What Progressives Are Missing

There has to be more to the progressive movement than a set of shared beliefs. While worldwide we are around 25% of the human population, we are outnumbered by the combination of 25% conservatives, ideologically opposed to and determined to undo everything we try to do, and 50% (and growing) afflicted with anomie, who either think political belief and action is useless, or just don’t care.

We progressives urgently need to pick up the pace of change, and to do that, we need to do much, much more than just vote. We need to acknowledge that most political power worldwide is firmly in the hands of an elite who are happy to control most of the world’s wealth and power and use it to acquire even more. Some of those wielding that power masquerade as progressives — running under Liberal, Democratic, Labour or People’s party banners, and talking a moderate progressive line just before elections, but their actions, most of them quiet and done in back rooms or written into legislation no one reads or understands, are designed to retrench, to prevent substantive change. Even more of the world’s political power is in the hands of those who are not elected at all — corporate leaders who simply buy politicians, and buy mainstream media, and with them, acquire far more political power than is represented by the ballot box. 

So progressives need to acknowledge that, unless they devote most of their time and energy to activities other than electing and lobbying politicians, they will continue to accomplish nothing. Indeed, they will accomplish less than nothing, since in the meantime the corporate and political elite will be busy dismantling, rolling back, bribing their way out of, and circumventing laws and regulations, a much easier process than getting them passed, and enforced, in the first place.

As much as I admire what George Soros and Daily Kos are doing, it is largely futile. I would guess that the money leveraged for neo-conservative and neo-liberal causes of all kinds, when you add in those of right-wing religions, big corporations looking for concessions and favours, and anti-regulation ideologues, would have to be at least a thousand times greater than what the handful of rich altruistic progressives like Soros could muster. And the progressive political parties and the progressive blogosphere are utterly preoccupied with getting people who they think represent their values and interests elected, which, even if they were wildly successful, which is doubtful given the agnostic political realities of the day, and even if most of those politicians didn’t turn out to have a very different and more status quo-preserving agenda from what they campaigned on, would not begin to offset the political power of the unelected.

Progressives need to find another way to bring about change. The effect of strikes and demonstrations, the traditional progressive alternative means of expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo, has been reduced to the point of impotence by anti-democratic laws, anti-democratic enforcement authorities, and media propaganda. Case in point: the response of the majority of Americans to the Latin American demonstrations in the streets earlier this year was to become even more xenophobic and favour more draconian anti-immigrant legislation. So I’m not talking about rallies or sit-ins either — even when the police open fire on demonstrators and when it’s caught on film, the media still spin it is a defensive response to ‘provocation’.

What we need to do instead is starve the status quo. The existing political and economic power structure is like a black hole — it has an insatiable and ever-growing need for consumption to keep it growing. Its Achilles’ heel is that if it stops growing, it dies. It is terrified of anything that threatens its growth, which is why when eBay and Amazon created a vast market for used goods, and file-sharing took off, legislation was quickly introduced to try to kill the Internet by allowing the telecom monopoly to favour big corporations (who pay for the privilege) in the allotment of bandwidth, and to charge huge tolls for all high-bandwidth applications. The fight for what has come to be called Network Neutrality is now the pivotal political battle of our time, ultimately more important than any election. We must not lose it.

Here’s what else we must do to starve the status quo:

