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Adversarial Politics: Is there another model?

Key Words: US Election, adversarial politics, activism tactics, communication models, dialogue techniques, conditions for innovation breakthroughs, solving tough problems, new social ingenuity, micro and macro behavioural changes, personal anecdotes, Paris scene.

There is a pre-election debate this week in Paris between representatives from Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad. The topic is "The United States future under George W. Bush or John Kerry." Again, this is kind of impressive and interesting, an extension of the democratic process well beyond the US borders, more evidence that a nation-state concept based on just physical territory is less relevant and meaningful.

The room will be packed, no doubt; the event oversubscribed. But I'll probably give it a miss. I confess, I'm experiencing election fatigue. Even in placid Paris and even without a TV (the absence of which saved my sanity during the Iraq war), I'm getting burned out by its constancy in the media and its dominance in daily conversations. I also don't like what this election is doing to me personally, especially in how I interact with people I disagree with.

At first I thought this malaise was just over-stimulation, a function of the sheer volume of coverage, which unlike other media frenzied events like the OJ Simpson trial or Elian Gonzalez (remember him?), the amount of attention at least seems proportional to the importance of this event to the US and the world. But then I realized that something more systemic was at work. My hypothesis now: that it's not so much the quantity of messages bombarding us that is the problem (although as the engineers' rule goes, a ten-fold quantitative change = a qualitative one) but more it's how we are communicating with one another during this election and more generally in society.

A provocative piece by Aidan Rankin called "Punch and Judy Politics" in The Ecologist brought all of this to the surface for me. Rankin exhorts that adversarial politics is threatening the democratic process instead of enhancing it because "human sympathy and tolerance give way to dogmatic certainty, and moralistic slogans thinly veil amoral and cynical acts. ‘Winning’ becomes an absolute principle, overriding any attempt to arrive at truth."

Adversarialism is an inferior way to do politics, in his view, because

all issues are presented as opposites, but in fact ... are complementary principles, or parts of a whole. The game of adversarial politics creates artificial divisions that result in individual bitterness and disappointment, and the diversion of progressive movements from their original goals towards self-limiting cultural niches. At a global level, adversarialism assumes a more sinister form, fueling the revival of ethnic and religious conflicts, masking a larger battle for control of the earth’s resources and the rise of fundamentalism, whether religious or economic.

Means and Ends

Rankin then gets into controversial territory by describing the corrosive impact of adversarial politics on progressive people and groups (hey that's us!), the self-identified agents of change. As he puts it, "inspired by ideals of social justice and equality, and seeking positive change, they [progressives] often take on the negative aspects of their opponents, usually the characteristics they most oppose." According to Ranking this happens in two steps:

First, they are co-opted: they are changed by the system, rather than changing it themselves. Second, they lose their positive energy -- the reason for their existence in the first place -- and replace it with anger, fanaticism and personality cults...

Protesters, in particular, have to be careful not to buy "into a political culture that finds its eventual expression in war," writes Rankin. (Indeed, the power of underlying metaphors in driving social change is something I discuss in an earlier blog, New Frames.) So, before well-meaning progressives know it, they start sliding into dogmatic postures and develop a reactionary mentality that stifles "creative thought and shuts off intellectual and practical possibilities." (My emphasis.)

Ouch. Ring any bells? It does for me. As a facilitator, I've seen this self-limiting cycle in many advocacy groups, especially when they have to work together, ostensibly because they have shared aims around making the world a better place. (Also see Alex Steffen's timely call for a new approach to environmental activism.) Like many Worldchangers, I've been disappointed the most by the organizations and people that inspire me the most in the social change sector. To my surprise, I've discovered that working with hard-nosed, short-sighted, narrowly-motivated corporate folks is much easier than Long View, high-minded kindred spirits in the change-the-world sphere. I really wish it weren't the case, but alas it is. The reasons for this are multi-faceted (Rankin skims just the surface) and far from new. Gandhi saw this dynamic half a century back, and why he said "means are ends in the making." Orwell also bespoke of these dangers in his vivid dystopia, Animal Farm and history is littered with horrific cases of revolutions turning in on themselves -- of Big Idea politics gone dastardly wrong. Again, I think a window into why this happens lies in how we communicate and approach problem-solving.

Coincidentally enough, this is a hot debate amongst Worldchanging contributors. In rapid-fire email exchanges, the conversation has been primarily over whether we should or shouldn't be strongly partisan and political in the aftermath of this election. And while I wasn't active in this exchange (still muddled was I) I can now see why it was important. Here we have an opportunity to model and experiment with alternatives to adversarial politics and avoid its negative trappings. But then this begs a big, hairy do we do this?!?

