Microsolidarity and Belonging: Building new communities
We caught up with Richard, Natalia from Enspiral, a network of self-organising companies who have been working without bosses since 2010. We talked about communities, belonging and our changing relationships with each other and how the left might respond.
How do people belong now? I think there's a real crisis in belonging and how people belong? Do you agree with that? Do you think that that feels true?
Natalia: Last year as we traveled around the UK my sense was that there was a clear longing for belonging. There was a need for people to find their group and people to actually connect with, finding that sense of community. For us, because we are part of the Enspiral Network here in New Zealand, this something I think we take for granted. We have community, so it was really interesting for us to see how in Europe, although there's so many more people, this sense of actually being connected to others was not very strong. This was particularly true for a lot of people who would be quite radical or progressive, they still didn't have that sense of being part of a community.
Richard: I felt like for a lot of people it was as if belonging is like a magical fairy and we are all here praying that it turns up. What people don't seem to realize that belonging is just like a product or process. It's quite deterministic. If you come to the same group of six people six times every six months and you share some kind of intimacy, you're going to belong - that's how you do it. It's just a particular set of skills or behaviors that you have to do to get the results. To us it's kind of obvious but maybe that’s because we've got the models. Now it seems like we're encountering all these people that just don't have these models.
The early Labour movement, from the cooperatives to the unions, was founded on a kind of collective smaller scale community building and organising. How do you think the work you're doing compares to this?
Richard: New Zealand has a parallel history here. It was a bunch of workers that got organized and invented socialized healthcare. They saw that they had all these people working in a remote location and thought maybe we can take a certain share of our wages and pay for a Doctor. A few years later it became government policy. Work is political. While we're at work politics comes into action. It's also about people solving the problems that are in front of them. They thought “we need a doctor”, how about we just help each other out to get a doctor. You find that abundance is created when you just coordinate people with shared interests. But compared to Labour movements of today, there's a few important differences to our work. I don't want to be antagonistic but there's a reason that we're working in the avenues that we're working and not working in politics. One of them is about what happens at scale. As soon as you have hundreds of thousands or millions of people, there is so much distance between the worker on the shop floor and the organizer in the head office. They really live in different worlds and the solidarity at that point is stretched really thin. It's kind of an imagined community instead of an actual community. Smaller scale organising is much more appealing to me than having some kind of large scale thing like a political party. For me it's about local autonomy and agency.
That’s interesting. So do you think there are limits to political parties?
Richard: I think there's another really important dynamic as one of the other really core drivers of the Labour Party is that everything is framed in oppositions, we've got labour versus capital. But in a world with much more complexity these simple polarities don't actually help anymore. You can no longer just make a clean line between labour and capital as everything's just mushed together and those categories actually obscure more than they reveal. What we're what we're looking for is some kind of organizing form that embraces nuance and is always looking for a way to resolve this dichotomy or this polarization and come up with some kind of creative third option that no one thought of until we met each other. If you're used to organizing an oppositional frame it's like goodies and baddies. I think a lot of people in our generation kind of naturally have the sense that they don't want to do that. I don't want to. I don't want to be on one half.
Natalia: It's like an old story, but the story has shifted and a lot of us are living a completely different story, so we need to transition and change our organising forms.
I think that's that's a really good insight. The structures that exist in society at the moment don't help us to manage complexity or create anything like a meaningful community. The country, and Labour’s voting coalition is so divided at the moment and the left really needs to try to work out how we can bring it back together. We don’t think this is something that can just be done from above. How do you think we can build a politics that could try to manage that complexity and heal those divisions? What would it look like or feel like?
Richard: I'm enlivened by that word coalition. I know that from our friends in Spain and Barcelona that have had some really successful gains in the last five years using coalitions. They call it “complicated majorities”.The idea is that different groups form around one issue, for example housing. On this particular policy we agree we’re going to form a coalition on that issue and we're not actually going to agree with each other on the all other stuff. We're just going to allow each other to be really different but on this one issue we have a shared interest and we will mobilise our distinctive capabilities. When the housing issue is resolved then we disband and then the next thing comes up and we form a different coalition. That's really uncomfortable for some people and the Anglo-Saxon left is really really bad at allowing difference. There's this kind of orthodoxy or this fear that heresy could take hold. It becomes this purity mission that everyone must conform to a certain standard of behavior and ideas. It might be good for developing a political consciousness but it's bad for actually organizing communities.
