Origins of Sociocracy

An Idea

The idea of a sociocracy began with French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte. Sociology was a new science, the study of people in social groups. The root word for both sociology and sociocracy is the Latin, socius, which means a friend, an ally. People who know each other and are members of the same group or society.

The suffix -ology means “the study of” as in archeology, psychology, etc. The suffix –ocracy refers to a particular form of governance. Thus a sociocracy refers to governance by people who know each other, friends or allies.

While many people associate anything beginning with “socio” as socialism, what they share is only the root word referring to friends and allies. Socialism is an economic theory in which all means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned or managed in common. This is in opposition to Capitalism, an economic system based on private ownership and control of production, distribution, and exchange.

Sociocracy is not an economic theory but a method of governing organizations, regardless of the economic system in which they exist. Just as sociocracy has many features that would strengthen democracy, it is equally effective in a capitalist economy. Sociocracy is a system of organization and governance that can be applied in any kind of economic system.

Why a Sociocracy?

In the mid-nineteenth century following almost a century of political revolutions in which monarchies and aristocracies were overturned or stripped of power, Comte was searching for a rational basis for government. He had developed a philosophy called Positivism in which knowledge is based on what is known of the natural world — on what could be proven and not what a monarch or the church decreed. The scientific method was developing as the appropriate source of knowledge and Comte believed governments should also be guided by the scientific method. Governance on the basis of inherited rights, personal wealth,  religious dictates, and military power had all proven corruptible and not in the interests of all the people.

Comte believed that a society governed by social scientists could use the scientific method to decide the best social and economic policies, those that would serve all the people, not just some of the people.

Limitations of an Ideal

Sociology remained an ideal, however, partly because Comte was a philosopher, a theorist. He didn’t form or lead organizations. Implementation would need the rhetorical skills of a political critic and an educator. The next person to advocate widely for a sociocracy was American sociologist Lester Frank Ward who worked for the federal government until he retired. He then taught at Brown University.

At the turn of the twentieth century, both the hopeful ideas of the nineteenth century—science and democracy—were losing their promise of curring social ills. Science could be used for the good of society or to control and destroy it. Democracy was becoming beholden to political parties and their endless focus on winning the majority. The needs of society as a whole had not become the focus of the democratic government.

Frank Ward, Individualist

Frank Ward was a self-made man attending university at night while working as a government clerk. He became the head of the department of paleontology and the president of both the American sociological society and the international sociological association. His ideal was the independent self-organizing individual. Sociocracy represented a government that would allow strong individuals to lead a society guided by sociologists. He wrote extensively on the subject and the idea of a sociocracy began to appear frequently in journals and newspapers, not just in philosophical treatises. The reactions were not all positive. It was still an idea, all speculation and no one had a vision of how it could be implemented.

The first application of sociocracy came in the Netherlands in a residential school community founded by Dutch pacifist and educator Kees Boeke and English Quaker Beatrice Cadbury Boeke during WW II.

Next: First Implementation