My daughter who is ten told me the other day that she wanted to change the world. Just like that. Out of the blue. No input from me or her mother. I don’t think I have ever mentioned those words or that combination of words in her presence…but they are there, in the ether, the culture, all around us. For years I had them lodged in my brain as a kind of ultimate directive, a sort of Asimov Robot Law: Thou shalt strive to change the world. I can remember it was almost a physical shock when I read these words by Doris Lessing: “No one changes the world, it’s impossible to change the world.” What heresy I thought- and from a former leftist to boot. But it set me free, if being set free means allowing oneself to think about a subject previously locked down, sorted, out of reach.
There are two parts to the statement: The World, and, Change. I finally understood what Doris Lessing meant when I started to look at what we mean by “The World”. Do we mean the institutions that already exist: schools, parliaments, police forces, churches, businesses? Or do we mean the way individuals behave towards each other- the matrices of everyday life so to speak- politeness, honesty, sanity, common sense, thoughtfulness, mental rigour, self discipline?
The two- the micro and the macro if you like- are connected of course. An institution filled with lazy, incompetent, selfish people will not work well on any level. On the other hand institutions- big groupings of people- take on a life of their own. This institutional life-force can overwhelm the best intentions of the people inside the organisation. If there is leeway, if rules can be bent, then the institution (as long as the people inside are bending rules for the right reasons) can thrive. But when places become ruled by rules then competent individuals either give up- or spend a lot of time looking for loopholes. And that is not to be overlooked: you can usually find a loophole. But it takes times and effort- diverting you away from your main purpose.
Institutions develop a life of their own. They are born, they mature, they die, they are kept alive indefinitely on a life support system.
Businesses are institutions and though they can extend their lifespan by bullying the marketplace through advertising and monopoly practices, eventually they have to die if they make no money.
Other institutions develop reverse-effectosis. They end up reversing their initial intention. The anti-desertification project that created a small desert of destroyed fragile top soil through driving around in 4x4s looking for desertification evidence is my favourite example of this.
The police is a another. Everyone wants to see ordinary bobbies walking the beat. It’s reassuring and effective. End of story. No one wants to see them sitting in the police station filling in reports. No one wants to see them howling around in cars. But they do the latter for very good reasons: the institution’s life is stronger than the forces outside that set up the institution in the first place.
Other institutions are more insidious. The absurd rule followed for the sake of following rules. If you can lose your job for not following the rules then rules, however absurd, will be followed. Most of the excesses and stupidities of organisations are traceable to the fear of losing your job by not following the rules.
Of course you need rules, but you need people with sanity, measure, experience, competence and courage to apply them. Or not apply them.
Unfortunately, to initiate a regime of sanity, measure and so on you have to be at the top or near the top of an institution. But if you have to submit to the madness of the system to get there you will be changed en route. As the saying goes: “Everything that goes into a salt mine becomes salt.”
And, hence, you cannot change the world, if changing the world means changing an existing dead or dying or only just about alive institution from the inside.
The next strategy, and the one most attractive is to attack. Destroy, smash, revolt, burn. But destruction is only that. Banning something is only that. Stopping something is only that. By this I mean, something must replace it, some new institution must be created that nurtures sensible behaviour. In the end you always have to build.
And the desire to ban usually stems from panacea thinking. People get fixated without realising as a general principle society is massively permeable and everything is connected. Ban video games and all will start reading and all will be well, ban TV and kids will stop being naughty and all will be well, ban smoking and all will be healthy and all will be well, ban speeding and no one will die and all will be well.
If growing up means one thing it means the experiential understanding that all living things are connected and no one thing is the cause of all that is bad on this planet. In fact believing that curing the ‘major problem’ is the be all and end all has probably been the major problem in recent history.
A little experience teaches us that you need to attend to many different things at once. If you grow a plant you need to attend to water, weather, plant food. And you can neglect one or two but not all.
You have to fine tune each area, not rushing, just improving a bit here and a bit there. When you move to a new area you have an unsatisfactory life at first. No friends, no recreational possibilities, no knowledge of where to get things or get things fixed. But you start fine tuning. One person leads to another and you find, as if by magic, people who will be friends. You hear about a good dentist and car mechanic and you find the best shops. You join a club or society- be it for ballroom dancing or clay pigeon shooting. And one day you’re driving along in your car and you know all of a sudden that you’re happy and contented in your new place.
You’ve changed your world.
But what about THE WORLD?
I think it’s interesting to look at business. When a business dies, as major league publishing is dying right now, and as the music business has already died (which doesn’t mean books and music have died- its just the old way of selling them has) you notice a few things. Holes appear but the general shape of the organisation remains to the end. When the Library of Alexandria was burnt they now believe only a few volumes went up in smoke. All the rest had been pilfered or rotted away in the previous hundred years. Organisations die from the inside out. They look the same – on the outside – right until the end. I’ve watched publishing go from being a fun club of people making great books happen, to a place where celebrity deals were chased, to somewhere where no job is secure and the only people that remain are those who are devoting more time to saving their skin than finding great books to sell. And the music business passed the same point ten years ago.
You know you’re in a dead or dying organisation when your aims don’t align, or hardly align, with the aims of that organisation. And if the only alignment is the paypacket then you should consider your involvement as strictly temporary- as they certainly will.
There is no need to destroy these dying organisations. They are already dying. The urge to destroy is a bad urge, hardly useful. Building is much harder.
Because the hard truth of the matter is that changing the world doesn’t mean destroying things that are already dying, it means building things, creating things, starting things, continuing good things that have already started.
The Soviet Union developed huge holes but on the outside looked the same. Finally it just crumpled and died. Things died from the inside out. No one needed to destroy it. It just died.
To get back to Doris Lessing. I think she meant that no one changes, or can change, the way the world works, the way humans work. You have to start from that point. You have to know, as well as you can, it is in fact your duty to inform yourself on as wide a variety of human behaviour as you can, so that you know what it means to be human. Once you accept that, you know what the operating system is. Such things cannot be changed.
But within that system of human needs and default settings there is a vast, almost infinite, amount that can be changed. A vast amount that can be built, created, started. But to build worthwhile things requires certain attributes. You have to learn these attributes, work on yourself to acquire them. It isn’t impossible but it isn’t like falling off a log either. As you improve yourself- become saner, more competent, more sensible, opportunities arise to create things, start things.
I told my daughter that if you made yourself a better person then you have changed the world in the only way that is meaningful.