insight

Brent Cooper

Rise of the Emergentsia: The Revolution Will Not Be Boring

Increasing numbers of people are suffering because their society has let them down. Indy Johar's solution calls for a “Boring Revolution" — but is it really as boring as it seems?

Emergence
This article is the 5th in the profile series on the Rise of the Emergentsia, an open-source community of sagacious speakers attuned to a new stage of global evolution. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 here.

“In America, we think of rebellion as this very sexy thing and it involves action and force and looks good. My guess is the forms of rebellion that will end up changing anything meaningfully here will be very quiet and very individual. And probably not all that interesting to look at from the outside. I'm now hoping for less interesting, rather than more interesting. Violence is interesting, and horrible corruption and scandals and rattling sabers and talking about war and demonizing a billion people of a different faith in the world. Those are all interesting…” - David Foster Wallace, 2003
We need to take to heart the mundane aspects of achieving a global sustainability revolution.
The sentiment expressed by the late David Foster Wallace seems to be shared by Indy Johar, an urban architect and civic designer who believes strongly in the need for a paradigm shift; a head-to-toe redesign of our thinking about systems change.

Johar calls the movement we need ‘the Boring Revolution,' referring to the unglamorous job of transforming society by small unsexy acts of research and reflection. What’s nominally boring about it is the tedious attention to detail and truth; the patient but decisive engagement with complexity and controversy needed to solve the meta-crisis. 

People are usually drawn to exciting things, Johar laments - cool gadgets, new trends, etc. - but we need to take to heart the mundane aspects of achieving a global sustainability revolution, where we can act on the deeper levels of generator functions. For Johar, it’s a question of how to “democratise the power to create society” when that society is undergoing massive transition and crisis abounds. 

“For Johar, it’s a question of how to ‘democratise the power to create society'"

Johar explains how our political gridlock is partly due to fetishising the vote as the decisive leverage point of democracy, when in reality, he argues, democratic participation is predicated on layers of capital, knowledge, agency, and then voting. Those deeper layers need renewal and redistribution, and in short order. The challenge is magnified by our economic precarity as climate change anomalies mount.

In conversation with Tomas Bjorkman for Emerge, Johar unpacked the deep code of his ‘dark matter’ concept; the nearly invisible forces behind social design that structures material relations, like property rights, and how we can move to a commons-based economy rather than privatise more control. Dark Matter Labs run “small scale experiments that are indicators of larger scale transitions”, such as creating legal and institutional forms of environmental accounting and public ownership. Johar boils down the necessary deep code shifts to three convergent themes:

Anti-rivalrous economics (‘cooperation mind frame')
Commons based value (‘towards abolishing ownership')
Circular economy (‘eliminating waste')
The status-quo is so counter to our collective wisdom on many socio-economic issues. The price to put a youth in prison is £238k per year, versus £50k to send them to Eton College.
These seem to be common values among emergent thinkers, but how do we get from A to B? The Emergentsia, as a cluster of collective thought experiments, is still emerging through the mists of the culture war and having to come to terms with the politics of systems change. So far in this series, we opened with the meta-crisis and the phase shift upon our civilisation. Then, we explored some sense-making conversations and the idea of collective coherence. The last instalment was more complex, outlining the needed mind-shift for a full-on systems transformation. This edition continues the theme by building cities and movements..

Johar’s telling of this meta-narrative and counter-strategy is anything but boring, nor is the revolution that is underway. On the contrary, he makes the project sound revitalising, and possible, if we can just empower all people with the means. He implores that we need to “build the conditions for progressive realities,” which requires movements, not single individuals. The focus is “building innovation capacity in the hands of many” such that it becomes an “outcome multiplier.” In terms of economic justice; one must have an income in order to have an outcome.

The status-quo is so counter to our collective wisdom on many socio-economic issues. For example, the price to put a youth in prison is £238k per year, versus £50k to send them to Eton College. The latter is the essence of building capacity in people. But as Johar explains, “the reason we don't [do it], is largely to do with our accounting infrastructure… We don't understand future costs, so we cannot actually do the capital investment behind them.”

