Posted by: Alan D. Price, PhD | January 18, 2010

Synocracy: The Novalia Model, Part II

“Slapstick: Or Lonesome No More”

Were Eliza and I really a genius, when we thought as one?

I have to say yes, especially in view of the fact that we had no instructors.  And I am not boasting when I say so, for I am only half of that fine mind….

…[We] composed a precocious critique of the Constitution of the United States of America…. We argued that it was as good a scheme for misery as any, since its success in keeping the common people reasonably happy and proud depended on the strength of the people themselves–and yet it described no practical machinery which would tend to make the people, as opposed to their elected representatives, strong.

We said it was possible that the framers of the Constitution were blind to the beauty of persons who were without great wealth or powerful friends or public office, but who were nonetheless genuinely strong.

We thought it was more likely, though, that the framers had not noticed that it was natural, and therefore almost inevitable, that human beings in extraordinary and enduring situations should think of themselves as composing new families.  Eliza and I pointed out that this happened no less in democracies than in tyrannies, since human beings were the same the wide world over and civilized only yesterday.

Elected representatives, hence, could be expected to become members of the famous and powerful family of elected representatives–which would, perfectly naturally, make them wary and squeamish and stingy with respect to all the other sorts of families which, again, perfectly naturally, subdivided mankind.

Eliza and I, thinking as halves of a single genius, proposed that the Constitution be amended so as to guarantee that every citizen, no matter how humble or crazy or incompetent or deformed, somehow be given membership in some family as xenophobic and crafty as the one their public servants formed.

–Kurt Vonnegut, 1976

The foregoing quotation is taken from Vonnegut’s novel, Slapstick: Or Lonesome No More.  In this story, the narrator is a brilliant, dizygotic twin of his equally brilliant sister Eliza, who are, nonetheless, freaks of nature, having been born with six fingers and toes on each hand and foot, respectively, as well as two supernumerary nipples each.  They grew early to a height of over two meters and had neanderthaloid features “of adult, fossil human beings even in infancy–massive brow-bridges, sloping foreheads, and steamshovel jaws.”  He becomes a pediatrician and later the last President of the United States, which ceases to exist after a series of catastrophic fluctuations in the Earth’s gravity.

As I pointed out in the first part of this essay, the fictional President had introduced a system of “artificial extended families” during his tenure by giving every citizen a new middle name corresponding to:

…the name of a flower or fruit or nut or vegetable or legume, or a bird or a reptile or a fish, or mollusk, or a gem or a mineral or a chemical element–connected by a hyphen to a number between one and twenty.

Thus, having been christened Wilbur Rockefeller Swain, he later became known as Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain and was instantly a member of the Daffodil family with ten thousand “brothers and sisters” and one hundred and ninety thousand “cousins.”

Vonnegut suggests throughout the book that congenial minds which operate in synergetic proximity to one another are more intelligent than when operating in isolation, as illustrated in the following passage.

The People’s Republic of China was at that very moment secretly creating literally millions upon millions of geniuses–by teaching pairs or small groups of congenial, telepathically compatible specialists to think as single minds.  And those patchwork minds were the equals of Sir Isaac Newton’s or William Shakespeare’s, say.

Oh, yes–and long before I became President of the United States of America, the Chinese had begun to combine those synthetic minds into intellects so flabbergasting that the Universe itself seemed to be saying to them, “I await your instructions.  You can be anything you want to be.  I will be anything you want me to be.”

This notion of congenial compatibility, obviously, contraindicates Vonnegut’s simple system of random assignment of individuals to artificial extended families.  This is a consideration which the Novalia Model directly addresses and to which we shall return later.

After his sister, Eliza’s death, Dr. Swain rediscovers their Utopian scheme, created together as adolescents, “for reorganizing America into thousands of artificial extended families.  He writes:

I found it absorbing.  It said that there was nothing new about artificial extended families in America.  Physicians felt themselves related to other physicians, lawyers to lawyers, writers to writers, athletes to athletes, politicians to politicians, and so on.

Eliza and I said these were bad sorts of extended families, however.  They excluded children and old people and housewives and losers of every description.  Also:  Their interests were usually so specialized as to seem nearly insane to outsiders. 