Dialogue as Social Ingenuity

Indeed, what are the alternatives to adversarial politics? When is it useful and necessary, and when is it counter-productive and part of the problem? We're so locked into the dominant mindset about how we talk to each other -- both in business and political life -- that we can scarcely imagine another model. This mental map, born in a machine-metaphor world, sees communication as happening like a transaction (See below diagram.) In the same way that electricity flows, it presumes that communication is a back-and-forth linear exchange between "senders" and "receivers." In actual fact, most communication is organic and recursive, with much getting lost, conflated or misconstrued in the transmission. As we all know from personal experience, what a sender thinks she said is often interpreted quite differently by the receiver, and vice versa, the messages refracted through the prisms of the communicators' beliefs, experiences and assumptions. This "transmission problem" only compounds when we start interacting with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and belief systems, a circumstance which is increasingly hard to avoid in our interdependent world.


Many sage observers are noticing that this new social complexity is creating an "understanding gap." Dan Yankelovich, a venerable pollster who has studied American attitudes and opinions for five decades, believes that the types of problems today require more shared understanding than in the past. This is disturbing because we may be losing "social capital" within our communities, just when we need it the most. Adam Kahane makes a similar point in his book, Solving Tough Problems (2004). To work on the toughest problems today, Kahane posits," we need a shared commitment and purpose... not just new ideas."

This is hard for many Cartesian rationalists to swallow. Sounds too soft and fuzzy. But this discovery is also mirrored in the business world. In studying how innovation happens in the world's best companies, MIT Media Lab's Schrage found that the key driver was not just "clever ideas but clever interactions between people." His biggest, most surprising insight was that better behaviours between people, rather than knowledge or the "killer idea", was the sustainable lever for innovation. In other words, it's not just content but also the process that enable better conversations. This creates a virtuous cycle because better conversation often means better ideas, and with the social capital or connectivity already created within the group, the chances that these ideas will get traction in the organization go exponentially up. They key is to create tools, techniques, and processes that put people into the collaborative mode of communication. This doesn't mean there isn't any conflict or friction; sparks usually fly when creative juices are flowing. But with the presence of a "shared space," which is usually co-created, people can surface and test assumptions, harvest the knowledge and experience of the group, and talk about hard things beyond just personal and professional agendas.

But how do you get into this space? This is no small feat, especially as the personal stakes get higher and higher, and the problems get tougher and tougher. And this is a huge topic and the focus of many emerging methodologies and approaches. However, a shared space for communication can happen around prototypes, new frameworks or models, a theory, a physical location, simulation, shared learning experience, or through stories or scenarios for the future. The tools are many. But no matter what one does, the first step is to understand that all "talk" is the same nor equal, even if we jumble them all together in our heads in practice. For now, let's unpack these briefly (consult the books at the end for deeper exploration) as the six "ds": dowloading, dictating, debating discussing, deliberating and dialogue.

  • Dictating is about telling in a one-directional manner what you know or what needs to be done, presumably because you have the answer or know better. It's the most authoritarian of the types of talk, and unfortunately -- and unnecessarily -- most prevalent in social, organizational and political life.
  • Downloading is when we just reproduce what we already know and believe without much thought, useful in certain circumstances (medical emergency) but annoying, disengaging and counter-productive in many (most political converations).
  • Debating is about winning an argument; the goal is to find flaws and weaknesses in the opponents’ case while gathering evidence to support your position. Experts and most of our political and business elite (and many of us) are highly trained in these techniques and have been rewarded for excelling in them.
  • Discussing is less confrontational, although its literal meaning is "to reason by breaking apart. The shift to team work in large organizations has put greater emphasis on this in the last decade or so.
  • Deliberation is more reflective but is often solitary and focuses on cognitive aspects of communication like a jury does contemplating the "facts" of a case.
  • Most of these "Ds" fall on a continuum within the transactional model of communication.

