Dealing with your slaves and seeing the world

In a complex and interconnected world it is hard to be an activist against things.  One of the easiest ways that your opponents can neutralize your opposition to things like oil and slavery is to say “we” you depend on oil and slaves, so that makes you a hypocrite.”

So this is tricky – solving global problems of labour, energy, economics and justice are the very definition of complex problems.  There is no simple solution, there is a frustrating degree of progress and even large shifts in public consciousness (think land mines or climate change) are met with initial enthusiasm but later are eroded by commercial or power interests that have a stake in the status quo and way more influence than activists.

So what to do?

Consider the slavery question.  All of us in North America depend on slave labour to support our lifestyles.  As with the issues of oil dependance, our very existence creates an impact that is measurable, real and negative against our social justice agenda.  Affordability usually is usually the result of slave labour.  Real slave labour.

So how does one deal with this?

First it’s important to remember that you are part of the problem.  To quote Adam Kahane:

Bill Torbert of Boston College once said to me that the 1960s slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be, “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for change the way things are — except from the outside, by persuasion or force.

The good news and bad news is that it is impossible to influence change from outside the problem.  Such self-righteousness is easily dismissed.  In addition, it is very difficult to advocate an end to slavery while at the same time not being prepared to pay a lot more for your food and clothes.   Change must be made from within the problem.  And to do that you have to work with others who are part of the problem.

In general for large scale global neo-liberal problems, there are three players: governments, capital and markets.  All three of these create the conditions for problems and leverage is needed on all three to create the conditions for solutions, especially at the level of transformative change.  Consumers demand cheap products, capital creates the flow of materials to meet the need and governments  regulate to ensure that things happen (usually for those who have the best ability to keep governments in office).  The hardest of these to change is the market because market behaviour is completely emergent.  Think of the last time you saw a damaging industry collapse because the market changed overnight.  IN general shifts in demand are prompted by better products in the market – things that will help people do things in a better way, at a competitive price.  There is no question that there is a demand to end slavery, but the demand for cheap clothes outweighs it.

Markets can be influenced by capital and government.  Capital influences markets by controlling what is offered out there.  If you have billions of dollars, you can do things like buy up your cometeitors patents for clean energy for example, or in the case of companies like Wal-Mart, use you economy of scale to provide loss leader products that bring people into your store to buy cheap things at the expense of local manufacturing.  And if you are in government you can regulate to eliminate bad things in the market, such as slavery as a labour practice.  But if you also sign international agreements that allow the free flow of capital, you box yourself in to accepting slavery as a practice because capital will always seek the lowest expense climate.

So to affect change requires an engagement of all three.  It begins with a personal practice and commitment to a trajectory of social and economic justice.  It requires that personally I commit to “better.”  Will we ever have a world where slavery is abolished?  No.  Can I live my life without any dependance on slaves?  Doubtful, and certainly if I was to live that life I would be far from the ability to influence power in anyway.

So it is commitment to a trajectory rather than a finish line.   Complex problems are not “solvable.”  You have to get good with living with this uncertainty and get good at accepting the gift and the curse of emergence.

Second, people have to affect change with powerful narratives.  Governments have coercive power and large corporations have the power of manipulation using capital.  All people have are narrative power – the power of a better story.  Almost always this story “fails” against the coercive power of force and capital – think Occupy, Arab Spring, Idle No More and so on.  But while they failed to achieve their specific goals, these kinds of movement are very important.  It is important that citizens try and try again to advance the narrative of justice.  Because from time to time these narrative movements succeed.  Think gains like gay marriage and civil rights in North America.  Think about what happened in places like Estonia, Czechoslovakia and India and South Africa. When the narrative wins, that one time in 1000, things transform.

And it would be nice to know that any intervention we choose will have the system changing effect that we want, but we can’t have that certainty.  We need to work towards change from inside the place of the problem.

So, what is your experience in affecting change from inside the problem?  How do you work towards justice while recognizing your complicity in the very problems you are addressing?  How does a complexity-based world view and skill set enable good work to happen?