Multidimensional food for thought...
When the spirit of revolution arises in the people, it promises to change not only the outer world but also the inner domain of thought, dream and desire. The desire for revolution is the yearning for the decisive event that ends the separation between dream and reality – the threshold when suffering is redeemed, when freedom is gained, here and now.
The wait has been a long one. ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed, back in the eighteenth century. ‘One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.’ Rousseau’s ideas ended up shaping the French Revolution.
The cry for freedom has been the persistent undertone in the music of the oppressed, those who sing for Kingdom Come, the rising of the new sun, for whom history is an unfinished melody or a call that awaits its response. The dream of revolution is a secular version of the monk’s desire for religious ecstasy, which erases the separation between subject and object, and, like fire, purifies as it scalds, transmutes as it consumes, creates as it destroys.
The Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse found civilization haunted ‘by guilt over a deed that has not been accomplished’, the deed of ‘liberation’. My psychedelic journeys made this so clear to me. We had got caught in an incessant tape loop of deferral and delay, an interminable ‘not yet’, in our agreements about reality. We betrayed the promise of past revolutions by building new prisons around ourselves – banking systems, governments, malls, corporate structures. We lost ourselves in a labyrinth constructed by the human mind.
From past revolutions, we know that ‘we, the people’, have the power to remake or reinvent society when it no longer serves us. This remains a strange and dangerous idea. Our civilization seeks to maintain the illusion that it is solid and permanent. Architects decorate banks and government buildings with Doric columns, imitation Roman statues and friezes that convey the sense of an ancient pedigree. All of this display is designed to fool us into obedience and complacency.
Revolution awakened the consciousness of mankind. People found, to their great surprise, that they were ‘the people’, historical actors: the subjects of history, not its passive objects. ‘That all authority in the last analysis rests on opinion is never more forcefully demonstrated than when, suddenly and unexpectedly, a universal refusal to obey initiates what then turns into a revolution,’ wrote the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. That is the lesson of our past. We discovered it again in 1989, when the multitudes tore down the Berlin Wall, destroying at the same time an antiquated ideology.
Until the late eighteenth century, the vast majority of people believed in the Divine Right of Kings. They didn’t think of social systems as expressions of human intention, or as artefacts that could be changed or redesigned. The French and American Revolutions – deemed ‘the vindication of the honour of the human race’ by Alexander Hamilton, or ‘the grandeur of man against the pettiness of the great’ by Robespierre – were a shock to humanity. The people rose up to overthrow oppressive, corrupt, autocratic regimes. Through trial and error, the revolutionaries established the model of liberal democracy we know today – imperfect but a great advance over monarchy and feudalism.
Never-ending revolution remains our ideal in art, fashion and tech. Commercial society today requires continuous disruption, rebellion, the shock of the new. Capitalism is brilliant at absorbing anything that might threaten it. Che Guevara becomes a face on a T-shirt. The anguish of young black men is packaged as Gangsta Rap. Social outrage is turned into cultural product, more distractions to assimilate. The energy of dissidence and rebellion feeds the system and keeps it running.
The incessant onslaught of pop culture kitsch confuses and entrances people. We forget society is broken, that it needs to be changed, and we are the only ones who can change it. Made to believe we are powerless, we forfeit our power. It is easy to forget – until some problem leads to a crisis, and the crisis reveals a design flaw in the operating system that cannot be addressed by any reform.
Our society has revealed a number of severe design flaws that cannot be fixed within its current operating system. One is the grotesque, ever- growing increase in wealth inequality. Economists like Thomas Piketty have shown that the accelerated accumulation of capital by a few is built into the system. As the middle class collapses, we are experiencing something like the return of the ancien régime, a regression to a two-tier society of serfs and overlords.
Bill Gates and other billionaires promulgate their belief that the world is getting better for everyone. Depending on how we look at the evidence, this belief seems hard to sustain. For instance, in the US the number of children living in poverty has increased in the last decades, to almost one-third of all children. Eight billionaires now control more wealth than half of the world’s population. Corporate rulers and financier plutocrats are the new aristocrats, floating above the rule of law, whether they gather in secretive meetings in Switzerland to determine the fate of the world or preen in Road Warrior-esque costumes and gobble psychedelics at the Burning Man festival.
It is true that living standards and life expectancy have gone up in some areas of the world, while poverty has increased in others. We’ve managed significant gains in some areas, but this has come at quite a cost in others. We’ve managed only a few centuries of rapid industrial progress and we’ve accomplished this feat by over-exploiting the natural world, squandering finite resources that accrued over millions of years. At the same time, the advantages of our global industrial monoculture are somewhat ambiguous, at best. The desperate poverty we continue to see around the world is a direct result of industrial civilization and corporate globalization.
