The most complex things in this world are often quite basic at their core. The computer you are reading this on, whether it fits in your pocket or the space underneath your desk, is built on a series of transistors that communicate by either blocking or passing on an electric signal in a series of on and off states. Your brain, the source of human consciousness, is a similar network of neurons which pass on an electrical signal called an action potential. The instructions for all life on our planet is coded by four chemical bases, the order of which determines the cells, organs, and even behavior of every living thing. There is nothing magical about individual transistors, bases, or neurons. In fact, in isolation they are pretty useless. What makes the miracle of life and so much more on this planet possible are complex networks of simple components formed by countless tiny actions and relationships.
This can feel counterintuitive to our current cultural understanding of how things ought to work. Creationists still argue that all life on this planet must have been designed by a single, all-knowing being that manages all aspects of the universe from the top down. Computer science experts in the mid-60s were often incapable of seeing past the assumption that all artificial intelligence problems could be solved with a set of formalized, logic-based procedures, even though the concept of a neural network had been developed as early as 1943 and a fully functional perceptron implemented by 1958. In 2020, a large segment of the population is apparently incapable either of understanding how pandemics work or the role that social responsibility plays in mitigating them. The idea of the “self-made man” has been central to the culture of the United States since at least the mid-1800s, while some popular philosophies go so far as to argue that individuals are islands unto themselves with no inherent obligations to other people.
I’m going to assume that most of the people reading this understand the importance of communities and believe that positive social change is at least desirable if not a moral imperative. Alas, activists and otherwise egalitarian thinkers can be just as averse to decentralized, network-based thinking as individualists are. The most infamous example of this is probably how followers of Lenin advocate for a highly centralized, militarized, and oppressive vanguard party as the only way to implement the libertarian, hyper-democratic society theorized by Marx. Another example I find personally compelling is that of Simón Bolívar, whose military and charismatic genius led to the liberation of South America. At the same time, his megalomania and inability to delegate power led to civil war and fragmentation that affects the destiny of South America to this day.
In my opinion, the idea that a single person has the ability to change the world through the sheer force of their personality alone is not just paralyzing for most sane people, but dangerous for society. History is filled with examples of movements that had incredible promise only to be thwarted by over-reliance on a single leader. Human beings are fallible, and whether through death, corruption, or overextension, leaders can lead to the downfall of their own movements and cause untold suffering for countless souls. Our history classes are full of so-called “great” men like Genghis Khan and Alexander of Macedon who brutally subjugated vast swathes of land only for it all to fall apart after their deaths.
I believe we live in a time worthy of serious optimism. Never before in the history of our species have we had such ready access to such a wealth of knowledge; never before have we been able to communicate instantly across the entire globe. It doesn’t make sense to limit ourselves at a time when the possibilities are beyond our comprehension. We do, however, need to be careful not to destroy what we’ve already built. Instead of destroying, we should build. This is something that everyone can do a little bit of every day. Whether it’s reaching out to a neighbor, reconnecting an estranged family member, supporting a friend in need, forming a community bound by enthusiasm, or even helping out a stranger, all of it matters. The true revolution is not in destroying what we already have, but in building something new.
I would argue that violence is in fact counter-revolutionary. If a revolution is a fundamental change in the organization and relations of power, then violence has been inherent to maintaining those structures of power ever since the inception of anti-egalitarian systems. If you take on the assumption that oppressive systems cannot be changed from within, then I doubt there is anything more “inside” the system than violence. Even from a militant perspective, any general worth their salt will tell you to avoid fighting on ground favorable to your opponent. Warfare has always been the arena preferred by tyrants. It turns out that controlling, hateful, opportunistic people who fetishize violence tend to be a lot better at wielding it than the rest of us.
The only way to actually fundamentally change the power dynamics of our society is to build a system capable of outcompeting the one that already exists. This is why J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI for 48 years and inventor of the modern American national security state, considered the Black Panther Party’s Free Children’s Breakfast Program to be the “greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America.” Black churches have provided an alternative center of political, social, and economic life for the oppressed since the beginning of slavery in the United States. These congregations have been an invaluable source of education, psychological support, healthcare, social services, political leaders, agency for women, and so much more. Other religious organizations have established successful independent communes, such as The Bruderhof, Koinona Farm, The Harmony Society, and Israeli kibbutzim.
In my view, the critical function that churches provide isn’t religion, but a strong community built around a common sense of purpose. Secular organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, The Young Lords, and Food Not Bombs have served a similar role. As I have written before in another article, people do not interact with oppressive systems because they are ignorant but because they have no alternative. Even figures we may consider abhorrent like Donald Trump get their power from people who feel that their problems are intractable and are willing to give their support to most anyone promising a way out. The obvious solution to this is to make genuine connections with people, listen deeply to their concerns, and collaboratively build social structures that handle those concerns.
Actions that seem small can lead to meaningful results. People don’t change their minds over a debate or a political ad, they do it collaboratively through social networks. Communities built across political lines are going to tend towards similar beliefs over time. It’s difficult to hate people with a transgender identity if one of them just helped you fix your fence. You probably don’t think that leftists are evil if you play scrabble with one every Saturday, and you may even discover that you share very similar views on a number of critical topics. People who want to join your group are also more likely to adjust their views to fit in better and feel accepted.
Culture is subtle and abstract, but it’s also what determines many of the decisions we make throughout our lives. Fundamentally, a culture cannot implement a policy is it not ready for. Mask mandates won’t work if people don’t already feel a sense of social responsibility and understand the impact not wearing a mask has on the people in their community. Universal healthcare may seem like an obvious policy proposal to me, but it won’t be possible to implement unless people all over the nation understand why I think that way. If we want to build a better, more stable future for everyone, we need to start with the basics. That means building relationships and communities that over time can generate new complex networks with sophisticated properties that improve upon what we’ve already built.
Your impact boils down to the sum of your actions. Expect to hit what you’re aiming at. A movement that spends its time building up armament and subduing its enemies can only be expected to rule by subjugation and terror, since that is the toolset it has built for itself. I would much rather spend my time each day developing the attitude of the future I want to live in. The Black Panther Party may have disintegrated, but the school breakfast program it inspired still provides free breakfast for children all over the country. Former Panther Billy X Jennings calls it “one of the biggest and baddest things we ever did.” The FBI certainly agreed with that sentiment. Maybe it’s time the rest of us do too.