Environmental Research Foundation, August 1, 2006


To bring us live wires back to the main topic of building a transformational movement, and to provoke discussion, I am posting this long excerpt from Richard Moore's new book, Escaping the Matrix (ISBN 0977098303), pgs. 84-93. In contains quotations interspersed within the text, beginning with one from Daniel Quinn. --Peter Montague


If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, people with a new vision. It will not be saved by people with the old vision but new programs. --Daniel Quinn, The Story of B


The source of our crisis is the dominator culture itself. Environmental collapse and capitalism are merely the terminal symptoms of a chronic cancer, a cancer that has plagued us for six thousand years. No matter what dominator hierarchy might be established, or which group of leaders might be in charge, things would always evolve toward something similar to what we have now. Such is the path of domination, hierarchy, and rule by elites. There is a popular computer game called Age of Empires. In this game, playing the role of the ruler, you can build villages, fortify them, and set out to conquer other villages. As the game progresses, the equipment gradually advances, from bows and arrows, to medieval armaments, to tanks and artillery -- but you always feel like you're playing exactly the same game with slightly different pieces. The technology has changed over the past six thousand years, but the game has always been the same, with elites at the controls putting us through our paces, down through the ages.

If we want to build a sensible society, we must base it on a different kind of culture: not a dominator culture, but a culture in Eisler's partnership category. We need a culture based on mutual understanding and cooperation rather than on war and conquest, a culture based on common sense rather than dysfunctional doctrine, on respect for life rather than the pursuit of profit, and on democracy in place of elite rule. After six thousand years of domestication, we sheep must finally cast aside our illusions, recognize our condition, and reclaim our identity as free human beings. In reclaiming our identities we will also be redefining our cultures.

Cultural transformation is the basis of social transformation. Social forms reflect cultural paradigms, and the dominator paradigm cannot support social forms that are capable of dealing with the crisis that faces us. Domination is the "old vision," and as Quinn points out, the world "will not be saved by people with the old vision." If we want to save the world, we must become people with a "new vision" regarding our relationships with one another as human beings, a vision based on mutual understanding and harmony.

We the People are the only hope for humanity. We are the only ones who can save the world. Domination can end only when the dominated decide to do something about it. Our own liberation, and the transformation of our societies, are two names for the same thing, two aspects of the same project. A partnership culture is a culture of liberation, as well as being a culture that facilitates social harmony and economic sustainability. Such a culture will not be given to us; we must create it by our own initiative and our own efforts. And by the very act of undertaking that initiative, we will be already expressing the essence of our new culture: liberation, empowerment, and release from the domesticating Matrix of illusions.

"That may be all well and good," you might be thinking, "but how on Earth do we go about creating a new culture and gaining a new vision? And how can that lead to the transformation of our societies?" These are very important questions, difficult questions, but I believe there are practical answers to them. Indeed, providing workable answers to those questions, insofar as I am able, is the primary mission of this book.

The basic problem is that We the People need to wake up and realize our common identity as an intelligent, aware species. As a first step in understanding what it means to wake up, let us review episodes in which we have woken up, in the form of social movements and revolutions. By looking at a few examples, where we have made serious attempts to transform our societies -- sometimes with considerable success -- there are many useful lessons to be learned.

Lessons from our long experience of struggle

Changes in society are usually initiated from the top, by elites acting through their various hierarchical institutions. In those cases where change has been initiated from the grassroots, that change has always come by the efforts of a social movement. "Social movements" is a broad category, including everything from polite reform organizations to armed insurrections, from labor unions to anti-globalization protests. In general, a social movement is an attempt to give voice to popular sentiment, to provide a vehicle that enables the members of the movement to act as a whole, to be a collective actor in society, to have a coherent effect on society.

Quite clearly the kind of transformation we are seeking will not be initiated by the elite establishment. If such a transformation is to be achieved, the initiative will need to come from We the People in the form of a social movement that is suitable to that task. That social movement might be quite unlike previous movements, as its objectives would be uniquely radical. But by examining various existing and historical movements, we can gain some insight as to the kind of movement that would be suitable for our needs.


Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and rebellion. --Oscar Wilde


Let's first take a look at the anti-globalization movement, a movement whose sentiments are largely in harmony with the kind of transformation we have been discussing. The movement understands that unbridled capitalism is destroying the world, and the movement seeks a radical shift towards democracy, justice, and sustainability. In its World Social Forum gatherings, the movement strives to develop a coherent vision and effective action strategies. The movement has many thousands of committed activists worldwide, who are willing to participate in movement events at considerable expense, and sometimes risk, to themselves. Is the anti-globalization movement an appropriate vehicle for achieving global transformation?

The movement is extremely encouraging, in that it indicates how large the constituency is for social transformation, and how committed that constituency is to thoughtful activism. And the movement provides a forum in which that constituency can build networks, team how to organize itself effectively, and build a sense of movement coherence. But we cannot avoid the observation that the results on the ground have not been encouraging, nor is there any particular sign that outcomes will improve. The WTO and IMF continue to wreak their havoc, bioengineered crops spread, the war machine rolls on, human rights lie shattered on the ground, and destruction of the biosphere accelerates.

The movement is being ignored politically and it isn't showing signs of developing into a truly mass movement. It is a very large choir, but ifs not a quorum of the congregation. In its current form it is unlikely to have even a restraining effect on our descent into oblivion.

Nonetheless, if a transformative movement is to arise, the people in the anti-globalization movement will certainly be part of it. In that sense, we should perhaps think of the anti-globalization movement as in fact being our transformative movement, but still in latent form, missing some unknown element. When such a new element comes along, the potential of the anti-globalization movement is likely to be transformed. In search of such a "new element," let us move on and consider another movement, one from history.

About a century ago, just prior to 1900 in the U.S., there was a movement that provides a closer model for the kind of movement that might bring about transformation today. Its goals were not quite transformational, but they were radical, and they did represent a challenge to the ascendancy of monopoly capitalism. This movement did have a vision of a significantly reformed system, a strategy for bringing about change, and an effective program for expanding its constituency. It began as the Farmers' Alliance, was later known as the Populist Movement and the People's Party, and it became a very significant actor in American society. In 1890, for example, Georgia and Texas elected Alliance Governors, and thirty-eight Alliance members were elected to the U.S. Congress (Zinn, 277-289).

The Farmers' Alliance began in 1877 as a self-help movement in Texas, organizing cooperatives for buying supplies and selling crops. The cooperatives improved the farmers' economic situation, and the movement began to spread throughout the Midwest and the South. By 1889, there were 400,000 members.

This was a thinking movement as well as an action movement. Howard Zinn, in A People's History of the United States (which I've been paraphrasing in this section), writes: "The Populist movement also made a remarkable attempt to create a new and independent culture for the country's farmers. The Alliance Lecture Bureau reached all over the country; it had 35,000 lecturers. The Populists poured out books and pamphlets from their printing presses." Zinn goes on to cite from another source: "One gathers from yellowed pamphlets that the agrarian ideologists undertook to re-educate their countrymen from the ground up. Dismissing 'history as taught in our schools' as 'practically valueless,' they undertook to write it over -- formidable columns of it, from the Greeks on down. With no more compunction they turned all hands to the revision of economics, political theory, law, and government." And from another source: "...no other political movement -- not that of 1776, nor that of 1860-1861 ever altered Southern life so profoundly" (Zinn, 286-287).

There is much here that makes sense for a transformational democratic movement. Our current systems are supported by cultural mythologies, and "writing it over" is a good description of what needs to be done if the Matrix illusions of the old culture are to be exposed and the culture of a new society is to be developed. The emphasis on education of the membership shows a respect for popular intelligence, and it builds a shared cultural perspective that enables a movement to act with increasing unity and coherence. The emphasis on outreach and recruitment is necessary if a movement hopes to grow large enough to bring about significant changes.

The Populist Movement arose due to economic problems that were being faced by farmers, and the movement set out to find practical ways to solve those problems. If a movement makes demands, then it is affirming that power resides elsewhere -- in that person or agency which is the target of the demands. If a movement creates solutions, then it is asserting its own empowerment; it is taking responsibility for its own welfare. The emphasis on economics in particular is also appropriate to a transformational movement. Economics is the basis of most social activity, and it is in the realm of economics that solutions can be found to our social and environmental malaise.

