[In the HelpAlbert group, members are interacting with Michael Albert about draft content for a new book, seeking to help make the book better than it would otherwise be. This is a second draft of the introduction, in light of comments thus far.]
“The qualifications that I have to speak on world affairs are exactly the same ones Henry Kissinger has, and Walt Rostow has, or anybody in the Political Science Department, professional historians – none, none that you don't have. The only difference is, I don't pretend to have qualifications, nor do I pretend that qualifications are needed. I mean, if somebody were to ask me to give a talk on quantum physics, I'd refuse – because I don't understand enough. But world affairs are trivial: there's nothing in the social sciences or history or whatever that is beyond the intellectual capacities of an ordinary fifteen-year-old. You have to do a little work, you have to do some reading, you have to be able to think, but there's nothing deep – if there are any theories around that require some special kind of training to understand, then they've been kept a carefully guarded secret.”
- Noam Chomsky
How does a sports go from losing now, to victorious a few years in the future? What relation does its doing so have to our task – changing society?
Mentality of Conflict
Surely the team must first understand its current conditions. Who are its players? What is its budget? What teams must it play and what are their attributes? What are the strengths and weaknesses of its players? What other players can it attract? Who are its coaches? What is its “playing field”? Will there be rules or schedule changes?
More, since other team’s policies and actions and one’s own as well will often change the team’s circumstances, the team must re-analyze these questions as each month and year passes
But beyond its immediate situation, what is your team’s goal? Is it a championship, no matter what that costs? Does it want to maximize profits, no matter where it winds up in the standings? Does it want to serve the public, or advance the sport, regardless of standings or profits?
Next the team must translate its thoughts about a constantly changing present and its vision of a desired future into implementable policies that can lead from the former to the latter and it must do this in the complex and constantly changing context of other teams trying to thwart it’s plans.
In short, the mental side of the team project includes developing analysis, vision, and strategy for games along the way, and for the whole multiyear effort.
Hard Means Easy; Easy Means Hard
Rather than delve into the details of any particular team, by analogy let’s instead note that to create a new society, as in winning in sports, even though the former is way more complicated, we nonetheless also need to know where we start, where we are at any key moment, the final goal we seek, and what steps we should take to succeed.
Ironically, it turns out that changing society is so much more complex than winning a sports championship that the detailed intellectual side of changing society is actually in many respects easier than the detailed intellectual side of winning at sports, though admittedly the intuition and careful experimentation and flexibility that changing society requires is greater.
Another analogy will help clarify this unexpected claim.
Take physics, on the one hand, and a field like sociology, on the other. Virtually everyone would say physics, studying quarks and space time is much harder than sociology studying people and cultures. We look at the texts and journals of the two disciplines and compare – and, indeed, we find that there is a huge difference in how hard they are to read. In a week or two, a typical citizen can understand a sociology lecture, or even a sociology text, and even ask cutting edge questions. In fact, with a little effort sociology beginners can even pose cutting edge sociology questions, and perhaps even propose insightful answers, again, virtually immediately.
In contrast, it takes years to even get to the point of understanding a physics text or lecture. To ask cutting edge questions, much less to offer remotely sensible answers, is harder still. So of course it seems that physics is much harder than sociology. What could be more obvious?
However, the truth is that the opposite is true. The focus of sociology is by a huge margin more difficult to understand than the subject matter of physics, and that is actually why sociology texts are easier to read and become reasonably knowledgable about than physics texts.
The point is, understanding people and cultures to any depth, is so difficult that we have accomplished relatively little of that sort. As a result, we know so little, at least of deep social patterns, that sociology has rather modest information in its texts, and this makes those texts rather straightforward to understand.
Physics, in contrast, is such as easy subject – yes, easy in the sense that we can successfully examine natural phenomenon and discover their causes – that we have been able to pile up a huge amount of accurate information and theory regarding natural patterns, so much so that to become familiar with even a tiny part of that accumulated knowledge, much less to extend it into new insights, is a massive undertaking.
Yes, physics is mathematical – and of course math can be tough – but again, that it is mathematical is due to physics being simple enough for us to discover patterns that we can summarize in equations. In social matters, we don’t know nearly enough to do that.
Okay, this is interesting, you might say, but what’s the point?
I live in New England, in the U.S. The local football team is the New England Patriots. The playbook for any one game is an immense compendium of incredibly detailed patterns and analyses. Knowing all the plays, their details, the roles of each player and the associated logic, plus the intersection of player strengths and weaknesses with on field needs and possibilities including the weaknesses and strengths the other team brings to the game – not to mention knowing budgets, opportunities for trading players, expectations regarding crowd impact, implications of stadium conditions and the weather… – is a herculean task. The sport is so amenable to analysis, and is so carefully and comprehensively dissected, that there is a vast body of intricately detailed information that one needs to understand to affect the patterns that arise in football analysis, vision, and strategy.
In contrast, because society is so much more complex than football, there is not a massive accumulation of reliable and deep insights about society’s patterns. To understand society, beyond simple insights that we are all familiar with, is so hard that no one knows know that much about its innards. Ironically, the analysis, vision, and even strategy of social change one has to have to competently participate in changing society is more accessible to timely and popular comprehension than the analysis, vision, and strategy needed to be adept at winning football.
Changing society, which is what this book is about, is not physics, or as we used to say some decades ago, it is not rocket science, or, if you prefer, it is not football.
