Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Post-crisis opportunities: In quest of the socio-economics of non-action

Global Strategies Project


The case for an alternative strategic approach, based on a new mind-set, has been skilfully argued by Willis Harman in his Re-thinking the Central Institutions of Modern Society: Science and Business. This focuses on the need for the new paradigm that so many have been seeking for so long. Many of these points have been made in earlier texts and notably in the book by Willis Harman on Global Mind Change; the promise of the last years of the Twentieth Century (1988) and in Creative Work; the constructive role of business in a transforming society (1990) which he co-authored with John Horman. Much in the text reflects the concerned spirit of the times and calls for no comment -- although one might question the function of whatever inhibits the enthusiastic acceptance of such views.

The text is however much more challenging because of its implications for any attempt to raise such questions about its perspective and conclusions. The main point of this commentary is that Harman fails to distinguish the conditions under which his views are helpful and those under which they have consequences that are irresponsible and possibly downright dangerous.

1. Strategic inappropriateness of problem-solving

For many years Harman has stressed the inappropriateness of concern for "problems". This view is now echoed in many quarters. It dates back to much earlier times when referring to negatives of any kind brought "bad luck", now expressed in New Age terms of "negative energy". With compassion fatigue has come fatigue from "bad news", leading to calls for "good news" services. To compensate for the "bad news" junkies of doomsday think-tankers, we now have a backlash into "good news" junkies. In addition the capacity for dealing with negative feedback is being eroded by other priorities (career, funding, etc), especially when there is a despairing sense that nothing can be done. Thus the art of report writing in many international institutions is increasingly understood in terms of upbeat writing that avoids any negatives. It could be argued that this form of positive reporting, concerning the notorious O-rings, was one of the reasons for the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

2. Emphasis on solutions

Such problem avoidance has tended to be compensated by a focus on "solutions" as being "positive" and "constructive". Unfortunately in many cases such solutions are designed without any clear understanding of the problem to which they are supposed to respond. Harman's argument is that the problem-solution couple is itself inappropriate, echoing other authors who warn against the "problem-solving mentality" -- notably certain social constructionists. And indeed many jobs and institutional budgets are tied to ensuring that particular problems persist in order that they can continue to be "solved". With the present crises of unemployment, should people and groups be further disabused of that for which society compensates them -- however misguided?

3. Dangers of misinterpretation

There is indeed a pathological aspect of problem solving and many problem situations could be fruitfully reframed to identify more fundamental challenges. It is however dangerously easy to interpret Harman to imply that all problem solving is pathological. It may be that Harman intends his argument to apply only to non-material issues, rather than flat tires and leaking pipes. It is nevertheless reassuring that it is still acceptable for physicians to diagnose a bone fracture, prior to solving this problem for the patient. The fracture may indeed be a symptom of inadequate stairwell lighting, but to neglect the fracture in favour of dialogue with the landlord, or of eliciting a new architectural paradigm, would be somewhat unsatisfactory to the patient. Harman is especially insensitive to issues of timing, urgency and the immediate tragedy of personal suffering.

4. Justification for non-action

Harman's argument is also dangerously convenient for the many who want intellectual justification for not acting on problems. Is it really appropriate to argue that someone starving in Somalia, orsomeone being tortured in Bosnia, does not have a problem which calls for some form of solution? The appealing feature to this argument is that Harman could be interpreted as offering an intellectual function key which can "undo" or edit out anything unpleasant -- or the implication that anything need be done about it. The argument raises the suspicion that, faced with the dimensions of the challenge and its drain on the psyche, a convenient survival posture is to reframe the challenge as being part of a curative process that calls for no response. If one cannot do anything about it, assume it does not exist -- then it may go away! Arguably this summarizes the policy of the international community towards the Yugoslavia situation. The new non-action paradigm for which he calls is certainly emerging with a vengeance.

Using Harman's metaphor of society as an organism exhibiting symptoms (rather than problems), it is worth recalling that the medical profession often needs to develop solutions for the symptoms before the body is in a sufficiently healthy state to treat the underlying disease. His text is unfortunately ambiguous in equating such symptoms with various alternative movements as indicators that the immune system is functioning. There are those who would agree that such movements are an "abscess".

5. Role of alternative movements

It is unfortunate that Harman finds it necessary to position his chosen alternative movements on the moral high ground from which his truth can be "intuitively grasped". Until it is accepted with appropriate humility that most social actors have both their strengths and their weaknesses it will indeed be difficult to give form to the new paradigm to which he refers. The alternative movements he names are far from lacking in weaknesses and their grasp of the new truths has not enabled them to engender social organizations capable of implementing such insights, especially on the larger scale to which governments are obliged to respond. The same is true of his "inner explorers" of the various esoteric and spiritual traditions. Their grasp of the science of wholeness has not given form to structures or processes capable of responding to large scale social malaise -- indeed their failure to interact creatively amongst themselves is a symptom of fundamental inadequacies in their understanding. Intellectual or spiritual self-righteousness is not the way. Harman is irresponsible in not pointing to the pathologies of those who would claim to support his views. But of course recognition of the existence of problems is precisely what he is arguing against.

