The Life and Death of Social Change

From the Arab world, to America, to Europe, to Russia and beyond, we have witnessed, over this past year, and are continuing to witness now, the obvious death of existing conceptions and imaginations of how society needs to be in order that the human being may be able to live in it as human being.

What we are, thereby, also seeing throughout these times is nothing short of a death of our existing understanding of the human being itself. Our paradigms have run dry, and they have run dry because they are out of step with reality. And yet, what has been our response to this?

More than a year after initial events in Tunisia and Egypt, we are seeing old patterns re-emerge in different garments. Dictatorships are being dressed up as something else, in many instances using imported clothing.

The fact that Egypt, for example, is currently working towards the kind of formal democracy which has created the kinds of problems that people in America are themselves rebelling against must surely raise some serious questions.

No doubt there are steps on the road to any destination, and progress can be painfully slow. But what of the road that we as humanity tread together?

The lessons being learned in America must also be learned by those calling for social change in other parts of the world. In looking to America, it is clear that representative democracy coupled with a so-called ‘free market’ has devastated not only that country, but, as a global power, the rest of the world with it.

The paradigm that stands behind neo-liberal globalisation and the ‘Washington Consensus’ is nothing other than a dragon which has been devouring the world (and the human being), and is now also devouring the lair out of which it has crawled. The question must be, however, Is another world possible? Is there another world waiting to be made?

True creativity involves a process of death. In nature we can observe the withering and decay of plants even while their seeds germinate and bring new life. Animals, as a part of a particular species, such as the lion, will often compete with other lions. Here, the strongest may survive (on this lower level Darwinism proves itself true), but only in order that the species as a whole may find renewed life. In this sense, each human being is a species unto him or herself; and contains within it all animal species.

In zooming out our microscopes we can also observe the way in which natural ecosystems contain organisms that do not compete with, but rather support, one another. Bees pollinate flowers which, in opening to the warmth and air and light, offer their pollen for the honey of the bees; bees which are involved in an elaborate co-working for the hive as a whole. Everywhere we can observe organisms which have not merely ‘adapted’ to their surroundings, but whose survival itself actually depends upon this mutual co-dependence and co-operation.

Social life is nothing other that the coming together of human beings. At present, we are working with paradigms that picture the human being only as a higher form of animal that must also compete to survive. The social revolutions we are seeing take place around the world are nothing other than a feeling within the human being that there is more to it than this – that no longer do we wish to live in a world that forces us through its structures to pit ourselves against our brothers and sisters in an eternal struggle for survival as if we were merely animals.

What we are really seeing unfold across the world in our time is the external manifestation of a kind of inner revolution taking place within the human being. At the same time, this outward revolution is causing us to ask more and more questions about the true nature of who we really are.

We feel ourselves to be more than a creature in constant war with our fellow human beings. We feel ourselves with something better to contribute to the world than the way it currently is. For we can feel that the way it currently is is a world which is inherently hostile to the true nature of the human being.

And where we see people currently attempting to reshape society, we see something of that which lives behind this feeling uniting with that which is the same within others. And yet, in order to avoid continued violence, we must also have the courage to get behind these feelings and make such impulses conscious. If this does not happen, the world will continue to be rocked with violent social explosions, sparked by the match of our own misunderstood feelings.

What we must truly come to understand is the connection between ourselves and the kind of social life that is seeking to emerge through us. And if we really observe the current social situation around the world we can see that the existing system is a system and a paradigm that is withering, that seeks death.

In particular the global economic and political systems are severely in decline. Because we have allowed economy and polity to set the global agendas for society as a whole, so society is also in decay. As an organism we could say that it has already passed the point of its own death. We keep it alive, as it were, on structural and societal breathing apparatuses. We huddle around it as we might huddle around a person kept alive in a hospital, though we know they are in truth not really there. Through this society-paradigm we have created machines that allow us to freeze human beings – before or after life (or, indeed, during) – and now we use these same ‘machines’ upon society itself.

Why would Egypt, or any country for that matter, seek to take on a system-paradigm that has proven itself incompatible with the human being? Why wouldn’t America – the country that has been the flag bearer for democracy and new economy – itself realise that the way it has been operating at home and around the world is no longer appropriate for the world or the human being today?[1] Why do we continue to prop up structures that have, essentially died?

