Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ancient Tactics for Social Change

An Internet discussion group has recently been discussing how to avert the spectre of Socialism in an impoverished country. Here are a few thoughts of my own on that topic....

Ironically, it seems to me that a fair measure of "socialism" is needed to curb "Socialism," defined very informally, for the purposes of this post, as follows.... 

socialism (lower case s) -- People taking care of one another, so that nobody falls through the cracks, where people are rewarded for their effort and sacrifice, and not for the sheer lucky fact of having inherited lands and other forms of capital, and where everybody is given education to develop skills that contribute to the well-being of the society. Individual income, perqs, and social recognition are tied to the efforts and sacrifice people make, but not to an extent that it creates a class of people whose families have a permanent advantage over other classes, and who therefore have incentive to do everything in the power to preserve their advantages by means of corruption. Policies such as public education (mentioned in The Communist Manifesto), publicly funded health care, etc. are socialistic policies that most people now accept. Huge disparities of wealth and privilege are discouraged, and an effective social system is nurtured, so that people are no longer motivated to preserve unjust privileges while ignoring the needs of others, but are motivated to preserve and strengthen the life of social cooperation that is providing them basic needs and security and a modest but decent lifestyle. This kind of "socialism" takes various concrete forms, and has been implemented in varying degrees and manners in such places as Canada and Europe, where people are better off in general than in the U.S., which has implemented less of it. On a smaller scale, it is also practiced in successful co-ops, such as the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay that supply most of that country's dairy products. Now people who have a visceral reaction to the word "socialism" may want to choose a different word. But what I am referring to using a lower-case "s" is simply a consistent and thoroughhgoing advocacy of the same sorts of things that most people reading this advocate and consider normal and inevitable, thanks to the combined past successes of socialist and social democratic movements, the New Deal, etc. in shaping the societies we grew up in.[1]

"Socialism" (upper case S) -- I think what people have in mind as something to fear and abhor is this...a system in which a group of would-be elitists conspires to cut the old elite out of the game, and establish a dictatorship. Thus a new elite replaces the old elite, by subverting the democratic process which the old elite previously also continually subverted to its purposes, while also clamping down ever tighter on the ability of the rich old elite to air their opposition by means of the media they own. The new regime seeks to control public opinion with somewhat more sophisticated means than the old elite did, to wit: In addition to subsidizing or buying off media organizations, as the old elite did, they also organize the poor (something the old elite were reluctant to do, perhaps because they were afraid of getting lice or smelling bad or somesuch), and entice or compel them to participate in public demonstrations, on pain of missing handouts or losing jobs (if they have a job to lose). An even more sophisticated tool of thought control is to form a network of informants, so that if anybody is spouting less than the orthodox line, the authorities can be alerted, and send that poor soul to a re-education camp. The new media and organized poor are thus trained to parrot a party line. Of course the original intent according to the new elite's professed ideology was to indoctrinate the people and get them to parrot a line that is truly in their interests, but which they're too dumb as ignorant country hicks to advocate of their own accord; in practice, however, the party line morphs into being whatever serves the interests of the new class. In exchange for these services for and on behalf of the poor, the class of professional revolutionaries (the new elite) takes their "cut" in the form of a publicly subsidized life of amenities and privileges that the poor will never enjoy.

My basic problem with Socialism (upper case S) is the top-down tactics that are typically employed. Rather than first inculcate the values and lifestyle of practical love and mutual care in the populace, and nurture the movement until it reaches a critical mass that can transform society's institutions, they put all their effort in gaining political power so they can impose change from the top down. They may think that once they get the right PERSON in power, once they quell resistance by stripping the old elite of their wealth, media organs, etc., and the new cadre of revolutionary functionaries are in charge, then everything will be easier to implement and maintain from then on. Invariably, however, the original stated intentions are subverted, as the "new class" takes over and exercises power to the advantage of their own new class interests, and as those among their comrades who insist on remaining true to original principles either defect or are purged.

To my knowledge, the top-down approach has never really worked. And its fatal flaw, it seems to me, is that it puts the cart before the horse. The theory says that once the external circumstances are changed--less disparity of income, availability of free education for all, etc.--then the internal mentality of people will change, and the tendency to cling to personal privilege at the expense of social well-being will evaporate. So the tactic is to deploy a dedicated core of revolutionaries to cajole, manipulate, threaten, indoctrinate, propagandize, cultivate and channel mass rage, by telling the truth, telling lies, and doing or saying virtually anything that furthers the goal of coming into power. This is considered necessary and justified, because, of course, once they have the reins of power they will then be in a position to effect the necessary changes of circumstances in order to restructure incentives and balance interests into a social equilibrium. But my question is, will they really?

