All Change or No Change: Culture, Power, and Activism in an Unquiet World

January 31, 2017

This is the first article in a three-part series being co-published between and Transnational Institute.

The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism. . . But this phenomenon extends beyond high politics and it can be seen also in the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture. – Francis Fukuyama (1989) The End of History

You know in the West we have built a large, beautiful ship. It has all the comforts in it. But one thing is missing: It has no compass and does not know where to go. – Albert Einstein


2016 was the most tumultuous year most of us can remember. Barrels of ink have been spilt trying to make sense of it and no doubt barrels more are to come. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that we are experiencing some sort of inflection point, with old certainties breaking down, an expanding chasm between people and the large institutions that govern them, and a degrading of belief in things that until recently had been thought inviolable, from the capitalist model to democracy itself. Populations from the United States (US) to Italy to Chile to South Africa to Indonesia are kicking back against a political establishment that feels distant, callous, and nakedly self-serving. This discontent is giving rise to new constellations of political power, as populations elect people who take an innately critical view of orthodox approaches to globalization, from both ends of the political spectrum. In short, everyone is captivated by the things that are changing.

There is another way to read what is happening, though. Beneath all of this change, the most important rules and logic are staying exactly the same.

In this essay, we approach the world from a whole-system perspective. This means looking at those rules, laws, norms and trends that affect the whole planet, rather than any individual nation, region or issue. When you stand back far enough, it becomes clear that dramas of 2016, though vitally important, are nothing like as profound as many are suggesting. In truth, the core logic of the global operating system is going unchallenged. There are hopeful signs from the vanguard of activism, but they are tentative and vulnerable. We argue that far more attention needs to be paid to these whole-system dynamics – to the most fundamental rules of the global operating system. We are in a race against time – against mass species extinction, increasing inequality, ecological collapse, etc. – and every day that we do not try to affect change at the structural level is a day lost.

In order to make our case, we must not only stand back far enough to see the whole planetary system, but also look into deep history to find the causes of our current crises. Because the events we are witnessing are far more than political; they are cultural. The instincts and assumptions that are driving all this upheaval express core beliefs and logics that have been forged, not over decades or even centuries, but millennia.

This is a story of power, but perhaps not the traditional kind. The kinds of power we are interested in are the deep currents that are largely unacknowledged in standard political commentary. These forces dance through time like the bubbles in a lava lamp, flowing into and away from each other in continuous dialogue. These are the cultural forces that shape all of our lives at the deepest levels.


There is a level at which things are certainly in flux. The most important of these by far is public opinion.

Right now, it is the public, not political leaders, who are setting the terms of debate, very often to the dismay and confusion of the political classes. This is why 2016 was a year of shocks; the political and media establishment expected one set of outcomes and got another. Electorates all around the world voiced a depth of dissatisfaction with the status quo that the establishment was not prepared for and to which, as yet, has no coherent response.

This does not mean that the public’s desire is necessarily heard, let alone understood, let alone adhered to by the political elites. Quite the contrary. The inability of political classes over the last few years to truly understand mounting rage and disillusionment is one big reason why the public has started to punish whom they see as the brokers of the status quo through general dissent and disruption, à la Brexit in Britain and the Trump victory in the US. This failure has turned every ballot box into a potential tinder box.

The common reading of what the public are trying to say is that globalization is not working for them. This is telling, because while that is probably true, it is not the whole truth. It still, remarkably, defines the symptom in too-narrow terms. The public are actually starting to show signs of wanting changes that are far more profound than a different flavor of global capitalism.

It seems that the representative democracy itself is losing favor. The decline is uneven, and it is far from clear how deep or long a trend this may yet be, but given its spread across multiple countries, it is noteworthy. It may not yet spell a meaningful rejection of the ideal, but, as the author of the study puts it, ‘the warning signs are flashing red’.

This is a double-edged sword, and a very sharp one at that. On one hand, it is terrifying. If democracy falls, there is every chance that it will be replaced with something far worse. In our desperation, we may commit what doctors would call an iatrogenic act, and usher in a ‘cure’ that is worse than the original disease. There are signs that this is one very possible direction some countries could take, including the US, where President-elect (at the time of writing) Trump is putting together the most corporate-friendly administration in history, thereby threatening further enhancement of corporate over public power, a trend that has been examined many times in previous State of Power reports. More generally, the rise of the populist (and in some cases extreme) right in places as diverse as Brazil, Italy and the Philippines, does not augur well as it suggests people are operating out of fear, reaching for strongmen to bring discipline and order to a world they feel is sorely lacking just that.

On the other hand, the fact that so many people appear willing to question orthodoxies at this level is an encouraging opportunity. The question is whether the ‘right’ orthodoxies will be questioned.

To make sense of this we need to be able to identify the deep cultural beliefs that lie beneath it all. Identifying them will help us understand whether we are seeing a re-appraisal of core beliefs, such that could alter the basic nature of our global system, or mere ripples on the surface of an otherwise stable belief system that we can expect will continue on its current trajectory. And to do this, we will contrast two very different cultural perspectives.

Parts II and III of this article will run next week.

Tags: democracy, neoliberal consensus, populism, social movements, systems thinking