  1. Stop working for it. If corporatists are your employers or your customers, you are defeating your own progressive cause.
  2. Stop buying from it. Buy local, from small, independent producers. Buy from sustainable organizations that demonstrate social and environmental responsibility. Buy used. Trade. Share. Go NoLogo. Buy stuff that lasts. Make it yourself. Do it yourself. Fix it yourself. Unless you know the supplier is organic and animal-friendly, don’t eat meat. Don’t buy stuff made in China, or stuff that is overpackaged, or overprocessed. Don’t buy toxins — they only make you and the world sicker. Buy less.
  3. Stop investing in it. Get your savings, your pensions, your investment funds out of investments in anti-progressive companies and governments — especially if they’re denominated in US dollars. Instead, invest in local entrepreneurs and coops who you do business with. They need the money, they’ll look after it because you’re a customer, and they’ll pay you more than the bank.
  4. Turn off the mainstream media. You’ll save lots of time and you won’t miss a thing.
  5. Get out of debt. As long as you owe The Man, you’ll be addicted to what he’s selling.
  6. Get unaddicted to oil. Insulate your home properly. Use more energy-efficient appliances, and use them sparingly. Buy green energy if you can afford it. Sell one of your cars, and keep the other one fine-tuned and with the tires properly inflated. Walk (or bike) instead of driving — every minute spent walking adds three healthy minutes to your life, so walking ‘takes’ no time at all. Find or create a job where you don’t have to commute. Then sell your other car.
  7. Get informed. Learn what’s going on, and what you can do beyond just voting for or against a particular politician.

This seventh point is the one that drives me crazy, because you’d think with the Internet it would be easy. But the truth is, most of us unwittingly contribute far more to, and hence support, socially and environmentally irresponsible governments and corporations far more than we think. We buy stuff from companies we don’t realize are opposed to everything we believe in (usually because the parent company’s name is deliberately unpublicized). We have no idea what our investment funds are actually invested in. As customers, we are deliberately deceived and lied to, but in the face of that we are utterly unorganized. I buy Consumer Reports because it teaches me a lot about shoddy products and practices, but they can’t even afford to put their information up online free for subscribers. When we shop, we have no way of knowing by who, how, or sometimes even where products are made, and whether we’re helping or hurting working people and the environment when we buy them.

What we need, as I’ve argued before, are networked but local free-for-all consumer information exchanges, that tell us our choices and the impact of what we plan to buy, and share information and experiences with other consumers about the quality and responsibility of products, services, and the companies that provide them.

What we need as well are networked but local free-for-all citizen education exchanges, that allow us to learn from other citizens, at organized face-to-face meetings and seminars, what’s really going on in the world, what we can do about it, and how we can become more self-sufficient and wean ourselves off our addiction to the systems and suppliers who oppose and undermine everything we believe in.

I spend a lot of time online, researching and checking out resources that readers and friends have pointed out to me, to become more self-educated about what I can and should do. But I’m constantly finding more, and I am overwhelmed at the amount of information that is available and the extent to which the vast majority of us are ignorant of it. I recently got some material from Berrett-Koehler publishers*, a small and distinguished independent publishing company that “advances social and economic justice…through a unique combination of thoughtful analysis and progressive alternatives”. They have a partnership with the Social Value Network, a community of socially responsible entrepreneurs that, like BALLE, I bet you’ve never heard of. BK are best known as publishers of the work of David Korten, Thom Hartmann, Ken Blanchard and Henry Mintzberg, and the recent best-seller Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. But here’s some other titles they’ve published that I’d never heard of, and wish I had:

  • Repacking Your Bags by Richard Leider and David Shapiro. How to develop a practical strategy for achieving your own vision of a good life “living in the place you belong, with the people you love, doing the right work, on purpose.”
  • Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. A book for procrastinators in the vein of Getting Things Done, with a process for accomplishing what’s important, not just what’s urgent.
  • A Peacock in the Land of Penguins by BJ Hateley and Warren Schmidt. A fable about the need and process to be yourself in a world of daunting conformity.
  • The Power of Purpose by Richard Leider. Discovering your Purpose, something my regular readers know I’ve written a lot about.
  • The Answer to How is Yes by Peter Block. I’ve written about Block’s work before. This new book is about getting past the paralysis of fear and allowing our ideals and aspirations to guide us to do what we were intended to.
  • The Power of Serving Others by Gary Morsch and Dean Nelson. Getting past the uncertainty and conflicts that block us from getting started making a difference in the world through activism and volunteerism.
  • Values-Driven Business by Ben Cohen and Mal Warwick. How to start an ethical, responsible business, by the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s.
  • True to Yourself by Mark Albion. Entrepreneurship that combines “profit with purpose, margin with mission, value with values”.
  • Growing Local Value by Laury Hammel and Gun Denhart. Creating a responsible business that contributes to the community, and the rewards you reap in return.