    Dialogue, by contrast, is another species of talk altogether driven by a collaborative mode of communication. Dialogue techniques combine open listening and empathy with a rigorous discipline of surfacing key assumptions people are making about themselves, their conversants, and the shared problems on the table. This skill, while hard to do, is important because our most ingrained thought patterns and beliefs are tacit; if left unrecognized and invisible, these assumptions can isolate us from each other and prevent understanding. As Martin Buber describes it, good dialogue is about transcending the "I" and "you" and meeting in the ridge in between where the conversation can be about "we", about both/and instead of either or. Adam Kahane refines this a bit further, describing two kinds of dialogue: reflective dialogue which is listening from the inside, both to ourselves and to others empathetically and subjectively; and generative dialogue, which is listening and learning to see the whole system by connecting to multiple ways of knowing and insight. A higher form of consciousness, to be sure.

    To be clear, just like I said before, dialogue doesn't mean people have to agree or even like the other side. But if done well, dialogue results in two things: mutual understanding and insight (”thought”) and mutual trust and respect (“feelings”). Both of these things provide excellent traction for decision-making and action in subsequent interactions. Both provide a more enduring platform for shared problem-solving.

    One famous example: while we didn't know it at the time, dialogue played a special role in reversing the nuclear arms race and ending the Cold War, as Yankelovich recounts in his book, The Magic of Dialogue (1999.) When Gorbachev was asked a few years after Reagan left office what the turning point was for the relationship, he said it was a meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland. Because this was the first time the conversation extended beyond their main agendas; where they explored each other's aspirations for their two countries and without judgment tried to understand each others core values and assumptions about the world. It was there that the political impasse broke. (This is freshly picked up again in a new book, An Icelandic Saga: Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended by Jack F. Matlock Jr. which is reviewed in the New York Review of Books.)

    Almost all non-violent big breakthroughs, I would argue, have a similar alchemy. There are, of course, courses for horses. Dialogue is a specialized form of communication to be used only in certain circumstances. It's no panacea, and there is clearly a time and place for all of the other "d"s, although it's hard to justify "dictating" and "downloading" for anything but military-like contexts. As Adam Kahane found when working in deeply polarized conflicts in countries like Guatemala, Colombia, Cyprus, and South Africa, when it comes to working on stuck problems or creating something new, dialogue not debate, is the best approach. As he explains,

    Experts form ideas and present them, and then authorities adjudicate among these already formed ideas. This approach works for deciding between already created alternatives, but it does not create anything new... [concluding that] Open listening is the basis for all creativity –- in business and engineering as much as in politics.

    Shoemaker's Children

    So dialogue techniques, processes and tools is a place to look for new social ingenuity, and this may come in handy in the post-election circus. All of this I sincerely believe and I hope this wee tutorial helpful and timely. But some recent regressions on my part have given me a good reality check about how hard this is to put into practice, and just how hard-wired our instincts and habits are when it comes to talking. So the teacher -- and I do teach this -- remains a learner and a chastened one. However, we all study our own problems to some degree, yes?

    Two personal stories I'll share to illustrate my point. The first happened just two weeks ago when my "favourite" uncle visited me in Paris. (I have many and they are all favourite when they visit.) He's a well respected, smart lawyer in the biotech field and quite involved in my hometown politics and community--a big fish in a smallish pond -- so I was interested in hearing his thoughts on what kind of prospects there were should we want to return home some day. I really was looking forward to this positive, future-oriented conversation, but as soon as I heard through the family grapevine that he was a Bush supporter, I started dreading his visit and the inevitable adversarial conversation. And this reaction really surprised me. Like, it's just politics, right? It's just an election? What troubled me, in particular, was the nasty thoughts and feelings this conjured up in me against someone I loved and respected. "How could someone that intelligent believe Bush could possibly be an option", I thought to myself. And I'm sure he thought the same about me.

    When the topic was breached, as I knew it would be -- I had forewarning, remember -- instead of practicing everything I've learned, I reassumed my old pre-dialogue self. What set me off was the well-intended but vigorous lawyerly cross-examination, no doubt intensified by the bottle of Brouilly we had just consumed. So right from the start I had unconsciously conceded the communication style to him, which was really the beginning of the end of any real conversation, and exactly what Rankin was talking about. We were soon just "downloading" our own beliefs and attitudes without really aiming to understand the other's position. It was about scoring points, about me proving how smart I was to my uncle and vice versa.

    Admittedly, this kind of talk was fun on one level, jostling and jockeying for position; a little amusing, verbal "young buck-older buck" rough and tumble. But on another level, there was no real satisfaction. No one learned anything from each other, and if we put a mirror up to the situation, our best selves were poorly represented. I was all of a sudden living with my teen self again trying to prove that I was a grown up now, and he was a middle age man out of his context trying to impress his young turk of a niece that he was worldly and knew best. Sadly, we were worldviews apart with no bridge in sight.

