Transformational Politics

In the times ahead, we'll have to play some of the old games,
but we can work on changing the rules as we go

One of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30)
Originally published in Fall/Winter 1991 on page 56
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

Tom Atlee, editor of ThinkPeace newsletter, recently visited Czechoslovakia, where he acted as advisor to grassroots political organizers working to reinvigorate civic life after four decades of totalitarianism. It’s no easy task, he discovered, but it’s not hopeless either. Subscribe to ThinkPeace by sending $12/year to 486 – 41st St. #3, Oakland, CA 94609. Tom’s article "The Conversion of the American Dream" appears in IC #26.


Fran Peavey, author of Heart Politics, tells a story from India of a bird that lays its eggs in the stratosphere. An egg plummets down, the embryo madly gestating into a raggedy little birdlet who, at the last minute, mere yards above the rocks and branch-spikes, breaks out of its shell and flits skyward toward the clouds.

This time of transformation to a sustainable society is a real edge-of-the-seat affair, isn’t it?

I visited Czechoslovakia this spring and was saddened to discover how, even in the midst of mind-boggling social changes, so much was stagnant. At the heart of the problem was a tenaciously inert mind-set: a deep, alienated irresponsibility showing up as apathy, fear, blame, inability to think critically or creatively, and disassociation from one’s heart and neighbors. These things were widespread, and they took me by surprise.

But I recognized this syndrome as the big brother of American alienation. It hurt to watch Czechoslovakia, bursting with possibility, walk out of its cultural trap into ours. Little did Czechoslovakians suspect that freedom of choice, and the pursuit of happiness, affluence and other exalted aspects of our society, would easily become – as ideology became in their world – strings through which to manipulate a puppet population.

Vaclav Havel, former dissident leader and current president of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic (Czechoslovakia’s proper name), has written extensively about totality – the institutions and mindset of a totalitarian culture – and points out its presence in the West, too: "Our task is to resist the anonymous, impersonal and inhuman power of ideologies, systems, bureaucracy, artificial language – whether in the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology or cliché, all of which are the blood brothers of fanaticism and the wellspring of totalitarian thought." (From "Politics and Conscience.") We Americans may be ahead of Czechoslovakia in terms of resources, and they ahead of us on the curve of transformation, but we are both heading toward a moment of truth – a realization of interdependence – upon which all cultures are converging.


In our society, power is used to manipulate the public to think that their interests are served by the same things that serve the elites. Our mass-consumer economy, electoral politics, technological wizardry and media environment are all dedicated toward this end. These things make people feel they are supporting their own interests when they support the elites with their purchases, votes, yellow ribbons, etc.

When we advocate policies like environmental protection that serve the larger society but undermine elite control, we are called "special interest groups." Over the long haul, that will change. In the meantime, we’ll often have to act like special interest groups and fight as if we were.

This exemplifies a characteristic of politics during a transition from old to new: We’ll have to do things in old ways to buy time and space in which to do (and learn to do) things in new ways. Neither "purity" nor "realpolitik" are appropriate for this journey. It is more useful to see this as a search for balances appropriate to circumstances and evolution in the direction of sustainability.

The struggle for power is at the heart of American politics. Whoever is in charge, or whoever exerts the most pressure, gets their way. Individuals and interest groups battle for leverage. Bits of cooperative activity creep in – alliances, compromises, political deals, protocols – if only to prevent the whole thing from tearing itself apart.

Into this fray we must go, because that’s what’s available.

But let’s not accept the status quo. Most government programs establish dependence or privilege or otherwise reinforce the power-over, adversarial system. We need to realize that depending on the power-over machinery of government to achieve our ends (e.g., empowering federal agencies to police polluters) is reinforcing the old unsustainable system. To the extent we want to facilitate transformation, we need to ask ourselves: In what ways do these proposals move our culture through the transition and in what ways do they root us more firmly in the old power-over ways of doing things?

In many cases (like controlling pollution), we have to depend at least in part on power- over, adversarial solutions, because the power balance in our society is so skewed. But we needn’t do it from the old mindset, because we’re mad as hell or can’t envision any better approach. We can do it because we’ve consciously decided it’s a tactical necessity in our strategy for building a non-adversarial, decentralized, sustainable society. From a strategic perspective, we want to increase the amount of participation and imagination (compared to the domination and control) in any solution. We want not to just solve problems, but to move in the direction of a sustainable society.

Ways to use government power appropriately and strategically include:

*creating conditions for transformation (e.g., subsidizing citizen Study Circles as they do in Sweden)

*making social power more equitable (e.g., establishing citizen boards to monitor corporate policy, as Ralph Nader has proposed)

*enabling people to act more sustainably (e.g., subsidizing a transition to organic farming)

*restraining the destructiveness of power-holders and short-sighted citizens – especially where it may be irreversible (as in species extinction and nuclear holocaust), or where it will buy time (as in slowing global warming, or feeding starving people while population control and sustainable agriculture get underway).


While engaged in this realm of power struggle, we can experiment with more evolved approaches to power in order to find out which ones can facilitate transformation within the existing system – and of the system itself.

