From Domination to Partnership

I’ve spent the last decade working in groups who organise without a traditional command-and-control hierarchy. My journey started with the Occupy Movement in 2011 and has taken me into many different groups since then: open source software projects, cooperative companies, social movements, DAOs, networks and associations. I’ve worked with everyone from anarchist collectives to the United Nations. All of these groups are striving for a way of working that decentralises power, authority & decision-making.

Some of these groups have been exquisite, most of them struggle, and many of them fail. A more pessimistic person might conclude that we are fundamentally incapable of working together without a central authority, but I’ve seen enough evidence to know that’s not true. It’s not that people are incapable of collaboration, it’s just that most of us lack tools, skills and role models. We’ve been trained and conditioned to relate to each other in hierarchies of domination, so becoming the kind of people that can thrive in egalitarian networks is "easier said than done".

Because of the over-use of hierarchies in contemporary society, many of us lack the techniques, behaviours, role models, ideas, tools, experiences, beliefs and values required to thrive in egalitarian groups. Many of us don’t really enjoy being in groups, because most of the groups we’ve been in are dysfunctional, with weird power dynamics, unwritten rules, slow decision-making, and unresolved conflict.

Microsolidarity is designed to remove some of the obstacles that keep us separate from each other. It’s a guide to bring us back into a collaborative way of being, it’s a reminder of what it means to be a social animal. The goal is not to obliterate hierarchies or individual autonomy, but to redevelop our atrophied muscles of collectivity & collaboration. It’s a ladder that connects the very small scale to the very large, in distinct measured steps.

Two different kinds of relationships

My understanding of groups is deeply informed by Riane Eisler, who explains that we have a spectrum of options in how to organise, from very egalitarian to very authoritarian. She described the "partnership-domination spectrum" as a lens for understanding groups:

"In the domination system, somebody has to be on top and somebody has to be on the bottom. People learn, starting in early childhood, to obey orders without question. They learn to carry a harsh voice in their heads telling them they’re no good, they don’t deserve love, they need to be punished. Families and societies are based on control that is explicitly or implicitly backed up by guilt, fear, and force. The world is divided into in-groups and out-groups, with those who are different seen as enemies to be conquered or destroyed.

In contrast, the partnership system supports mutually respectful and caring relations. Because there is no need to maintain rigid rankings of control, there is also no built-in need for abuse and violence. Partnership relations free our innate capacity to feel joy, to play. They enable us to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This is true for individuals, families, and whole societies. Conflict is an opportunity to learn and to be creative, and power is exercised in ways that empower rather than disempower others." – Riane Eisler, Partnership 101

In my writing elsewhere I use many related terms fairly interchangeably: horizontal and vertical, decentralised and centralised, egalitarian and authoritarian, self-managing and hierarchical. Each of these terms has their own nuance, but they’re all roughly pointing at the same spectrum. I think Eisler’s formulation of partnership and domination is the most precise and useful.

  • "Partnership" is when we join together in networks of free association, where people are linked by shared interests and diverse competencies. People with power use it to elevate others.

  • "Domination" is when we’re organised into hierarchies and people are ranked in order of power & importance. People with power use it to make others smaller.

This is a simple framing, but for me it represents some very powerful insights. What I take from Eisler’s work is fractal, radical, and constructive.

Fractal = common features at all scales

The partnership-domination lens is scale-invariant, meaning you can use it to evaluate groups of any size. You can look inside a family to see if the relationships are more partner-oriented or more domineering, and you can also look at the relationships between countries, genders or species.

The large and small scales are mutually interactive. After escaping the Holocaust as a child, Eisler went on to examine what were the features of German family life that created the conditions for the Nazis to take over the country. She developed the ‘partnership-domination’ lens to explain the interaction between large & small groups: dominator countries create dominator families and vice versa.

Nazi Germany is an extreme case, but for the last few thousand years of human history it seems like we’ve been more-or-less stuck at the domination end of the spectrum. Hierarchies are the norm in many parts of contemporary society, especially schools and workplaces, but also many families, churches, and clubs. Even in social groups that lack a formal hierarchy, status games are ubiquitous; there’s some part of us keeping track of everybody’s ranking, looking for ways to win favour with the high-status people, and to "get ahead" of those with low status.

Seeing the interaction between large and small is hopeful, it gives me the sense that we can change the world by changing our neighbourhoods.

Radical = getting to the root

The will to dominate is at the root of racism, sexism, ableism, and all the other -isms. Domination is the common cause. We could eliminate all of these -isms, but if we don’t know how to come out of domination patterns, we’ll just invent new -isms, new excuses to dominate each other. (See A Class Divided for an example where a schoolteacher contrives to create prejudice by splitting her classroom based on eye-colour.)

