1.10.2005

freedom, real change, and punctuated equilibria

One of the guiding metaphors of the twentieth century was evolution. For many, the most important thing about evolution was that it was not revolution. So whereas revolution is about sudden and dramatic change, evolution was a nice middle class alternative. It's so gentle, peaceful, incremental. There was a whole worldview that came with it that held that if you just played well with others, like you learned in the kindergarten sandbox, things would work out. It might take some time, but if you bucked the system, you would just be getting in the way of progress. Being a nuisance was no longer about disobeying authority; it was much worse. You were interfering with the natural order of the universe.

Meanwhile, real-life evolutionary scientists were coming up with a different point of view. Some researchers, most notably, Stephen Jay Gould, began to believe, based on empirical evidence, that evolution was not such a tidy, orderly process, but was instead better described by Gould's phrase "punctuated equilibria."

If there is a single takeaway lesson from the twentieth century, it's that there is no such thing as progress. It's not that we needed the whole century to accumulate data in support of that conclusion. The experience of World War One was a real blow to the early twentieth century liberal belief in innate human goodness and began the general mood of pessimism and cynicism that those of us who are alive today have always associated with the intellectual Left.

The challenge of the twenty-first century is how to reframe our thinking about just what it is that we are moving toward. Pessimism has not turned out to be such a great friend to the leftist cause. Obviously we can't go back to believing in naive versions of progress, but neither can we continue to wallow in futility.

In my mind, centrist politics is nothing but a double bind. Social bodies don't evolve incrementally. The only incremental process that happens reliably is erosion. Things fade and decay. If working within the system means forgoing the chance to shake the very foundations from time to time, I want no part of it. Renewal is not incremental. Springtime flowers cannot be logically deduced from the darkness and cold of winter.

There is nothing so revolutionary as determined and imaginative resilience. I'm not interested in changing the system. Changing the system is a zero sum game. For me, revolution is a recognition that punctuated equilibrium is the best description of the way things evolve. I participate in that by completely showing up--body, mind, and spirit. I don't hide who I am in order to game the system. Frankly, I don't know how the system needs to change. I'm not that smart. What I do know though is that the surest way to corrupt the process is by second guessing what I need to be in order to make things better.

Amartya Sen's book, Development as Freedom, eloquently articulates what seems most important to me: people having a voice in matters that affect them. I can't speak for anyone but myself. What I can do is insist on everyone being able to speak for herself. I've been around long enough to know that kind of commitment can be maddening, but it is not only a matter of social ethics (not imposing the will of the privileged minority on the rest of the world); it's our only hope. It is going to take all of us somehow pulling together if humanity is going to survive another century.