    And a real opportunity was lost: an opportunity to actually talk about how we were talking, which in turn would magically take us into meaningful territory: namely, how as a child this communication environment shaped me as a person, the path-breaking first grandkid trying to be authentically heard in a large, complex Latin-Saxon family (a combustible, contradictory mix of Italian, Irish, Scottish stock.) How this adversarial politics within our crazy clan continues to be the source of key problems at an individual and family-wide level. We're no Bosnia or Rwanda, but like society as a whole, this extended family talks a great deal, but almost never directly and never about the things that matter the most. Sadly, it's hard to imagine this changing within my own family, so what makes me think this can change in the world?

    The second story took place in June in San Francisco at a cocktail party a friend of ours threw for us while we were in town. Before the party, a bunch of us went out for dinner at a Tapas bar in the Mission District, and I happened to sit next to a couple I didn't know very well, but the woman I knew peripherally; she was another Canadian, a good friend of a close friend of mine. Her boyfriend appeared a little too "golf course and GQ" for my tastes, but I tried to repress any pre-judgments. So far so good. I quickly learned he was passionate about politics. Even better. And then learned that he was a staunch Republican and backer of Bush.

    But, curiously, this didn't put me off. I was somewhat fascinated, because I had remarked to someone earlier that being in Paris I had not met one Bush supporter, and this troubled me since it indicated a certain narrowness of my social network, a boundary limit to the kinds of people and ideas I was interacting with. This was doubly troubling given that a key tenant of my business is that good foresight and better futures need multiple perspectives at the table. As a practitioner, then, I should practice what I preach or else I'm susceptible to the same blind-spots I help mitigate in others.

    In any event, we got to talking and to my disappointment it quickly turned adversarial. I honestly wanted to understand why and how he thought the way he did. I wanted to peel away the superficial speech and get down to the deeper issues, and see if there was a place where we could both meet. But within five minutes, it was clear that there was no chance of this. It takes the consent of two people to dialogue and the right conditions, which simply weren't present. He wasn't willing nor able (emotionally or intellectually) to get into this kind of communication. I was also to blame. While I didn't regress as badly as I did with my uncle, I was aggressively Alpha. The trip switch was his ad homonym attacks on Kerry, as a person, as opposed to any policy discussion or reflection on Bush's record. But this was a garden variety meltdown, in itself not a big deal. What really saddened me the most was what happened later. Hours into the evening, when we were at the cocktail party, I overheard him in heated discussion with his girlfriend, saying that "he couldn't stay at the party because there were just too many Democrats in the room." And soon after that, they were gone.

    Now, I know this must happen all the time, especially in polarized parts of the world. But I don't think I'd ever really encountered this kind of self-segregation so close to home. I could also see a personal scenario for the first time where this kind of thing becomes the norm and worsens. I hated that. Clearly, if non-dialogue is a precursor and perpetuator of violence, it's not a long way from these polite slights and social avoidances to something far more ugly and sinister. And while I hope it doesn't come to this, this election could trigger such a regression if we're not careful, which is a scenario that's unfortunately plausible. (See "The Coming Post-Election Chaos" By John W. Dean, 22 October 2004).

    As these two anecdotes illustrate, adversarial politics is bugging me not just because it's annoying noise in the ether or morally worrisome at some conceptual level, but also because it's infecting me at a personal level. More importantly, the moral of these stories underscores a key lesson in systemic change practice that recurs again and again: we have to start with changing ourselves first. That a vector to macro change is clearly at the micro level. Such a cliché, I know, but true. And besides, it's certainly a more satisfying way to live.

    Unimaginable Possibilibiles

    Just last night, watching Star Trek, there was a throwaway comment by the Captain in conversation with another species, I can't recall which. He lamented that while Earth's peoples had learned out how to live together peacefully and collaboratively in the 21st century, regrettably, the clashes between different worlds continued to persist, making it necessary for the Enterprise to be ready to do battle and resort to violence on occasion. This embittered and jaded him.

    While this scene seems definitely science fiction, truly fanciful that we could ever get to such a stage in our species development, as Nelson Mandela put it in describing the South Africa situation, "One effect of sustained conflict is to narrow our vision of what is possible. Time and time again, conflicts are resolved through shifts that were unimaginable at the start." Dialogue and collaborative communication technologies will create the conditions for impossible things to emerge, while avoiding the most pernicious effects of adversarialism and violence-based solutions.