A related flaw is that epistemological chaos often comes to pervade the entire movement top to bottom, leaving various levels of the movement with differing and conflicting understandings of what the movement is really about and where it is headed. This happens whenever a movement decides, practically speaking, that it is appropriate to counter the old elite's program of lies by propagating an equally massive barrage of lies and/or truth, whatever works to further the end of seizing power. As a result, like an Eastern mystical sect, "esoteric gap" inevitably comes to separate the various ranks of the movement, from the peasants at the lowest rung who are fed simple slogans and recruited as cannon fodder, to the mid-level ideologues who at least hope that their principles are really guiding the movement, to a privileged few in the inner sanctum at the top who may be pursuing a game plan very different from what the movement is ostensibly about.

How can we put the horse before the cart, and really get somewhere? I think we need to START by changing beliefs, values, ways of life, and the fundamental motivations of our hearts, from the ground up, rather that seek to change external circumstances and conditionings first, from the top down. Then, as people come to internalize values of social concern, we must organize ourselves into voluntary societies in which the principles of hard work, frugal living, mutual aid, and social commitment are lived out and modeled to the next generation. Then, as this countercultural movement grows and a critical mass of society comes to adopt the new mentality and lifestyle, the structures and institutions of the larger society that formerly militated against social cooperation and mutual care and that entrenched oppression by the rich and powerful against the poor masses are replaced by new and transformed structures and institutions. Epistemologically, what you see in such a movement is what you get--"This is what we stand for, come and kill us if that bothers you"--with no staircase chain of esoteric doctrines distinguishing ranks of initiation--and no smoke and mirrors of manipulative strategies. What is said to the public is what is believed by all in the movement.

To be sure, it will be objected that this approach cannot work, because it is thought that every attempt to change people's mentality and inculcate a lifestyle of social concern will be undermined and co-opted at every turn by the pervasive influence of contrary institutions that buy people off and dilute their commitment to the alternative culture. Can we really believe in the ability of the human spirit (aided by God, as I see it) to overcome these obstacles, before external institutional inducements have been sufficiently implemented?

The truth is that such obstacles were faced before, and to a large degree overcome, by an ancient spiritual-social-political movement whose precedent I think is essential for us to review today. I am referring to the anti-imperial struggles of the Christians of the early centuries of the common era.[2] Now I have to say at the outset that it is difficult to even talk about this precedent, because it is so widely misrepresented and misunderstood today. If you, the reader, are one for whom organized religion raises red flags, rest assured, the ancient social revolutionaries of whom I am speaking would be just as hotly opposed by religious and political leaders today as they were crucified and thrown to lions by the religious and political establishments of their time.[3]

To understand the anti-imperial and society-transforming dynamic of this movement, we need to get in touch with the socially and politically charged times of the 1st Century, and to recover the sense of early Christian sayings and symbols in their original context. An imperial slogan of the day was, "Caesar is Lord," and people were required to acknowledge this in a civil ritual, thus affirming the ultimacy and divine origin of the Roman social order that was built on militarism, elitism, and slave labor. In bold defiance, the early Christians proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord." That is to say, it is not Caesar, but an obscure Galilean prophet--who relied on God's power rather than a military machine, who stayed true to his principles of love and justice and compassion even to death, and whom his followers believed God vindicated in resurrection--who will have the final say. They mocked the intimidating power of Rome by holding up the cross--the ultimate symbol of Roman terror--as their central symbol, because they believed Jesus had decisively defeated it. Strangely, the early Christians did not take up arms to overthrow the pax romana. Most of them were slaves, yet they did not organize slave rebellions. Confounding the play books of other revolutionary movements of both their and our day, they renounced violence and subterfuge, but were open about their ultimate allegiances, and, when arrested, went joyfully to their deaths. In all this they steadfastly refused to acknowledge the validity and ultimacy of the Roman system of oppression, but instead proclaimed an alternative "gospel" of him who was slain and conquered death. The original defiant irony in this use of the word "gospel" tends to be lost on us today, until we realize that in the 1st Century the word was used to announce the accession (or birthday) of an emperor who was supposedly going to usher in peace and make all things well. Not Caesar, who imposes injustice by force, but Jesus, who prevails in love and faithfulness, is the true victor.

Moreover, the early Christians lived lives that affirmed absolute equality of dignity of every human being, regardless of class or background, sharing with one another according to need, staying behind in plagued cities to care for the sick, and even going to the municipal garbage heaps to rescue exposed infants and raising them as their own children. Such a lifestyle and set of values was unheard of in the Greco-Roman world, which was saturated with a cruel personal hedonism and a rigid hierarchy of privilege based on rank and power.

