Are you happy with the way your country is being run these days? Are you happy with environmental degradation, with the depletion of natural resources and the prospect of climate change? Are you happy with the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the wealthy? Are you happy with the calibre of political discourse today? Are you happy with your politicians?
I’m going to venture a guess and suggest you’re probably not terribly thrilled with many, or even all, of these things. Neither am I.
So what are we going to do about it?
It seems the time is ripe for revolution. The Occupy Wall Street movement called for one. So has Russell Brand. Egypt had one (and is still having one). And with dissatisfaction in government increasing in many developed countries around the world, it’s likely there will be many more itching for one.
But “traditional” revolution is not easy to get going. And even harder to get right. It takes a critical mass of people ready to risk all they have in order to push for something better. This works when the revolutionaries have little to lose, not so well when they covet their widescreen TVs and iPads. It also takes a wave of support to mobilise everyone at once; a trickle of rabble rousers doesn’t a revolution make.
I haven’t much stomach for the kind of fast and loud revolution that people like Brand are calling for. I’m not really the activist type. I’d prefer to think up a snappy slogan than hold one aloft in a crowd. I’d prefer to enact change carefully and methodically than risk it running out of control – which is how revolutions normally go (*cough* Egypt).
So I want to propose an alternative approach to overhauling The System, one that aims to enact the same radical change called for by OWS, Russell Brand and others, but seeks to do so without the pitchforks and guillotines.
I call it Slow Revolution.
What we know
Change is costly. As a rule, if you change any component of a system at random, the system is more likely to suffer than to benefit. So if you want to improve things, change must be enacted carefully and deliberately. This facts sits at the very core of political conservatism.
Change is also necessary. If things are not working as well as they could, and if you want them to improve, then change must take place. This fact sits at the very core of political liberalism/progressivism.
The history of the last century or so has been characterised by a swing between these two extremes. But that was the last century. We understand things a bit better these days.
We know the problem today is compounded as the system increases in complexity – and what system is more complex than the global web of political, economic and social forces?
We know everything is interconnected, so if you change one thing over here (say, relax borrowing restrictions on mortgages in the US), it can have a dramatic impact on that seemingly unrelated thing over there (say, by boosting unemployment in Ireland).
We know that bottom-up processes work better than top-down ones, but that they’re harder to implement. We know that lasting political change requires that the people making up the system change themselves first – that’s the “revolution of consciousness” Brand talks about.
We know that any system will have winners and losers, but the winners will – by virtue of them being the winners – have the power to further stack the system in their favour and resist attempts to change it.
We also know that in order to bring about genuine improvements, we need to do more than just fiddle around the edges; we need wholesale structural change.
Slow Revolution takes all this on board and seeks to bring about this wholesale structural change, but with the caution required to make such a radical endeavour can actually start, and can actually stick. And it seeks to achieve its ends without tipping over any cars – or governments.
I see there being three main pillars to the Slow Revolution. Implementing each of these won’t necessarily be easy, but they can all in principle be achieved by working within the present system. Yet if successful, the three working together can ultimately bring about revolutionary change.
The first pillar is simply to teach philosophy and critical thinking in schools. That’s all.
I’m not talking about teaching kids what Plato or Hegel said, or about the ongoing debates in contemporary philosophy, but giving them the tools of thought that can enable them to think better.
No child should leave school without knowing how to read, write, do arithmetic and be able to spot a logical or argumentative fallacy.
That we unleash our children upon the world ill equipped to identify charlatans, demagogues and dogmatists is unconscionable. Every problem that humanity faces is made harder if we cannot think and reason effectively.
Introducing philosophy and critical thinking into schools does mean displacing other subjects in the limited hours of the schooling day. But it can be done. It is already being done. We just need to do it more.
Robert F. Kennedy summed it up when he said that GDP “measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
As I have written about today in The Drum, GDP is a singularly inadequate metric of our national progress. It measures raw economic output, and doesn’t even distinguish between positive economic activity that increases wellbeing and negative activity, such as crime and pollution. In fact, a company that pollutes, and then pays to clean it up adds to GDP twice.
GDP doesn’t factor in environmental degradation. Nor income inequality, and all the ills it brings. It doesn’t care for sustainability. Nor for what the economy is supposed to serve: i.e. us.
This is why GDP has been increasing for the last several decades, but many indexes of well-being and happiness have flatlined since the 1970s. So the unfettered pursuit of GDP is not only unsustainable, it’s not even making us happy.
There are alternatives. My preferred one is the General Progress Indicator, or GPI. Unlike GDP, it does discriminate between positive and negative economic activity. It’s also designed to consider the sustainability of that activity. And ultimately, it measures success by how it contributes to human wellbeing.
Replacing GDP with GPI, for example, needn’t happen overnight. We could run both indexes in parallel for several years, reporting them both, and reflecting on how they serve our ultimate ends. If GDP proves unsatisfactory, we just switch to GPI.
There are already moves afoot to do just that.
Get money out of politics
One form of corruption is when those in power use their power to entrench their privilege and resist change. And in any system there will be winners, so you’d fully expect them to do everything they can to stay winners.
In most modern democracies, lower forms of corruption, such as graft and bribery, have all but been eliminated. But institutional corruption remains, largely in the form of political donations and the professional lobby industry.
To some degree modern unions also fall into this category, using their money and power to sway politicians to favour their members even at the cost of other segments of society.
If we want democracy to work the way it was meant to, we need to reduce the ability of the present winners to stack the system in their favour and resist change that might raise aggregate wellbeing. If we want to do that, we need to get money out of politics by reforming campaign and party financing laws and by placing restrictions on the ability for lobbyists to influence politicians.
There are already many voices calling for such reform, even some within the present system. We just need to empower them more.
That’s it. Only three things. None of them trivial to enact. But none of them insurmountable. And none requiring a single mob to tip over a single car.
There are already movements pushing for all three.
Given the amount of energy we throw around complaining about and lobbying for micro-issues, if we only redirected that energy towards these three systemic reforms, we might actually see genuine change over our lifetimes.
We can’t expect the change to happen overnight. And we can’t expect it to unfold flawlessly. But the whole point is that every day that these three changes are in operation, the next reform becomes even easier.
Slow Revolution is meant to happen in small steps. A relatively small number of people can get the ball rolling. And as it rolls, things like improved critical thinking and more transparency about how our economy is serving us, and a less corrupted political process, will see more supporters accumulate organically. That, in turn, makes even bigger changes possible.
Slow Revolution is not as flashy or fiery as fast revolution. But it’s also not as fragile. And it might actually work.