    These observations are often dismissed as idealistic, but I can attest that when you work this way you're surprised, again and again, by just how much more effective and yes, practical it is. Every time I do this, I still have to suspend my disbelief, but then shake my head after, saying,"why we didn't start doing this sooner?" Trust in emergent processes does require some faith.

    Another way to see this: much like how life made the radical leap from single cells to more multi-cellular entities capable of handling complex activities, our chance as a species I believe depends on making a similar leap in how we communicate. We need a more complex and collaborative way to communicate. Processes like dialogue might point the way to how this might be achieved. So let's try as Worldchangers to put these tools into action in the coming weeks and days, for how we talk to one another will be surely put to the test.

    Books and Articles Mentioned:

  • "Punch and Judy Politics" by Aiden Rankin, The Ecologist, October 2004.
  • (Thanks to fellow Pioneers of Change chum, Bjorn Brunstad, for forwarding this to our email group. The article is not available online so click here. This work-around aside, the magazine is good so check it out and buy a copy. With a tag-line "rethinking assumptions" how could you resist? Well... actually...hmmm... I can think of many people who avoid this at all costs and therein lies one of our big worldview divides.)

  • While I didn't mention it, the article by P.J. O'Rourke, "I agree with me" in The Atlantic Monthly also struck a few chords, but this time from a conservative perspective.
  • The Magic of Dialogue (1999) and
    Coming to Public Judgment (1991)
    by Daniel Yankelovich
  • Solving Tough Problems.
    by Adam Kahane (2004)
  • Serious Play
    by Michael Schrage.

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    Yes! Thank you for bringing this up. I appreciate your thoughts and look forward to practicing the fine art of dialogue. I too am tired of the polarization in the world. Too often "conversation" turns into continual position statements by opposing parties. I will make exchanges transformational, not transactional.


    Posted by: Daniel Smith on 28 Oct 04

    Many people believe that the adversarial nature of politics and especially negative campaign ads are the result of an Aristotelian Law of the Excluded Middle in conventional elections, where a vote is either "with me or against me", and a vote against my opponent is just as good as a vote for me.

    Computerized vote counting enables innovative kinds of elections such as instant runoff voting in which each voter gets more than one vote to cast for multiple candidates. These new systems make it worthwhile for a candidate to avoid alienating voter groups in order to attract them as second-choice supporters in case of close elections.

    Under the banner of saving money by avoiding costly runoff elections, these systems might change the entire attitude of the campaign process.

    Posted by: Alton Naur on 28 Oct 04

    Nicole, thanks for articulating these important points so well.

    One simple heuristic I use is to switch to "learning mode" when that ornery disagreein' feelin' sets in - in this mode, your goal is to understand what the other person thinks and why, without making judgements. (It's easy to slip into a Socratic leading-question kind of knowledge elicitation, though!)

    On the general issue of presenting issues and positions as opposites and the resulting adversarial debates, Deborah Tannen's "The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue" is worth reading. The principles and practice of mediation are also relevant.

    Alton: you're quite right that using a broader range of voter preference information could lead to a number of positive results, including depolarization. Approval voting is probably a better method than instant runoff voting, both for simplicity and for robustness of results, as discussed at

    Posted by: Hassan on 28 Oct 04

    Still thinking about all the points you made. Found little with which I disagree. Great essay :)

    Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 28 Oct 04

    I've been thinking about a lot of this, you have tied together many things for me in this article.
    I'm sharing this link with a number of pals who also are seeking ways to out better ways to expand understanding, and harness and maintain the energy that this election has pushed us into. Great work, and thank you for taking the time to write it!

    Posted by: ellie on 29 Oct 04

    I've been thinking about a lot of this, you have tied together many things for me in this article.
    I'm sharing this link with a number of pals who also are seeking ways to out better ways to expand understanding, and harness and maintain the energy that this election has pushed us into. Great work, and thank you for taking the time to write it!

    Posted by: ellie on 29 Oct 04

    Great article. The dialogue theme is echoed in a book written by two colleagues of mine, Gaian Democracies: Redefining Globalisation & People-Power. They take a systems thinking approach to our current situation and draw on Paulo Freire's learning principles and his teachings on "dialogue versus monologue" as one element of their proposed new paradigm of Gaian Democracy. (Other elements include participatory change processes, soft-systems concepts and network government.)

