Effective Activism

image credit: H. Valdez

Original article on the Co-Intelligence Institute’s Web site.

Some theories and ideas about who and why transformative social change is a valuable next step for all activists. 


Some of us feel something is wrong or missing in activism based on adversariality, power struggles, critiques, demonstrations and endless meetings with no juice. Somehow we — and those we are fighting — get lost as people. We sense there’s something important — something about heart, humanness, spirit, wholeness, LIFE! — upon which we could base our activism, that would make our work more productive and meaningful — as well as putting us on the leading edge of cultural and personal evolution.

There are a number of directions our inquiry into activism might take. However, before we look at these, it might be useful to explore (individually and/or together) our own

  • questions, inquiries and issues about activism
  • stories, examples, situations which illustrate what we want or don’t want in activism
  • our feelings, intuitions, frustrations, etc., about activism
  • the ideas and ideals with which we judge forms of activism, both real and imagined
  • what is important to us, or has juice for us, that might be relevant here?
  • anything else that will free our hearts and orient us (individually and/or together) for an open inquiry into where we want to go as activists.

When we’re ready, below are some new directions our activism could take. This is in no way a conclusive list, but it does give a good variety of paths, many of which could be combined with others. When you read the list, how do you respond to each item? Do you resonate with it? Object to it? Dismiss it as not relevant? Is there STILL something important missing? What is it?

I) Activism that is more human, personal and alive — that has more art, community, story, friendship, spirit, aliveness in it for the participants — and perhaps even for those affected by it or viewing it. For example: Art and Revolution; talking circles; retreats; as many potlucks and celebrations and parties as meetings; hearing each other’s life stories; check-ins; support networks for activists; etc. We feel like we’re treated as real people, and it’s an “alive scene!” Two readings: Fran Peavey’s HEART POLITICS. Joanna Macy and MoIly Young Brown’s COMING BACK TO LIFE.

II) Activism that integrates all of who we are – feelings, thoughts, bodies, spirits, citizens, etc. Examples: Co-counseling; Interhelp. We share an inquiry here about what it means to be a whole person engaged with the world. Peavey’s HEART POLITICS and Margo Adair’s WORKING INSIDE OUT.

III) Activism that focuses on process, dialogue, listening, relationship, questions, learning, weaving – that has no agenda of its own, but which enables, frees, links, enlightens, and empowers all energies towards a better world. Examples: strategic questioning, the public conversation project, listening projects. (This includes activism that empowers community: future search, holistic management, citizen deliberative councils, etc.) (Peavey has stuff to say on this, too.)

IV) Activism that focuses on the “life energy band” in ourselves and others — the values, needs, visions, missions, purposes, things that matter or have juice for us, etc., — that evoke self-organizing, self-motivating energies and help prevent/resolve conflict. Examples: Nonviolent communication. Open space technology.

V) Activism AS a spiritual practice that exercises compassion, service, mindfulness, acceptance, trust, courage, faith, recognition of the sacred in everyone/everything, connection to a higher power, participatory/co-creative awareness, evolution of a sangha, or whatever our particular spiritual focus may be. Examples: Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Network of Spiritual Progressives.

VI) Activism that focuses on higher-order (contextual) factors in society, such as co-intelligence, democracy, story fields, cultural assumptions, etc., that give greater leverage for deep change than the usual issue-oriented activism. Citizen deliberative councils. Story Field Conference. Real Progress Indicator. Tom Atlee’s THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY.

VII) Activism that is more strategic and long-term – that looks beyond the next demonstration. Each action fits into a larger whole. There’s a plan and a logic to it that magnifies the relevance of each piece and adds up to a particular vision of society. Example: Party politics (Democratic & Republican, but also Communist, which is based on a whole Marxist worldview). (The question “What would a holistic equivalent to the socialist movement look like?” bridges over to the next item.)

VIII) Activism that works with patterns uncovered by “the new sciences.” What would activism look like if it took seriously the dynamics of wholeness, complex adaptive systems, self-organization, evolution and non-linear aliveness?

The sciences in question include: ecology, evolution, the Gaia hypothesis, chaos and complexity theories, field theory, quantum mechanics, relativity, cybernetics, systems theory and living systems theory, the theory of dissipative structures, holism, holographics, morphic resonance, etc.

The dominant issue is that most traditional/current activism is based in the Newtonian model of separate entities and linear cause-and-effect relationships — a model which has limited application.

