All About Power, and the Three Ways to Topple It (Part 1)

MuttsAs its name implies, the principal purpose of this weblog is to explore ways in which we can achieve sustainability on Earth. Over the past two years I have presented the ideas of at least two dozen writers, philosophers, political economists, and dreamers on what this means and how it might be attained, and I have proffered several of my own. For those newcomers interested in exploring these ideas, please see my environmental philosophy table of contents.

I thought it might be useful to take a step back and look practically, rather than idealistically, at what needs to be done to ‘save’ a world that shows increasing signs of crisis and inability to cope with it.

There are three ways to bring about major global change. Nature’s way, which is used only when absolutely necessary, is to introduce catastrophe: Pandemic disease, or major geological or atmospheric upheavals. Pandemic disease is usually species-specific, designed to weed out a species whose disruptive impact is so severe that it is destabilizing the balance of all life in an area, or globally. Geological and atmospheric upheavals are (usually) random events bringing about either a sudden or gradual transformation in the ecosystem itself, to “shake things up” and compel evolution to proceed in some new direction and hence stay agile. Note that I’m not saying that earthquakes, tsunamis, massive volcanic eruptions, ice ages and even asteroid impacts are planned events guided by some deity. I believe, based on very compelling evidence, in the scientific thesis known as Gaia theory that holds that all life on Earth is connected in much the same way that all parts of a small organism are connected, in pursuit of mutual and collective well-being, and co-evolve through the laws of natural selection to that end as changes occur in the body they share. So life on Earth has designed itself to suit the realities of Earth, including the reality of continuous and sometimes cataclysmic change. It is a very effective design that has survived and adapted to at least five major extinction events and thousands of smaller ones since life first appeared on the planet. This design, though remarkable, is simply the result of trial and error, and the resultant ‘self-discovery’ that extraordinary biodiversity is the key to resilience in the face of harsh and unforgiving geological and astronomical conditions and events. This design is tautological — were it not so well-suited and resilient we would not be here to observe or debate it.

The second way to bring about major global change is revolution — the deliberate overthrowing of the old order and its replacement with a new one. In the brief flicker of time that represents ‘human history’ there have been many revolutions, but only two of them have had enduring and global effect: The agricultural revolution that began 30,000 years ago and transformed human society from a hugely diverse set of relatively autonomous gatherer-hunter tribes to a single monolithic and astonishingly homogeneous global ‘civilized’ (hierarchical and governed by laws) farming, property-owning society; and the more recent industrial revolution that mechanized the means of production and transformed us from a society in the service of higher-ranking men to a society in the service of the machinery owned by higher-ranking men. There have been many attempts to institute a third global revolution to remedy the excesses created by the first two, but they have been unsuccessful because of the vastly superior power of the ruling elite, aided now by war and information machinery that has rendered sheer numbers infinitely subordinate as a lever of power to wealth and the machinery it buys for the wealthy. The only way a third revolution would be possible now would be if the ruling elite — the 1% of Earth’s human population that owns over 40% of its resources — were to succumb, along with the rest of us, to a natural catastrophe that rendered them unable to deploy their war and information machinery to stop it. Any natural catastrophe of that scale would probably so destabilize human culture that the need for a revolution in the resultant anarchy would become moot.

The third way to bring about major global change is incapacitation — rendering the old order unable to function by sapping what it needs to survive. This is the method that disease uses to prey on fragile and vulnerable organs, that parasites and venomous creatures use to weaken and sometimes kill their (much larger) hosts, that terrorists use to paralyze their enemies, and that innovative businesses use to undermine, render obsolete and supplant bigger, less flexible businesses. For those of us with neither the patience or religious fanaticism to wait for a global natural catastrophe, nor the naivety to believe in a successful ‘popular’ revolution, this third way is the only way to change, and save, our beleaguered planet.

Most of what has been written about change — by political theorists as well as business gurus — is about revolutionary change. It is about creating a sense of popular urgency for change. Writers on social and business innovation, by contrast, are (perhaps subconsciously) writing about change that incapacitates. Clay Christensen speaks candidly about ‘disruptive innovation’, the kind that catches successful businesses off guard, just like a virus or undetected parasite, and brings it to its knees. A huge amount of money and energy is being spent these days — on so-called ‘anti-terrorist’ programs, on physical and computer security, on fighting file-sharing, on patenting anything even vaguely innovative to prevent a competitor bringing it to market, on the search for vaccines and cures for AIDS, BSE, Avian Flu etc., on anti-fraud measures like Sarbanes-Oxley — all designed to fight incapacitating, rather than popular, revolutionary, enemies. Actions that are aimed to incapacitate are called guerrilla (meaning ‘little war’) actions. Since the Vietnam war debacle in the 1960s the very term has struck fear in the hearts of the power elite, because they know that, in today’s heavily concentrated, centralized, interconnected, ‘grid-locked’ society, this is where they are most vulnerable, most powerless to defend themselves.

