Sociocracy Game

This is going to be a short, idea-jot post. I have been reading up a storm about sociocracy. The wikipedia article does not really do it justice. It is a very interesting system of governance based on cybernetic principles that claims to achieve decisions that are in the interests of much more people than a voting democracy. See We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy if you are interested in more details. It does not need to be universal, it can spring up in specialized circles and those can gradually “link together” to connect everyone. These are all desirable properties.

But I am no genius, so I cannot forsee all the degenerate cases that might come up, and I am picturing some possible degenerate cases that may never come up in practice. That’s why I want to give it a trial run. So I want to start a game in which we organize sociocratically in a toy country with toy issues to see how the dynamics play out. You could play a game where you get to be a political leader! It would be nice to have as many people as possible. And it doesn’t matter if everyone cares — in fact, in real life, most people do not get involved in political decisions, so perhaps a healthy dose of apathy would be good for the realism of the game.

If you are interested in this experiment, join the announce group so you can know when we’re ready to start. Also feel free to share ideas in the comments.

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12 thoughts on “Sociocracy Game

  1. Interesting concept! But two kinda obvious criticisms: 1. sometimes you just need a decision, but it’s not very important what you decide. Think big- vs little-endian. There are few convincing arguments, so it’s difficult to get people to change side. 2. It ignores basic psychology. People are generally not very amenable to changing their viewpoints from rational debate. People tend to form their views emotionally, and only use reason to vigorously defend their often irrational views. But perhaps the theory has solutions for this, the WP page is, as you say, a bit lacking.

  2. @Ketil, yeah. There are some claimed solutions to these problems, but I am also skeptical that they will work. Thus the game :-). I’m working on game dynamics that will hopefully bring out enough realism to run into these issues. It’s hard.

  3. So basically, consensus-based delegate pyramid, with bidirectional delegates? hardly innovative, minor variation on soviets, or anarchist structures.

    I’m as skeptical as ever about consensus-based structures – while a group of generally like-minded individuals might easily work this way, its a script for continual deadlock in a diverse group, or on issues where subgroups have clearly opposing interests, someone’s gain being another’s loss etc. Consider how UNSC is easily deadlocked by conflicting interests even though it needs consensus of only 5 members…

    As for delegate pyramids, brings back unwanted memories of how things were done under the communists; perhaps not unsound in theory, but choosing someone who participates in choosing those that choose (etc.) who makes the decisions creates so many opportunities, at each level of delegating, for corruption or even pressure, and also gives very little influence to the individual over the major decisions eventually taken. At least the anarchists try to address this, to some extent, by having the delegates be under an obligatory mandate. IMHO insufficient, and also greatly exacerbating the slowness/indecision of the process…

    Also I wonder whether it would represent the true diversity of opinions given a level or two of misdirection, given the ‘bottleneck’ of a single person transmitting them upwards. Will probably disfavor a dispersed but substantial minority position and unjustifiably favor a concentrated but minor position, just like other single-winner methods do, in comparison to proportional representation.

  4. @Anonymous, these are good points, and I will give them some thought and respond in some time. In the meantime, do you mind identifying yourself so you can be accountable for your arguments? A blog or something?

  5. Sry, but this is as close to identifying myself as I can manage :) I don’t blog, and use ‘mamalujo’ nick on reddit and freenode irc (for now), if that pins me down to any useful extent.

  6. @Damjan, yeah that works, thanks. I find that I don’t fool myself with my own arguments as easily when I identify myself. Something about the possibility of being seen by a peer who recognizes the bullshit. So I generalized :-)

    Yeah, the hierarchy doesn’t seem that innovative. As a computer scientist, it feels natural as a communication structure. When thinking about these issues, I have to constantly reorient to remember that the top circles don’t have authority over the lower circles, and how that has to play out. I am interested in these anarchist structures you mentioned. Reference?

    The sociocracy literature I have read actually makes a subtle distinction between “consensus” and “consent”, the latter being what it is based on. Consensus tends to mean that everyone agrees something is the best solution, whereas consent means that a decision is within everyone’s acceptable range of tolerance. If you are speaking about a formal system in which people’s “votes” are processed by an algorithm, there is no difference (I do not tolerate anything but the best solution). But I gather that it changes the orientation of the discussion. It is important that circles have clearly defined written goals. If you do not give your consent, you must articulate a reason that the circle would be prevented from meeting its goals. “I don’t like it” isn’t good enough.

