If fifteen years ago, when the USSR was collapsing, I had noticed a book on the shelves about “changing the world,” I imagine I would have passed it by. Such topics, I would have assumed, were for philosophers, mystics, or ideological fanatics. Such a slogan had no real political relevance, either as a desired goal or as a likely possibility. Our Western societies certainly needed reforming, but few people thought in terms of whole new systems, or questioning the wisdom of such basic things as progress and capitalism.
A lot has changed in the last fifteen years. In that time we’ve seen the rise of globalization, as the dominant economic force in the world, and along with that have come the destabilization of our national economies and a general decline in our quality of life. With holes in the ozone layer, global warming, and disappearing rainforests, topsoil, water tables, and oil reserves, there is a growing recognition that our modern societies are headed for some kind of major collapse, sooner or later. Meanwhile, in the sphere of geopolitics, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in civil wars and armed interventions, and a growing fear that conflict may develop among nuclear powers. By comparison, the Cold War era is beginning to seem like ‘the good old days.’
Without exaggeration, I can say that our modern civilization is facing a major crisis, indeed a crisis of survival. The full scope of the crisis has become increasingly apparent to more and more people over these past fifteen years. There were some, however, who were able to see the signs of this crisis long ago. Fortunately for the rest of us, there have been scientists, economists, journalists, and others, who have devoted their talents to investigating the roots of our current crisis, exploring how humanity might be able to avoid falling over the precipice – and publishing their results as part of a new genre of transformational literature.
One of the common themes that emerges in this genre is interconnectedness. Our economic and political systems, our environmental and social problems, and our unstable international situation – these are all interconnected with one another. They can only be understood from a whole systems perspective. We don’t have a list of individual problems to solve – rather we have a dysfunctional system that needs to be somehow reconfigured, i.e., transformed.
We – the people of the world – are like the owner of an old automobile that has been repaired many times, and which can no longer be repaired: we must begin thinking seriously about a new vehicle – a transformed basis for society. And indeed, the new transformational genre has moved quite a bit beyond critique of the ‘old automobile.’ Serious thought and research have been devoted to understanding how our global food supply can be produced sustainable and without harmful pesticides, how we can reduce our energy usage, and how we can develop sustainable and non-polluting sources of energy and modes of transport.
Similarly, new models of currencies and economic exchange have been developed, which can enable a more functional kind of economics, based on useful productivity, as measured by benefit to people – rather than being based on the accumulation of wealth by a few. From considerations of both sustainability and economics has emerged a systems perspective oriented around decentralization, and moving decision-making toward the local: local control makes for efficient economic operations and facilitates effective stewardship of natural resources.
The technical problems involved in making our world more sensible are not insurmountable. If the societal will existed, we could create functional and sustainable systems, put an end to war and poverty, live peacefully and happily ever after – and we could fund the conversion project with a small fraction of the resources now devoted to military budgets. It would be an immense project, but none of it is rocket science. The major obstacles to social transformation are not technical but political; they are bound up in the question: What is our societal will?
In fact, our societal will is the will of our political and economic elites. If they decide to invade Iraq, for example, then the media propaganda, the resources of our society, and our men and women in uniform are devoted to that objective – regardless of public sentiment regarding the adventure. And when it comes to transformation of the systems of our societies, these established elites are dead set against any such notion. They are irrevocably committed to holding on to the reigns of power, and maintaining the current system – regardless of the environmental and social consequences. The response of our governments to the emerging transformational paradigm has been dramatically symbolized by their brutal suppression of the various anti-globalization protests.
Of all of our societal systems, the most resistant to transformation are our political systems. So long as our political systems are controlled by wealthy elites, none of our other systems can be transformed. Revitalization of democracy turns out to be the critical factor in social transformation. And yet, revitalization of democracy is the least developed part of the emerging transformational paradigm. We can find complete treatments of sustainable economics, healthy agriculture, and appropriate technologies, but when it comes to the nature of genuine democracy – or how to achieve it – we find only partial solutions.
My purpose in writing this book is to weave together the various emerging ideas into a comprehensive tapestry of social transformation – with special emphasis on the problem of achieving democratic societies. The book is self-contained and it begins from first principles. I refer to the existing literature, and I have built on the work of others, but the synthesis is my own.
The first four chapters present an analysis of our current systems, their historical origins, and the various attempts of people throughout history to reform those systems by means of social movements and revolutions. The next two chapters describe a non-violent process by which I believe lasting social transformation can be achieved on a global scale. The final three chapters describe how that process can lead to a transformed world culture based on local empowerment, human liberation, participatory democracy, sensible economics, and cooperation for mutual benefit. At the end there is an annotated bibliography and online resources section where I offer a selection of sources that I’ve personally found to be useful in my quest to understand these complex issues.
At one level, in terms of the substance of its analysis, this book is intended for global audiences: it is about global transformation, not just the transformation of a single society. At another level, in terms of the style of its presentation, the book is aimed primarily at Western audiences, and in particular the reader will detect a distinctly American perspective in the material. Partly this is a result of my own background, having grown up in California. More importantly however, the Western and American orientation is intentional. It is Western governments, in particular the American government, which have the preponderance of military and economic power in the world. Unless transformation occurs in America and the rest of the West, it is unlikely to be achieved anywhere – at least not in a way that can last.
There are certain terms that are used differently in America, Britain, and continental Europe, which I should probably clarify in advance. In America, the term liberal refers to a person who in Europe would probably be known as a Social Democrat or perhaps a Green, and who in Britain might be a Labour or Lib-Dem voter. The term neoliberalism, used commonly in Europe but less so in America, refers to free-trade economics and the globalization agenda. The term neocon, short for neoconservative, refers to the extremist ideological clique, which at the time of writing dominates Washington politics, as personified by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
As a final note of introduction, I’d like to say something about my own ideological prejudices, and what ‘kind of person’ this book is intended for. For most of my life I would have put myself squarely in the liberal camp, in the American sense. I hated racists and bigots, thought guns and capital punishment should be outlawed, that abortion should be freely available, and that religion was a particularly dangerous form of mental illness. When I first started writing, about ten years ago, I was hoping to ‘educate’ those on the right, and convert them to my enlightened, rational, liberal thinking.
As it turns out, my prejudices have not really changed much, but my attitude toward ‘those on the right’ has changed considerably. In my attempts to debate conservative thinkers on the Internet and in person, I found that I was learning as much from them as they were learning from me. Their views on the evils of big government, their emphasis on self-reliance and local solidarity, and their skepticism regarding the mainstream media impressed me as being very sensible perspectives. I began to see that we liberals had blind spots and prejudices every bit as objectionable as those we criticized in our right-wing brothers and sisters. I began to see that ideological labels are divisive, and that underneath the skin we are all real people with sincere contributions to make to our societies.
I will not be able to hide my liberal biases in this material; they come out in the language that I use and in my choice of examples. But I hope this will not deter those of you who are of a conservative persuasion from giving consideration to what I have to say. Ultimately, social transformation depends on our ability, as human beings, members of an allegedly intelligent species, to get beyond our superficial differences and realize that we are all in this together. A better world for all of us is a better world for each of us! I invite you to join me in the quest to find a path to such a world.
Available at amazon: Escaping the Matrix
It will look like this: Escaping the Matrix – How People Can Change the World