Come dancing with systems
by Barry Knight
A low ebb
Those of us working for social justice and human rights have faced strong headwinds in recent decades. A world obsessed with economic growth has led to environmental degradation, the removal of social safety nets, deregulation of planning controls, fragmented communities and increased conflict. Ever-growing inequality has fuelled political extremism and the emergence of leaders who exploit discontent for their own narrow purposes.
Since 2020, the world has faced an acceleration in the rate of dramatic shocks: the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting economic turmoil, the ever-gathering climate catastrophe, and the global reverberations of calls against structural racism. These developments have occurred against the constant drum beat of rising inequality which erodes the capacity of states to manage the combined effects of these crises.
Think about the following question:
In the past decade, can your organisation give an example of having achieved the kind of social transformation that you desire?
I suspect that very few people could give a positive answer to this question. However, the pandemic and the attendant collapse of many of the world’s systems seemed to offer us the opportunity to #BuildBackBetter. An increased desire to tackle social transformation together was evident. Tragically, as society begins to emerge from the pandemic, it’s clear that the opportunity has been missed.
Conditions for transformation
According to economist Stewart Lansley, history shows that four conditions are required for social transformation: a severe economic shock, intellectual collapse of the existing system, loss of faith in public institutions and a ready-made alternative.
The first three of these conditions are present. What is lacking is a ready-made alternative. While conservatives have vigorously pursued a narrative involving tax cuts for the wealthy, mass sell-off of public assets, the unchecked rise of finance, and Britain’s exit from the EU, progressives have been on the back foot defending the gains of the immediate postwar era rather than developing a positive agenda for the 21st century. A similar point was made by David Marquand in Mammon’s Kingdom:
‘The narratives that structured the early post-war period have lost their purchase, but no new narratives have filled the resulting vacuum.’
This needs to change if we are to address the perfect storm of issues that we face.
While some ideas with significant potential for the future are emerging, for example the Green New Deal, Universal Basic Income, #ShiftThePower and Buen Vivir, mostly what we are seeing are small, disconnected projects that at present contribute little to a narrative in support of social transformation.
Complicated and complex systems
Although there is now much talk of ‘system change’, much of the published guidance on this focuses on collaboration between different agencies to solve specific problems. In the world of philanthropy, for example, joint committees and pooled funding can indeed make big advances in dealing with complicated problems that can be broken down into single tasks. Providing inoculation services to reduce the prevalence of disease is a good example of this kind of approach.
However, if we conceive creating a new model for a society as a complicated task, we are making a category mistake, because it is a complex one. Complicated and complex systems are different. Complicated problems originate from causes that can be individually distinguished; they can be addressed piece by piece; for each input to the system there is a proportionate output; the relevant systems can be controlled and the problems they present admit permanent solutions.
Complex systems, on the other hand, result from networks of multiple interacting causes that cannot be individually distinguished. They must be addressed as entire systems, and individual components cannot be addressed in a piecemeal way, because small inputs may result in disproportionate effects. The problems they present cannot be solved once and for ever, but require to be systematically managed, since any intervention often merges into new problems as a result of those interventions. Such systems cannot be controlled. The best one can do is to influence them, or – in the words of Donella Meadows, lead author of the classic study of systems theory Limits to Growth – learn to ‘dance with them’.
The distinction between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ matters because, so long as decision-makers believe they are dealing with complicated systems, they will assume they will be able to find solutions to problems and measure outcomes, and end up wasting a lot of money on expert consultants to give them the ‘answers’. Developing a society where human rights and social justice lie at its heart is not a complicated task of problem-solving but a complex task of creativity. The difference is found in a principle developed by Buckminster Fuller:
‘You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’
This approach means that we cannot treat the process of building a new society as a problem-solving exercise in which a programme of work that delivers certain objectives is rolled out. We must instead see it as a process that involves a new way of seeing, requiring a leap in moral imagination that cascades through participants in the process and filters through to social attitudes in society.
To achieve the kind of societies we want, it is not simply a question of doing things differently; it also involves a new way of being and seeing. It is less about the use of discursive logic and more about the heart’s imagination.
Two models of engagement
This follows a distinction drawn almost a century ago by Martin Buber in I and Thou. He distinguished between two modes of engaging with the world. In the ‘I-it’ mode, we collect data, analyse it, classify it, and theorise about it. There is a necessary distance between the experiencing ‘I’ and the experienced ‘it’: the one is subject, and the other object. In contrast, the ‘I-thou’ mode establishes the world of relationship, in which both the ‘I’ and the ‘thou’ are transformed. To address another as ‘thou’, Buber suggests, requires a certain self-surrender that springs from inhabiting one’s own presence while at the same time stepping outside one’s self. Only then does the other cease to be a means to one’s own ends and become real.
The ‘I-thou’ mode opens the door to participatory intimacy in a way that the ‘I-it’ mode does not. Relationships are governed by the prepositions ‘with’ and ‘between’, rather than ‘over’ and ‘on’.
