Occupy Theory Introduction
The following is an excerpt from Volume One of Fanfare for the Future, titled Occupy Theory and authored by Michael Albert of the U.S. and Mandisi Majavu or South Africa. Occupy Theory is available as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle, and the Apple IPAD (soon), as well as in print from the ZStore.
“The qualifications that I have to speak on world affairs are exactly the same ones Henry Kissinger has, and Walt Rostow has, or anybody in the Political Science Department, professional historians – none, none that you don't have. The only difference is, I don't pretend to have qualifications, nor do I pretend that qualifications are needed. I mean, if somebody were to ask me to give a talk on quantum physics, I'd refuse – because I don't understand enough. But world affairs are trivial: there's nothing in the social sciences or history or whatever that is beyond the intellectual capacities of an ordinary fifteen-year-old. You have to do a little work, you have to do some reading, you have to be able to think, but there's nothing deep...”
- Noam Chomsky
As we write this introduction, the world is erupting, and it isn’t just bad news. Rather, across the Mideast and North Africa, from Spain to Greece and throughout Europe, even in unexpected but expanding parts of the U.S., in large sectors of Asia including India and China, and perhaps most compellingly in South and Latin America, substantial and sometimes majoritarian populations are rejecting existing relations and militantly and publicly pursuing new desires.
Minds are changing. Regimes are falling. New structures are emerging. Tumultuous times, tumultuous changes.
Yet victories are not inevitable. To win sought after goals people must advance not only from pain and anger to action, but from separated to entwined, from isolated to solidaritous, and from struggling to victorious.
Even beyond momentary victories, we need trajectories of gains which transform - by their accumulation and diversification - into new social relations.
Revolutions require changes not just to secondary features, but to defining features. They replace that which affects the conditions of all events and arrangements. They construct that which goes to the roots of how people live. They transform nearly everything. And that is the aim.
Fanfare for the Future is three volumes about winning social changes that reorient whole societies by altering institutions at the heart of the lives of all people.
We pause before the pending enormity. We take a brief moment to consider a seemingly trivial analogy, far simpler to digest than changing whole societies. How would a sports team go from losing this past year to being victorious a few years in the future? And by analogy, what relation does conceiving a winning plan for a sports team have to conceiving a winning plan for a new society?
Mentality of Conflict
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
- Mohandas Gandhi
Surely a sports team trying to win must understand its current situation. Who are its players? What strengths and weaknesses? What is its budget? What other players can it attract?
Who are its coaches? What is the “playing field” for its contests? Who are its opponents, with what strengths and weaknesses?
Additionally, another team’s policies and actions, or one’s own team’s policies and actions, may change a team’s playing field, players, and opponents’ players. So to repeatedly win, a team must re-analyze as each month and year passes.
Further, beyond understanding its immediate situation, the team must understand its goal.
Is the team trying to win a championship, no matter what the cost? Does it want to maximize the owner’s profits, no matter where it winds up in the standings? Does the team want to serve the public, regardless of both standings and profits? And does the team care about its players’ health or its fans’ well being?
Finally, the team must translate its analysis of its present and visualization of its desired future into policies that lead from the endured present to the desired future, even as other teams are trying to thwart its plans.
Mental preparation for winning a sports championship may be summarized as constantly updating and refining analysis, vision, and strategy for each game and season.
Hard Means Easy; Easy Means Hard
“Beware of a man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before... He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”
- Kurt Vonnegut
Somewhat similarly, to create a new society an activist “social change team” also needs to know where it will start, its final goal, and how to get from start to finish.
The bad news is that changing a society is vastly more complex than winning a sports championship. This is bad because it means it takes longer to think deeply about social change, involves many more variables, is riskier, etc.
However, the good news is also that changing a society is vastly more complex than winning a sports championship, because, paradoxically, it makes the detailed, intellectual side of changing a society in many respects easier than the detailed, intellectual side of winning at sports.
How can that be? How can being more complex make social change easier to relate to? It sounds absurd. A second analogy, this time to other areas of study, may clarify the seeming paradox. Compare physics to sociology. Virtually everyone would say that studying quarks and black holes is a lot harder than studying people and cultures. Physics texts and journals are far harder to read than sociology texts and journals. In a week or two, a typical citizen can understand a sociology text sufficiently to ask cutting edge questions. In contrast, it takes years to even reach the point of understanding a physics text and to ask cutting edge physics questions is still more difficult. So doesn’t this mean the real world subject matter of physics is much harder than the real world subject matter of sociology? In fact, isn’t that obvious?
Well, no, it not only isn’t utterly obvious, it is false. The truth, instead, is that the real world subject matter of sociology is vastly more complex than the real world subject matter of physics. Compare truly understanding a person or culture to truly understanding an electron or a star. We can pretty much do the latter. We can’t even come close to doing the former. And the punchline is that sociology’s subject matter’s greater difficulty is why sociology texts are far easier to read than physics texts.
