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Self-governance is an abstract concept that applies to several scales of organization.
It may refer to personal conduct or family units but more commonly refers to larger scale activities, i.e., professions, industry bodies, religions and political units (usually referred to as Local Government), up to and including autonomous regions and/or others within nation-states who enjoy some sovereign rights. It falls within the larger context of governance and principles such as consent of the governed, and may involve non-profit organizations and corporate governance.
It can be used to describe a people or group being able to exercise all of the necessary functions of power without intervention from any authority which they cannot themselves alter. Self-rule is associated then in contexts where there is the end of colonial rule, absolute government or monarchy, as well as demands for autonomy by religious, ethnic or geographic regions which perceive themselves as being unrepresented or underrepresented in a national government. It is therefore a fundamental tenet of republican government and democracy as well as nationalism. Gandhi's term "swaraj" (see also "satygraha") is a branch of this self-rule ideology. Another major proponent of self-rule when a government's actions are immoral is Thoreau.
This article focuses on the self-governance of professions, industries including unions, and formal or informal political units including ethnic or ethical 'nations' not defined by national borders, and of religious organizations, which have professional and political elements. There are many historical examples of such organizations or groups, and some, e.g. the Roman Catholic Church, the Freemasons, the Iroquois Confederacy, have histories going back centuries, including vast bodies of precedent and shared culture and knowledge.
A means of self-governance usually comprises at least the following:
- an ethical code that outlines acceptable behavior within the unit or group, e.g. the Hippocratic Oath of doctors, established professional ethics, the Ten Key Values of Green parties.
- some set of criteria whereby an outside legal code or political authority can be called in – unless the group itself opposes such authority, e.g., organized crime groups which are self-governing almost by definition.
- a means of ensuring that outside authority does not become involved unless and until these criteria are satisfied, usually a code of silence regarding the activities of insiders when conversing with outsiders.
- a process for registering and resolving grievances, e.g. medical malpractice, union procedures, and for achieving closure regarding them.
- the power to discipline its own members, ranging from fines and censure up to and including killing them, e.g. the Irish Republican Army, mafia or Tong groups, and militaries (see Uniform Code of Military Justice)
- a means of selecting or electing leaders, e.g. a voting system, gang wars, identification of divinely selected individuals (e.g. Dalai Lama discovery).
- a means of controlling parties, factions, tendencies or other sub-groups that seek to break away and form new entities that would compete with the group or organization that already exists.
Some degree of consensus decision making is usually involved in any self-governance system, if only because individual members of the group may choose to violate the criteria for invoking outside authority, break the code of silence, or otherwise cause the group to lose its autonomy. For instance, any member of the mafia can, and many do, "rat" (inform) on their colleagues, gaining a new identity, e.g. via the FBI Witness protection program in the United States. Such betrayal ends the individuals' involvement in the group, and he can no longer access its unique social capital. However, he will remember the instructional capital and possibly be able to restart activities without the help of his former group. To curtail this possibility, most groups have very powerful means of coercion to prevent breakaway factions (or, in religions, "heresies") from competing directly with the old group.
- Bird, C. (2000). "The Possibility of Self-Government". The American Political Science Review, 94(3), 563–577
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