Revolution means really big system changes

What is a revolution? A revolution is a big change in the way a society, nation, group or organization behaves. Familiar examples are the French revolution and the American revolution. But we also have things like the Industrial Revolution and revolutions in areas of Science (read Thomas S. Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”).  The changes that occur in a revolution are big in the sense that they usually require big changes in the thinking and behavior of most of, or many of the individuals in the society, nation, group or organization. And most of these changed individuals, at some time previous to the revolution, would not have imagined that such changes could or would ever occur or could ever be necessary. Revolutions are surprising, unsettling, seem dangerous and sometimes are dangerous.

Revolutions require new human knowledge spread around to many people. Knowledge is useful or useable information. So all revolutions are information revolutions. People and organizations replace some of their old knowledge with new knowledge and their behavior changes in accord with their new knowledge. This explains why revolutions are unsettling to most people. They thought what they were taught as children or what they learned in school was all they would ever need to know. And of course political revolutions can turn into wars.

The new knowledge required for a revolution has to do with the structure of human organizations. The structure of a human organization is some kind of description of how the human individuals in the organization interact with one another and with individuals not in the organization. When a revolution occurs the knowledge of individuals change and the knowledge that is most important for understanding revolutions is knowledge about organizational structures. For example before the American Revolution the King of England expected his edicts about taxes to be followed and they were, more or less. (I often use the phrase “more or less” because that is the way most things in human affairs actually happen. Laws are not 100% obeyed, etc.) But after the revolution the structures of the various colonies were changed in that they made their own laws about taxes and the King of England was more or less irrelevant. There were of course many, many more structural changes in the former English colonies and in England, France, and other countries as well, all as part of or consequences of the American revolution. We can describe the structure of the world as the structures of all the organizations and the structure of all their interrelations and communications.

What are the relationships between individuals and organizations? An individual can be in multiple organizations at the same time or at different times. A person can work for a corporation and thus be considered a part of that organization, be a member of a club, be a member of a family, be a member of a religious group, and on and on. In each case though, the individual has knowledge leading to behavior appropriate to each group. You would expect, for example, that a member of a model airplane club would have some knowledge of model airplanes, enjoy flying model airplanes, most likely own some model airplanes, know about and participate in meetings of the model airplane club, etc. Each individual in each group has knowledge about the group and the purposes of the group. And members of a group are able to act in accord with the purposes of each group they are in. Of course it is not required that each member of some group necessarily have exactly the same group knowledge as every other member of the group. And there may be hierarchies of groups within groups, sub-organizations, overlapping subgroups, simple or complex as desired. A lawyer is probably not at the same time a janitor. But an individual could be a lawyer and an accountant at the same time in the same company. So some sub groups overlap and some do not.

So an individual in a group or organization must have knowledge about his or her role in the group or organization, knowledge about other individuals’ roles, knowledge about sub-organizations within the organization, knowledge about how he or she is supposed to act regarding individuals and organizations outside the organization. This presupposes communication between and among the above individuals, groups, and organizations. The purpose of communication is to coordinate behavior. And the behavior elicited is in support of the individual’s and the organization’s goals.  

The individuals in an organization have roles or jobs. There are specific things the individuals are supposed to do as part of the organization. For all these things they are supposed to do, they must have the corresponding information. They get this information the same ways any other information is obtained by any individual: their upbringing, development in the family and community, schools, all the people they interact with in person or through media. People get “on the job training” formally or not. Of course people’s roles may change over time. There are surely evolutions of roles and sometimes abrupt role changes, for example, when someone changes jobs. The information needed involves interacting with other people as well as with human artifacts — things made by humans — and information for interacting with the physical world. We learn how the physical world works and how to interact with it through science. All this information that people in an organization have constitutes or defines the organizational structure. This is broader than what we usually mean by organizational structure. The usual meaning involves what we try to capture in organizational charts — who is the boss of whom etc. This is much, much less than the complete organizational structure.