“The status-quo is so counter to our collective wisdom on many socio-economic issues."

What does justice look like, Johar asks, when we know that scarcity environments deteriorate ‘IQ’? The economic model of increased precarity has decreased our ability to even think. Austerity, cuts, deprivation, extreme competition, are all rivalrous generator functions that create bad decision making. This can include voting against one’s own interest, which we are all prone to do, due to noise and misinformation in the media ecology.

Once we see things in terms of human cost, converting these bad investments into good ones should be rather straightforward. We have to start investing in people and planet, both with infrastructure, income, and intelligent information. Automation will usurp virtually everyone’s jobs, so it's smarter to finance educational pathways rather than criminal ones. Johar notes the success of this lesson applied in ashram prisons, where a learning and rehabilitation environment effectively lowered both the cost and recidivism rates. This new baseline of humanity should be our organising principle and true north star.

We’ve suffered under the “convenient illusion [of] evidence-based policy”, the very notion of which is “increasingly out of kilter”, and failed to stop insurgencies from Brexit or Trumpism that delay the boring revolution in excitatory but ultimately destructive ways. So we need to change the underlying sociology of knowledge for citizens. There needs to be a renaissance of civil society and public discourse, where everyone has access to capital, knowledge, and agency. Only then can their vote find meaningful representation. When people live in systems of abundance and generosity, they can have what Johar calls a “freedom to care.”
Because their society has let them down, increasing numbers of people are suffering from diseases of despair. We are entangled, Johar stresses, not discrete individuals, so we have to act decisively together on matters of collective fate.
Johar stresses the moral lesson about how the environment shapes the individual and constitutes our society. And precisely because their society has let them down, increasing numbers of people are suffering from diseases of despair; preventable conditions like depression, mental illness, anxiety, suicide, and poverty. All sorts of emotional trauma and racial prejudice do micro-, or “molecular violence”, to bodies as well (see also “How Racism Makes Us Sick”). We are entangled, Johar stresses, not discrete individuals, so we have to act decisively together on matters of collective fate. We need more counter-narratives and imaginative solutions. Given the way capitalism has colonised our dreams, he says he's pleased to see a social resonance with the counter-hegemony in Afrofuturism, as reflected in the success of Marvel's Black Panther.

I hasten to add that this ‘Boring Revolution' will find affinity and  with the Peaceful Revolution, the process of socio-political change that brought down the Berlin Wall and ended the Cold War through nonviolent activism and diplomacy. Likewise with the Quiet Revolution, another period of intense socio-political change that secularised Quebec and created a welfare state, mirroring the general pattern of socio-economic develop across the West in the 1960s and ‘70s. And finally there is also reminiscence with the Silent Revolution, the nearly 50 year old thesis that post-materialist values (ie. freedom, tolerance, diversity, conservation) emerge when scarcity and existential threats are solved for. 

We seem to be going through a new boring, peaceful, quiet, silent revolution of sorts. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? These movements are part of a broader pattern of progressivism  and nonviolent revolutions, which have become increasingly successful throughout the 20th century. And they certainly had their moments of excitement. Johar's ‘Boring Revolution’ is thus not a simple technocratic fix or passive rebellion. Rather, it seems to also coalesce with counter-culture movements of the 1960s and 70s in the US that are still striving to achieve their core aims today.

“Inglehart also observes that “rising inequality has also produced an insurgency on the Left by politicians like Bernie Sanders."

Political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who coined ‘the silent revolution’ describes the global rise of authoritarian populism as “The Silent Revolution in Reverse”, where materialist and fear-based values are ruling. It is also notably demonstrated in Trump’s rather loud and hostile takeover of Republican party. And rest assured, Trump will not go quietly. Inglehart also observes that “rising inequality has also produced an insurgency on the Left by politicians like Bernie Sanders and intellectuals like Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty who stress the need for redistributive policies.” Inglehart suggests that we also parallel the 1930s, which saw the schism between the rise of fascism on one hand and the New Deal on the other.

