Evolutionary Revolution

For thirty years, I affirmed a “radical” activism and rejected “liberal” piecemeal reform. Then, one day, while listening to some recordings of speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one comment struck me like a lightning bolt. Dr. King’s point was simple: movements need to focus on winnable demands. I concluded that we radicals had been wrong when we attacked Dr. King for compromising.

Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced Dr. King profoundly, adopted a similar approach. He called it  “evolutionary revolution.” This visionary pragmatism acknowledges the value of short-term reforms that improve the quality of life for people who have been oppressed — as part of an ongoing, never-ending process that can eventually lead to the fundamental restructuring of our entire society. This evolution involves change in our way of thinking: a change of paradigm.

This perspective is not “either/or.” It integrates both liberal reform and radical transformation. It balances the short-term and the long-term, giving equal importance to each. Gandhi and King were neither radical nor liberal. They were both.

In biology, species are defined by their ability to reproduce themselves through interbreeding. Over time, biological evolution produces new species that become so different they can no longer breed with their predecessor species.

In a similar way, human societies evolve in ways that constitute a “revolution,” or transformation — a sudden, fundamental change in how we live, work, or govern ourselves. These transformations produce societies that are so different they feel “new.” They change the composition, structure, outward form, and appearance of a society.

Transformation, however, can also be taken to mean “to change (something)completely.” The butterfly emerging from the caterpillar is commonly used as a metaphor for this type of change. This definition of transformation is dangerous.

New species remain similar to other species within the same genus, including their predecessors. They are distinct, but they are not totally different.

Sustainable revolutions do not create new societies (or individuals) that differ from their predecessor as much as butterflies differ from caterpillars. That metaphor suggests change that is total, complete, not lacking anything, having all necessary parts, not limited in any way, not requiring more work, entirely done or completed, fully carried out, absolute, perfect.

This attitude is prone to totalitarianism, black-and-white thinking that demonizes opponents and attempts to use physical force to impose its will.

When we speak of transformation, we need to avoid language that implies “total” change. Individually, when we are “reborn,” we may feel like a new person, but we are not completely new. When we transform a community, it may look new, but it is not totally new. Transformation does not destroy. It builds on what preceded.

Gandhi and King were more than willing to compromise. Reconciliation and community were their ultimate goals. They saw revolution as a never-ending process. For them, “shut it down” was not a goal in and of itself — a reactiveoutrage against an injustice that would somehow spontaneously lead to revolution. Rather, such actions were part of a calculated, proactive strategyfor specific improvements in living conditions.

Their long-term vision was the beloved community. Their short-terms objectives were, respectively, independence and desegregation.

We need to update their vision by articulating it in contemporary language, and unite behind concrete, winnable demands concerning public policy that help us steadily transform our global society. To be winnable, demands must be measurable. It needs to be clear when we have achieved our objective. Movements build momentum with victories.

As I see it, the primary shift our society needs today is to move away from a selfish commitment to climbing the social ladder to a commitment to the common good of the entire Earth Community — the entire human family and all life. And we need to achieve that vision by democratizing our entire society with new public policies that establish new structures.

This transformation would discourage both selfishness and self-sacrifice. It would affirm that we can both love ourselves and love others. It would not reject ambition, the desire for economic security, and getting promoted to further one’s career. Rather, it affirms a balance between both self-interestand the common good, solidarity rather than isolation.

What specific reforms can best help us achieve that vision is another question. The list of demands forwarded by Ferguson Action  in response to the death of Michael Brown is suggestive. For instance, with regard to the use of deadly force by police, they call for “the development of best practices…, [including] the development of specific use of force standards … [and] a Department of Justice review trigger when continued excessive use of force occurs.”

When an officer feels threatened by someone who is 8-10 feet away, can the use of deadly force be justified? Aren’t there other options?

Thus far, most of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations are primarily acultural phenomenon that enhances awareness of important realities, as did Occupy. Hopefully consensus behind specific demands will soon help that movement develop into an effective political force.

Briefly blocking traffic and shutting down business gains publicity. But if that tactic becomes used more widely without a focus on winnable goals, it will backfire as resentment builds. Potential supporters want to know: what do the protestors want and how do they plan to get it?

Rejecting the need for incremental reforms is divisive and undermines unity. One correspondent, for example, recently told me:

The policy making process .. has rarely done anything good for [the marginalized]. …It has been curtailed, crippled, and suppressed into ineffectiveness. I do not think that we make sustainable progress with piecemeal policy change. What ever policy changes that are done to make liberal amendments to the current system are not sustainable because the whole structure and foundation is riddled. The whole house is burning; integration with that won’t get it.

Alas, however, in the foreseeable future, integration is inevitable. We cannot escape so long as our society does not completely collapse. That catastrophe may happen eventually, and we need to prepare for it as best we can. But to wish for it or try to help precipitate it would be morally irresponsible, due to the greatly increased suffering that would result.

In the late 1960s, we demanded “no more business as usual” and tried to achieve our goals by inflicting widespread inconvenience. Our primary accomplishment was the Reagan Revolution.