The Populists, being largely conservative farmers, were closely connected to place, and their movement was in part an expression of localism. The movement built up its constituency region by region, rather than by seeking isolated members spread throughout the society, as does the Sierra Club or the anti-globalization movement today. To use a military metaphor, the Populists captured territory and then consolidated that territory through education and by implementing its solutions in that territory. It was an inclusive movement, in the sense that the Populists appealed to the great majority within their territory. They were therefore able to win elections there and gain some degree of official political power. Such a territorial emphasis is very appropriate to a transformational movement. Within a captured territory -- a region in which people generally have become part of the movement -- the vision and culture of the movement has an opportunity to flower and to find expression in ordinary conversation among people. The culture has a place to take root and grow, and people's sense of empowerment is reinforced by being in the daily company of those who share an evolving vision -- and who are in effect collaborators in a shared project.

The Populist Movement was also an expression of localism in another way. At the core of the Populist political agenda was a set of economic reforms. Those reforms represented an attempt to stem the ascendancy of centralized big-money capitalism and reassert the interests of locally based farms and small businesses. The Populists were calling for fundamental reform of the financial system, the debt system, and currency policies. They wanted to give local communities and regions enough economic viability to be able to take responsibility for their own welfare.

In their relationship to the political process, the Populists again have much to teach a transformational movement. They began as a grassroots organization oriented around self-help, not as a movement attempting to influence the political machine. They were successful at their self-help endeavors, and they expanded their focus to recruitment and territorial expansion. Only when they had achieved overwhelming success at the grassroots level did they turn their attention to the ballot box. In this way they were able to achieve some measure of political power without compromising their objectives in the horse-trading that characterizes competitive politics. They were able to integrate politics into their tactical portfolio and also retain their integrity and focus as a grassroots movement.

But ultimately the Populists faltered and collapsed, and we have as much to learn from that experience as from their earlier successes. They ran up against an unavoidable barrier, one that all radical movements must run up against eventually -- the limit on how much can be accomplished in the face of establishment opposition. In order to promote their economic reform agenda, and encouraged by their electoral successes, they decided to commit their movement wholeheartedly to the political process. They joined forces with the Democratic Party and backed William Jennings Bryan in the election of 1896. The Populists had then placed themselves in a no-win situation. If the Democrats lost, the movement would be defeated and shattered; if the Democrats won, the movement would be swallowed up in the horse- trading of Democratic Party politics.

The reactionary capitalist establishment responded vigorously to this opportunity to put a final end to the upstart Populist movement. Corporations and the elite-owned media threw their support to the Republican candidate, William McKinley, in what Zinn calls "the first massive use of money in an election campaign." Bryan was defeated, and the Populist movement fell apart. The establishment was taking no chances: even diluted within the Democratic Party, the Populists represented too much of a threat from below, they were too successful at providing a voice for We the People. Democracy had raised its ugly head, and elites chopped it off at their earliest opportunity.

Any transformational movement that wants to go the distance must be prepared to resist the seductive siren call of electoral politics -- a siren whose voice becomes even more appealing after the movement has made some significant progress. As the Populists' earlier experience showed, politics can be used successfully to consolidate gains made on the ground, particularly if the expansion program employs a territorial strategy. But when electoral politics is allowed to dominate movement strategy before the territory of the movement encompasses the entire electorate -- then the hope of ultimate success has been lost. Either the movement will be destroyed abruptly, or it will die a slow drowning death in the quicksand of factional politics. In the next chapter we'll look more closely into the nature of our electoral political system.

Any transformational movement must also eventually run up against the barrier of establishment opposition. As with the Populists, it makes good sense for a transformational movement to focus initially on what people can collectively do for themselves, without confrontation and within the constraints of the existing system. This is how the movement can be built, and how a culture can be fostered based on common sense, self-reliance, and democratic empowerment. But the movement's self-help progress will eventually be frustrated by the economic and political constraints of the established system, and that's when the movement needs to decide what it's really about.


