Changing the World (is an incoherent idea)

I am skeptical of books and blogs purporting insights and instructions on how to ‘change the world.’ There seems to be a disconnect between books about How to Change Society and books about How Society Has Changed, the latter most commonly referred to as ‘history.’

This observation is not meant to be pessimism about the future. The future, like the past, categorically does not ‘exist.’ It is not a thing or an object that avails itself to direct manipulation. It is perpetually out of reach. It is eternally untouchable.

Sure, I can change things about the world now, but I cannot change a future world that doesn’t exist. And even here and now, my capacity to alter the world has limits: I can only change features of my world, not everyone else’s worlds. (But I take immense comfort in this: if everyone could change the world for everyone else, than anyone else could presumably change my world on a whim. Who would want to live in that world? Terrifying, really.)

We can pick something up and move it somewhere else. We can share a thought or idea with others. It is within the ability of every single one of us to say, write, or do something that changes the parameters of the world right now — or at least a small corner of it. However, I get the sense that many of us are hung up on the issue of scale. We are greedy. Some of us want to be all-star ‘change agents’ who apparently possess more power to incite change in the world relative to other people (or at least relative to the mean average of other people’s ability to change the world). We want more network influence, higher impact metrics, and broader systemic reach.

In short, we want power. We talk about changing the world to encase our thirst for power in a blanket of benevolent feel-good. But it still boils down to the exertion of our will into and over the experience of other human beings.

Let’s put it another way. It seems evident that “Everyone else should be like me“, or “Everyone should do what I think they should do”, or “I can create the conditions that will solve this for everyone” are not viable solutions to most of the problems in the world. But it is intriguing how often these overtures seem to be default reactions.

So, let’s be critical, in a constructive way, about this whole world-changing agenda. Unless the wanton pursuit of leverage over other people is the paramount objective of our lives, it does not make a whole lot of sense to preoccupy our temporal existence with the worry of altering the make-believe future of other people.

What can I change in the world today? I can change the way I interact with others. I can change the duration and depth of my contemplative pondering vis-a-vis my instinctive, reactionary impulsivity. I can take more time to order my words, deepen my thoughts, and invite others to ruminate. I can sit in empathy, stand in solidarity, and explore with curiosity. I can do all of these things. I can do them today.

None of these actions will change the whole world in any literal or measurable way. But upon reflection, it seems like such an ambition — global dominance of my will upon others and the Earth — is a ridiculous self-delusion anyway. That said, I am realistically hopeful that I can change my world: the tiny sphere of existence I will inhabit for the next five minutes. I can become just a little bit more intentional about who I am amongst and alongside the people around me right now.

No one knows the so-called ‘impact’ my actions will have on the so-called ‘future.’ No one can know. But who said the point of nurturing one’s practice of kindness, reflection, gratitude, and one’s investment in justice is exclusively for producing a quantifiable ‘change’ in the world? The question is as least as old as Plato: is goodness good for goodness’ sake alone? When did right living become exclusively valued by its global transformation scorecard?

How is it that ‘doing the right thing’ has become seemingly synonymous with the ambition to ‘change the world’? Often the response to one noble deed is, “But that’ll never really change anything, you know!” What a recipe for cynicism we have created! If ‘doing good’ doesn’t ‘change the world,’ then why bother with goodness at all? What if this conceptual construct of becoming world-changers has become a psychological impediment to, well, actually changing anything about the way we live?

Does donating to UNHCR change Aleppo? Does standing in solidarity for a community’s water rights overcome the power of corporate lobby interests? Does taking a few minutes to listen to the experiences of racialized communities end systemic racism? Does building local networks of respect and understanding curtail the fear mongering of a demagogue? Does one personal effort to reduce, reuse, and recycle empty landfills and clean up the oceans? Categorically, none of these activities do anything to structurally ‘change the world’ — but that does not make them any less important.

