Something that has been clear to me since attending the Symbiosis Congress in Detroit several weeks ago is that any kind of systemic change is a process, and that it requires a process of learning-by-doing and then iterating. In simpler terms, that the political and economic revolution many of us are suggesting is necessary these days is not the kind of thing that is going to happen just by talking about it, but rather by doing it. And, furthermore, it is not the kind of thing that we can expect to happen in one fell swoop, but rather, as a process of intentionally enacted changes executed in iterations. Complicating matters slightly, being as we are in a living system where changes anywhere affect the whole system, each iterative step also needs to consider the ways that the terrains has changed since the last move was made. OR, to put this in simpler terms, the patterns that oppose systemic change are moving and adapting too, and we need to be cognizant of that.
So what was it about the Symbiosis Congress that made this clear? Well, I wrote about this at more length in my account of that several day event but the long and short of it was that you had a group of 100 or so political activist who were very closely aligned in political outlook and who shared a very specific motivation for traveling from around the continent to participate in this very specific event, but even so, and even with the background of having been steeped in the same political thought, and having read so many of the same books, and even having been engaged in very similar forms of activism back home, even then, with all this common ground it was messy and involved quite a process learning how to function together and to accomplish the relatively simple thing that we had set out to do. In hindsight you could say it was just a matter of rearranging the chairs in the room (from sitting in rows to sitting in circles) that allowed the breakthrough to happen at that particular conference, but having been there and witnessing how that change happened over the course of several days, it was very clear that it was a process that had to unfold in steps and without the fumbling and awkward first steps, that we never would have gotten to the end that we did. Bearing witness to this process was an immense gift, and as I hope to make clear here very clarifying as to the nature of systemic change and how it happens.
I mentioned moving the chairs in the room, and this is an important part of it too. Because the changes we are talking about are not just changes in the way we talk to each other, but actual tangible changes in the material relations of power and all the physical details of how we interact with one another, and this is a change that must happen in iterations as well. Going back to the Symbiosis Congress as an example, while you could say that in the end it was as simple as rearranging the chairs in the room, there was also an iterative process of physical and logistical changes to our meeting format that resulted in that seemingly simple change. And in the end in that process the result was an arrangement where there was a much greater degree of egalitarianism among all voices in the room, and where the dynamic allowed the contributions of all to more efficiently (and, it should be noted, more enjoyably!) contribute to the tangible results of a group process. And in hindsight, the iterative steps that let to that final result were not that complicated either, adding more breakout sessions and report backs, and adding “open mic” retrospective after each official working session, but the point is that they were steps that needed to be engaged, and it simply would not have been possible to skip from the initial state right to the end state.
Coming back, then, to the wider circumstance o our real lives, and the felt need that some kind of drastic change is needed in our overall arrangement as seven billion humans living on an increasingly imperiled planet, I would suggest that something of the same inherent dynamics apply insofar as how human social systems change. Because while we may have some idea of what a better world might look like in practice, it is at best a vague notion, and it involves systemic arrangements which most of us have no practical experience with. How many of us would even know where to begin I organizing a cooperative business, for instance, much less planting a garden or organizing a neighborhood meeting? If we’re being honest, what we are all much clearer on is what we find problematic about the current state of affairs, and our fear of what will happen if we continue on current course. And, while daunting, it is perhaps clarifying to summarize this fear in the awareness of global warming and the increasingly visceral feeling of impending and final tragedy. This fear alone though, however justified, and the concomitant clarity of unified desperation that it engenders, is still not a solution, or in and of itself, even a steppingstone toward a solution. If we are collectively wise in the years ahead, we may be able to look back and see the climate crisis as a sort of zeroing out moment that precipitated the necessary changes, but in and of itself, the collective awareness of even this existential problem we face together, nor any of the impassioned outrage, are even a first step toward the systemic changes that would improve our situation.
And of course I do not mean to say that expressions of fear and outrage are not justified or appropriate, because they are both in ample measure, but what I do mean to say here is that while these expressions largely share the sensibility that fairly radical changes are needed to societal organization, that no amount or degree of that kind of talk is a substitute for the actual process that must be engaged to make those changes real. To be sure, my suggestion here is not for traditional Progressivism or for eschewing a radical vision. To the contrary, what I am calling for is embrace of that vision of a radically transformed society, together with the sober understanding that the way to achieve radical change is through iterative and intelligent steps taken in good faith, and allowing that we are stepping into the unknown and learning as we go.