

When you hear so much criticism and strident voices proclaming the merits of different ways, or the importance of things that are not as important as the things you have focused on here, I guess you feel rather hesitant. But I'm glad you've been courageous, and I would want to continue to encourage you. Perhaps most importantly for me, you've been consistent and tenacious in laying out much of the ground for discussion, and for us to build on, even if you haven't covered all relevant viewpoints. That's a big achievement.

So, what would I like to add?

Maybe best to confine myself to a few short notes.

Learning and skills

Two learning themes appear to me to emerge from the discussion above.

  1. Learning the soft, behavioural skills relating to listening, empathy and promoting psychological safety, allowing “emotional intimacy”, allowing us to be vulnerable, to trust, to be present for each other, to learn and care about each other, and eventually to learn and care enough so that we can go on and create our goodly Crews; and to overcome our fears, prejudices and biases that may have arisen from our past experiences. A few possible levels of these skills were sketched out in the Reciprocity Game section.
  2. Learning the skills involved in the very many other aspects of how to make it all work, and get it going.

I would be very interested in helping to bring together some kind of commons framework of skills and competence in all these areas, so that we can know better what we may need to learn, and help each other in our learning.

Last modified: 2018-12-11.