    Posted by: John Turnbull on 29 Oct 04

    Hi, and thanks for an excellent follow-up on Rankins piece. What I am sitting with (apart from similar personal experiences as you describe), is how the growth of adversarial politics links with Manuel Castells ideas of an emerging network society. In the network society - thanks to new technological possibilities - it becomes more and more possible and natural for more and more people to spend more and more of their time (in physical and virtual space) with people who share their own interests and worldviews. This despite the fact that the same technology also opens up for broader and broader networks across divides. How can this trend be turned around?

    Posted by: Bjørn on 29 Oct 04

    A tour de force!

    Posted by: Anthony Zacharzewski on 29 Oct 04


    I would add that adversarial politics might well be the product of the modern nation-state and party politics.

    Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 29 Oct 04

    An excellent essay.

    I would venture to add that while improved methods of communication are vital to transcending adversarial positions, it is the underlying prevailing 'either/or' mind-set of too many of us which remains the biggest obstacle to human progress.

    Whether it's in politics or activism or anything else, we need to switch to 'both/and' thinking. But that seemingly simple proposition is more difficult to achieve than it sounds.

    In the context of globalisation, the following recent article might hopefully point the way:

    Why Forgiving Ourselves and Each Other
    is the Path to Global Justice

    By John Bunzl,
    Founder, International Simultaneous Policy Organisation. January 2004.

    When we protest against transnational corporations, politicians and unaccountable global institutions such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank; when we protest against those we regard as causing or exacerbating global warming, ecological destruction, pollution or the widening gap between rich and poor, we inevitably blame them. Often, we go further to blame individuals who may shop at supermarkets, or who fail to buy Fair Trade or organic foods and so on. In protesting against them, or in decrying their behaviour, we inevitably point our fingers at them: “YOU are the ones who are destroying our world!” In fact, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the Global Justice Movement’s principal mode of action is protest; a mode which inescapably implies the blaming of one section of society or another, or one institution or another, for our global ills. And to be fair, there’s a lot to protest about and without protest these important issues would never come to wider public attention.

    But dire as our global problems undoubtedly are, should not the question be asked as to whether, in some sense, we are not all to blame for our present predicament, NGOs and global justice activists included? After all, who amongst us is so utterly de-linked from the global economy as to be able to honestly claim not to be contributing in some way to present problems, be it by driving when we might walk, by buying the products of transnational corporations when something more eco- or socially friendly might be better, or by failing to buy organic food when cheaper non-organic alternatives better suit our budgets - or by flying to holiday or conference destinations and thus contributing disproportionately to global warming emissions? Because for any of us to pretend that we are beyond reproach is not only likely to be untrue, it leads inexorably to a kind of “eco-fascism” whereby self-styled “eco-warriors” vilify and victimise the rest of us who, for one reason or another, apparently fail to live up to their criteria for what is required to “save the planet”. Indeed, the reality is that through our individual and collective choices, lifestyles and socio-economic system, all of us play a part, to a greater or lesser extent, in exacerbating our increasingly dire global predicament. So to pretend otherwise is not only divisive and untrue, it ultimately serves only to divert us from what should be a common effort to find solutions and instead leads us into an endless loop of factional, ‘us and them’ blame and counter-blame.

    And if we are all to blame, perhaps we should take the further step of asking ourselves whether the corporate executives or market traders we commonly regard as being in positions of power are really in any position to significantly alter their polluting or socially irresponsible behaviour? It should after all be clear that in a competitive global market any corporation single-handedly taking on a greater measure of social or environmental responsibility - and thus increasing its costs in the process - would only lose out to its competitors causing a loss of its profits, a reduction in its share value, a consequent loss of jobs and, ultimately, the prospect of it becoming the target of a hostile takeover. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to conclude that in a global market corporations can generally only afford to behave as responsibly as the aggregate behaviour of their major competitors permits and, since they cannot reliably count on them to simultaneously take on higher standards, it is virtually impossible for one or a restricted number of market players to make the first move. So while it’s clear that corporations could take some small steps towards more responsible behaviour and should be encouraged to do so, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that they have the power to make the really substantive and fundamental changes needed to solve our global problems. Indeed, they manifestly don’t.

    As George Soros points out, the same goes for global investors and fund managers. With respect to his own role he explains that: “As an anonymous participant in financial markets, I never had to weigh the social consequences of my actions. I was aware that in some circumstances the consequences might be harmful but I felt justified in ignoring them on the grounds that I was playing by the rules. The game was very competitive and if I imposed additional constraints on myself I would end up a loser. Moreover, I realised that my moral scruples would make no difference to the real world, given the conditions of effective or near-perfect competition that prevail in financial markets; if I abstained somebody else would take my place.” So it’s not corporate execs or fund managers who are destroying our world, it’s the system in which they - and we - are all implicated. WE – all of us – are destroying our world.