Maybe my tribe — my friends and I; my tiny fractal of the global community — will make some positive difference for others. Maybe not. More than likely, if we crunch the odds, we’ll simply never actually know. But knowing the outcomes has nothing to do with whether or not being intentional about our behavior is a worthwhile practice.

If I need the universe to give me gold stars and reward stickers for every effort at doing what is right, I reckon I am just selfish. So, to hell with ‘changing the world.’ If the notion of changing other people is ridiculous, how much more so the delusion of reordering the sum of the whole planet?

Changing the world is either a fool’s errand or an otherwise ludicrous benchmark. Such concerns are only in the purview of the omnipotent. I will not measure or quantify the meaningfulness of my existence by the scale of its global influence. What will I assume complete responsibility for? My time, my resources, my attention, and what I do with the three of these in concert with one another. I’ll only hold myself accountable for the things I can change, not for my transformative impact on the state of the planet.

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Be Your True Authentic Self (and other doctrines of capitalism)

Let’s think of capitalism as a religion. If capitalism is a religion — if it needs disciples to adhere to and pass on certain doctrinal truths to survive as an ideology — what are its foundational precepts? For the sake of the thought experiment, let’s hypothesize that clues are found in some of the dominate secular tropes of capitalist societies.

In this post, I contemplate the idea that the so-called, unofficial ‘State Religion of Capitalism’ has evolved four central tenets:

  1. Be your authentic self
  2. Do what you love
  3. You only live once
  4. Follow your dreams

It is important to acknowledge that most adherents of this creed are inadvertent disciples. Devotees to this religion are not ‘born again’ so much as they are ‘born into’ the cult. Their beliefs are as invisible and ‘natural’ as they air they breathe; the truth of their tenets is as self-evident as the wind.

Be your authentic self

First, Be your authentic self serves as the basis for the whole religion. Capitalism requires a population that conflates consumption with identity. Stuff must equate to status. Nothing is more precious to capital than a population in need of differentiating themselves as distinct individuals. Therefore, as in most religions, disciples of capitalism are required to believe that they possess some special inner spirit seeking expression in a physical world. Accordingly, activities and purchases become the holy indulgences that give manifestation of this inner self.

Above all, a devoted follower of this religion must seek to find their ‘true self.’ This pursuit is paramount — the holiest of pilgrimages. The ambition to ‘know thyself’ and ‘to thine own self be true’ must be elevated to the status of spiritual conviction. To second-guess the presence of one’s inner deity amounts to doctrinal heresy and threatens to pave the road to hell itself: a psychological crisis of identity.

(The apex of religious indoctrination is achieved when supposedly avowed skeptics of capitalism signal their counter individuality through consumption — consumption that is branded to advertise opposition to capitalism itself.)

In the religion of capitalism, authenticity is the golden rule. To find and express your true self is the highest call. (Is your ‘true self’ the ‘self’ who does the searching or the ‘self’ you find? Ignore this blasphemous the doubt! Just keep searching! You’ll find the ‘authentic you’ eventually.) Your self-actualization is your promised land. Your nirvana. Your heaven. But until you reach it, you should try buying something else to see if it helps you express or uncover some ephemeral kernel of your essence. Individuality is the kool-aid. In the final analysis, the quest to find and express your ‘true self’ is mostly corporately-sponsored nonsense.

Do what you love

This holy preoccupation with self — its passions, its identity, its expression — leads to the second tenet of the religion: Do what you love. Once you have internalized the myth of an invisible, indivisible, sacred self, you must do what this inner god commands. After all, to do anything otherwise would be inauthentic — and nothing could be more sinful than inauthenticity.

The oxygen of capitalism thus becomes a mass neurosis: the desirability of some occupations above others. This cultural dogma declares that you can’t possibly live a happy and fulfilled life as a janitor or barista. No, you must do something more: you must do something you love. You must do something that rings true to the spirit of your inner entity. Failure to do this is failure to live fully.