We need to know this stuff! And there are other publishers like Chelsea Green (whose purpose is “to stop the destruction of the natural world by challenging the beliefs and practices that are enabling this destruction and by providing inspirational and practical alternatives that promote sustainable living”) and New Society Publishers (whose purpose is “building an ecologically sustainable and just society not just through education, but through action”) who also have a whole suite of books that all progressives need to read and know about.

So progressives are missing two important things:

  1. A program, and a capability, to do things beyond simply participating in the normal political process, to make the world a better place; and
  2. An effective network to capture, filter, share and deploy all of the critical, high-quality resources that are available to help us do so.

The first thing, the program, needs to be built around starving the status quo. That is something that is practical, effective, and well within our power. It begins with working to ensure Network Neutrality is preserved, and then using the seven points outlined above, as individuals and as communities, to liberate ourselves from the political and economic machine that is leading to our collective ruin, and starve this machine to death.

The second thing, the network, needs to be built around better information management. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the Wisdom of Crowds has its place, but coping with the vast firehose of information available to us today is not something that can be left to collective wisdom (del.icio.us and its well-intentioned kin notwithstanding). We need to create a bottom-up network, global in scope but locally-focused, that (a) reviews, sifts and evaluates all of the information available to progressives, and creates dynamic libraries of the best available resources on each front of activism, and (b) shares and deploys the learnings from these information resources, not only by promulgating the best available resources lists, but by face-to-face seminars and meetups that teach us all how to make use of this information, and facilitate collective organization and action to make it happen.

Perhaps we could create a model that would enable the authors of this information to be funded to travel from community to community to help in this sharing and deployment process. Imagine Jim Merkel (Radical Simplicity) visiting your community to explain how others have reduced their wasteful consumption of resources and achieved a happier and more fulfilling life. Imagine Ben Cohen or Laury Hammel working with you and others in your community to help you create a sustainable and responsible business. These wouldn’t be book tours, but rather change tours.

If we really want to make the world a better place, we have to start doing these things. Otherwise we’ll just be fighting a continuous rear-guardaction against a much more powerful opponent.

* Full disclosure: BK are seriously looking at publishing my book, The Natural Enterprise. But I’d be praising them even if they weren’t.

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11 Responses to What Progressives Are Missing

  1. David Parkinson says:

    Of your 7 steps for starving the status quo, I feel as though I’m doing well on all but #3, which is a troublesome and annoying one. So far, I haven’t had a lot of luck finding ways to invest in local sustainable projects. And I don’t have the personality type for thinking about money and learning the ins and outs of the investment world. I would love to find better resources for learning about this; every time I talk about it with a conventional investment manager type, I don’t feel as though I’m getting the correct information, because of course it’s not in their interest to send my money into small local projects that don’t trade on the stock exchanges, etc. It’s one of those tasks that is always bubbling under the Hot 100 (Hot 10, more like), and never becomes the one thing I must deal with right away. I agree that good access to good information is crucial these days, and it’s tough to manage information access for yourself. It would be great to have a non-profit info exchange that I could trust in monehy matters…

  2. Lucy says:

    Why shouldn’t we buy anything from China?

