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Thursday, May 22, 2014

On Revolution

Isn’t time we had another revolution? If Jefferson said that every generation should, aren’t we way overdue?

Arguably all progress comes through revolution: agrarian, axial, protestant, industrial, scientific, democratic.  Not the absolutist Pol Pot kind that tries to wipe out the present for some unrealized past or idealized future, e.g. destroying sinners for the sake of Paradise. But the kind that, while dealing in the messy now, is indeed fundamentally transformative instead of just tinkering around the edges.

Recent revelations that the segregation of the rich has significantly increased since 1980, that the Federal Reserve and the Wall Street banks are steering the political and financial ship, that worker wages have decreased for the past 30 years, that the global economy is structured to foster inequality, that computerization will wipe out 37% of existing jobs, that a whole generation of young people of color have been effectively cut off, that we continue on the brink of war including nuclear, that Mother Earth is defending herself against our species, all these call for revolution which is more than an addition of a few new programs. 

And perhaps the revolution has already begun and we in our gated bubbles just don’t realize it.

A revolution doesn’t have to be violent. Some, however, would say ours already is if you consider the struggles in Arab and former Soviet Union countries, blowback by terrorist groups, the imprisonment and gang warfare linked to the war on drugs, and the run for guns to protect oneself from aliens.

But to be truly transformative, a revolution affects the three major dimensions of being human and the relations among them. Economy (the word comes from G. oikos or “household”): the system of behaviors that maintain and foster life and livelihood. Politics (from G. polis or “commons”): the system of behaviors through which humans achieve freedom and power. Culture (from L. cultivare or “cultivate): the system of behaviors in which humans find meaning.

Economy for life, politics for power, culture for meaning. Each relates to a fundamental motive for human behavior: self-interest, affiliation, and value—all linked to our desire for respect. And each has its own set of institutions.  Economy, the private realm, has markets, trade, business, and that great invention of the 19th century, the modern corporation. Politics, the public realm, has government agencies, parties, cities and states, communities, and voluntary associations. Culture, the realm of ideas has churches, schools, institutes, universities, media, and now think tanks. A revolution doesn’t destroy, but transforms institutions to their roots.

My generation tried in the 60s and 70s when protesting war, racism, and poverty. But we got stuck. The generation before built the labor and womens movement. We got some good programs, but hardly a transformation of the social order so that it would no longer require war, bigotry, and poverty. I am hoping that the new generation will. And I see some evidences for my hope.

The revolution is starting with threats and alternatives to the dominant economy, with organizations that challenge government and its priorities, and with the rewriting of the cultural narrative that gives meaning to our private life and public action. To be successful it needs to be all three.

Citizens start by fostering publics—free associations of persons through their neighborhoods, congregations, workplaces, schools, and businesses, which can build common spaces to hold government, banks, corporations, churches and all our institutions accountable. In the process they build relationships and acquire knowledge of the roots of problems, which they translate into actionable issues and policies.

Thoughtful economists, business and labor people start by identifying the fiscal, monetary, and financial social habits of production and consumption. Working with those left out, they will study how the existing economy, sanctioned by the predominant religion and ruling the political sector, is related to growing inequity among class, to war in protecting economic interests, and to residential segregation and its effects on education, employment, and ecology.

Philosophers, theologians, and artists will help publics critique the dominant ideology that is sanctifying the existing political economy. They participate in telling a new story that gives meaning to a transformed economy and politics. The new story re-imagines the meaning of work, the place of the sacred, and the human spirit.

Skillful organizers, thoughtful scientists, and imaginative storytellers need to converge to make the revolution come. And they are. I see them. I read them. I know them.

But change is not inevitable, nor is it quick, as revolutionaries of the absolute mind would have it. It takes patience, persistence, and positioning. Above all, it takes power, the ability of people to act together. Not the authority of pope or president, not the control of capital and labor, not the violence of state or militias, but rather people speaking and acting together to share their stories, to strengthen their households, and to shape their cities will bring the next revolution.

Come on fellow citizen revolutionaries! No time for cynicism. We can do it.

Rollie Smith April 10, 2014

Rollie Smith is a social activist philosopher.  He is finishing a book The Next Revolution. You can contact him at

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