This story reads almost like a fairy tale to us today--were there REALLY such people as this, and really so many of them, living lives of moral rectitude and sacrifice, and being sustained by inner joy even as they were being led away to death in arenas of hungry lions? And yet everything I have mentioned thus far, to the best of my knowledge, is factual--I have purposely left out any detail that historians are not generally agreed really happened. And the result was that greater and greater numbers of people became ATTRACTED to the movement, which became the cultural cutting edge, and came to regard the old values as moribund and empty. Socially just values and lifestyle were reaching further and further across the length and breadth of the cultural landscape. The Christian movement was building toward a critical mass by which the whole structure of the world's kingdoms built on ruthless power and oppression would crumble, and a new rock, cut not out of human hands, would become a mountain filling the whole earth (the imagery comes from Daniel 2, which Jesus and his friends had very much in mind).

But then the empire struck back, in the person of Constantine, who legalized Christianity, and then made it the imperial religion. At that point throngs of people swelled the ranks of the church without really understanding what it was really about. Even though the rise of Constantine and subsequently of "Christendom" might have seemed like the fulfillment of Daniel 2, it was in many respects a counterfeit victory that arrested the progress of genuine Christianity. If the reading of Christianity and its politically-relevant origins that I am narrating seems alien to the impressions you may have grown up with, please consider whether that might be because centuries of the Constantinian legacy have clouded our vision.

In subsequent history there were various times and places in which the radical social implications of biblical faith made a comeback, not least in the movement of Whitefield, the Wesleys, the "Clapham Sect" aristocrats (e.g., William Wilberforce, whose personality and battle to end the slave trade was depicted with reasonable accuracy in the film "Amazing Grace"), and others. The legacy and achievements of these people were enormous--they ended the slave trade, introduced education for women, reformed prisons, reformed the East India Company, introduced schools that prepared India for modern democracy, etc. In their personal lives, they opened their homes to the poor, practiced an ethic of modest personal consumption that would scandalize most middle class Americans and American expats, and gave liberally of their time, money, and relational energy to help others.

In all this their modus operandi was persevering love. But in times and places where reform was rebuffed and corruption entrenched, a vacuum was created for movements that despaired of such means, and resorted to rage, violence, intrigue, and a cold "scientific" manipulation of the masses....

Which means that the choice is ours. Either we will change the world in one way, the way of the early Christians, the way of Wilberforce, the way of radical persevering love, the way of personal concern and involvement in the lives of the excluded, the way of personal spiritual transformation to become people motivated and energized by love. Or we will remain complacent in our short-term comforts, until the pot boils over into violence that in the end makes things as bad or worse.

Some may say that what I am proposing is too radical and idealistic for the real world. Honestly, my friends, get real! The early Christians were real. Wilberforce was real. Unspeakable injustice and oppression and social and environmental degradation are real. And unless we start living in a new way, there may BE no real world for us or our children or grandchildren to enjoy!


[1] Lumping such diverse social-economic arrangements as these under the one label "socialism," for the informal purposes of this essay, is not meant to color over the differences between them. On the other hand, the term is becoming remarkably broad even in formal academic discourse. My purpose here is to emphasize the commitment to cooperation rather than competition as the guiding principle of social and economic relationships that these diverse arrangements share.

[2] The brief historical survey below is written to the best of my knowledge, though I am not an historian myself and would invite anyone who has relevant training to correct any deficiencies in my telling of the story. I am emboldened to do this because I believe the story has such rich meaning for our lives that it deserves to be grabbed ahold of and told and re-told by children, teenagers, and everyday women and men, not just the professional historians. But why should I care whether I have the facts straight? If myth were what we were after - that is, a story that gives meaning to our lives when lived out or enacted ritually but which may or may not be based in historical fact - if we had to settle for such as the only means at our disposal to create a sense of meaning in an otherwise apparently meaningless universe - then this story would serve the purpose well, though not necessarily better than other fabricated tales. The remarkable thing - what gives this story its special power and classes it in my mind as the story of stories - is just how historical AND relevant it really is! C.S. Lewis saw Jesus as the Myth who became Fact. That is why I CARE about whether my understanding of the story is accurate and invite correction of others, because a story that is both historically true and gives meaning to our lives if true, is a priceless treasure. If the conclusion that God has acted in Jesus Christ in time-and-space history can hold up to historical investigation (even though historical investigation by itself cannot draw such a conclusion), then that is extraordinary confirmation that our lives are unspeakably significant and infused with divine meaning. It therefore also loudly proclaims how much acting justly toward our fellow human beings and the life systems of our planet really MATTERS. And it empowers me to resist the lure of rival myths that claim to be rooted in fact, such as the dominant American myth which exalts competition and individual material consumption as the highest values over against the cooperation in love and justice which Jesus modeled and enjoins.

[3] It is also important to note, contra some Marxist interpretations that make out the early Christians as supporters of violent revolution, that in fact the early Christians were persecuted in part because they did NOT support violent revolution. They were opposed from all sides, because they believed that neither deification of the Roman social order nor involvement in resistance movements built on human rage and violence was an acceptable way forward. My own historical understandings in this regard are informed by such New Testament scholars as N.T. Wright, John Howard Yoder, and others.

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