We have so permeated the world with systems arising out of these paradigms (essentially Social Darwinism), and out of the corresponding picture of the human being, that we fear what may happen if we were to let them die. For in letting them die, we feel it may well be that we will die along with them. We fear our own death, for we have no clear idea of what lives on the other side of it. And this fear is paralysing.

On the global level, as the recent ‘bailouts’ in Greece reveal, it appears we are afraid to act, other than to re-enforce that which we already know. But what is being asked for today is that we come to an experience of that which we do not yet know. In order to do this we cannot re-insert more habits or old ways of thinking into the world nor our own selves. In order for this  to happen, we must be prepared to make a space in ourselves for this same ‘not yet’ – for the future. This future – the future world that longs to be – will only come into being in and through us.

But this can only happen if we are prepared to let something in ourselves die. What is this something? Nothing other than that part of ourselves that we associate with who we are, but that in truth is not us; everything we have built up as a kind of identity of who we think we are, but that is in reality only of this same decaying social structure, and that will pass away with this structure as it too passes away.

Everything that is connected to our own lower selves – to that part of us which proves Darwinism and Social Darwinism to be true – is, in fact, needing to die into our higher selves, as a plant often needs to die in order that its true reality may live on in the seeds of the new plant. This new plant has, in a way, lived within the old for some time as potential from the future.

We cannot overlay tired, worn-out structures onto countries nor the world as a whole. It will ultimately be rejected, though with the tragedy of more unnecessary violence. The only social structures appropriate for our time are the ones that are born, seed-like within human beings, when human beings allow enough death to take place within themselves in order for new life and the true future to emerge.

In the initiation traditions of old, the human being would undergo a kind of ceremony of death in order that they could be reborn into the spiritual realities of the world. The whole initiation community carried this process. It was treated as if the previous person had died and a new person had been born out of the old.

Now, everything has become an initiation waiting to happen. In order to have any true knowledge about anything, we must be prepared to let what we think we already know about it (and that part of ourselves connected to that knowledge) die. This extends now all the way to the social structures of the world as a whole, and how they impact upon our individual tasks.

Our individual tasks have become connected to the global paradigm. It cannot be avoided. Global economic and political structures affect the way I live. The dragon is everywhere. So too must my creative deed carry something of a world-response within it.

The initiation communities of old are, generally speaking, no more. Today we must form these communities ourselves, though they will look far different than they once did. The true initiation ceremony of today takes place in any encounter between human beings. In any moment, in order for something new and creative to be born, we must have the courage to let something of ourselves die. And that something is that which we think we know of one other.

The other person is not only comprised of their past and present, but also their future – their ‘not yet.’ In making a real space within ourselves for the future of the other, we enable them to be creative out of their own highest potential. Not only that, but in such moments – in the other – we are able to locate our own highest possibilities.

Such moments are initiation, or perhaps resurrection moments, in which it is possible to experience something of our future selves – the true selves of one another as human beings. Such moments are moments in which we are able to experience not the part of ourselves tied to the past – not that part of ourselves that links us to the animals and to concepts of Darwinism and Social Darwinism – but to a part of ourselves that will not pass away when we die. Such experiences link us to that part of ourselves that contains the life of a new seed waiting to slowly grow in the soil we make for it – as we tend it again and again. Such experiences allow us to get beyond the fear that lives in and arises out of the gap we sense between death and new life. Such experiences create a bridge across this gap; such experiences are this bridge.

To the extent that we are able to foster such activity through our own free will, we put ourselves voluntarily in service of all that constitutes the spiritual part of who we are and of the world as a whole. We ourselves are able to create the conditions of what was once handed down by others in initiation wisdom. We can become free beings in service of the world becoming.

If we are able to create, with and for one another, such social spaces of free and true spiritual insight into the realities of the world, then do we stand a chance of being able to overcome the inherent fear that lives within the possibility of death. In ‘dying before we die,’ we are able already to put ourselves in service of new life. We will find there a space for new thoughts, new insights, new possibility, new creativity and, ultimately, true social thinking. For we will have come then not to an alternate social paradigm to place alongside (or as an appendix to) the old, but to the place from which all paradigms spring. In so doing we can come into a social space where it is possible for us to perceive the forms that the social organism itself is asking for in order that it may be possible to find a place within it for the true nature of the human being – in so doing, we will have actually already co-created a seed of this new form; this new life.