“An ideal extended family,” Eliza and I had written so long ago, “should give proportional representation to all sorts of Americans, according to their numbers.  The creation of ten thousand such families, say, would provide America with ten thousand parliaments, so to speak, which would discuss sincerely and expertly what only a few hypocrites now discuss with passion, which is the welfare of all mankind.”

When finding himself a candidate for President of the United States after a jolt of “heavy gravity” had stripped the elevators from Manhatten skyscrapers, rendering them useless, flooded tunnels, and buckling all but the Brooklyn Bridge, thus converting the island into a “sleepy seaside resort,” Dr. Swain ran on the platform of “Lonely No More.”

I spoke of American loneliness.  It was the only subject I needed for victory, which was lucky.  It was the only subject I had.

It was a shame, I said, that I had not come along earlier in American history with my simple and workable anti-loneliness plan.  I said that all the damaging excesses of Americans in the past were motivated by loneliness rather than a fondness for sin.

An old man crawled up to me afterwards [because of the heavy gravity–ADP’s note] and told me how he used to buy life insurance and mutual funds and household appliances and automobiles and so on, not because he liked them or needed them, but because the salesman seemed to promise to be his relative, and so on.

“I had no relatives and I needed relatives,” he said.

“Everybody does,” I said.

He told me he had been a drunk for a while, trying to make relatives out of people in bars.  “The bartender would be kind of a father, you know–” he said.  “And then all of a sudden it was closing time.”

Subsequently, the President spoke of “waiting on pins and needles to learn from the computers what my new middle name would be” and then receiving a “chatty letter” from himself.

My president congratulated me on my new middle name.  He asked me to use it as a regular part of my signature, and on my mailbox and letterheads and in directories, and so on.  He said that the name was selected at immaculate random, and was not intended as a comment on my character or my appearance or my past.

He offered deceptively homely, almost inane examples of how I might serve artifical relatives:  By watering their houseplants while they were away; by taking care of their babies so they could get out of the house for an hour or two; by telling them the name of a truly painless dentist; by mailing a letter for them; by keeping them company on a scary visit to th a doctor; by visiting them in a jail or a hospital; by keeping them company at a scary picture show.

Later, in the story, the President is discussing some of the consequences of the alternative extended family program.  He writes about an article appearing in either his or his wife’s family newsletter:

There was one interesting essay, I remember…which said that families with high moral standards were the best maintainers of law and order and that police departments could be expected to fade away.

“If you know of a relative who is engaged in criminal acts,” it concluded, “don’t call the police.  Call ten more relatives.”

The Sociocracy Model of Governance

The preceding quotation from Vonnegut’s novel, Slapstick: Or Loneliness No More, provides a good segue into a discussion of the model of Sociocracy, also known as Dynamic Self-Governance (DSG), which was developed in Europe after World War II to provide a more effective, bottom-up system of management, which is similar in approach to the Total Quality Management (TQM) concept that was popular in the United States. a few years ago.  The effort has been to make a business organization more democratic by giving it an egalitarian structure.  But, this is not democracy in the sense of “majority-rule” democracy.  It is a democratic structure that operates by consent rather than by consensus, such that members of a working group or “circle” are consulted as to whether they have fundamental objections that would preclude their being able to tolerate a proposed change in policy.  This process leads to the development of what might be called a true consensus [I wish to acknowledge one of the commentators on this blog, Rev fr prof Anih, who brought the important distinction between “consent” and “consensus” to my attention.  He also provided an illustrative example of the governance structure of Scouting organizations, which appear to operate similarly to the Sociocracy model].

In the third video link above, Gerard Endenburg, the developer of Sociocracy, a resident of Rotterdam, The Netherlands, harkens back to the discussion of the seemingly universal human need for recognition pointed out by Shultziner in a previous essay on this blog.  He states that in his experience, all people are:

…thinking about the power structure that they are in.  Everyone is looking for other power structure.  It is also my need to be recognized as a human being.  I don’t like this autocratic or democratic principle…to be ignored.  So, I see that we need Sociocracy to live together with other people in a better way.  So, it is a need for me, but it is also a need for everyone.

Vonnegut’s discussion of the fading away of police departments in a society with a strong extended family system brings to mind a segment of an interview with John Buck, author of We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, in which he discusses the difficulties involved in attempting to apply the model of Sociocracy (Dynamic Self-Governance) to the public sector, i.e., to the governance of towns.