The treadmill of capitalism is fuelled by insoluble discontentment. Chronic dissatisfaction gives power to the myth of eventual self-fulfillment. In this religion, you are not only compelled to find your imaginary, make-believe inner self, but you must also find a career that is worthy of your divine royalty. This goal, of course, impossible for everyone to achieve: at least as long as someone still needs to clean the toilets and spread the manure. If ‘salvation’ means crossing the finish line having achieved the promised nirvana of self-actualizing career, then the religion is a sentence to futility and purposelessness for far more people than for whom it serves as the liberating promise of equality and opportunity.

You only live once

The third doctrine in the canon of capitalism: You only live once. This statement, of course, is descriptively true, but capitalism turns the assertion into a value-laden, normative teaching. There is no objective reason why paying someone to jump out of an airplane with a parachute is necessitated by the fact that you only have one life to live. But slapping the #YOLO hashtag on the activity now gives it transcendent value. This attribution of spiritual meaning is the power of religious practice, and #YOLO is spiritual practice par excellence.

To survive and thrive, capitalism must co-opt #YOLO. In truth, there are an infinite number of ‘once in a lifetime opportunities’ that arise every day — more potential opportunities than can be experienced in any lifetime — and there’s no reason why missing any of them somehow makes the rest of life any less worth living. In fact, one might see such ‘lost opportunities’ as salient reminders of one’s temporality and impermanence, pointing to the inherent limitations of existence itself. And this might lead one to contemplate the finitude of ‘experience.’ Capitalism can have none of this. Capitalism exists to commodify, package, and sell experience to us. Ergo, experience must be detrivialized in the name of self-identity. #YOLO thus becomes a currency to increase the net worth of the authentic self.

Follow your dreams

The final tenet of this religion is to Follow your dreams at all costs. At first, this doctrine seems benign — if for no other reason than for its sheer ambiguity — but it has startling implications.

If you were an alien explorer, investigating planet Earth for the first time, you might justifiably conclude that the Walt Disney enterprise is some cult, too. At the heart of all things Disney, you will find admonishment to believe in your dreams, no matter what. “If you keep on believing,” sang Cinderella in 1950, “The dream that you wish will come true.”

A few years ago, my family made the pilgrimage to the Disney World shrine in Florida. To be a guest of the Disney corporation is to be reminded at every turn that you are ‘a very special person’ and that you should ‘never give up on just being yourself.’ From the rides to the stage attractions, the clear mission of a Disney theme park to wrap you in a blanket of positivity before herding you through the turnstiles of endless souvenir shops. The idyllic and surreal design of everything manifests the Disney doctrine through sheer repetition: if you keep believing in your dreams, one day they will come true.

But is this true? What evidence supports this claim? What do we accept as evidence? More importantly, should we repeat this mantra to children as if it is gospel truth?

I might pray to God for my dreams come true. The fact that my dreams have not yet come true does not prove that God doesn’t exist. It just means I’m still waiting on God to answer my prayers. The Disney creed is equally unfalsifiable: there is nothing empirical that can disprove Cinderella’s dogmatic belief in the inevitability of her dreams, either. The lack of fruition means nothing.

Capitalism requires me to believe the same thing. My dreams are the promise that this religion sells back to me. If my dreams have not yet come true, it is only because capitalism hasn’t delivered yet. As long as I am willing to believe that my dreams will come true — despite any and all indicators that nothing is changing — I will continue to reverently chase my own tail through the holy of holies. For as long as the religious order requires that a majority of us minions to do our menial tasks obediently, the system will continue to promise us that our work will set us free.

Doubting the religion

For most of us, denouncing these doctrines of capitalism amount to something like a crisis of faith. We are equipped with an array of neurological defense mechanisms, ready to thwart any attack on the institution of our convictions. Besides, most of us are already now so invested in the religion — our meanings, our careers, our identities — that to question the cult now seems dangerously destabilizing. As with most religious brainwashing, the cost of leaving the faith seems higher than the cognitive dissonance that comes with saving face.

