There is a potent mythology circulating within our modern Zeitgeist that revolutionary transitions must be chaotic, disruptive and destructive. I think this is a mistaken assumption, but it is grounded in reliable observations and experiences that permeate history, psychology, biology, spirituality, politics and personal growth. First we can take a look at those evidences, and then some alternative examples from which we can discern a more sensible course for constructive change.
Where did this investment in chaotic transitions come from? Here are a few of the enduring memes circulating today:
• From ancient times, the Greek, Judeo-Christian, Hindu and other mythological metaphors of violent destruction and rebirth: the fiery rebirth of the Phoenix; the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (and other “dying-and-rising God” narratives – see Dying-and-Rising-God); the Great Flood myths; and the trials and temptations of the Hero’s Journey (Campbell); the chaotic End Times scenarios from various spiritual traditions, etc.
• Milton Friedman’s theory that, in order to implement a new policy or system, one must engineer an economic and/or political crises, accelerate a nascent crisis, or simply take advantage of a crisis in process at a regional, national or international level. Friedman demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach in different countries during his lifetime in order to promote a neoliberal ideology. Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism explores this process in vivid detail.
• Clear evidence that, in natural ecosystems, death is a necessary component of ongoing viability: one species will routinely consume another; parents must die for their offspring to flourish; evolutionary adaptation generally follows a fitness advantage passed on and refined in subsequent generations; and so on.
• The belief embodied in many spiritual traditions that each individual must relinquish a sense of self-importance or ego-identity in order to grow spiritually; a “death-to-self,” obliteration of individual ego, or realization of “no-self” is a necessary component of spiritual maturity.
• “Hitting bottom” in the Twelve-Step tradition. In this view of addiction and recovery, a person’s self-destructive behaviors must first produce substantive and irrefutable damage in their lives before they will consider seeking help or beginning the road to recovery.
• The observations of historians, philosophers and economists that cultural revolutions and societal advancements throughout history have been facilitated by highly volatile historical circumstances, rebellious grass-roots movements, new information or disruptive technologies. From religious wars to new economic systems to new forms of government to advances in individual and collective freedoms, turmoil seems to have been a reliable precursor for change.
However, I think this widespread assumption that chaotic transitions are inevitable is no longer as reliable as it perhaps once was. There are a number of reasons for this, and here are what I believe to be the most important ones:
• Superagency – Individually and collectively, humanity has exponentially increased its power through communication, transportation, industrialization, militarization and other technology. This has an amplifying effect on both deliberate outcomes and unanticipated ones, so that each personal, regional and cultural choice produces an enormous cascade of enduring consequences. In this context, previous patterns of death and rebirth cannot apply; the scope and reach of human will have now obliterated any Phoenix opportunity. And as our technology and population footprint expands, compassionate transformation must replace chaotic transitions as our standard of change – or the human species and possibly even the Earth itself are not likely to survive.
• Exponential Complexity – This is close kin to superagency in terms of its impact on change. The level of complexity with which the modern world operates – and upon which an ever-increasing number of human beings rely for existence – has surpassed the level of any of the take-down-and-rebuild upheaval witnessed by previous eras. Our systems of commerce, resource distribution, healthcare, global transportation, energy, food production, education, research, innovation and just about everything else require extraordinary coordination, standards-based planning and specialized skillsets to implement and maintain. Rebuilding such complexity in a new form from the ashes of chaotic collapse is simply unrealistic and naïve.
• Strong Evidence for Alternative Approaches – For me this begins at the individual level, witnessing how client-based psychotherapy grounded in trusting relationships are so much more successful than confrontation groups or highly directive approaches; because empowering the client allows them to heal themselves and keep using tools to maintain their own well-being. In organizations, I have witnessed firsthand the constructive impact of shifting from top-down management styles to more inclusive, bottom-up decision-making as the result of a voluntary choice to empower workers – and of course this has been documented in many places (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workplace_democracy). Elinor Ostrom’s research on Common Pool Resource Management schemas arising organically around the globe also has demonstrated the viability of bottom-up, collective decision-making. On larger scales, throughout recorded history we have successful nonviolent movements in many countries (see Nonviolent Resistance and Nonviolent Revolution). Although the outcomes often involve compromise, nonviolent approaches have provided a more fluid avenue to healing and reconciliation among opposing viewpoints (for more information on nonviolent action, visit http://www.aeinstein.org/). And finally we have the evidence of state initiatives and referenda in the U.S., and of a more pervasive direct democracy in Switzerland at all levels of government, which came about without a single riot or drop of blood.
In my own efforts to envision and reify positive change on many different levels, I have sought to explore and embody transformative practices and ideals that are fundamentally constructive, additive and synergistic – a multidialectical synthesis rather than an inherently dominating or destructive process. Which is why I am calling this compassionate transformation. It involves these primary components, the details of which are discussed in more detail throughout my writings about Integral Lifework:
• An acknowledgement of personal responsibility, consciousness and planning to bring about constructive change; a commitment to personal agency must supersede reliance on institutional agency or externalized dependence – which ultimately lead to disconnection, apathy and self-disempowerment.
