The Dialectics of Change and the Folly of Activism from the Neck Up

By Edward-Yemil Rosario

People often ask me to talk about solutions. I believe that most of the time people are genuinely interested in what I have to say. However, sometimes I suspect the question is a passive/ aggressive way to dismiss my observations, mistakenly thinking that because I can adequately articulate what is, that I have lost sight of what can be.

I am deeply steeped in theory and scholarly pursuits, but I am also a doer — I am an activist by profession. Activism is a way of engaging the mind/ body in the service of change. The process itself is pure creativity. I have come to  understand that the process of activism (what I like to call engaged spirituality) as just that — a process. “I” am not the owner of the process; “I” don’t bring about change. Rather, I am part of a creative process of change.

I will submit that many politically-minded people approach political science from an almost purely philosophical perspective. Everybody has an idea or opinion about how to do something, or a critique of how things are now. I call that “activism from the neck up” — something akin to mental masturbation. I have found that people who engage the world mostly from the “neck up” (disengaged from action) oftentimes fail to understand the experiential component of social change. That’s because they’re not flowing in the process of actual change, they’re merely staring at, to use Plato’s metaphor, the shadows on the cave wall.

This is not a terribly complicated affair, but if you’ve never participated in a grassroots movement, or in the process of organizing people around the notion of change, then it’s a foreign concept. This disengagement — this disembodiment — tends to make people form reductionist and condescending notions about human behavior and how change occurs. There is nothing more magical than being a part of a group committed toward social change. It is in within that process where you become intimately aware of just how smart people actually are, or what it takes to move a group: from the couple who provide their apartment for meetings, to the old lady who brings food, in short, all those who take care of all the little details that converge to make something significant happen.

I’m not going to go into the details of community organizing or social policy change at this time, but I do want to share a framework of how to look at how things change because it’s a key in developing a winning strategy for change. Knowing that everything changes and how things change is empowering. For example, sometimes people say, “What difference can one person make?” When you understand that each drop adds up to make a mighty ocean, you know you are important. Every vote counts; every voice matters; that extra bit of effort may be all it takes to reach a turning point.

Having an evolved sense of how change occurs provides the tool that gives you the wisdom to work steadily and patiently for change — building the side you want to win, studying how much farther you need to go and what you need to do to make a turning point. When all of your small pieces of effort are added to other people’s, great things can be accomplished: buildings are erected, railroads are run, elections are won, diseases are defeated, regimes are toppled.

I’m going to call this framework, Spiral Dialectics, and I borrow heavily from Engels who was a collaborator of Karl Marx’s.

But before I go there I want to get all pedantic on yo asses just a little longer… Last week one of my fellow contributors here at Subversify, posted a rather thought-provoking piece (click here). In it, he offers a general outlook on human nature and in the process articulates several assumptions about history and the process of change. He also offers some solutions. The piece is well-written, but I believe it suffers from an over-simplified view of how change occurs, and a reductionist assumption of human nature. But my aim here is not to address specific parts of the essay (you can judge the piece for yourself). Rather, my aim here is to offer an alternative framework.
So here goes…

First let me offer a very quick (and admittedly inadequate) overview of dialectics. Dialectics is a tool to understand the way things are and the way things change. The notion of dialectics has a long history — far too lengthy for my purposes here. However, understanding dialectics is actually quite simple:

1. Every thing (every object and every process) is made of opposing forces/opposing sides.
2. Gradual changes lead to turning points, where one opposite overcomes the other.
3. Change moves in spirals, not circles.

These are the three laws of dialectics according to Frederick Engels, a revolutionary thinker and partner of Karl Marx, writing in the 1870s in his book,  Dialectics of Nature. Engels believed that dialectics was “A very simple process which is taking place everywhere and every day, which any child can understand.” This web site is dedicated to proving his point. In fact, this essay is partly dedicated to proving Engels’ assertion correct.