Vulnerability and solidarity
Judging from many of the conversations I have been involved in since the start of the pandemic, people are keen for this type of connection. One effect of the pandemic is that people are willing to talk openly about their vulnerability in a way that seemed impossible before. This is important because, as Brené Brown points out in Rising Strong:
‘Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.’
Vulnerability is the precondition of creativity. We have to take the risk both to put our ideas out there and to have them rejected by others. Yet, if we come together in true dialogue, such vulnerability is an essential part of the process and will be treated with respect by all concerned.
The power of dialogue
This is because true dialogue starts from a place where everyone is humble, putting aside ego and engaging in exploration together. In his last book, On Dialogue, physicist David Bohm explored the original Greek meaning of dialogue and suggested that the object of a dialogue is not to analyse things, or to win an argument, or to exchange opinions. Rather, it is to suspend your opinions and to listen to everyone’s opinions, and to see what all that means. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge some new understanding. This may not have been in the starting point at all. And this shared meaning is the ‘glue’ that holds people and societies together. The key word here is ‘solidarity’ – another concept coming to prominence during the pandemic as people in communities have stepped forward to help each other.
Developing a transformative process
A process of carefully organised dialogue, conducted in a sensitive and respectful way, may stimulate the transformation we seek. It has to be done by us for us and we cannot delegate to an academic or a consultant because a good society is always in the making by those involved. As Terry Pratchett puts it in Witches Abroad:
‘You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.’
In taking the process forward, we need to be aware that there are lots of conversations going on. The challenge is how to deepen our engagement in a way that supports real change. We need to bring different actors together more explicitly around developing common agendas and moving towards collective action, though this has proved challenging in the past.
Learning from the neoliberals
We can learn much from the life and work of Friedrich August von Hayek, whose work changed history. Looking back on the 20th century, it is striking to see how there was an abrupt change of ideology during the 1970s.
From the end of the Second World War, the ideas of John Maynard Keynes had governed economics, leading to what have been called ‘les trente glorieuses’ of stability and economic growth in the world. However, the oil crisis provoked by the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 led to rising unemployment combined with inflation to produce stagflation. Leading economists abandoned Keynes and went back to the laissez faire doctrine of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) that had held sway in the 19th century. As Mill put it:
‘Laissez faire should be the general practice: every departure from it, unless required by some great good, is a certain evil.’
Principles of Political Economy, p 865
Neoliberalism was born amidst the economic crisis of the mid 1970s and was implemented by the partnership of Ronald Regan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. After more than 40 years of this approach, we can now see the effects. The Gini coefficient, an indicator of inequality, has risen inexorably since 1977. While neoliberalism has worked well for the world’s rich élites, the consequences have not only been hard for people at the bottom of the wealth pyramid but have also led to the perfect storm of problems we described earlier.
The transition to a new economic model in the mid 1970s didn’t just happen. It had been carefully planned over a 30-year period. In 1947, Professor Friedrich von Hayek invited 36 influential people to Switzerland to form the Mont Pèlerin Society. The group was diverse, but they had a common bond: ‘They see danger in the expansion of government, not least in state welfare, in the power of trade unions and business monopoly, and in the continuing threat and reality of inflation.’ The group worked tirelessly ‘… to facilitate an exchange of ideas between like-minded scholars in the hope of strengthening the principles and practice of a free society and to study the workings, virtues, and defects of market-oriented economic systems.’
In Thinking the unthinkable, Richard Cockett tells the story of how the ideas of free market economics gained ground through the efforts of organisations such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. This was a global movement. In the US, a country that never bought into the idea of the welfare state, conservative think tanks, funded by 12 private foundations, embarked on a long-term and concerted campaign to change policy across the world in favour of tax cuts, privatisation of government services, and deregulation of industry and the environment, as well as deep cuts in government spending. They were well organised, using everything from sound bites to scholarly journals. A key text was Charles Murray’s 1984 Losing ground.
The lesson from the Mont Pèlerin Society is to organise. Those of us who believe in social justice and human rights need to become way more strategic than we are at present. Building on the clearly increased appetite for collective action, we need to bring different people and organisations together and begin to identify what roles different kinds of organisation can play to support the social transformation that we are looking for.
The resulting conversations will start small and go deep. They will examine principles and approaches and how to win hearts and minds for a different way of being in the world. The conversations will take time and results will emerge as a process of co-creation that will involve many actors. A starting principle will be ‘no egos, no logos, no silos – and no halos’. People will come to the task as equals with much to give and to gain through the process. People will give of their best, but there will be no ‘tyranny of perfection’. We will trust the process and see where it goes.
The process will be similar to Measuring what matters, in which 130 people from all over the world came together in different groups and configurations, both online and in person, to co-create a view on how to measure the contribution of civil society to development. The process shows that wonderful things happen when people share their secret excel sheets. It shows the power of the collective imagination!
So, this is an invitation to come and join the dance with systems to develop the world we want. Whether it’s the ballroom, ballets or breakdancing that works for you, there is a place for you here. Send a message by replying here.