Natalia: I totally agree what you're saying about the structures that we have today in society. They don't help us. It's about how do we recreate those structures on the local level. How do we build society between the three of us here? We are building society. So for me it's about creating new spaces for connection. This can help us overcome division. At some point there's an “us” and there's an “other” but the “other” stops being the “other” when you actually meet them, when you get to know who they really are, what they care about, what's their story. They might have different thoughts but we're still connected as we're still part of the same community. There are a bunch of these initiatives around the world that are trying this like dinner table gatherings or just community encounters and meet ups. Whatever it is that gets people into the same room to discuss not just politics but to discuss also topics that they're interested in where they can find common ground. Free food always helps.
That’s really interesting - I definitely agree with the food part! One of the things we're struggling with a bit is this paradox that belonging to a group can unite but also divide people. What are your thoughts about how groups can manage this paradox?
Richard: I wrote an article called The beautiful trap of belonging which argues that we're in a crisis of belonging at the moment where we don’t have enough of that feeling and therefore when we get any of it we go off the deep end. It's like our society has been parched for so long that we’re going to drink until we’re sick. So we have this kind of obsessive tribalism where decide “you are my people” and therefore everyone else is “not my people” and we start defining ourselves by the negative space around us. I hope we can keep walking down this track and get to the next stage which is creating a kind of belonging which doesn't come at the expense of others. If you really belong then you're not so anxious about whether the other person next door disagrees with you. It becomes okay to disagree because you are actually enriching this community through your difference. But that's a stage of maturity you can only get to through practice. For me it was deliberative practice that that trained me for that. I work within a co-op which was a good example where you are trying to govern a shared resource and you have to manage difference in that space. You start to learn some things that we all need to agree on like ground rules but then there's all these other areas where we can we can actually celebrate each other's differences. I certainly didn’t wake up that way. I wasn't born that way. It was it was a competency that I developed through practice.
Natalia: I think for me belonging is actually a deeper thing. Being a member of the Labor Party or whatever that identity is is not actually belonging. I belong to others. I don't belong to a name or a brand or a label. I think because there is this lack of belonging people think at least I can get attached to that identity and have a little flavor of the belonging effect. Brene Brown did a lot of research on belonging and trust. What she found was that people who have a sense of actually being connected and just feeling that they belong in the world could then belong to other places and be part of a different community without feeling that they lose that connection. So for her that sense of true belonging is what gives you the space where you can actually disagree and manage difference. Where you can say I disagree with you and that doesn't matter because that belonging is is about being accepted. Belonging in a community is about more than “I just need to be here because otherwise I don't have anything”.
That's really insightful - thank you. If you think about what we're living through at the moment in the UK, people don't feel secure. They don't feel like they belong and this is why things are becoming so polarised. I love the idea that you know you don't belong to a label and that you belong to other people.
Richard: For me it's been helpful to think about belonging at different scales. In some cultures they have a language for this. There’s the depth of belonging to myself that I accept myself. Belonging to the earth that I'm on.Then there's partnership, and then there's the crew of friends that are really tight. It’s kind of like these are ever increasing circles. If I have my four five or six different circles of belonging and say a partnership breaks down, then I've got these other ones that are going to look after me. I have a kind of resilience because not all of my connection is to one person or group. People can actually have quite an abundance of different levels of connection.
I agree I feel a lot of these wider circles have been lost. There's an strand within Labour thought that socialism is about protecting our relationships with each other from capitalism. This seems to tie into a lot of the work you all do around building small scale communities and microsolidarity. Do you worry that these relationships are being undermined by capitalism and the way we live at the moment? Can we talk a bit about microsolidarity as a way to correct this?
