Changing the World for the Better
I am probably not the only one who you’ll hear this from, but I’ve watched Can’t Get You Out of my Head recently. If you are not aware of what it is, it’s a documentary series released in 2021, which offers a different look at history than what I’m used to. While most historical documentaries, textbooks and the like that I’ve seen focus on events, on things that happened and how they influenced the future, CGYOH looks at ideologies that underlined these events. Most people nowadays have a feeling that the world is broken and needs to change. A classical look at history can analytically explain how the world got to where we are today, but it omits a major part of the equation – people and their thoughts. Just like we today live in a certain world and wish for change, people of the past lived in their own worlds and wished for them to change. And they very much did – almost no place on Earth is the same now as it was 100 years ago – but probably not in the way they’d expect. The events that made it so were perpetrated by people with ideals and ideologies driving them, and the purpose of CGYOH, in my opinion, is to look at these ideologies, where they came from and how they developed.
I’m not here to sing praise about it, though. I can say that it’s good, and I recommend you watch it, but that’s about it. What I want to do instead is talk about how we could actually try to change the world. The documentary brought up many examples, from Britain, Russia, China and the United States, of attempts at change through revolutions, civil disobedience, peaceful protests and social and political reforms, and how most of them failed (that’s what I got from it, at least). You don’t have to watch it to figure that out, though – just look at countries whose more recent years have been significantly shaped by revolutions. Russia, for the longest time called Soviet Union, had a revolution lead directly into dictatorship. Same can be said about China. Uprisings in Iraq led to the rule of Saddam Hussein, and many countries in Africa experience uprisings against dictators, that somehow create even more death and misery, and lead the way for new dictators. Going further back in time, one of the most well-known revolutions, the French Revolution, was directly followed by Napoleon Bonaparte abusing people living in France to wage wars on neighbouring countries.
But if even revolutions – the most radical, fast-acting type of political change – seem to have the opposite effect to the one intended, what way out is there? Slower change surely doesn’t solve the problem, either. The way things are done nowadays, with political inquiries and scientific advisory boards seem to have the sole purpose of stretching out change for as long as possible. I am not advocating against the use polls or scientific data to influence policy choice. However, politics is not too different from the corporate sphere, where even a mountain of data only leads to requests for more data and empty legalese rubbish speak. Instead of changing racist policies, politicians are committed to addressing the questions of race-based discrimination when appropriate, and in the meantime they will appoint a new chief executive of the relevant board of the scientific advisory panel, to commission a new peer-reviewer report on racial representation in advertisement slogans. Something cannot simply be a good idea with some merit behind it, it has to have been the common consensus of the entire population for the last 25 years to even stand a chance at being enacted.
Perhaps we’re approaching things from the wrong angle. A revolution, a peaceful protest, a political vote, are all ways one can try to make change, but for it to be meaningful one has to have a clear idea of what the goal is. This clear idea also helps dispel the illusion of progress caused by minor changes, meant to lull and dull. For example, I believe that there is absolutely nothing a trans person shouldn’t be able to do that a cis person can do. If the country I live in introduced a bill that made wait times to see a gender therapist slightly shorter, it would technically be progress, but it would be little reason for celebration. Having to wait 1,5 years instead of 2 years is basically irrelevant to the belief, the goal presented. It also makes it seem like the way the world is now is the worst it could be, and it can only go up from here. It fails to be an accurate description of the problem. What does it matter that I have to wait 1,5 years instead of 2 years? Why do I need to wait, to begin with? What is the point of a gender therapist, why do I need to go talk to some bullshit advisory panel and prove to them that I am who I say I am, why can’t I just go to an apothecary, ask for estradiol, consult a doctor to make sure I don’t overdose or something, and be on my merry way? Imagine if cis people were put in an analogous situation. If everybody was put on hormone blockers from birth, and then, when their androgynous body became a cause of gender dysphoria, they’d have to go to a psychiatrist and wait 2 years to meet some strangers, for the privilege of trying to prove to them that they are who they say they are, to be allowed to get off hormone blockers. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Would you then celebrate a new legislation that made them “only” have to wait 1,5 years instead of 2 years? I don’t think most of you would.
