Creating Flourishing Change Agents

change agent I dropped into a lunch a few days ago at the Tellus Institute in Boston to discuss an essay that is due to be published in their series on the Global Transition Initiative. The essay points to some little known passages in Karl Marx’s works, which illustrate his awareness of connections between the economic and the natural worlds, and of what he called the “metabolic rift” that capitalistic production would cause in the latter. Very interesting, but more universal than his critique suggests. All material forms of production burden the earth’s resources. He made what is obvious today, observing the very much smaller levels of production at his time. I suspect he was calling on his direct knowledge of the wounds caused by the industrial revolution in England.

But that’s not the primary target of this post. Toward the end of the meeting, someone began to talk about agency, noting Marx’s focus on structure, one half of the agency/structure apposition in social theory. Issues concerning the agency-structure apposition focus on intentionality or the ability of an actor to make choices. Marx, like many sociologists, took a fairly static view of structure. Greatly compressing his work, he argues that capitalism removed agency from workers, leaving them dominated by the way the political economy was organized. His remedy for the alienation created in workers was revolution and the imposition of socialistic institutions. He implored workers to assume the agency necessary to bring about change.

On the subway ride home, I saw many parallels between this and my work on flourishing. I agree with much of Marx’s critique, but believe that the origin of the problems of capitalism lie deeper than the political economy. It is not the mode of production that produces the alienation that he railed against; it is the beliefs and norm structure of modernity itself. Materialism is inherent in modernity, arising from the dominant notion of Cartesian objectivity which presumes a material world outside the mind. Modern science followed the same origin by developing (reductionist) methods that could probe the material world, one piece at a time, and reveal truths about it in the form of rules, mathematical or otherwise, that described the behavior of objects, that is their nature. Human beings were considered as such objects with a distinctive human nature.

One problem with this is that the study of human nature cannot be carried out with the same reductionist methodology applicable to other objects, and so theories of human nature were developed by idiosyncratic observations of behavior. Marx thought human nature was the expression of some essence through “work” or “labor,” as the form work takes in a capitalistic society. Other observers defined human nature in terms of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Others pointed to the rationality of human cognition as the hallmark.

The process of modernization, which Marx assigned to historical materialism, grew around the gradual embedding of these ideas and their use in designing and building the structures that are still present in most industrialized countries today. So who were the agents of this change from feudalism and earlier sociological regimes? Was it the ideas or was it the creators of the ideas or was it those that used them to design institutions. or what? Given any critical critique, that is, one that finds the current culture/society lacking in some important feature, it is obvious that the next step is to seek some sort of agent to change it to the presumed better world. Marks chose the alienated workers themselves. The philosophes provided many of the ideas that fueled the French revolution, but the change was instituted by a revolt of the Third Estate: the peasants, bourgeoisie and other oppressed people. The author of the essay discussed at the meeting I mentioned at the start of the post suggested, in good Marxian fashion, that revolt against the “oppression” of nature (what I call unsustainability) would come from an environmental proletariat. I see no signs of this in Marxian terms.

Although I would expect that historians might criticize this next statement, I argue that gradual changes, such as have accompanied the transition from feudalism to modernity, are more likely to hang around than those created by abrupt revolt. My own critique of modernity is that, although it has lasted a long time, its structure and the agents that act on the foundation of that structure no longer are producing the normative outcomes it was thought it would. I argue the reasons for this assertion in my books and in this blog and will not elaborate here. As for all such societal or cultural critiques, the call for an agent of change usually follows. I find a clue for finding such an agent in the dynamic model of societal behavior of Anthony Giddens. Unlike static models, Giddens’s structuration theory pertains to a society (or any discrete institution) in flux connecting several structural categories that are involved in both the reproduction and change of societal behaviors.

Human agents produce behavior, shaped by four structural elements in Giddens’s model: beliefs, norms, authority ordering, and enabling resources like technology and information. Beliefs provide meaning to the immediate social world; norms provide legitimate responses to the consequent meaningful situations; authority ordering provides power to determine who will act and what resources will be made available; such resources enable actors to effect intentional, actual change in the world. As long as those four elements are more or less constant, one day resembles another, as seen from afar while the existing structure becomes more and more embedded in the collective “memory” of the society, hence the name of structuration—a constant dialectic between action and the elements that shape it.

Change occurs when any one of the four elements change exogenously, that is, outside of the normal patterns. Revolutions are the result of, first, new beliefs, and, then, new power ordering. New institutions then form, endogenously, that embed the power and beliefs; new norms replace the old; and new resources are brought to bear. Change may also come when new resources, frequently technological, are introduced, as is the case of our current information “revolution.” Many new technologies are characterized as “disruptive,” suggestive of revolutionary change.

