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October 9, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

We Tell Ourselves Stories: Hierarchy, the Network, and Where We Might Go

“The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender ‘lonely crowds.’” 

— Guy Debord


“…survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

— Audre Lorde


As events both here and elsewhere show, recent years have been hard for the left. However, they have also been hard for the right. Despite establishing governments in a number of Western countries, the right continues to struggle, frustrated by both the system’s indifference to rhetoric and a growing division within the populace they claim to rule. As with Brexit, Trump, and our own election, majority rule is now a mathematical measure — not “the will of the people,” but “the will of just-under-half-of-the-people, but still more than you, lefty.” Democracy as we know it becomes increasingly tenuous.

It is to this topic that the influential British journalist George Monbiot turns, with his new book Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, exploring not only the perceived causes of these shortcomings, but also their possible solutions. It is a distinctly utopian vision.

Under Monbiot’s analysis (and aided by the considerable intellect of communications specialist George Marshall), the current state of affairs is explained as the result of our dominant political narrative: neoliberalism. As Monbiot argues, stories provide powerful tools to explain the world, but an old story can only be replaced by a new one. Political narratives follow a form well known to Western humans, the arc Monbiot describes as “the Restoration Story”: “Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero — who might be one person or a group of people — revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds, and restores order.”

Think of it as Disney politics. On Monbiot’s account, neoliberalism has captured the stage, and the story it tells about disorder (caused by “the collectivising tendencies of the over-mighty state”) and the heroes who have overcome it (“freedom-seeking entrepreneurs” and “the redeeming power of the market”) has become so pervasive that it now comes to define us. So framed, the world is indeed cold: independent economic units compete for a scarcity of resources, with emphasis on this scarcity (by — guess who! — politicians) used to ramp up the very conditions that produce it, further entrenching this view of our alleged “competitive, self-maximising nature.”

In words that echo Max Harris and his own successful pot stirring here, Monbiot claims that society is gripped by “a failure of imagination.” What we need, he argues, is a new Restoration Story — one based on the increasingly convergent evidence that humans are not, in fact, highly competitive, but highly cooperative, empathic beings, attuned and sensitive to the needs of others.

Under Monbiot’s new story, our good nature has been set upon by the narrative of neoliberalism (the disorder afflicting the land), and it is up to us (the collective hero) to overcome it by way of “invoking our capacity for togetherness and belonging.” Monbiot expands this argument considerably, but the core remains. As with Max Harris, he is arguing for a change of values — not the “care, community, and creativity” Harris argues for as a “Politics of Love,” but a similar “Politics of Belonging”: “Through restoring community, renewing civic life, and claiming our place in the world, we build a society in which our extraordinary nature — our altruism, empathy, and deep connection — is released.” 

It’s a compelling vision (and one, I should add, that I am supportive of) — but it misses a crucial point. In his focus on the power of the Restoration Story, Monbiot has failed to notice, or at least failed to address, the worldview encoded in that story: its assumptions about top-down control and how it relates to change. The master’s tools will not dissemble the master’s house.  


In order to explain, we need to go back a bit. It’s not just our understanding of ourselves as competitive that we need to change, but the very notion of what we mean when we speak of “ourselves.” In addition to research on our altruistic nature, there is a whole body challenging the very notion of our separation, from the mind-bending nuance of quantum physics to the fundamental laws of ecology. The rules of the game are shifting.

What does it mean, to say “I’m me”? What is the “you”? Is it the bacteria in your stomach, the people who raised you, or the complex infrastructure that not only brings you food but also takes your waste away, lest you starve in a pile of your own shit? I’m getting facetious, but the point is this: our existence is interdependent, a shifting, shimmering wash of social and biological interactions, both larger and smaller than the unit called “me”.

Under such a view, it is the system that matters most: the different actors in play, and the ways in which they respond. In a chaotic, interdependent system, what we think of as control is increasingly revealed as an illusion. As one friend pointed out during the election, each party makes so many promises, it just isn’t plausible to evaluate all of their downstream implications: what enacting x would do to y, let alone z, p, f, and so on. Politicians might pretend they understand, but as countless examples demonstrate, such posturing is exactly that: pretence.