We speak of the industrial revolution as, well, a revolution, but what did it actually change? Sure, most people now lived in smog-covered cities and got lung cancer at age 30, or got crushed in coal mines at age 8. Comparing the UK of the early 1800s with the UK of the early 2000s, notice how the general “path of life” has remained the same. Despite all the “progress” we’ve made, an average human will still be born, “educated”, enter the workforce somewhere between ages 10-20, remain in the workforce until they’re too frail to reasonably continue, and then subsist off younger people, either in a family home or a tax-funded nursing home. So what exactly was the point of replacing people with machines? It apparently wasn’t to make people’s lives easier. When many basic necessities, instead of requiring hundreds of peasants or factory workers, can be fulfilled with a decent machine and a handful of operators, we end up with the same amount of stuff, yet many people left without work. As outlined by Bertrand Russel in his 1935 essay In Praise of Idleness, such a state of affairs, where the same amount of work can be done by 1/8th of the workforce, should naturally lead to a 7/8th reduction in working time. Instead of 160 people working 8 hours per day to satisfy the demand, they could instead work 1 hour per day, satisfy the demand, and then have 7 hours left to actually enjoy life. Instead, some pervasive fetishism of work was put in motion, and instead we have 20 people working 8 hours per day to satisfy the demand, and 140 people desperately trying to find some other (often meaningless) job, so they can spend 8 hours per day there and not starve to death. Such fetishism was likely instigated by people outside the working class, who benefited from their work. When a factory made cars, it wasn’t to provide people with a comfortable and spacious mode of transportation; it was to let the owners of the factory sell the cars to people. If it didn’t make money, it wouldn’t get made. So when machines started replacing people, you “couldn’t” just make people work less; after all, they weren’t working to make bread, they were working to get money so they can buy bread. Less work with same pay was a no-go for the workers, as their salaries could not possibly cover their cost of living, whereas less work with greater pay was a no-go for greedy business owners. So instead, “we” ended up sticking with the status quo of a laborious day, sacrificing in the process humane and progressive values.
Universal basic income has been a popular topic in recent years, with the idea of giving people some money… just because. You live, you need money to survive, so you’ll get some money to survive. If you want more, you can seek employment, but it’s not necessary to “put food on the table”. This feels like a reasonable, natural progression of the current state of the world, where the job market cannot possibly keep up with the growing population while also replacing large swathes of the workforce with machines. If business owners don’t want to give up their means of production to make it accessible to the masses without pledging indentured servitude, fine, we’ll just provide everyone with the means of consumption without the need of becoming a corporate slave. The most common counter-arguments to this claim that it is unfair to people who do work, and that it would give people “too much free time”, that they wouldn’t know what to do with. How can it be unfair to the people who work, though? It is the exact opposite, it gives everyone, no matter how you work, an income, so that you don’t have to work. There are jobs that need to be done, though, to preserve the current standard of living, and such income would theoretically be unfair to them. Isn’t it ironic, that the people at the bottom of the societal ladder are the ones most crucial for its sustenance? Glory to the sewage workers, I say! I have a dozen times more respect for a janitor or a cashier than for a bank teller or CEO, because they actually do something good for their fellow humans. The people often being used as scarecrows to push children into higher education are also being used to prevent great improvement in living conditions for hundreds of millions of people. They need not devote their lives to serving us, though. If work that does need to be done were to be split logically, we wouldn’t need underpaid folk driving shit-mobiles around all their lives; instead, every individual could do their little part. Spending maybe 10 hours per month doing all my shifts at a water treatment plant, postal delivery service and others is very much preferable to spending half of my life behind a computer desk in a drab skyscraper. As for the unmanaged free time, I can use myself as an example. When I had to go to school Monday-Friday, 8-15, including an hour for the commute, I was quite content spending the rest of the day playing games and watching movies. Over the last few months, however, I have been left with basically all of my time being free time, yet my play-and-watch time has been lower than ever. Instead, I’ve taken to learning two new languages (one spoken, one programmed). I’ve read many books I was interested in, I significantly deepened my knowledge on computer software. I’ve written so much text, learned a lot about digital privacy, contributed to various things through translation. When your prescribed activity leaves you exhausted and demotivated, you’ll be happy just staring at a screen for hours on end, but when such an activity is absent, you structure your free time in ways that are actually good for you. Saying that people should keep working because they wouldn’t know what to do otherwise is such a fucking insult, especially since the few people who are actually devoid of hobbies are that way only because they’ve had to spend their lives working.