Richard: When I was thinking about microsolidarity, I was thinking that we have to outcompete the current models that are on offer for individuals working in the gig economy and vicarious capitalism, and actually that's not a very high bar to cross. All you have to do is provide people with some improvement on their extremely precarious anxious reality and you've got the material to grow a movement that's not based on pure virtue but actually giving people something they need. So we've been travelling for six months and I got home and I was walking down the street and I bumped into someone I know called Sophie. We had a little conversation and I actually needed a place to stay that night because my plans had fallen through. She says of course you can stay and makes me a lovely dinner. So I had my accommodation and food sorted out because I'm in this web of relationships of trust. We've known each other for a long time and we're going keep knowing each other. It’s a kind of shared bank balance we have through trust and friendship which allows the surplus that exists to be shared. For example my friend has a spare car at the moment so I don't need to rent a car. That gesture of hers to help me out brings us closer together and it doesn't leave her worse off. There's something about the practice of helping each other out that makes us closer and the the most sustainable happiness comes from helping other people. Microsolidarity is about just giving people the format where they can practice helping each other. We're doing that because we’re motivated by a spirit of love and connection not for personal gain or greed or selfishness. It becomes like a mini bubble of reality that's outside of this crushing capitalist individualist norm, where we get to practice it. I think so much of my resilience and confidence from knowing that I have that network behind me and people that just care about me and will mobilize any surplus resources they’ve got if I need them. It's not just that I'm receiving it but I'm also contributing. So it's like I'm also holding up my part of the deal.
Natalia: I'm just going to touch a bit on that learning new ways of being together because that is a big part of this. Social change is about learning new ways of being together. It's about figuring something new out because obviously the old things are not working. So there's a lot of learned behavior that we all have that I think needs to be renewed and rethought. One way to learn new forms of behaviour is through connections and in the interpersonal space. So if we start from the interpersonal and we go from the personal to a smaller group let's say the dinner table, we already come with new set of behaviors and we're modeling that to others and others are learning by being with us. Then if we scale that up into a slightly larger groups of “interconnected crews” as we're calling them, they become a “congregation” and that's the way for me to scale it up. The idea came from the fact that we have a small consulting company called The Hum that helps people to figure out new ways of doing things in the workplace. So we work from the interpersonal, like how to give feedback to each other right up to how do you have good conversations. We start in smaller teams and then work on expanding it to the wider organizations. Now we’re looking at how we can apply these learnings to other people's personal spaces and relational spaces outside the workplace. So part of the microsolidarity thing is taking all of those concepts that we learn from the workspace into building those communities of belonging.
This is really interesting. I feel like actually there might be a lot of microsolidarity within our movement that we maybe forget about. I’ve been involved in my local Labour Party for a few years now and I know that if I was having a hard time there are people I could reach out to for help. We can’t forget the importance of face to face interaction at that level. There is a lot of debate about kind of technology and how technology might be changing how we relate to each other. Is it changing things? Do you think that there's a difference between how people relate to each other online or offline? Or is there no difference?
Natalia: This will be interesting because we probably have different thoughts on this because we have different ways of interacting with the online space.
Richard: I won't do the long story about my childhood but basically my first friends I found online and now most of my friendships are maintained online. I feel that connected to many people across the globe, people that I really love and trust. It works because we have that closeness and I think there's a set of behaviors and skills involved in how to actually maintain those relationships across distributed geography and how to use the right tools for the job. I think probably most people don't have the skills to communicate well online. Also if you look at technology in the wider sense, I think the technology that we see at scale has been vastly damaging. Facebook is the biggest example - we have more than a billion people participating on a platform that is mobilizing as much money and talent and power as possible for the purpose of manipulating people. It is successful at that to the tune of billions of dollars a year and now they are affecting voting choices. The way that Facebook works is to just play on your needs for meaning and connection and that’s extremely damaging. They got a bunch of scientists and a bunch of engineers and psychologists together with some designers to work out how to do that. Also there's only so far I can get into the technology conversation before I'm in the capitalism conversation. You know when it comes to belonging, so-called social media are actually anti-social. I have friends in Barcelona who thanks to Air BnB live in the suburbs where 70% of the houses are rented and random people are turning up every week. All the local industry is gone because its all tourists - you can’t buy things like clothes baskets. This is the result of technology in the service of capital. So while there are kinds of technology that are really liberating and empowering, they are based on a different set of values which are about the common good and about enabling people and connecting them. It’s not those that most people are interacting on - they're there in the capitalist playground. I'm a technologist, I've got a technology company and a lot of my friends technologists and they're doing really cool stuff. It’s about the ownership, incentives and what their analysis of how power works and how you shift it. That's what makes the difference.
