Verna Allee says that in states of ‘complex unorder’, loose hierarchies and strong networks are necessary. This point was driven home this morning as I listened on CBC radio about the closure of a rural school in Nova Scotia and how the option of turning it into a ‘hub school’ was beyond the comprehension of the school board and department of education. These are strongly hierarchical organizations, while the community has been strengthening its networks between multiple actors in the region and beyond. The community understands it is dealing with a state of complex unorder, while the bureaucrats still think it is merely ‘complicated order’, as the departmental guidelines on hub schools attest.
“The neo-liberal argument is that the demand for school space is down and surplus inventory should logically be discarded. School sites are just property, a disposable public asset, and a potential public liability if they do not yield a return on their investment. By this logic fewer school children mean fewer schools. Schools have no place in neighbourhoods too small to supply a large enough clientele to make them ‘viable’. Market forces and market thinking trump democratic ideals for local communities.” – The School as Community Hub
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book ‘Democracy in America’ based on his travels in 1831, identified ‘associations’ of citizens to be a driving force in the new democracy. John McKnight, in The Careless Society, described these groups as having three key capabilities: “the power to decide there was a problem, the power to decide how to solve the problem – that is, the expert’s power – and then the power to solve the problem”. As de Tocqueville saw how a society could function without an aristocracy, we now must see how government can function without a bureaucratic elite, and communities can operate without bureaucratic overlords. At this time, communities best understand their problems, and have the networked ability to solve them, but they lack the expert’s power of access to legislation and taxation.
Almost two hundred years ago the association of engaged and connected citizens enabled a functioning democracy in early America. Today, the dominance of markets, and market-centric thinking is coming to an end. In the early network era we need to develop systems of loose hierarchies and strong networks to deal with the increasing complex unorder our communities face. Democratic ideals must trump market thinking, or we will be doomed to live in the past, using the tools of the past.
The European Union is an example of how decentralization can work within a unified political entity. It is still a work in progress, as is democracy.
“Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.” – EU Declarations
Subsidiarity is a founding organizational principle for democracy in the network era. It enables community-level cooperation to counter competitive market forces to meet local needs within a global context. Imagine if our governments had a clause that stated that they would act only if objectives could not be achieved by the local community. Neither the market nor the government have the answers to our problems anymore. Both need to step aside for network era democracy to work. The solutions to our problems are in our networks, local and global.