I have a mind that is very rarely at rest. It’s a standing joke amongst my family but when I run, I often compose speeches in my head. I’ve written and re-written 21st birthday speeches for my sons, their wedding speeches and other presentations when out pounding the pavements. It’s not exactly Zen, but it’s a way of getting vaguely positive outputs from constant synaptic churning.
The fact that my brain spins constantly is the main reason I’ve never been big on podcasts. I find it hard to simply listen but head off on various tangents and all of a sudden I’m having a deep thought process about an adjacent area in my head. All the while not actually hearing whatever is being discussed. I’m sure there is a diagnosis for that, and a modern pharmaceutical designed to help, but I don’t actually see it as a big problem.
Of late, however, I’ve been trying to teach myself to calm my mind and simply let it absorb. One of my favourite listens is the Prof G podcast. It’s entertaining and sufficiently lightweight that I can listen while still doing some low-level speech writing. Recently the podcast talked with New York Magazine writer Eric Levitz. Levitz had recently written a piece discussing the left-wing perspectives on revolution versus reformation and he was riffing on that topic.
To paraphrase and explain: left-wing revolutionaries believe that the fundamental economic system (read: capitalism) is the very thing that drives bad outcomes for people and the planet and that the only way to fix things is to change the system. Reformists, on the other hand, pragmatically view the world and say that capitalism is what we’ve got, and the only viable way to effect change is to work within the system for good.
It’s a truly interesting topic and one which I’ve discussed with some left-leaning board colleagues who, to a greater or lesser extent, feel a little bit hypocritical working within a system that they truly believe is fundamentally flawed.
Obviously, I have my own views on the topic, readers will know by now that I have views on pretty much everything. However, I’m not going to debate revolution versus reformation. Instead, I’m going to try and elevate the conversation somewhat and look at it from a different perspective. I’m going to riff upon an experience that was deeply impactful for me, and one I have spoken about in many different contexts in the past.
30 years ago, while travelling with my Aunt in Israel, we visited the archeological site of Megiddo. Megiddo had a multi-thousand-year history of occupation and over those hundreds of generations layer upon layer of detritus accumulated. In the 1950s some archaeologists decided to cut a vertical trench that exposed the entire history of the site. There in one line, we saw hundreds of generations of history, now all completely forgotten. That history covered the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Lydians and Phoenicians, Hittites. Elamites, Assyrians, Phoenicians… and dozens more epochs, many of them vanished without a trace.
I got thinking about the individuals, all utterly forgotten, who lived within those different epochs. While the obviously understood that they were being ruled by whichever leader was in place at that time, they didn’t consider the fundamental systems that govern life as anything but static. Those living in Roman times, for example, could obviously conceive of a change in rulers and the potential that said change could lessen their own chances of being fed to the lions, but the thought of the end of the Roman Empire was something beyond the scope of their imaginations.
It is, I believe, analogous to how we perceive capitalism and Western democracy. Every time someone from the left suggests that capitalism is the problem, someone from the right suggests that Capitalism is better than Communism so it will remain. This argument seems both reductive and ignorant of a perennial history over time of epochs rising and falling. The only thing we can be certain about is that, over the arc of time, if capitalism is indeed replaced, whatever replaces it will be a construct that we can’t even imagine. In the same way that the Phoenicians couldn’t conceive of the Greek Empire, neither can we, living in the midst of the capitalist epoch, conceive of what might come next.