Where to, then, for Monbiot’s story? As he tells it, our goal is the restoration of “order”, and yet, order is itself a product of the hierarchy and its assumptions: not just that those at the top “control”, but that the very notion of “control” is possible. If the chaos that Monbiot would avoid is not something we are able to control or escape from — but a part of our wild, interlocking world — then it must be accepted, and our business and governance designed accordingly. This is hardly a novel idea, and yet the narrative of control has become so pervasive that in many ways it has come to define our world.

It is this narrative that Western thinkers such as Charles Eisenstein now come to challenge, drawing on both indigenous wisdom and modern science in a synthesis that Eisenstein calls “the New and Ancient Story.” In this view, the narratives of separation (from each other, and the world) and control (a defence against difference; against that which would change you) come to be replaced with one of “interbeing”, in which our cooperation and connection form the basis for our interactions — giving rise to a very different world.

(I don’t want to overdo the point, but it should be emphasised that this is a critique of the Western worldview, the validity of which has long been challenged by those outside its privilege. For those of an indigenous view, the idea of interdependence is far from novel — it is not to them I speak.)


Under the new (and ancient) story, we are not separate beings engaged in a fearful competition, but embedded, in both social and ecological networks: just one part of the wider system that sustains all life.

In this sense the network is the new, embedding an ecological worldview that celebrates diversity, connection, and (relative) equality. The hierarchy is the old, embedding models of centralisation and superiority at odds with all evidence, producing alienation and the accumulations of wealth and power that not only divide but come to justify division (see: “I earned it”— and just who is the I to which you refer?).

If we are to tell a new story about the world, it must involve new tools — and their structure is crucial. As risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb demonstrates in his compelling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the accumulations favoured by centralisation are fragile, prone to collapse and, as such, vulnerable to an ever-unpredictable world (for further evidence, see: history). Taleb argues that we need to make structural changes: shifting towards a decentralised model of both governance and business — building the diversity that is resilience.

It is perhaps telling that this is (at risk of being reductive) how “nature” “works.” Despite its temporary capture by social Darwinists and their hierarchy-driven agenda, evolution thrives on diversity and the decentralisation (or variation) that it both demands and produces. It is, by design, resilient. (Which isn’t to suggest that there is a designer; on the contrary: it simply operates according to a set of rules that produce “a design” — in the same way that we might look to structure our human world — from the bottom-up, not the top-down.)


In 1968, the American ecologist Garrett Hardin published his influential essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, explaining how the use of a resource held in common can lead to its erosion — a point jumped upon by those in favour of privatisation and the narrative of competition in which it exists, in stark contrast to the co-operation required when using a commons. In Hardin’s example (strangely applicable to New Zealand), farmers graze a number of cattle on common land. The more cattle each farmer can get on, the greater their individual advantage — but the worse it is for the group. Such selfish behaviour leads to a “race to the bottom,” culminating in the collapse of the resource and what essentially means: no more milk.

Despite its popularity, perhaps for all it confirmed about the story of separation so ascendant in those prosperous post-war years, the essay has been refuted time and time again, with Elinor Ostrom winning the Nobel Prize in economics for her work outlining the specific circumstances under which collapse of a common resource is avoided completely. The tragedy, once sold as inescapable, is in fact a product of our social relations and — this is the crucial part — the narrative that we live out. In a hierarchical, divided world, selfish use of the commons does lead to collapse; however, when the frame is shifted to one of co-operation, interdependence, and decentralisation, the commons is sustained, and with it the prosperity of its users.

A key aspect of this is so-called “group selection”: a selfish farmer has an advantage over less selfish farmers, but a group with no selfish farmers has an advantage over a group with selfish farmers — their collective prosperity wins out over short term, individual gain. As David Sloan Wilson, one of the academics responsible for popularising the idea, writes, the task is to “become so co-operative that the group becomes a higher-level organism in its own right.”

There are a number of ways that this might play out. Operating within the existing economic system, worker-owned co-operatives provide a means to do business that not only preserves autonomy, but actively embeds it in a communal, democratic structure. For example, Wellington-based Loomio is an open source software that streamlines collective decision making. It has been a global success, and is a great example of practicing what you preach. The company not only uses its own software, but is itself a worker’s co-operative: collectively owned by the people who build it, with their revenue less an end in itself (as with the traditional profit model) but instead “a powerful way to live our values of collaboration and collective ownership.”