The dialectical process is not a creation of Marxist philosophy. It was modified and polished into a broad-based philosophy by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who died when Marx was thirteen years old. Marxists combine the theory with materialism, creating a hybrid philosophy — dialectical materialism. Here’s how it works:

1. Everything is made of opposites. No object could hold together without an opposing force to keep it from flying apart. The earth tries to fly away from the sun, but gravity holds it in orbit. Electrons try to fly away from the nucleus of an atom, but electromagnetism holds the atom together. Ligaments and tendons provide the ties that hold bones together and muscles to bones.

Like material objects, the process of change needs opposing forces. Change needs a driving force to push it ahead, otherwise everything stays put. A billiard ball only moves when hit with a pool cue or another ball. We eat when our hunger tells us to. A car won’t move if its engine won’t start. To win in fair elections candidates need more votes than their opponents.

Engels called this law the “interpenetration of opposites.” Hegel often referred to the “unity of opposites” (one also sees this at work in Eastern philosophies). This may sound contradictory, but it is easy to understand. It’s like acknowledging there is no night without day, or that there is no game if one side quits, no atom if the electrons fly away or that the whole needs all of its parts to be a whole. In fact, I doubt you can come up with anything that isn’t made of opposites.

2. Gradual changes lead to turning points. What happens is that the two opposing forces in a process of change push against each other. As long as one side is stronger than the other side, change is gradual. But when the other side becomes stronger, there is a turning point — an avalanche, a birth, a collapse, a discovery… Engels called this the law of the transformation of quantity into quality. Quantitative change is the gradual build-up of one opposing force. Qualitative change takes place when that opposite becomes dominant.

It’s hard to overestimate how powerful this law is in describing the stages of development of anything. A person’s life follows these quantitative/qualitative changes. Likewise human history, or the history of a particular place, has gone through many stages. Dialectics is so powerful a tool that physicist Michio Kaku describes the history of the universe for its first 10 billion years by a series of dialectical stages, using only 250 words!

3. Change moves in spirals, not circles. Take a breath. Take another one. Seems like the same, huh? It isn’t. The “you” who took the first breath is quantitatively different from the “you” who took the second breath. Cells have died and been replaced. Time has passed. Perhaps, being mindful of your breath, you have come to an epiphany. While your breathing may appear cyclical, it is actually a spiral. Many changes are spiral — first one side dominates then the other — as in day/night, one opposite then another. Dialectics argues that these cycles do not come back exactly to where they started; they don’t make a perfect circle. Instead, change is evolutionary, moving in a spiral.

Sometimes the changes are so minute we think nothing is really different. It’s true that we hardly change in a measurable way with every breath. But we can see that many cycles do come around to a different place — children are not the same as their parents, even if they are a lot alike. People go to school and learn; when they return home, they are no longer the same. And, like it or not, you are a bit older with every breath you take.

Engels, again following Hegel, called this law “negation of negation.” This sounds complicated, but, as Engels said, it is going on all the time. What happens is that first one side overcomes its opposite (first negation). This marks a turning point as in Engels’ 2nd law. Next, the new side is once again overcome by the first side. This is negation of negation.

Here is a common example: A normal conversation requires negation of negation to move ahead. First one person talks, then the other; the second negates the first. Pretty soon, however, the first person begins talking again. The conversation makes no sense if the first person simply repeats what they said the first time. Instead, the first person now has listened to the second person talk, so the negation of negation returns to a different place (hopefully one of more understanding).

Unfortunately spirals can go down as well as up. For example, if a person is feeling depressed, they may take drugs or alcohol to feel better. This may negate their bad feelings for a while, but when the drug wears off, the person often feels worse than when they started.

Of course we want our spirals to go upward. When they do, we live healthier and happier lives, full of learning, growing, and reaching our full potential.

So that’s the three laws of dialectics. Not too difficult, right?

Of course, there’s more to understanding change than these three laws. Perhaps at some future date, I’ll write about real campaigns I have been involved and how they benefited from this framework. The work I am involved in is all about the process of change. It is one of the great pleasures (and frustrations!) of my life.