What holds an organization together? Why do the individuals in an organization work together? Or how long do they cooperate? Why do people come to work every day or go to church every week or get together with the model airplane club once a month? It’s because working together with other people for some purposes is more enjoyable than working alone. And it is also because the benefits of working together are greater than working alone. A mother and child stay together because the child has no choice in the matter for some number of years and the mother wants to take care of her child because certain chemicals in her brain cause her to want to. Later on, information previously placed in her brain by her community, information that says she should take care of her child, may supplement or take over from the raw chemicals. A similar chemicals (hormones)/information trajectory may be followed by husbands staying with and taking care of their families.

Why does cooperation occur? Cooperation occurs for a combination of reasons. People have built-in drives to survive. Our bodies automatically make us feel hungry when we need food to continue living etc. Since cooperation by a group of humans provides more benefits than the sum of the benefits of the individuals working separately, we may have evolved biologically to prefer working together rather than working separately. That is, we may have evolved genes that make us prefer working together in many circumstances. In addition, the evolution of our culture, may have generated information (“Shoulds”) that is passed down through the generations by our upbringing and education that enhance, cause, or encourage us to cooperate rather than work alone. None of this means we have an urge to cooperate always or in every circumstance, but it is enough to explain the plentiful cooperation that we presently see. So there are both biological (genetic) and cultural (informational) reasons humans cooperate. The biological can’t be changed in the short run. But the cultural, informational can be changed. People can be taught to behave differently than they currently do. So if we analyze relevant organizational structures, and target key individuals or sub groups, we may be able to teach them new behaviors. That is, we may be able to give them new information and convince them to use (apply) that new information. See for example, “Working with Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman. This is what must be done on a big scale to make a revolution: We must change the structures of the relevant organizations in a society. This will change the behavior of these organizations as well as the behavior (roles) of the individuals in them. If we do this in a way that reduces or eliminates the exploitation of some groups and individuals by other groups and individuals, we will have made a beneficial revolution.

A nation or a society is more or less a unity. A nation or a country or a society is a big organization. As such it has a structure as discussed above. To speak of a nation or society is to look at it as a unity, as one thing, not as disconnected parts. This suggests that the parts are connected, that there is communication among the various parts and thus that the parts are more or less cooperating. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth talking about it as a single thing, as a unit, as a nation or a society. So it’s an organization with sub organizations, individuals, artifacts, lots of information going round and round, lots of actions, activities. What are these activities about? Individuals have goals and purposes. One category of goals and purposes has to do with survival. Another category has to do with more than just survival, it has to do with development and/or growth. Neither individual humans nor our organizations are static. They are always changing. Individuals are being born, developing, growing, evolving, changing, deteriorating, or dying. As with individuals also with organizations.

Individuals and organizations are systems. A system consists of parts that work together to do whatever the system does. An automobile is a system whose parts each perform their functions so that the automobile with a human driver can perform its function of driving people around. An individual human body is a system all of whose parts must function, operate together, for humans to keep on living and do what humans do. For a system to work well each part must do its part. If a human heart stops pumping blood, the human quickly dies. Sometimes there are redundancies. Humans have two kidneys, but can continue to live with only one. If a system had a part which didn’t do anything for the system it may as well not be there. If a system had a part that never interacted with, never communicated with any other part of the system, it may as well not be there, because if it never communicates with any other part of the system then it cannot contribute to the operation of the system. (To interact is to communicate.) In real systems there can be parts that contribute little or nothing to the functioning of the system. There are examples of this in biological evolution. For example creatures that now live in totally dark caves who’s ancestors formerly lived above ground and had functioning eyes, no longer need eyes in the totally dark caves they live in, and many such creatures no longer have functioning eyes. But some still have some eye structures. These do not contribute to the functioning of the cave dwelling creatures, but they are still there. Such a creature is an inefficient system since the non functioning eyes use up energy but don’t contribute to the functioning of the animal. If evolution has enough time to work on it, the eyes will completely disappear. So real systems are only more or less efficient but evolving systems will tend to evolve towards more efficiency.