Changing society is more like sociology. It is about daily life and the institutions that we encounter every day. Since even the most advanced available understanding of the dynamics and possibilities of ourselves and of the institutions around us is at best very general, it doesn’t take years or decades to get up to speed. No need for fancy language or lots of letters after your name. In fact, most of the information we need about people and social relations if we are to understand, envision, and strategize as well as we can, we already know or can easily become familiar with.
In short, it turns out that aside from careful application of the insights by way of a kind of practical wisdom that comes with experience – not particularly different in kind than the practical wisdom of any discipline – bricklaying, quarterbacking, driving, doctoring, and if we assume that experts don’t make the information we need obscure by hiding it behind unneeded fancy formal language (which they of course nearly always do) – the ideas we need in our mental arsenal to be able to effectively analyze, envision, and strategize for social change are within pretty relatively reach of normal people facing typical life pressures. You don’t have to be a social change professional to be really smart about social change, in fact, it is probably an advantage that you aren’t – they are too mucked up with pointless and needless abstruse formulations to think clearly, not mention too biased to do so. Which means this book, aimed at providing tools for social change, should be quite accessible.
Does all that sound implausible? And if I added that I think the typical serious football fan in the U.S. has accumulated more actually useful conceptual background and analysis of football and that he or she analyzes, envisions, and strategizes more deeply about football than the average serious political activist has accumulated actually useful conceptual background regarding social change and analyzes, envisions, and strategizes about society, that too would probably sound like poppycock. Fair enough. The proof of these claims will be in the pudding of communication.
This book means to communicate an array of information, insights, and modes of thought sufficient for you to use them, and refine them, and add to them, to intelligently think about, plan for, and participate in winning major social change.
I claim less time will be needed to get you ready for that pursuit, even at a top flight level of competence, and even if you have no prior society-changing experience, than would be needed to get you ready to comparably skillfully handle the intricacies of soccer or cricket, much less physics. To get what this book has to offer, you need to be an energetic reader and to do a little thinking about what you take in, but you don’t need any prior background. The only thing hard about getting ready to be skilled at matters of social change, is that what it entails is very different than what we are used to hearing and doing.
Part one of Our Future is about the problems we face in today’s world. How is society organized and why does it need changing? What are its key defining features? What are our personal and group attributes, as citizens, given that we grow up and function in society? How do different aspects of society affect us? How do we citizens affect different aspects of society? What is history? Why do things change? Why do other things stay unchanged?
Once we have an overarching picture of where we are at and how to think about society as it changes in time, we will look at a few specific elements of society and some lessons they reveal. Then we will conclude part one by understanding some of the benefits and pitfalls of our way of looking at society.
Part two proposes our vision. It argues for the value of vision by showing why we need to know where we are going. It provides broad vision for six aspects of society – economy, government/polity, family life/kinship, group identification/culture, environment/ecology, and foreign policy/international relations. And all this vision of what we want, taken together, becomes the second major component of our mental preparation for social change work. It becomes our vision.
Part three of Our Future presents strategy and program and is the longest section in the book. It covers broad principles, themes that arise in different settings, specific examples, and some plausible scenarios. Strategy and program are particularly hard to present well because strategy and program change as circumstances change. It is hard to make general claims about them.
The task for analysis and vision, in parts one and two, is largely to convey a particular analysis and a particular vision. Because analysis and vision continually need updating and refining, another part of the analysis/vision task is, however, conveying insight into how to be analytical and visionary about changed situations as they arise.
For strategy, however, there is no one strategy that is right as a basis for building on. The whole strategic task is about how to think strategically in diverse settings as situations fluidly change and unfold. We have to react strategically moment to moment so our strategic intellectual arsenal must primarily help with that.
Part four of Our Future is a conclusion. It outlines some replies that those who favor the views in this book can use to answer people who doubt key aspects of the book’s claims. Part four also presents a succinct summary of the book’s overall message.
As to Our Future’s style of writing, there is an interesting quotation that runs a bit against the writing stylist’s grain. It comes from a great writer, Edgar Allen Poe, and explains our hope.
“In important topics it is better to be a good deal prolix [verbose] than even a very little obscure. But abstruseness is a quality appertaining to no subject per se. All are alike, in facility of comprehension, to him who approaches them by properly graduated steps. It is merely because some stepping stone, here and there, is heedlessly left unsupplied in our road to the Differential Calculus, that this is not altogether as simple a thing as a sonnet by Mr. Solomon Seesaw.”
No Calculus in this book. No sonnets by Solomon Seesaw, either. We try for succinct, but if we absolutely must we will lean toward including extra words rather than accepting obscurity.
Ironically, the usual stylistic path for writers about society, one which makes readers think the subject is intensely difficult and the authors are incredibly smart, is to use piles and piles of incredibly obscure terminology all to hide that what they are saying is either nonsense or could be easily said far more easily – thus revealing that in fact, they just don’t know very much beyond what we all know, other than their made up big words, that is. Here is a continuation of the quote from Noam Chomsky that opened this chapter, making the same point.
“In fact, I think the idea that you're supposed to have special qualifications to talk about world affairs is just another scam … just another technique for making the population feel that they don't know anything, and they'd better just stay out of it and let smart guys run it. In order to do that, what you pretend is that there's some esoteric discipline, and you've got to have some letters after your name before you can say anything about it. The fact is, that's a joke."
Our Future presents a conceptual staircase toward informed, empowered participation in social change. We hope no steps are missing. We hope the terminology is clear and welcoming. We hope the climb, manageable for all, will get take us, all together, where we must all go, if we are to change society.