as either: 1. the problem, or 2. the solution. Sometimes both!
We hear statements such as “the government needs to do this,” or “the government needs to stop doing that,” or “if only the conservatives/liberals/tories/socialists/democrats/greens were in power.”
Power! Ah, that slippery, contestable agency to which political candidates and parties aspire. Ursula Le Guin1 claimed that government is “the legal use of power to maintain and extend power.” (my emphasis, see later)
Yet, government is a socially constructed institution that does not exist in a vacuum. The great theorist and writer on nonviolent action, Gene Sharp, comments in his seminal trilogy that:
“An error frequently made by students of politics is to view political decisions, events, and problems in isolation from the society in which they exist.”2
Sharp’s understanding turns everything on its head. Metaphorically, we could imagine government as being the few oranges at the top of a pyramid of oranges. If one of those oranges at the top is removed, then the pyramid remains, and the orange is easily replaced. However (as many skits and cartoons have shown,) if we take an orange from near the bottom of the pyramid, the whole pyramid collapses.
Like the orange pyramid, governments ultimately remain (and have their decisions accepted) because the base of the pyramid is not shifted.
The crunch is that it does not shift because many at the base of the pyramid continue to expect change to come from the top. It never has, it still doesn’t, and it never will.
Where, then, does change come from? Let us begin by looking at the base of the pyramid. This base is constructed from our cultural beliefs, norms, behaviours, ideas, concepts, and aspirations. When we fully recognise the implications of this then we also begin to understand that we can also wield power – collectively.
Furthermore, because all this is a system then it is possible to intervene to change it.
Donella Meadows, one of the pioneers of systems thinking, gave a lot of thought into what she called the “leverage points” in a system. Following her untimely death in 2001, a book she had been working on was edited and released in 2008.3 In it she listed twelve leverage points in an ascending order of effectiveness.
The least effective of Meadows’ leverage points she refers to as the “numbers.” In the social/political system discussed here these are the individual MPs and political parties.
The next leverage point she referred to as the “buffers.” Here, we can think of these as the “checks and balances” of the system, including the “legal” use of power referred to by Ursula Le Guin (previously quoted.)
At the other end of the scale (the most effective) Meadows writes of the “paradigms” of a system. Paradigms are the mind-sets from which an entire system arises, including our collective-cultural belief systems.
From this systems thinking approach some implications arise:
- Our system of government rests upon a belief that power resides in and is maintained by governments.
- By accepting that belief we abdicate our personal and collective abilities to effect change.
- Every time we couch a problem/issue as one of politics and/or government (whether as a social change movement or simply in our everyday conversations) we focus on symptoms and neglect to diagnose or recognise underlying causes.
- By expecting (and advocating for) change to come from governments we waste emotional energy, often leading to any or all of: frustration, despair, anger, disenchantment, or simply dissociation.
- Furthermore, often when we “fight” an issue at a governmental level we end up supporting and giving legitimacy to the very system which is at fault.
We can change our mind-set. We can intervene in the system at a paradigmatic level.
We should expect more of ourselves, individually and collectively. We can expect more.
1. Ursula K Le Guin (1929-2018) is an American science fiction writer best known for her Earthsea fantasy series and the novels Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.
2. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part One: Power and Struggle, Porter Sargent Publishers, Boston, 1973.
3. Donella Meadows (ed. Diane Wright), Thinking In Systems, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, Vermont, 2008.