Chapter Six: Negativity Won’t Pull You Through
By Michael Albert at Nov 30, 2010
[This is a draft - it is not for quotation or circulation. It is made available for the forum discussing the book in process of being written, Fanfare for the Future. Comments are very welcome and will fuel discussion in that forum as well as changes in the manuscript itself.]
In Part One we developed a conceptual framework for thinking about societies and history - a type of mental apparatus people typically call a theory. Are we done with our intellectual preparation? Is a reasonably good theory which we can keep improving all that we need? After all, with a fledgling but flexible and new but maturing theory, we can think efficiently and insightfully about society and history, so aren’t we well armed for social change efforts? The answer is yes and no. We are, but we aren’t.
Social theory does not yield one correct analysis. It is way less complete and accurate than that. It certainly helps us analyze. However it could help two sets of people analyze, and the two might wind up differing about important insights.
Yes, due to having the same theory, they would agree on concepts and likely on much analysis too. But they might apply their shared concepts to different issues, bring to their efforts different backgrounds, and have different agendas. In this way, they might wind up with such different attitudes toward social change that they have a hard time seeing eye to eye.
The typically biggest disputes would be about aims and methods. For one thing, aims are not just about theory. They are about analyzing what is out there, yes, but they are also about what we want. For that reason they are about values coupled with concepts, not just about having or applying. Two groups certainly might easily have different values if they haven’t explicitly settled on shared ones, and in that case, even using the same conceptual framework, they will often arrive at two different types of movement for change due to settling on different aims and methods. It follows that if we want to have a set of views sufficient to unite people for seeking social change, we need to go further then just sharing concepts before declaring our task is complete.
Okay, but why explicitly address vision? Yes, we could differ about vision if we don’t, but is that so bad? Why does having vision much less having a shared vision, even matter? Why not just have our shared way of looking at reality, apply it as we proceed, agree on what’s horribly wrong and why, and then think through different tactics we might use to try to alleviate suffering and even eliminate its causes? Why not act in the present, and not waste time looking into a fuzzy future we might disagree about?
Well, first, we should acknowledge that acting in the present with little attention to the future is what most people seeking social change now do. Social change activists typically don’t bother much with having a serious shared vision of what they ultimately want. They also don’t bother much with having a serious shared conception of how to win their ultimate aims. Contemporary social change activists instead most often face reality as it impinges on them now, and then march on toward immediate short run aims by making immediate tactical choices. They live and fight today, often under difficult conditions imposing many constraints. That’s hard enough. Why would they want to heed anyone saying to them, hold on, you must live with one foot in tomorrow and in tomorrow’s tomorrow too, not with both feet in the present?
Well, our claim is that social change activists should heed that advisory and even arrive at that insight themselves because having a shared vision of at least the defining features of what we are trying to attain is essential to three key needs, being motivated at all, collectively getting somewhere desirable, and, ironically, even effectively understanding the present.
1. Vision Counters Cynicism
When Margaret Thatcher, then Britain’s Prime Minister, said “There is no alternative,” the slogan was quickly abbreviated as TINA. TINA celebrated the permanence of the system Thatcher loves and that we live under. Thatcher’s claim, provided with a little context, was that any effort to escape our current system would yield even worse outcomes than we now endure. She didn’t say what we have is wonderful. No one can say that about rampant poverty and war and indignity and be credible. It would be a bit like saying cancer is delightful. Thatcher said, instead, that what we have is the best possible system - however horrible it often is. That is sort of like saying cancer, however horrible, is unavoidable because any effort to avoid it will only make things worse.
Actually, Thatcher isn’t the only one who believes this about current society, assuming she even does believe it. Rather, at some deep level most people tend to feel that however abysmal things often are under the current systems we suffer, they could get much much worse, and indeed would get worse if we tried anything too dramatic. TINA.
If Thatcher and most people were right, if TINA was true, it would logically warrant never trying to change anything fundamental. To seek such change, however well intended, would be counter productive. And since people do think TINA is true, they act thusly, avoiding bothering to even think about much less to attempt really serious change. Once you think TINA is true, passivity not only makes sense, it closely accords with caring about people. Effort to attain any alternative would only make people suffer more. What doesn’t overcome TINA is descriptions of how bad things are, or explanations of how systemic the suffering is. They only enforce the view, just like claims that cancer is bad, and cancer is built into biological systems.