    After all, do global justice activists really think business leaders are any less aware of our environmental crisis than anyone else? Of course they’re not! But they’re caught in a vicious circle of destructive global competition which systematically prevents them from behaving in the way activists – and they themselves - would like. In his book, “When Corporations Rule the World”, David Korten astutely observed that “With financial markets demanding maximum short-term gains and corporate raiders standing by to trash any company that isn't externalizing every possible cost, efforts to fix the problem by raising the social consciousness of managers misdefine the problem. There are plenty of socially conscious managers. The problem is a predatory system that makes it difficult for them to survive. This creates a terrible dilemma for managers with a true social vision of the corporation's role in society. They must either compromise their vision or run a great risk of being expelled by the system.”

    That’s not to say, of course, that some corporations or CEOs aren’t greedy or careless, or that we should become apologists for poor corporate behaviour. But more often than not, it is destructive competition and the fear of losing out, rather than pure greed for profit, which daily drives the socially and environmentally detrimental decisions of business executives. For as they rightly point out: “If we don’t do it, our competitors will” – and in a globally de-regulated market, they’re right! So what is the point in blaming them when they’re caught in a system which effectively prevents them from behaving otherwise? And are global justice activists and NGOs in any position to point fingers when, were we in the shoes of corporate executives and subject to the same competitive demands, we’d likely be behaving in much the same way? So it is not corporations or their CEOs at whom we should be directing our primary fire, but at the destructively competitive global market system of which they are merely its most high-profile prisoners.

    And what about governments; the institutions who are responsible for “the system”; our leaders who are supposed to regulate markets to balance social and environmental interests with those of business? In a world where capital and employment quickly move to any country where costs are lower and profits therefore higher, what chance do governments have to impose increased regulations or taxes on business to protect society or the environment when doing so will only invite employment and investment to move elsewhere? Environmentalists commonly decry government laxness in properly regulating corporations but what choice do governments have when they cannot count on other governments doing likewise? Any government making any significant move to tighten environmental or social protection regulations would face the prospect of uncompetitiveness, capital flight, a loss of jobs and a resulting loss of votes. Again, that’s not to say that governments are powerless to do anything at all to improve matters or that we should stop pressuring them. But it does mean that their room for manoeuvre is extremely curtailed to the point where they, too, are largely caught in the same vicious circle like everyone else. So, governments of whatever party are now constrained to pursuing only those narrow policies they know will not displease world markets; a pathetically narrow range of policies which reduce democracy to a hollow kind of pseudo-democracy; an electoral charade in which whatever party we elect, and whatever the party’s manifesto may have stated, the policies actually delivered inevitably conform to market demands and to each country’s need to maintain its “international competitiveness”.

    So activists should ask themselves whether they would act greatly differently were they to be sitting in government instead of our politicians? When significant strides to protecting society or the environment mean losing jobs and votes, would we really behave much different to the politicians we so commonly decry?

    As I have hinted, at the root of the present world predicament lies a vicious circle of destructive competition which no-one can be said to be in control of and no-one can therefore be held wholly responsible for. Furthermore, the global institutions of the WTO, IMF and World Bank whom we might expect to be in control of the global economy are, in fact, operating under the delusion that competition is always a beneficial phenomenon; a delusion forced upon them by their understandable inability to control the free movement of capital and corporations. For in having no control over their free movement, and thus in accepting that state as a “natural given”, they are necessarily lead to prescribe yet more competition (i.e. more structural adjustment, more privatisation, more tax cuts, more fiscal austerity, etc) as the cure to our global ills and not less. In failing to realise that economic competition becomes destructive when it fails, as at present, to occur within the framework of adequate global regulations that protect society and the environment, the WTO, WB and IMF serve only to exacerbate the very problems they think they’re solving. Those in charge of the institutions we expect to exert beneficial control over the global economy and whom we commonly believe to be “in power” are, therefore, relatively powerless to influence its out-of-control competitive forces.

