Capitalism, Crisis, Culture, Democracy, Education/learning, Environment, Evolutionary consciousness, Food, Globalisation, Knowledge production, Marxism, Network versus hierarchy, Patriarchy, Politics and economics, racism, transformation

WTF is going on?! Ultimate contradiction and the struggle for humanity

Dear friends,

I hope that you have enjoyed your summer. I have. I’ve been off for almost all of it – first, recuperating from my injuries and, second, looking after my kids. I can’t deny that it has been tiring and occasionally exasperating being with three kids all day in what often seem to be ceaseless processes of negotiation, mediation, disciplining, imploring, insisting…and relenting. But, the moments of true love and joy have been countless – moments of simplicity: of play, of love and kindness among siblings and with one and with multiple children, in summer fields, eating ice creams, stargazing, picking berries, and just being together. I cherish them. But, another summer is behind us and we’re back into the school routine.

I find myself currently without employment and in quite an uncertain position, but, as I work things through and find employment, I am not short of work to do and plans to hatch. I will be spending the Autumn writing up five articles based on my experiments in and experiences of radical democratic pedagogy both within and beyond the university. I will also be turning the website designed alongside students at Warwick earlier this year into reality. It’s called ‘Moneypedia’ and will be a site designed to invite users into participatory processes of learning about money – about the world of money, our lives within in, and possible alternatives beyond the current system. I’m also continuing to work with nine other people to build the foundations of the Centre for Transformational Learning and Culture. We’ve now produced a development plan/funding proposal and we are awaiting news from one potential funder. We’re also going to be trying to build a networked community of people and organisations involved in the very broad area of transformational learning and culture, so contact me if you want to join that group.


What I plan to do in a series of blogs over the next couple of months are to write up some reflections on what I think is going on right now in our world. I want to argue that in recent months we have been experiencing the increasing intensification of the collapse of our entire living system and that, overall, on the level of humanity, this is being experienced as ultimate contradiction. It’s experienced as ultimate contradiction because it embodies the struggle between the old dying system and the new emerging system on a global level.

When we talk about systems far too often we overlook the fact that we are these systems – these systems are our relationships with each other and they live and function within and through our minds and bodies – so, living with ultimate contradiction is very tough indeed. It is toughest, of course, for those suffering the greatest pain at the expense of the old system who often experience their lives not as contradiction, but as intense and unambiguous pain. What I want to contribute to above all with my life is the pedagogical movement to help people suffering the pain of social injustice, oppression, and exploitation – whether receiving or inflicting this pain – to recognise the social and systemic source of this pain and to recognise themselves as agents in unison with others with the power to end this pain and transform their lives and world. So, one thing I try to do is write blogs like this.

What I’ll do in this series of blogs is the following. First, I’ll explain a bit more about what I mean by ‘ultimate contradiction’, systems, and dialectics. Then, I’ll offer real life evidence for this ultimate contradiction being played out and intensifying, i.e. evidence for the old dying and the new emerging. I’ll do this by breaking things down into blogs focused on economics and ecology; politics; and race, gender, and disability. I will basically try to show that the economic crisis is terminal and that people are already organising themselves in ways that herald a move to a post-economic system that is grounded in common trusteeship rather than private ownership. It is ‘post’-economic in the sense that economics exists because scarcity exists and the new system will transcend scarcity. One central expression of this is the move to sustainable ecological relations and the transformation of currently ecocidal ‘externalities’ of waste and pollution into new recyclable inputs into closed-loop processes of food, energy, and industrial production. In the political realm, I will focus not just on the breakdown of old political parties and the emergence of new, but I will argue that we are in the early throes of Copernican revolutionary transformation in leadership from a Ptolemaic practice (everyone orbits the big man) to the emergence of a truly democratic practice of leadership. I think that the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn in the UK represents this revolution in leadership and the rise of Donald Trump represents the fascistic response of the old. In the areas of race, gender, and disability I will look at the hideous rise of violent and other hate crimes by civilians and police against oppressed groups across the world and consider the recent emergence of the resistance movements this upsurge has spawned. I will explore the links between racism, patriarchy, and disabilism and capitalist and ecological crisis. Finally, in a blog on culture, I will focus on the crisis within our institutions producing knowledge and culture and argue that, while the current system does its best to repress it, the information revolution cannot be held back and is the technological catalyst for the new emerging social ecological system of humanity. I’ll try always to relate it to our personal lives to show how this ultimate contradiction is situated and played out within us all.

