21 Questions for 2020: #3

3. What can we learn from the past about how political systems can change for the better?

At least in recent history, we see new political systems emerging when the pressure of living under the old system gets people so upset that they boil over in a spasm of violence that leads to change. 

In the past 500 years or so we have not seen much in the way of peaceful evolution of political systems. It has always taken armed revolutions to force those in power to give it up. In some places this has not really improved life for the masses. Sometimes one power system is just replaced with another, as when a monarchy gives way to a dictatorship or a repressive oligarchy. 

Capitalism and communism, the most widely followed political systems of the 20th century, claim to offer citizens political participation. But in practice, both systems are deeply rigged to support the power and wellbeing of the wealthy. 

In the 21st century, the wealth gap in many countries, including the United States, is growing as extreme as it was back in the days of feudalism. We have modern-day peasants, who are bound by the circumstances of their birth to work for the overlords, accumulating nothing but debt and bad health that kills them off early. The politicians, who are bought by the big businesses that are owned by the wealthy, appoint the judges who bend the laws to favor the rich. 

In the US we go through the motions of participatory democracy, but in the end the Electoral College can, and routinely does, overturn the popular vote. No wonder there is such cynicism about the process that half the people don’t even bother to cast their ballot.

I could go on sketching this dismal picture of political systems today, but I want to get to my question, which is whether we can learn anything from history about how change happens. 

It takes a widespread popular uprising. We’ve had some popular uprisings already in the 21st century—think Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, Standing Rock, Hong Kong, One Billion Rising, Women’s Marches, Climate Strikes, Extinction Rebellion. Each of these started in one locale and sparked sympathy uprisings around the world, harnessing the power of social media to spread the message and incite others to rise up in protest too. 

Social media is key, but does not replace physical, visible marches on power centers. All the hashtags, likes and tweets in the world do not replace the power of masses of determined, focused people hitting the streets with a common purpose. 

If we Americans wanted to, we could storm the Congress and White House and throw out our corrupt leaders. But as a society, we have a reverence for the “rule of law” and a horror of violence. We want a peaceful, just transition to a society more in line with our ideals. So we wait patiently for a chance to vote, even while those in power continue to consolidate their chokehold on our throats.

I’m sorry to be so graphic, but that’s how it feels these days. I haven’t even mentioned how our current political systems are using the ancient tactic of xenophobia to manipulate people, setting poor folks—who should be united in the quest for justice—to mean-spirited infighting instead.

Once again we see people falling for those classic divide-and-conquer techniques of power, allowing the disbursement of billions of taxpayer funds to pay for weapons and border walls—money that should be spent on the education and innovation that will allow us all to survive the coming onslaught of climate disruption.

There is so much in our current reality that conspires to keep us docile. From many years of repressive education to a pharmacopeia of drugs right out of 1984; from ever-more-mesmerizing media distraction to debt bondage; from social isolation to ill health and depression—it’s no wonder so many people are just zoning out and giving up on the possibility of political change. 

I see our social, political and environmental challenges as intimately connected: at their source is the unbridled, corrupt greed (both capitalist and communist) that has been the ruling ideology of our species for the past 500 years or so, since the rise of European colonialism, with its accompanying economic expansion.

In the 21st century we have raped and pillaged the Earth to such an extent that she can no longer support our expansion. We are over-consuming what she has to give, literally eating away our own flesh, since we are no more than a conscious emanation of the Earth. We’re on a suicidal path as a species, and the worst thing is that we know it. We can see the train coming at us and predict the wreck, but we seem to be transfixed, powerless to do what needs to be done to avert the disaster.

We must overcome our ingrained inertia. That means overcoming our indoctrination in following instructions, obeying the law, and bowing before authority. It also means taking risks; giving up our attachment to our creature comforts; and being willing to put our small, soft bodies on the line.

I know that for myself, this is no small order. My ancestors fled the pogroms in eastern Europe and were so thankful to settle in the United States, where religious persecution was outlawed, and peace prevailed. My family prospered, possessed of intelligence and a fierce work ethic, as well as the unearned benefit of fair skin; and I have had a more comfortable, easy life than most Americans. It’s hard to voluntarily give up privilege. 

Like many in my position, I find myself in a holding pattern of waiting and worrying, deeply unhappy with each day’s news, but not willing to take the risk of giving up what I have for an uncertain future. 

But here’s the truth: the future is always uncertain. Do I really value my own small life, with its little creature comforts, more than I value the health and welfare of Mother Gaia and all her children, for generations to come? Am I really not willing to take the risk of disrupting my own life to make things better for everyone?

The cynic in me responds with a sneer: what do you think YOU can do, one small puny aging woman standing up to an entrenched corrupt capitalist oligarchy? 

And the idealist answers: that is how change has always happened, with one little person launching themselves at power, creating the spark that ignites a movement. 

In our time we see it happening with Greta Thunberg, who set off youth-driven environmental protests that are gaining at least lip service of the politicians. Octogenarian Jane Fonda has been leading a charge among older folks, getting herself arrested every week in Washington DC to shine her celebrity light on the need for change. 

If the elders join hands with the children, the most fragile in our society going up against the oligarchs and their goons…we can make change happen. All we need is the will to manifest our vision of a thriving future for all life on Earth. Where there is a will there is a way. 

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