Nor, it should be added, do we need to limit ourselves to existing forms of business. While current models of social enterprise are laudable for their focus on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit, other domains offer different insight into the problem of uptake. One such example is the innovation adopted by the anti-copyright movement. In their efforts to overcome the restrictions of intellectual property, and all it does to stifle the spread of information (and the hierarchy that this protects — i.e. those with the knowledge have power), the programmer Richard Stallman developed a licence he called Copyleft. Whether it be software or a book, anyone who wanted to use the material covered under the licence was free to do so providing they made the same concessions in regard to their own work — a crucially viral addition. So framed, popular examples aren’t just successful on their own terms; they help to actively spread the ideas that they practice.

How might such thinking affect social enterprise? My tentative suggestion: a not-for-profit worker-owned co-op, with the “profits” going into a collective “start up” fund, whereby others are enabled to set up their own worker co-operative model. They will be their own bosses (allowing autonomy, belonging, and ownership) providing that they agree to be bound by the same ethos: a certain portion of their profits will be set aside so that others can follow the same example, helping the model to spread. In contrast to charities (and despite the good work that they do), the demands of business and autonomy mean that on this model, those involved have skin in the game — a crucial requirement when avoiding the slack so often used to criticise them.

I will concede to idealism, but not wishful thinking. Such models already exist throughout the world, and their numbers are growing, providing a crucial counter to both alienation and the futility of much work under late capitalism. There are no easy answers to the exploitation that plays out on a global scale, but the long-term vision is that such a support structure (financial + best practice systems) will help small-scale workers’ co-ops to become established in New Zealand, with a focus on local, sustainable products, and the economies that they support contributing both to diversity and community; a stark contrast to the top-down desolation and powerlessness currently threatening New Zealand’s regions.

In the realm of governance, we might look to Kurdistan and the system of “democratic confederalism” enacted there since 2007, where — in line with Monbiot’s suggestions — decision-making is returned “to the smallest political units that can discharge it.” Based on the ideas of Murray Bookchin, and moving beyond the Marxist-Leninist structure (described as “too hierarchical and not democratic enough”), citizen-led assemblies were established “to make decisions on all common problems, challenges, and projects of the respective neighbourhood according to the principles of a base democracy — the whole population has the right to participate.”

These assemblies scale up, with delegates from neighbourhood assemblies choosing the delegates that constitute the city assembly, and so on — with the point not being the exact ways in which this happens, but that it does. Operating under a climate of intense scrutiny (Kurdish people occupy an area that spans Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria), democratic confederalism remains a work in progress — stronger in some areas than in others — but one that continues despite these challenges, offering huge promise for addressing the interlinked problems of political disenfranchisement, economic exclusion, social discrimination, and environmental degradation.

One of the strongest outcomes of local autonomy has been the creation, or transformation, of so-called “peace villages”: entire communities based around the ideals of participation, gender equality, and sustainability. As Ercan Aboya explains, “peace not only refers to the armed conflict; it expresses the people’s relationships among themselves and with the natural world.” And the economic and material basis for these villages? Co-operatives. That is to say: different tools — different house.


It all comes back to structure. I agree with Max Harris that “care, community, and creativity” are important values, but I struggle to see how we might feel them in the current, hierarchy-based political model. Instead, I argue for the structures that will encourage them. The idea is one of emergence: not being told what to think, but embedding yourself in organisations where such values simply fall out of the size of the group and your relationships within, a product of the conduct and autonomy there created.

Three years ago, when I quit my job to pursue whatever it is I’m actually doing now (verdict: still pending), a friend of my father’s, a legal academic and force in her own right, asked me how our generation was going to deal with the uncertainty of the world, the shifting factors that make this such a unique time. I don’t know, I told her, but my feeling was that we wouldn’t do it alone. No societal change has ever progressed off a blueprint, as if we could sum up all the surrounding elements and make the “right” choice, each step laid out before us. The world is ripe with chaos, unknown and far from fixed; our circumstances demand much more than any one individual or company can provide. What we need is an ecosystem.

In lieu of extensive research and practice, consider this an argument, offered in the same spirit as that of Harris and Monbiot: an invitation to expand our sense of what politics might mean; in the words of Moana Jackson, “the art of what is not yet possible.”


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