Where anarchy meets wholeness – a new vision of “panarchy”

Whereas anarchy refers to no one in charge, panarchy can refer to everyone and everything in charge – a kind of self-organized order that arises out of the whole taking care of the whole. There are a number of ways that can happen. Exploring them can help clarify the strengths and weaknesses of traditional views of anarchy and the resources we have available for healthy participation in healthy living systems.

Anarchy! Pretty scary, huh?! What about panarchy?

For some years I’ve reflected on the term “panarchy”. It sounds like “anarchy” which often scares people away or turns them off with images of violence and chaos. Interestingly, anarchism as a social philosophy is mostly about replacing hierarchical control with cooperation and mutual aid. I shared the negative image of anarchy until my experience on the 400-person cross-country Great Peace March in 1986. The small contingent of self-proclaimed anarchist marchers looked to me like the most organized group on the march – and they were quite peaceful and reasonable. So there’s a whole range of people and approaches in the anarchist world – as in everything else!

While I applaud the general thrust of anarchist arguments against top-down control systems, I also believe (a) that top-down control is sometimes needed to serve life and (b) that removal of top-down control can result in life-degrading chaos and violence when the people involved have few skills, habits or systems that support cooperation and mutual aid. So I personally prefer focusing on developing those collaborative capacities while progressively limiting the use of control to those realms of life and modes of activity that clearly serve life better than other modes of power like power-with, power-from-among, and power-from-within. This vision of limiting domination dynamics while developing cooperative capacities is a road to leaderful activities rather than leaderless activities, to the “rule of and by all” – the creation of shared order by all involved – rather than the rule of none by none – i.e., all parts of the system or community acting on their own.

I find “panarchy” an interesting word to embrace the idea of people co-creating shared order together, a range of self-governance forms with a collaborative anarchist tinge to them.

The term “panarchy” is clearly an offshoot of the word “anarchy”. It is not my invention: It has been used by different thinkers to mean different things over the years.* I want to offer my own vision of panarchy here arising from healthy manifestations of those traditions but perhaps more explicitly and directly grounded in “wholeness”.

The term “pan” derives from the Greek word for “all” – as in pandemic or pan-Arab. “Archy” of course derives from the Greek for “rule” – as in monarchy or hierarchy. Given the nature of my work over the last three decades, I want to propose a vision of panarchy – “all rule” – that embraces all forms of governance** of, by and for the whole.

Of course, it isn’t immediately clear what “governance of the whole, by the whole, and for the whole” would be. So here is what I’m talking about:

I see at least three forms of governance that would qualify as panarchy by that definition. Ideally they would be integrated as three dimensions of one coherent vision and manifestation of self-organized society.

1. First we can embrace forms of governance of, by and for whole communities or peer collectives. Examples include things like participatory democracy, communal self-organization, cooperative enterprises, and self-managed peer-to-peer networks. See http://www.wd-pl.com/self-organization/ for an overview.

2. Second, we can consider governance of, by and for all parties involved in, affected by, or relevant to an issue, situation, or goal. We find this exemplified by the collaborative activities of inclusive multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, multi-scale networks focusing on a shared social challenge. See https://www.tomatleeblog.com/archives/175327737 for more on this.

3. Most broadly and deeply, we can envision governance of, by and for the whole living world, taken in all its interconnected aliveness. In a society or civilization this would be epitomized by people and institutions recognizing that humanity is most essentially a facet of larger living systems. We would then honor, take full account of, and “dance with” the needs, dynamics and capacities of nature – and, thereby, the needs of future generations, as well. In reality, of course, the most fundamental manifestation of this kind of governance is already present everywhere: After all, the whole living world is already managing itself and has been doing so for over four billion years and humanity is already part of the natural world whether or not we know it or behave accordingly. Furthermore, “we” are already shaping “nature” and nature is very definitely shaping our lives and destiny. (Some nature-oriented versions of panarchy note that Pan is the Greek god of Nature. And Amazon’s leading book on Panarchy – which I have not read – apparently deals with the subject from this perspective.)

Unlike strict anarchy, “power” in this vision of panarchy can in certain circumstances involve control and domination (“power-over”) but puts it in context with many other forms of power. In a holistic extension of anarchist theory, I note that power-over has profound downsides, including repressing parts of the whole, wasting and degrading life energy and disregarding important factors that need to be taken into account – none of which make sense from the perspective of wholeness. So control or domination, if and when used at all, must be exercised conditionally and with humble awareness of its problematic nature.

In a further dance with the anarchist movement, I am similarly ambivalent about the strategic focus of many anarchists on getting rid of hierarchical institutions like the state and corporations. While I share their concerns about such institutions, a merely “tear it down” strategy can easily backfire if applied arbitrarily or prematurely. People conditioned by top-down institutions and by cultures of domination, competition and violence, often react to removal of their familiar structures with new forms of oppression and/or mayhem that do not serve life.

However, many anarchists see the liberation and development of people’s capacities for cooperation, sharing and mutual aid as fundamental, and their challenges to hierarchy are closely tied to that. I would say that’s true of panarchy, as well. The more these capacities are present in individuals and groups – and are promoted by cultures and social systems – the more the absence or amelioration of top-down dynamics will support the flourishing of life rather than its degradation. Positive social evolution requires a dance between the increased capacity for life-enhancing cooperation and the removal of life-demeaning domination.

I consider the fundamental dynamic of panarchy to be the co-creative nature and power of all parts of a whole, whatever that whole may be. And so the fundamental panarchic social evolutionary project would be to enable all parts of all wholes to fully participate in their intrinsic co-creativity in wholesome, healthy, life-serving ways, in wise alignment with the big picture realities they are part of.

From this perspective, we could say that the Co-Intelligence Institute and Wise Democracy Project envision and promote a panarchic social order embracing all dimensions and forms of self-organization that serve the optimum longterm healthy functioning of life. Many details of how this could be fostered are contained within the wise democracy pattern language and its associated resources and methods.

Ultimately, there’s no question that life will self-organize. Indeed, it always has and always will. The real question is whether we can become conscious, wise partners in that self-organization so that we can remain in the game of life. To the extent we continue to specialize in the dynamics of domination and linear control – over nature and each other – life’s self-organizing dynamics will surely remove us from the game.


* For an overview of existing perspectives on panarchy, check out the articles in Wikipedia and the P2P Foundation.

** GovernMENT is a subset of governANCE. Governance means simply the management of affairs, which can occur in any form at any level and in any realm of our lives. GovernMENT, as a subset of that, is one category of institutionalized approaches to managing public affairs. Many forms of governance involve no institutions at all, or those created ad hoc by the actors most closely involved in the matters at hand, such as families, neighborhoods, or informal networks.

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