Politics at the unMonastery: a meditation and an exhortation

There seems to be drama going on at the unMonastery. I know this from an email sent by @Bembo Davies, who must have been so upset by it that he forgot his password to this website. The exact details of the drama are not too interesting, at least to me. What does interest me is that the unMonastery is now a place where people do politics. They draft agendas, form coalitions, and maneuver against competing coalitions.

This is against Protocol. I am not even going to write “I think” or “in my opinion”. I am, for once, sure of something. Let me tell you why – it will be my meditation for the day.

One. The unMonastery aims to be an institution for self-development and local societal change. The elegant move is to achieve one through the other. We are not the first people to try it, and we will not be the last: it is a difficult task to achieve. The specificity of the unMonastery is the reference to monasticism as a template. We admire the sense of freedom and meaning that emanates from monastic life, even though a monk’s like is tightly regulated. Where does it come from? Provisionally. we conclude that it comes from (a) stepping into a different life (take on a new name, wear a uniform, be partly separated from the saeculum…) and (b) obedience. The Rule mandates obedience: obedience to the Rule itself in matters of interaction; obedience to the abbott in smaller matters, like how to allocate kitchen duty. I have been thinking long and hard about this, and I conclude that obedience, in a benedictine monastery, has the function of setting monks free from politics and squabbling. Free to do what? To work, and to pray.

My hypothesis is that monasteries worked because they selected for people that did not do politics. Politics is useful, but it hits into diminishing returns very fast. The Rule is very careful not to leave space for squabbling and idle debate: for example, monks are forbidden to either administer punishment or intervene in the defence of their brethren. The whole conflict recomposition burden is lifted off individual monks and moved over to the Rule and the abbott. For the organization, that is efficient, because it saves people time. For the individuals (the doers especially), it can be liberating, for the same reason. I served in the army, and really appreciated the bandwidth-saving way that small decisions are made for you (what to wear, what time to eat, how to share the burden of communal work etc.).

I don’t think you can improve the situation by democracy. Democracy just increases bickering, because people start bickering about democracy itself. Who gets a vote? What method to use? Etcetera. These efforts pay off only when the decision is so big that its outcome absorbs the cost of making them. But the unMonastery is small scale: I cannot think of a single decision where the improved quality in decision making are worth more than the time and energy we are sinking into this kind of discussion.

Two. Look, the unMonastery is an experiment into small-scale societal organization. At the heart of the experiment was the monastic idea of freedom in discipline, self-realization in service. It can succeed or fail. But if it is not run properly, it will be useless and wasteful. The job of the unMonasterians, Oblates and what have you it to run the experiment, not to design it. If you start redesigning it before it’s over we won’t be able to assess what good there was in the original idea, if any. After the end of iteration one, we will all discuss.

Conclusion and exhortation. I strongly ask that all unMonasterians focus on getting results. Results are defined by what you can show with pride to an external person. A school in Matera building an open source solar tracker is a result. Internal politics is not. If you need an external-but-not-really-external person to take responsibility for such a clear change of direction, I take responsibility. Don’t feel offended. Don’t take issue with the unBrethren. Assume good faith in them, and in me, and just get on with the work. The time to rethink the governance will come.

“I strongly ask that all unMonasterians focus on getting results. Results are defined by what you can show with pride to an external person.”

@alberto As an unMonasterian that has lived here for two months I can see that it’s much more important for us to focus on what we can learn and share with Matera and strengthen the relationships we have cultivated here rather than scrambling to create products and results that we can show off to the world after just a couple of months.


The last week has been hard, I have too much to say on this matter in a moment in which I’m exhausting myself in the process of getting ‘the results’ - in what has felt like a significantly lonely and difficult position throughout. Equally not the type of experience I expected from year working towards a beautiful idea.  I will save my thoughts, lessons and mistakes for a time when they can be productively compiled and reflected upon.

The only way I can recognise such a pledge of responsibility is for a role shift, if you’re prepared to take the role of unAbbott in the project I welcome your lead and the opportunity to offer exhortation from a distance.

This is not meant as provocation but rather the desire to seek clarification and what I recognise as a desperate need for the continuation of the unMonastery; that those directing from outside the project to experience the process first hand in order to better put an idea into practice at scale.

