Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How Do We Change The World?

I have already spent some time on this blog trying to analyze the present possibilities for global systemic transformation, but I think the topic warrants more thought. For me, the most troubling question is whether or not positive change is even possible. I have maintained that the world is in the process of large-scale structural transformation, but have expressed some fear that what results will be even worse than what we have now. I have also given some attention to the “how” of revolution (have revolutions of the oppressed ever been successful?). It is this latter consideration that I want to expand on here.

How can real, positive social change be achieved? It is not easy to remain optimistic when one looks at historical precedent. Especially when the bar is set high: I only consider real systemic change to be anything that universally disrupts relationships of exploitation and oppression, that completely alters the foundation of the whole system.  In short, it is only real change if we manage to surpass the current global capitalist system.

-Working through the political process is probably the least effective method. You don’t dismantle an oppressive system by working within it.

-Demonstrations and protests seem more palatable to me than voting. But what have they ever accomplished except for maybe some policy changes that don’t really alter the system? Mostly it is just political rhetoric and superficial conditions that are reformed by these activities, rather than the deep structures of social reality.

-Violent uprisings and coups, though unappealing to a pacifist like me, may be more effective still. Forcibly replacing political leadership has actually worked to some extent in Latin America. Yet, no one has managed to extricate themselves from the global capitalist system. What has resulted in Latin America has been more the establishment of social democratic regimes, which, although somewhat aesthetically pleasing, are not at all a departure from the current system. What one most often sees when a group of people tries to overthrow their government is that the old structures are left intact, and new people simply inhabit the old roles.

Now, Marx insisted that the proletarian revolution would have to be a single, unified global movement. That is because capitalism is a global system of oppression, and Marx envisioned a new type of global society emerging as the post-capitalist world order, so for him change could not occur piecemeal. One could argue that this is why all attempts at revolution have heretofore failed.

But I wonder whether any sort of universal global revolution is even possible. It is interesting to note that for many people involved in the Arab Spring (many but certainly not all), they do not see their current social reality as a failure of Western standards of democracy, to which they aspire (which is often how the Western media portrays the situation); while this perspective may be held by some, plenty of others view the status quo as a failure of Islamic standards of an ideal society, and wish to establish a new society based on Islamic principles. (One can see this in the election results.) What this means is that, while a vast majority of the world may be dissatisfied with the current system, our aspirations and visions for a new world are not identical. And it seems unlikely that everyone (or least a sizeable majority) would ever come to share exactly the same attitudes. Without, that is, mass brainwashing.

Furthermore, is a global society even desirable? It seems that a cohesive global society would not be possible without massive structures of governance and bureaucratic administration that would likely just further expand and intensify the governmental power relations in which people are already entrenched. Plus, it just does not seem practical to me.

Now, one should recognize that plenty of people have already managed to de-link themselves from the system to varying degrees. Of course there are the Kibbutzes, communes, Amish communities, etc. My favorite group is the Zapatistas – and this despite the fact that they are not pacifist. The Zapatistas managed to maintain the strength and cohesion of their movement because they refused to be co-opted by the political system. They simply created their own society, with their own form of leadership, within the state of Mexico. They also maintain global ties, for example participating in the World Social Forum. Small, individual communities do not entail isolation and provincialism.

So is this the only way out: for people to simply try to extricate themselves from the system where they can, as individuals or small groups? I should mention that I have made absolutely no effort of my own to disentangle myself from the global capitalist system. These things are easier said than done, and not guaranteed to be effective. Still, I think it is worthwhile to consider the options, and in particular the potential value of a mass movement of frustrated people forming their own communities and societies apart from the current system. The system surely cannot survive if a majority of people simply refuse to live within its bounds.

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