General Assemblies: the primordial soup of social life in the 3rd millennium

—   an essay about evolutionary dynamics and the Occupy movement —

Part One


1. How life assembled itself


The origins of life

Where were you and I, and what did we do, 3.5 billion years ago? Most likely, swimming in one of the Earth’s before-life oceans, close to the shoreline, as self-replicating but nonliving molecules. There were zillions of us, inorganic and pre-biotic compounds, unevenly concentrated at various locations.

We could have been sitting, for example, somewhere in a tide pool, or on a mud bank at the mouth of river washing some volcanic stuff into the ocean. Who knows? What is certain is that we were there. Where else could we have been?

We then must have gone through some pretty harsh and sudden changes of our environment, which triggered the formation of amino acids, also known as the building blocks of life, coming together as proteins, the first organic molecules. They organized themselves into single cell creatures that still lacked a cell nucleus, and finally came the amoebas in that long chain of our ancestors dwelling in the border area between the non-living and living worlds.

Cambrian explosion

Then something pretty amazing happened that scientists refer to as the “Cambrian explosion,” the relatively rapid appearance of all the major groups of organisms, and their fast diversification 530 million years ago. It was an acceleration of evolution by an order of magnitude. It happened when an ecosystem of single-cell beings gained better communication capacity and self-organised into colonies of cells giving rise to multi-cellular organisms.

2. Civilisation: the second Cambrian explosion

Here we are, surfing on the time wave of billions years that led to the latest (but not necessarily the last) species, the homo sapiens. The first innovations we brought to evolution (sophisticated language, thought, and tools) enabled us to fill a wide range of ecological niches. We populated the Earth, formed civilizations and with them came a 2nd Cambrian explosion of social life forms.

Social organisms of all sorts (from tribes and towns to nations and global systems) evolved through the same mechanism as the first life forms on the planet, through differentiation-integration-transformation.

Modes of value creation multiplied. While we witness the triumphs and tribulations of modern capitalism, we are also present to a variety of albeit shrinking pre-capitalist forms of social organization. The differentiation of capital into industrial and financial, national markets and multi-national webs of companies, is coupled by the ongoing integration of all that into one massive, global system accountable to none.

The globalization of capital is the completion of that transformation, but it doesn’t go very smoothly. The periodic system crises are enriching the rich and are paid for by the austerity imposed on the multitudes. “Only now, as the state steps in to bail out the financiers, has it become clear to all that state and capital are more tightly intertwined than ever, both institutionally and personally. The ruling class, rather than the political class that acts as its surrogate, is now actually seen to rule.” (The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, by David Harvey)

The Occupy movement is an expression of a popular anger against the duplicity of the ruling class. Whether the movement will become the broad-based mass movement necessary to trigger far-reaching changes in the system of governance, production and resource allocation, is the big question of the present moment. One of the factors that will decide the answer is its capacity to deal with the challenges of coordinating the development of positive solutions at increasing scale and complexity, starting with its own General Assemblies.

3. The coming age of General Assemblies

Humankind’s best hope

In the early decades of the 3rd millennium, we got stuck with a system of social institutions (incl. of governance, value-creation and distribution, education, etc,) inherited from the industrial past and unfit to the complex challenges of the 21st century.

When the conditions are right, the evolutionary dynamics in living and social systems tend to respond to stuckness with an explosion, also known as “meta-systems transition,” the emergence of a higher level of organization.

Living on Earth in the presence of the global Occupy movement is living with a strong signal about the beginning of such emergence. If it keeps growing and evolving, then that movement is humankind’s best hope to pass its evolutionary test, by meeting its unprecedented crises and opportunities.

As we read the news about Occupy or participate in a General Assembly of an occupied site, the relationship between it and humankind’s evolutionary test may not necessarily be evident. But think about it and ask yourself the following question.

Evolving towards greater complexity and higher collective intelligence

What can we lean from the evolutionary dynamics that guide emergence in living systems, which may also apply to big shifts in social systems? The first answer I found is an intriguing pattern described in the article on Evolutionary Dynamics and Social Systems, by Tom Atlee and Peggy Holman. It is the pattern of evolving towards greater complexity:

“Throughout this story we find ENTITIES evolving to embrace and embody greater complexity—from particles and bacteria to nations and Gaia. We find INTERACTIONS evolving to embrace and embody greater complexity—from gravity and predation to conversations and global economies. We find CONTEXTS evolving to embrace and embody greater complexity—from empty space shaped by gravitational fields to cultural spaces shaped by profit, superhighways, legal systems, and story fields. We find CONSCIOUSNESS—perception, choice, intelligence, and purpose—evolving to embrace and embody greater complexity—from bacteria choosing to move (by immediate impulse) toward more light, to civilizations choosing to move (with profound debate, suffering, innovation, and inspirational epiphanies) towards greater sustainability and meaning.”

There’s a second pattern so closely related to the pattern of increasing complexity that we can think of them as two sides of the same coin. It’s about evolving towards greater collective intelligence.

“Collective intelligence is the capacity of biological, social, and cognitive systems to evolve towards higher order complexity and harmony, through such innovation mechanisms as variation-feedback-selection, differentiation-integration-transformation, and competition-cooperation-coopetition.” (my definition, published in the Blog of Collective Intelligence, in 2004) Let’s see how those mechanisms play out in the dynamics of the General Assemblies and the conditions that call them into being.

The first of those conditions worth mentioning is the democracy deficit of the parliamentary system where 1 member of the Parliament is supposed to represent up to 100,000 constituents.  Representative democracy was a great advance on the system of governance ruled by monarchs. However, due to its ineffectiveness to mobilize the collective intelligence and will of the people, it lost its evolutionary justification, as the main form of democracy.

What triggered that loss was the simultaneous occurrence of two things: 1. The complexity of humankind’s intertwined crises has reached the point where, they cannot be met by the system of production and consciousness that generated them. 2. The associated human minds, talents, and human yearning for dignity and autonomy grew to the point, where the dominant system of governance and production became an obstacle that blocks their further evolution.

That’s the main trait of the present situation, on the background of which we will explore, in the next essay, how General Assemblies became the primordial soup of social life in the 3rd millennium. We will look into how the differentiation of the GAs’ productive and governance functions through their emerging forms of direct democracy (e.g.: working groups, spokes council) can liberate vast reservoirs of human and social creativity? Can their integration into new collective capabilities match the Movement’s seemingly insurmountable challenges?


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Categories: Evolution, General Assemblies


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  1. General Assemblies: the primordial soup of social life in the 3rd millennium | The Future of Occupy « A Time Of Transformation - January 6, 2012

    […] General Assemblies: the primordial soup of social life in the 3rd millennium | The Future of Occupy. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Comments RSS feed […]

  2. How r’evolution carries itself forward by the Working Groups of Occupy | The Future of Occupy - February 5, 2012

    […] Part 1 of this essay, I wrote about General Assemblies: the primordial soup of social life in the 3rd millenium, comparing the new dynamics that Occupy is creating with the emergence of life from the non-living. […]

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