The cooperation of the parts of a system is never perfect. Nothing in the real world is perfect. In the world of people and their organizations the most we can hope for is improvement, not perfection. We don’t even know how to say what perfection is. And we probably couldn’t recognize perfection if it somehow magically occurred. So forget perfection. It will be enough of a challenge to find improvements.

Cooperation between and among parts in a system means there must be communication, and that means information transfer between and among parts. A good system will have all parts contributing. The fewer non-contributing parts the better because useless parts still take up space and may use other resources. Systems and their parts need energy and other resources to function. A system takes in energy and resources from outside the system. The system must distribute energy and resources to the parts so that the parts may do their part. If the system doesn’t give enough resources to some part then that part won’t be able to perform its function well, or at all, and the operation of the system will decrease or stop. Think of the human body eating food, taking in oxygen, distributing the nutrients to all the organs and cells in the body. Or think of gasoline, oil, coolant, and the electrical system for a car.

So a system operating well, operating efficiently needs to distribute energy and the appropriate type and amounts of resources to all its parts on an ongoing basis. The systems we are talking about — humans and their organizations — are dynamic, not static. A car while it is parked is static. A car being driven by a human is dynamic. Humans are dynamic even when they are sleeping since a lot of things — breathing, blood flow, etc. — are still going on. In particular, organizations need to distribute energy, information, and other resources to their parts. A system operating well will not have parts receiving resources which do not contribute to the functioning of the system.  A well operating system will not be giving more resources to some part or parts than they need to perform their function since that would be a waste of resources. Also a well operating system will not give fewer resources to some part or parts than they need to perform their functions since that would degrade the output of the system. It may not be easy to know what is just the right type and amount of resources each part needs to make its proper contribution to the performance of the system. But both humans and their organizations evolve. And systems which can perform the same functions using less energy and other resources have an advantage compared to those which use more energy or resources. So there is an evolutionary direction or force or tendency towards efficiency. A well operating system does not have parts that work against each other. For example to drive a car with one foot on the brakes and the other foot on the gas is inefficient, a waste of energy. Another example is wars — they are inefficient for humanity — they are a waste of human and natural resources.

Humanity as a whole is a system. It is an organization. We don’t live alone. We live and work in groups, in organizations of one kind or another, perhaps in corporations. We live in nations. And now almost every nation trades with other nations. There really are no nations that have absolutely no trade or communication with other nations. Even Burma. It trades drugs. In this sense humanity is one system, one organization. But in light of the above it is far from efficient. In theory we demand that all parts contribute to the whole. In theory we demand that able-bodied adults must work to eat. But in practice we don’t make much effort to require this. Economists call 5% unemployment “full employment.” Worse we don’t provide all the resources to individuals so that they may make maximal contributions to the whole. People who are near starvation or just hungry do not have the energy they need. To perform well — in any way — people need nutritious food, clean water, adequate clothing, good health, housing, education, and the opportunity to live with and work with others. Yes, I am saying people also have a need to be with other people and to contribute to the welfare of others. Even the super rich try to justify their inordinate wealth with a theory that says individual selfishness provides the best outcomes for everyone and their wealth is justified, they say, because they invest their money wisely and this benefits everybody else. So humanity as a system of nations (or should I say corporations) distributing necessary resources to human individuals and distributing necessary resources among nations through world trade is a very poorly operating system. Many individuals — the fundamental parts of the humanity system — do not get the resources they need to contribute much while others get way more than they need. So the system is inefficient. It is wasting energy and other limited natural resources we get from the earth and biosphere. It is wasting human resources by limiting the contributions of billions of individual humans. And the present world system is not sufficiently redundant or stable enough in many respects. Small disturbances can propagate to cause catastrophes. Three examples: 1) Wars; 2) Nuclear energy; 3) The world money/banking system. The world economic and political systems need drastic changes. So much needs to be changed. We need a revolution.