Natalia: I think you learn the skills of how to be online with others and it is a skill it needs to be learned. Technology in a way is a tool and you choose how to use it. But online platforms are currently wired in a way that they're actually using us. I think that's a tricky space to navigate and that's where we need to be self-aware and think about how are we using it. What am I doing? How am I? What is it for? Why do I need it? It's different, it’s a different track of conversation. I think that digital tools definitely help me maintain my connections and maintain my sense of knowing the others. Even if it's just a little simple text that I send to my friends when I'm overseas. I travel a lot so just being able to coordinate and have a Skype call or whatever and just checking how they're doing or being able to say hey I'm here and I'm thinking about you. That's very useful. But still I feel that the connections are build face to face I don't know if I can build a strong relationship with someone that I only see online once in a while. Or that I only chat to and I don't I don't even know what their full body looks like. I don't know what what the feeling of that hug is. I'm a bit more soft in that sense.
Richard: I want to add another little point which is that in my experience of the web over the last few years there has been the collapse of meaning and the collective conversation. Just like reading articles or going on Facebook sometimes it’s hard to for us to understand each other and I just feel a kind of outrage and anxiety and disorientation because of that. I'm really into podcasts all of a sudden. I think that form of dialogue that long form especially I'm really into ones that are like unedited unproduced just like a conversation between two people. It goes on for an hour or an hour and 20 and you actually get to hear some of that human being you get into some context basically the journey that you wouldn't have otherwise gone on. And that dialogue form has quite different properties from the written form. I'm finding so much more since orientation and meaning and connection through that form than I am through all the stuff that I'm reading online.
Natalia: That's one of the things I think is a skill you need to use when you're online - escalating the bandwidth when you need to. So if you're having a conflict with someone you don't just keep on sending ranty messages, you say hey do you want to jump on a call and actually see each other faces and be able to interact in a better way.
That’s a nice note to end on. I think we can start to make some of these changes in the way we treat each other everyday which leads me onto my final question, if Labour Party members and readers could make one small change, what would it be?
Natalia: I'll say meet the others in your community reach out to others especially to all those that you think are very different than you because once you get to know them you actually will start understanding that there are a lot more similar. We all share the same basic needs. We all have the same wishes and desires.
Richard: Yeah - that was the first thing that came to mind. If you if you're in the place where your stationary and you do have a house that you live in all the time then you have a party. That's what everybody should be doing. But there's also a lot of people that are not in that category. We're not in that category. We're nomadic and and more precarious in that sense. So those kind of people who are not so permanently established it’s more about finding three or four people that want to sit in a circle and talk with you about things. Like if you're freaked out about money what's happening with Europe or what's happening with the climate or whatever, bring a small group of people together and sit around and talk about it and practice listening to each other.
Richard & Natalia
Richard E Bartlett is one of the cofounders of Loomio, an open source software tool for collective decision-making. He's also a member Enspiral: a network of self-organising companies who have been working without bosses since 2010. He's passionate about co-ownership, self-management, collaborative governance, and other ways of sneaking anarchism into respectable places. He writes at medium.com/@richdecibels. He tweets @RichDecibels
Natalia Lombardo is a Co-owner of Loomio, a co-operative social enterprise building tools for collective decision-making. Founder or the Newtown Tool Library. Her background is in community development through local action, permaculture, & creative activism. She helps groups to cultivate collaborative culture through values-driven behaviours. Born in Argentina, living in New Zealand: she’s a bilingual translator that loves to bridge cultures.