Richard Bartlett describes himself as “one of those people with a lot of websites”, and he’s right. He’s the co-founder of Loomio, a platform for small-scale digital democracy inspired by the 2011 Occupy Movement. He’s also co-leader of The Hum, a training & consulting company that supports decentralised organisations to work without domination hierarchies. And he’s also the co-director of the Enspiral Foundation, which is a professional network of friends supporting each other to do more meaningful work in the world. And he’s the author of a community-building methodology called Microsolidarity.
Rich is a fanatical Twitterer, and tells me he is a halfway decent blues guitarist. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian community in New Zealand and now lives literally as far away as you possibly can, in Lucca, Italy, for reasons that become clearer in our conversation.
I haven’t met Rich in person yet, although I know him from some work he did earlier this year with SEEDS, the complementary currency. I was impressed with his very practical wisdom, so I was inspired by that interaction to take a course with The Hum, hosted by Rich and his partner, Nati, which was excellent.
In this conversation we talk about complex systems, chaos and coherence, nouns and verbs, cultural innoculation, methodologies rather than mission statements, trust, partnership and domination, Riane Eisler and Kim Stanley Robinson, heaven and hell and Christianity, LSD, fear of death, polarisation and harmonisation.
What I took away from this conversation was a greater understanding of, well, understanding. In our world it often feels like many people are talking, and not so many are listening. When we really listen, it becomes easier to focus on our similarities rather than our differences, and to tune into the shades of grey between the black and white extremes of polarised discourse. I love the work Rich is doing. It makes me feel hopeful.
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Rich’s Favourite Quote:
“When a complex system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence in a sea of chaos have the capacity to shift the entire system to a higher order.” (Ilya Prigogine)
We live in a sea of chaos. We create things like civilization and norms and society to try and manage the chaos. And by chaos, I mean this infinitely unfolding uncertainty, the huge multiplicity of possibilities that keeps flourishing in front of us, because it’s just the way that life works. We live in chaos, and a lot of people would prefer not to look at it – we try and make things predictable and safe. And so we have institutions and rules and governance, and so on, to try and make things predictable…
For me, the island of coherence is a small group of mutual aid and shared understanding, trust and care. If I’m in that little island, at the very least, I’m going to be taken care of. And at best, there’s the possibility that we might have the capacity to shift the entire system.
If you’re making a loaf of bread, you have a really intensely inoculated piece of dough. And then you mix it in with some new ingredients, and you put it in a warm, dark place for a few hours, and then it rises, as the culture spreads through the whole loaf. I really think that’s a useful metaphor for how you spread culture in a group. You need a mother [culture], there needs to be a source, it needs to come from somewhere.
We’re currently fermenting a particular kind of culture within these voluntary employee networks. And our aspiration is that’s going to affect the rest of the organization, and eventually the leadership. And then eventually, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the leadership would affect the leaders of countries and that some of this culture of respect and vulnerability and authenticity could leak out a little?
I devalue the nouns and I and I value the verbs. [Reminiscent of my conversation with Paul Hawken about goals – where he prefers nouns, not verbs]
You’ll notice I don’t usually use the word sovereignty, because sovereign to me implies a disconnected individual with an impermeable boundary. And I don’t really think of individuals in that way.
I don’t have to spend a lot of time talking about the purpose, or the values, or getting an agreement on this very abstract layer [of an organisation]. It’s more about what’s the what are the qualities of the encounter? How do we want to feel when we’re working together? What kind of dynamics do we want to experience between us? And if we focus on that… it’s worked for us so far.
It’s so attractive to talk about abstractions, like, what’s wrong with capitalism? Or what about patriarchy? And we need to have theory, we need to step into that big picture space to get some understanding of what’s going on in the world. But there’s not much that I can do about patriarchy. I can do something about how specific behaviours show up in a patriarchal context. I can do something about how I share the microphone with women, for example, that’s a very specific verb.
People always come up with these very lovely vision statements. But they’re often quite distant from the verbs, from the practical. What am I supposed to do today? And how are we going to measure our progress next week?
I don’t think agreement is about everyone saying yes… I think agreement is operating at a lower level down the down the biological stack. It’s something that happens in our body when we feel trust, when we feel we’ve been heard, when we feel that our position is respected. And when we have that sense of trust with the other person, then we’re willing to go along with what’s happening.
