Sociocracy, or Democracy as it should be – Gabriel Hibon

Sociocracy, or Democracy as it should be.

A small contribution to the next elections

Some months ago, while discussing with a coach the difficulties of cooperation and decision making within a community, this person drew my attention to the concept of “sociocracy”, pointing out that this form of leadership goes beyond democracy. My curiosity was attracted by two facts: firstly, as a governing mode, it seemed to have similarities with what has been practiced for centuries within monastic communities; secondly it was developed during the 20th century, especially in the Netherlands. In fact, it is true that the Dutch are particularly expert in organizing and it is no wonder that this concept has its roots and development especially in that country.

            To put it briefly, there are three types of government, which correspond to three stages in the development of the art of governance. To govern is, in fact, the art of making decisions and of translating these in actions and realizations. To simplify, let us say that this decision- making can be done by one person (or a small group of people) dominating the rest of the people: then you have tyranny. Another form of governance, less imperfect, is called democracy, and its first characteristic is that the decisions (at least officially) are made on the basis of the majority. This rule of the majority is so common in democratic regimes that it seems impossible to think of a different model. And, as Kees Boeke says: “it is in fact better to count the votes, than to silence voices”[1]. But the deficiencies and weaknesses of democracy have become more and more evident with time: “endless debates in the chamber of representatives, mass demonstrations where very often base instincts awaken, rejection by the majority of other points of view and opinions, insecure results of ballots and political decisions, made very difficult through the persistent opposition of the minority”[2].

            The political situation in 2017 in France is enough to give incentive to those who would like to install new forms of governance. The solution has to be truly democratic in the sense of allowing everyone to participate in the organization of the community. It should be a real communal or communitarian democracy. We think of the statement of Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. As Boeke says, this concept of sociocracy would be of no help had its success not been experimented for decades and even centuries. For him the seminal experiment occurred in London during WWII, with the Quakers. The Quakers developed a self-government method that does not follow the rule of the majority. Instead a decision is taken and action is undertaken only when unanimity is attained. Boeke testifies that he used this method in the school he founded later in The Netherlands, with more than 400 pupils.

            The reader thinks immediately that this is too idealistic and not sustainable. But it is useful to reflect on the conditions necessary to that sort of decision making. It is actually true that the sociocracy model has not yet been been experimented on a large scale, a town, a region, let alone a nation. But let us think that we have everything to gain, and nothing to lose, in experimenting an enhanced democracy, even on a small scale, and give incentive to research that may implement this model on a larger scale. If a whole region, a county, for instance, could be governed in such a way, with time, patience and work, this would give hope of a real change of mindset about the way we live together in the same nation.

            The first condition, Boeke explains, is that it must be recognized that the interests of others are as real and important as are one’s own. This fundamental attitude creates a spirit of goodwill apt to unite people with different, even opposite, opinions. The point of view of all members has to be considered, but at the same time the common interest is recognized to have primacy over individual interests.

            The second condition, or rule, is that a decision is taken after “unanimity” has been attained. There comes a shift in the conception of unanimity. The solutions to a problem are searched in such a way that everyone can accept them. This is perhaps the most evident breakthrough. Further-on in this article it will be shown how this rule has evolved. Stepping out of the “party system” of the present democracy, where differences of opinions lead to divisions, and realizing that agreement must be attained, stimulates the search for solutions by everyone and together. Experience proves that, in such a setting, on the basis of mutual trust, conservatism recedes and new solutions are found.

            The third rule is that, once an agreement is found, the decision that follows is compulsory for everyone who cooperated to reach this agreement. Some obvious objections immediately come to mind, such as the common difficulty to apply decisions in which one did not have a direct part or that do not represent one’s own opinion and one nevertheless has to accept them. Furthermore this model seems not sustainable for big entities, such as a metropolis, let alone regions or countries.

            It is true that this model demands great quality both of leadership and of human relations, quality that seems quite rare to find in other places than in very select communities. It seems nonetheless that these difficulties are less pungent than in the actual democratic system, because the human common background is different. A real, conscious, pedagogy is necessary to attain such maturity, and it is obvious to begin with very simple subjects and easy situations on a small scale, before being able to govern on a larger scale, after new leaders have been formed. The challenge is to find an “art of living together”, the famous “concord” of classical philosophy.

            Kees Boeke was an activist and probably a “visionary”. It was, at the beginning of the 70’s, the task of a former student of his school, Gerard Endenburg, to formulate more accurately the four rules of management that give an organization a structure of communication and decision making, and encourages ethical behavior. [3] Let us have a quick look at his formulation[4]:

            1/ The consent of members (= “zero objection” status) is the way to take decisions regarding the policy that constitutes the life of a work team. This means that no important decision can be taken if one of the members still has a reasonable objection.

            2/ Each work unit forms a “consultation circle”, which is the place where questions are debated and decisions taken. Each circle has a definite mission and delegates to its members the tasks to realize it. This consultation circle is responsible for three things: to attain the goals of the unit, to improve its work methods and to develop the skills of its members.