The question of the morality of incapacitation is an interesting one. In military history, guerrilla attacks were first met with astonishment and moral outrage — not to wave your flag and tell the enemy you were coming was dishonourable, shameful behaviour — like hitting an opponent from behind without notice is ‘unfair’ fighting. But such subterfuge proved so successful that it quickly changed the centuries-old rules of war. In Europe’s assault on the First Nations of the Americas from the 1400s to the last century, it was not military might that conquered the natives but the devastation of invisible European diseases inflicted, sometimes deliberately but mostly by accident, to deadly effect. Using guile in an ‘honourable’ fight is still considered somewhat cowardly, but in business and in political activities against enemy states, covert, incapacitating strikes are commonplace and respectable. Industrial sabotage (“eco-terrorism”) is considered a high crime, but character assassination, slander and other forms of political sabotage are accepted as a normal part of “the dirty business of politics”. The view of its morality often differs depending whether you are the perpetrator or the victim, and whether your morality condones the “ends justify the means” behaviours that are increasingly endemic in modern society.

Let’s set aside our ambivalence about the morality of achieving change through incapacitation, and look for a moment at how the process works. Whereas revolutionary change begins with the overt act of creating a sense of urgency, finding champions, creating and communicating a vision, and empowering people to act, incapacitating change efforts begins with stealth — the element of surprise is often critical. The media and the public fail to understand such actions, because they are unpopular — there is almost always a public backlash. The internal combustion and steam engine put those poor hard-working horse-and-buggy owners out of work. Bush lied about WMD and people died. Even in Islamic countries the actions of 9/11 were so morally abhorrent that Bush could destroy Afghanistan and leave it in anarchy and ruins and be praised for it. The point is, unlike revolutionary actions, incapacitating actions aren’t meant to be popular, they’re meant to be effective.

So what is the process for bringing about incapacitating change? If the book on Leading Change were to be written by Christensen instead of by Kotter, what would it look like? Christensen’s books have been about anticipating and defending against incapacitating change rather than leading it, but his books, if you read them from the innovator’s perspective, do lay out the process:

  1. Identify the vulnerabilities: Fragility, overconcentration, ignorance, arrogance, lack of diversity, centralization, lack of redundancy, popular disgust, anxiety, dissatisfaction or apprehension, ill-preparedness, lack of agility, overcomplexity (left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing), lack of imagination and creativity, etc.
  2. Acquire resources stealthily: Put together what you need without letting your target know you’re doing so, or even what you are capable of doing with them.
  3. Develop solutions that exploit the vulnerabilities.
  4. Rigorously assess the likelihood of those solutions working effectively (incapacitating the incumbent power), and deploy only the high-probability solutions, quickly, before the incumbents have time to react and defend themselves.

Not a plan for a revolution, for sure, but a process that the experts in business innovation claim has repeatedly worked to ‘undo’ powerful players in the business marketplace. This is all about displacing power, and there is no reason it shouldn’t work just as well in the political and economic arenas as it does in the business arena.

I’m an old-fashioned guy, and so, although this 4-step process looks astonishingly like the methods used by Bin Laden, the Enron fraudsters, the CIA in Latin America, the funders of suicide bombers,  the New American Century wackos, and the still-unidentified Capitol Hill anthrax mailers, I’m personally averse to violence and causing suffering, and would prefer to find more peaceful methods to incapacitate corporatists, war-mongers, polluters, workplace slave-owners, abusers of women, children and animals, and others who are contributing to the multiple crises facing our world. There is no reason why this 4-step plan cannot be used non-violently. When the PC supplanted centralized, mainframe computers, and hence made the Internet, and the free exchange of radical ideas possible, no violence was involved, yet the result was the incapacitation of systems that hoarded knowledge and impeded connectivity, and set knowledge and connectivity free for the people. No revolutionary change process was used, yet the result was revolutionary.

Next week, part 2 of this article will explore some non-violent ways we can incapacitate the power elite, using this 4-step process, and introduce ‘innovations’ that make our world a better place to live. The focus will be on new technology, new infrastructure, new models and new processes that replace the vulnerable ones that are the causes of so many of today’s global problems — and ensuring that these replacements are Open Source, and stay in the hands of all the world’s people.

Cartoon from Mutts, by Patrick McDonnell. If you don’t see what it has to do with the article, you weren’t reading very carefully.

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3 Responses to All About Power, and the Three Ways to Topple It (Part 1)

  1. Aleah says:

    Dave, so which of the three forms of impending change do you believe is most likely to occur? I should rephrase: which one will have the greatest impact (as they are all in process as I type this)? I believe the biggest threat right now is ‘catastrophe’ – namely in the form of pandemic disease(s). The threat is twofold – the damage we are inflicting externally, to our ecosystem/Gaia, and internally, the damage we are inflicting on ourselves through antibiotic overuse, forms of chemical dependence, and nutritional problems related to dietary habits and altered food supplies.It is frightening, and tough to foresee ways of stopping the rapid march.

  2. David Gross says:

    I nominate tax resistance as a nonviolent method of sapping the strength of the government while preserving that same strength for us to put toward more noble goals.

  3. there is also ‘reconstruction’ — one way to describe the transformation between feudalism and capitalism. if one takes an ecological perspective, new institutions, emerge, evolve, compete, and eventually win-out (with the help, of course, of politics, see K. Polanyi). could it happen again? why not?

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