Over the course of the last 2 years many of us built an enormous belief around what the unMonastery could and should be, the expectations have been set high and continuously reinforced  by the PR surrounding the project. When this idea was first proposed we said 2 years at a minimum, we cheated ourselves in agreeing to 4 months in a context where guarantees, resource and clarity are scarce. The pressure of all that work, expectation and PR has fallen in a very meaningful way on each of the people trying their best to produce the best work they are capable - in very few moments has that work been recognised or respected.

There are two things to acknowledge in respect to this, the notion of “Community First” and the basis on which individuals submitted themselves to the project: “Other Monasteries have historically also included features such as hierarchy, male only and submission to a fixed religious ideology. These are features that we’re not interested in reproducing, which is the reason for the ‘un’ in unMonastery.”

I respect and broadly agree with much of what has been stated here, except the fact that the details are interesting and important, because they reflect people’s needs and emotions. Whilst I have no interest in the politics, I do have a very real vested interested in ensuring the well being and health of individuals - I didn’t sign up to this in order to reanimate in another context the same tyranny and alienation that is present in existing workplaces.

Its a matter of health and stress management

I read the email sent and read it as a distress call.

The dynamics inside the building as they seem to envelope everyone and create an unhealthy cycle that just has to stop now. It is in fact a threat to the well being of the people in the building and the continuation of the initiative on several levels. So we are intervening to give everyone breathing space, especially you Ben. We do this by being clear that there is simply no room for bothering you with politics or negotiations of any kind from now until the end of the first iteration. You have been doing a monumental job, but now it is clear that the combination of practical tasks like admin etc and managing personal dynamics is too much for one person it would be irresponsible to let the situation continue.

The consensus-based leadership style invites too much negotiation and politics at a stage where everyone is working very hard to make it all work and there is only one unAbbot on location.  The unMonastery is a prototype, you are one of the key people driving this work Ben and someone I personally care about. A lot. For better or worse Edgeryders LBG are the stewards of this project and accountable for the outcomes both to the community and to the city administration. Because it is a prototype, and because we are accountable to take care of one another as well as the time, effort and love that is going into it we are being benevolent dictators till the situation has calmed down and everyone has had time and distance to reflect in lessons learned for the work ahead.

Fair and Appreciated.

I recognise this, that’s why I tempered my reply to reflect what I felt was useful but it would of been inappropriate given my role not to reflect my view. @ArthurD is currently here and is doing a sterling job at diffusing where possible - things are relatively stable but tense. Almost everyone right now is focused on delivering the events taking place over the next few days.

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Changing your mind is honourable

@Ben, “assume good faith” goes for me too. I don’t think there is any evil or lazy person at work here. So of course we all take it for granted that you – and everybody else, in the house and outside – are working towards the common good. You never heard any personal negative comment from me, about anyone, not even in private. So that’s out of the way, I hope. :slight_smile:

The governance configuration was always a point of divergence between you and me. You have your quotation, and I have mine: the unMonasterian’s expectation management primer, which we wrote together as a part of the application package, states:

The role of the unAbbott is designed as a service to the community; whatever actions he takes, he will do so to forward that goal. You are expected to work with him by taking his advice very seriously, even if that means occasionally putting the well-being of the community above your own. If anything troubles you in your experience in the unMonastery, talk to him and he will try to sort you out. Conversely, should you come to be perceived as harmful to the work and peace of mind of other unMonasterians, the unAbbott is entitled to suspend your per diem and ask you to leave.

So that’s hierarchy for you – hierarchy as a service, as intended in Benedict’s Rule. We went down your way – rightly so, because you are there and I am not. But this does not make me any less faithful than you to the original concept.

I completely disagree with your point about alienation, which I have to put down as a rhetorical move. Please, don’t do rhetorics to me: we are both looking for the truth. I get it wrong often enough, as it is, no need to employ additional weaponry. Acceptance of Protocol (or the Civil Code of Law, or some religious text, or Benedict’s Rule) could indeed be alienating if they were encoded into mighty power structures that crush individual creativity yada yada. But the unMonastery is a vanishingly small little experiment. It has no power and almost no money. We asked people to come though the door, conditionally to accepting the rules of the game. How is that alienating, when people can (1) not come (2) leave if they have already come, at no cost (and in fact at some benefits, given the modest life led in the house) and (3) talk to the unAbbott if they are troubled? Is it really too much to ask that they don’t engage in politicking?