“It is in the best interest of the police department to have criminals, because if they had no criminals, then they’d have no city budget.  And, it makes no sense that, if the police do a good job, the people who profit is [sic] the insurance companies.  Maybe the police should be selling insurance, and if somebody breaks into your house, then they pay you.  And, so we have a situation where it seems like we have an opportunity to harmonize or tune up the town, or that, that with a more…with…with a forum in which everybody’s voice could be heard or be encouraged…that there might be a much more joyful way of living. 

Over…over in India, they’ve been organizing neighborhoods.  They’ve got a hundred thousand people organized using Sociocracy to have the neighborhoods support each other.  It’s a very poor area.  They provide economic support; they provide cultural support.  And, they’re building it from the bottom up, and they’ve built a a really interesting system.  I don’t know enough about it to really cite that as an example of what I’m shooting for, because communication is really difficult with them.  But, it…there, there’s…my sense is that there’s something there, if we…if we poke at this idea that we can be kind of autonomous from each other and just sort of bumping into each other on the sidewalk as the way that we want the town to be that there may be something more, and this is very much an experiment.

In the Buck interview, the interviewer, Jim Gough, raises the point that the Synocracy model is predicated on a “common aim” or goal of the organization.  In a town, where people may have not aim in common, the situation is quite different.  He talks about his approach of dynamic facilitation for solving community problems, in which he asks what is of real concern to the individual and what does the person really want “and melding the two,” a process which John Buck regards as useful in trying to resolve the different viewpoints of people who may or may not have anything in common, which he relabels “multiparty facilitation” or “mediation.”  He indicates that this process will be useful with “multiple people who may just happen to be next to each other or running into each other….[The process] doesn’t need a common aim.”  Gough replies that ‘[this] is kind of like what happens in a democracy….In a town, people…they don’t have a common aim.  They’re just stumbling around and whatever.”  He then asks Buck, “How do you get them to have this heartfelt, creative conversation…that I think that the consent process [brings about]? But, when you do the consent process, I’m thinking that it really kind of assumes an organization that you’re walking into, that has a common aim, that has structure, that has a boss that kind of sets things up.”  Buck replies that it is a different conversation than if you happen to be people who happen to be next to each other and have a conflict with each other….I think that that’s really an important difference between being…trying to run a democracy and being a Sociocracy where we are building a structure, so why even bother might be a question–why bother to try to bring this consent process, the consent rewiring to a town?…But if you look at the way that towns are running right now, it just seems like there are just so many opportunities for improvement, because things are not aligned well.”

Gough muses that “there is no ‘We the People’ to take charge to make the changes that are needed.”  And, he wonders “how Sociocracy…could become [or create] that ‘We the People.’  Buck responds that “right now it’s not easy for people to have your voices heard.  In the physical neighborhood, you may not talk to your neighbor more than once or twice a year.  You may have a neighborhood of people that you are emotionally connected to, but you don’t do any governing that way, exactly.  And, so what if we started to organize at the neighborhood level so that…there was like economic activity based in the neighborhood going on and cultural activity, and this was coordinated on a citywide basis, so that if people had needs for daycare or they had needs for a nearby doctor or whatever and they weren’t there, [then] that could be coordinated.”

Buck’s comments sound very much like what Vonnegut was describing in 1976, don’t they?  And, they are also reminiscent of what the Friends Can Be Good Medicine program tried to accomplish in the early eighties in California.

However, Gough objects that what Buck has described is a “coordinating of individual needs.”  He goes on to say, “To me, this is a distinct thing from ‘We the People,’ where we together restructure our system.  Buck agrees and adds that “the restructuring needs to come out of a circle structure [as in business organizations employing the Sociocracy approach].

I shall suggest that the notion of “We the People,” as a force for change, can be emergent.  In other words, if one can develop a system of hierarchically-organized, artificial extended family groups, then “We the People” will emerge as a powerful force for governance on a large scale, which will truly reflect the “consent of the governed.”  This is precisely what the Novalia Model seeks to accomplish with its organization of Novalian enclaves summarized previously.  I shall take up a more detailed discussion of the social, political, and economic factors that have led to the need for such a model in Part III of this essay. 


  1. […] The Novalia Model, Part III In Part II of this essay, I considered the Sociocracy (Dynamic Self-Governance) model that has been so […]

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