Experiments in living – to govern or not to govern

Experiments in living – multicultural lichen colony with a funny face on Boothia Peninsula, Nunavut.

Today, I got drawn into an online conversation. It started with the following blog entry: Experiments in Living and its subsequent exchange of replies that eventually touched on the issue of need and structure of government. From the exchange I got the sense that government seems to be categorically opposite to the notion of liberty, as well as that certain national governments are being viewed as completely separate from and in opposition to the population. For me the latter seems peculiar and indicates a fundamental flaw of existing government structures. I have posted earlier some of my own thoughts about governance under the heading leadership and power – not authoritarian rule and legalized force.


Here I will share with you my reply to the above-mentioned online dialogue:

Dear Malcolm,

I am not sure if smaller government is my preferred vision in general.

The size of government needs to be internally consistent with the tasks it will be entrusted with by the community. In certain cases, I say no government can be the possible solution. In others, a much larger governance structure and bureaucracy may be warranted to serve the needs of the people.

When we look at pre-contact Inuit culture, as an example, we can see a people with no formal or centralized government structure. Inuit were able to solve their existential problems with a set of shared and common values, by maintaining relationships, and by focusing on and adapting to local needs. Life happened in seemingly isolated family units roaming the vastness of this Arctic archipelago. Nonetheless, they had a cultural identity with an embedded concern for the well being of all. They employed appropriate technology to live in one of the harshest environments. There was a “national” communications system supporting the exchange of knowledge across the Arctic. Without written tradition, this culture has produced their own experienced minds! I am not claiming that this has been utopia, because we also know of famines and tragedy, which can be seen as failures to mastering the local challenges and survival.

Unfortunately, the process of colonization and ‘civilizing’ that imposed and established ‘proper’ governance and poured in resources, which were never available to Inuit in such a magnitude or quality before, did not result in a better quality of life or in less tragedy and economic poverty among modern day Inuit. Even after establishing the façade of self-governance through the creation of Nunavut as a distinct jurisdiction it is difficult to discern whether government is doing good for the people who continue to live in that part of the world or not.

I agree with you that a smaller size and a more local nature will definitely make any system of governance more representative, more transparent, and more accountable. What I am still exploring as a thought is the essence that will create a governance structure that does not institutionalize power and eventually morphs into a self-serving apparatus. Why did Inuit function as a quasi-nation, as expressed by a distinct cultural identity and shared concern for welfare? There was no external power that mandated unity. What other unifying factor did make it possible then? My notion is that the answer lies in shared values and attitudes – the result of co-created meaning from multi-dimensional interactions as part of being human and the foundation for human becoming.

We need niches in our globalized world to co-create new experiments in living, to re-conceptualize the need and structure of government, and most pressingly a process to imagine and establish shared basic values, criteria, and attitudes for a peaceful co-existence among diverse cultures and backgrounds. The one large-scale initiative that I am aware of is the Global Ethic Foundation that issues a Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.

At this point in time, it is difficult for me to side with the trendy call to downsize governments without an extensive analysis of the motives and without some alternatives revealed. However, I support every initiative to rethink and transform what our governments have become today. Maybe one day we will have our political and economic leaders engaged in joining efforts with the spiritual/religious leaders to envision a value system and attitudes that support a peaceful existence for all!

Thanks to Malcolm Greenhill and the other contributors for some stimulating thoughts from a wide spectrum of world views. Malcolm also shared some interesting thoughts on education, particularly making a case for the disappearing classical education and the concept of experienced minds and their effects on today’s society (and on the quality of political leaders). Read his blog post here: Comparing Quality of Minds.

7 thoughts on “Experiments in living – to govern or not to govern

  1. Othmar, a friend notified me that James C. Scott has just written another book on anarchism, called ‘Two Cheers For Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play’. Here is the link:


    This is taken from the cover:

    “Through a wide-ranging series of memorable anecdotes and examples, the book describes an anarchist sensibility that celebrates the local knowledge, common sense, and creativity of ordinary people. The result is a kind of handbook on constructive anarchism that challenges us to radically reconsider the value of hierarchy in public and private life, from schools and workplaces to retirement homes and government itself.”

    I have not read it yet but intend to and thought you might want to know about it.

    1. Dear Malcolm,

      thank you for thinking of my exploration on notions of anarchy and governance. I appreciate your sharing of the book info.
      I will go down to the public library and see if they have it on their shelves or if they can bring these interesting publications by J.C. Scott in through interlibrary loan.


  2. Malcolm, thank you for pointing out this fascinating news story about J.C. Scott. I can strongly relate to his statement that his hobby farm is “an embodiment of the kind of hands-on, ground-up, local knowledge that he has championed during [his] career…”
    I chose to farm instead of pursuing academic studies in my early twenties. I am still convinced that this is a source of knowledge that cannot be replicated in the best-resourced and staffed institutions of learning. It is encouraging to read how Scott was able to integrate the lived experience, the field knowledge, and the academic, scholarly pursuit of important questions into books and publication that earn him respect from a broad spectrum of critics. For me, there is nothing worse than academic masturbation, publicizing for publication’s sake without a foot in a real-world problem.

    ““Unlike the anarchists, I don’t believe the state will ever be abolished,” he said in the interview. “It’s a matter of taming it” — through the kind of lawbreaking and disruption, he argues, that have always been crucial to democratic political change.” My initial reaction to this paragraph in the article invoked the word ‘fulfilment’. The state can be seen as a fulfilment of the idea of organizing to pursue a purpose for the common good beyond the means of the individual, family, or tribe. And it takes anarchy to fulfil that idea when the organized form becomes corrupt, when it needs to be tamed.

    At the 2012 Canadian Yearly Meeting, Jeff Dudiak elaborated that there was a long-standing tradition of this kind of resistance against the state (for state’s sake) in the history of Christianity. He points out “that Jesus doesn’t follow the straight line of the law,… he refers to this not as breaking law or keeping it but fulfilling it.” (Sue Starr). You can find the lectures online at:
    http://www.quaker.ca/blog/posts/radicalizing-spirit-the-challenge-of-contemporary-quakerism-links-to-audio (of particular interest would be the Monday lecture in this context). Sue’s commentary can be accessed here: http://www.quaker.ca/Committees/hmac/blog/cym-2012-camrose-ab-friday-morning-bible-study-the-fulfillment-of-knowledge-in-love

    I am not surprised to learn that a professor advocating for the principles of anarchy had some exposure in his life to Quaker thought!

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