I’ve got the option to go towards partnership or towards domination. And the domination is always a dyad, where you’ve got this this awful duet between domination and submission where one person is over-exerting and the other person is shrinking. And that that domination/submission relationship is part of my inheritance as a human being. It’s definitely in our cultural inheritance. And I’ve always got opportunities to choose, over and over again, am I going to play this one more like a partnership or more like a dictatorship? And so my anarchism is about noticing where there are these opportunities for coercion and oppression, and seeking ways to flip them into liberation, freedom, passion, and exchange, coming out of this extraction thing, and into this abundance thing.
I’m not trying to enrol millions of people into a project, my scale tops out around 20,000 people or 30,000 people. My view of the world is not linear. I don’t believe that any of us are going to come up with a program that’s good enough to enrol everyone into. We’ve got to rely on the emergence. we’ve got to rely on all of these different coalitions and factions, pulling in different directions, sometimes reinforcing each other, sometimes undermining each other. And that the dynamic tension between all those things, producing something that that continues to affirm and spread life. And that’s the game that I’m playing. It’s not about trying to come up with a one true plan that everyone can agree with.
We’ve still got the Christian grammar, and this idea of Heaven and Hell, and of the afterlife. And this kind of threshold where either everything goes incredibly well, or it goes incredibly badly, either we have annihilation, or we have bliss. That’s really deeply imprinted on us… I’ve been noticing that tendency in myself and letting go of these massive stories about how we’re either gonna have a utopia or a dystopia. I’m just trying to release that, and assume that the future is unpredictable. There’s some terrifying possibilities. There’s some inspiring possibilities. And whatever I guess, it’s probably not going to be that.
I was raised within a fundamentalist Christian community. And in my early 20s, I was excommunicated as an apostate. I was given the boot. And that was because of this process of thinking [I have]. I literally had a day where I said to myself, imagine if this is not true. Imagine if everything that you’ve been taught by your family and your school and in your entire community, is just a story that got out of hand? It’s just a myth that someone misinterpreted as fact. Imagine if God is not actually this human-like creature who has a personal interest in my life. Imagine that is not true. How would life be different? And once I allowed myself to fully occupy that imaginary space, my faith completely evaporated. So that’s the first [way I am able to see clearly] is noticing that the consensus around me is not the only possibility and then really occupying that imaginary space.
A lot of things changed about my way of seeing the world after I took a lot of LSD. It’s as if many of the abstractions dissolved. And I got to reconstruct them more intentionally.
I think it was the fear of death that keeps people from changing their mind a lot of time. If your identity is so strongly fused to your ideas, of course you’re not going to change your ideas, because it feels like dying.
[On “good neighbourhoods”]: I’m just saying that the kind of change that’s required, I think a lot of it is about undoing the damage that’s been done over the last while. As Adam Curtis says, the century of the self has been a very intentional project to turn us into individuals. And that’s just not the full story of what humanity is. [See YouTube to watch The Century of the Self for free]
Which one’s the right one, which one’s the wrong one? It’s sometimes necessary, sometimes you need to draw a boundary and say, this is right and this is wrong. But it’s not always the right thing to do when a polarity comes along. Sometimes there’s a lot of insight to be gained from considering from really visiting each side of the polarity and really inquiring with open hearted compassion, what value is there? what have I got to learn? And usually what you find is there’s value on both sides.
Something that I’ve tried to practice is noticing whenever there’s a polarity and going, is this a really clear black and white distinction? Or is it actually a spectrum? And what do I get to gain if I go and visit both sides, and really empathize and try and understand what they have to offer? And usually there’s something good there, usually group conflict comes down to an overly simplified polarization. And actually, what you need is happening in between those two poles. But you’re not going to get there unless the people that are occupying those poles feel like they’ve genuinely been heard and understood and their perspective is valued. And then suddenly, the space opens up for a more subtle kind of harmony.
Loomio: a workspace for conversation, sharing information and opinions, making proposals, deciding actions and achieving outcomes
The Hum: online courses and practical advice on self-organisation
Enspiral: a collective of individuals who not only believe in, but practice a new way of organising
Microsolidarity: central hub to collect resources for the co-development of multiple communities for people to do a kind of personal development, in good company, for social benefit