Readings might include: Fritjof Capra’s THE WEB OF LIFE, Meg Wheatley’s LEADERSHIP AND THE NEW SCIENCE, John Briggs and F. David Peat’s TURBULENT MIRROR and SEVEN LIFE LESSONS OF CHAOS, Waldrop’s COMPLEXITY. Paul Krafel’s SEEING NATURE. David Spangler’s EVERYDAY MIRACLES. Michael Dowd’s THANK GOD FOR EVOLUTION! Robert Wright’s NON-ZERO.

Inquires could include: In social change, activism, governance and politics, what are the implications of the following (many of which overlap each other):

  • the edge of order and chaos, order in chaos, chaos in order; [where life resides]
  • self-organization and autopoesis (self-creation)
  • self-referentiality, self-catalysis, self-replication, iteration
  • feedback (positive, negative, etc.)
  • perturbations, bifurcation points and sudden transformation
  • balance far from equilibrium
  • emergent order/properties
  • closed and open systems
  • The Butterfly Effect – unpredictability, the power of initial conditions, “the few simple rules” (and cellular automata) (incl. the power of vision, identity and values to orient self-organized action)
  • the fractal nature of reality
  • developmental models and the dynamics of cosmic, biological, and cultural evolution
  • control vs participation (the revolution in causality)
  • holographics (and various other “whole-in-part” dynamics)
  • relationship, interconnection, networks
  • non-locality, field phenomena (including morphogenic fields), and synchronicity
  • process structures (objects-as-patterns-of-process dynamics-in-relationship): living systems as pattern + structure + life processes
  • non-linear dynamics
  • complementarity
  • synergy (and holergyinnergymembergy?) – power from patterns of wholeness
  • The Gaia Hypothesis, deep ecology, we are the world
  • attractors (point, periodic, strange) [and phase space?]
  • the cognitive nature of living systems (which can include collective intelligence)
  • uncertainty and indeterminacy

A beginning to this inquiry is contained in the article below:


Activism and the New Science
: Some Lessons for Action in a Nonlinear World

Many understandings from the new sciences could provide us with new patterns for our activism, appropriate for a world that is not as linear, predictable and controlled as it sometimes seems. The list below is just a taste of the richness that exists there. May it provoke useful thinking. — Tom Atlee

Complexity theory — Life dies in the presence of too much order or too much chaos. Life thrives on the border between order and chaos. There are many strategies for living well in that borderland, and for experiments that extend in both directions.

Chaos theory — Any event has a pattern of outcomes towards which it is drawn, some more probable than others. At any point, a small shift in conditions can have an inordinate influence on the outcome, especially if it takes into account that intrinsic pattern of outcome probabilities (its strange attractor) and has iterative power. (Note: The wilder a system becomes, the less resistance it has to change, but the harder it is to shape that change, because more variables are at work.)

Ecology — Living things exist in co-creative interactive relationship with each other. If you want to impact an entity, address the web of relationships that are its context. If you want a new society, think at least as much about life-enhancing and sustaining design criteria as about the state of individuals. If you want a self-organizing, sustainable society, increase the quantity and quality of dialogue (co-creative interaction) among its members. (Also: Diversity is a resource for an adaptive system.)

Systems theory — Feedback loops monitor conditions in a system. Although physical feedback loops are powerful, cognitive feedback loops have a particularly profound effect on the health and intelligence of human systems. Institutionalized collective cognitive feedback loops at the societal level can make or break all our efforts to generate social change and cultural evolution.

Field theory — Just as planets are governed by magnetic fields, people are governed by psychocultural fields — fields of narrative, meaning, habit, etc. — whose force you can experience by moving counter to them. Change the field, and you influence the behavior and consciousness of everything in it.

Living systems theory — A system is a system because it has an identity, a coherence which it tries to maintain. All changes must be framed within that identity or the identity must change. (Note: There are layers of identity. And purpose is closely related to identity.)

Quantum physics — Reality is basically participatory. None of us is _only_ an observer. How we view something evokes certain realities in our relationship with that thing and certain characteristics in that thing itself — and in us. Given that this is true for everyone and everything, linear causality (prediction and control) is only relatively real and functional — and can seriously mislead us. It is often more useful to ground ourselves in uncertainty, probability fields, mutual causality and a sense of co-creativity.

Holism – There’s more to a whole than an accumulation of parts. There are many ways that this is true (synergy, holergy, ambiguity, etc.), and you can get free resources by tapping into this reality.

Evolution – Evolution progresses through the interaction of diverse entities in contexts that are challenging and nurturing. And it generates more complex entities by ensuring that the component entities’ nature or self-interest is aligned with the well-being and functionality of the whole. We can apply these principles consciously to transform today’s world, which amounts to conscious evolution.

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