Monday, April 29, 2013

Fundamental Reform vs. Utopianism

I am haunted by the theory of Civil Endowment, a body of thought I've developed over a period of many years. There is a yawning gap between the elegance and potential of the theory and the obstacles to its implementation -- or even to getting anyone to see the beauty of it. In part, the limitations have been my own. I spent five years as a full-time editor in the 1990s, but when my theory came into focus around 2002 it became clear to me that I was not much of a writer at all. Different skill set. My "writing" was a pile of notepads with handwritten notes and all sorts of key ideas and brilliant phrases and very few complete sentences! This blog has been an excellent way, short of a full-length book, for me to get into writing in a way that is about communicating with others, not just notes to myself. My early post were essay-length efforts that, in retrospect, did not really fit the blog format at all. Sometimes they were as long as 3000 words or more, taking days to write. I appreciate that a few of my stalwart friends took the time to read them. I didn't reach a very big audience, but there was one good -- OK, great -- outcome of this: I landed a regular writing job. After several years of doing a column on "The New Economics" and all that entails -- doing the research, keeping things compact and accessible, meeting deadlines -- I realize that, yeah, I'm more of a writer now. I am deeply grateful, especially to Chris Hewitt of Country Wisdom News, for giving me the freedom and the respect to go with it and flow with it.
How does all this relate to the challenges of communicating Civil Endowment Theory and perhaps putting it into practice? I'd like to draw a parallel between my evolution into "being a writer" and notions of fostering -- or even communicating -- fundamental changes in our world. Maybe it's a stretch, but both are challenges of the relationship between vision, expression, and practicality. I feel that fundamental change can be obtained gradually, as can learning a skill. But to do that, we have to specifically aspire to that change, just as we have to aspire to a learning a skill.
I titled this post "Fundamental Reform vs. Utopianism," but there is a third player in the game, which is called "business as usual." Now, business as usual can be interpreted both personally and in the broader social context. Our economy as it functions now is "business as usual." My habits, lifestyle, and existing skills are "business as usual." Attempts to change "business as usual" are difficult in both arenas. Perhaps that is why we settle for incremental change, or maybe none at all. Fundamental change is too difficult, and nobody gets it anyway. Or at least that's the cynical version of the story. In fact, fundamental change is Utopian, says the cynic, the realist, in all of us. But I would like to draw a distinction here between utopianism and fundamental change here, and perhaps comment on differences between fundamental and incremental change.
Green business, philanthropy, Slow Money . . . the list could go on. These are great things, but they are not fundamental economic reform. Where does utopianism come in here? Well, early attempts at fundamental reform, notably Socialism/Marxism (which are more of a spectrum of movements and views than one single trend) were, in fact, utopian. I have tremendous respect for the wisdom that is expressed in the utopian literature, and in fact it would be difficult to really discuss the matter with someone who hasn't read, at least, Thomas More's Utopia, which is the granddaddy of what is really a whole genre of thought. Interestingly, though, one of the accepted meanings of the term utopian is "unrealistic, overly idealistic." Despite my respect, which I'll restate here, for the actual ideas of utopian thought, I am using the term utopian here in that meaning of "unrealistic." What I'm getting at is that fundamental change and utopianism are not the same thing. And we don't need to settle for incremental change simply because fundamental change is difficult.
All this would be a mere intellectual exercise if there were not some practical example of it. So here's the example: I would like you to consider the assertion that Civil Endowment Theory is not utopian, it is not about incremental change, and it certainly is not business as usual. It is about fundamental reform. But the other point, one that relates to my gradual development of skills as a writer, is that fundamental change can occur gradually. The fact that civil endowment can "trickle in" is precisely why it is not utopian. It does not depend on upending "business as usual" in some sort of disruptive way, and in fact it can build on and leverage trends that I've described (with all appropriate respect)as incremental reforms, such as Green Business, philanthropy, and social enterprise. But the fact that it is gentle and respectful, and perhaps a bit subtle in its construction, makes it hard to put into the spotlight. That's my challenge.

1 comment:

JimK said...

It could be fun to attempt a taxonomy of change processes. For example, some change probably best starts with ideas, while other change starts with action. Some change has to build up powerfully among small groups that then slowly grow, where other change can spread across large populations and then slowly get more powerful at that scale.

Somehow these days a lot of what I am reading argues that the change we are facing, with the bankruptcy of so many of our national institutions, will need to work as independently as possible of those institutions. Business as Usual has reached a dead end. We need to start building a new world alongside the old world.