Organisational democracy is a stepping stone, not the final answer

Since I first became a fan of organisational democracy, I’ve often wondered what’s next. Will we will find an even better model for how humans can work together? The best answer I have found so far lies in a theory called Spiral Dynamics.

Spiral Dynamics explains how our values and worldview as humans have become increasingly complex – like an unravelling spiral – as life conditions for us have also become more complex. The journey has taken us through survivalismtribalism, superstition and magicego-centrism, feudalism and heroismpurposefulness and authoritarianismstrategic, industrial and materialismhumanism and egalitarianism. Phew, that’s a lot of isms.

Here’s a good slideshare which explains the model, and I also recommend this 43-page ebook on the subject. If you’re brave, you can read the Spiral Dynamics book. It’s awesome but awfully written and took me forever to get through.

What particularly interests me about Spiral Dynamics is that it puts the changes we see happening in the world into the broader context of the ongoing evolution of human consciousness. In developed nations today there is a gradual shift away from the currently dominant industrial, materialistic, individualistic worldview towards a more egalitarian, socially-minded perspective. This is being driven by our life conditions stretching the limits of an industrial perspective:

  • natural resources are finite and so the global economy cannot grow infinitely, especially as developing economies try to enter the consumer party
  • a growing gap between the richest and poorest causing social problems that affect everyone
  • climate change caused by industrialism which has to stop in order to prevent major catastrophe
  • material gain only makes us happier up to a point and there’s more to life than working really hard and acquiring more ‘stuff.’

But the move to a more humanistic perspective where organisational democracy fits in is not the final solution. It’s actually just a stepping stone towards further, more complex levels of consciousness.

What comes next is an integral worldview where we understand all of the levels of consciousness that we have already developed and maximise their positive potential whilst repairing and avoiding the problems that they can cause. It’s a mindset that embraces and understands complexity and lives life to the full.

There are movements emerging that embrace this post-democratic mindset like Conscious Capitalism and Integral Capitalism. This stuff is new and nobody has completely cracked the formula yet, but that’s actually the point. There is no final solution. As life becomes more complex on our planet, our consciousness will continue to evolve new levels of complexity with it, bringing ideas which can greatly enrich life and solve the dizzying problems we face.

The state we’re in and the call for a new economy

I’m at the Imagine 2012 conference on cooperative economics in Quebec City. Here are some thoughts after the first full day. It’s a pretty frightening picture, folks. But there is hope.

The industrial age economy, and indeed the neoclassical model of economics underpinning it has reached the end of its useful life. Whilst it helped lift many millions out of poverty, we are now seeing greater inequality between rich and poor countries and even between rich and poor people within countries. A model of business based on maximising shareholder value in a world where only a tiny proportion of people are shareholders will only cause rising inequality. This is not just bad news for the poor. In unequal societies, the rich suffer from many more social problems than in more equal ones.

GDP growth brings about improvements to wellbeing, but only up to a point before tailing off and in many cases declining (for example, increasing obesity and mental illness in the United States.) Research by Manfred Max Neef suggests that this tailing off happened around the 1970’s or 80’s for most developed nations.

The economy is a sub-system of planet earth – an inherently closed, finite system, therefore the economy cannot keep growing indefinitely within it. This can be easily explained to young children. Yet this inconvenient truth is ignored by all large political parties who argue about whether growth needs investment or austerity, and we still have an economy based on ever-increasing, unsustainable consumption. There are about 1.8 hectares of workable land to support each human being on the planet. In rich countries like the US, the use is in excess of 4 hectares and growing. Not to mention the hundreds of millions of people in the newly developing middle classes in India, China, Brazil and others who are now joining the consumer party.

The key message is that we have to move away from a fixation on growth (getting bigger at any cost) and towards development – becoming happier, healthier, wiser, safer and with better relationships.

This is not a call for left-wing politics. Far from it. Socialism and industrial age capitalism have both failed. Capitalism, for all of its fundamental shortcomings is the best way humans have come up with to organise ourselves to produce the things we need. But we need a very different capitalism.

The cooperative movement – businesses based on ownership of members (be that customers, employees or other stakeholders in the community) offer an alternative to maximising shareholder value. Instead, they use capitalism to maximise social outcomes – in other words, the things that really matter to humans and the planet now and for future generations. This is the concept of development rather than growth in action.

This view of capitalism is remarkably well established. Cooperatives world-wide have 1BN members and the largest three manage assets in excess of 1.6TN (and guess what, they have been extremely resilient through the recent economic turmoil because they did not engage in the insane activities like shareholder-owned banks.) It’s extremely worrying that despite the size of the cooperative movement and the promise it holds in playing a part in a development rather than growth based new economy, there is no representation of the cooperative movement on the B20 – the business forum that advises the G20. Business as usual, the old model is there in abundance.

We have an economy and consumption that cannot grow indefinitely. We are close to irreversible climate change together with huge natural resource depletion and energy shortages. We have to act now to protect the planet for future generations, and we need to start by creating a new economy, and fast before it is too late.

Two things that travel has taught me about consumerism

1. Poor countries do not develop in the order you expect

When I stayed in Batu Puteh in Borneo last year, the family home I lived in had no sink in the bathroom and you washed by pouring cold water over yourself from a big barrel that filled up with rainwater. Yet in the living room there was a large flat-screen TV and satellite. This really showed me how poorer countries don’t always develop in the ways and order that we in the rich world might expect. You might expect people to be struggling for the basics and working up from there, but poor countries can see on TV the lives of the rich and they want a slice of that now. If you’ve washed in rainwater all of your life you don’t see that as a problem which needs fixing, whereas satellite TV is new and exciting.

2. It’s easy to get away from the consumer lifestyle. But hard to stay away.

When you live out of a rucksack for a year you learn to get by with the very minimum of possessions. It’s actually very liberating – you can walk through a shopping mall and not feel tempted with all of the ‘stuff’ on offer simply because you don’t have space for it in your backpack and don’t want to be encumbered with the added security risk of carrying more valuables. And of course when you’re out in the world experiencing new people and places, ‘stuff’ just doesn’t seem exciting. The only things I find myself really ‘wanting’ are very practical items like replacing worn out trail shoes.

The sad thing I noticed though from when I popped back to the UK last August is that once I was back in a very consumer society, the craving for ‘stuff’ came back quickly and I found myself shopping for trainers, watches, new clothes and other bits I didn’t actually need at all. I enjoyed the consumer buzz you get from buying something new even though I know it wears off quickly and doesn’t give you long-term happiness. I am going to try to fight this one hard and know I’ll probably fail to some degree. But being away certainly makes you aware of the forces at large in our society.