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Varieties of Transformational Politics

by Tom Atlee

Stimulated by a presidential election year, I'd like to share some thoughts about transformational politics -- starting with four categories of political effort and their associated inquiries:

GROUP ONE: Efforts to replace the policies and politicians we don't like

  • How can we get the public to realize the criminal craziness of so many of the people in charge?
  • How can we get people with transformational worldviews elected to office? -- or at least get rid of the criminals and crazies who are running the show now?
  • How do we advocate our transformational agendas in the existing political system?
  • How do we activists work together more effectively?
  • How can we use the Internet to more effectively fundraise or lobby for our candidate or issue?

GROUP TWO: Efforts to heal the ways politics and governance have been abused and degraded

  • How do we make elections more dependable and fair?
  • How do we get adequate investigations of official lies, conspiracies, and abuse of power?
  • How do we get left and right, black and white, and other polarized sides talking well together?
  • How do we use the Internet to enable everyone to vote on everything?
  • How do we reduce the influence of money in politics?
  • How do we bring more peacefulness, compassion and spirituality to our embattled politics?

GROUP THREE: Efforts to make activism more holistic, evolutionary, and systems-conscious

  • How should we exercise our care and compassion in a world where 90% of human suffering and environmental destruction is caused by human systems? Can we really do it without serious work to change those systems?
  • How can we be effective activists or change agents in a complex living system like a society that doesn't respond in a linear fashion? When working in or on economic, political, media, and technological systems, in which "chaotic" dynamics make prediction impossible and generate side-effects and messiness, what does it actually mean to be effective?
  • What lessons can evolution -- nature's 13.7 billion year process of creative change -- teach us that we might consciously use to transform social systems?

GROUP FOUR: Efforts to make our political and governance system, itself, more wise, holistic, and evolutionary

  • What social systemic and cultural innovations make it possible to access the wisdom of the whole on behalf of the whole? How do we make these innovations part of our culture and our political and governance systems?
  • How do we co-create social systems and cultures that can consciously evolve themselves and the civilization they are part of?
  • What interventions would actually be of comparable magnitude to the crises we face, and how might we use them well to make a more sustainable world for future generations?

I realize the approaches in Groups One and Two are vital, and an advance over what we have right now, and I'm happy that these efforts are being pursued. Yet as I watch the policy (and presidency) pendulum swing back and forth, I sometimes feel like we are on a treadmill, or like Sisyphus pushing his proverbial boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down again, forever. And I feel it is getting a bit late for that kind of process.

In 1985 I wrote an article "Who Owns the Game?" in which I bemoaned the way the peace movement seemed to forever rush around trying to end wars that the powers-that-be would repeatedly start. I noted that Gandhi had not just made nonviolence into a powerful, coherent strategy for change, but had changed the playing field on which Britain and the Indian independence movement played out their competition. Gandhi made it so that whenever the British did what usually worked for them -- like putting them in jail -- it backfired, and served the Independence movement. Today, our status quo power systems have largely learned how to digest nonviolent action without really changing very much. What would we have to do now to do what Gandhi did over 60 years ago -- change the game?

I am saddened as I watch hundreds of millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of person-hours, and immeasurable amounts of precious care and attention being spent on activities that do not fundamentally change our political and governance systems. Even a fraction of that, invested in true transformation, would make political action a radically different and more productive experience.


Most existing advocates of compassion focus on the victims of human systems, attempting to ameliorate their suffering or enlighten them about how their own minds play a significant role in generating their suffering. Very few compassionate activists act on the assumption that changing destructive and oppressive systems is today essential to the exercise of effective compassion.

Most activism assumes linear causality -- the ability to go from A to B, and to know that B is clearly a good place to go. This kind of linearity and certainty does not work as expected in complex living systems like societies. When we push specific outcomes like an elected candidate or certain legislation or a specific solution to a social or environmental problem, we start to run into complexities and dark sides and a frustrating level of messiness. Things get watered down, or co-opted, or we find the inspiring candidate was not so hot after all, or the legislation had some messy "side effects", or the next administration reverses the solution we were so proud of or.... things just don't unfold like we planned. Seldom do I hear activists asking, "Does this tell us something about how we could be doing our activism differently, that might actually empower us?"

Most "conscious evolution" initiatives focus on the evolution of consciousness or celebrating our awareness of ourselves as conscious manifestations of evolution, and pay scant attention to the evolution of social systems. When we think about it, though, everything we do and don't do is playing a role in how our social systems are evolving already, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. It isn't a matter of being evolutionary. Humans already are the dominant evolutionary force on the planet, if only by driving hundreds of species to extinction and developing remarkable new technologies. The real issue is how conscious and intentional we are and could be about our evolutionary impact.

Most "spiritual activism" focuses on bringing compassion or enlightenment to activism, rather than asking what would compassionate or enlightened political or governance SYSTEMS look like, and what might we do to bring them into being.


Among cultural creatives and transformational activists, there is sometimes debate about whether we should be transforming consciousness or transforming systems. My take on this dichotomy is that consciousness shapes social systems and social systems shape consciousness.... in a giant feedback loop. Given that, what should our change strategy be?

In general, I think we should ask ourselves, "What shifts in consciousness would have the most transformational impact on systems -- and what changes in our systems would have the most transformational impact on consciousness?" I'd love to see that inquiry pursued with diligence.