So many human beings have fallen into the egotistical trap of thinking that their period of history was the most crucial period. Mind you, if history is dialectically evolutionary, they were/are probably right. I do think, however, this is the most monumental period for humanity because now we have evolved our cleverness to a point where we are affecting things at a planetary level. The trick now is to convert our cleverness into wisdom. We need to wake up to the realisation that we are beings embodying and expressing universal evolutionary consciousness and that, since each one of us is (a unique and beautiful) part of the one reality of the universe, we need to use that realisation to create a life system in which both the system as a whole and each and every individual living part of that system can thrive and flourish. This is our historical task. We now have the scientific and technological knowledge to realise this. The obstacles are political and pedagogical. They are political because it is through politics that the old uses power to resist and repress and the new seeks power to transform and emerge. They are pedagogical because human transformation and emergence is a pedagogical process: we change through learning.

What is fundamental to emphasise, then, is that systemic change is no mechanistic process; that the old could well destroy the new (and the foundations of our social ecology with it); and so we need to recognise ourselves as living agents of universal consciousness with the power to take our species, our planet, possibly our universe to a way higher level of evolution. I will end with a call to all of us, but particularly young people, to get involved in catalysing and leading the processes that destroy the old and bring in the new.

In the meantime, watch these two talks. The first, by Daniel Schmachtenberger, is a more scientifistic perspective on WTF is happening; the second is an incredibly powerful argument by Aph Ko for the intersectional systemic nature of all forms of structural oppression, exploitation, and violence.

Thanks, as ever, for reading. Back soon


Democracy, Network versus hierarchy

The emergence of the network society: a matter of life and death

I recently listened to some lectures by American surgeon Dr Atul Gawande. In the first lecture, he told how a basic practical error in a hospital – placing an oxygen probe on the finger of the wrong hand – nearly led to the death of his own 11 year-old son. In the second, he told how a medical team in Klagenfurt, Austria, were able to work together to revive a 3 year-old girl who had ‘drowned’ in an icy lake for a full 30 minutes before she was fished out. At bottom, both episodes are about the issues of process and co-operation. In the first story, Gawande’s son nearly dies due to an absence of even basic checks and collaboration. In the second, a ‘dead’ girl is brought back to life by a team made up of dozens of individuals each playing indispensible roles in carrying out complex procedures with astonishing efficiency and effectiveness.


Gawande’s personal experience as near-bereaved father and seasoned surgeon and his personal discovery of the development and instituting of lifesaving processes in Austria led him to recognise the need for and to craft the first standard pre-operative checklist. He then worked with the World Health Organisation to get this simple checklist put in place in hospitals and clinics throughout the world. The results have been fantastic. Literally thousands of lives have been saved simply by having teams of medical staff come together to check everything is in order before they operate. Airlines have, of course, been doing this for decades. It’s remarkable and shocking that surgical and emergency medical teams have not.

 Gawande checklist

Gawande argues that we have been blinded by our belief in our own cleverness. He believes that the discovery of penicillin – that miraculous saver of millions – actually contributed a great deal to the foundations of an arrogant modernist philosophy of medicine built on the idea of the simple technical intervention: swallow this pill, take this injection and you’ll be fine. Our overwhelming focus has been on the individual – the individual body, the individual molecule, the individual gene – rather than on the complex interactions between bodies, molecules, and genes, not to mention, of course, the wider social and natural environment.