It comes down to this: the unMonastery was given a mandate (the famous 12 challenges) and plenty of latitude on how to go about it. If you are happy about the way it’s turning out, just do your thing. However, I have the very strong feeling that you are not happy – based on several requests to step in that @Nadia and I personally have received over the months. The latest, that prompted this post, was from @Bembo Davies by email this very morning. If that is so, just remember: we are rational people. If facts contradict our way of thinking, we change our way of thinking. It is not too late to do so, and if you need someone to take the blame for an unpopular decision, I am ready to take it – in love, believe me. Either way, we will have a very interesting discussion at the end of the story!

As I said before on several occasions, I am not ready to move into the house in any way that would be helpful to solving the present crisis, though I was hoping to spend some time in Matera in July.

@Lucia, your point is well taken. Relationships and sharing experiences are definitely something you can show with pride, and therefore count as results. You personally have been conducting your work flawlessly: I routinely quote your Tumblr as an example of what high-quality documentation looks like. But again, that goes for most or all unMonasterians individually: it is the rules of mutual interaction, not the individuals, that seem to produce tensions.


Short reply now but I am keen to pick this up in longer form later when there’s more time because I think it speaks to the reason we’re all here and in part why we think the book of mistakes is such a brilliant invention.

Mistakes have been made, which are hard to turn the clock on, particularly midway through the process and specifically in this context, as a collaborative effort - this is true for the rule of obedience as much as the idea that individuals should be reporting work regularly on EdgeRyders (or not). If we had a year it might be easier, or established cycles that ensure an expected refresh point, right now it’s hard.

One thing that is very clear to me though is that in order to have a meaningful and productive dialogue online about internal issues, there really needs to be a catalogue of things that do and do not work that are spoken from the unMonastery, so that from a distance you have more handles to grapple with the issues at stake and avoid stepping on things that are not seen - this for sure is a mutual responsibility that goes both ways.

Hierarchy may be present in my role but that is at least defined (and people have learnt face-to-face for the most part I am benevolent, if not a little too soft but we’re all learning). However hierarchy also exists in these sorts of exchanges and the sort of power and influence which is at play, which at no point has been well defined, it is instead very diffuse, both with individuals, EdgeRyders LBG as an entity and MT2019 - which creates unease, particularly for people who have not followed the same path we have over the past few years. It’s implicit power of this variety that keeps many people you’d expect to be speaking here quiet - this is something to be acknowledged and excavated at a later date because it represents a threat to the health and stability of the community going forward.

I will respectfully drop the rhetoric (but expand my motivation and concern at a later date) - but lastly we have an enormous issue in amongst all this discussion of the rule and how to reconcile certain things that would otherwise be simple for those operating under the Benedictine Rule from which we draw; We are without God in our lives. So the struggle to retain faith in our daily lives is a difficult one.

What do?

I don’t know.

The questions you pose are deep and very important. I do not have the answers nor can I give them the attention they deserve until after next week and suspect that even then they will evade a credible response. This is one of the downsides of the timeframe, not enough time for reflection. Another one for the book of mistakes.

Faith without God

We are without God in our lives. So the struggle to retain faith in our daily lives is a difficult one. What do?

What a big question. Here’s what I do: I just have faith in myself, and the people I do this stuff with. The good thing about Protocol/Rule-type patterns of daily behaviour is that they make sense as local interaction rules: they don’t need a large critical mass of adopters to work. For example, take the rule that says “prioritise documentation, because this will consume time and effort for the person that does it, but will save many times that effort in making it easier for others to access that information”. This is not an equilibrium behaviour if only one person does it. But it becomes quickly beneficial if it is done even in a small team of, say, 5 people. At this point it will become apparent that teams of 5 with good documentation go faster and perform better than comparable ones with bad documentation. This will prompt imitation in other teams, and make it easier for the 5 in the original team to enforce a 6th person joining their team to also adopt this rule. The “do no politics” and “use no rhetoric” rules, I suspect, fall under the same category, in the sense that they start to be beneficial at the level of the small team.

Makes sense?

That struggle is a difficult one, always.

Now that’s an interesting (and unexplored) area that you dare to touch here: which faith-enabled traits and behaviors of believers are desirable to have, and how non-believers can have the same.

A little contribution from the rare guy who in his sane mind tries to be 21st century social avant-gardist, 20th century intellectual rationalist, and 1st century Christian at the same time: Retaining faith in daily life is difficult even when you have faith in God. At least when believing rationally and avoiding self-delusional religious feelings, it’s a plain and simple insight that there’s so much random nonsense (and random destruction and random evil) happening in this world that there can only be very little direct action by all-good, omnipotent God. So for nearly all practical matters of daily life, the believer is also without God. Letting that sink in, deeply, is a deeply depressing insight (I can tell). Yet it’s not a new one for Judeo-Christian theology: old Solomon depicts this quite ingeniously in the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes.

So what? My personal take on this never-ending struggle to retain faith (vision, motivation) in daily life is quite pragmatic. A bit like Alberto’s: I look for and trust good people (includes the dangers of getting hurt and disillusioned, for which I have no remedy …). Then also, having finally come to accept that the world is full of random nonsense and random catastrophes also did set me free in a weird way: now, trying to make the world a better place does not have to stress me out any more. I may fail, for random reasons out of my control, but can still keep myself in well regard because I seriously tried. And knowing that success in fixing the world is kinda random and can “just happen” also opens the space to start something deliberately utopian. unMonastery in your case; EarthOS1 in mine. All of this works without having faith in God. Faith however also motivates from the perspective of a world to come: reaffirming that doing good (= trying to fix up this world within own limits) is enough, as getting it fixed up is not what it’s all about in the end …

1: EarthOS, the: A 900 page novel about an open source world, written as a todo list and tech spec :stuck_out_tongue:


This may be why religious and lay people seem to have no difficulty whatsoever raising barns together, @Matthias. We all do the work because it’s fun, it is the right thing to do, and it comes with good, interesting people to do it with. The religious people may offer it to a god, but in the end they have to find the motivation and the focus just like those of us who are not religious. The difference is ontologically important, but operationally almost nonexistent.

What ever happened to the “un” in the unmonastery?

Hey all, nice to hear some real issues of community being aired a bit. Thanks. I remember our first conversations about this project, coming up with the word unMonastery very loosely as a kind of guide for the concept. Did not realize you guys had taken it all so far and so literally. An unAbbott even?

It did seem like it was going a bit far with discussion of uniforms, robes and such, as if the identity of a community relied on an image rather than real relationships and solid communication agreements. But then real relationships take time to build and it seems time was not on your side. Too much to do, too many boxes to tick, too little time to get to know people.

Am still hoping to get involved at some future iteration of our idea, balance out some of the being amidst the doing… Ben, is there need for a god or is it just more like creating good music… Listening for and discovering those rhythms, the right time to Be, the right time to Do…alone/together…

Cheers, michael.


whom to trust

@Alberto, you said you have faith in yourself and the people you do work with. I don’t think that fits the way the unMonastery works, at least in my eyes.

We used to say that we trusted the process. It was such an easy way to justify letting things take their own path that it did not even seem important to analyse what we meant by it. In retrospect, I think what was trusted is the group, the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. So, no I, and no other. Just an us. This us had to be brought to life and nurtured, which happened in the circles, at morning practice, and by eating together. Issues of any scale had a chance to appear within the group before they went public. And it was just right - having a conversation is a much more effective tool for facilitating different viewpoints and opinions than posting on the ER platform.

What I see as one of the key elements of the unMonastery is that it has the ability to create a community out of complete strangers within a very short time period. And in the last 4 months this has been constantly undermined by the different expectations for communication: the where and how of reporting problems,  listing achievements and soliciting solutions. The details here matter, but I will not get into it now. In my recollection, the real crises started when the group as a unit was disrespected.

I understand that the Edgeryders, at least some of them, consider unMonastery as their own community. It is however really important to differentiate between members of the community who (at least temporarily) suspended their lives, moved out of their comfort zone, gave up their usual support network, their living, eating and sleeping habits, and moved into an unfinished building with a few strangers; and other members of the community who safely continued their daily lives and looked in from the outside. A very moderate version of giving up worldly belongings, but still, joining the unMonastery started with making oneself vulnerable and feeling somewhat powerless. No family members, no financial assets, no familiar situations, just a group of strangers and an obviously enormous amount of work to do. For each of us, becoming part of the group was essential, a natural human need to belong, to feel safe and competent to do the work we all pledged to do. And it had to start with becoming a group. The pleasantness of our days, the restfulness of the nights, and our self-esteem were hinged on our ability to fit in.This commitment to each other is what created the unMonastery in Matera in my opinion. And the group is a useful tool for overcoming problems - it has the ability to form a padding around each of our peculiarities and shortcomings. Some people jump into projects and rush forward, and they create a momentum for others who need more time to ease into action. Some people make connections with people quicker, and deeper, than others, even despite of language barriers, and so draw a social circle around all unMonasterians, which allows the less smooth unMonks to be understood instead of being rejected by the local community - we vouchsafe for each other. I find the idea of an identifier appealing, although I do not think the right way has been found yet. We are primarily present here in Matera as a group. It does not mean we have become uniform, or even similar, at the expense of individuality. In fact, trusting the process is trusting the differences within the group so that the consensus seeking process ends with the best solution.

Your picture of the unpoliticking Benedictine monks is too rosy to be true. Gossiping (http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674363366), and therefore scheming, or forging and severing of alliances, is part of what creates social cohesion. I assume the Benedictines were, on the other hand, more careful about keeping it in its place. A personal opinion or a fleeting idea should not have the chance to be read as a State of the Union speech. I remember the conflict about the inheritance of the building - when we were told that everything should be posted on the Edgeryders platform. I really completely disagree. I do not see too much politicking going on at the unMonastery - what I see is personal opinions, suggestions and ideas get blown out of proportion due their appearance on the platform, while others remain humbly by the kitchen counter. I guess it is the big task for Edgeryders after all, to figure out their relationship with the projects under their care. I recommend walking softly.

One more thing - I imagine that it was not a rhetorical move from Ben to mention alienation. The translator absorbs the trauma of both sides, and he is the person who understands the background for most of the different sides when there is a conflict. And is pretty much left alone to deal with the burden of comprehension.

Communication is hard

@katalin, thanks for your point of view. It is noted, and stays here as precious documentation.

My opinions on the matter, though occasionally offered, are not particularly important. What matters more is the well-being of the people in the unMonastery. And that has been quite troubled: Nadia, Arthur and I have had several distress calls, both on the platform and off. Another sign of politics at the unMonastery has been the insistence on Loomio, systems and tools for decision making, and the debate about who makes decisions (this comment and the following ones). If these were just false alarms, blown out of proportion, as you say, by being in writing, all the better. We can shrug them off and move on. No need to fix it, if it ain’t broken.

A final note: of course real-world monks, being people, definitely gossip, scheme and throw drama at each other. I can only refer to the idealized monk following the Rule, who does not. While the Rule does not transform real people in angelic beings, real-world monks who accept the Rule are less likely to bicker than real-world monks that don’t.

probably not

Probably not false alarms - although probably not very well targeted. This is my conviction that the unMonastery should have been able to deal with the problems raised by David. That was not internal politics - that was a competitor strategically playing the unMonastery. I think David has never been part of the group, arriving at the unMonastery with his partner, his son, a project that consisted of managing others’, and independent funding.  The unMonastery does not have the Rule yet, so there was no reference point to put this point clearly at the time. To become part of the group, or leave.  Surely the question of alliances was part of the problem - being an Edgeryder, being there at LOTE2, LOTE3, has a weight on its own. Maybe Ben and Bembo did not entirely trust the unMonastery either in relationship to those. (I do not know of course. I remember having the impression in mid-April, on the occasion of one of the crises, that finally, Ben arrived in Matera. Seeking solutions in the house rather than outside.) In any case, fascinating questions on cohesion, trust and alliances, it will be really interesting to take it all apart for examination.


@katalin I know, in your eyes, and the eyes of many, I am “his partner” who been “brought”. But I won’t grief over not being perceived as a person, if it looks so on paper. I know, you are an ethnographer, you can see patterns, and I would really like to hear your insights on group dynamics and tendencies, as well as our conversations to go beyond personal and individual.

unMon, as we know, is not just it’s Materani iteration. It implies working with patterns. That’s why unMon in a box. People acquaint with system thinking put work into it and that’s how I remember unMon being born.

