Grassroots Democracy and Individual Autonomy

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We need a concept of community that makes it possible to dismantle the structures of domination and develop decision-making processes in which all community members participate.

Public opinion could always
stop the best from happening,
but never the worst.
(Karlheinz Deschner)

The community of the future is an original, communitarian, grassroots democracy, free of domination. This follows from the basic principles of the universal community. But we must know what grassroots democracy means and what conditions must be met by the group members for them to be truly able to exercise grassroots democracy. The word “grassroots democracy” has become a catchword for all those who want to protect themselves from authority and domination. The concept has thereby lost its meaning. For many directionless people, grassroots democracy means that they settle down somewhere in a community, that nobody can tell them what to do, that they get to discuss everything even if they haven’t got a clue, that nobody is allowed to be better than they, and that any differences that might exist are leveled as much as possible. The differences are always leveled down, never up. The success of this approach can usually be seen quite quickly: a sleepy group of bored characters who aren’t really interested in anything and who therefore need stronger and stronger stimuli in order to do anything: alcohol, nicotine, stronger drugs, new enemies, going on rampages. If then the new thoughts of free sexuality and self-healing enter into their minds under such conditions, there is total chaos. Many young people, who in the beginning were truly committed, have today become depoliticized and resigned because of their participation in such groups.
We need a concept of community that makes it possible to dismantle the structures of domination and develop decision-making processes in which all community members participate. That is a very ambitious concept, for everybody must be able to take on responsibility and think productively about the issues that affect the whole. They can only do this if they have left their private status behind and entered into a communitarian status. As we have seen, this is a fundamental change of one’s attitude towards life. Without this inner change, there can be no grassroots democracy. In order to become capable of democracy, people must change their inner structures. We come from a long history of domination and subjugation. One is the mirror reflection of the other. As soon as those who were subjugated came to power, they immediately began to subjugate others. This structure is a part of the collective character of humanity and it exists up to today. This is one of the reasons why the leftist revolution never could have worked. It had not developed any truly new inner human structures.
People have learned to either exercise power or be subjugated. The German people’s longing for a strong man (Hitler), the Russian people’s longing for a strong man (Putin), the Catholic population’s longing for a head of the family (Pope), the spiritual seeker’s longing for a great master (guru), and people’s longing for the highest leader and guide (God) constitute a piece of history that is imprinted in all of us, without exception. This longing for a (positive) authority has never truly been fulfilled, leaving behind incredible anger and disappointment. For many people, their original longing for authority has developed into an angry rejection of all authority, but that simply constitutes the reverse of the same coin. Anti-authoritarianism is nothing else than a fixation on authority with a negative prefix. In both cases we are dealing with an internalized “authoritarian personality”, as Adorno called it. In both cases, the idea of true autonomy is not even present. It is rebellion, but not autonomy. Rebellion always needs an outer enemy. Groups, which are held together through rebellion, quickly disintegrate once they no longer have an enemy. If they are too weak to fight the real enemy, i.e. the societal conditions and those who uphold them, they create substitute enemies: people with a different skin color, from other countries, or with a different concept of religion or sexuality. Today we can see this principle in action across the political scene, from the right to the left.
Autonomy is independent of such categories, for it occurs within, and it is a part of the developmental process that every person goes through as a part of the phase of self-reflection. Autonomy is a process of insight and self-insight. It is the innermost process in a person’s soul, resulting in a person taking responsibility for his/her life, no longer making others responsible for his/her actions. It is the decision of every true revolutionary. Once the decision has been made, one cannot simply rebel the way one used to, for one would first have to rebel against oneself. There is no point in fighting outer structures that one has not dissolved in oneself. If one is fighting an outer power, but would like to be powerful oneself, one is playing a false game. The same is true if one is fighting the abilities of others, because one does not have them oneself, or if one attacks the leader of a group, because one wants to take his/her place. It is not honest to get angry at being dominated, as long as one is not able to walk a true path of one’s own. It requires courage and much thought to truly walk a path of one’s own. Autonomy is a high goal. It requires a process of inner individuation, which liberates us (not verbally, but in reality) from every kind of domination.
People, who walk this path in a consistent way, are automatically attractive to others. People congregate around them, and they are natural forerunners and natural leaders – even when they do not want to be. By taking on the new role, they suddenly find themselves in a situation that they never wanted, for they share the anti-authoritarian point of view. They do not want to have power and dominion over others, nor do they want privileges and being waited on. They inevitably find themselves in a difficult situation, for now they, who have walked the path of autonomy, are attacked by those who used to be their friends and now accuse them of authoritarian behavior. The supposed friends from before inevitably make this accusation, for they have not themselves walked the path of autonomy, and they therefore react with anger and envy. This process is repeated a thousand times in all groups that do not have a concept. It is one of the main reasons for the failure of so many groups. In the name of autonomy, a merciless fight is fought against those who have the courage to walk the path of autonomy and to realize the declared goals in their own lives.
We must be clear about the fact that grassroots democracy has never existed in our culture of the old matrix, and that when people start to create the structures of a true grassroots democracy, something new begins to occur in the history of communities. From then on there can be no more followers, for grassroots democracy depends on the self-responsibility of its members. Here, I would like to quote a passage in the book “The Circle Way” by the Native American teacher Manitonquat.

In a small circle it becomes very clear that everyone has to see himself as responsible. Everyone must be a leader. It will otherwise be exhaustingly difficult for the one or the ones who carry the responsibility. They will be left in the lurch; they will feel overextended or isolated. They will soon be the target of anger and reproach. They are doing something good for everybody, and nobody is making it easier for them. They are hardly honored at all. What they need is the support of the circle; people who recognize and support them in their general tasks. They need everybody to take responsibility and think like a leader.
In a circle everybody is a leader. This means that everybody takes personal responsibility for the entire circle. To take responsibility means to think about what is needed and to share this with the whole circle.
I would now like you to consider the possibility of taking on leadership yourself and to design things the way you want them. If this seems to be overwhelming or impossible, then stay with me a bit longer.
Here we see the issue of grassroots democracy in a new light. It means to take on leadership for the issues regarding the community, to take on responsibility for the entire circle, to no longer engage in endless discussions, but to be a role model instead of waiting for others to do so. Here, personal qualities are demanded that in the beginning most group members are not prepared for. They must be learned. A strong and resilient community consists of those who have acquired these qualities. They are the natural authorities and the natural representatives of the community, and they are also seen as such by the representatives of other communities. Among themselves they choose the various group and work leaders. The leadership structures in a grassroots democracy are based on competency, contact, and trust, not on dominance. People who are stuck in the old power structures should not be given any leadership functions, for otherwise the result will be fear, competition, moral cowardice, and a lack of transparency in the group. In badly functioning groups, the problem is often that one or more people from the old power structure are at the top and nobody has the courage to do anything about it. These people are like a heavy lid on a barrel that is slowly but surely breaking up beneath them.
Grassroots democracy is a new force in a new world. It is not connected to anti­authoritarian behavior and private moods, but to the responsible participation in building the community and to the decision to create a self-responsible, autonomous, and communitarian life. The communitarian “I”, which carries the community through difficult times, arises from all individual “I’s” who have made this decision. It is through these individual “I’s” that the new evolution is being prepared at this moment in many places on earth.


The above is a chapter of the book “The Sacred Matrix” by Dieter Duhm

One thought on “Grassroots Democracy and Individual Autonomy

  1. Spot on. Thanks for sharing this text. Really difficult and daunting task, given the ages-old mental structures we are all embedded in.

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