6. Establishing credibility

In much of his text Harman struggles valiantly to give form to a new pattern of understanding. His efforts are widely praised and justifiably so. Many are engaged in this process from a wide variety of perspectives. It is however the case that this collective enterprise has not yet resulted in a coherent pattern of insights on which an alternative socio-economic system can be successfully constructed -- even on the smallest scale. Has the Rio Earth Summit and its aftermath really been adequate to the challenge? There are many admirable innovations and pieces of the puzzle but they are not yet comprehensive enough to offer a viable alternative lifestyle that is not effectively subsidized by the system which Harman condemns. Few dare to invest their futures, and those of their families, in such social innovations. Ultimately we are all subsidized through our participation in that which we condemn --even the acclaimed alternative communities such as Findhorn, or the New Age businesses such as the Body Shop. Rather than a Biosphere2 project, what is required is a Sociosphere2 project to give credibility to the perspectives he outlines. If the argument is so credible, this should be readily demonstrable in practice by those who intuitively grasp it.

7. Awaiting "global mind change"

Harman's ready response to this charge is that until there is a "global mind change" we will not be able to sustain the pattern which viably connects the different pieces. Is there not something suspiciously similar to millennialism in this willingness to waitpassively for the paradigm to shift? Harman concludes that this change is coming about of its own accord. We are reassured that once we have understood this, we do not even need to act to help bring in the new era. One wonders why Harman needed to write the article given this perspective -- might such action not be counter-productive? There is however still something deeply repugnant about the implication that the Muslim women being raped in Bosnia, or the starving wherever, should be advised to simply lie back and think of Gaia. Are there no qualifications on the relevance of the Sufi view of "the perfection of what is"?

8. Recognizing a paradigm shift

There are illusions to the implications of any form of future enlightenment that are best summarized by the Zen adage: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, draw water; After enlightenment, chop wood, draw water." Global mind change may indeed offer a new pattern of insights about "chopping wood and drawing water" to some who can grasp it. The issue is whether the present rapid increase in destabilizing forces will enable even the best to articulate operational structures and processes which reflect that pattern -- and what to do about those who refuse to be so inspired. How are they to be integrated into the new pattern which they may strongly oppose? Or are we to be faced with a new form of Gaian fascism, similar to that noted concerning past millenarian movements:

"This phantasy performed a real function for them, both as an escape from their isolated and atomized condition and as an emotional compensation for their abject status; so it quickly came to enthral them in their turn. And what emerged then was a new group -- a restlessly dynamic and utterly ruthless group which, obsessed by the apocalyptic phantasy and filled with the conviction of its own infallibility, set itself infinitely above the rest of humanity and recognized no claims save that of its own supposed mission." (Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millenium: revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages, 1970, p. 285)

9. Problems as solutions?

But within the Gaian perspective, perhaps one should take a creative step beyond Harman's position and treat all problems as solutions, rather than as symptoms. Certainly major epidemics and food shortages are a healthy corrective to over-population. More positive effects for a healthy planetary ecosystem can be achieved by encouraging smoking than by discouraging it. Wars tend to have a very healthy effect on repressive social structures. It is even being argued that destruction of the ozone layer is finally exposing the planet to the healthy effects of solar radiation. And there is of course much learning to be gained from the many forms of pain and suffering, whether one's own or that of others. Should people be deprived of such opportunity?

Perhaps an even more creative step would be to argue that within a Gaian framework humanity evokes problems as remedies for the conditions with which it chooses not to deal consciously -- on which it chooses not to act. There are those of more fundamentalist persuasion who would argue that the less we endeavour to remedy problems, the more quickly and beneficially the crisis of Armageddon will come to a head -- with the release that is promised thereafter.

10. Reframing contexts of appropriateness

The real challenge of Harman's text is to reframe his argument to identify the conditions under which it is helpful and to relate these to other conditions where it is not. The challenge is to identify unhelpful dichotomies by which his argument polarizes social roles and functions -- obscuring their essentially complementary nature especially when characterized by opposition.

The "new paradigm" must find its place in a pattern of complementary paradigms rather than create a paradigmatic hegemony, as has been the case so many times in past efforts to impose new visions of "the true, the good and the beautiful". In fact is it not the ecology of paradigms which will effectively reframe the development-environment dilemma, rather than a single paradigm with its self-righteous advocates demonizing those of the past and those opposed to it? The natural environment so elegantly illustrates the variety of functions distinct species perform, whether recently emergent or not. Should humanity endeavour to "escape" the hard learnt patterning of checks andbalances of so many millions of years of evolution? Paradigms can usefully be seen as co-evolving species in a global learning system.

