Book Review: Sociocracy

Gerard Endenburg has written two major books on sociocracy, Sociocracy: The organization of decision-making and Sociocracy: As social design. There is a considerable overlap between these two books. This is a review of the first book, which is of particular interest since it includes Gerard Endenburg’s own story of sociocracy. The original edition was published in Dutch in 1981.

Gerard Endenburg wrote the book “in the certainty that a society’s organization must enable everyone … to develop as far and in as diversified a manner as possible” (p. 5). He thinks that “behaviour is determined by the prevailing kind of decision-making” (p. 3), and that “it is fundamentally important … to involve the complete individual in the decision-making process” (p. 5). He clarifies that “any form of decision-making” is possible as long as the individual “has no objection” (p. 6). He also emphasizes that sociocracy “has consequences on all levels and in each area of our existence, both as individual and as society” (p. 6), and that sociocracy enables us “to seek a more ‘human’ solution to literally all problems and conflicts” (p. 6). There is no reason, in his opinion, to “accept our present political, economic and social systems” (p. 6). Endenburg’s aspirations with sociocracy are ambitious indeed.

The book is very informative, but difficult to read. Gerard Endenburg is an engineer and admits that his “terminology … may sound rather cold and formal”, but thinks “this is in fact how things must be done” (p. 54). Well, if you are an engineer maybe? Endenburg recognizes human dignity and worth, but he is not good at writing. Or, maybe it’s a poor English translation, or both?

The “basic rule” of sociocracy is that the decision-making “is governed by the principle of consent” (p. 9), which is also called the “principle of no objection” (p. 10). This gives both the individual and the group space “to arrange their lives in accordance with their own wishes and needs” (p. 10). Sociocracy guarantees “the equality of each individual in the decision-making” (p. 10). The organization is “broken down into smaller units”, which are called “circles”, to ensure that the principle of consent can be applied consistently (p. 10). The circles, in turn, are interlinked to ensure feedback. This double-linking is “one of the essential elements” of sociocracy, and is not only an interlinking between “circles within an organization”, but also between “organizations with common interests” (p. 11).

The “four basic rules” of sociocracy are: 1) the “principle of consent”, which governs the decision-making; 2) the “sociocratic circle”, which has its own “objective”, and does its own “directing, operating, and measuring”; 3) the “double-link” between circles consisting of “at least two people”; and 4) the “election” of people “exclusively by consent after open discussion” (p. 11). The fourth rule follows “logically from the first three”, but has been added since people are so strongly conditioned “to elect people by counting votes” (p. 12). “Sociocracy is the power of argument” (p. 12), not of votes.

Gerard Endenburg emphasizes that “it must be noted that it is not simply a matter of introducing the four rules” in an organization. Each organization is unique and must search for solutions to its own problems in a sociocratic way. His experience is that solutions frequently come from people whom “no-one would have thought of” (p. 12). He warns that the four rules “sounds so simple, but that very simplicity can be deceptive” (p. 13). This simplicity can “deceive us into ignoring, or only partially recognizing, the possibilities which” sociocracy has to offer (p. 13). Endenburg uses the rest of the book to explain these possibilities. Almost half of the book is used to explain in detail how sociocracy “is being or may be applied in practice” (p. 51) as an “individual” (pp. 51—52), in “the family” (pp. 53—55), in “the educational system” (pp. 56—87), in “work” (pp. 88—126), and in “government” (pp. 127—143). The common theme among all examples discussed is “to make possible our individual life and the life we live with others” (p. 142). All organizations “exist for us and it is in our interest that the actual problem-solving capability of our organizations is as great as possible” (p. 142). Companies provide goods and services “on behalf of the community” (p. 89). They exist to serve the community and “the participants in the company” (p. 89).

Life is “an interplay of dynamic balances” (p. 15). The process which is capable of maintaining the “dynamic equilibrium is … the feedback control loop or circle process” (p. 15). Endenburg is, as already mentioned, an engineer and the “circle process” is a concept which comes from cybernetics. He uses two examples to describe the “operation of the circle process” in “maintaining a dynamic equilibrium”. The first is riding a bicycle (pp. 16—19), and the second is a central heating system (pp. 19—23). I agree with Endenburg that his example of riding a bicycle “in reality … is far more complex than this simple example might suggest” (p. 16). The activities involving the brain, muscles, and nerves in riding a bicycle are extremely complex. I think it’s impossible to describe what’s really happening in any explicit way. Any attempt to follow Endenburg’s description of riding the bicycle would actually get in the way of riding it.