The point is this. Understanding people and cultures to any depth is so difficult that scholars have accumulated relatively little of that sort of knowledge. Indeed, scholars know so little about deep social and interpersonal patterns that sociology has amassed only modest information in its texts. This, in turn, makes its texts relatively simple to understand (unless they are made needlessly obscure by convoluted writing designed to hide their relative simplicity).
Physics, in contrast, has relatively easy subject matter. We can successfully examine natural phenomena like electrons and stars and discover comprehensive causes and relations sufficient to make very detailed predictions. Indeed, scholars have been able to pile up so much accurate information and theory regarding natural patterns of electrons and stars that to become familiar with even a tiny part of all that accumulated knowledge, much less to extend it into new insights, is a massive undertaking.
You might respond that physics is more mathematical and math is particularly difficult. But, again, physics is more mathematical because the subject matter of physics is simple enough that we can discover patterns that we summarize with equations. In social matters, save for a very few instances, we don’t know nearly enough to do that.
This claim that hard subject matter makes for easy mastery of (limited) accumulated knowledge, whereas easy subject matter makes for hard mastery of (extensive) accumulated knowledge is certainly surprising, but, you may be wondering, why are we talking about it here in our introduction to a book about social change? Let’s see.
Where one of us lives in the United States the local football team (that’s U.S. football) is the New England Patriots (but this analogy will hold with soccer, rugby, baseball, or what have you). The playbook for any New England Patriots football game is an extensive collection of detailed patterns and associated analysis. Knowing the responsibilities of each player for every play and the associated logic explaining and informing their actions so as to be prepared to flexibly adapt the options when conditions alter a bit from expectations is incredibly daunting.
Knowing the relation of player strengths and weaknesses with on field needs and possibilities, including the other team’s weaknesses and strengths, further piles up the complexity.
Knowing budgets for spending, opportunities for trading players, implications of stadium conditions, and even weather patterns - combines into a daunting pile of information and connections. Football (soccer, rugby, hockey, etc.) coaching staffs do a vast amount of intellectual work preparing for each game, much less for a whole season, much less for a sequence of seasons, leading toward finally winning a championship.
In other words, American football, for example, is so amenable to analysis and is so carefully and comprehensively dissected (like physics), that it has a vast body of intricately detailed information that one must understand to intelligently assess the patterns that arise in football analysis, vision, and strategy. Monday morning quarterbacking may be amusing, but the truth is, quarterbacking, much less coaching, is no simple matter.
In contrast, because society is overwhelmingly more complex than football, there exists no massive accumulation of reliable and deep insights about society’s patterns. Very little is predictable. To understand society beyond surface insights is so hard that no one knows very much about society’s inner workings.
Okay, returning to our focus, changing society is not like physics, or rocket science, or, if you prefer, football or soccer. While changing society is ultimately much more complex, the analysis, vision, and even strategy of social change prerequisite to competently participate in winning a new society is more accessible to popular comprehension than the analysis, vision, and strategy prerequisite to being adept at winning football championships.
Like sociology, changing society is about daily life and the institutions we encounter every day. And since even the most advanced available understanding of the dynamics and possibilities for ourselves and for the institutions around us are very general and extend only very modestly beyond common sense understanding, we don't need decades to get up to conceptual speed. Nor do we need excessively fancy language or lots of academic credentials to do so. In fact, most of the information about people and about social relations needed to understand, envision, and strategize for social change, average folks already know or can easily master without too much effort.
In short, as counterintuitive as it may seem, as long as experts don’t make the modest amount of information that we need inaccessible by hiding it behind obscure language, the ideas we need to effectively analyze, envision, and strategize for social change are within relatively easy reach of normal people who face typical life pressures - as long they make the requisite, not too great, effort.
Put differently, you don’t have to be a social change professional giving eight or ten hours a day to associated mental gymnastics to be really smart about social change. In fact, it is probably an advantage that you aren’t a social change professional, since social change professionals are typically too weighed down with pointless and useless academic formulations that prevent their thinking clearly, not to mention biasing their results.
Does the above strike you as implausible?
What if we add that we even think the typical serious football fan in the U.S. (or soccer fan in South Africa) has accumulated more useful conceptual background and analysis about football or soccer and that he or she analyzes, envisions, and strategizes more deeply about football or soccer, than the average serious political activist has accumulated useful conceptual background regarding social change, and analyzes, envisions, and strategizes about society? Does that, too, sound ridiculous?
Well, the proof will emerge if this book can relatively quickly and painlessly, communicate information, insights, and modes of thought sufficiently for you to claim them as your own, refine and add to them for yourself, and then use them to intelligently think about, plan for, and participate in winning major social change.
