Process Revolutions


By Joe Campbell
May 20th, 2008

Lawrence Lessig
[Photo by Robert Scobel.]


 
Lawrence Lessig described an interesting concept in his “Change Congress” presentation. He briefly mentioned an idea that I do not recall hearing before; yet this idea neatly provides a missing explanation in my understanding of change and revolution.

Throughout history, revolutions, though beginning with glorious idealism, have almost never ended well. The French Revolution was a bloody affair that devolved into totalitarianism; the revolution of Communism was likewise bloody and totalitarian; the same can be said of many of the smaller and less ideological revolutions against colonial powers and monarchies. As often as not, the main change these revolutions accomplished was to replace one evil with another.

A period of change is always a period of danger – and when the leaders of a revolution are focused on achieving hubristic goals, especially goals based on abstractions and ideology, they must resort to totalitarian means. As Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon wrote about a fictional Communist revolution:

The sole object of revolution was the abolition of senseless suffering. But it had turned out that the removal of this second kind of suffering was only possible at the price of a temporary enormous increase in the sum total of the first.

The great anti-totalitarian novels of the second half of the twentieth century, Brave New World, 1984, Darkness at Noon, and Animal Farm, all drove home this single insight: that ideological, goal-oriented revolution inevitably led to totalitarianism; that when revolution prioritized the ends over the means, enormous suffering was the immediate result.

The rare alternative to these goal-oriented or ideological revolutions are process revolutions. While American history has had a number of ends-focused revolutions – the original American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement – these movements all had more or less discrete goals which could be achieved (seceding from Britain; preventing the secession of the South; and ending the legal discrimination against African Americans). These were revolutions whose purpose was not to tear down the existing social and governmental structures, but to amend them in discrete ways.  The concrete nature of the goals of these revolutions in addition to extraordinary leadership1 of these movements mitigated the dangers inherent in revolution and rapid change through American history.

What Lessig points to is that there have been other less dramatic, and equally as important, revolutions in American history. Lessig cites some examples: the Second Constitutional Convention; the Progressive movement; and the Watergate reforms. These revolutions focused on creating and changing processes rather than on specific ends; their results have profoundly affected our society and have been generally beneficial, standing in stark contrast to the more extreme and more painful ideological revolutions.

Lessig suggests that today our society may be primed for another process revolution, that a political movement may be able to reform our politics in order to allow us to tackle the many festering long-term problems we face: global climate change; terrorism; growing domestic and international inequality; a broken health care system; an imbalance of power in Washington; institutional corruption; a declining manufacturing sector.  Senator John McCain in his 2000 campaign and Senator Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign2 did and have based their candidacies on reforming our politics to allow us to tackle the more fundamental problems we must face.

Obama has taken the further step of advocating process-based change.  He does not just want universal health care; he wants to televise the task force and committee meetings, and make as many of the discussions of how to implement this idea public and available via television and the internet.  While Hillary Clinton, as First Lady, tried to push through health care reform by meeting secretly with lobbyists, cramming her bill with special deals for all sorts of special interests, and threatening members of her own party who proposed alternate plans, Obama believes that how we achieve health care reform is as important as achieving it.  With this, and many other policies, and given many of Obama’s top advisers, it is clear that an Obama presidency would attempt a process revolution to set the country back on the right track.

As you might guess – based on his focus on long-term issues and on the corruption of the political process – Lawrence Lessig was an early endorser of Barack Obama. (Lessig’s lecture referenced here, is below the fold.)

Lessig only touches on this idea of “process revolution” at the very end of his hour-long presentation, but the whole thing is worth watching/listening to. He talks about “process revolutions”, only briefly, about 54 minutes into the video:

Related articles

  1. George Washington; Abraham Lincoln; Martin Luther King, Jr.: all canny politicians who married idealism to pragmatism, who exercised great restraint, who called on our “better angels”, and who did not seek personal power. []
  2. Though John McCain has paid lip service to reform in his 2008 campaign, he now endorses most of the fruit of the tree he called corrupt. []

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