When the women bang their pots and pans in the street, it is time for a different conversation about ‘governance’

This morning a friend posted a link to a blog about the Quebec protests, and it sent shivers up my spine. When women begin to march banging their kitchen pots and pans, something has truly shifted – just as it did in Belgrade in the late 1990s, when women leaned out the apartment windows also banging pots and pans, or in recent times in Greece.

The post about Quebec was posted on an English-language site set up by several people who didn’t think the media were reporting the situation fairly. Within hours, they say, people were getting in touch to volunteer their support, help with translation, and share stories. “This is what Quebec looks like right now,” they say. “Every night is teargas and riot cops, but it is also joy, laughter, kindness, togetherness, and beautiful music. Our hearts are bursting. We are so proud of each other; of the spirit of Quebec and its people; of our ability to resist, and our ability to collaborate.”

They ask the media why this spirit is not being reported, along with the riots. “Why aren’t you writing about this? Does joy not sell as well as violence? Does collaboration not sell as well as confrontation? You can have your cynicism; our revolution is sincere.” I have heard a similar question being asked about the protests in Greece.

Media need a clear story

The media would probably answer that “it’s complicated”, and I feel considerable sympathy for their predicament. The picture has shifted at a level below the one they are used to reporting, where the narrative may seem more orderly, with clear viewpoints and spokespeople for each point of view. Reporting on spontaneous action by ordinary people who want to have their say, where there are no spokespeople providing easily recorded sound bites, is like trying to report on thousands of atoms swirling around in what seem like random patterns – how does one turn that into ‘news’ that can be reported in a minute or two on a television newscast?

The ‘news’ acknowledges such individual activity when it becomes a large nucleus, a huge crowd of people with a united demand or demands whose presence and demand often brings a response from government,  usually exerted through the police or army. In this drama, the crowd and the government are scripted as actors, and the stories of individual people become sidebars to the main story. Only at that point, it seems, does the media become interested in understanding how the drama started – the ‘prequel’ or the ‘back story’, so to speak. But a play has a beginning and an ending, and once the drama ends, the news moves on.

It doesn’t really matter whether it is the Tea Party movement, the Occupy movement, or Tahrir Square. The media needs to make it a story that can be clearly delineated, and the easiest story to delineate is one of opposition to established order, and the response of the established order to that opposition. It is, after all, the story that shaped the ‘nation state’ as we have known it in recent history.

A profound shift

As I have been watching events, in Greece, in Egypt, and now in Quebec, it seems to me that increasingly, something very profound is shifting in our world but the media hasn’t found a way to express it well because it isn’t a clearly delineated drama. These shifts are happening at the individual and local level, all around the world, and social networking and social media is allowing people to build a new sense of community that is not tied to a particular place.

This is happening at the same time that governments are having increasing difficulty addressing complex problems, at almost all levels. At times it seems just like Dorothy’s discovery, in the Wizard of Oz, that the seemingly all-powerful wizard was actually just a small man hidden behind a curtain. In an interconnected world, whose interconnected problems are beyond the power of any one government to solve despite endless meetings, laws, statements and announcements of action, governments often seem akin to that small man behind a curtain.

Governments have always been structures that exercised control, that shaped societies and brought order from the top of the society downwards. Their response, to the challenges of an interconnected world, often is to increase that control because the alternative seems to be chaos and anarchy and that is far too frightening a prospect to contemplate. Often the police or the legal system become the mechanism through which this control is ‘restored’, even though many times, the police – who also are frightened – react with violence that increases the fear and tension. That is the picture the media report, because it seems clear to them.

But is the alternative to ‘control’ really ‘chaos’? We have learned from the scientists that what seems like ‘chaos’ is really a form of order that we cannot perceive. The smallest of structures holographically echo the organization of the larger structures. The best known formulation of this is the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in one place may cause a tornado somewhere else. The only possible response to this, however, is to understand the system sufficiently that one understands why this occurs and then work with the patterns that exist within that system – not to legislate against butterflies flapping their wings.