How well we know all this! How often we have witnessed it in our part of the world! The machine that worked for years to apparent perfection, faultlessly, without a hitch, falls apart overnight The system that seemed likely to reign unchanged, world without end, since nothing could call its power in question amid all those unanimous votes and elections, is shattered without warning. And, to our amazement, we find that everything was quite otherwise than we had thought. --Vaclav Havel, 1975


At that point the movement can either take the blue pill, and settle for temporary reformist gains within the elite's political circus, or it can take the red pill and face the challenges of the real world -- of power and engagement. As much as some of us may be enamored of a win-win, love-your-enemy approach to the universe, we must face the fact that the currently entrenched regime is determined to stay in power, ruthless in its tactics, and resourceful in its application of its many means of suppression, subversion, and co-option. Though we may carry universal love in our hearts, the strategic thinking of the movement must at some point focus on the principles of effective engagement. The Populists have little to offer us here. A better model for this phase would be the non-violent grassroots movement against British rule in India, led and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi is most renowned for his non-violence and for his universal empathy for all people, including even the British oppressors. Those are wise principles for any transformational movement that must engage an armed establishment, and that seeks to create a just and democratic society. But Gandhi is also renowned for his strategic acumen, and we can learn much from that aspect of his work. Like a skillful Go player, he was able to set up situations where the British felt compelled to respond, yet any response they chose would undermine their position. They had to choose between yielding ground to the movement or else engaging in suppressive measures that could only serve to build greater sympathy and support for the movement, as exemplified in the famous 'salt march to the sea.' The point is not necessarily that a movement should emulate Gandhi's specific tactics, but rather that creative and realistic strategic thinking is absolutely essential to successful engagement.

Gandhi's movement did succeed in its immediate objective of ousting the British occupiers, but it failed to achieve Gandhi's deeper vision for a new kind of harmonious and democratic society. The leadership of the movement was concentrated too much in him personally and after his assassination his followers reverted to traditional political patterns. His movement was in the final analysis a hierarchical movement, with himself at the top as the benevolent guiding light.

A successful transformational movement -- which seeks to establish a democratic, non-hierarchical society -- would be best served by taking a non-hierarchical approach from the very beginning. Goals, means, and strategy would be better developed at the grassroots level, and the movement culture should facilitate the exchange of ideas and solutions, thus building a self-reliant and holographically led movement -- and a movement that is not vulnerable to collapse due to leadership decapitation.

The Populist Movement too had a hierarchical leadership structure, and this limited its transformational potential in several ways. In the long run hierarchy is the bane of democracy, so in that sense the Populists were from the beginning not pursuing a path toward a transformed democratic society.

The wisdom of the Populist movement was limited by the cultural perspective and prejudices of the relatively small leadership cadre. In particular, the rural, farmer-based leadership limited the growth of the movement to what we might in some fairness call their own kind of people. Although movement activists sympathized with urban industrial workers, and expressed support for their strikes and boycotts, the culture of the Populist leadership did not lead them to bring urban workers into their constituency, to make them part of the Populist family. From an objective strategic perspective, it is clear that this was a fatal error of omission. There was a natural alignment of interests, based on mutual exploitation by monopoly capitalism, and an effective joining of forces would have propelled the expanded movement onto a new and much higher plateau of political significance.

Any movement, which aims to create a transformed and democratic society, needs to keep this in mind: when the new world is created, everyone will be in it -- not just the people we agree with or the people we normally associate with. A movement must aim to be all-inclusive if it seeks to create a democratic society that is all-inclusive. Is there anyone you would leave behind, or relegate to second-class citizenship? If not, then you should be willing to welcome to the movement anyone who shares the goal of creating that new world.


The future arrives of its own accord; progress does not. -- Poul Henningsen, Danish designer and social critic


Our Transformational Imperative

We the People have found our identity and common purpose many times in the past: on the fields of Lexington and Concord, at the gates of the Bastille and the Czar's palace, in the struggle against British occupation in India, and in movements like the Populists. We have a tradition to learn from, and there are many wrong turns we must avoid. Martin Luther King used a phrase that sums up one of the most important lessons we need to take to heart, Keep your eyes on the prize. If we want a world that is democratic, and sustainable both economically and politically, then we must stay true to that vision. Only a thorough and radical cultural transformation can rid us of the dynamics of hierarchy, domination, and elite rule.