We can promote, for example, the use of power in the service of values, not interests. A candidate, for example, might make it clear that her purpose is not to serve the short-term interests of her constituency or the powerholders, but to build a society that will support the welfare of people for thousands of years – and that people should only vote for her if they share that value.

Many people will say that’s not good politics, meaning it won’t get you elected. We should look carefully at what we want with the power of an office, if it’s not to further our values. Should we use candidacies to change the terms of debate toward a discussion of values – or to win? What effect would each option have on the transition?

We can experiment with enabling the bad guys to do the right things. What would help Muxxup, Inc. stop polluting? In many companies there are good people who, with help from us, could create good effects. If we attack their company, they are disabled from allying with us because they’d be betraying their company. But if we are publicly asking what we can do to help, such people could more easily come out of the closet.

Even if we did what we were going to do anyway (take Muxxup to court, demonstrate in front of their factory) we benefit from not being adversarial: "We believe Muxxup contains basically good people who need this demonstration to help them stop polluting. We’re offering them our help." We might even admit: "We haven’t been as active as we could in cleaning up our environment, and we thank Muxxup for getting us involved." (To my knowledge no one has done anything like this. I wonder how Muxxup’s PR people would handle it.)

Another approach is to personalize the powerholders and our relationship to them. Gandhi used this. He steadfastly refused to treat people as if they were their roles. He once challenged a judge who was trying him for sedition, saying that if the judge believed the laws were just, he must give Gandhi the maximum penalty and, if he thought the laws unjust, he must step down from his judgeship since he could not in good conscience do his job.

There are undoubtedly many powerholders who are immune to being treated as real human beings. But some will be affected. It is always worth the experiment. Gandhi won some powerful converts with his principled humanity. In a very real sense, we are all in the same boat, and this understanding underlies a more transformational approach to politics.


We shouldn’t wait to be elected to act like a government. In Czechoslovakia the dissidents became the government almost overnight, and as a result they found it much harder to be wise leaders than wise critics. If we are serious about transforming this culture, we need to assume the mantle of leadership before it is given to us.

This means creating shadow governments that go beyond think-tank policy recommendation. They would actually do scenario studies to see what resistances and resources would be involved in putting such policies into practice, and what we would do to deal with contingencies if we were in charge.

When the USSR came apart or Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, we’d have been there with proposals and comments about how our past policy recommendations would have changed things. This would simultaneously benefit us (as preparation and learning) and introduce the public to alternatives. Perhaps they’d be impressed enough to vote some of us into office. At the very least, it would show that we are serious.

We share with all peoples of the world the challenge of seeding and cultivating a profoundly democratic, creative political culture. We are in the midst of creating such a politics, one that is actually a way of life. We are evolving politics out of the so-called "halls of power" into the hearts of ourselves, our homes and our communities. We just need to do more of it, more consciously, with flexibility and a healthy respect for the mistakes we are bound to make.

Political Dreams and Fantasies

Politics, said Bismarck, is the art of the possible. Bismarck was not an idealistic visionary, nor a paragon of political virtue, but his words point to an idea that is both obvious and overlooked: that politics is the process of bringing fantasy into reality. Along the way, reality requires that compromises be struck, deals made – and occasionally the best-laid plans go badly awry.

Every progressive political chapter in our history (and many of the regressive ones) began as a fantasy, an idea, a plan for doing things a better way. Plato envisioned a perfect government, wrote up his vision as the Republic, and thereby shaped political discourse for generations to come. America’s founders imagined a political life free of England’s chicanery and meddling and, in the late 1700s, spawned a global movement toward democracy that is still under way. Karl Marx dreamed a hundred revolutions into being over a century ago, not knowing that when adopted by others, his egalitarian dreams would quickly become totalitarian nightmares.

It is not woolly-headed to say that our dreams become our realities; it is simply a fact. John Maynard Keynes, the economist whose blueprints have guided Western capitalism for decades, understood this: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood," he wrote in The General Theory. "Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas."

One’s choice of political fantasy is therefore of central importance. Once dreamed, the fantasy needs to be articulated. Once articulated, it must be rallied around by others enlisted to promote its realization – the point at which one lands smack in the middle of the political arena, in competition with other dreams and other dreamers.

The process is by no means painless. Of the many roles one can play in the theater of politics, one of the very riskiest is that of the visionary leader. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated for having a dream, stating it in clear terms, and enlisting thousands of others in the project of bringing it to life. Gandhi was shot by someone who couldn’t bear his vision of a peaceful future for India and his ability to make it happen. To say you have a dream is one thing; to make it real is something else entirely.

In our time, a new political dream is emerging – not new really, for humans have always fantasized a better world. But this dream is different, for there is no one visionary holding it up for others to follow. There is no one leader who can be removed, for this dream is the Earth’s dream, the image of a planet exuberantly alive and its most potent and dangerous creatures – human beings – living together in creative peace. Millions of people, more and more every day, are having this dream. It is a dream of hope, of life, of a meaningful future. More accurately, this dream is having us. We have no choice but to dream it, to speak it – and to make it real.

– Alan AtKisson

Alan AtKisson is IC’s executive editor.

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