Change, as we all acknowledge is inevitable, but at one level attempts can be made to control it and at another level it can run out of control and turn destructive. This paradox in the 21st century is becoming ever more evident: The world critically needs major changes — ranging from economic reforms to environmental controls and information privacy — yet there is mounting resistance to profound change all around. I feel frustration in writing this blog because most of the urgent changes I have proposed over the past three years are still ignored.
A society’s values and attitudes can exert an enormous impact on encouraging or retarding change. A people who greatly respect the past, honor and obey their elders, and are preoccupied with traditions will change slowly and with hesitation. A more open society has a different attitude toward change: promoting the proposal and acceptance of social and economic development, or progress. However, such changes also can disrupt the existing culture, its assets, values, and even social behavior. This possibility instills fear into the electorate, anxious about the risks and costs involved. This is one of the principal reasons an “establishment” such as that in Britain, steadfastly side-steps changes.
Those in politics largely conform to a script of rejecting risk. Unified by a common outlook which demands that those at the top follow a steady course, which enables businesses to avoid taxes, city bankers to demand continually enlarged bonuses, and permits all-too-many others to cheat on expenses. Their operations are assisted by laws that bear down on the smallest of misdemeanors by the poorest, such as benefit fraud. As the writer Owen Jones described it: “One rule for us, one rule for everybody else” has been another way to sum up establishment thinking. Such a perspective rather assures the members continued advantages and power. It also enables them to avoid the changes that most of the electorate might desire.1
Evading risk on difficult issues appears to be of the essence to every establishment. For the past two centuries optimism was fueled by the vision of a world progressively redeemed from poverty and drudgery through technological advances. From the Marxist philosophers to farm laborers, most everyone marveled at the pace of the many changes taking place in front of their eyes. But that is no longer true. Although our attitude towards “change”, so integral to furthering progress and development, is evolving.2
The pace of technological advance progressed so steadily in our homes, our communications, and in the world around us that we came not only to accept change but to expect it. At the same time, we began to recognize that the future was likely to be radically different from both the past and the rapidly changing present. The exponential rate of technological development began to make it difficult for humans to adapt. Indeed the speed of such development has become one of the driving forces of the mounting global crises such as those now occurring in the Middle East.
We who live under the continuing advances of change are becoming fearful that it may deprive us of much of what we inherited: Our ways of thinking, our use of words, our ideas, and our attitudes are being altered not only by the fast forward drive of technology but also by the very pace of change itself. We can see this clearly in the lowered attention-spans of the younger generations. Our memories, too, are beginning to falter without the aid of photographs and social networks. Letters on paper are becoming rare.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt questioned whether “we have ceased to live in a commonly shared world where the words we have in common possess an unquestionable meaningfulness, so that, short of being condemned to live verbally in an altogether meaningless world, we grant each other the right to retreat into worlds of meaning, and demand only that each of us remain consistent with his own private terminology.”3 I know that we do not want to change ourselves out of existence, but we do not seem to recognize what is happening to us.
We no longer think in terms of any limits to growth nor do we debate the possibility of slowing down change, as the Club of Rome did in the early 1970s. I regard one of the prime cop-outs of the 20th century was to suggest that long-term planning was ”socialist “and ultimately self-defeating” just because the Bolsheviks under Stalin made such a cruel mess of their five-year plans and their economies. The result was that we began to abandon thinking about changes for humanity’s long-term future. Indeed, have the scientific and technological advances [that is, changes] of the past 75 years humanized or dehumanized us?
Personally, I do not believe we can afford to let capitalism’s undisputed force in advancing science and technology determine the pace of change on this planet. It is driving our daily lives at ever greater speeds and developing robots that are already beginning to increase unemployment. Capitalism in its brutality is not only wrecking the environment but it will also change the world we are experiencing beyond recognition over the next hundred years.The way we manage change will determine our success as a global society. This means that we must become participants in dealing with change rather than passive spectators.
