A Brief Preface
Several weeks ago I sent this essay to the Next System Project, encouraging them to respond to it or provide feedback of any and all sorts. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet heard back from them, but I’m still hoping they will eventually weigh in.
This essay is the first of several I’ll be writing for GEO over the coming weeks and probably months on “What’s To Be Done, Now? (WTBDN)?” These essays will occasionally touch upon how to contest and subvert the pernicious rise of “orange fascism”. However, I will centrally focus on the myriad of diverse opportunities for creative radical grassroots transformation that loathsome phenomenon has – inadvertently – already begun to generate, and no doubt will continue to generate.
In particular, my essays will explore WTBDN from two different and often discordant directions. First, on what I call the “inner or micro level”: what’s to be done to prepare ourselves and help others prepare for radical change — how we see ourselves transforming and contributing to the transformation of others. And second, on the “outer and most macro level”: what’s to be done about the powerful and often perversely undemocratic institutions that today dominate our lives and thwart our efforts to be heard, listened to, and create humane and just change.
But the main aim of these essays is not to promote any specific visions or “next steps”, but to encourage (or provoke?) readers to reflect on and give voice to their own responses to WTBDN. There is, in my view, no ultimately or uniquely right answer to this question. (And that’s a good thing.) But there are better and worse responses, and there is always much to be learned by seriously listening to and examining the considered reflections of others faced with the same obstacles, uncertainties, and perils as ourselves.
So if you are reading this, you are warmly invited to not only critique what you read here, but to also offer your own reflections on what all of us, or at least the 99%, need to be doing now.
The Next System Project is an ambitious multi-year initiative aimed at thinking boldly about what is required to deal with the systemic challenges the United States faces now and in coming decades. Responding to real hunger for a new way forward….the goal is to put the central idea of system change, and that there can be a “next system”, on the map….In defining issues systemically, we believe we can begin to move the political conversation beyond current limits with the aim of catalyzing a substantive debate about the need for a different system and how we might go about its construction….It’s time for a national debate on fundamental questions. It’s time to talk about what comes next. It’s time to talk about the next system. (Source)
On first glance, the call for a Next System appears to make good sense, and even to be common sense. After all, what we have to confront every minute of every day, the established Global Empire System, is now seen by more and more of us as failing on every possible count, from unending military interventions, to police-sanctioned murder of unarmed black citizens, to insecure jobs and unpaid corporate taxes, to offering a “presidential choice” between a chronic liar and an adolescent narcissist bully, to ignoring the voices of ordinary citizens and replacing them with those of unaccountable “representatives”. So it’s no wonder that in just a few months the Next System Project (NSP) has already attracted hundreds of individual supporters as well as a large and diverse family of progressive groups and organizations.
But while I certainly agree that it’s (long past) time to talk about what comes next, and that there’s a very widespread need for something entirely different, it doesn’t really follow – and I’m far from sure – that what we most need is a “next system”. Why so?
Basically, for two reasons, two very different but inextricably connected problems. First, I don’t think we – We the People – are prepared to launch, or even support, anything like a “next system”. That task would require a strong sense of community, but by and large, our fellow citizens have very divided and divisive loyalties; many if not most are cynical and/or passive about “systemic change”. Worst, they suffer from a widespread lack of what radical democracy philosopher C.D. Lummis once called “public hope”:
…Their attitude about the future of their country, or the future of the world, is typically one of bland despair. They talk easily and vaguely about the probable continuation of the destruction of nature, of the unlikelihood that they will ever achieve popular control over the entrenched political cliques that run their government, about the inevitable death of freedom in the techno-managerial society of the future. The belief that none of these things can be avoided by the action of mere human beings (which is to say, the belief that democracy is impossible) has become common sense.
Lummis was writing about people in Japan where he lived, but the shoe seems to fit….
Of course, we are not at all without courageous and committed social change initiatives, from Black Lives Matter to community currencies, worker-controlled enterprises, Occupy Wall Street, and a host of others. But apart from BLM, the greatest majority of Americans rarely and barely has heard of any of these initiatives, and has been effectively mis-educated to regard them as merely idealistic and ultimately futile. Unless these imposed attitudes and beliefs are challenged, systemic change will remain a topic for academic debate, and something far removed from the lives and hopes of our fellow citizens.
