At a conference last weekend (RootsCamp) I attempted a conversation about “revolution” with a room of about 50 or 60 thinkers and activists. It’s pretty much the first time I’ve attempted the topic outside of a 1-on-1 conversation with friends. It was just a start, and a pretty shaky one.
Here’s the main point I was trying to get across: A radically better world is possible, but it’s not going to happen unless we go out there and make it happen through…a revolution…a big, audacious world revolution.
I’m using the “R” word. I know that’s a little scary. So let me make some disclaimers right up front to calm everybody down:
I’m NOT talking about a violent revolution; our ancestors fought for democracy so we’d never have to do that again in our society. I’m NOT talking about a cultural revolution to change people’s values; the people’s values are just fine. I’m NOT talking about reenacting some past revolution; our solutions have to come out of our present situation and culture, not some long-gone era or foreign society. I’m NOT talking about a revolution that steps outside of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights or the rule of law; that would be a step backward, not forward. And I’m NOT talking about anything that gets in the way of or precludes incremental reform; there is no competition between reform and revolution — both are necessary ingredients to progress.
My topic was economic revolution. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to talk about because people’s minds still go straight to Russia, 1917; or China, 1949. But the revolution I want people to think about is the revolution carried out by the first capitalists, who grew up a whole new (and better!) economic system on top of feudalism. They started with an idea — one inspired by developments that were already taking place around them; and they organized to seize the opportunities that history was placing in front of them.
We just need to do that again. It’s not my idea, it’s just the mandate of history. Improving and upgrading our economic way of life: you could say that is humanity’s job.
But these days, it’s as if humanity is on strike. And that was well represented in the counter arguments raised in my session. I’ll try to answer one today, and then hopefully later this week tackle the other two or three.
The main counter-argument, raised by several people in the session, went like this:
“Don’t bother trying to make revolution — progress happens on its own, because of inevitable technological upheavals and other factors beyond the control of intentional political action.”
It’s true, technological revolutions are mostly beyond our control because they are made of so many independent and unexpected discoveries and initiatives. That’s half of what makes being human so exciting: the future is a mystery. But humanity does have the power to decide what to do with these innovations after they come along. We do that through political action — or, in times like the present, the lack of it. Whether you believe that God or nature or both gave us this power of action and decision, there’s no denying we have it. And that’s the other half of what makes being human so exciting: the future is our project — and even though the materials we have to work with are a constant surprise, what to make with them is up to us.
To deny humanity historical agency is to deny what it means to be human.
For hundreds of thousands of years we humans have been living in the same biological bodies and brains — but the shape of our societies keep radically changing. This makes us unique on Earth. All other animals have their way of life pretty much hard coded in DNA. The structures of ant colonies and lion prides have changed over tens of millions of years, but only with corresponding mutations to their physical nature — a very slow and boring process compared to the whirlwind of human history. Changes in human life have decoupled from changes in human biology. Physically, we’re the same as the first humans who walked the Earth hunting and scavenging. But look at the world that has exploded into being from our minds and hands!
Every time human life changes for a society — whether a band of 30 people 100,000 years ago, or a state of a 300 million people today — decisions are being made. Yes, technological revolutions set the parameters: think of the discovery that seeds could be planted and yield crops. But group decisions determine the outcome: think of the incredible revolutionaries back then who must have convinced their communities to try something radically new and stay put waiting for crops to grow.
Revolutions of that magnitude are coming more and more frequently. We now reinvent our whole way of life every century, maybe even every generation. How long before it’s every decade, every year?
Imagine watching this quickening of humanity from, say, the Earth’s perspective. When humans developed the capacity for language, it was a completely new and magical thing the world had never seen before. At the time, it was probably the first truly original development in a billion years. Then, just the blink of an eye later in geological time, the Earth again sees humanity at the center of something incredible and unprecedented: this insane explosion of human technology.
Humanity is literally on fire — we have ignited like a match head. From our perspective, we live out our microscopic lives watching just one of the first milliseconds of the process in fantastic slow motion. But from the Earth’s perspective: after billions of years of relative peace, suddenly there is this fury — cities sprouting up, industries encrusting the surface of whole regions, transportation and communication networks winding around the planet like it’s a ball of twine, and the exponentially growing sparks of our wars. Have you ever seen one of those super high-speed videos of a match lighting up? It starts with a few small crackles, then just a few sparks — so much happens before the flame comes. Imagine the last 500 years as just that very first instant.
So what comes next?