            3/ The link between two “consultation circles” is double: at least two people take part in the decisions in the immediately superior circle: the head of the unit and one representative elected by the members of the inferior circle.

            4/ The members of a work unit are chosen by the “consultation circle” (which also decides his of her function), after an open discussion and a decision on the basis of the consent of the members.

It is not possible here to go much further into the presentation of this philosophy of people management. But let us have a quick look at the first rule, the rule of consent and no-objection.

            This rule is, as it were, the symbol of the whole vision. Consent is actually different from the search for consensus. In a consensus, the goal is to try to get everyone to say yes to the proposition. As this unanimity is often impossible to attain, the rule of the majority (50% plus one vote, or 2/3 of the votes) imposes the decision onto the minority. Instead of imposing, the search for consent is based primarily on cooperation. Cooperation entails understanding. Each one participating in the consultation circle is invited to ponder for himself the reasonableness of the proposition. Then everyone is invited to expose the objections in order to become aware together of the effect of the proposition at stake. A reasonable objection is one that is recognized as such by the group. Those who do not express their opinion are thus consenting.[5]

            This decision procedure takes into account the acknowledgment of all the members of the entity. It is an up-date and enhancement of the present democratic process. As we are all different and the search for unanimity is futile. It is, Gilles Charest affirms, more respectful of reality and more practical to look for the objections and difficulties of the others, instead of trying to convince them.[6] Objections are not seen as obstacles against the decision process, but as necessary conditions to a good decision and to a successful concretization. In fact, when a decision is taken while some members are not heard and their objections not integrated, the risk is great that they later will not fully cooperate, and will even sabotage the decision.

            Sociocracy promotes personal freedom within the group; as a result of being able to express his own objections, everyone will simultaneously express the limits within which he can live with the group and with the decision that has to be taken. At the same time, the group will define its limits. Both in nature and in society, there is no movement or life without limits. The clearer these limits are identified, the better everyone can live and work with others.

            Furthermore, the goal is not, within the discussion to convince the others but to understand the problem and find the best solution. There should be no loser, but, on the contrary, everyone is stimulated to find new options. The dynamism of exploration of new ways and solutions is promoted. The quality of argumentation and reasons is what is the most important, and not the hierarchical position of the one who speaks.

            Aside from these main advantages of sociocracy as management model, there are difficulties and doubts. Because this method demands a great maturity, people must identify their fears, and have a profound inner freedom and a deep respect for the opinion of the other. Conversely, authoritarian structures are, for most people, easier because the burden of responsibility may be heavy.[7]

            Beginning to study this new way of living and working together, I saw that it is not unknown to me. Actually, in monastic life in little communities (and despite the ideas or prejudices that one can have from the outside), decisions cannot be truly effective if all the members are not engaged in the process. Everyone has to have the opportunity to express his needs. And even if voting is a normal way of choosing, the preparation to the vote includes many aspects of sociocracy.

            It is also worth mentioning that a fundamental aspect of the good governance is subsidiarity, especially developed by the Catholic Church. Subsidiarity means that, in an organization, everything that a lower level can do on its own is left to that level, and consequently that a higher level only takes over the tasks when the lower level cannot (any more) be in charge. This “subsidiarity principle” is related to the principles of sociocracy, which tends to make every member of the entity responsible.

            As a dialogue model and decision making model, sociocracy is the way for the future. As Michel Rocard said, in a famous discourse early in his political career: “Nous devons décoloniser la province”.[8] French Jacobinisme and centralism have shown their failure. It is time to give back the authority and the power to the people who are living and working together. Sociocracy is an effective model to do that.

Gabriel Hibon

Master 2 Anglais

[1] Kees Boeke, “La démocratie telle qu’elle devrait être”. Traduction Claire Mazeau-Karoum et Fabien Chabreuil, on: This article of the inspirator of sociocracy in Europe is one of the main sources of this enquiry. A vivid description of his experiences can be found at the origin of sociocracy.

[2] Ibid.

[3] As young director of an electronic company, Endenburg confronted communication and decision difficulties. Using his experience at Boeke’s School, and his formation in cybernetics, he introduced this new model and succeeded in transforming the company from within. He is at the origin of the formalization of this new management model and choose the name invented by Auguste Comte: sociocracy.

[4] Gilles Charest, La démocratie se meurt, vive la sociocratie! Le mode de gouvernance qui réconcilie pouvoir et coopération. Ed. Esserci, 2007, Italy. An extract is available on:

[5] Gilles Charest develops on this point a view on how all of nature, with its multitude of forces, lives and endures because it takes into account the reciprocal contribution of all of its parts. Sociocracy can thus be said to be an “ecological” way of collaborating.

[6] The word “convince” includes the meaning of “conquering”, “reaching victory” which is the contrary of the philosophy of sociocracy.

[7] For a commentary on the other fundamental rules of sociocracy, see Charest, op. cit. It is from this author that this article, in its second part, takes most of its information and reflexion.

[8] It will be the title of a next book of Michel Onfray.

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