Social change, seemingly, can occur in a number of ways, the first of which is via reform. The idea of reform is that we seek to solve our problems one by one, and using conventional means. Such means are by definition ethical, as they entail working within the system. There is a real question, though, if reform can ever achieve anything, since it requires the system to change itself. Reformers are regularly co-opted by the system, such that they become complicit with it, or they are diverted from their goals. And even when real reform does appear to take hold, and this inevitably takes a very long period of time, the risk is always present that it will revert, as when the leaders of the system change. (With reform it is also regularly the case that a battle is won, at the cost of losing its associated war. In addition, I do not mean to infer that all people who strive for reform are co-opted, or diverted. For instance, many government employees are public servants, and use their best efforts to fight off the untoward pressure of political interests.)

Secondly, we can seek to accomplish change via revolution, to use force to overthrow the entire current system and replace it with something new. With revolution the goal is to accomplish change now, i.e., fast, and in this effort any means, no matter how extreme, are considered justifiable. Revolutionaries are impatient, and they regularly are motivated by anger and engage in great violence. Therefore, it is no surprise that such revolutions never succeed. Even if the old order is torn down, the new form quickly reverts to it, as with one dictatorship following another, and perhaps entailing even greater repression.

The third option also seeks global change, but this time with a foundation in reason, not anger, and also with an understanding of the role that chaos plays in evolutionary processes. Further, it is recognized that some time will be required, and that violent means are unethical. Therefore, the advocates of such a strategy, including many different types of social and environmental activists, pursue not only conventional means but also “radical” ones, such as non-violent civil disobedience and direct action. Violence against people and other forms of life is considered to be justifiable only in instances of self-defense, as for the victims of aggression in a war, and also only when it does not involve non-combatants or the use of torture.

A few examples should suffice to clarify these distinctions. Opponents of poverty frequently attempt to work within the system, but their efforts regularly are subverted. The leaders of the system have their own agendas, and design responses that appease the poor without confronting their underlying problems, and as a result nothing changes. If anything, inequalities increase.

For revolution, two examples where change clearly was not accomplished occurred with the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Maoists in China. The goals of both were ethical: the end of feudalism and imperialism. But their means were not; they used such things as purges, torture and mass murder. (In many such situations the goal is not even social change. The revolutionaries are really false rebels. Their only goal is to obtain power themselves, and they marshal support for this by misleading their followers: by presenting their fight as one for social justice.)

An alternative example, though, exists with the American “revolution,” as it did lead to a new form of order, democracy. The means of the American Revolution were ethical, to the extent that any war can be, particularly regarding such things as the treatment of prisoners and the general public. (In an ethical war prisoners are treated humanely, and the lives of non-combatants are not put at risk, as through the use of landmines and terrorism.) Of course, the evolutionary process in the U.S., even now, is not yet complete. Such events as the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, and today’s protests of the incestuous relationship between government and corporations, were – and are – later stages in our quest for real equality, the equality that democracy is meant to achieve.

What these examples infer is that the ethical basis of the means that are used to trigger chaos are incorporated into it. Anger and hate may be more “effective” at creating social turbulence, but they retain a primary role in any subsequent order that arises from it. The practical reason for this is that if chaos is fueled by violence, this normally leads to massive social disruption, and hence great barriers to establishing a new democratic order. But if chaos is fueled by reason and activism, to force changes in government practices and social values and conventions, with such changes thought out in advance, to the extent that they can be, a new and better order likely can be formed.

A further barrier, though, remains: what if one side in a chaotic situation is violent and another is not, as, for example, with police who react violently to non-violent demonstrators? The latter retain the right to defend themselves, but to the extent that they lower themselves and use the tactics of the state, they degrade their ethical position and reduce the probability that a better social order can be formed.

