I so appreciate Kate Davies’ thoughtfulness and enthusiasm [in Rachel's #909, responding to my article from Orion.] Her writing demonstrates a deep knowledge of the inner and outer workings of social change organizations in the United States. I want to respond to her points, however, because I believe she simplifies a book (and a social movement) that is diverse and complex and then draws conclusions that may not be applicable to the breadth of it.
In fairness to us both, Davies is responding to an excerpt from Blessed Unrest that was compiled and published in the magazine Orion. I was concerned when my I saw the draft of the excerpt because it skims the book, taking paragraphs and sections from different parts of my writing and stringing them together as if it were one coherent piece. The book is far more granular, not so generalizing, and more intricate than what was excerpted.
I would not state, as does Davies, that a “new social movement” has been quietly gaining strength since the 1999 WTO protests. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to provide expanse, depth, and history to
a movement that has a longer narrative than what is often reported. Davies states that I shy away from giving it a name. I do because when someone names it, they limit and constrain it. She proposes that it is the “new progressive movement,” an homage to the U.S. Progressive Movement of yore. While that is true in some quarters, this unnamed
movement also pays homage to many other prior movements in the world. The movement in South America has very different roots than does the movement in India, as does the movement in South Africa, Germany, Italy, China, etc., and none of these have origins in the U.S. Progressive Movement. One of my goals in writing the book was to help
readers, especially Americans, see this movement as global, not Euro- or North American-centric. We have to be careful not to place old frameworks on it and assume that this is the Progressive Movement redux.
I did not say that it lacks leaders: I said that it did not have a
leader. This is a pluralistic movement, no one can speak for it all,
not me, not Davies, or anyone else, and that is its saving grace. We
both agree that this movement demands a very different style and
process of leadership; we are seeing it, and such true leadership
couldn’t come any too soon. What we see in politics and business is an
ersatz leadership that serves concentrations of power, not people.
We are in fierce agreement when it comes to the idea that this is a
bottom-up movement that is reimagining and remaking the world. To call
that an ideology, as she proposes, is not accurate. Ideologies are
beliefs that frame economic and political activities, and this
movement is collectively about ideas. Davies refers to the many
different ideas to make her point, and that is precisely my point. I
distinguish between an idea driven movement and an ideologically
driven movement. Right wing fundamentalism, whether it be religious,
economic, or political is ideological. When you try to impose your
view of the world on others, it is no longer an idea but an ideology.
All ideologies, right, left or center, dictate and constrain where as
ideas expand possibility and liberate.
To say that the ideas that inform this movement are the same that give
birth to this country is a hopeful statement, but not borne out in
fact. This country was founded by privilege and was dominated from the
outset by the privileged. I believe we are moving from a world created
by privilege to one created by community. This is a fundamental and
global shift, one much resisted.
Davies list four goals or aspirations that are common to the movement:
- Creating an open, participatory and fully accountable democracy;
- Social and economic justice;
- Sustainability for people and the planet; and
- Health and wellbeing for all.
I agree, except these are not ideologies. These are values, and they
are becoming universal, and are being expressed from the bottom-up.
This is a critical point because every ideological movement in the
world has caused suffering, violence, and loss. The world has paid a
tremendous price for such ideologies and this movement has gone
another direction. This is not a quibble, but a fundamental
To say that the movement needs some “internal organization,” as Davies
proposes, assumes that there is an internal. This is an old paradigm;
there is a movement, let’s get in front of it and organize it. Like
Gideon Rosenblatt, author of “Movement as Network,” I believe that the
organizations that comprise it need to work more assiduously on
cooperation and linkages. However, internal organization requires a
hierarchy and that is different than cooperation. What is needed is
happening: more coordination and collaboration, and of course
increased attention on collaboration is needed to become more
effective. It is time to link and connect up in more powerful ways.
The movement is atomized because that is how it came into being. It
now has the communication and technological tools to work for more
closely and effectively. However, when Davies writes, “How can we
build the new movement?” I get a little uncomfortable. I think the
right question is how can we better serve this movement. What is new
is that the largest movement in human history has built itself without
being master minded from above. This is why I use the metaphor of this
movement being humanity’s immune response to political corruption,
economic disease, and ecological degradation. The movement is not
merely a network; it is a complex and self-organizing system.
I agree with Davies when she says that organizations need to deepen
their “understanding of what it takes to achieve systemic social
change. This will require a greater understanding of the culture it
wants to transform and a more strategic approach to advance
progressive change.” My caution here is about speaking of the movement
in general or even monolithic terms. That is the point I try to make
herein and in Blessed Unrest: you can’t fit it into a box,
description, or silo. Americans love to do that, but it just won’t
work. To say the movement should do this, or should pay more attention
to that, presumes that the writer knows what this movement is, and
contains an underlying assumption that the movement Davies knows is
the same one as the movement in Kenya, Kerala, and Kobe.
What I came to believe in researching Blessed Unrest is that we can
only see our own network. We tend to think of the movement through the
lens of our initial experience. This is similar to the famous
Steinberg cartoon showing America as seen by New Yorkers, with New
Jersey forming a large landmass to the west and the rest of the
country receding until there is a tiny sliver called California. That
is the network affect, a kind of illusion that our brains mimic
constantly. We are vastly mis-educated as children into thinking that
problems are linear and can be solved by linear thinking. If ecology
teaches us anything, it is that we live within and are permeated by,
right down to each cell, non-linear systems that cannot be predicted
or “strategically addressed.” The awe I have about this movement is
that it appears to me to be the first social movement that
collectively expresses this non-linear understanding without ever
stating it or necessarily realizing it.
Davies prescriptions are based on her experience with a fraction of
the movement. It is not that her recommendations are incorrect, it is
just that we have to be careful, especially as Americans, to presume
we know what is right for other cultures, traditions, or peoples, or
in this case, the whole of the movement. We Americans, especially we
white Americans, invariably get it wrong in our earnestness to “help”
others. That is why I said, “no book can explain it, no one person can
represent it, no words can encompass it.” Davies faults this statement
as amorphous and dualistic, but in response she makes generalizations
and proposals that might well be looked askance by organizations in
other parts of the world.
Finally, when Davies calls this a new movement, we have to be careful
that we don’t fall into a kind of narcissism. This movement goes back
centuries, even millennia to the teachings of Buddha, Mencius, Lao-
Tse, Rabbi Hillel, Jeremiah, and others. These teachers long ago
started social movements by re-examining the very notion of what it
means to be a human being. They were not starting religions but ways
to address the suffering of others. We are progressive, yes, but we
are also ancient. This movement is helped by the thousands of
generations that preceded it, and serves the thousands that will
follow. This is why I say it is comprised of social justice,
environmental, and indigenous organizations, and has become the most
complex association of human beings ever assembled in history. I
believe this association defies typologies and names, but is hungry
always for the intelligence, kindness, and generosity exhibited by
Davies’ concerns and writing. I am deeply appreciative of the core of
Davies’ message, which is, as I read it, that we have to come together
in a more pro-active and vigorous way. The problems we face are like
nothing humanity has ever confronted, and we must rise to this
challenge in a way we have never done. That is what I hear from Kate
Davies, and I am grateful for her insight.