To understand and utilize what this book has to offer you will only need to be an energetic reader willing to do a little thinking about what you take in. You won’t need prior advanced schooling.
As Noam Chomsky says:
“...there's nothing in the social sciences or history or whatever that is beyond the intellectual capacities of an ordinary fifteen-year-old. You have to do a little work, you have to do some reading, you have to think, but there's nothing deep – if there are any theories around that require some special kind of training to understand, then they've been kept a carefully guarded secret.”
Indeed, the only thing hard about getting ready to be skilled at matters of social change is that it entails arriving at and holding on to thought patterns and insights very different than what we are used to thinking and believing. This is not difficult or “deep” in Chomsky’s sense but it can be hard because it's “different.” And that’s where this book hopes to be helpful.
“Once upon a time there was a magnet, and in its close neighborhood lived some steel filings. One day two or three filings felt a sudden desire to go and visit the magnet, and they began to talk of what a pleasant thing it would be to do. Other filings nearby overheard their conversation, and they, too, became infected with the same desire. Still others joined them, till at last all the filings began to discuss the matter, and more and more their vague desire grew into an impulse. “Why not go today?” said some of them; but others were of the opinion that it would be better to wait until tomorrow. Meanwhile, without their having noticed it, they had been involuntarily moving nearer to the magnet, which lay there quite still, apparently taking no heed of them. And so they went on discussing, all the time insensibly drawing nearer to their neighbor; and the more they talked, the more they felt the impulse growing stronger, till the more impatient ones declared that they would go that day, whatever the rest did. Some were heard to say that it was their duty to visit the magnet, and that they ought to have gone long ago. And, while they talked, they moved always nearer and nearer, without realizing they had moved. Then, at last, the impatient ones prevailed, and, with one irresistible impulse, the whole body cried out, “There is no use waiting. We will go today. We will go now. We will go at once.” And then in one unanimous mass they swept along, and in another moment were clinging fast to the magnet on every side. Then the magnet smiled—for the steel filings had no doubt at all but that they were paying that visit on their own free will.”
- Oscar Wilde
Book one of Fanfare for the Future, Occupy Theory, is about the problems we face in today’s world.
· How is society organized and why does it need changing?
· What are society’s key defining features?
· As citizens who grow up and function in society, what are our personal and group attributes?
· How do different aspects of our society affect us?
· How do we affect different aspects of our society?
· What is history for our own society and more broadly?
· Why do some things change? Why do other things stay unchanged? When does what changes, change?
Once we have an overarching picture of our starting condition as well as a feeling for how to think about society as it changes with passing years, Occupy Theory will also look briefly at a few specific elements of society to present lessons that thinking about them reveals. In that way we can see by example some of the benefits and pitfalls of our new way of looking at society.
Occupy Theory contains five brief chapters presenting a conceptual approach for understanding societies and history unveiling Oscar Wilde’s magnetic pressures that bend, twist, and orient our lives.
Is five chapters all we need to present a conceptual approach sufficiently for us to apply it and then enlarge and refine it in accord with our experiences? Yes, in our judgement.
Book two of Fanfare, Occupy Vision, proposes what we hope is a worthy and viable vision. It first argues the value of vision as a way to address the feelings many people have that there is no need to know, even broadly, where we are going. Next, Occupy Vision provides broad vision of what we want for economy, government/polity, family life/kinship, community/culture, ecology, and international relations.
By the end of Occupy Vision, the description of what we want matures into a visionary component of our mental preparation for seeking social change.
Volume three of Fanfare, the concluding volume, Occupy Strategy, adds a third component of our needed intellectual tools for change: ideas about strategy and program. It covers strategic themes that commonly arise in many settings including specific program and plausible paths forward.
Volume three’s strategy and program are particularly hard to present because strategy and program change as circumstances alter and, therefore, permit only very general universal claims.
The main strategic problem social change activists face is how to think strategically in diverse settings, including altering one’s views as situations unfold. To change society requires reacting moment to moment and our strategic thinking must enable that readiness.
“To teach is not to transfer knowledge but to create the
possibility for the production or construction of knowledge.”
- Paulo Freire
A fanfare is typically a very upbeat musical composition often played on horns, and almost always, in past history, conceived to announce the arrival of royalty or other famous personages. Here comes the King. Play the Fanfare!
An American composer, however, Aaron Copland, turned the familiar conception upside down by authoring a musical piece titled “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Our title takes Copland’s heresy one step further. Not only do common people deserve a celebratory announcement, whereas kings do not, so too does a better future. Thus we call the three volumes Fanfare for the Future.
This volume is titled Occupy Theory, and the next two are titled Occupy Vision and Occupy Strategy. The three names obviously pay homage to the Occupation Movements of 2011 - 2012 and hopefully beyond.