The main consequence of all of this is that with chaos one must be alert and ready. It may be uncontrollable and unpredictable, but its negative consequences, such as the number of people who will die in a civil war, can be limited if one is prepared to confront such consequences the instant they arise (and where possible seek to prevent them). Further, as the energy subsides and the turbulence dies down, one must be ready to direct and shape the formation of the next social order. For instance, for a dictatorship that falls through chaos, activists and rebels must be prepared to begin implementing democratic institutions at the first opportunity (beginning with the installation of an independent security apparatus, such as a peace-keeping force, to halt the perpetration of atrocities in the residual disorder).

Regarding the energy needed to instigate chaos, one can only keep pushing until the requirement, whatever it might be, is met. But, as steps can be planned, and orchestrated into overall campaigns, it may be possible to accelerate the onset of turbulence, perhaps greatly.

In addition, the goals of our social evolution include to change dictatorship into democracy, and inequality into equality. However, we also want to change our attitudes and behavior toward other forms of life. Will two periods of chaos be necessary to accomplish this?

Humans are self-centered, as are all other species. Because of this numerous social developments have occurred, as a means to stop humans from being killed, which likely will prove evolutionary. But there has been no change, no real change as yet, in our behavior towards other life. This characteristic of our form is not yet evolving. Reason tells us that it should, that all life has rights and should be treated as equal, and insofar as reason guides our actions we should evolve in this way as well. In theory, then, one could envision successive periods of chaos, the first to bring about real equality between people, and the second to create equality with all other life. However, such an eventuality is actually rather farfetched. The trigger behind our need to evolve is not escalating conflict between people (we do not need to evolve greater means of aggression); instead, it is the earth’s ecological disaster. It is our behavior towards nature that is both decimating other life and creating an untenable social structure. Therefore, the resolution of the chaos to come will require not only equality and peace between people; it actually begins with the achievement of equality and peace between people and all other forms of life.

Finally, one might also inquire: what does all of the foregoing imply for activism and activists?

1. Reform will not work: it will not be sufficient to bring about the change that we desire.

2. Neither will the extreme measures of revolution. Revolutionary developments always revert, and they also regularly take a form that is worse than that which they replace.

3. Chaos must be instigated for social evolution to occur. However, it is essential here that a subtle distinction be addressed. In arguing for the onset of chaos it would appear that I am recommending the use of volatility, which previously I have excoriated as a tool of social form. The difference is that the tactics of radical activism do not constitute form. There is no manipulation to achieve a hidden agenda. And, while the activist consensus against modern corporate behavior could be construed as the creation of a common enemy, this is not form, if it really is the enemy. Unifying against the Nazis did not serve as a negative means by which the Allies’ identity could be defined; rather, it was a necessary response to an extremely dangerous threat. Modern corporate behavior also is an extremely dangerous threat, and the issues, goals and tactics of activists reflect this. We do not obfuscate. We are up-front, and clear. And we are willing to consider dissenting opinions. We are not form; rather, we are education, the education necessary to defeat it.

4. A distinction should also be drawn between partial and complete chaos. For example, the chaos that is now evident throughout human society, in the form of such things as localized conflicts and even civil wars, is only partial. However, if only as a result of environmental degradation, it is inevitable that it will spread. In addition, a second critical factor is that the social manipulation and dictatorship that has now become common, worldwide, is effectively forcing us into a smaller and smaller box. But life breaks free in these circumstances. It finds a way. Hence, one would expect some sort of mass escape: from modern social form. (This will probably begin in only one or a few locations, but then quickly spread everywhere else.)

For nature, many ecosystems and species are under assault, and the chaos they are experiencing is already total. They are being wiped off the face of the earth. Still, such destruction is itself often localized. But this too will change. The earth is an ecology. Disrupt one part of it and, if only slightly, you disrupt all of it. But if enough parts are disrupted, and destroyed, the entire life-sustaining structure will break down.

The goal of direct action environmental activists is to cause the first, social chaos, to forestall the possibility of the second, environmental extermination.

