In the Social Progress and Evolution article I discuss why it is impossible to understand yourself, or other people, completely. This also pertains to institutions. Institutions, including the government, the military, religions, schools, corporations, and the media, all do not accurately perceive themselves. Because of this, they also tend to think that they do not need to change, nor that they are ever wrong, or too large or powerful.

It is not only the obvious or usual subjects that have this failing. For example, in the run-up to the Iraq war activists protested that media coverage was biased, that it was pro-war. But the media, even the so-called liberal media, said no, they were not pro-war.

It was only much later that the New York Times and the Washington Post publicly admitted that they did not properly investigate the government’s claims, about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, its links to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, etc.

The failure of institutional self-comprehension also leads to other inconsistencies. For example, the government maintains strict secrecy about itself, in the “national interest,” but we are told that we must reveal everything about ourselves as individuals, including even our movements (through the greatly increased use of public surveillance cameras). Further, the government believes it has the right to lie to us, even in some cases that it is obliged to do so, but we must always tell the truth.

Reform is the view that the system is self-correcting, that change can be accomplished from within. It is also expressed as the idea that the institutions can police themselves, which is incorrect. Not even the police can police themselves.

As another example, the need for campaign funding reform is recognized as a critical issue in the United States. Special interests fund candidates, and then demand a quid pro quo once the officials are elected and assume power.

The passage of the McCain-Feingold bill was an attempt at reform, but it failed. The ranks of lobbyists in Washington, particularly corporate lobbyists, and the money that they have available, have skyrocketed. The government has been corrupted, and because of this democracy in the United States has degraded to the point where the nation is well on its way to becoming a “banana republic.”

The solution to this is not reform, one more law to attempt to correct the problem, and which will once again easily be circumvented. The alternative to reform is fundamental structural change. In this case, the entire electoral funding system must be changed. The U.S. needs a complete break from its current corrupt structure. It should implement publicly funded elections together with a ban on all privately sponsored election advertising. Only this way will transparency be regained, and the option of candidacy be extended beyond the wealthy.

The problem with reform is that the tactic will not work if the subject is inherently dictatorial. Dictatorship as a system is too strong. You need great pressure to defeat a dictatorship, to disrupt its equilibrium and underlying power structures. Reform can never generate this type or amount of pressure. (Even worse, reformists are afraid to try. They never back strong, dramatic measures; the measures that in many cases must be used if change is to be achieved.)

Of course, many people will respond that the United States Government is not a dictatorship. While overall this may be true – elections are held – the government has many subsystems, e.g., the D.C. political subculture, that are inherently undemocratic. People are attempting to buy access, and favorable policy and regulations, and they are succeeding.

Most institutional systems, not only the government, are dictatorial. A small clique at the top has power and makes all the decisions. This holds with corporations (the CEO and Board of Directors), the media (which are corporations), and even religions and schools. Participation in the decision-making process does not extend to all of the institution’s members, much less the various publics that its behavior affects.

Because of this, activist groups that strive for reform, that try to work on the inside, inevitably fail. (I could name many, many groups, including most of the largest.) For example, for the government, the reason for this is that they are easily outspent by corporate lobbyists. No matter how good their arguments, they are ignored in favor of the positions of the corporations.

As to influencing the corporations directly, or the other institutions, barring the imposition of a widespread boycott, or the effective use of other tactics, this too will fail.

What this means is that all the effort and money expended by such activist groups has been wasted. They would be better off redirecting their resources to more aggressive campaigns. They should limit trying to make their case on the inside, and instead adopt an adversarial position and work to create the greatest external pressure possible.

(Note: I am not saying that activists should suspend all efforts at government lobbying, which tactic is described and recommended in the activism guide. Rather, I am saying that this approach has inherently limited effectiveness. It must be backed up by other, stronger measures: boycotts, protests, etc., which should form the core of the campaign and receive the bulk of the funding and effort.)