That’s the point: we can choose what comes next. I used the metaphor of the match to convey the explosive nature of what’s happening. But it doesn’t have to be bad. Sure, if we choose World War III, then the world goes up in literal flames. If we choose to continue attack the atmosphere and environment, then it’s slightly more metaphorical but basically the same idea.
I agree with the people in my session who said that the technological revolutions are coming whether we want them or not. Yes: We’re getting an explosion of change no matter what. But here’s the explosion I want: clean technology replaces dirty technology; technology turns the matter of making a living into an afterthought for everyone in the world; freed from drudgery, humanity ploughs its effort into education, culture and just having a damn good time; our great challenge becomes simply living well (which we will find is not as easy as it sounds).
Why isn’t that a realistic vision? If we formed a worldwide movement to bring that into being, wouldn’t we stand a chance of succeeding? History says, “Yes.” Humanity has pulled off improvements on that scale over and over. But the current zeitgeist says, “No way.” We been overcome by a lack of confidence — one that’s shared pretty much the world over.
All through history, ideologies have been built up and taught by preservationists of the status quo — ideologies whose purpose is to convince people that humanity is powerless to control its destiny. European feudalism was an economic system of complex, bizarre and oppressive rules and social relationships. Its preservationists said that the system was God’s invention and people better leave it alone. Fast forward 500 years: our current economic system consists of running all economic activity through publicly traded corporations, all sharing a universal mission statement: “Increase shareholder value.” It’s an interesting but roundabout way to fulfill needs. But today’s preservationists say that this system is perfect — better than any other imaginable system. Some have even proclaimed, “The end of history.”
One way to break the spell of the new preservationists is to remember that, in between feudalism and capitalism, there was a revolution. Yes, technological discoveries were part of it: everything from carts in mines, more efficient water power and faster sailing ships. Exploitation of colonies and the pillaging of the Americas were a major factor too. But it took an intentional, political revolution to determine the impact of those innovations. Capitalists were the revolutionaries. Books like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations were revolutionary texts. Thousands of books in every European language worked out the vision of the economic system we live under today hundreds of years before it was realized. They didn’t just write, they organized, got themselves elected to parliament, and eventually won ruling majorities. In most countries the very fight to establish a parliament was part of the capitalist revolution. Once in power, they tipped the playing field in favor of capitalist entities and against feudal ones.
For example, under feudalism, land lords bore a responsibility to the peasants who were born and spent their lives working on the land. In fact, feudal lords in England and many other countries did not even own their land: the monarch did. In the early genesis of capitalism, many British lords saw that they could get rich by throwing the peasants off the land and replacing them with sheep, to produce wool for the new textile industry that was growing in Holland and shortly after in England. (Thomas More wrote in 1516, “Sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns.”)
Kings and Queens, the Church and the people fought back, for reasons of economic self interest as well as simple conservatism. But the embryonic Capitalist class continued to organize. It took hundreds of years, but finally they decisively controlled government. The “Inclosure Acts,” from 1750 to 1860, converted about 20% of the total land in England to private ownership and made it free for Capitalist agricultural enterprise. The enclosures had the double benefit of forcing huge numbers of peasants into cities and towns, where they supplied unbelievably cheap labor to the growing textile industry. When the supply did not keep pace with demand, the capitalist parliament passed laws to force the homeless, debtors, vagrants and others into work.
Over hundreds of years, the revolutionaries passed countless laws, waged wars and built institutions all designed to bring this new capitalist utopia fully into existence and secure its future. Today they have exactly what they wanted — all that’s needed is a few more hundred years for true capitalism to establish itself in all corners of the world.
Yes, capitalism was made possible by technological innovations. But it took organized political action — a revolution — to actually give it birth.
Now, it’s our turn. And because the pace of history has quickened to such a fever pitch, we can hope that our revolution won’t have to take hundreds of years, like the last one. (Or thousands, like older revolutions!) If the next 50 years see only an equivalent magnitude of change as the previous 50, that’s more than enough change for us to work with. Poor Adam Smith had to dream of his Capitalist utopia which he knew was generations away from being realized.
But if I live a long life, then when I die 50 years from now, I want everyone on Earth to be raising their tri-lingual kids in cozy houses, with full bellies, fresh air and no fear for the future. And damn it, I’m going to be really pissed if we don’t get there. But the generations alive today seem to be still refusing to accept our responsibility to history. Change never stops. The system we have today will be replaced by something else eventually — maybe sooner than we think. The question is, what? That’s up to us.