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Thinking Holistically beyond Politics and Governance


by Tom Atlee


I think that a new paradigm will emerge over the next few decades which may someday replace what we have come to think of as politics and governance.

Governance -- even when democratically constituted -- involves management and control, backed by coercive (police) power to ensure compliance. Politics as practiced today entails the struggle for social power, the ability to shape the social agenda according to one's own perspective -- compromising, if necessary, with those with whom one must ally in order to attain dominance. Politics also connotes the struggle for individual and group rights and for access to (and power over) collective resources.

These ways of framing these subjects derive from a fragmented view of the world that sees society as made up of atomized individuals and groups in potential or actual conflict with each other and with the whole of society. This atomized perspective is very much at odds with an emerging understandings of systems, chaos, complexity, ecology, and other holistic sciences and philosophies -- that collection of knowledge and perspectives we call the new paradigm. If we believe in the insights of the new paradigm, we cannot ignore the fact that they suggest entirely new directions for dealing with the areas of life we have heretofore called politics and governance.

I suspect that political and governmental issues -- such as questions of rights, citizenship, interests, freedom, control, and debate -- will, if we evolve in holistic directions, be replaced by more systemically-oriented questions like:

When we use these questions to explore the system dynamics of our own society, we soon encounter such issues as

These problems are all familiar. But from a holistic perspective they have a somewhat different significance than they do in the old paradigm. The old paradigm evaluates such problems in terms of their impact on individuals and groups (for example, in social analyses based on interests, fairness and oppression). The new paradigm sees them as ills of a collective body politic, an occasion for systemic healing and development. It also challenges us to find holistic ways to address those ills. For example, the new paradigm predicts trouble if we seek to control dysfunctional dominant powers in our society (e.g., corporations) through domination (e.g., government regulation) rather than seeking balance through feedback (e.g., green taxes, full-cost accounting, and community chartering of corporations).

If our culture operated fully in alignment with the holistic paradigm -- if it was truly healed and capable of collective intelligence and self-organization -- if it cultivated and harvested its rich social diversities and synergies for greater wisdom and resources -- would it have anything that looked like politics and government? Or would its orderly operation look like something else, something unprecedented that we are supposed to be evolving into?

Democracy is government by the people (read "majority"): those with the most votes (or majority-accepted clout) determine what everyone does. Democracy doesn't add up to collective tyranny thanks only to the idea of individual and minority rights -- which may only exist because in a democracy everyone ends up as a minority at one time or another. Democracy was a vital step beyond the politics of autocrat-as-the-head (mind and will) of the body politic, directing the mass(es) of that body to do its bidding. It is no accident that democracy was part of the atomized, rational Enlightenment paradigm exemplified by Newtonian science and capitalist economics. Newtonian science, capitalism and democracy all involve atoms exerting forces on each other in complex ways that generate the physical, economic and political realities that we see. In the latter two arenas -- politics and economics -- those atoms are individual people and groups.

The holistic paradigm challenges that model. It therefore challenges the idea that democracy is the supreme development of human social organization. From a holistic perspective, democracy is a necessary developmental step to establish the value of strong, unique, diverse individuals and groups in a social system -- and to provide ways to balance social power among such individuals and groups, because social power imbalances can severely limit a society's collective intelligence. Without ways to balance power, we'd never evolve beyond autocracies, plutocracies and oligarchies.

But an exclusive focus on individuality, diversity, self-interest, and competition for social power tears a society apart and distorts social evolution. We can see more evidence of that daily -- from the disabling politics of identity where people's demands for ethnic and other group rights have sometimes made social dialogue impossible, to the flagrant behavior of many corporations, collective entities to "whom" we have granted the legal status and rights of individuality without the liability, responsibility or intelligence we expect of ordinary citizens.

The answer to extreme individualism is not to reassert the primacy of the whole, the superiority of the community, society or government. The holistic answer is to assert the necessity of building synergy between individuals and groups and their communities and societies. The question is not whether the individual or society is more important, but what greater capabilities can be generated by maximizing and synergizing what individuals have to offer to society AND what the society has to offer to individuals. Certain kinds of individuality suppress healthy collectivity, while others enhance it. Certain kinds of collectivity suppress healthy individuality, while others enhance it. Thus the correct dichotomy is not between individuality and collectivity, but between function and dysfunction, synergy and dysergy. It makes all the difference in the world how we carve up this pie.

We're actually talking here about a radical reconceptualization of power. Perhaps someday power will be viewed less as the ability of one entity to influence another, than as the ability of synergy within and around a system to generate desirable results.

Every year more tools are being developed to empower human systems in this way, to build greater synergy within themselves, between each other and between them and the natural world. Open Space Technology developed by Harrison Owen provides a simple way for hundreds of people to self-organize around issues of passionate importance to them. Future Search Conferences developed by Marvin Weisbord and others can engage whole communities in reflecting on their shared past and the forces shaping their lives, and help them find common ground to co-create their future. The theory and practice of learning organizations developed by Peter Senge and others tells us how to create intelligent companies, agencies and schools. Information ecosystems designed by George Por allow communities of people to generate an ever-evolving body of mutually-accessible shared knowledge on the World Wide Web. Permaculture developed by Bill Mollison and others tells us how to design intentional ecosystems that yield sustainable benefits for all involved, including humans, more through mindfulness than effort. These are only a few of thousands of techniques and ideas we can work with.

The big question is whether we will see such innovations as isolated aids to our success within (or outside of) the existing industrial-/information-age culture -- or whether, instead, we will expand our vision to recognize them as pieces of an emerging puzzle-pattern for an entirely new culture, a powerfully self-organizing, collectively intelligent, wisely evolving culture grounded in the dynamic understandings of the holistic paradigm, as it applies to our societal affairs.

To the extent we choose the latter, we can say goodbye to politics and governance as we know them today.


see also Changing Worldviews, Changing Politics