G20 and different theories of change

Watching news reports about the G20 summit and protests I was struck by how many analogies that they offered for thinking about  theories of change.


A BBC news reporter was caught up in the protest crowd outside the RBS bank in the city just before the clashes started with the police. The crowd ebbed and flowed: ‘there’s nothing we can do about this,’ complained the reporter, ‘because we’re just caught up in the crowd and well have to go along with it.’ As the crowd surged forward some of the protesters began to stone the bank: others hung bank clearly embarrassed by what was happening. Gradually, over time, with the police responding cautiously minute by minute, the violence receded and the protest turned into a good natured street party outside the Bank of England.

In The Civilising Process Norbert Elias describes how a more and more sophisticated society produces longer and longer chains of inter-dependent people, thus constraining what it is possible for any one individual to do. It struck me that this crowd was a good analogy for why change is so difficult. We do have choices, but in general we are constrained by the ways of thinking and acting of those we depend upon, and who depend upon us. We are linked together as if by some giant elastic band. We are caught up in the habitus, mostly not even aware as the reporter was, of what we take for granted. Short term changes can manifest themselves quite quickly, and sometimes quite violently, but longer term changes take more time to show but are likely to be more enduring.

I was also struck by the difference in the thinking of Gordon Brown and Barack Obama. For Brown ‘global problems demand global solutions.’ This is a classically systemic response and understands the leader to be a systems designer who can simply reengineer, or ‘fix’ a ‘broken system’.  Change is considered to be  a wholesale phenomenon and  something which is possible to organise top down. Barack Obama, meanwhile was busy having one-to-one conversations with other world leaders directly and personally changing the nature of the conversations, or perhaps having conversations for the first time with leaders that Bush had ceased speaking to. In doing so he is creating the possibilityfor small differences, an improved relationship and therefore new ways of understanding and mutual adaptation, to be amplified over time. It is important not to be naive about what might happen with these conversations, however, as the news presenter pointed out: President Kennedy renewed personal contact with Khruschev, who was then convinced that this was a sign of weakness on Kennedy’s part which he began to exploit politically. We cannot be sure that in acting differently what we intend will definitely come about. The important point for me of the G20 summit is not the final communique, however symbolic, but the possibility for changed relationships and thus ways of seeing the world that arises out of the myriad small conversations that happen between the leaders and civil servants.

On a discussion panel a young climate change activist was arguing that it was important not to try and solve new problems with old ways of thinking, but then proceeded to propose a programme of wholesale change himself. If his comments were directed towards world leaders his ask is a big one: the very people who have struggled to the top with old ways of thinking, Gordon Brown for example, are now being asked to think very differently, or in effect to be different people. And even if this were possible all world leaders are constrained by the vast chains of interdependent people who will respond in a variety of different ways  to what they propose. The problems might be caused by a particular phase of turbo-capitalism, but we are all to a greater or lesser extent, caught up in its modalities.

This is not necessarily grounds for pessimism, however, because there may be more profound changes afoot which have yet to manifest themselves which grow out of people’s daily experience, and perhaps dissatisfaction with the way they are obliged to live their lives. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observed:

“True, the philosophies of atomism and instrumentalism have a head start in the world. But it is still the case that there are many points of resistance, and that these are constantly being generated … We don’t want to exaggerate our degrees of freedom. But they are not zero”


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