1st December 1993
The Quest for the Socio-Economics of Non-Action
- / -
Published in Futures
, 25, 10, December 1993, pp. 1088-1093 on
the paper by Willis Harman Rethinking the central institutions of modern society:
science and business
, 25, 10, December 1993, pp. 1063-1069
There are many aspects to Willis Harman's text which usefully argue 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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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, or someone
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".
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.
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.
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 millenialism in this willingness to wait passively 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"?
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
"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, 1970,
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
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? (Judge, 1990). 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 and balances 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.
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 I, 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: Interrelating strategies of action and non-action
The figure is a much simplified version of another
(below) developed from a study of human values in the light of chaos theory (Judge,
1993). 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.
|Figure 2 : Never-ending global mappping exercise
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
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 with the 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
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.
Willis Harman. Global Mind Change; the promise
of the last years of the Twentieth Century. Knowledge Systems,
Willis Harman and John Horman. Creative Work;
the constructive role of business in a transforming society.
Knowledge Systems, 1990
Norman Cohn. The Pursuit of the Millenium:
revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages. London,
- Through Metaphor to a Sustainable Ecology of Development Policies.
In: Trzyna, T C and Gotelli, I (Eds): The Power of Convening; collaborative
policy forums for sustainable development. Sacramento, California Institute
of Public Affairs, 1990, pp. 64-81. [text]
- Human values as strange attractors (Paper for the 13th World
Conference of the World Futures Studies Federation, Turku, August 1993. Theme:
Coherence and chaos in our uncommon futures; visions, means, actions) [text]