The second problem, of course, is that we are careering towards ecological meltdown. These design flaws are, I believe, linked. We can’t solve one without addressing the other. I agree with the social ecologist Murray Bookchin that ‘The private ownership of the planet by elite strata must be brought to an end if we are to survive the afflictions it has imposed on the biotic world, particularly as a result of a society structured around limitless growth,’ as he wrote in The Ecology of Freedom.
We therefore need some kind of revolution, but it can’t be anything like the revolutions we have seen in the past. We need one, to quote Dieter Duhm again, ‘whose victory will create no losers because it will achieve a state that benefits all’. We must also make it a peaceful revolution – a gentle superseding of the current political-economic system, not an explosive insurrection against it. We need a revolution that is, at the same time, evolution and revelation.
The United States – guarding the global empire of disorder – has turned into a massive surveillance society, armed to the teeth, looking for opportunities to flex its police and military might. It has killer drones, biological weapons, neutron bombs, FlexiCuffs, Guantanamo Bay, ‘extraordinary rendition’, and myriad other forms of intimidation, torture and death at its disposal. Any effort to oppose this kind of force directly will only end in failure. With hindsight, we can see that many of the protest and radical movements that fought ‘against’ the system only ended up feeding and energizing it. A different approach is called for.
What we can do, instead, is use the current infrastructure to bring about a systemic transformation, much as the imaginal cells reprogramme the cells that make up the body of the dying caterpillar. Later we will consider how this can be done in more depth. Despite its military might and seeming solidity, the empire is fragile. Our global economy is floating on air, as central banks create money out of nothing and debt skyrockets faster than gross domestic product, which is a terrible indicator in any case.
Crisis Is Opportunity
It is possible that the next revolution will never come. Although we are in a massive, out-of-control civilization barrelling towards ecological breakdown, the current system is also intricately interdependent and hyper-defended. While the underlying mechanism of the global financial system is broken, while shadowy webs of conspiracy and corruption extend everywhere, while billionaire financiers toast their own cleverness as millions lose their homes, while the planet’s eco- systems buckle and collapse, it may be the case that our global oligarchy will manage to hold it all together for a while yet – like Major Kong in Doctor Strangelove, with a final ‘Yee haw!’, riding the bomb all the way down.
On the other hand, some series of unforeseeable events may create an opportunity for a massive, sudden change. Social experiments currently proliferate all over the world. They are happening in many countries, often as a result of the extractive practices and domination of empire. In southern Europe, where countries like Greece, Spain and Italy have undergone financial collapse, new political parties are emerging, based on grassroots activism. Finland is testing out a basic income. Many movements around the world, from La Via Campesina (the landless peasant movement in Brazil) to the Zapatistas in Chiapas, are starting innumerable local actions, from time-banking systems and worker-owned cooperatives to community farms. The hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of small-scale actions, occupations and resistance movements around the world could weave themselves together, causing the spontaneous emergence of a new social being.
We therefore need to understand what is at stake, and what is possible – even at the furthest edges of possibilities. If we don’t have a plan or a new model ready, a social breakdown or series of disasters may only lead to new forms of despotic control and intensified repression, which will ensure further ecological breakdown.
Milton Friedman, the leading neoliberal economist, understood this. ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change,’ he wrote. ‘When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.’ In the 1970s and 80s, Friedman and his fellow economists developed their model of intensive privatization, arguing that ‘free markets’ created the greatest benefit for all.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed, economists and advisers from the US rushed into the void. Inspired by Friedman’s ideas, they enforced privatization on a mass scale, convincing governments in eastern Europe and Russia to sell off state- owned resources and institutions to the highest bidder. A tiny elite appropriated the shared wealth of the commons, creating an oligarchy that led to the dictatorial rise of Vladimir Putin.
Radicals can learn from the Pyrrhic victory of Friedman and the neoliberals. Rather than stumbling blindly forward, we must define, in advance, the outcomes we desire – much as the Wright Brothers worked towards an aeroplane, or Steve Jobs organized Apple to produce the iPhone. Then we must define a strategic plan to attain our goal.
What we want, I believe, is to launch a social infrastructure that supports participatory democracy to grow and take root organically, without getting snuffed out by ideologues of the right or left. We also want to devise a system where resources are shared far more equitably. The goal should be a post-capitalist society where distributed manufacturing, renewable energy, participatory democracy, efficient cooperation and conservation combine with a universal subsidy or basic income to guarantee everyone on Earth – our human family as a whole – the opportunity for a good life, free of unnecessary insecurity and pointless suffering.
*Excerpt from Daniel Pinchbeck’s new book: How Soon Is Now?