Anarchic Solidarity: Indigenous Societies and Buurtzorg's Success
If you’re a frequent reader of our blog, you’re (probably) aware that I'm currently writing a new book about large flat companies. Last month, I shared two stories I’m covering in the book that were too good not to post on our blog before it gets published (hopefully later this year): the story of Kazuo Inamori and the story of Gerard Endenburg. Today, I would like to share another fascinating story, which is how indigenous societies in Malaysia organize themselves in progressive structures that promote both individual autonomy and group solidarity. Bear with me—I’m going to explain why this reminds me of the Dutch poster child of progressive organizations, Buurtzorg.
In 2006, a Dutch nurse named Jos de Blok became increasingly frustrated with the ways of working at the healthcare organization where he was employed. In fact, he became fed up with how the Dutch healthcare industry as a whole was being increasingly “professionally” organized as a “marketplace” after the introduction of numerous market-driven practices inspired by so-called “New Public Management” thinking.
In fact, de Blok was convinced that there was no place in their industry for such market-driven dynamics, nor multi-layered hierarchies and burdensome, senseless bureaucracy.
Convinced that he could revolutionize the industry, de Blok quit his job. Together with co-founders Gonnie Kronenberg and Ard Leferink, he decided to start their own healthcare organization, Buurtzorg.
They immediately came up with effective alternative structures for delivering healthcare, firmly guided by the idea that these structures should support both individual autonomy and group solidarity.
Buurtzorg’s idea of a progressive organization is one in which all members can be characterized by a strong commitment to solidarity and sharing while simultaneously ensuring a high degree of personal autonomy.
Turns out, the way Buurtzorg organizes itself may actually be the oldest and most stable form of organizing of them all. In fact, its roots can be traced all the way back to the way of life of certain groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.
Since the 1960s, anthropologists started to recognize, analyze, and describe these indigenous societies in which individuals are autonomous—meaning they are free to do almost anything they want to do—yet they operate in a highly cooperative fashion as a whole society, as they all experience a profound sense of commonality.
As part of this movement, a group of ethnographic researchers described and analyzed several Southeast Asian societies, including the Chewong and the Batek, in a book titled Anarchic Solidarity. It is worth introducing them both briefly.
The Chewong are described as a group of about 400 people who live in the rainforest of Peninsular Malaysia that engage in hunting, gathering, and shifting cultivation. They live in small, temporary settlements scattered throughout a large area.
Although they live in small groups, they still have a strong belonging to the broader community of Chewong people. There are no formal leaders, nor do people tell other people what to do or ask someone else to do something for them. Moreover, they seem to withdraw rather than confront potential conflict.
Although all people are highly autonomous and expected to be self-sufficient in their daily life, there still exists a strong sense of solidarity in the community and a clear underlying sense of responsibility towards the others.
For example, all food is expected to be shared with everyone in the community. Food is brought home by all members of the community, where it is then cut into many small pieces, displayed, and shared among all present. And each person can eat the displayed food whenever they feel like it.
There is no element of choice here—there is a moral obligation to share what you have with others in the unconditional sense, not just sharing something only when someone asks it from you.
In fact, failing to share unconditionally is seen as immoral.
The Batek are described as a group of about 800 nomadic hunters and gatherers who also live in the rainforest of Peninsular Malaysia. They live in familial groups, with about ten families forming one encampment.
Just like the Chewong, the Batek emphasize individual autonomy just as much as a strong sense of community and solidarity. They do not believe in the right of individual ownership—social norms dictate that things need to be shared among everyone in an unconditional manner.
And, again, just like the Chewong, there is the expectation for everyone to be self-reliant, but there is also the moral obligation to share food with everyone so even families who are down on their luck will still have food to eat.
There are no formally recognized leaders in the Batek, but there are “natural leaders” whom people themselves look to for guidance and advice. The natural leaders do not seek power or influence, nor do they have any formal authority over others.
When conflicts arise, members are first expected to discuss matters privately. If that does not end the conflict, matters are discussed in the form of a camp-wide discussion to find a resolution that leads to a consensus that satisfies all.
If no consensus is found and tensions persist, members deal with the conflict by simply moving away from each other until the tensions wane.
Individual autonomy and group solidarity
The Chewong and Batek peoples show how to organize successfully on principles that support individual autonomy while also encouraging cooperation and group solidarity. This includes moral obligations to be self-reliant, non-competitive, and to respect and help others. They seem to lack any conceptual space for formal leaders or coercion.
It’s important to note that these communities adhere to an ideal of sharing rather than a debt-inspired sense of reciprocity, as we often see in many other progressive organizations. Still, this mode of sharing in these communities can simply not be characterized as reciprocity because there is never a notion of debt or repayment. Instead, there are high degrees to which people will go in order to share with, care for, help, trust, and rely on each other.
In doing so, people in this mode show both unity and altruistic behavior—that is, solidarity. And this point about solidarity brings us back to Buurtzorg.
Buurtzorg’s renowned results
Just as de Blok envisioned, Buurtzorg indeed revolutionized the Dutch healthcare industry. The effective alternative structures for community care they pioneered turned out to be widely successful.
Today, the competition routinely judges itself against over a decade of Buurtzorg achievement. Its meteoric success, and its scaling to thousands of employed nurses, results from a management system relying heavily on a self-management model that equips and encourages staff to be self-reliant, make their own decisions, and become problem-solvers.
The result is that Buurtzorg is renowned for its satisfied clients and happy, innovative workers whose performance is exemplary. And this has not gone unnoticed. In fact, several other healthcare organizations—such as Buurtdiensten, BuurtzorgT, ZorgAccent, and Amstelring—have all followed Buurtzorg’s lead.
They have all built and scaled their own successful organizations based on Buurtzorg’s community-focused model that relies heavily on self-reliance at the individual level and high levels of solidarity at the collective level.
You could say it’s all in the spirit of the anarchic solidarity of hunter-gathering collectives.
As I wrote in the introduction, I'm currently writing a new book that captures the stories of Inamori, Endenburg, the Chewong, and the Batek. Well, those and a lot more.
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