Such activity is not re-activity – it is, rather, true creativity. It is the antidote to both austerity (social ‘freezing’) and revolutionary violence (social re-actionary ‘burning-up’). It stands in the balance. It is itself this balance. It is the powerful creative gesture in defiance of the ‘bailout’ – it is the diving in, the diving through.

To be active out of true insight into reality in the shared spaces we make for one another as human beings is to be truly social, truly creative and, at the same time, truly individual. Unlike the bee, the human being of today can only be truly social if he or she is truly individual. And yet, paradoxically, we can only truly find this individuality in mutual co-working with other individuals in community. For true health, each community must bring out the best in all individuals, and in each individual the community as a whole must be alive. Only in this way will we create healthy, human, social hives appropriate for our time.

This is a spiritual-cultural deed. Long since sidelined from the world situation through economic and political activity, but also, tragically, its own irrelevance, culture must once again be fuelled with the reality of new life. It must not let itself be carried away to some other place in order to make its home. It must make a home of this place. Cultural life must find the freedom it needs in order to let such new life flow into the world through the human being. Everything depends on this.[2]

A great courage is needed to again and again cross the abyss that lies on the other side of death – be it our own or the world’s. Courage can keep such fear at bay, but also lay down its sword so that we may cross upon it into the new life that waits for us in order to be truly creative in collaboration with the world that seeks to be. We have responsibilities for each other in this direction.

If civilisation is not to explode in too much revolutionary heat, nor freeze in the cold-room of the cryogenic life-preserving structures that it itself has created for its own continuity, it must be prepared to burn as the candle does – as a self-sacrificial activity that sheds light and warmth for all others on this path. We ourselves are such candles.

Revolution is currently taking place against the mostly-unconscious story-mythology of Darwinism and its social consequences. The old stories are half-truths and no longer appropriate. This must become conscious. The human being must now take centre stage. New story-mythologies must now take place out of current resurrection possibilities. Resurrection story-mythology must itself be reborn and recreated anew between human beings.[3] If we are able to truly find one another as human beings (and not as mere Darwinian animals), then will we find new life; then, in such moments, we will co-author an always-new resurrection story in the space that lives between each of us, and in all that flows out of such creative, spiritual fields for the resurrection not only of ourselves and one another, but of the earth as a whole.


The current global economic and social paradigm is one of competition only because at one point we agreed (consciously or otherwise) that it should be so. Therefore, our capacity to agree prefigures anything we may actually agree upon, including the notion that we are competitive beings. That is, the social paradigm that states we are competitive beings is itself only made possible because we are able to agree – to collaborate – to work together. This fact alone undercuts the paradigm of Social Darwinism. At any moment we can choose to make new and conscious agreements out of our deeply collaborative nature.


John Stubley

[1] The Occupy movement represents part of the first outcry in this direction, though there remains little recognition on the level of those who hold structural power.

[2] We can see instances in the world that suggest this activity is taking place, however consciously, in communities of various sizes; namely, in the work of Civil Society. But it must grow to full consciousness and clarity of thought in order to be appropriate for today. And it must now grow rapidly in size and in number.

[3] As the article as a whole (and the experience itself) makes clear, this can happen regardless, of course, of any religious persuasion.

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1 Response to The Life and Death of Social Change

  1. ‘zooming out from our microscopes’ – yes. Take the less anthropocentric view and try to see things from a holistic point of view. Everything ‘we’ do effects everything. Biodiversity is one of the greatest things that keeps the entire planet healthy, and that should be a metaphor for society. Monocultural religious that curtail individuals right down to personal dress habits restrict everything else in that soceity. One of the saddest things to come out of Egypt recently is the call to harsh Islamic fundamentalist traditions. I can’t help feeling that it all has a long way to run, and a more uncomfortable path before the world wakes up. And in Australia, cushioned by selling off the fuel that powers along global warming to the rest of the world? Not until people stop relying on coal and curtail this false beleif in linear progress will any other type of progress be possible.

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