I should confess that I remain a believer in many aspects of capitalism. In fact, I still cherish the freedom, innovation, and creativity that is inspired by the religion. But I do not buy the underlying mythology that corporate priests preach about the nature of personal identity and value. Beyond religion, we find a world is that is not so binary, either/or. Capitalism, like most every other religion, wants you to believe that it is the only means of salvation. But it has plenty of dark corners, too.

Perhaps the next time your television, magazine, or social media network tries to leverage and exploit your authentic self, your passion to do what you love, your devout commitment to carpe diem everything with a hashtag, or the unique sanctity of your dreams, perhaps you will think to yourself… “When did I explicitly sign up for this religion? When did I declare my adherence to this doctrine? Who is selling me the supposed ‘self-evident’ truths of this belief system?”

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Who Gets to Have Their Own Country?

This episode of The Inquiry, Who Gets to Have Their Own Country?, provides timely perspective to some of my recent pondering about nationhood and national identity.

Beginning with the upcoming independence referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, then looking back at the case studies of Kosovo and East Timor, and finally examining the current situation in Somaliland, The Inquiry strings together these stories and attempts at statehood to wrestle with a deceptively simple question: who has the legitimate right and ability to claim independence? When do assertions of national independence actually work? And what are the variables involved in their success?

A key insight of this program is that the principles of autonomy and self-determination, decolonization, uti possidetis juris, and the principle of territorial integrity find themselves in regular contradiction. In the end, there is no steadfast “rule” as who can be a nation. There is no rule book.

But one thing does seem clear: to be a state is to be recognized as a state by other states. As circular as this logic may be, it seems to be principle grounds of geopolitical equilibrium worldwide. Who gets to have their own country? Host James Fletcher concludes, “It’s all about who you know.” Nationhood is a self-perpetuating concept — a status that can only be endowed by other nations.

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So accustomed to the skies

I finally made it through Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things — a first century BCE poem that sets out to summarize and synthesize a comprehensive philosophy of… everything. It is a fascinating account of the natural world: fascinating not only for the sheer grandeur of the endeavor — over 7,000 lines of didactic poetry — but also for the revolutionary ideas of its time. In Lucretius’ account world, natural events occurred through randomness and chance, not at the whims of deities. The linchpin of the poem is the proposition of atoms: tiny, invisible, indivisible particles that compose everything. Like Epicurus before him, Lucretius had no way of testing the theory, only his reasoning and observation.

By today’s understanding, Lucretius is wrong in most of his scientific conclusion. He thinks that the sun is the same size as it appears in the sky, that the orbital difference between the stars and moon are caused by air currents, and that thunder is the result of clouds crashing into each other. One does not read On the Nature of Things today for its robust physics.

So why read Lucretius? Rooted in a specific moment of time — namely, first century BCE Rome — this poem reiterates a timeless truth: what you believe about the world is inseparable from how you live in it. For Lucretius, the theory of atoms was nothing short of psychological and emotional liberation: if the events of the world could be explained by the properties of these microscopic specks, then humanity would no longer be enslaved to the appeasement of the gods. As Lucretius saw it, the science of atoms yielded the end of fear. No longer were vengeful gods to be blamed for droughts and disasters. Sacrifices were no longer required to ward off divine wrath or win divine favour.

For me, the most endearing trait of Lucretius is his giddy, childlike awe with the world. Once he got it in his head that everything could have a natural explanation, he saw everything around him through a new set of eyes. His openness and curiosity are infectious. Even though his conclusions are wonky by the standards of contemporary science, I still often found myself shifting my gaze from the pages of the book to ponder the world through Lucretius’ eyes: Look, a tree. Trees are incredible. What do I actually know about trees? How do they work?

Now, however, people hardly bother to lift their eyes
To the glittering heavens, they are so accustomed to the skies. (II.1038-1039, trans. Stallings 2007:67)

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