• The persistent guiding intentionality to work toward outcomes that provide the greatest good, for the greatest number of people, for the greatest duration – doing so skillfully, in ways that acknowledge and support both obvious and obscured interdependence.
• A focus on nourishing, nurturing and strengthening all dimensions of being in ourselves and others, with the primary aim of exercising compassionate affection, but also to encourage moral maturity and higher altitudes of individual and collective moral function. Our core strengths, resilience and creativity will issue from these mutually supportive relationships.
• A profound investment in understanding, respecting, including, honoring and celebrating diverse experiences, perspectives, cultural traditions and levels of understanding in all participatory mechanisms, while at the same time integrating them (in the sense of interculturalism), rather than encouraging isolation or separateness. Here we appreciate our togetherness, necessary interdependence, and uniqueness all-at-once.
• Patience and acceptance with the process of healing, educating and transforming self, family, community and civil society. This will be a difficult challenge. There will be setbacks. All of us are likely to stumble through confusion, loss, distractions and emotional turmoil; there will be internal chaos in the midst of liberation. And the only meaningful answer to this pain is self-directed compassion - a stubbornly enduring love-consciousness.
At the same time, I recognize that some things do pass away in the process; the synthesis may sometimes be subtractive regarding previous perspectives, memes, values systems or ideologies. For example, regarding the state of our current political economy, we do need to disrupt the status quo’s glamorous spectacle of excess and distraction, built as it is on unsustainable overconsumption and self-absorbed materialism. Together, we must prompt an awakening of conscious participation from our fellow worker-consumers, and definitively end the exploitative reign of owner-shareholders. And yes, this will likely involve attenuation of individualism, acquisitiveness and ego. But it is not necessary to drag “the man behind the curtain” out into the public square and flog him to death, or burn his palace to the ground. We can wreak havoc on the illusion, overturn the banksters’ tables, and eliminate complacency and dependency among our fellow citizens…without inducing chaos or a complete breakdown of society. Instead we can remove the curtain, throw open the palace gates, inspire and educate mass movements, and demand pervasive change – all without rancor, murder or rage. The more profound difference between compassionate transformation and chaotic transition in this regard is that our grounding attitude is a letting go – a careful, caring and tempered relinquishment of previous patterns, rather than their violent or aggressive destruction, oppression or repression. Passion with compassion; activism with humility. This is not passive by any means, but accepting, supportive, nonjudgmental and active from a place of loving kindness; it just invites the same collective participation it designs into reforms, and doesn’t excuse itself to lord it over others “for their own good.”
This combination of reasoning is what led me to promote what I call revolutionary integrity. Many throughout recent history, from Gandhi to Friere to Martin Luther King, have expressed the intuitive logic of embodying the values one desires for the future in the current modes of revolutionary action. Carl Boggs, Wini Breines and others wrote extensively about this idea with respect to sociopolitical movements of the sixties and seventies, describing it as prefigurative politics. Many years earlier, Ralph W. Sockman said this about the issue: "Be careful that victories do not carry the seed of future defeats." And long before this, a rebel from Nazarus told his overzealous disciple: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” So this is really the core of what revolutionary integrity is about: we are just amplifying the assumption that, if we don’t embody our values in a transformational process, we will in fact sabotage the outcome. The means must embody the ends. There will be re-synthesis and adjustment along the way – that is obvious, as ideological and methodological purity almost always obstruct common sense solutions – but this does not mean that our quality of dialogue, standards of ethics, the vision towards which our incremental steps lead, the intensity of compassion with which we regard all participants, or the humility by which we relinquish personal opportunities at power for the common good will ever be compromised in any way. But if we insist that crisis is a necessary precondition for change, we will be inviting crisis to be an integral part of whatever new systems we invent.
In a very real sense, our lingering attachment to the idea of chaotic transitions is a substantive impediment to collective progress. It is a sign of our vestigial attachment to patterns of behavior which probably made sense when ancient tribes found themselves under constant threat of conflict, resource scarcity, existential uncertainty and violent power struggles. It is much like an abusive family’s expectation that all their communication and emotion be mired in excessive drama; or how a codependently enmeshed couple might catastrophize all disagreements and disconnections; or how someone with a personality disorder might threaten to commit suicide if someone doesn’t return their phone call. And perhaps it will take a generation or two of promoting holistic, multidimensional nourishment, healing from trauma, breaking familial cycles of abuse, and relaxing PTSD-like cultural reflexes in order to fully open ourselves up to more complete and effective ways of compassionately being. But I sincerely believe that is exactly what we need to do to both envision an egalitarian, thriving future for humanity, and to actualize it.
My 2 cents.
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