Economics and Goals

Economics is thought of as an objective science which studies, analyzes, makes theories about how human societies operate objectively to produce and distribute goods and services to people. The idea is that societies operate in certain ways and it is the task of economic science to discover all the rules and relationships that would describe the system. But there is no objective fixed system to study. First there are many possible ways societies might be organized. Second all actual systems evolve. They change over time. We are always making new laws which affect how people behave and thus how the system operates. Also we discover new things through science and these often change the economy’s physical processes — the ways things are made, new things are made, new ways of communicating and coordinating human activities are discovered and adopted, new customs and procedures are followed mostly independent of laws. So there is no fixed, objective, system to be studied. At best we must study dynamic — always changing — systems. And we cannot know the future in detail. There are always multiple options for the future. So the idea of developing a theory which will account for present and past activities of “the” system and be able to predict the future — how the system will evolve in the next few years is very difficult and maybe impossible. Further, any theory we may generate will affect how people behave. So any adopted theory affects itself, any adopted theory changes the system, any adopted theory is partly self-fulfilling prophecy.

An economy and political system — and the two cannot be separated in either theory or practice — is characterized by all the laws, customs, rules, etc. that more or less constrain human behavior that in aggregate gives us whatever economic and political system that we have. Any specific economic and political system at any point in time is a result of the evolution of all the laws, customs, human and organizational behaviors that have evolved from past conditions up to that point in time. Systems are constrained somewhat by their past. But they don’t just happen independent of human choices. Our behaviors change the system. New laws, customs, discoveries, as well as natural forces change the system. So individual humans collectively change the system by their collective behaviors. We can’t control it in an absolute sense. We can and continually do try to bend it, to change the system, in ways we think benefit specific individuals, groups, organizations, or in some cases all people, and maybe, in rare cases, the other life on earth too.

So the problem of economics is not to describe, mathmaticize, characterize, or predict the behavior of some fixed objective system. Rather it can only be to discover better ways of organizing our human activities so as to attain or approach goals we have for our economic and political systems. What are the goals? That is the question. Where do the goals come from? They come from individual humans. What do we want our economic and political system to accomplish? Different people have different goals for the system. Most people don’t think in these terms, so they may not consciously have goals for the system. They have goals for themselves. One fundamental goal for all living things is survival. So most people most of the time want to keep on living. So they seek those things necessary for continued survival: food, clothes, shelter, health, knowledge, companionship, freedom, respect, etc. — and in our present system all these are often reduced to money.

Not only individuals want to survive. Organizations also want to survive. They want to survive in the sense that they are organized in such a way as to survive, since if they were not, then they wouldn’t survive. Both individuals and organizations generally want, beyond survival, to thrive, prosper, to develop into something better. So in this sense organizations also have goals such as survival and development. For an organization to survive and thrive all its parts must work somewhat well together towards the organization’s goals. To do that all the parts must have the resources they need to work well together; the parts must communicate with one another; every part must contribute to the working of the system. A well-functioning system must be reasonably efficient but also have some redundancy in case of failures here and there or in case of disruptions from outside the system. So, looking at the whole world as a single economic/political system, some of its goals should be: 1) assuring that all parts have the resources they need to do their part — in particular every human should have the basic human necessities; 2) The parts should communicate well together to better coordinate their activities and not work at cross purposes; 3) Every part should contribute to the whole; 4) There should be some redundancy to allow the system and its parts to survive some internal and external failures and disruptions. Some of these goals have been internalized into humans through our genetic and cultural evolution in the form of strong feelings of justice. Rather, we have evolved strong feelings of aversion to injustice, unfairness, freeloaders (people who don’t do their fair share). So, our grand goal, a goal for economists, politicians, so-called leaders, and indeed all of us, should be to make a system, evolve a system which has the above characteristics. Forget the impossibly constrained mathematical theories. They are a waste of time and energy. Instead one goal should be to progressively modify our systems so that they provide almost all people with the basic human necessities; all the parts (individuals, organizations, nations, etc.,) communicate well so that they may coordinate their activities and cooperate well together; every part should be asked to contribute whatever it can consonant with its individual survival and well-being (no part in a well-functioning machine should wear out or breakdown because the system design puts too much of a burden on it); and a human system must be designed with enough backup processes to compensate for human deficiencies. In other words, we want a system so that system design flaws, or external shocks to the system, do not seriously degrade or destroy it, or seriously harm the parts of the system — both individuals and organizations. Of course both individuals and organizations evolve. The whole system, and the organizations in it, should evolve in ways that do not degrade the quality of life of individual humans; indeed another goal should be to evolve the system so that the quality of life of all individual humans is improved as far as this is possible within the constraints of the earth’s limited resources. In other words, the system should promote the development of individual humans. This is what the science of economics should become.  