Criticizing existing political and economic systems without at least giving an idea of what can replace them is more than activism from the “neck up.” Let me state right up front that, regretfully, I am not in possession of the “ideal” meta system. I don’t know the exact steps that need to be taken to free us from our invisible (and sometimes visible) shackles. Furthermore, I doubt that it is possible for human nature to be contained within a system developed by the collective consciousness that created the shackles in the first place. Our passions are wider and more profound than simple structuring and decision-making. Our hearts and bodies, ruled by sometimes unconscious demands moored in the history of our cultural DNA, rule us more than any system or mode of production.

Our history over the past twenty-five hundred years or so is littered with idealistic systems that have failed to break our chains.

Plato’s Republic was, at least partially, a philosophical rant against the failings of Athenian democracy. Plato idealized a particular form of education as a rigorous system for weeding out in order to obtain and empower a group of enlightened rulers. These rulers would then sit over the lesser population, without family ties or wealth; thus they would be relieved of the desire to pass on power or to sell it.

For Plato, the state was of prime importance. Family relations and other personal freedoms were secondary.

Karl Marx believed that the economic system overseeing production also ruled the social relations and political structure of nations. He believed that there was scientific necessity behind these economic forces and that there was a predictable end to social development based on the mode of production. But change, Marx declared, was necessarily accompanied by tectonic-like social shifts between the old system (represented by the capitalists) and the proletariat (the workers).

Both the Republic and the theories of capitalism saw an enlightened dictatorship as a necessary part of the development of the state, thus exhibiting a distrust of the nature of intelligence of the common folk.

Platonism is an extreme ideal. And while almost everyone is aware of the great communist revolutions of the twentieth century and the failures that accompanied them, Plato’s ideas (in one form or another) had a much longer run, eventually melding into a thousand-year-long medieval society, with its serfs and soldiers ruled over by a global theocracy. Today, one can see the same forces at work creating a globalized form of government ruled by multinational corporations. Platonism has had its moments of experimentation and it failed because of its deep distrust of the minds of the masses.

This distrust of human nature seems at first blush to be a valid point of view in light of the evident criminal self-interest rampant in our nation (and the rest of the world) today. This compels some to believe that a population allowed to exercise free will is an open invitation to chaos.

Restrictive measures, we are often reminded go hand in hand with unfettered capitalism. Freedom for Americans, it follows, becomes no more than an economic issue. Money equals freedom (and post Citizens United, also free speech). Money equals happiness; money is even the primary element in love and beauty, and intelligence. All these centuries of science and technological advance and socially we’re no more mature than we were thousands of years ago. In fact, some might argue (quite successfully) that we have spiraled downward.

Last week I wrote about the events happening in Wisconsin. I think if you look at Wisconsin from the limited scope of history as a cycle, Wisconsin doesn’t mean all that much. However, I believe that if you keep an open mind and look at Wisconsin (as well as Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain) from the framework of spiral dialectics, you begin to see the true significance of these incidents. Egypt has touched off Libya, the Saudis, and even (to a smaller extent) Iran. Wisconsin has essentially awoken the sleeping giant of American politics — the vanishing, abused middle class. I really don’t care about your opinion here; rather my challenge to the reader is to point out another time in American history where tens of thousands of everyday citizens have sustained such a prolonged and passionate outrage. Wisconsin has touched off Ohio and Indiana. New Jersey is rethinking its bullshit and every other politician demanding that the financial malfeasance committed by the richest 10% be fixed on the backs of the workers and the poor is looking to see what happens in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is showing that a society that puts the interests of its corporations above those of its citizens creates instability. A nation where poverty is commonplace and homelessness is a reality cannot expect self-sacrifice from the majority of its people.

Change, history shows, comes in increments — it’s a play between the yin and yang of polar opposites, each negating each other in a spiral of development that is itself a delicate balance. Anyone who thinks we can continue to fuck with environment without long-term horrific consequences, for example, is a fuckin’ blind idiot. The science is out on that. Period.

The point here is that this framework can help you understand where to place the wedge. And the wedge, when applied at the right time at the right moment in collaboration with your brothers and sisters, topples the most powerful. All the guns and power and greed eventually are negated. It is how it has always happened and will continue to happen. The point here, my fiends, is whether we will continue the bullshit activism from the “neck up” or actually pull up our sleeves and nurture the Wisconsin in our heart and soul, where we live.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…