I would prefer to learn from those mistakes and push for specific reforms that steadily lead to the transformation of our global society into a compassionate Earth Community dedicated to preserving and enriching all life.

Comment on MSC Transformative Practice Survey

Photo by Willie Davis

Photo by Willie Davis

This fall the Movement Strategy Center (MSC) plans to release a report, tentatively titled “Love with Power,” on organizations that are bringing “transformative practices” into their work. I await this report with great interest.

As described in “Tell Us!! Does Your Organization Do Transformative Practice?,” MSC is inviting individuals to complete a three-question survey about their interest and/or efforts with regard to bringing “individual transformative practices, such as meditation, martial arts, gardening, and spiritual practice” into their organizing.

Particularly encouraging is that the survey explores interest in eventually sharing “peer exchange/case studies on how other organizations are actually doing it.” If MSC discovers and shares user-friendly tools that can be easily replicated (without extensive training), this project could help spread (rapidly) the use of methods that nurture personal and collective development rooted in mutual support among peers.

The survey opens with a very helpful definition: “Collective practice is intentional and continuously repeated action undertaken as a group to cultivate new ways of being and thinking in that group and beyond it.” The phrase “intentional and continuously repeated action” hits the nail on the head.

“New ways” strikes me as too ambiguous, however. Some phrase such as “more compassionate” would work better, it seems. “New” is not necessarily an improvement.

As I discuss in “A Meditation on Deep Community,” I believe that if activists really get in touch with their compassion, they will naturally strive to correct root causes by changing national policies. Then we can turn this nation into a compassionate community.

I applaud MSC for helping us move in that direction.

PopularResistance.org: An Evaluation

popularresistanceA recent email from PopularResistance.org prompted me to look more closely at their work and consider what I think of it. I concluded their approach reflects much of what is wrong with left-wing politics.

There’s much in their philosophy with which I agree, including the following:

• Forming real democratic organizations to empower local communities.
• We need to build economic democracy including worker-owned cooperatives, community supported agriculture, farmers markets, community banks and credit unions…. Of course, national policies need to be changed as well….
• People need to build their own non-hierarchical democratic institutions that bring people together to solve community problems, pool talents, resources and energy and allow real democracy to be practiced.

And in their newsletter, the authors affirm the value of certain incremental victories:

Already, the movement is seeing success from its protests, not just in changing the conversation, but in affecting policy. Medea Benjamin points out ten good things that happened in 2013 including stopping the war in Syria, negotiations with Iran, push back on Obama’s drone murders and opposition to the NSA spying program, among other things. While these victories do not constitute our ultimate goals, they show that organized people power is making a difference….

But elsewhere they reject such reforms with all-too-familiar empty rhetoric This abstract ideology contradicts their acceptance of the all-too-obvious need for reform and undermines their potential effectiveness.

In summarizing Bill Moyer’s manual, “Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements,” which they praise uncritically, they assert:

The movement must avoid becoming a mainstream group working for ‘achievable’ reforms…; instead they must remain “principled dissent groups” advocating for what is right, not what is possible….

Any reform within the current system of rule by wealth will ultimately default to a position of serving the wealthy.

Contradicting their affirmation of non-hierarchical approaches, they come down of on the side of elitism: “The primary goals are educating, converting, and involving all segments of the population.”

Toward what end? That’s left very unclear. Their definition of success is extremely ambiguous, but one option listed, “the social, economic and political machinery slowly evolve to new polices and conditions,” sounds like a series of “reforms” to me. And they speak favorably of the rise in protests in recent years, many of which are “reformist.” This inconsistency leaves a sense of incoherence.

In terms of longer term goals, though I could quibble with some of the language, I can relate to affirmations such as the following:

We need to understand that we are not a fringe movement, but a movement in the center of the best ideals of the United States. That is, we believe in a government that is truly run by the people, not by elite corporate and wealthy interests; we believe in equality under the law not special treatment for those who are politically connected and abusive enforcement against certain communities; we believe in a fair economy not one rigged for the wealthiest. This is what the majority of American people believe, but those in power violate these principles.

But if they want to align themselves with the majority, they should drop their opposition to “reform.”

And to my mind, they need to deepen the understanding of “the system,” which involves all of us who reinforce the system in countless ways. Without the consent and the participation of the overwhelming majority of Americans, our society would collapse. It is therefore overly simplistic and inaccurate to say:

Large transnational corporations currently control the political process, the judicial system, the major media outlets and education. The national security state, from the local police to the military, protect the interests of transnational corporations, both overtly through fear and physical repression, and covertly through spying and infiltration.

To try to scapegoat large international corporations simply makes no sense to me. Our situation is far more complicated than that. “Control” is not the right word to describe the enormous power exercised by those corporations, which don’t always agree with each other.

And solutions will involve much more than attacking that “enemy” and replacing those corporations with local currencies and local stock markets.

Real progress in this era of the Internet will require something other than the top-down “mobilizing” that PopularResitance.org recommends. These days, such leaders “die with their mouths open,” as Ronald Heifetz put it.

Rather, we need open, transparent, collaborative problem-solving among peers who truly respect each other. A good first step would be for the administrators of the PopularResitance.org to identify who they are on their website.