The first thing vision achieves for us, assuming we can arrive at compelling and convincing vision, is to counter TINA. Vision rebuts passivity that is based on hopelessness. The cynicism of modern times is evident to all. People believe that “everything is broken,” but just accept it, and that is called cynicism. In fact, however, it really isn’t. It is a mistaken but rational calculus.
For most people, that is, poverty, injustice, and all manner of mayhem and indignity are simply and in fact to their eyes rather obviously built into the fabric of reality. To their thinking, it then makes no more sense to try to escape those ills then it would make to try to escape gravity, or to blow into the wind, or to form a movement against the world’s worst killer - aging. Such hopeless pursuits are what we call fool’s errands. Why be a fool chasing the impossible? Why fight in the name of improving things if it will only make things worse? If you believe TINA, passivity isn’t cynical, it simply makes sense.
If someone proves to you aging does more damage than any society or disease or army, and so on, and then says come join me in the fight against aging, you don’t drop everything and sign up. You questions the person’s sanity. About aging, this is because you accept that to it, there is no alternative. For people who accept TINA regarding society, when social critics list society’s faults and say join us in a movement to win a new society, they question the critics’ sanity.
What convincing, compelling, inspiring vision can do is to uproot the despair that is TINA by making an alternative credible, attractive, a real alternative - and to uproot TINA is no small matter. The despair and rampant hopelessness of today’s social life is the strongest bulwark of injustice we face. So vision that convincingly and compellingly counters TINA is our most critical bludgeon with which to blast through to social change activism.
2. Vision Guides Practice
To rush about seeking social improvements without knowing where one is going, without even knowing what constitutes a viable improvement, and certainly what would institutionally insure the longevity of the improvement, is, we will see, a real fool’s errand. And the second reason we need vision is to orient our choices so they actually go somewhere we wish to wind up. This is so trivial, one should not have to say it, yet, oddly, one does.
You are setting out on a journey. Is it enough to know that you don’t want to be where you are and that the means of transport at your disposal are car, train, or plane, and where you can get on board one? No, you must also know where you want to go. If you don’t, you are very likely to leave where you were, and wind up somewhere you again don’t want to be. Embarking matters. Destination matters too. .
The analogy to having social vision is good, but there is a little more to the social case. In trying to change society in fundamental ways, one can’t succeed alone. Such a change requires large and even huge numbers of people working together in concerted ways. If Joe has a vision, but Sarah doesn’t, Sarah can’t be part of the process in the same way as Joe. If they both have a vision, but what they seek is significantly different and contrary in defining aspects, then how are they to work together to get to both visions when attaining only one or the other is possible? Therein lies trouble.
One person can escape TINA by having a vision alone, no one else need even know about it and yet the person becomes convinced that there is an alternative. But thousands and millions of people cannot work together, with all playing an informed part in a collective endeavor oriented to future features of a future society, unless at least the key features are sought in unison. Thus, they need not millions of visions, or thousands, or even dozens, but ultimately one - at least regarding the very broad key defining features. Shared vision guides collective practice toward ends we actually want to attain. That is the key observation about vision and action, and gives us our second reason for vision.
3. Vision Informs Understanding
Okay, so far so good, but here is an unexpected bonus. It is one thing to understand a family, say, or a market, or some other structure or network of structures in society. It is another thing, however, to have a judgement about them - to like them or to dislike them - to accept them, or to reject them.
When TINA is true not of the whole society, but of some part of the society, then we might at least in some degree not like that part, but we must not reject it because doing so would only lead to even worse outcomes. Here is an example. We don’t like production because it inevitably generates more or less pollution and takes time and energy, and so on. But obviously we cannot reject production, per se. We must, instead, minimize pollution, time and energy spent, etc., while also getting the fruits of production that we in fact want. So, vision informs understanding in the sense of letting us know what is rejectable and what isn’t.