A major conclusion drawn from these two examples is that there is “one limit which can never come under discussion”, and that is “the limit which guarantees the equal say of each participant in the decision-making” (p. 23). It took me a long time to realize that this guarantee of “equal say” only applies to deciding the operating limits, or “thresholds”, of the system components. Endenburg acknowledges that the limits in riding a bicycle “are not the same kind of limits as those within which the thermostat is allowed to perform its function”, but he still thinks that they “indicate constraints within which control may be exercised” (p. 23). I’d challenge this. Why would I need to “be empowered to issue” my “own instructions … within certain limits” (p. 22)? I think this works fine for a thermostat, boiler, or sensor, but not for for a human being. People are autonomic regardless of any “thresholds”. I think that the “principle of consent” is generally applicable, and not only specifically in deciding operating limits or rules. Sociocracy “does not ask for a ‘yes’ but does provide an opportunity to give a reasoned ‘no’” (p. 10). I need the opportunity to say ‘no’ to all decisions affecting me, not just rules. There’s also a nuanced difference between following rules and honoring agreements which sets them worlds apart for me. Just as we are strongly conditioned to use voting, we are also strongly conditioned on formalizing rules and roles. Rules become important when the focus is on not doing the ‘wrong’ thing, rather than doing the ‘right’ thing.

Gerard Endenburg acknowledges that “we still know very little about regulation and control in our individual life and the life we live with others” (p. 31). He also acknowledges that “people are not mechanical components, and people cannot be designed to to a job” (p. 30), and that “man is not a machine or a machine component” (p. 39), but he doesn’t distinguish between “machines” and “organisms” (p. 39). I don’t think Gerard Endenburg has fully taken into account that machines are allonomic, while living organisms are autonomic. Life creates and recreates itself afresh with each passing moment through an incredible amount of activities which are perfectly, freely, and spontaneously coupled together. Life has a way of maintaining the “dynamic equilibrium” which goes far beyond Endenburg’s examples. What if how we “arrange” our lives “in accordance with” our “own wishes and needs” (p. 10) is not a cybernetic problem? If so, Endenburg’s logic is correct, but the wrong logic. It’s as if he gives with one hand (equivalence), but takes back with the other (equivalence only in deciding operating limits). Limits are very important for Endenburg since they “are something we are constantly involved with throughout our individual life and the life we live with others” (p. 126). “The rules exist for our benefit” and can be adapted according to “our own needs and insights” (p. 73). They are needed “in order to enable interplay within the organization” (p. 73). I think skillful conflict resolution is as important for the interplay.

The “equivalence of each individual” is very important for Gerard Endenburg (p. 44). “Just as … the principle of consent guarantees the equal say of each individual in the decision-making” (p. 42), Endenburg also proposes the introduction of a “Subsistence Guarantee” for each individual (pp. 42—49). This guarantee “would be an optimum way of guaranteeing the equivalence of every individual and would enable the individual to decide what to do with that equivalent status” (p. 49). People would be free to decide how to spend their time if “their subsistence is not at stake” (p. 125). Endenburg realizes that the “Subsistence Guarantee” would have “far-reaching significance”, and suggests that the introduction of it would “have to be very gradual” (p. 45). He still thinks “what is important is that we do it” (p. 45).

It is Gerard Endenburg’s deep conviction that a sociocratically structured society “will guarantee the equivalence of each individual in decision-making”, both “in subsistence and in self-development” (p. 143). He comes back to this in his concluding remarks and emphasizes again the importance of each person’s “equivalence in the decision-making” and “equivalence in the potential for existence and development” (p. 167). The “emancipation of the individual” is very important for him (p. 168). “If one is to strive for self-realization, one must be given freedom to develop” (p. 57). Endenburg ends his book by saying that “happiness is like a flower”, and that he hopes that his book, in that sense, “may be a flower” (p. 168). May sociocracy itself be a flower.

Related book reviews:
We the People by John Buck and Sharon Villines
Holacracy by Brian Robertson

Related posts:
Holacracy vs. Sociocracy
The phenomenology of sociocracy



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