    But I still worry about deadlock. Intellectuals are very skilled at coming up with arguments in favor of whatever they believe, regardless of whether it is true. So deadlock is still a possibility. I heard a variant in which a circle had to consent on a representative, and if this couldn’t be done, then the circle would not be represented. I like dynamics like that — incentive to find a compromise. I’ve been unable to think of similar things for other kinds of decisions (without having someone say “this is what happens if we can’t decide”, which gives them too much power). Any ideas?

    Corruption is definitely something to worry about. In the game design I am thinking about giving players hidden goals which would mimic corruption, so we can see what happens there. The counter case is that if anyone finds evidence of the corruption, they can present it to their circle, temporarily become their circle’s representative and then do that to the next circle up, etc, until they have a position of substantial influence. To stop this, a circle can not merely strongarm vote away, but must find a reason to ignore the evidence that the whistleblower can consent to. It could happen, but it is easier to call someone out on their corruption than, for example, in the current US political system. The exact means by which any of this would happen still elude me, which is why I want to try this game.

    In your final paragraph I think you are making an implicit majority vote assumption, which sociocracy challenges. Whether an opinion is in the majority or the minority has no bearing on whether it should be favored. We are seeking solutions which are acceptable to everyone.

    Thanks for your comments. I am enjoying exploring these issues.

  7. hi! well, I’m usually a bit paranoid about expressing say political attitudes in a manner that is easily indexed by google, for this invites future discrimination..

    I’ll have to Google a bit to find a decent reference on the structure of anarchist syndicates; I think my reference was a yugoslavian book from late 80s, so I doubt that exists in a translated form. Quick goggling didn’t easily give but sources vague on specifics and loaded with politics (though this FAQ entry isn’t terrible: , and the rest of the page contains tidbits revealing about the structure interspersed with political assertions) – in any case, “CNT”, “FAI” and “anarcho-syndicalism” are likely the relevant goggling terms, the former two relating to the Spanish syndicate. I presume American IWW works on similar ‘constitutional’ principles, but haven’t researched it.

    In practice, consensus usually means what you describe as consent – for those EU decisions that require ‘unanimity’ for eg, each country has 3 or 4 options (article 31.1 TEU) – voting for or against ofc, but also abstaining from vote (called ‘constructive abstention’), and when abstaining from vote, it can exclude itself from applying the decision, yet be under obligation not to impede others from acting based on that decision. But if a third or more members declare this, then the decision is blocked as if someone voted against it. UNSC has a simpler procedure I believe, but still allows for non-blocking abstention for permanent members.

    I’m not impressed by the incentive to compromise by excluding a vote of a deadlocked circle – surely voiding the circle’s delegate will be in the interest of a group that doesn’t expect to be able to get its way to the extent it desires to do so – this could even invite a fairly bloody ‘voting’ war, by attempting to create a consensus by voiding all of the opponent-leaning circles.

    re the majority vote assumption in the last paragraph, I only partially did that. I do think that some voting will be an unavoidable element of the system; that creating a deliberative, consensus-seeking procedural rules and culture is more realistic than building this requirement into the voting system – not in the context of a game or technical discussions – that may well work as intended – but if one would imagine this could be scaled up to a principle of organizing a larger part (or all) of the society. In any case, unless one imagines this as a mass phenomena, problems of scaling up decision-making don’t even arise, and one may well have functioning direct democracy of one stripe or another.

    However, even if there is no majority vote, I would expect there to be psychological pressure on the very under-represented positions to conform or demand less in way of compromise, and less of such attitude in case of a position that is a sizable minority. So I think the problem still applies.