Why “How to Make a Revolution?” Because we need a revolution. If you are not already convinced we need one, then this blog is not for you. If you want to be convinced read Naked Capitalism or Glen Greenwald. I intend this blog to be about the “how to?” more than the “why?” But it will be impossible not to talk about specifics and so we will surely get into what’s wrong with our present systems. Besides we can’t talk about changing our present political and economic systems if we don’t talk about what’s wrong with them so we know what a new system must do that the present does not do. I also intend this blog to be general purpose, not tied to any specific revolution. But again we will need to talk about specific methods and techniques that work together to make a revolution. We will surely look at some historical examples. But historical examples were based on the thoughts of the past historical periods, and much of that thought is counter productive today. For example many historical revolutions depended on war and other violence. That idea has got to go. A revolution that today succeeded by using violence would not be a revolution at all because it would just lead to more of the same as we have now.

A revolution occurs when enough people change their minds in fundamental ways. Force and violence can change some people’s minds, but they will still believe in the efficacy of force and violence, and they likely still feel fear, anger, and hatred towards those people (or their ideology) who forced them to change their beliefs. People who have been forced to change their beliefs will most likely never completely accept the new beliefs.

A complete revolution can only occur when enough people have peacefully and by their own efforts changed some of their fundamental beliefs. Consider the women’s liberation movement, the anti-slavery movement, and the environmental movements. It is fair to call each of these a revolution although each still needs more work — each of these revolutions is not yet complete. The women’s liberation movement from say 1820 to 1920 in the US provided dramatic freedoms for women. They got the right to vote by constitutional amendment in 1919 and many of them thought the struggle was over. It was not. Women were allowed to work in new jobs during WWII but in the 1950’s and 60’s most women did not have anything like the professional opportunities that men had in the US. Slavery in the US was abolished by Lincoln, but the economic and political opportunities of black US citizens were severely restricted for another hundred years. Environmental laws have been passed, but the system now prevents any further progress and ignores threats like global warming and resource depletion. In all three cases some progress has been made but none of the three have gone all the way. You can change laws to say women and blacks have the same rights as white men, but until you actually see enough people change their own minds, we don’t have complete change. Similarly with environmentalism: We were able to change some laws, but not enough people have changed their minds as of now to make further progress.

There is no real change without meme change in enough people’s minds.

A meme is a chunk of information. The word “meme” is a kind of shorthand for things like ideas, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, feelings, etc.  I intend to be as specific as possible so I will talk about memes in general only when that abstraction seems to help the discussion.

So this blog will be about how to help people to change their own minds about our systems, how they work, how individuals actually interact with one another and our systems, how people can change, how our systems can change. We will look at the ecology of ideas and beliefs, that is, how and why particular ideas spread to other people quickly or slowly or not at all. And we will look at the interactions of ideas and dependencies of one idea on another.

Of course we will look at particular ideas and beliefs that people have that must be changed if we are to get the non-violent revolution I assume most of us want. And there are progressions of ideas that must be changed. Some things can’t be changed unless other things have been changed. We will have to talk about laws, politics (but not day-to-day political nonsense at present), economics, individual psychology, how people learn, how people communicate, group behaviors, organizations (especially corporations and governments), modern non-coercive management within organizations, etc.

Sometimes when I don’t have any other ideas I will analyze one of Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of non-violent action from his book  “From Democracy to Dictatorship”.

I invite you to comment on the ideas presented. Please no name calling. Don’t get personal. Don’t think with anger, fear, and hatred. That’s one way propaganda works. And each of these feelings degrade your thinking (we will have much to say about these later). Let’s have dialogs where we can all learn how to make a revolution.

Joe Rebholz