Winning Is for Losers: Enspiral and the Politics of Consent
How a collective in New Zealand is pointing the way to social change from the bottom up

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 7 November 2018

I receive more than 100 emails a day from people with great ideas for social change, new democratic platforms, eco-villages, and alternative currencies. Some of them have already written eloquent white papers, created gorgeous renderings, or plotted out cyclic revenue streams that seem to challenge the laws of perpetual motion. These are well-meaning people, with great educations and skills, turning their attention to the most pressing “wicked problems” of our age.

Yet almost all of their ingenious blueprints for the salvation of humanity have been conceived and generated alone, in a room, on a computer. Yes, they want to find the others now — people and organizations who share the same fundamental values and who will recognize the wisdom of their master plans. But no matter whom I try to connect them to, it never quite works out. That’s because they’re reaching out to the other people much too late.

As I’ve learned by studying and supporting the efforts of Enspiral, a group of New Zealand collective enterprises, solidarity is not the result of world-changingly good ideas; rather, it is the cause. There’s no paucity of solutions to our collective woes: from permaculture and the commons to consensus building and platform cooperatives. What we too often lack are the communities of people to organize and apply these solutions in the real world, from the bottom up. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The Occupy movement has long been criticized as lacking substance or purpose, as if it were just a bunch of idealistic college students and dropouts with great motives but no plan. But to me, this was precisely their strength: a willingness to gather together with no particular expectation other than to forge solidarity and model a new approach to social change. Less a demand or a eschatological goal than a process: a new normative state and a new way of occupying reality. This may not have been Adbusters’ intent when it first called for a protest against Wall Street; it’s simply what happened when people came together with a determination to engage in the long game of social change, one collaborative step at a time.

No, Occupy didn’t achieve some landmark concession from government or the corporate sector. But it did set in motion a new approach to collective action, governance, and trade. Or maybe it just retrieved some lost approaches from the general assembly of ancient Greece to the commons of preindustrial Europe. These mechanisms were not part of some master plan, but rather emerged in response to the needs of people engaging differently. And as the needs of the people in the park and streets changed, different experts rushed into the scene to provide food solutions, technology, Wi-Fi, and more. Each effort was generated from the bottom up in an occasionally ad hoc but always organic way.

Enspiral may have predated Occupy by a year, but it arose in the same way and for some of the same reasons and asking the same questions: How can a business, organization, or society itself work without bosses? How can a group take everyone’s opinion into account and still get anything done? How can a company make money for its stakeholders without extracting vital funds from somewhere or someone else?

The collective’s solutions and now-thriving initiatives — chronicled in its new book, Better Work Together — were as much responses to its own challenges as they were bright ideas for the world. Loomio, a consensus tool modeled on Occupy’s general assembly meeting style, helps groups agree on difficult issues. Instead of promoting winner-takes-all, polarizing outcomes of traditional debate, it seeks to minimize total discomfort with group choices. And yes, solving this problem for themselves gave Enspiral a tool that was applicable as far and wide as the Podemos movement in Spain or local government in the United Kingdom. Similarly, Enspiral’s Experience Agency organizes and facilitates events and retreats — but only because its founders needed to develop this expertise to facilitate their own meetings and workshops on open source.

The efforts grow, for sure, but they don’t “scale” in the way Silicon Valley may think of growth. These are not the one-size-fits-all Industrial Age solutions now being distributed through digital networks. These initiatives spread because they are techniques that can be modeled by others and then adapted to particular circumstances. They are not products but processes. They are less services than offerings.

The problems engendered by the monolithic solutions of industrial capitalism aren’t countered by more big solutions but by many different local responses. Enspiral’s methodologies are more fundamental than any fully realized rendering of an eco-village or white paper for another blockchain. Like the service offered by Enspiral’s companies, these are not answers to your challenges so much as recipes for finding and developing your own.

The work itself — the process of collaboration — ends up as important as whatever product or service is being delivered. It’s less of a master plan or ultimate insight that can be thought up, written down, and emailed to the world than it is a commitment to engaging honestly, openly, and transparently from the beginning.

At that point, the objective isn’t to win an argument but to get to a place where the discussion itself generates novel solutions. Or even compromises. In the wake of one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history, we can take a lesson from Enspiral’s retrieval of true democratic principles: The object of deliberation is not to generate consensus but to enlist consent. There’s a difference.

Not every member of a community is going to get what they want. No proposal is perfect. So instead of making a proposition and arguing that it’s the best possible solution to our problems, we can instead say, “I want to try something. Does anyone think it will do harm?” The attitude shifts toward personal agency over unity and toward small iterative changes over large-scale renovations. It’s not about whether everyone loves it; it’s about whether everyone can tolerate it.

It may be harder to get everyone on board with the idea of mere tolerance when they have victory in mind. But the sooner we realize that winning just sucks when others must lose, the sooner we’ll break free of the maddening pendulum swings of winner-takes-all competition and the less totalizing our solutions will have to be.