But vision does more than that even for our understanding of the present. Often seeing what is right in front of us is vastly easier if we have something quite different against which to consider it. Sometimes this is another comparable entity that literally exists for comparison purposes. But other times it is something, instead, that exists only in our minds - a conception, a creation, a vision. Either way, it becomes much much easier to extend, enlarge, and enrich our analysis of the present - and for that matter of the future, as well - by considering them against one another to see the contrasts, and in those find indicators of the logic of present and future.
At the risk of complicating a bit, and jumping steps a bit - which Poe warned against all the way back in the introduction - imagine someone trying to understand workplaces or families, say. They may take for granted or overlook the implications of various elements, even while understanding others. Now imagine there is different type family or workplace available to also look at - either in our mind because it is a vision, or in the real world because someone has created a model for the future in the present. We see some old features missing and some new features present, and we see very different outcomes. We suddenly realize the origins of outcomes we previously took for granted. This example will become much clearer by becoming real in coming chapters, but even now, even without specificity, I hope the idea is evident.
The point is, vision can inform understanding of the present just as analysis of the present can inform vision. The former dynamic helps us see flaws in and delusions of adequacy about the present. The later dynamic helps us find the pressure points of change - what a vision must alter, and thus the kind of features a vision must have if it is really to be visionary.
How Much Vision
Those who reject having vision, using vision, and even caring at all about vision, don’t typically do so because they deny that vision can help overcome hopelessness, can help guide practice, or can even help inform our ability to understand current relations. Rather, none of the above benefits addresses their main concerns. Instead of contesting those benefits, they likely accept all three because the three benefits are so obviously true it would be ridiculous to deny them. They argue against vision for entirely different reasons.
The core of their perfectly legitimate and sensible concern about vision is this. They feel that seeking vision overextends our capacities, risks intellectual and operational calamity, and immorally violates our mandate. These are clearly serious debits and we will see that seeking vision can, indeed, have all these negative effects. More, if the negative effects were not only possible, but also unavoidable, then they could, if bad enough, indeed overcome the benefits of vision, which would leave us stuck between having vision and with it suffering overextension, calamity, and immorality, or rejecting vision and without it suffering hopelessness, direction-lessness, and diminished understanding. So we must examine each debit in turn, trying to escape from all of them.
The critic’s concern with overextension is that we can’t reliably know the future but instead only the past and maybe the present. In trying to provide a vision for the future we will make serious errors, overlooking conditions we don’t yet realize, acting on false predictions, etc. It sounds right. But is it?
If we said we were going to describe the future in great detail, more less like a blueprint of tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow, that would indeed be absurdly beyond our current capacities. We cannot successfully do that. No one can.
However, what if we are quite a bit more modest about this. What if we only seek to describe some key features about the future - ones that we can in fact understand and do, demonstrably, understand? And what if we acknowledge and even celebrate that beyond those features the future will be whatever it will be, due to choices and dynamics we cannot yet foresee?
Then if we choose the list well, we may be able to attain the benefits of vision - hope, orientation, and understanding - without incurring this cost of going beyond our capacities.
The fact is this occurs all the time in any kind of planning aimed at future outcomes. Sometimes people get it wrong, thinking they know what they don’t - and can’t - but other times people do this perfectly reasonably. So the legitimate and justified instruction to the visionary from the critic regarding overextension is don’t do it. But it going too far to say everything you might say about the future is unwarranted hubris. Rather, if we can identify key aspects of values and institutions that are essential if the future is to have attributes we want, and if we can understand and describe just those key aspects, demonstrably and confidently - while always being open to learning we have to refine our views, of course - then this can constitute a vision that doesn’t overreach. Can we do it? We will see. But we shouldn’t rule out the possibility without even trying - there is too much hope, orientation, and understanding to lose to give in without trying.
Intellectual and Operational Calamity
The worry here is different. Another real and serious issue. Having a vision can lead a person down a path of thinking they know the future, they are right, others are ignorant or dumb, and so on. It can become a part of a person’s identity. It can lead to thinking anyone who sees things differently is attacking, and lead to attacking back. Vision, in short, can become part of a or even most of a dogmatic and sectarian stance.
