Groupwork Centre Blog

What we are reading, viewing and listening to – August 23

Living Democracy:

An Ecological Manifesto for the End of the World As We Know It

By Tim Hollo

New South Publishing, 2022

As facilitators and collaborators we tend to focus on our workplaces, our households and the community groups we belong to. But what if we scaled up and applied the principles of connection, participation and power sharing we value to the whole of society? What would that look like?

Musician, community organiser and director of the Green Institute Tim Hollo has a stab at this in Living Democracy.

Far from idle musing, this is a robust work based on a lifetime of activism, research and writing on the big issues facing our world, not least the climate crisis and the unequal distribution of resources.

Tim looks into some remarkable experiments in self-government covering hundreds of thousands of people that few of us are familiar with. The examples of the Rojava autonomous district of northeast Syria and the municipal government of Barcelona in Catalonia are inspirational.

Where government services and structures were either non-existent, unhelpful or woefully inadequate, people organised to provide for themselves. They fixed broken water supplies, set up schools and ran health services. They established food services, provided housing and childcare. And they did all this using participatory governance systems led by the grassroots.

At the heart of their approach was an understanding that the two great centres of power in their societies – government and the corporate-controlled market – had long failed them. The alternative they supported was a simple model resurrected from a distant past – the commons.

If you are a member of a neighbourhood borrow, exchange or giveaway group, if you get stuff fixed at a repair cafe or if you wear pre-loved clothes, you are part of the commons too. It’s that place we come to support each other that recognises we are at our best when we reach out to connect, provide a service or distribute surplus food and other stuff with our neighbours. In this way, we build community, just as we as facilitators seek to build safety and belonging in the groups we work with.

The notion that a neighbourhood swap group can grow into a mini-revolution might seem far-fetched. Tim draws on his own experience of starting a Buy Nothing group in his hometown of Canberra to show this can and does happen.

The group he organised in his neighbourhood a few years ago grew rapidly and had to be split to work efficiently. Within a few years Buy Nothing groups covered the entire city with a membership of 40,000, about 10 percent of the population of the ACT. There’s little you can’t find – for free! – in one of these groups, and they have links with food co-operatives, co-housing communities and all manner of social and cultural groups.

Underscoring this movement of empowering each other in the commons space is a commitment to deliberative democracy. Decision-making that values everyone and the planet, not just those with the power and the resources to stake their claim.

Thus, organising groups at the neighbourhood level, guided by skilled facilitators to make decisions collaboratively, delegate broader issues to regional bodies operating in a similar way. And up it goes, never losing sight of the principles that value all of us, and indeed, all of life.

The final chapter of Tim’s book sparkles like a mesmerising gem. Its title captures this allure: The Journey is the Destination. How we relate to each other, the values that underpin our interactions and the energy we create when we work in this way propel us in directions that will always be helpful.

It’s a nourishing thought given the immensity of the issues we face as a result of losing our way on a relentless march to “progress” via material gain.

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