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Honeybee Democracy: The Occupy Movement as a Critique Of Hierarchy

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Message Bruce Toien

When we got to the General Assembly at nearby Terry Schrunk Plaza, what struck me was the absence of anyone"in charge", yet the meeting progressed productively and group goals were established along the way by consensus. Yes, there was a facilitator who made sure everyone had a chance to speak, starting with those who needed to report back to the community on the progress of certain tasks they'd taken on. The facilitator was quite able and clearly she had training in how to facilitate a meeting.

But even though she was the"traffic cop", the facilitator continually solicited temperature checks from the rest of us sitting on the mini-amphitheater steps. Responses were usually non-verbal, upward finger jiggling"twinkles"(approval) or downward finger jiggling (disapproval). Majority twinkles ruled. Occasionally, someone would hold up a finger triangle and call out,"Point of order!"if there was some unfairness or breach of the rules. These and other hand signals are a means of reaching consensus without verbally disrupting the speaker's presentation. This self-organization was amazing, especially considering the diversity of people there -- students, adults of all ages and professions, homeless people of all ages and former professions, veterans, street people -- some eloquent and some obviously deranged.

A lot of people came to the microphone to speak. A stenographer transcribed all the speeches on her MacBook computer, projecting the words up on a  huge screen (purchased out of pocket by a member of the group). The brilliance of the screen illuminated the speakers as well as the faces of the listeners encircling them. Again, that sense of huddling around a campfire. People spoke about the importance of good conduct and mutual respect. About presenting a worthy model to a world that was watching.

The people who took their turns at the microphone were sincere and passionate about the significance of the community they were simultaneously imagining and building in real time. It was exciting, but far from giddiness, there was a seriousness of purpose. I thought of a recurring theme in the Federalist Papers: We'd better do this right, the world is watching.

There arose a heated discussion about whether to support a splinter group headed over that evening to Jamison Park where those occupiers would be arrested at the midnight park closing. This last item was such an important decision that the facilitator proposed (and received from the assembly lots of approving twinkles) that the gathering break into groups of five or six to debate the issue then reassemble in half and hour to share their respective conclusions with the whole group. That was a practical variation on direct democracy that surely was informed by a modern understanding of group dynamics. For all the scruffiness, there were some sophisticated skills in operation here. 

We couldn't stay for the final decision, but what was of greatest interest to me was the process, not the specific outcome.

                                    * * *

What I see is more than a simple protest movement. Yes, the proximate goal is to say"no"to the greed of investment bankers and corporations comprising the top 1% that owns roughly a third of the nation's wealth. This is the 1% that cavalierly maintains either a) there is not enough wealth to go around or b) if only people worked harder,"everyone could be in the top 1%"(as Stephen Colbert satirically declared).  At the GA meeting, boycotts and general strikes were urged in this regard.

But whereas corporate greed is the proximate cause of our national malady, the ultimate problem is the system that promotes it,"a system that has made a world that is dangerous and cruel to its inhabitants"as a commentator from Tahrir square wrote to the Occupy movement. Our socio-economic system is one of"cheater take all"and princely rewards awaiting the most pitiless sociopaths among us. We can fight the symptoms forever, but it's the hierarchy of power that keeps nurturing these paroxysms of greed.

Indeed the ultimate causes of our transnational tragedy relate to the existence of hierarchical power structures in the first place. The ultimate goal therefore is no less than a total rethinking of what kind of society we want to live in. The absence of leaders is a feature of this. We're seeing the expression of a cultural shift that has already been underway for at least ten years.

                                      * * *

So if I could sum up my impression of the Occupy Movement in one phrase, it would be this:"The Occupy movement is a critique of hierarchy".

As such, it is one of the most profound paradigm shifts since the beginning of civilization some 7,000 years ago, when permanent hierarchies first appeared in the history of life on earth. For hierarchical social arrangements are an aberration of nature; and an aberration of human nature as well. Until agriculture provided surplus that afforded non-contributing members of society the opportunity to lord it over the others, hierarchies were transitory phenomena, tuned to a specific purpose -- hunting, skirmishes and natural disasters. Once the crisis passed there was a return to a more fluid and democratic condition. In short, the normal mode of human existence has for countless millennia been egalitarian, networked, cooperative and democratic.

This is true not only for homo sapiens for all social animals. For example, studies by Roper and Conradt have shown that herds of red deer spontaneously decide to stop grazing and move to a waterhole when the number of them looking in that direction exceeds 50%. Riskier moves require larger majorities to precipitate action. Here again is leaderless decision-making. Yes, there are alpha males, but alpha-ness relates only to mating, not decision making; in decision making, the alphas hold but one vote each. No hierarchies in nature!

                                    * * *

"Oh, but what about honeybees?"you may counter."Ha -- gotcha!"you say."A beehive is the archetypal hierarchy, with the queen at the top served by ranks of workers and drones. Turns out this ancient notion is, simply put, wrong.

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Bruce Toien is a database designer/developer in the Portland, Oregon area, with an interest in the interaction between technology, society and a sustainable economy. Over the years, Bruce has published numerous opinion pieces relating to these (more...)

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