The next ten years will be very different from the last ten, Johar notes. Climate change is increasingly anomalous, our economic valuations are morally bankrupt, and some attempts at mitigation (ie. banning plastic straws) are utterly negligible in the greater context, but still necessary. In this sense, Johar urges that “we have to embrace the scale of transition that’s coming…equivalent to the Industrial Revolution” in its fourth major turn. Johar urges that the real deficit of every city is the amount they neglect this great capacity.

Johar sees his role as a “provocateur... [to] challenge the discourse of city-building.” (Art of City Building 2018). Johar has been sounding the alarm for a while now, and it shines through in his TED talk ‘A Small World Future: From Start-Ups to System Change' (2015), where he strongly foreshadows the revolution in "organisation for outcomes” and “organisation designed around empathy.” He has detailed plans for remaking the legitimacy of a great transition, and the building of cities to accommodate.
We have to decolonise our thinking and revolutionise bureaucracy and democracy together.
In Johar’s most recent vision, he highlights the necessary symbiosis between re-extending our politics of self (whether individual, city, or nation) and recognising our systemic entanglement, in order to form a collectivist mindset about planetary stewardship and social transformation. To do so, we have to decolonise our thinking and revolutionise bureaucracy and democracy together, through a progressive politics aligned with systems change. He’s committed to a politics of solidarity, that he believes is required, stipulating;

“In this age, we will need to compliment our collective investment in alternative big P politics and activism with the Boring Revolution of remaking how we account, contract, govern and organise for a civic, planetary-just future.” - Johar, Dark Matter Laboratories, Amsterdam 2019–2020: Letter to our Future

There is a sense in which political climate change is upon us, where we must find confluence between political reform and systems change imperatives. In social theory, the Four Stages of Social Movements are titled Emergence, Coalescence, Bureaucratisation, and Decline. There is some providence in it beginning with emergence, the phase is characterised by “widespread feelings of discontent” and “lack [of] clearly defined strategy”, which we are well beyond now. We seem to be deep into the Coalescence phase marked by convergent constituencies and strategic formulations. This is also known as the ‘popular stage,' with clear leadership and mass demonstrations. Johar may be on to something, so long as it’s not too boring.

“In social theory, the Four Stages of Social Movements are titled Emergence, Coalescence, Bureaucratisation, and Decline."

The third stage, coincidentally (the most ‘boring’ part), is Bureaucracy, where the formalised coalitions implement their platforms in concert with social movements. This is where organisational energy is convergent on winning political power and creating strong institutions for posterity, for a revolution in automated bureaucracy. This is when the real “work” begins, the big plans are carried out and normalised, where Johar’s “boring revolution” comes full circle as a “paradigm shift in bureaucracy and innovation".

We are not quite at the third stage yet, but we should be prepared because it is coming. In the final stage of Decline there are four possible outcomes: Success, Co-optation, Repression, and Failure. The outcome will depend on how we coalesce now. Social movements have to be wary of many forces that can derail them, such as encapsulation, factionalism, and repression. These are more forces of the dark matter that an Emergentsia has to dance with. The greater we collaborate to engineer the revolution, the more fun and interesting it can be, without the violence and corruption. 

Fundamental to Johar’s project is the recognition of how people are products of their environment, how stark inequality is, how real our interdependence is, and thus how necessary a new collective paradigm is. We didn’t go to the moon because it was easy; we went because it was hard. Now we’ve got to come back to earth (cf. Latour), which just might harder. So the revolution will not be boring, nor will it be solitary. It will empower the whole heart of humanity. It must be the best possible version of itself to succeed. And the more we can ‘steelman’ it, the more it will be riveting.
 
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Words by Brent Cooper
Brent Cooper is an independent political sociologist, filmmaker, and Executive Director of The Abs-Tract Organization, a research and media project to educate on abstraction, metamodernism, and related topics.