Fifty years ago, Paul Goodman published Like A Conquered Province, in which he agreed with (or, rather, predated) Lummis’ reflections on the widespread lack of public hope. Goodman referred to this condition as “a psychology of anomie,” of feeling powerless. But he also raised a quite distinct problem, one not on the individual level, but within the macro-system; the global warfare empire and multinational exploitation machine fashioned by the USA’s military-industrial complex (MIC).
(President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican and highly decorated Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, had warned about the MIC when he retired from the Presidency in 1961. In his final address, Eisenhower emphatically stated that: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”)
Goodman, however, took this problem a step or two beyond Eisenhower. At the very end of his book, he explained its title:
“I would almost say that my country is like a conquered province with foreign rulers, except that they are not foreigners….”.
That is, our situation is much like that of colonized peoples: we can vote for our rulers, but cannot control them; our voices, at times, can be expressed, but can almost always be dismissed or over-ruled; our tax revenues mainly fund military interventions and corporate interests, leaving us to battle with each other over tiny trickle-downs. We are, in effect, walking in the dreams and demands of our captors, doomed to sit like docile passengers, who can only watch as the USA train goes wherever the MIC takes it. Despite the incessant rhetoric of “freedom”, we as a people are unwilling and indeed, unknowing, captives.
Moreover, our country today seems to me far more controlled by its ruling conquerors than was true in the 1960s. The weapons of our rulers are much more vicious. SWAT tanks set at the ready in even the smallest of our cities, and there are far fewer restraints on those who wield them against us. Not to mention the increasing capacity and inclination for 24/7 surveillance….
It seems to me then, that what is needed is something prior to and more crucial than a “next system”. If you find your home on fire, you will first rescue whoever is still in it, and whatever else is most valuable to you. After that, you can begin to contemplate what comes next, whether anything remains that is livable, where it might be best or safer to build anew. But first and foremost, you need to get yourself and others far away from what is life-threatening.
The same is true on the macro-level. Colonized peoples must first throw off their life-threatening shackles, and then turn to what they want to replace them.
Clearly, these two problems, one on the most personal of levels, the other on the most comprehensive, are inter-dependent, they feed on one another. The conquerors’ obvious powers, total lack of accountability, vicious and unrestrained weaponry… all threaten every citizen, and push us towards anomie and cynicism. But the conquerors continually need to ensure themselves of a docile populace; they fear the potential blow-back, the fearlessness that might erupt at some unforeseen moment. They are so scared of their own citizens that they militarize public spaces and equip police as if they were stationed in Iraq or Syria.
How though to get out of the vicious cycle? Goodman had an answer, back in 1966, one he based on the civil rights and anti-war movements of his time. So did Poland’s Solidarity in 1981, East Berliners in 1989, the Zapatistas in 1994, and the BLM in our time. Goodman referred to it alternatively as “direct action”, “creative disorder”, and “civil disobedience”.
What’s needed, then, may well be a continuation – an expansion – of the civil rights initiatives of the 1960s! It could encourage dissent, resistance, insurgency… from all sectors and cultures; it could aid in undermining and revoking the MIC’s unlimited powers. It might be led by groups such as BLM and those demanding immigrant rights, but would stand for the civil rights of all citizens and residents.
Four decades later, author, environmentalist, and social entrepreneur Paul Hawken identified yet another version of “creative disorder”, one very much in the same family as Goodman’s notion. Hawken refers to this as “Blessed Unrest”, the title of his 2007 book.
Hawken’s story of blessed unrest developed unintentionally, after he had given almost one thousand talks on protecting the environment during a fifteen year period. Through these talks he was able to personally meet – and begin to count – the vast number of “groups and organizations… engaged in progressive causes.” Looking through a variety of government records from different countries he
…initially estimated a total of 30,000 environmental organizations around the globe; when I added social justice and indigenous peoples’ rights organizations, the number exceeded 100,000….The more I probed, the more I unearthed, and the numbers continued to climb….I soon realized that my initial estimate of 100,000 organizations was off by at least a factor of ten, and I now believe that there are over one ––and maybe even two –– million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social justice.
Hawken has also helped create a global data base of this “vast collection of committed individuals” and this has convinced him of two things: first, that it is “the largest social movement in human history.” And second, that this movement is “an historical anomaly”, it does not fit the standard model:
It is dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent. It has no manifesto or doctrine, no overriding authority to check in with. It is taking shape in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, companies, deserts, fisheries, slums – and yes, even fancy New York hotels.
