Community Governance and Economies

10 minute read

We can think of governments as one would a species; the form of states evolved because they survived and reproduced in the past, but the future of any individual organism is not guaranteed. Modern states are a complex species that grew to depend on fossilized carbons for energy. As a complex species, states are more prone to devastation by natural events and more vulnerable due to their existence at the top of the food chain. Unlike other species, our states can predict with moderate certainty the coming events of climate change and ecological devastation. As a result, we have the opportunity to change our evolutionary path in order to better prepare ourselves for these events in the near future. We can work to manage the transition out of high energy dependency justly to bring about change equitably for the betterment of society. 

In making the transition from complex states into community-scale societies, we can turn towards another eusocial species in the animal kingdom for guidance. Ants dominate a variety of niches throughout the world, with interconnected colonies containing millions of organisms that carry out specific roles in the colony. Ants and close relatives in their phyletic line are very successful as demonstrated by their long existence, spanning well over 100 million years. They’ve survived for so long because they interact with their environment in a regenerative way, acting as pollinators and adding nutrients to soil. Humans are actually quite similar to ants because of their ability to communicate in the form of complex chemical messages. If humans use their social organization, like ants, to create interconnected communities that regenerate their local ecosystems, then humans will become more adaptable for future events.

Ants, Colony, Nature, Insect, Pest, Red, Small


States have evolved into large and complex systems of authority over diverse regions through exploitation and hierarchization (return to the article on state emergence). Since states are enormous compared to early human villages, democracy and participatory governance is almost impossible to achieve. For example, political participation in the US is highest for the presidential election, yet only hovers at more than half of the voting age population. The scale and complexity of modern states inhibits large-scale participation. Participation of US inhabitants is lower since large sections are disenfranchised through restrictive citizenship, felon voting restrictions, and voter suppression tactics. The population of Americans that are the most active participants are majority white, college educated, and high-income citizens. Nevertheless, many US citizens believe they prosper in the forefront of democracy in the world with the moral authority over freedom and liberty.

As an alternative to centralization and lower participation, community governance can provide a conduit for greater democracy in self-governing territories. The ideology behind community governance is dispersing power into the hands of people to rule themselves, such as Nicaragua’s autonomous regions in the North and South. Instead of autonomous areas being lawless as commonly thought, people in the community come together to formulate decisions as experts on their own region and problems. The communal decision making model is older than modern states, and it is firmly established in many Indigenous communities of the past and present. Traditional Indigenous models of government are based on “collaborative inquiry and joint problem solving” in a democratic process where everyone has an opportunity to provide insights and engage in the discussion. In Kanata, Canada, Indigenous peoples are successfully working to decolonize from settler society by returning to self-rule through their traditional framework. Community governance allows for self-determination in keeping with cultural values and local autonomy. 

Joe Townsend: Indigenous Mayangna traveling along the RIo Lakus, Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, Nicaragua

Restorative Justice

The criminal justice system is depicted as a conflict giving the state authority to commit legitimate violence against the people. Programs like “weeding as seeding” that sought to remove crime from urban centers while funding community programs only raised policing budgets and further militarized the force while cutting social programs. As a result, the US has seen a large number of fatal police shootings that disproportionately impact minority groups in recent years. The incentives for state violence against communities in the United States is high because people who are incarcerated count as members of states’ populations that results in raising the amount of representatives and dollars allocated to the district of incarceration, generating revenue through slave labor, and supporting an entire industry of private prisons. Unlike state retributional justice, community justice is a model that values members of the community and is incentivized to mend relationships and grievances amenably. Members work together to prevent crime and increase quality of life through a collaborative process that integrates marginalized peoples and ensures accountability. 

Legal systems built on the principles of community justice were present before state systems of justice as a method for tribes to resolve conflict without violence. In Palestine, traditional sulha remains the primary method of handling inter-clan conflict. In the case of wrongdoing within the community, the victim or offender can choose the sulha system over the formal legal system. The process of the sulha depends on well-respected members of the community in the jaha to act as unbiased judges to decide on how to avoid conflict between the families. After deciding on the method of restoring peace through mediators, the results are open for the public to ensure both parties are accountable. As opposed to court bail fees and tickets, the process requires no money for either party and community members participate as mediators and in the jaha as an honor. The tradition has lasted longer than any modern justice system and maintains the goal of ensuring restorative solutions over punitive ones. 