  3. I have long been a believer in the power of the internet. An idea I had was to establish a network that all progressives subscribed to and which demonstrated its power by targeting a specific product or service. For example; it would be decided that this week all Nestle products would be boycotted, or one of its particular products because of ..(insert crime here). The next week another target would be chosen. Over time, this could virally spread to non-progressives because it becomes a ‘fun’ thing to do which attracts media coverage. Imagine the chaos it would cause to supermarkets if for one week nobody bought the beans that had been flown in from Kenya; they would soon get the message and stop stocking them. It would also make companies look at their products and services to see if they could be targetted. Also, should this occur, it would alert the movers and shakers that there is power in the consumer which can seriously hurt them.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    Great post .. and I’m doing more or less OK on the checklist. IMO, BK would be a great publisher for your book. Go, Dave (and BK) !

  5. Mike says:

    Part of my problem is the sheer number of choices of what to pursue and who to pursue such with. A reputation system might help. So would an internet-connected wifi iPod (which would allow attachments for such as reading barcodes in supermarkets). But finding people who are doing this and joining such a community seems risky: I don’t want to find myself with a group of losers.I don’t have issues with recycling my own poop; but I want to avoid communities where poop recycling or hammock-making or macarame is the primary activity. I’m very much pro- and high-tech, but I don’t want to find myself in a suicidal religious cult just because they make cool websites.

  6. Mike says:

    You say we need ‘networked but local free-for-all consumer information exchanges’ and ‘ networked but local free-for-all citizen education exchanges’. I’m curious why we don’t have such, and expect that we do and just haven’t come across the right websites. What is the problem? These things seem trivial to create.But look at myspace: it’s like, what are your favorite things that distract you from the world? Share them and make new friendz…Maybe part of the problem is that any site that suggests, for example, bartering as a form of exchange is gonna be raided by the IRS looking for their cut. Selling on eBay or Amazon seems tolerated since it’s done in money.

  7. Susan Meyer says:

    Thought-provoking. Reminds me of the work I have yet to do.I’m delighted that you mentioned Berrett-Koehler. They publish excellent books and they are also wonderful human beings. Years ago, I got a personal call from them explaining why they could not publish my book (they had just accepted a similar book) and suggesting several other houses to contact. Any time anyone comes across a company that lives its values, they should share the story. I’ll continue to tell this one!

  8. Raging Bee says:

    Turn off the mainstream media. You’ll save lots of time and you won’t miss a thing.And replace it with what reliable common source of information, exactly?

  9. David Parkinson says:

    Replacing the mainstream media with a reliable source of information… implies that mainstream media are reliable to start with. Maybe reliable in the sense of “accurately depicting the effed values of a decadent society”, but certainly not truthful in any ways that matter. My 2 cents. I would suggest talking to your friends and acquaintances who get their information from alternative sources, finding a few that you like and widening from there (via authors who write for them, blogrolls, links, asking people in the comments ghetto, etc.). Worked for me.

  10. Raging Bee says:

    Yeah, sure, ask my friends what blogs they’re reading about Iraq, and/or what gossip they’ve heard from someone else of unknown experience or credibility, while ignoring a diverse worldwide network of people who have actually been there, and have been observing and covering events there for years? I don’t think so.Besides, if we follow your rule, chances are we’ll end up relying on those of our friends who get most or all their information from…the mainstream media! Either that, or we’ll end up relying on a socially-challenged conspiracy-buff in his mom’s basement pretending he’s the only one who knows The Real Truth.I get most of my information from blogs today, but those blogs flatly and daily admit that they get their information from the dreaded biased librul (or biased conservative?) MSM.Putting another middleman or three between you and the MSM is not “turning off” the MSM. We still need them, whether we admit it or not.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. The fact that RB really believes what he says in these comments makes my point better than I could. The reporters in Iraq, barricaded in the green zone and prohibited from leaving without armed guard, are the first to admit they haven’t got the faintest idea what’s going on in the country, and rely completely on the government propaganda and the local bloggers. And the most effective MSM propaganda technique of all is simply NOT reporting what’s important at all, when it offends the media execs and corporate sponsors. For that news, we have to rely on independent investigators and researchers. RB needs to read Into the Buzzsaw.

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