Most importantly for this post, however, both arguments fail to see the bigger picture. Having many “jobs” removed entirely (“job” here acting as a unit, denoting a typical 40 hour work week spent doing one thing in exchange for money), and having a handful of “jobs” split evenly across many workers seems like an outlandish concept, because the people hearing it are used to the desire for a job, to the idea that you need to a job to do your part for society, and consequently to earn your living share. Likewise, thinking that working people won’t know what to do with free time is rooted in the historical context of jobs being draining and soul-crushing, leaving people with little energy for self-realisation. That’s just how it is, how it’s always been, and anything that goes against it must obviously be flawed and wrong. There is little discourse about the purpose of work (beyond the basic individual “I need money”), about why jobs are structured and distributed the way they are, none of that. Yet these are the exact ideas that need to be tackled for any actual progress to occur.
This is a topic that comes up time and again in CGYOH. Across different cultures and social groups, people accused revolutionaries of being stuck in the past, of perpetuating the old systems, and were being accused themselves of the same. Those in power used the idea of the revolution to rally people to their cause, even if their cause was really an antithesis to any revolutionary ideas, and in countries where revolution had not taken hold, a fantasy idea of the “good old days” was used, instead. Millions of people in Beijing cheered when Jiang Qing’s troops marched political prisoners on stage and had them confess their treason, but it seemed to escape the rioters that the very systems that allowed these politicians to commit treason were never challenged, and so any replacement was prone to do just the same. It’s just like the queue times for gender clinics; a temporary patch has little meaning when the system being patched is so broken.
That is, in essence, what I believe is needed for change. An honest analysis of the world, of the systems (political, ideological, etc.) that it’s built on, change of the ones deemed malfunctioning and dismantlement of those deemed unnecessary. And that… is really difficult. Not just changing the systems, but analysing them with reason, and sometimes even being aware of them. As is evident by my previous post, I believe gender to be an inherently damaging system that should disappear. Nationalism, likewise, is a tumour that needs to crash and burn. There will be people who agree with me, and those that disagree with me, but the vast majority will likely have never even given these much thought. They haven’t evaluated it, because it hasn’t bothered them enough, but at least they’re aware of it. An example of a system many may be unaware of is the prioritisation of information based on artificial designations of geographic origin. To hear it in much simpler words, refer to my post on the news – it’s the question of “Why am I seeing news about Italy but not about Eritrea in a British newspaper?”. It’s putting people into neat boxes, titled the Western world, the Arab world, the Orient and Africa, and ignoring the vast overlap. It treats the Western world as developed and modern, the Arab world as full of terrorists, the Orient as esoteric (and everyone in it as Chinese) and Africa as poor and tribal. It destroys nuance, perpetuates harmful biases and stereotypes, and impairs our learning. Sure, there are historic differences, which can explain why different cultures approach certain topics differently, but putting too much emphasis can obscure the bigger picture. Yes, Japanese people are brought up with a very different work ethic than people in the UK, but the underlying system of having to go to work, and all the things associated with that, are the same. I am of course ignoring nuance myself, but I trust that the information presented is right, and I haven’t the reason nor the knowledge to go further in depth.
For an analysis to be honest and meaningful, however, one needs to analyse from the outside. It is hard to criticise the Russian government when one is brought up knowing nothing but the Russian government, and that government’s way of doing things. This is also difficult to achieve, and the best way I found of doing so is to acquire knowledge while trying to suppress biases. For example, I have heard criticism of Sweden’s political system, saying that its right-wing is analogous to the US’ left-wing, as a way to demonstrate just how much the country was corrupted by “social justice ideology”. But this actually operates on the bias of US somehow being balanced politically which is pretty stupid. We could just as well shift the standard of normalcy to Sweden and say that the US’ left-wing is like Sweden’s right wind, as criticism of how conservative the US is. If we instead remove the bias, the comparison loses all meaning, and we are left with systems that have to compete on the basis of which serves the moral and ethical ideals of the people better, not of which is more like the “normal” we’re used to. That is a much more productive discussion to have.
