“You see the beauty of my proposal is / It needn’t wait on general revolution / I bid you to the one-man revolution— / The only revolution that is coming.”
—Frost, Robert. “Build Soil.”
Change is a constant. Paradoxically, remaining the same, over time, requires change. Our bodies, like the Ship of Theseus, change and mutate, cells replacing cells. Continuity evolves, and stasis is relative.
Pick some idyllic life moment. Imagine remaining in that moment indefinitely. Would not our perception of our emotions revert to the mean? Does not the perception of joy require occasional experience of its opposite?
Further, would you not be different by dint of not evolving along with everything else in your life, by remaining static when most everything else is changing? Doesn’t holding on to a moment constitute a change? Doesn’t the change of relation to the world imply that we were not as we once were — even if as an individual, we have not changed?
And, it is these relationships with family, friends, and neighbors that provide the deep, textured sense of ourselves, of our personal identity. These relationships serve as the basic building blocks of social networks that form our world — extended family, work colleagues, churches, local organizations, and neighborhoods. These, in turn, lead to larger groups: tribes, cities, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, etc. Like individuals, these social groups form, grow, change, diminish and die over time.
Evolution within a group slows or speeds up in proportion with the turnover rates of the group. Communities often get an influx of new members that change the social dynamics in significant ways. Original or older members often change in response to their lived experience. Others leave the community. A strong community culture can live beyond the lives of its progenitors, durable yet malleable, with a general tendency to change at slower average rates than individual constituent members.
As we move up in size, the informal networks between individuals form into larger groups and develop governance models, it is clear that the difficulty of unmaking these arrangements is proportional to the number of individuals, the size of the institutions involved, and the complexity of the informal social networks that underpin their formal structure. Except in a rare unraveling, by-laws and Constitutions are neither made nor unmade overnight.
On the level of nations, political revolutions typically require decades to create the right conditions for possible success and even during their acute phases, they can take decades to resolve. Sweeping social movements that effect society at large, such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the propagation of a new major religion, the current Digital Revolution, and so forth happen over time spans measured in centuries.
There is nothing controversial in these ideas. But, if we accept them as true, then there are interesting implications regarding the kinds of change that are futile and those that are fertile for individuals to pursue.
Ideas about general revolution, revolutions lead by charismatic leaders, preferred social policy instituted by government by political parties, and issue advocacy are, largely, futile. Let’s look at each in turn.
General revolution is often discussed in terms that suggest that there might be a leader or vanguard group that sparks a general revolution or general strike that will bring down the current socio-political environment and lead to some utopian social order. While it may be true that the conditions of a general revolution may manifest in some form — such as the majority of humanity displaced by automation in a global economy or that some group will take over from the current elites in some place and institute a new social order — the historical conditions cannot be manufactured. Success of these efforts comes from opportunities of circumstance and are limited to a locality or region. The integration necessary for some kind of global movement is still centuries off.
The central problem is that it is impossible to know in advance whether the conditions are ripe and what the consequences of any particular action might be. A classic example is the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. They could not have guessed that the repercussions of their actions would be World War I and setting the stage for much of what happened in the Twentieth Century. While they may have achieved their objective of creating a Yugoslavia, they did not live to see it nor did Yugoslavia last.
But what about someone “important”? It is possible to create “revolution”, top-down, through various forms of authoritarian control. However, there seems to be a limit on the amount of control formalized systems can exert over society or even small social networks. A CEO can declare their business a “paperless office” and remove all the printers, but this is rarely enough to make that goal a reality. Employees just outsource that function to the local copy shop.
Same is true of many other rules imposed from above. You could look at the effectiveness of efforts of social control in the United States, such as the War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Terror, and so forth to see that there are always limitations of enforcement in top down control in the service of a political agenda. It also appears that top down control always inspires significant resistance.
Further, efforts of top down control are elite projects primarily concerned about maintaining the status quo, creating enough change to maintain their power. If anything, they are counter-revolutionary. Almost always, the goal of top-down projects is to consolidate an individual’s power or the power of a political elite. It benefits only a small subset of society.
What of the everyday individual? Most people understand that their ability to change society is limited. This likely accounts for much of the disengagement that the citizenry has with democratic institutions at all levels of government around the world, with many developed countries having participation levels of sixty percent or less in federal elections.
Another strategy is to focus on issues that are relevant to a particular community and are amenable to reform: immigration, justice, education, the environment, healthcare, etc. Most of these are within the Overton Window, because they facilitate the perpetuation of a slightly more enlightened status quo when successful. If you look at the pattern behind any kind of major reforms in these areas, change happens on the scale of decades, in the rare times that they happen at all.
“A man’s illusions about himself and others are not basically different from the illusions which groups, classes, and parties have about themselves. Indeed, they come from the same source: the dominate ideas, which are the ideas of the dominant class, even if they take an antagonistic form.”
–Raoul Vaneigem, “The Revolution of Everyday Life.”
So, what is to be done? What is a fertile form of revolution for individuals to engage in that live in some historical moment that is not conducive to their preferred alternative order? The individual has very limited influence beyond their own thinking and experience and those in their immediate social sphere. So, the first task is to focus on where you have the greatest influence, over your own mind and those close to you socially.
There’s nothing wrong with participating in electoral politics, engaging in public assemblies, listening and giving speeches, signing petitions, leafleting, picketing, attending vigils, boycotting, acts of civil disobedience, strikes, and so forth. These are valid ways of pushing back against the established order, or if you’d rather, engaging in political activity. But, if that is your main mode of action or involvement with the world, then you are taking the illusion as reality.
Fertile forms of revolution are redefining our identity and interacting with a group of fellow travelers in terms that do not use dominate narratives as the reference point. Practically, this often means a refusal to participate in the larger popular culture and an attempt to create an alternative culture based on different values.
One extreme example of this behavior can be seen in religious groups like the Amish. But, the question is also one of degree. Professional organizations, intentional communities, ethnic minorities, and others create a degree of separateness in order to maintain their distinct character. Yet, at the same time and on some level, they are integrated into the wider society in which they are part. Even the Amish do not live in a hermetically sealed bubble.
Speaking of the Amish, it might be good to end on an apocryphal story:
There once was a bus load of tourists that were visiting Amish country. Upon reaching their destination, the tourists got out of their bus, and they saw an Amish man waiting beside the road. They ask him: what does it mean to be Amish? He started talking about Jesus. They stopped him, saying, “We know all about that. How is being Amish different?” The Amish man thought for a moment and then asked them, “How many of you own television sets?” Everyone raised their hands. Then he said, “How many of you believe that television has a detrimental impact on your life?” Again, most everyone raised their hands. Finally, he asked: “How many of you are willing to give up television?” No hands went up. Then he said, “That’s what it means to be Amish.”
While we all cannot be Amish, we can all be as critical of our culture as the Amish are of technology. The revolution of single individuals and of small communities to reject mass culture, even in the form of mass political movements, and focus on renouncing those elements that we feel are detrimental and building smaller communities around alternative values is the only revolution that is always possible, and it is a better approach than trying to fix the problems of the larger society. Like television, the problems of society will not be solved by advocating for better programming.