But in stretching to articulate the new, why does Harman find it necessary to take such an anthropocentric view? Is the central purpose of advanced human societies really to "advance human growth and development to the fullest extent, to promote human learning in the broadest possible definition"? Having challenged the "objective observer" and argued for "oneness" surely there is a case for acknowledging some of the views of deep ecology and the inherent value of other species independently of their exploitation by humans? The future of humanity may be much more intimately related to that of other species and the planet as a whole than his statement allows.

11. Mind change in a learning system

One fruitful way of reframing his perspective is to recognize human society as a global learning system. Within such a multicultural system, groups, societies and individuals are exploring quite different frontiers, coming to new understandings in the light of the processes and crises through which their assumptions and blindspots lead them. We are all free to indulge in exercises at judging the levels of insight which others have reached. But it is useful to recognize that our own next "mind change" may reveal fundamental insights which are relatively trivial to groups we may have previously disparaged.

In such a non-linear learning context, our own past may itself carry unsuspected truths: "And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time" (T S Eliot). In this sense the newness of global mind change could prove to lie in the ability to interweave the insights already articulated within different parts of the learning system. If, as Gregory Bateson said, "Destroying the pattern which connects, destroys all quality", then one challenge is to discover and enrich the learning pattern which connects.

Figure 1: Never-ending global mapping exercise

12. Context for non-action

Figure 1, as an exercise, takes Harman's advocacy of "non-action" and positions it in relation to its natural complement of "action". But the diagram also incorporates the further two complementary categories from Eastern logics which are so questionable within Western academic traditions, namely: "action and non-action" and "neither action nor non-action". This makes the scope of the learning system more "global" and increases the variety of niches that it provides.

Figure 1 is a much simplified version of one developed from a study of human values in the light of chaos theory. As such it can be used to maintain some useful distinctions that are easily lost in Harman's presentation. The genius of the "cartesian" logic of the modernist world (Class II) that Harman necessarily condemns emerged in reaction (below the horizontal) to a "primitive" mindset (Class I), the nature of whose truths are now being rediscovered. The postmodernist reaction (Class III), of which he is part, is a natural complement (across one diagonal) to that modernist perspective (Class II). Unfortunately the emergence of such perspectives can only be brought about by demonizing that from which they originated.

The arguments above that are indeed unjustifiably critical of Harman can usefully be seen as an effort to create recognition for a complementary fourth space (Class IV) corresponding to a "new realism" which may be one of the most valuable consequences of Bosnia. Its nature remains to be articulated but it will presumably involve a new understanding of the relationship between "death" (Class I) and "renewal" (Class IV). The Gulf War was a response corresponding to the conventional "modernist" (Class II) approach, despite the objections of the "peace" perspective (Class III). The inadequacy of the non-action response advocated by the peace movement has been demonstrated in Bosnia. It is a sad irony that the number of deaths in the Gulf War and Yugoslavia may finally be of the same order. The need for new thinking should be recognized as a complement to existing modes -- rather than simply as a replacement for them.

13. Complementarity of alternatives

The "pattern that connects" may be said to lie in the complementarity of the four modes illustrated by the diagram. The ability to shift fluidly between modes according to need (as withthe gear shift of an automobile) is what is called for. Herein lies the promise of any "global mind change" which should not be confused with the Class III or Class IV perspectives. It is dangerous, as Bosnia has illustrated, to rely on any one approach -- even non-action. It is especially dangerous for the advocates of any one approach to see that as the key to any "global mind change" -- whether it be the postmodernists (Class III), the technocrats (Class II), or the "back to nature" survivalists (Class I). It is through this fluidity that a variety of appropriate responses will emerge to the employment, production and environment challenges addressed by Harman.

With his emphasis on Class III, Harman's perspective is therefore absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. A more global perspective recognizes the vital function of those who disagree fundamentally with one approach, because their learning makes another more credible and appropriate to them under their current circumstances. Cruising in "third gear" may be appropriate on a freeway, but "first" may be essential on a hill, and "second" may be vital for rapid acceleration. Global mind change does not provide an "automatic shift" that can substitute for learning the gear-shift skills of driving. This mechanical metaphor is in fact quite unsatisfactory because of the subtlety called for in the pattern of shifts. These may bear greater resemblance to changing chords on a musical instrument. There is a marked difference between a novice and a racing driver able to "play a gearbox like a violin". Whether gear or chord, our problem is that we do not yet know how to change and are fanatical about the appropriateness of our chosen mode.

Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. The art to be discovered in rethinking institutions of modern society is how to use them skilfully and appropriately. The present times require all that our cultures have invented. Each feature has its shadowy aspect which is a challenge from any other perspective. The issue is how to comprehend the interrelationship of these many perspectives, recognizing where and when they are of value and for whom. Global mind change is not a question of selective demonizing of seemingly outdated perspectives. We are all in the same boat. The "first" may need to be the last, whilst the "last" become the first in any transition to a new condition.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential