Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Free your mind, find your power, change the world
By Nafeez Ahmed, with Andrew Markell and Gunther Sonnenfeld; originally published at Medium: https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/beyond-trump-rebooting-the-system-from-inside-the-death-machine-7a9488adcf81
[Editor: this is a condensed version of what Nafeez Ahmed published; I encourage you to read the entire article. I am posting this because it gives an analysis and plan of action that is particularly cogent for activists who engage in cognitive training, i.e. meditation, and study the dharma.]
To explore how we can respond meaningfully to this moment of crisis, we will draw on this and previous work to provide a snapshot diagnosing the fundamental contours of the crisis. This will provide the groundwork to see the crisis for what it is: an act of war on Planet Earth, on all of life, on all of us. Seeing the crisis for what it is, clarifies in a way that is often eclipsed in the everyday whatʼs really at stake. And this in turn opens us to seeing the possibilities for action, by unmasking the most fundamental obstacle to change: the illusion of our powerlessness, and the mechanisms by which this illusion is perpetuated to ensure the peoplesʼ silence, fear, apathy and disunity.
1. The diagnosis
Itʼs now clear that the Age of Trump represents a resurgence of powerful interests tied into a dying civilizational paradigm, being disrupted by converging social, ecological, energy, economic and technological forces.
In this sense, to see Donald Trump himself as ‘the problemʼ whose removal would return us to the course of progress would be a grave mistake. Trump is, rather, a symptom of the problem: and the problem is global systemic crisis.
The global systemic crisis can be understood quite simply as an escalating rupture between human civilization and our biophysical environment.
Axiom 1: Our ‘endless growthʼ neoliberal economy — along with its constituent technologies of energy, food, and water production, distribution and consumption — are increasingly overshooting the planetary boundaries of our biophysical environment.
In short, every year our consumption of natural resources exceeds the Earthʼs capacity to regenerate those resources in that year. Human civilization has been in escalating overshoot since the 1970s.
This, in turn, is undermining the stability of our human energy, food, water systems, the wider global economy, and the conventional political frameworks which are supposed to ensure that the former deliver public goods and services.
Axiom 2: Global net energy decline means that the net value of the energy we are able to extract from our fossil fuel resource base is declining inexorably, despite increases in production — and this is exerting an increasing geophysical brake on the global economyʼs capacity for growth.
So letʼs be clear: neither liberal nor conservative paradigms, both built on a foundational belief in the neoliberal ‘endless growthʼ capitalist economy as integral to human progress, offer meaningful answers to the Crisis of Civilization — our present business-as-usual course still veers toward an uninhabitable planet.
As global net energy is declining, to keep the endless growth machine running, the imperative to drill like crazy to get more energy out only deepens. So instead of scaling back our exploitation of fossil fuels, we are accelerating it.
As we are accelerating fossil fuel exploitation, this is accelerating climate change. That in turn is driving more extreme weather events like droughts, storms and floods, which is putting crops in major food basket regions at increasing risk.
The environmental crisis has culminated in a shocking tipping point, whereby we have breached several key “planetary boundaries” for the safe operation of human civilization, further amplifying Earth System Disruption.
As climate and food instability ravage regions all over the world, this has fuelled short-sighted government responses in the form of military interventionism, heightened geopolitical competition, and the militarization of national borders.
It has also accompanied more planning from government security agencies for domestic counter-insurgency operations in preparation for these processes to undermine domestic stability.
Axiom 3: Climate, water, food, energy and geopolitical crises are not simply separate, distinctive processes — they are fundamentally, systemically interconnected: we are facing a single, overarching Crisis of Civilization.
The Crisis of Civilization (2011)
When we attempt to understand these interlocking processes through the lens of complex systems theory, the critical role of information in the future of human civilization becomes crystal clear.
Evolutionary biology teaches us that when a complex adaptive system is particularly challenged by its environmental conditions, it enters a stage of crisis. The crisis challenges the existing structures, the existing relationships and patterns of behaviour in a system. If the crisis intensifies, it can reach a threshold that undermines the integrity of the whole system. Eventually, either the system adapts by re-structuring, leading to a ‘phase shiftʼ to a new system, a new equilibrium — or it regresses.
In a civilizational context, the capacity to process information in such a way that it is distributed effectively across the system to contribute to resilient
relationships is crucial to the systemʼs ability to survive, and adapt. In this sense, the state of our communications and media systems presents an insightful barometer of the health of the ‘DNAʼ of our civilization.
It doesnʼt matter which side of the political spectrum you sit on. We are all feeling it, acutely — a deep sense of acceleration and polarization, signalling that our information sensors are in increasing disarray, overwhelmed, unable to cope with and meaningfully process the avalanche of seemingly contradictory, confusing and frightening data entering our consciousness.
Axiom 4: The state of information overload and polarization we are now experiencing speaks to the fact that we are rapidly approaching a global systemic crisis threshold. The crisis has overwhelmed the existing structures of the global system. Our prevailing institutions and systems of power are in informational disarray as they struggle to make sense of what appears to be an overload of information signalling this systemic crisis.
At this point of threshold, the system faces a crisis of information overload, and an inability to meaningfully process the information available into actionable knowledge that can advance an adaptive response. Hence, for instance, the increasingly toxic polarization of all political discourse.
This deepening polarization, the retreat of different communities into fragmented self-reinforcing, self-enclosed ‘bubblesʼ of communication, reflects a rupture that has opened up in the heart of power itself: the Deep State.
2. The war on all of us
Rather than recognizing the disruption of the global system for what it is — symptomatic of the unsustainability of prevailing structures requiring an adaptive global phase-shift to a new system — the Trump regime represents a powerful cross-section of American elites who see this disruption as a threat to their hegemonic power.
Rather than recognizing the role of the structures of the global system itself in accelerating this disruption, they blame and Otherize the problem onto a cast of conveniently-defined ‘Outsiderʼ groups.
A glimpse of this ideology can be found in an extraordinary statement put out by Joseph Bast, the CEO of the climate-denying Heartland Institute, introducing its latest Quarterly Performance Report. Heartland has been funded by the same fossil fueled forces behind Trump: ExxonMobil (whose former CEO is now Trumpʼs Secretary of State) and the billionaire Charles Koch.
The Heartland statement makes an astounding declaration whose implications require careful contemplation: It announces in no uncertain terms that thereʼs a war going on — that this is an existential crisis, and that the interests behind Trump are quite literally waging their war to save ‘capitalismʼ from those seeking to destroy it:
The Heartland statement shows that the interests behind the Trump regime have convinced themselves that liberal, progressive support for the clean energy and climate movements threatens to destroy ‘capitalismʼ.
But liberals and progressives are not destroying capitalism. Neoliberal capitalism is eating itself, and the myopic logic of endless growth is overconsuming its own biophysical resource base.
So in reality, this war is between the past and the future: between a fossil fuel-centered paradigm of endless material growth, which is entering its death throes; and an emerging paradigm of prosperity for all, which respects planetary boundaries and defers to the natural environment.
Rather than accepting the global systemic crisis for what it is, Heartland is clinging to an outmoded worldview, technology and resource-base — and an associated economic and political paradigm.
Compare this to the simple facts around global net energy decline as identified here: the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of fossil fuels is in terminal decline, despite improvements in technological productivity, production increases, and intensified drilling.
The Trump regimeʼs model of economic growth is, itself, destined to undermine economic growth in the long-run. But the Trump regime and its benefactors are ready to blame everyone else for that very phenomenon — everyone except themselves and their outmoded, dysfunctional policies.
The Heartland statement thus leads to the following stark conclusion. The interests behind the Trump regime represent the violent radicalization of the old paradigm: the political economy, ideology, culture and value- system of extraction.
So yes, thereʼs a war. But itʼs not a war between liberals and conservatives, between climate activists and fossil fuel industrialists.
Axiom 5: This is a war between an old, dying paradigm, and an emerging new paradigm that is rapidly and concurrently disrupting the old paradigm, here and now.
Itʼs a war between the old, dying paradigm based on ceaseless material production, consumption and acquisition by atomized, disconnected and competing individuals, which elevates greed and egoism by seeing them as rational virtues for the public good—a paradigm whose business-as-usual trajectory, premised on one-sided destructive relationships of extraction and exploitation, is in reality heading toward an uninhabitable planet; and an emerging paradigm based on living and working in harmony with our natural environment and each other, as diverse and different communities who nevertheless see ourselves as embedded in our environment and mutually interconnected.
This in turn highlights a paramount reality. The ideology, value-system and political economic structure of the old, dying paradigm of endless extraction, has thoroughly outlasted its usefulness.
It is no longer a force for progress, but threatens the very survival of the human species.
The Heartland Statement thus reveals what is truly at stake: the interests behind the Trump regime are waging a global war, and they will not stop until they annihilate their perceived enemies. It is a war in which the future of all life on the planet hangs in the balance. It is a war on our children, and their children, and theirs. This is a war on the Earth itself.
Axiom 6: The ethically-driven vision, values and political economy of the emergent paradigm that seeks relationships of regenerative mutuality based on the interconnected ecology of life and the cosmos — exemplified in the moral imaginations we codify with the terms love, justice and compassion — represents a highly functional evolutionary systemic adaptation that is, in fact, essential for the survival and prosperity of the human species.
In the emerging paradigm — the paradigm we must unearth, practice, embody and institutionalize as part of an evolutionary systemic adaptive response to the present crisis — we see more to life and work than endless material acquisition.
We ground ourselves in ethical imperatives of love, compassion, justice and generosity, whose behavioral manifestations are precisely to connect us with each other and the world in healthy, productive relationships of equity and mutuality.
Axiom 8: While the information sensors of human civilization are already in disarray, this information war fought from multiple fronts — by the liberal, conservative, government and corporate establishments — seeks, fundamentally, to manipulate your beliefs and behaviours.
No wonder, then, that this political atmosphere produces a sense of apathy and resignation — a sense of atomization and, ultimately, powerlessness.
We are made to feel that our individual roles are merely to choose where we sit passively within a spectrum of banal political polarities that benefit powerful interests, competing with each other for influence over our minds, our feelings and our behaviors.
We are simply cogs in a machine of endless production and consumption whose final logic is to concentrate wealth in the hands of a powerful minority at the expense of people and planet.
Therefore, this sense of powerlessness and despondency that we feel in the face of the overwhelming nature of the crises before us, does not necessarily reflect the reality of what is possible at all. In fact, it doesnʼt — it reflects our mode of being within the system as it stands, today.
The sense of powerlessness reflects how the conventional institutions of liberal democracy have led to the erosion of the public sphere as a space of meaningful democratic empowerment.
Axiom 9: The feeling of powerlessness is, in itself, an integral feature of global systemic crisis, a symptom of a system that is failing, a paradigm that has outlived its usefulness.
In recognizing this, we can begin to see that the feeling of powerlessness is illusory: it reflects the system itself, but does not reflect the reality that within the very crisis-threshold that the system is now experiencing, within the unprecedented rupture that is opening up, there is an equally unprecedented opportunity for radical transformation.
The present moment in the Age of Trump has seen a range of some of the most powerful but regressive political, economic and ideological forces capture the American government; in turn, this has unleashed a great awakening across the spectrum of political polarities.
People who identify as liberal, conservative and neither are, together, waking up; they are recognizing the unprecedented nature of the concurrent acceleration, the weakness and ineptitude of our institutions of liberal democracy. People who have never been interested or engaged in politics want to resist.
4. From powerlessness, to acceptance, to creation
But how? As a journalist and activist, Iʼm no stranger to the feelings of disillusionment and despair that can arrive after realizing that a life-timeʼs worth of struggle does not readily appear to result in the change we want to see in the world.
These feelings often resurface at times of acute crisis. Many of my friends and colleagues have experienced an enduring sense of depression in the Age of Trump. Recently, I experienced a baffling sense of disbelief in my own work, including my ongoing partnership with EXILE to build the next generation media platform of INSURGE intelligence, a project that weʼre accelerating right now.
The experience consisted of a tightening sense of disbelief in the very possibility that our project would be capable of reaching fruition; it was accompanied by an all-encompassing sensation of despair.
Maybe it was related to the Trump Fallout — the feeling of ‘resistance fatigueʼ that so many experienced when they realized that all their hard work to build a better world, all the small but big victories on the environment, minority rights, healthcare for the poor and so on, were about to be undone.
When I confronted these intrusive sensations, I had a profound realization: one that Iʼve experienced before, but whose reality hit me anew with fresh wisdom. And that was acceptance.
I stopped trying to fight the feelings of despair, depression, disbelief, darkness. Instead, I just sat with them, looked into them, and let them speak to me. And when I did so, I realized that I needed to accept my limitations. I needed to accept what lays beyond my control. I needed to accept that I donʼt control the outcome. To come to terms with the grief of that acceptance.
And in accepting, fundamentally, that my immediate power may not in itself be capable of changing the entire system — in accepting that I do not have the power to change the world — I discovered the nature of true power.
I realized where my power really can be found: in myself, and in my context.
Only by accepting, becoming at peace with, the limitations of our power, will we stop wasting our time trying to change things outside of our power to change, and begin focusing our efforts on changing what is precisely within our power to change.
I.The first step, then, was to assess myself. Who am I? What do I have to offer? What are my skills, my interests? What are my passions? What is the gift I want to bring to the world? How can I embody the change I want to see in the world? How can I live and work in a way that that breaks free from the old paradigm, and brings me closer to the new paradigm?
That, too, requires considerable inner-work. It requires understanding the extent to which our neurophysiologies are wired and constantly, literally, programmed by the informational bombardment of competing political polarities and mass consumerist modalities.
We are wired by this system to be cogs in the machine, unable to think critically, fearful of authority, convinced of our powerlessness, and locked in a cycle of producing and consuming to a tune not of our own making.
This internal wiring is no accident. It is entirely intentional, and remains so.
Axiom 10: It is in the interests of government and corporate actors to erode the public sphere, to muddy the capacity for meaningful generative public discourse premised on the empowerment and cognitive clarity of individuals; because doing so enables them to maximize wealth extraction for themselves, at the expense of people and planet. As such, we have been wired to deny our own power, and to say ‘noʼ to possibility.
The war on all life and the Earth itself begins and ends with the war on the public sphere.
It was a victory carefully reprised through multiple deceptions: The war on all life and on the Earth itself can only be won by destroying and subjugating the public sphere; so that whatever feeble ‘resistanceʼ the public sphere offers can be duly shocked into submission, ideologically, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically.
Here is an illuminating excerpt from Bernaysʼ 1928 book, Propaganda, which lays out the morose philosophy of power that underlays so much of conventional democratic politics:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
Bernays pioneered a form of branding, but at its core it represents little more than a particularly brazen set of techniques to manipulate people to get them to do your bidding. Its underlying purpose, in large part, is to make money. By convincing people that they want something they do not need, Bernays sought to turn citizens and neighbors into consumers who use their purchasing power to propel themselves down the road to happiness.
Axiom 11: Our present cognitive and neurophysiological wiring ought to be interrogated, undone, re-constituted. We can re-create ourselves anew, as carriers and enablers of the emerging paradigm that we wish to see in the world, and wish to be part of.
By breaking free of this wiring, we enable cognitive and neurophysiological breakthroughs that can allow us to see, live and work in the world as it really is — rather than as the beneficiaries of Bernaysʼ worldview see, live and work in it.
We therefore move from self, to society.
II.The second step is to assess our social context to identify the gaps, the needs, the issues that urgently require redress as a consequence of the ravages of the old paradigm: my family, my community, my social network — and by that I donʼt mean my virtual social media network, although that can be a part of it, but more concretely, my physical social network of people around me, who Iʼm connected with in and through the real-world.
What are the issues or problems that I can contribute to resolving given who I am, my skillset, my passions? And who can I work with in my context to do so? How does my context intersect with the contexts of other individuals, people, communities, organizations?
5. Toward a civic democracy
This lays the groundwork for transformative social action — defined as transformative by the extent to which it is capable of breaking with the old paradigm, and ushering in the emergent paradigm.
Axiom 12: We require an evolutionary adaptation, where citizens themselves take on the responsibility, and embrace their power, to collectively build and re-build institutions, companies, businesses, nonprofits, communities, markets and ecosystems, which function in the interests of people and planet — which serve them, and not parasitical vested interests. The imperative to re-build the public sphere by building civic democracy is, therefore, about overcoming our crisis-threshold, and transitioning through an evolutionary adaptation to a new system.
The new emerging system will not simply do away with the old; rather it will reconfigure, transfigure, modify and utilize elements of the old, incorporated into a new system that fundamentally transcends its failures and limitations.
One signal of the power of this work is that Dr Erwin won the National Crime Prevention Councilʼs Ameritech Award of Excellence for her integral role in creating this initiative. Her praises were even sung in US Congress. In Markellʼs words
“We trained everyone in core leadership and self-mastery skills. We influenced policy, not by manipulating it, but by providing interpretive frameworks. We built holistic programming grounded in the cultivation of solidarity and strategic alliances that cut across previously unconnected groups of stakeholders in the system. We rooted all our designs in local conditions and we took seriously the mandate that at the core, if we did not create real economic solutions, all of our good work would literally collapse.
This model of civic democracy is about mobilizing and empowering citizens and communities from the bottom-up, to catalyze a transformative movement that ends up disrupting prevailing public policy institutions.
This is why the core of any movement for change in the Age of Trump begins with self-mastery, and moves into civic democracy.
Self-mastery entails that we train ourselves to undo our conventional internal neurophysiological wiring, to uproot incoherent belief systems, let go of private judgments, stop thinking in terms of banal ideological polarities, and develop the tools necessary to be in a constant state of evolution and committed action.
Civic self-mastery training then extends to a model of civic-engagement. Having awakened ourselves internally, newly empowered, we move to immediate social contextual action.
This goes far beyond the realm of academic theorizing or ivory tower public policy formulation, which is so often distanced from the real-world localities where theory and policy need to be applied — and which characterizes the fundamental limitations of conventional liberal democratic structures.
III. And that leads to the third step: to create something new, as part of a collective that connects oneʼs self to that wider context. How can I bring who I am productively and constructively into relationships with these real-world networks so that we can, collectively, create something new which fundamentally breaks with the old paradigm and brings forth the emerging paradigm — that fundamentally disrupts the old, and innovates a breakthrough revolutionary way of seeing, living, working, doing for yourself and those around you
Axiom 13: Relevant multidisciplinary expertise is brought to bear within the local area/context by doing, testing, failing, prototyping, refining and exploring in the real-world. Solutions are not simply discussed and sought by attempting to leverage distant institutions of corporate and/or governmental power. All solutions are achieved through concise and coordinated action, in real, local physical spaces and collaborative environments. All solutions grow out of local conditions by local actors.