    So, by blaming governments or corporations or international institutions, we actually accord them far more credit than they really deserve. For in blaming them and in holding them responsible, we imply that they have the power to substantially change the system when we should instead be recognising that the lunatic herd mentality of global markets has already taken over the asylum. Disconcerting though that realisation may be, all those we think of as “in power” are in fact as much prisoners of the system as the rest of us. And were the leaders of the Global Justice Movement to take their place, would they be in any better position, given the radical and global free movement of capital, to take greatly different decisions? I think not. Of course this should not mean that our protests should stop – far from it! But what it does mean is that we should not fool ourselves into thinking that protest or other conventional forms of NGO action can ever be adequate to bringing about lasting, substantive and beneficial solutions; it means that each of us who truly cares about this world must earnestly seek for another way.

    Surely, therefore, the greatest mistake we can make in our fight for global justice is to blame others for our sorry global predicament as if we ourselves were blameless or as if we could do any better? All the while we fail to recognise that we are all to blame, or that we would ourselves likely behave in much the same way as those we presently vilify, we perpetuate division, discord and resentment; we build adversarial barriers instead of removing them and we thus make impossible the atmosphere of cooperation, understanding and forgiveness needed to foster an atmosphere of global community; an atmosphere in which the productive negotiation necessary to finding appropriate solutions could evolve.

    When - finally – we take all this on board, far from being overcome by a feeling of desperation and despair, paradoxically we reach a crucial and fundamentally important intellectual and spiritual turning point. A point at which we can move to a new and liberating level in our thinking and being. We move from what the prominent American philosopher, Ken Wilber, calls ‘first tier’ thinking to ‘second tier’ thinking; from nation-centric thinking to world-centric thinking; from what he calls ‘flatland reductionism’ to integral holism.

    So once we stop blaming others, we start to see that, in reality, no single person, group, organisation, country, religion or culture can be singled out. We start to see that even those who benefit hugely from the status quo are in no position to actually change the system and we start to see that we are all caught – to a greater or lesser extent – in the vicious circle of globally destructive competition: a “prisoner’s dilemma” from which there is, ordinarily, no way out. In short, we start to see – finally - that we are all in the same boat.

    From a collective realisation such as this, we would have gone a long way to creating the pre-conditions for building a genuine global community: the conditions of forgiveness and non-judgemental acceptance of ourselves and each other; the inclusiveness necessary to beginning our collaborative search for global solutions. After all, it is upon such a state of genuine Global Community that any properly functioning global democracy must surely depend. In short, we would have created the conditions in which we could recognise the reality that we are ALL ONE; all one in the recognition of our common human fallibility and ‘brokenness’; all one in the celebration of each others’ differentness, all one in the brother/sisterhood of humanity and all one in the eye of our respective God.

    Fortunately, this latest and most essential of humanity’s evolutionary journeys has already begun through the work of a number of organisations around the world whose perspective has moved beyond the ‘first-tier’ mode of protest, blame and ‘either/or’ thinking to the ‘second-tier’, non-judgemental, world-centric, ‘both/and’ thinking needed to solve global problems. For as Einstein rightly suggested, “no problem can be solved with the same thinking that created it”.

    One organisation that seeks to embody this new thinking is the International Simultaneous Policy Organisation (ISPO) which offers us all – activists and business executives alike – a means by which we can firstly take back control of our present, hollowed-out pseudo-democratic processes and, secondly, how we can co-create the policies necessary to achieving environmental sustainability and global justice. Finally it offers the crucial means for citizens the world over to bring our politicians and governments to implement them without any nation, corporation or citizen losing out. It thus turns the destructive, competition-led politics of globalisation on its head by offering global citizens a practical and peaceful way out of the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’; a veritable way for all of us to take back the world with a new politics of citizen-led, international co-operation for our emergent - but yet-to-be-born - sustainable global society.

    International Simultaneous Policy Organisation
    P.O. Box 26547, London SE3 7YT, UK
    Tel. +44 (0)20-8464 4141 Fax. +44 (0)20-8460 2035

    Posted by: John Bunzl on 30 Oct 04


    Posted by: Ray on 30 Oct 04

    Man by his/her very nature is an annoying egotistical self centered smelly creep. Take any 10 people lock em in a room for a week and sooner or later one of em will be dead at the hands of one or more of the others.

    We are locked in a very big room but there are soo very many of us and while we group into clumps that manage not to piss us off as much we still tend to rub elbows alot with those that do.

    And no matter who wins alot of the country is realy truely afraid of who is in charge every day of every year.

    Politics wasnt adervarial before because if you didnt like it you could walk away... you cant walk away anymore. Or at least mostr people cant anymore.

    Posted by: wintermane on 31 Oct 04



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