An occupation takes some domain or space for a new purpose and a new constituency. And that is one sense of our titles, taking theory, taking vision, and taking strategy for the purpose of creating a better world, and for the constituency of all those intent upon doing so. A second sense, however, is that the contents of these three volumes seem to us consistent with and hopefully aid the upsurges of the time. Finally, there is a third sense. Why not call the books Occupied Theory, Occupied Vision, Occupied Strategy? The problem is, to do so would connote a finished status. With the word Occupy, which is a verb, we instead imply an ongoing project that keeps altering, maturing, and developing, which is our aim for ideas as well as actions.
Fanfare’s Style and Logic
“Those who write clearly have readers;
those who write obscurely have commentators.”
- Albert Camus
Regarding Fanfare’s style, that of all three volumes, an interesting quotation from the great writer Edgar Allen Poe may prove helpful. His words run a bit against the usual writing stylist’s instructions, but clearly explain our hopes.
“In important topics it is better to be a good deal prolix [verbose] than even a very little obscure. But abstruseness is a quality appertaining to no subject per se. All are alike, in facility of comprehension, to him who approaches them by properly graduated steps. It is merely because some stepping stone, here and there, is heedlessly left unsupplied in our road to the Differential Calculus, that this is not altogether as simple a thing as a sonnet by Mr. Solomon Seesaw.”
Well, actually, there may be many more steps for some subjects than others, especially, as we have seen, if a subject is simple enough to have accumulated rich analyses. But in any event, there is no calculus in this book. And there are no sonnets by Solomon Seesaw, either. We try to be succinct, but when we absolutely must, we certainly lean toward including extra words rather than accepting obscurity.
Ironically, writers addressing society often work hard to make readers think their subject is intensely difficult and that the author is incredibly smart. They use extra words, often unneeded words, long words, obscure words. Their aim is not to edify, but to hide the simplicity of the underlying substance - sometimes, I suspect, even from themselves. Here is a continuation of the earlier quote from Noam Chomsky that opened this introduction that succinctly makes this point.
“In fact, I think the idea that you’re supposed to have special qualifications to talk about world affairs is just another scam…just another technique for making the population feel they don’t know anything, and they better just stay out of it and let smart guys run it. In order to do that, what you pretend is that there’s some esoteric discipline, and you’ve got to have some letters after your name before you can say anything about it. That’s a joke.”
Albert Einstein similarly noted that it ought to be possible to explain physics to the uninitiated such that if you can’t do that you probably don’t understand the material yourself. Maybe it is a slight exaggeration for physics, but it is certainly true for social change.
Fanfare presents a conceptual staircase toward informed, empowered participation in social change. Can we make its concepts accessible? If not, they will prove worthless for participatory social change. In fact they will not just prove worthless - that is not strong enough a rejection of obscurity - they will prove counterproductive, because they will suggest to people who fail to grasp the concepts’ needlessly obscure formulation, that they are unable to participate equally and fully, when in fact they actually are more than able to do so.
We hope the conceptual staircase we offer in Fanfare has no essential steps missing. We hope its terminology is clear and welcoming. We hope climbing Fanfare’s conceptual staircase is manageable and that the climb will take us all much closer to where we must mentally arrive if we are to, together, materially change society.
“To create a new culture does not only mean to make original discoveries on an individual basis. It also and especially means to critically popularize already discovered truths, make them, so to speak, social.”
- Antonio Gramsci
Fanfare cannot possibly completely address all the topics it must survey. First, to do so would be too much for three short books. Second, Fanfare is about topics that are themselves not complete. Virtually every chapter in Fanfare could be extended to become a whole book. Indeed, for many chapters the work of extension is still to be done. Additional evidence for nearly every claim in Fanfare can and should be offered. Additional applications can and should be explored. Additional insights can and should be developed, including insights that you and other readers might contribute.
Fanfare addresses all sides of life, including economy, polity, community, kinship, ecology, and international relations. Usually each of these parts of life, or a part of each, gets its own book. Indeed, Fanfare is a part of the Z Books series called Z Studies, and many focuses of Fanfare will get whole book treatment in that series. We hope you will move on from Fanfare to consider those longer treatments.
In any case, none of Fanfare’s explorations provide finished formulations or full treatments. Still, Fanfare hopefully presents a framework of thoughts, ideas, and methods sufficient to inform social activity in light of and attending to all its chosen areas of insight. How can we do that without going on too long? How can we do it without going beyond the bounds of what we can confidently speak about?
All this means that to be fair to Fanfare’s efforts, readers will have to give Fanfare a chance to unfold before arriving at a final assessment of its usefulness. For Fanfare to be really successful, you will likely have to use, enrich, and adapt the included ideas yourself, and only then, in light of the results, make your final judgement.