I would like to keep this conversation going. Keep it free from empty politics, but contain a good constructive reflection.

Points I want to make here in response to your comment is on the levels of martyrdom, as well as the invitation to have a constructive reflection on group dynamics.

  1. That martyrdom is only good in a certain proportion. unMon is also connected to Making a living/Making Sense balance. The idea is that it provides basics and allows people to make sense. (I’m aware of the fact that my presence at unMon didn’t make much sense to you, but the beauty of this platform is that heretics can speak)

  2. That good group dynamics, and social balance requires work of all stakeholders. It is not all about chewy veggies, nor individuals.

Yes, I know, it feels good, but, seriously:  “moved out of their comfort zone, gave up their usual support network, their living, eating and sleeping habits, and moved into an unfinished building with a few strangers; and other members of the community who safely continued their daily lives and looked in from the outside.”

Did your really feel this? “joining the unMonastery started with making oneself vulnerable and feeling somewhat powerless. No family members, no financial assets, no familiar situations, just a group of strangers and an obviously enormous amount of work to do”  If yes, I think it should be addressed in some way. Feeling sorry for my self never helped me to move forward, and I dont agree that putting too much martyrdom in unMon pattern language is a particularly good idea.

People come and stay because most of us wish to be a part of. Community, team, tribe. I strongly believe that, because I see it everywhere and also trust my own experience on that. That’s why I stick to Edgeryders myself. Because I am  a part of. (I even believe *secrtely, that it is not even a strong or clear idea which makes people come together, it is longing for being a part of, because it is deeply emotional, this is the beauty and a danger of it)

And I’m a product of individualistic society, aren’t we all, and will never find that paradise lost. I have seen non individualistic societies in action. I envy it, but at the same time it is scary and it’s tough. It no morning practice, and no martyrdom. (I’m talking Southern Siberia, not social innovation smart villages). It is also for life, not for 3 month.

Others pay money to live in a hut and plant trees in Sahara, because it makes them feel that they are a part of something and doing something real. I’m not sure I would buy that, but people do. So can we all stop raving about how hard the life in the unMonastery was? There were hot showers, and fresh vegetables from Fucine Eco Market, and there were toilets, indoors . As long as you take time to clean the toilets, it’s fine.

In the case of unMon, no one forced people to give up a bit of comfort. I know from @Bembo, in February veggies were bitter and chewy, but it is not a prison after all. People came and were free to leave on the same day if they found a temperature and the humidity levels uncomfortable. Please, don’t take me wrong. I don’t laugh. I respect people’s feelings, contrary to a popular belief, and I don’t ask to return the favour. I know, things were not so smooth, but come on…

It is not about chewy veg. We all had our chance to contribute to healthy communication, some gave it a try in their own ways, some didn’t. There will be other opportunities, life doesn’t stop after the residency at the unMonastery first prototype stops.

Saying all that, I admit the mistakes I did, such as, at some point, feeling sorry for myself, taking people’s ability to speak for granted and waiting for too long for a personal invitation to speak out loud and ask for help.

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All good

Guys, it’s all good. We knew we would make mistakes. Making mistakes was the whole point of having a short iteration. I cherish each and every contribution – which does not stop me from wondering which of them were mistakes, or led to mistakes, and how we can get better.

As you know, when I think about “get better” I usually mean “get better at delivering on the famous 12 challenges we started with”. The reason why I am so hellbent on this is that it buys time. It may not be what some of us want to do, but it does buy time, as more people get interested in this unMonastery thing, and more chances spring up for more (and longer-lived) instances. And without this sort of opportunity, I am not sure the unMonastery is strong enough to pull together. Certainly the Matera goal gave a welcome direction and concrete flavour to the unMonastery idea starting in early 2013. Without it, we would probably not be having this conversation now!

The good news is that the narrative is strong, and the signs are, for once, good. I am reasonably optimistic that there will be other iterations. And Ksenia is right, we will have chances to get better.


Just to clarify, I do not associate martyrdom with the somewhat uncomfortable feeling of being in a new situation with new people.