There’s been a lot of talk of revolution in 2011, especially in connection with the Arab Spring and the continuing Occupy Wall Street protests. The word revolution conjures up images of political violence and social turmoil, of insurgent militias and defiant chants, of street barricades made from overturned vehicles and ragged crowds armed with makeshift weapons. In recent months, the word has often been paired with images of stormed palaces, angry mobs, even bullet-riddled dictators being dragged through the streets.
For those of us who came of age at the end of the Cold War, the word may have kinder and more benign connotations — the “velvet” transition toward free-market economics, perhaps, or the end of institutionalized racism. It’s also synonymous in many people’s minds with the notion of progress and technological advancement, as in the “digital revolution,” the “communications revolution,” or the “biotechnology” revolution.
But there is another kind of revolution, one that is less apparent but more profound. It’s the sort that begins at the level of perceptions, ideas, and values. We don’t know much about these types of revolutions, because they tend to proceed quietly within the minds of individuals for a long time before manifesting outwardly in the culture at large. They are silent, invisible, and relatively rare in human history.
Writing a century and a half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville described them in a vivid way. “Time, events, or the unaided action of the mind will sometimes undermine or destroy an opinion without any outward signs of change,” he noted. “No conspiracy has been formed to make war on it, but its followers one by one noiselessly secede. As its opponents remain mute or only interchange their thoughts by stealth, they are themselves unaware for a long period that a great revolution has actually been effected.”
Instigating a good old-fashioned revolution is comparatively easy compared to bringing about this kind of “noiseless secession” from the dominant way of seeing the world. It’s easy because the key ingredient of a traditional revolution is anger, bitterness, and opposition to a perceived enemy or system. A bit of public outrage coupled with a revolutionary group and a charismatic leader is not a promising formula for long-term change.
The trouble with mere regime-change is that if and when such an effort succeeds the new leaders typically lack the experience and the constructive attitudes needed to create and maintain a new social order. The negativity then turns inward and breeds divisiveness, in-fighting, and ultimately counter-revolutions. As history clearly shows, most revolutions become self-defeating and even dangerous since the struggle against “the enemy” becomes an end in itself.
The question we need to ask today is whether it’s possible to start a revolution the other way around — whether it’s possible to have a general shift in mood and action first. Such a revolution would build on values and perceptions, not bullets and bombs. It would be constructive, not contentious. It would emphasize design, not criticism. It would be self-organized, not centrally planned. It would take its cues from imagination and vision, not opposition to the status quo.
I believe this kind of movement is possible. In fact, we’re already seeing signs of it all around us — and I’m not talking about the Occupy Wall Street protests, though some of the people spearheading the effort clearly embody a new vision. This silent revolution I’m talking about gathers into its framework a wide range of innovative ideas drawn from across a host of disciplines, from science and technology to psychology and education. Its leaders can be found all over the world. They make up what might be called an invisible network — a global underground of individuals from different cultures and backgrounds who are committed to a more humane and sustainable world, who embody a value-system based on compassion, kindness and respect for diversity, and who see the fulfilment of our highest capacities as human beings as the single most important goal as we look to the future.
The revolution comes as a response to breakdowns on many fronts — the environmental crisis, the deepening divide between the world’s richest and poorest, the crisis of confidence in institutions, and the bankruptcy of once-dominant ideologies and systems of belief, such as communism and free-market economics. But the revolution is not a reaction to crisis so much as a reflection of an emergent culture rising to take the place of the one we have now. It is evolutionary, not revolutionary.
I must confess that for almost two decades now, I’ve devoted much of my professional life to seeking out these quiet revolutionaries — to learning from them and to trying to articulate and disseminate their ideas in as clear and compelling a way as I can. In the early days, I had some trouble identifying these instigators. I used to think all good ideas were equal. It was only later that I understood that ideas and intentions go hand in hand. The mark of a good idea, I learned, is that it’s backed by a noble intention. I don’t mean the kind of noble intention we pay lip-service to; I mean the kind that is born from a faith in human virtue and possibility, from an animating vision of a more humane and sustainable world.
The German philosopher Hegel once remarked that great revolutions are always preceded by “a still and secret revolution in the spirit of the age.” This revolution is “as hard to discern as to describe in words.” Those who fail to recognize it as it gathers strength, he said, are always astonished by the sweeping changes left in its wake.
That’s what we are in the throes of today — a still and secret revolution, one that will ultimately change how we see ourselves, how we define our collective purpose, and how we take care of ourselves, each other, and the planet.
Update: If you haven’t already seen it, check out this YouTube clip in which Charles Eisenstein brilliantly describes the vision I’m talking about as a revolution of love.