All of this is recounted in superb detail in Blessed Unrest, whose title provides us with perhaps the most important common feature of the constituents of this most extraordinary non-movement. The term comes from a conversation between Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille, in which the former stated:
There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you by action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique….You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open….[There is] no satisfaction at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and make us more alive than others.
Maybe, then, what’s most needed next is to spread far and wide something like this blessed unrest, this animated, ever creative, and never satisfied energy, this “creative disorder”. In this way, we could all experiment continually with new and more diverse forms of ecological sanity and social justice, without the fear or annoyance of having to “check in” with some overriding system.
What I find so remarkable about blessed unrest is its increasingly grand variety of shapes, strategies, and sensibilities: One No, Many Yeses, as Naomi Klein and the World Global Social Forum have put it. Non-violent civil disobedience and education for insurgency assist and are supported by restorative justice, participatory budget, solidarity economy, and transition town initiatives. All of this diversity may lack strict order, but it also enables ordinary folks to participate directly in what most matters to them, thus liberating themselves from anomie and lost hope (see here, here, here, here, and here).
Perhaps it’s possible that a humane Next System could aid in developing and supporting this sort of animated and subversive public. Maybe so, but not if that System takes center stage, or views itself as the first and foremost of what is needed. Blessed unrest and System building, so it seems to me, frequently operate quite differently, even oppositionally. Those who favor systems tend to construct plans, strategies, and institutions that in many ways pre-determine the future; blessed unrest favors processes that open space and provide resources for people to create their own future(s) – autonomously.
A progressive Next System might possibly emerge with the help of perfectly legal initiatives and reforms that would weaken the control, at all levels, by major corporations as well as the Kochs and other billionaires, over our elections and political life. It could ensure that the minimum wage becomes a living wage, even break up the biggest Wall Street banks.
But for any of this to happen – not to mention overcoming the militarized domination of this country by the current Warfare State and Global Empire – much more will be needed before any progressive system could take root. That “more” cannot be scripted; it is by nature unpredictable. It might take the shape of states like Vermont and California seceding, indigenous and other marginalized groups acquiring more control over their own lands, cultures, and forms of governance, and tax refusals on a grand scale. But we can be certain that it will involve immense resistance, insurgency, disorder, unrest, disobedience, on national and global as well as regional and local levels. And that without these, we will remain an occupied province.
(P.S. I wrote this essay during August, 2016 BTE (Before the Trump Expropriation), but that catastrophe seems only to make creative resistance and blessed unrest even more essential. What’s still needed most, so I’m convinced, is precisely what the Trump’s hostile occupation, unintentionally, has already begun to seed: a spirit of insurgency and secession, born of sanctuary states, cities, campuses, congregations, and private homes, of general strikes by those most targeted, and of all marginalized voices — of youth, of people of color, of first nations, of all those who demand their difference be seen as strength, and their creative agency develop no single system, but a wide spectrum of diversely self-directed communities. I’ll be saying more on what this concretely looks like in an article on Youth Participatory Action Learning in the coming months.)
Afterword: A Puzzling Next System Essay Contest
A few months ago, along with many others, I received the following announcement from the NSP folks:
The Next System Project is pleased to announce our national essay competition on the next system. Judged by a panel (to be announced) of highly respected scholars* associated with the project, we will award three $5,000 first prizes for the best original essays by an undergraduate, a graduate, and a non-student. Three runner-up prizes of $500 will also be awarded. We aim to publish a compilation of the best essays submitted.
Initially, I imagined submitting something, but questions began to arise when I read the announcement a bit more carefully. Questions like:
• why does the panel of judges consist only of “scholars”*?
• why are graduate and undergraduate students singled out for most (two-thirds) of the awards, and people from other knowledgeable groups (practitioners, those now marginalized) not reached out to or recognized?
• why is the call for essays set up as a “competition,”, with a very few winners and many losers seeing each other as rivals, rather than an opportunity for all (or at least, most) contributors to collaborate and learn from one another? E.g., the award money might be given to the entire group of contributors to engage in constructive dialogue and arrive at a small number of Next System options that overcome conflicts within the initial submissions.
• why is the issue avoided of whether a “Next System” is what is most needed?
Perhaps these questions could be considered if and when there’s a second call for New System essays?
*Note: The panel of judges was eventually changed to include both academics and activists.
Go to the GEO front page
Len Krimerman (2017). The Next System Project, Reconsidered. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/next-system-project-reconsidered
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