Giddens’s model pictures how societies both work routinely and also how they change. It is only a model but captures the stable and dynamic features of distinct social organizations all the way from families to entire polities like the US. It is not only explanatory; it can serve as a model for designing deliberate change. The choice of which of the categories should be the “agent” of that change is not made explicit in this model. The actual agents are always people, but their actions are guided by the structure. Something in that structure must change if people are to change their behavior routinely. So where do we start to make changes to raise the possibility of flourishing (my normative vision) against the current threatening and unstable social world.

Since I believe that our troubles arise from a couple of beliefs and norms, I look first at those two categories. It is said that it is hard to teach old dogs new tricks, that is, to change habits or norms. On the other hand, people can change their minds in an instant, that is, replace old beliefs with new. Authority re-ordering is always opposed by the existent holders of power and is resistant to change; history points to upheavals as the way change usually occurs in this category. The absence of a revolutionary-minded environment proletariat argues against looking to this source of agency. Enabling resources, almost always some form of technology, tend to follow other changes. When they arise exogenously and are disruptive, the resultant changes in the other categories along with resultant behavior is very hard to predict, a feature that limits this potential lever in designing an explicit new future.

Eric Olin Wright, at another Tellus lunch session last year, outlined strategies for societal change that seem to me to overlay Giddens’s model quite well. Ruptural change is his language for revolution in authority ordering. He sees this as having failed in capitalistic societies. Escape strategies, that is, physically moving out of the society can work for those that move, but do not change the status quo. Another that he calls interstitial looks promising as a way to produce flourishing change agents. In this strategy, agents with new beliefs and norms work in the cracks and margins of the current system, effecting small, but cumulative changes until some tipping point is reached, and the system structure adopts the flux occurring in the wings. Wright, however, notes that this, like the others, has failed to tip over any system so far. Even so, I believe this is the way to create the requisite agents for change.

The key beliefs for a flourishing world are complexity and interconnectedness in place of the Cartesian analytically deterministic, reductionist view of the world; and a model of human being as empathetic and caring rather than self-interested and coolly rational. The modernistic norm of ever-continued progress toward some indeterminate state of perfection would be replaced by a vision of flourishing as the normative end. Accompanying behavioral norms are pragmatic inquiry in place of the scientific method, solidarity replacing individualism, and relation-based “solutions” for everyday problems applied where technological means are ubiquitous today. Technology tends to place a veil over the direct human experience among interacting people. All of these beliefs and norms can be adapted to Wright’s interstitial strategy, creating a cadre of flourishing change agents. I will mention just a few.

Without giving up capitalism, businesses can re-envision themselves as purveyors of services that enable their customers to enact their caring intentions. Some are already doing this successfully, albeit at the margins. Some major business sectors, especially health care, have historic roots in relational, not transactional, care and should be able to recover that role. Local retail banks focused on customer care/service are faring well relative to the banking giants.

Academic institutions can and do augment their disciplinary structures with systems-oriented teaching and research programs aligned with complexity. Complexity requires different research methods and different decision and implementation procedures. While positivism would remain the primary framework for examining natural phenomena, the social sciences and their applications in fields like business and government can add pragmatic methods to the already potent arsenal of “rational” methods. Systems-oriented courses are already available in business schools, for example, but remain at the margins.

Although under siege, industrial and service unions represent the norm of solidarity and understanding of interconnectedness, but they are perceived primarily as seekers of higher wages. European unions have done a better job of explicating the idea of solidarity. It should take very little to re-frame the missions of institutions like these to highlight the vision of flourishing and the recognition of a different set of beliefs and norms.

The greatest source of potential flourishing change agents is the general public. The vast majority of adults worldwide report dissatisfaction with work. I saw some data recently indicating that consumers in the UK reversed a long-term trend and started saving more and consuming less following the financial bust of 2008. This shows an openness to other ways than the cultural norm of shopping to assuage their hurts. Similarly, alternative remedies to stress like mindfulness practices are on the rise. Mindfulness improves reflective skills and helps one reach further inside to the core of care by filtering out the cultural roar to conform with current norms, consuming being a, if not the, primary one. Spiritual leaders, like the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis, are sending surprisingly mundane messages about caring for other humans and for the Planet. That’s enough for one post. I welcome your thoughts about this and other ways to create flourishing change agents.

It should be clear that I am arguing for relatively peaceful means to effect change. But perhaps we should take a cue from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, where Dick utters this very famous line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” He was pointing to lawyers as forces that stood in the way of the revolution being plotted. Today, as an impediment to a flourishing revolution, The Bard might point instead to economists.


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