Co-operative Principles and Sociocracy

Posted on November 13, 2011 by nwhitestone

[Cross posted from the DecisionLab blog]

I am passionate about economic democracy — not so much in the sense of majority rule voting, but in the sense of the people involved in something controlling it together. Some people have argued that, for this purpose, organising as a sociocratic business is better than organising as a co-operative business. Sociocratic businesses allow their members to participate in decision-making regardless of the size of their contribution to the business’s capital; sociocratic businesses do not get torn apart by the Scylla of majority-rule politics or sucked down by the Charybdis of interminable and impotent meetings. However, many co-ops do not suffer from these problems either — and a co-op can remain a co-op while becoming a sociocratic business. The opposition between co-op and Sociocracy is a false one. Let me show you why.

I will assume that you already understand the basics of Sociocracy. If you don’t, that’s okay — visit SociocracyUK to find out more. Come back when you have the basics…

The International Principles of Co-operation are guidelines by which co-operatives put their values into practice. While different co-ops and different co-operative federations have different standards for implementation, all share these Principles. I will go through the Principles and compare each to sociocratic practice.

1st Co-operative Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership

“Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.”

In the case of a sociocratic business, “able to use” and “willing to accept responsibilities” implies a respect for the appropriate size of the business — one responsibility of membership might be accepting that the community has an ideal size given particular number of customers or size of facilities. Co-operative businesses and sociocratic businesses are both similarly limited by various bottom lines, including financial ones, and the decision of worker co-operatives to hire or not is a perfect example of such an appropriate exercise of judgment. Residency in a shared (co-operatively-owned) house is another example where a community must wisely judge appropriate size and personal fit without discriminating on the various grounds that would be inappropriate. Wise worker co-operatives give special care to hiring only those people with whom they wish to share their working lives over the long term. A sociocracy can adopt this principle and apply it in the same way that any wise co-operative can.

2nd Co-operative Principle: Democratic Member Control Continue reading

Qualities of Listening

I like this summary of the qualities of listening I found in Ann Weiser Cornell’s book The Power of Focusing:

A welcoming presence means you are interested in everything you become aware of inside. Each feeling you become aware of, no matter how ugly or negative it appears at first, has good reason for being the way it is. A welcoming presence gives it the space to be and breathe, evolve and transform.

Holding the space means bringing your awareness to your inner world and holding it there. It’s as if you’re saying to your inner self, “I’m here and I’m staying with you.”

Hearing the essence means listening for what is longing to be heard. When something first comes forward, its message may be difficult to understand. If you keep listening for what “it” wants you to hear, the message will become clearer and clearer.

Staying in present time means not being distracted by dwelling on what happened in the past, or on fantasies or fears about the future. It means staying in touch with how you’re feeling in your body right now, even when what you’re focusing on is related to the past or the future. Whenever you find you have drifted away from the present, ask yourself, “How am I feeling in my body right now? What am I aware of right now?”

Listening focuses awareness. Awareness opens the way to effective action.

Compassionate Justice

We know the justice system is biased by inequality. The best justice money can buy. And the locations where this justice system is carried out – courtrooms, classrooms, living rooms, workplaces – are filled with people labeled with roles of unequal status: the judge and the accused, the cop and the criminal, the parent and the child, the perpetrator and the victim, the boss and the worker, the teacher and the student.  These roles and locations carry with them social and cultural capital that privileges one over another and support dynamics of “power over” and “power under.”

What if there was an alternative way of engaging with conflict where we could sit in a circle face to face as equals instead of in rows facing the one most powerful? Where role labels are stripped away and the cultural trappings enforcing domination gone?

This alternative justice system exists in a variety of forms known as restorative justice and restorative practices. I’d like to tell you about one approach I am familiar with: Restorative Circles.

The Restorative Circle (RC) Process is rooted in the restorative justice movement and the insights of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). More specifically it is based on the work of Dominic Barter, who has been implementing Restorative Circles in Brazilian schools and courts to provide young people and others alternatives to punitive outcomes.

In a Restorative Circle, we sit as equals – no privilege for our wealth or our roles. We all share the opportunity to speak and be heard as we want to be heard.  We seek mutual understand and, from that shared understanding, set a plan of action agreed by all that is intended to help to restore  what may have been painfully broken – a sense of connection to ourselves and our communities. Connection is made when we hear each other’s pain – when have direct feedback about how our actions impact others. And connection is made when those others witness our humanity – an understanding of what led us to take the actions we have taken.  Connection is made when the community shares the responsibility for the context in which the past actions took place – as Dominic Barter says, “Every Circle is at least 500 years old” – and shares responsibility for the restorative actions to come.

Hope and greater equality emerge as we grow into our shared understanding that we live in an interconnected community of people who can care about each other rather than one that is focused on personal advantage, revenge or labeling others as enemies to be overcome.

The retributive (punishment) model of justice is rooted in class patterns of domination. Someone has power over: the power to reward or punish. By whose rules? By the owner’s rules. Rewards and punishments support inequality. When we blame others, we deny our responsibility and we foster disconnection. When we share responsibility, we become curious about how to construct a world that more effectively meets people’s needs.

For more information on Dominic Barter’s Restorative Circles approach see . For more information about restorative practices in general, read The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zher and the website of the International Institute for Restorative Practices  (

Both-And Consulting can bring Restorative Circle process to your community or organization.