5. Chaos requires strong steps, so such steps will have to be taken. We need more than widespread grassroots organization. We need acts, if only to serve as symbols for such organization. Further, we should not be complicit with the dictatorial forces in modern, and traditional, society.

In addition, we must recognize that the system of domination by humanity over all other species is exceedingly strong. We do not see such life as having any rights. Instead, nature is viewed with indifference, or disdain, and also regularly as something which must be conquered, with force. Therefore, one expects that the trigger or triggers that will be required to disrupt this system will themselves have to be extremely powerful.

6. Such steps, though, must be ethical. Violence against individuals should never be used except in defense of oneself or one’s family. In rare cases, though, property destruction is justifiable, and the foremost of these cases is when it is necessary to prevent the torture or murder of life. Destruction of property is also justifiable if it is property that has been stolen from you (you are entitled to destroy your own property), or if it is property that is used in other unethical and criminal actions.

7. When we have the social order reeling, and close to chaos, we must not relent. Rather, we should hit it until it is down, and then kick it to keep it down. Action must follow action to ensure that enough energy is added and the current system is swept away. For instance, dictatorships must be destroyed, with the dictators imprisoned or expelled, and their personal and family assets seized and nationalized. (One can argue that the chaos that developed recently in Indonesia was insufficient to accomplish real change. The dictator Suharto, and his family members and cronies, appear unlikely to face justice. They will never be punished for the murders for which they were responsible, and they likely will retain most of their wealth. The changes there therefore cannot be considered to be evolutionary, and the country may well revert to another dictatorship, just as the Suharto dictatorship followed the Sukarno dictatorship, which in turn followed the colonial dictatorship of the Dutch.)

8. In the steps leading up to chaos, and in the turbulence that follows its onset, activists will face violence and repression, and some individuals will be injured and even killed.

To confront modern corporate behavior with effect, the number of radical activists is going to have to increase dramatically. Large demonstrations at every institutional meeting, and hundreds of direct action affinity groups, are required. And, of course, the police will overreact to this. They will respond to protests, civil disobedience and property destruction with harassment, illegal detention and extreme prejudice. This is what they are paid, and ordered, to do. They are a security mechanism for the state and corporate interests, and their primary means are repression. Anyone who opposes the system is, perforce, the enemy. Even more, they want to do it. They love their power, and believe the only way to prove that they have it is to use it.

How violent will the social chaos generated by radical activism become? One hopes that the violence will be less severe than the level commonly seen in war, but there is no way to know for sure. Given the standard response of dictators to dissent, we should expect the worst. However, just because the consequences of nonviolent activism may include violence, this does not invalidate it as an approach. Great violence is also regularly the consequence of complacency, and denial, and inaction.

It is also worth noting that the United States security forces, the military and the police, should they choose to use their full capability against the American people, are invincible. If the public ever demands change, and they decide to support those who are in power, we will not stand a chance.

Some people will say that activists should not court such a response, and that only reform should be attempted. This is absurd. It will accomplish nothing. Activists must act. And, as the police react with violence, and we are imprisoned, injured and killed, we must not let up or lose courage. We must redouble our efforts, and recruit new activists, even as the police violence against us escalates. There is no alternative. We will have to see it through.

One also hopes that the general public, the non-activist masses, those who believe the police and large institutions serve their interests, not realizing that they really are prisoners of them, will awaken. This is not an impossibility. Members of the general public, particularly children and young adults, are not so degraded that they cannot understand that activists would not make such sacrifices without need: if critical problems did not exist. They could awaken and understand who is right, and that mass media portrayals of us are lies. It is even conceivable that they would join the effort, if only by using their residual influence to protest the level of police and institutional abuse that is directed at us.

9. And lastly, or rather, to begin, we must educate this same general public to care about other people as much as themselves, and to care for other life as much as human. Only when people do this, when they understand that it is the only “reasonable” response to the conditions of our existence, will we truly evolve.

© Roland O. Watson 2005