Our focus will have to shift from the attractions of the material world and our anxieties about profits to a more gradual enjoyment and development of our personal and internal resources. We must start drafting strategies for change which will shift its focus. Perhaps a deliberate slow-down of tempo could be assisted by the cybernetic machines of tomorrow.
However, to advance such a paradigm transformation we must find better ways of selecting capable leadership than has been demonstrated so far in this new century by the recalcitrants around the world. (The spectacle of the Republicans choosing a candidate from more than a dozen inexperienced but wealthy self-selected millionaires degenerated into a truly farcical effort at change.) Politicians in power never like change and those seeking office, like Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, propose numerous changes which are applauded by the younger generations but firmly opposed by their respective mature establishments.
This was most evident in England where the “establishment” is more clearly defined. The reaction of nearly all sections of the largely magnate controlled press and media — ranging from Murdoch’s The Sun to the usually progressive Guardian — has been the derisive rejection of the program of change being proposed by an “outsider,” Corbyn, who does not have a university degree, rode a bike when going to Parliament, and did not even wear ties. This rankled when combined with his opposition to nuclear weapons, his distaste for NATO, and his desire for a vast Public Quantitative Easing program.
The British establishment has drawn fine lines between what is acceptable and unacceptable: The People’s Quantitative Easing, proposed by Corbyn, for example, is an untouchable. The fact that this outsider is full of passionate intensity for basic economic changes repels the establishment. It is as if he had bad breath. His eagerness to discuss such truly delicate matters as the upgrading of Trident submarines and nuclear weapons, is something that the establishment struggles to avoid, much as it does not want to face the failures of the government’s austerity programs or the problems arising from economic inequality.
What truly riled even many of his own Labor Party’s Members of Parliament, was that this rebel had somehow, against all expectations, come to lead their Party. A leftist leader who was genuinely proposing changes to a society that is in many ways self-satisfied and wedded to a history of “Rule Britannia!”, the heritage of the Church of England, and even the Royal family was viewed as undermining the order and “correctness” of an established way of life. His very success seemingly threatened the security of “the establishment,” that is, the lose but select socioeconomic grouping of politicians, civil servants, administrators, bankers, academics, the judiciary and the armed forces running the country.
The attraction of the political fringe to such a possibility of significant change seemed frightening: A political figure on the margins was ready to shake the apple cart. As it is, little national confidence exists in the leadership of present and past political leaders in the UK, like Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Blair or Miliband. But an upstart like Corbyn with a distaste for capitalism, the intelligence services, and drone strikes- no, that was viewed by some as going too far! The politically irritable writer, Martin Amis, even accused Corbyn of being “humourless” as well as not having “the slightest grasp of the national character” and of being gridlocked into the “encysted dogmas” of the antiquated left. Fortunately, Amis is not proposing stasis, that is the Greek word for immobility, which itself is an impossibility in this world.
Harold MacMillan, the Prime Minister five decades ago, observed that when “the establishment” is united it is usually wrong. Well, it was certainly united in dissing Corbyn. A Guardian columnist noted that the establishment has little time for elections that delivered the “wrong” results.4 Change has many enemies and here was a politician of the retirement generation who was challenging the status quo with a vision of how a basically unstable economic system, which was creating ever greater inequality could be mended. At the Labour Party Conference a couple of weeks after his selection as the new leader, Corbyn did win approval for telling a receptive audience that: “You don’t have to take what you’re given.” But the truth is that all of us have to accept that we shall experience change no matter what we are given.
The challenge for us is to make it “change for the better,”
1Owen Jones, “The establishment uncovered: how power works in Britain,” The Guardian, August 24, 2014.
2See: Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium- Optimistic Visions for Change (1996), pp 15-77.
3Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, (1968) p.96
4Seumas Milne, “It’s the establishment that has a problem with democracy”. The Guardian, September 26, 2015