These solutions are, therefore, designed to be regenerative, to work in harmony with local environmental assets, and to thereby generate value for all stakeholders. This approach is about local communities co-designing and co-creating solutions. Itʼs about cultivating distributed leadership, by building the capacity of individuals across communities at the local level:
“Imagine every city, every community, every rural center, every town hall replete with its own customized version of a civic engagement model, based on ecological variants, predominant socioeconomic needs, deeply embedded journalistic practices, and policies that actually create opportunity for anyone who chooses to participate.”
Axiom 14: The way beyond involves the re-ignition of our political imaginations through cognitive rewiring and participatory social action.
Cognitively, we can seek to re-envision ourselves, the world, and the relationships between them, for what they really are as an interconnected whole. That means applying systemic and holistic approaches to train ourselves to free our psychologies from the Cartesian wiring of the production-consumption machine, and retrieving that within ourselves which transcends the conventional whims of everyday egoism and its limited, atomistic window onto reality.
An employee of a financial firm who experiences crushing, demoralizing pressure everyday is advised to seek solace and support by taking up a practice that might help with stress management. S/he engages in a period of self-training, based on practices of meditation, which unexpectedly opens up a journey into understanding the cognitive sciences, the emerging discipline of transpersonal psychology, and its surprising intersections with insights into reality from quantum physics and some of humanityʼs oldest spiritual traditions. The cognitive breakthroughs allow him/her to become awake to the possibility of transforming their context, leading to life-changing and life-enhancing decisions to move into a life-affirming career that involves providing others in similar situations access to the same liberating knowledge and practices.
Intellectually, we can seek to cultivate critical thinking, critical self- reflection, and the ability to integratively assess multiple perspectives and points of view, to constantly evolve our understanding of the world. We can develop new educational and informational mechanisms, architectures and platforms that allow us to navigate the vast volume of confusing information with an eye to develop coherent scientifically-grounded narratives of our wide-ranging challenges, and our place in the world.
These should offer systemic and holistic approaches that bring together multiple academic, scientific and practitioner disciplines, experiences and knowledge into unified frameworks that can inform practical action, and actually empower people to take action — frameworks through which we make sense of ‘the newsʼ in a way conducive to positive change, rather than confusion and resignation.
Politically, we can seek to overcome polarity and build unifying coalitions between multiple civil society groups, ethnic and religious communities. These coalitions should serve as incubators for the cross-fertilization of ideas, strategies and actions not just for ‘resistanceʼ, but for the co-design and co-creation of new social institutions in service to people and planet.
Ethically, we can seek to build our moral imaginations and our commitment to values of love, justice, generosity and compassion that, objectively, appear to play a real evolutionary function in the survival of the human species. Having recognized the objective evolutionary function of ethical values, we can empower ourselves to integrate them more fully into our daily cognition and practice as individuals, and into our social and institutional contexts.
That requires first and foremost applying these values to our personal modes of being; extending them to our closest relationships, and seeking to embody them with self-awareness and integrity, by laying bare the internal cognitive machinery of extractive egoism so that we can transcend it through conscious moral choices to be who we really want to be. On this basis, we become empowered to envision the transformative potential of these values in our everyday lives, and wider social and institutional contexts.
Economically, we can work within our social and institutional contexts to re- design, co-design and co-create new participatory forms of regenerative economic activity which subvert, disrupt and ultimately transform prevailing traditional structures of predatory exploitative extraction, leading to new relationships of equity and mutuality between capital, labour, the biophysical environment, and productive relations and resources.
Whether that means innovating new ways of organizing business and corporate activity, cleaning-up supply chains, or restructuring interactions between workers and managers, the upshot has to be a willingness to stop fearing radical change — and, in fact, to embrace radical change as a necessary evolutionary imperative.
Culturally, we can seek to educate against divisive xenophobic nationalism that turns citizens against each other, and shift away from our addiction to mass consumerism premised on endless extraction. That means developing new programs and platforms to cultivate generative dialogue and open inquiry between groups that otherwise within the normal framework would barely, if ever, come into contact.