If we choose to ignore the normal, we still need something to base our judgement on. In the case of political systems, a good base would be the facilitation of happiness and “justice”, while in the case of individual rights, equal value of every human being seems like a good place to start. Put in more general terms, the right basis for evaluating current systems and the ways in which they should change is based on moral and ethical principles and values. These principles themselves can be products of their times, so it is important to look at them critically from the outside, as well. This is, in my mind, what philosophy is all about. To evaluate politics, we use morals, and to evaluate morals, we use philosophy. My romantic vision of philosophy is that it asks questions many may consider obvious. It does not have to do with humanities, though; philosophy is at the basis of everything. The philosophy of science evolved over many hundreds of years into the scientific method we’re familiar with today. Everyday assumptions of mathematics are scrutinised and distilled into their most crucial components in the form of axioms. In everyday life, it can come from the simplest of sources. Take, for example, the question of advertisement. Why is there so much advertisement in public spaces? It may sound obvious – putting up advertisements gets people buying products. But nobody likes advertisements, so why do we just put up with it, and consider it part of the average cityscape? It’s not like it was always like this. The BBC had a monopoly on television for the longest time in the UK, and advertisements were forbidden there. Same with TVP in Poland. Clearly, things can be done differently, so why is the current system omnipresent? Such a simple question reveals a whole avalanche of topics to discuss, of knowledge to gain and of mindsets to understand. By delving deep and reassessing our assumptions, we can come to many interesting conclusions, and to me, that’s what philosophy is all about.
One point of contention, though, is that philosophy is something performed by humans, and so will inherit the flaws of the humans. No matter how deep I delve, there may still be questions I never even think to ask, but that might seem obvious to someone with a different background. Hence, for philosophy to fullfil its job, it has to be inclusive. It has been the bane of philosophy for the longest time, that the only people able (and allowed) to pursue it were upper-class white men from industrialised societies. One background dominated over all others, polluting the discourse. Going even further back in time, the only people who had the time and the social acceptance to pursue philosophical questions were priests and monks, which is why so many writings from back then had such a large focus on spirituality. Throughout most of the 19th and 20th century, when the topic of gay people came up, you didn’t have gay people just writing about themselves, about the world from their perspective; they were talked about by the straight people in charge of the sciences, which caused ridiculous ideas of where they come from and what they’re about to spring up and cause a great deal of misunderstanding and harm.
Let’s say that we really do it. We bypass our biases, and evaluate the world with support from inclusive (a.k.a. intersectional) philosophy. We gain a view of the world that is as fair, just and happy as possible. What can we do to achieve this, though? This is probably the hardest part, and one I don’t have a very good answer for. Hearing stories of people who visit impoverished folk and support them by helping them build houses, get food, and so on, I agree with their principles and their moral values, but I personally wouldn’t do that. Seeing protests break out in support of a cause like Black Lives Matter, I cannot help but smile, but with the threat of getting beaten and imprisoned, I would have a hard time participating in one. But perhaps… I don’t need to.
You see, this approach stems not only from values, but also from personality. Just like I can agree with BLM without joining the protest, I can preach the values of having a small vegetable garden, but when the time comes to actually go out and do the work, I grow reluctant. Is it a weak conviction? Perhaps, but also I’m just a very lazy person when it comes to manual labour. Instead, my strengths lie in mental labour, which is why I am more than happy to spend 6 hours writing this text. It’s why, despite my adoration of physics and the theoretical world, I find it oh so exhausting to do any physics experiments. So perhaps I should stick to what I do best, and spread the ideals through writing, lectures and the like? Perhaps someone will read them who’s more into direct action, who would sooner go to a rally than write an essay?
I don’t believe that individualism is inherently opposite to collectivism. It only seems that way because, under the current system, the main way of achieving individual accomplishment is by subjugating the masses, by going against the collective. It also helps that the systems are complex enough and opaque enough that, instead of rallying against them, people rally against one another, as exemplified by the aforementioned political prisoners of Jiang Qing. In reality, as long as we agree on the principles that are worth fighting for, everyone’s individual way of fighting will be a net positive for the collective. I want to believe that this is the case, because it’s the only reasonable way of doing things that I can think of. If it does not work, then perhaps I’ll have to wait for someone much better at thinking than I am to come out with a groundbreaking idea. And if they don’t come, then I guess the world is fucked. Oh well.