The power of self-organization

Facilitators know that people want structure and order, even if they don’t want ‘control’. Increasingly, facilitators are working with larger and larger groups. Some facilitated events have brought together citizens from a variety of countries, aided by scientific knowledge, to make recommendations about how to address the challenge of global warming, for example. And one of the truly heartening things is that, when given such an opportunity, ordinary people take on the challenge and make recommendations that in some cases are far stronger than the actions taken by their governments.

Ordinary people world wide are gathering in groups to take action on local concerns and issues, using their own resources and their own capacities. Sometimes that takes the form of protests against government actions, when they feel that their governments are not listening to them. Sometimes it seems that energetically, people are withdrawing their consent to be governed, as when they don’t turn out to vote in elections.

Governments need to make constructive responses to these kinds of activities. They need to find ways to act more in partnership with local action, so that the focus is bottom up rather than top down. They need to find ways to diversify their structure so that it reflects regions and cultures meaningfully, rather than trying to be a homogeneous blend. They need to find ways to demonstrate that they are really listening and that the concerns of ordinary people matter. They need a structure that recognizes that ‘governance’ is ‘nodal’ and that ‘governments’ are not at the top of a hierarchy. ‘Governance’, thus, is not an activity uniquely privileged to governments.

Our world is a self-organizing world. People too are self-organizing, as they demonstrate every day at the family and community level. When they learn and exercise the skills of self-organization in groups, they create change all around them. ‘Nodes’ and ‘connectors’ – people whose networks, and ideas, influence the thinking of everyone around them – link people together on issues or activities or ideas. The internet, and social media, have extended this capacity far beyond the place they live; ‘nodes’ or ‘connectors’ may end up influencing hundreds, thousands and maybe millions of people they will never meet in person. This global stream of conversation is reflecting and shaping ideas world-wide that are then implemented locally, in ways that make sense locally.

‘Differentiation’ vs ‘empowerment’

Yet increasingly, even as people locally exercise self-organization, governments seem less and less capable of acting effectively on problems. It often seems they are working with a simplified map of their territory that doesn’t reflect its diversity and complexity. For many people, it must seem that people in government are talking only to themselves.

Barry Oshry, who has studied systems for decades, might call this the challenge of ‘differentiation’ that happens at the top of any system – meaning that its ‘elite’ respond primarily to the perceptions and ideas of others within that same group. At the bottom of any system, he says, the challenge is ‘empowerment’ – for people to act as if they have power to influence systems and to create change. The people in the middle, he says, face the challenge of being ‘torn’ between the top and the bottom, trying to convey the concerns of the people at the bottom while carrying out the edicts of the top.

One of the most intriguing things about watching the media report on the “Occupy” movement was their struggle to turn it into a coherent story, which eventually coalesced into a narrative of protestors, the established order, and the police. They seemed not to understand that the Occupy movement, like the Tea Party movement, was about creating a local capacity to create change – even if the core beliefs of the two movements were different. During the Occupy encampments, people were learning the skills of self-managing participatory processes so that they could facilitate change locally when they returned home. We have not yet fully seen the impact of this, but we can get some sense of what that impact is likely to be from watching how the Tea Party movement has developed.

To explain this new form of organization, one recent book proffered the model of the spider and the starfish. A spider dies if one of its legs is cut off from the body; a starfish grows another leg in place of the one that was lost. The starfish is a model of distributed and shared leadership. There are no ‘leaders’ or even ‘spokespeople’. People who follow the starfish model are focused on building individual capacity locally, believing that this is what will eventually change any system.

The challenge for governments is to work with that capacity rather than against it. The challenge for Tahrir Square and its many manifestations around the world is to give that capacity a shape by helping people learn to build on assets, rather than deficits, and to appreciate and strengthen what works and leave behind what doesn’t work. Re-energizing community thus also offers the possibility of re-energizing governance that has lost touch with the kitchen and the garden.

When women begin banging their pots and frying pans as they walk through the streets, they are saying it is time for this different kind of conversation to take place. Governments should listen.