It’s important to understand how everyone’s experience of domination is different due to their race, class, gender, etc. But it’s possible to be overly-focused on the differences and lose sight of the common cause at the root: the domination! There’s a fundamentalist streak that appears sometimes in the contemporary movement for social justice that is willing to use domination to achieve its aims. For me that’s intolerable and incoherent. (That’s a complex & controversial topic which I will only briefly touch on here. If you want more context please read my other articles: On Leaving the Church of Social Justice and Metamodern Social Justice.)

Constructive = focus on what you want to see more of

I share Visakan Veerasamy’s motto that in the long run, it’s more effective to "focus your time & energy on what you want to see more of", rather than to define yourself by what you’re opposed to.

I’ve spent a lot of time in groups that are oriented "against" something: anti-capitalism, anti-globalism, anti-racism, anti-hierarchy. While it’s important to understand the forces that are opposed to your mission, I think it’s often counterproductive to organise a group around an “anti-” framing.

It’s easy to unify people around what they’re opposed to, but it’s a temporary & shallow bond. It’s dangerous to know more about what you’re against than what you’re for. It creates a culture of infighting & witch-hunting. We become oversensitive, jumping at anything that vaguely resembles the thing we’re against.

Look at "anti-hierarchy" for example. Anti-hierarchy is intimately coupled to hierarchy, the concepts are tightly bound together. Anti-hierarchy is permanently constrained by what it is not, so the space for creative possibility is artificially truncated. This is why ‘microsolidarity’ is named for what it is, not what it isn’t.

I want to live in a society that has much less domination, but my primary orientation is not against domination exactly, it’s for partnership. Partnership requires justice, respect & accountability and it invites pleasure, joy & exchange. Partnership celebrates difference, it breeds hybridity and creates thick harmonies.

Putting it all together

This fractal, radical, constructive framing of power dynamics creates a mission for us.

We know a lot about hierarchy & domination; but the partnership end of the spectrum has not had so much attention. We’re thoroughly trained for domination: most of us have spent more than 15,000 hours in schools organised around the dominator principle. If you grew up in a WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic) country you’re steeped in the lineage of thousands of years of domination-based society.

If we want to live in a world that has less domination at the large scale, it makes sense to me to start making headway at the small scale. This is one of the key objectives for microsolidarity: to help us grow out of domination and into partnership habits. We’re only focused on the small scale, up to 150 people. Even at the micro-scale, there’s a lot of work to do! I notice how I habitually dominate the parts of myself I’ve classified as shameful. Just practicing with one other person, or with 5 people, or with 50, at that small intimate scale I can pay attention to when am I being more like a partner, and when am I being more like a dictator. I can get curious, increase my awareness, and develop the fluency to move towards partnership.

This essay is just a brief intro to a complex topic . For a deeper dive into this way of thinking, see The Chalice & The Blade by Riane Eisler, and The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber & David Wengrow, Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, and The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer.

Microsolidarity is an R&D project

So microsolidarity is like a distributed R&D project, exploring a very challenging and complex set of research questions.

One of our lines of inquiry is investigates the power dynamics illustrated in this essay:

  • **How do we, as people conditioned for domination hierarchies, grow into the kind of people who can thrive in egalitarian networks? **

  • If we’ve been trained for dominance and submission since childhood, can we learn as adults to relate to each other in a spirit of partnership?

  • We’ve spent so much time practicing for competition; can we balance these skills with an increased capacity for collaboration?

  • When coercion is the norm, how do we learn to activate our own agency and celebrate the autonomy of others?

  • Can we use our differences as a resource rather than a source of conflict?

To me, the power questions are an essential component of some of the other questions about community and belonging:

  • How do we re-stitch trust in societies where it has been eroding for decades?

  • Can we create resilient communities adapted to our contemporary context, where more people are living in multicultural urban environments, working precarious patchwork careers, and socialising extensively through digital connections?

  • How do we replace what is lost by the receding tide of religious social practices?

  • Can we have belonging without conformity?

  • How do we cultivate a community context that supports our growth?

  • How do you develop curiosity about your inner experience and friendliness towards yourself?

  • Can we learn to see groups as a collection of relationships, not just a bunch of individuals?

In my brain at least, all these questions are knotted together, they can’t be cleanly decoupled. You start tugging on one, but it is tied to all the others. In future essays, I hope to unpack these questions in future essays. But for now if you're feeling ready to get started, read on...

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