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
- 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
- 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
- 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,
- 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
- 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.
WHAT I SEE NOW
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.
HOW DO WE TRANSFORM CONSCIOUSNESS?
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
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.
WISE DEMOCRACY AND CONVERSATION
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
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
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