    An alternative that I think doesn’t suffer from such problem is the post-Lisbon structure of EU; you have a bicameral house, lower chamber is proportional (though might be using a much better system than it currently is) , upper chamber consists of heads of government – which are basically delegates from their respective parliaments since most countries are parliamentary democracies. The exact nature of their mandate in the context of voting in this chamber is up for each country to decide; it can be obligatory (eg for Ireland I think), or require various levels of consultation with the parliament depending on the issues considered. In parallel to this however, there is a delegate from the parliament (one from each chamber if bicameral, both from same chamber if unicameral) under obligatory mandate that can vote to block the process if the decision of their government is against the wishes of the parliament (though the actual Lisbon incarnation of this dual structure only allows for procedural – delaying – ‘orange card’ block even if the majority of such delegates is against it). Delegated upper house is nothing new ofc; Germany for eg uses such structure, but this particular incarnation has these additional checks and balances. One could however imagine such dual proportional+delegated structure having multiple levels, delegates from lower level needing consent from both houses (as in perfect bicameralism they do), and each upper level having a directly elected house in addition to a delegated one.

    BTW I was just reading up on ‘liquid democracy’, with transitive proxy voting, which seems like a more dynamic version of such delegate structures, perhaps it carries less risks (though at first look at least sound succeptible to secrecy worries below). Apparently certain swedish ‘Demoex’ party is experimenting with it, though the wiki page on it doesn’t same much, in contrast to ‘proxy voting’ page…

    Regarding corruption, certainly your whistle-blower system sounds interesting, I’ll have to give it some though.

    A partially related worry – and this is what also worries me in context of e-voting and voting by mail (whatever the proper english term for this practice is)- presuming a fairly open society where civil rights are generally not particularly endangered, it poses little troubles. But presume there is a danger of say local strongmen willing to try and force people to vote this or that way by monitoring to the extent system allows if they voted the way they wanted, or secret services doing similar, absolute secrecy of the votes and transparency of the counting – in it being observed by both all contenders and open to NGO participation – is the last line of defense. Openly voting in the circle excludes this possibility, and if calling out a delegate about its corruption demands a whistle-blower openly calling it out, the person is putting him or herself in danger.

  8. oh, to clarify: in the ‘ignore deadlocked circles’ variant – I think the result would be that only the ‘purest’ circles would end up being represented on all sides of the issue, so probably precisely those least open to compromise.

    and, I always found discussions about experiments in radical democracy very interesting, so perhaps we can exchange a few more posts :)

  9. Luke, I really think you should read the book Boomeritis from Ken Wilber. It may give you some food for thought on this topic.

  10. This idea reminds me of one of Yudkowski’s mottos: disagreement is not rational. This is not to say that it is always irrational to disagree; it is to say, if there is still a disagreement concerning a matter of fact after an open and honest discussion, then some party is necessarily being irrational. (It may not be you though!)

    This helps to indicate that sociocracy might be good in an in-principle way, at least. However, it also seems to indicate that a fundamental psychological shift would be needed. It is interesting to envision a world in which that shift has occurred: examination of the facts becomes far more central (because you are *not* entitled to your own opinion).

    Unfortunately, there is still room for “true disagreement” among people with different goals. They may agree on the facts and still wish to take different actions. This might be the best way to characterize the abortion debate, for example. Some way of handling this seems necessary.

    This is where the extensive literature on the game-theoretic problems with voting becomes interesting. This is something I have not dove into myself. The problem is that simple votes are not guaranteed to reflect the best action given the sum of the utility functions of the voters; there are ways to game the system. This means to me that direct democracy is not perfect even in principle. So, something better would be interesting.

  11. It is my passion to bring online Direct Democracy to a new Word Governance. I have just been reminded about how widespread the interest is around the world while watching the news about the Greek economic crises.
    I can not see how corruption could survive in this environment. There is no politicians needed here. Only passionate experts of the/each issue at hand. Separately. Each circle in the hierarchy is not larger than 12 people. It will be a moderator but every one has to select a person who will represent the outcome to the next higher level. All debate is consent based and every one encouraged to be actively involved.

    In today’s democracy we have politicians who can persuade, but are they expert in all issues they are faced with during they term of office? I think not. Issues are getting more and more frequent now-day’s. It is comforting to see advances toward this logic – President Barack signed a deal to overhoul the U.S. patent system that Peer-to-Patent allows members of the public to..

    Luke, You have the very TOOL in your hand to create. Not only the game you are planning, but the very system of online Direct Democracy administration, running debates/circles store and recall outcomes of this issue based governance. Sociocracy was developed in a time when we where still lacking the Internet, hence the slow adoption of the idea due to time consuming manual system admin. Your game and future online system (which should grow out of the game) will change that.

    Good luck and see you in cloud circles. Ozista

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