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People who are incarcerated work for UNICOR (Federal Prison Industries) producing uniforms

Community Economies

What can we learn from a group that the FBI said was aiming at “violently overthrowing the government of the United States”? Speaking of the Black Panthers, we learn that the US is threatened by economic self-sufficiency and mass withdrawal from capitalism would threaten their system of exploitation and supremacy. The Black Panthers not only use their second amendment rights to militantly defend Black people but more importantly seek to unite all disenfranchised peoples in the struggle against oppression. As part of the organization’s Ten-Point Party Platform, the Panthers commit to providing basic needs for the community. The community service programs run by the Black Panthers are immense including “free breakfast programs for school children and food aid for families; schools, adult education, and childcare; medical care, medical research, and ambulance services; cooperative housing; employment assistance; free shoes and clothing; free plumbing, home maintenance, and pest control; and protective escort for the elderly”. Black Panthers consider community service to be revolutionary because it provides security and strength for oppressed peoples. By creating strong communities with basic needs provided, the Black Panthers are liberating themselves from systems that keep Black people poor and politically disengaged. 

As an extension of Malcolm X’s ideology, Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi is transforming the local economy away from capitalistic and colonial ideals. The Jackson-Kush plan aims to reclaim factors of production for the Black working class to “engage in a concrete struggle to create a democratic economy that will enable Black and other colonized, oppressed and exploited people to exercise self-determination in Mississippi (and beyond)”. Cooperation Jackson is using a bottom-up approach to build cooperative enterprises, from recycling and composting to health care, owned by and in service to the community. The different cooperatives are made to be interconnected and independent: the farm produces food for local restaurants and the restaurants compost waste to provide nutrients for the farm. Therefore, these cooperatives are centered in the local ecosystem and built to regenerate, not extract, from the living world. Cooperation Jackson is taking back labor and means of production to uplift their community and create a new economy that’s beneficial to them. 

Cooperation Jackson
Cooperation Jackson members

Connection to the Living World

Relocalizing our systems of governance and transitioning to community scaled economic models opens pathways to building more sustainable cities. A simple example of the advantages of community governance is the democratization of forests in Brazil and Bolivia. Rural communities located near the Amazon pressured the government for forest property rights and began to reclaim large swaths of land in the late 90’s. Local management of the land aims to formalize traditional negotiations between economic sectors: local boatyards notice a decrease in supply of lumber so they negotiate with logging families to determine a sustainable amount of use without threatening the local ecosystem. In the Amazon, local involvement in forest management has proven successful at limiting deforestation and an extension of community forest management could reduce carbon emissions by more than half. Community forest management, as a model of community-scale governance, displays how local, shared ownership of land and resources preserves the ecosystem and prevents outside exploitation. 

Likewise, community fishery management on the island of Ngazidja, Union of the Comoros supports marine life while providing a sustainable, locally-developed economy. Despite the importance of fisheries to the coastal communities, the national government provides no regulation or oversight over fishery management and instead, local fishing associations govern the industry. Fishing is only one instance of cooperatives and associations governing on the island, since the communities regularly share resources across industries to uplift their island. All members of the associations have the right to participate in decision making on fishing practices and regulations. For instance, the community found that certain technologies degraded the environment, and agreed to prohibit them. Cultural customs are also taken into account, as night fishing is a cultural taboo viewed negatively as a sign of greed. The island communities display strong levels of participation and engagement in self-rule to sustainably manage their local ecosystem and provide for their community members. 


Future World

Our complex, centralized states are becoming endangered by climate change, the sixth mass extinction, and peak energy, leading to a new phase of human adaptation. Humans have only existed for a short period of Earth’s history, and our states have existed for barely a fraction of that time span. We can seek guidance from older species around us about living in tune with the world and surviving great changes, just as they have done. If we can imagine a future of self-ruling communities that remain interconnected with our cousin species, then we can regenerate local ecosystems and embrace the diversity that makes life resilient. The opportunities for communities to become strong again and reclaim power over themselves is opening the door towards greater changes that will build new systems of knowing and ways of cooperative work.

Works Cited
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