In the meantime, I find myself biased towards starting with changing systems. Here's why:

I think about the folks I know (including myself) who have been doing psychological or spiritual practices for years. So many of us have put SO much effort into changing ourselves and, as valuable as this has been for our own peace of mind, relationships, and sense of connection and service to the world, I am not convinced that our shifts in awareness and behavior have been of the magnitude and variety that the earth and future generations require of us, despite our efforts. This becomes strategically poignant whenever I try to imagine six billion people practicing these disciplines, and how far they would get -- unless, of course, doing so was part of the culture and systems they lived in.

But perhaps only SOME people need to change in order for collective consciousness to shift. Maybe, but I have seen too little evidence that the "hundredth-monkey phenomenon" and "the Maharishi effect" -- whereby if enough people meditate, collective consciousness will magically shift -- actually work sufficiently enough to depend on them.

On the other hand, I see millions of people's consciousness being shaped every day by PR and advertising, by paranoid national security policies and unemployment, by new technologies, by involvement in meaningful community activity, by conversations and stories, and by the structures and procedures of everyday life dictated by tradition, policy, and the nature of our shared physical infrastructure. So I've wondered if we can identify high leverage interventions at the whole-system level -- like the green economics of people like Hazel Henderson or citizen deliberative councils or Story Field conferences -- which would, if they were effectively instituted, transform the consciousness of millions.

I remember visiting Czechoslovakia with my partner Karen Mercer in 1991 shortly after their revolution, while they were still just beginning to shift out of their Communist system. The sponsor of our activist visit was a doctor, Jurai Mesik, second-in-command of the federal environmental ministry. As doctors he and his wife were aghast that some of their medical colleagues were taking pay from rich people to give them special treatment. From their socialist perspective, if you were a doctor, you treated people regardless, as a service to the people, and you were supported by the state for doing that, just as a teacher was supported for teaching. THAT is a different state of consciousness, closer to the consciousness of free-clinic doctors in the U.S., but held (back then) by the majority of Czech and Slovak physicians, instead of a fringe few. The system made a profound difference in consciousness.


While I agree with Marx that economic structures and conditions are powerful mind- and life-shaping influences, I have also seen high-quality conversations among diverse people raise the manifested level of consciousness of the participants far above what they ordinarily displayed in their everyday lives. My work on "wise democracy" has been about plugging such conversations into our political and governmental systems in such ways that public policy, social resource allocation, and collective vision, consciousness, and behavior are all powerfully influenced by that higher consciousness achievable through powerful dialogue and deliberation. The fact that the participants go home afterwards and slide back towards their former individual consciousness is not a problem. They've had their impact on the policies and actions of the system, which can then shift the consciousness of millions of other citizens upwards.

I realize that a focus on high-quality conversations is only one approach to holism and conscious evolution in politics. But it seems to me truly significant that currently there is NOWHERE in our system where a legitimate, inclusive-of-all-viewpoints, even vaguely wise collective "voice of the whole" -- or voice of "We the People" -- can be dependably turned to and heard. How does "the whole" consciously evolve when it can't even see itself, can't coherently and creatively reflect on itself and its circumstances? ANY innovation (such as the Citizen Initiative Review being promoted in Oregon) that made such a voice visible would soon raise the question: "Why isn't a legitimate, wise voice of the whole visible -- and, indeed, empowered -- in ALL public forums and governmental functions about ALL issues?"

Having such a voice present in the system changes EVERYTHING. With it, the whole picture, the real complexity, can be worked through so that the whole community can wake up to what's happening and what's possible. Without it, we are left with a battle between parts of the whole, determinedly undermining each other while trying to give their special gifts of partial truths masquerading as whole truths. The majoritarian system virtually guarantees that activists and politicians will pour their caring into that reductionist battle, squeezing whole spectrums of opinion into one of two opposing sides because it is SO hard to get 51% when there are more than two options -- Republican or Democrat, pro or con, for us or against us.

It actually makes me heart-sick to watch it -- especially when I know that the candidates and solutions that actually get very far in the system as it is are seldom of the quality that is desperately needed for us to make it through the evolutionary "eye of the needle" towards which we are rapidly heading. I truly believe that properly designed iterative dialogues COULD produce the kind of powerful, workable collective solutions and insights that we need. And empowering those dialogues -- making them official parts of our collective decision-making process -- would profoundly shift the way our whole society behaves.


Some guidance for this is available from

But, in actuality, we are in new territory here, more than most people know or want to admit. There is much more to this question than is in THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY. It is like we are at Kitty Hawk, we are the Wright brothers. We know how to fly down the beach (even though most people don't know that even that is possible). But we have a ways to go before we'll have a wise democracy as powerful and effective as international jet travel is.

Given that this inquiry is on the leading edge, nudged up against mystery, against what we simply don't know, beset with vitally necessary evolutionary failures, any useful study and practice of true transformational politics will involve more questions, confusions, and risks than answers and demonstrable successes. If we wish to be truly "transformational", we need to make inquiry at least as important as advocacy in our political work.

I was surprised to learn in 2006 from a special mailing to Michael Dowd's network of evolutionary experts that virtually no one had done research along the lines of the inquiry Peggy Holman and I have been working on, on and off, for the last year -- and which I plan to focus on in 2008: "What evolutionary dynamics can be used to guide our conscious evolution of social systems?"

I am drawn to that inquiry because if -- just if -- we managed to find some hot answers, it could turn politics, governance, activism, and all forms of change agentry inside out, creating a whole new universe of possibilities. I'm hoping for that -- so that as more and more people become disillusioned with politics-as-usual and activism-as-usual -- and/or realize that BEING conscious evolution means taking responsibility for evolving not just ourselves but our social systems -- there will be compelling, effective conscious-evolutionary approaches to systemic change agentry available to move forward with.



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