More, in practice, it can not only lead to nasty behavior about ideas, it can lead to horrible behavior about policies. The dogmatic and even sectarian holder of a particular vision can impose it on reality despite that in fact it is flawed, or even horrible, and detested by others. We have all seen all this in practice - in Stalinism, but in lesser yet still quite disturbing variants as well.
The visionary wedded to their own views becomes an imposer of outcomes that didn’t have to be, and shouldn’t have been, but were. And people suffer.
If dogmatism and sectarianism and the consequent imposition from above of structures against the will of those affected were inexorable outcomes of having a vision, using a vision, or even caring at all about a vision, then the critics of vision would be right. We would indeed have to jettison vision.
The bad news is that all these ills are real and possible. The good news is they are not inevitable.
As we discussed last chapter - having done so because the exact same worries about dogmatism, sectarianism, and imposition, apply to having shared theory as to having shared vision, and arguably even more so - while it is not easy, having a personally growth oriented approach and incorporating aggressive institutional pursuit of dissent and diversity can, taken together, if we are very very serious about the effort, diminish the probability of these negative trends so greatly as to make the much needed pursuit of the positive benefits of shared vision acceptable and necessary.
The third worry about vision is moral. Suppose we develop a brilliantly wonderful vision, share it, implement it. Great, right? Well, not so fast say the critics. Who are we to impose our will on future citizens? Imagine coming to the conclusion that future society should have a work day that is five hours, not eight, or three. Or that it should produce this output, and not that output. Or that school should be taught thusly, not differently. And all religious celebration should be on weekends, not weekdays, or whatever else.
Vision can obviously overextend in a way even if it is done brilliantly, compellingly, and confidently. It can be an imposition even if it is personally and institutionally flexible in its creation and application. The third flaw is that it can be immoral - in the precise sense of current people deciding future people’s lives and options for them. Even with the best of intent, and the best of insight, this is nonetheless some people imposing their will on other people.
Is it avoidable. No and yes. No, if we have a vision, seek it, and implement it - then surely it is true that those who did that have made some decisions that contour and impact people in the future - perhaps even way in the future. But yes, it is avoidable in one sense. Suppose the vision is only about attaining that which will allow and even guarantee that future people will be in position to control their own choices. Suppose the vision is precisely about the changes in social institutions that have to occur if future people are to maximally control their own lives and options. In that case, it doesn’t make much sense to see the vision and its implementation as limiting future people. On the contrary it is empowering them, and no more than empowering them. It is removing the obstacles to their self expression and incorporates only structures - institutions and their roles - which are essential to their self expression.
Vision can go too far in many ways, but if we keep it to what we can reasonably know and in any event keep refining, and we personally and collectively very aggressively protect dissent and elevate diversity, and we confine our decision making and implementing to that which is essential to future freedom and participation and fulfillment, leaving it to future people to decide all the contours of their own lives - we can have it, and benefit from it, without suffering losses due to it.
Arriving at Vision
Okay, we need vision, we can have it, we decided above, if we are very careful about doing so. But how? How do we sit down, bend our minds, converse, assess, test, and in so doing arrive at vision which we can then share to gain hope, orientation, and understanding, even while avoiding error, dogmatism and sectarianism, and immorality. It seems a bit daunting.
There is no single answer to how to do it - as with most things - but here is one answer that outlines the approach taken in the next few chapters.
First, we decide our values.
What is it that we desire from society and its four spheres? This is not a factual undertaking. It is about deciding what we like - not deciding what is, or even what could be. One person may like one thing. Another person may like something else. There is no proof of one as compared to the other. We are talking about preferences. We can, however, explore the logic and implications of values - to give context to our reasons for our preferences, and that we will do.
Second, we decide on some institutions.
Once we have established guiding values - not too many to be workable and not too few to help us - we move on to social relations. What are society’s functions? How can society accomplish them in a way consistent with and even propelling our values, rather than violating them?
This is about institutions and roles. We must reject roles and thus institutions that violate our values. We must advocate roles and thus institutions that propel them and that are in fact essential to propelling them, and that don’t go too far by overextending into domains where we can have no confidence or into matters about which we should not be making judgements for the future.
And that’s it.
The procedure is easy to state, and, surprisingly, we will also find that it is not so hard to do.