Gawande contends that we’re suffering not from a lack of knowledge, but of basic organisational efficiency and a corresponding humility. Ours is a strict hierarchical system within which the expertise of the most senior person is venerated. They are expected, and very often these hubristic experts themselves expect, to know everything and lead everyone. But, however smart and knowledgeable these individuals may be, they are flawed human beings working in increasingly complex systems. There was no secret to the success of the lifesaving team in the Austrian Alps beyond what amounted to a horizontalisation of organisational structure. Most tellingly, as the Austrian approach developed, the individual with what might seem the lowest position in the hospital’s hierarchy – the telephone operator – became the lynchpin of the whole operation. The telephone operator is the first to receive the emergency call and then springs into action to notify and coordinate all necessary staff members.

Atul Gawande’s examples come from the sphere of medicine, but the same principles are true in every area of human life. Ironically, one of the central arguments for the free market as opposed to the state-planned economy made by the venerated ideologues of the right such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman was that, since society and the economy, people’s interactions and desires, were far too complex and fluid for any small group of ‘wise men’ to know or predict, it was only through the mechanism of the unfettered and impartial market that scarce resources could be allocated efficiently and justly. As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, there is no free market. Markets are socially constructed and managed by the politically powerful and, rather than generating efficient or just outcomes, they invariably produce outcomes that serve the interests of capital against those of society and nature. Capital requires authoritarian rule. That’s why Milton Friedman played a crucial part in the 1973 coup against democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende in Chile.

Milton and Augusto Economist Milton Friedman and Chile’s murderous military dictator, General Augusto Pinochet

Neither is the conclusion of Gawande’s adventures to place more centralised power in the hands of the state. First, that centralised power, in conditions of extreme class, gender, and racial inequality, will only exacerbate the problems we face. Second, von Mises, von Hayek, and Friedman et al’s argument about the fallibility of the judgment of rulers is accurate. The real lesson of Gawande’s experiences and checklist is that we need a dramatic decentralisation, localisation, and democratisation of power. As Gawande himself said, we have moved through various social hierarchical models of communication. First, elites have simply imparted orders to the masses. Then, they have moved toward models of discipline and reward. Most recently, influenced by the modern advertising industry and behavioural psychology, they have sought to manipulate us in more unconscious ways.

The horizontalisation of organisational structure that Gawande proposes can and must have the corresponding outcome of a democratisation of power. People who previously played monotonous bit-part roles can become empowered to create and lead. Instead of orders going down the food chain and little going up, we can now have constant and multi-directional feedback. Instead of one supposedly all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful leader, suddenly we have every member of team able to see, know, and lead at different times. The result is dynamism where once was stasis; knowledge and information where once was ignorance; and democracy where once was dictatorship. If there’s a fatal flaw at the head of the old system, there’s collapse. If there’s a flaw in the new system, there’s revival. That’s the model of plant intelligence we’re slowly coming to understand.

The horizontalisation of organisational structures and the democratisation of power within these structures is being facilitated and catalysed by new information and communication technologies. Unfortunately, both the state and capitalism are the main fetters to the emergence of this exciting and hopeful new social model. Capitalism is a social relation between those who own and control property, production, and finance and those who are obliged to rent that property, work in that production, and pay that debt. Capitalism is not compatible with democratic forms of organisation and power. Because it divides humanity, authoritarian and coercive forms of organisation are required. As for the state, there is no reason why, under the right leadership, the state could facilitate this emergence, but the bureaucratic rigidity of the institutions and political culture of the current political system is very deeply entrenched.

In reality, the central political battle, as Paul Mason has described it, is between the old older of hierarchy and the newly emerging order of network. The old hierarchy has been very clever, but the new network is infinitely wiser. This superior wisdom of the network, and the greater power, efficiency and justice it can harness, will ensure that it finally emerges victorious. Ultimately, however, this is not a battle of systems, but a political struggle between human beings pit against each other by, and seeking to overcome, the fundamental contradictions inherent in the current social system. In reality, learning the lessons and building on the successes of Gawande’s medical reforms will depend on this wider social struggle.