Malleable

There are periods of time in which the systems of people become much more malleable—that is, people are able to fundamentally change systems of governance, economics, social relationships in one critical period of time. For instance, American independence questioned the power of the British empire and its nobility; the success of the United States’ bid for independence coincided with the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution. The phenomenon we can see here is a group of people realizing that governmental institutions are not set in stone and one has the ability to go another direction. The results of these “revolutions” are complex and mixed in its success to establish something completely different; now, an air cynicism is cast on all revolutionary thought over the past two centuries. Nevertheless, we saw revolutionary activity because people were not fazed by the intimidation of centralized powers.

Someone might think that revolutionary activity may only occur when a human system imposed on the group is failing. This is not true, as shown by the Industrial Revolution, a technological revolution that did not react against failure but acted for greater success. The lightbulb was not invented because the candle failed. The automobile was not adopted because of a failure of horses. These innovations saw a working model and improved upon it without any expression of reactionary behavior. The Industrial Revolution was an intellectual revolution that encouraged success instead of mitigated failure.

Nowadays, the global, cultural consensus appears that we do not want to live without air conditioning, toilets, computers, and planes, and that the overwhelming period of human existence before these conveniences would be unacceptably uncomfortable and boring. In fact, the more domineering nations in this global culture went even further to denounce our past circumstances, considering people without these conveniences as poverty-stricken. It is easy to view progress in relation to human-made devices because the realm of technology is one of visible concretes. This resulted in national governments conceiving technological adoption as that of human development. Now we have started to measure the development of nations based on computers and vehicles and electricity and lightbulbs per capita. The Industrial Revolution was transformed into a global mandate.

The most impactful revolutions were never considered as such in the beginning until its narrative was consolidated into that of capital-r Revolution. American independence wasn’t conceived from the Declaration—it was decades, perhaps centuries in the making. The American Revolution was the product of complex cultural forces, from the colonists’ development of a Frontier identity as opposed to a British one, to the geographic distance and limitations of the British empire to maintain cultural and economic identity in colonial areas. While Massachusetts was an epicenter for notable anti-British events and sensibilities, “American Independence” is a phrasal container for thousands of small, unrelated actions that ultimately ended up with the creation of the United States. These small actions were fueled by a cultural spirit that was not fazed by the British empire, and perceived the human world as a particularly malleable construct worth molding to one’s own specifications.

This is why I find Samuel and John Adams’ “Suffolk Resolves” to be hugely important to the spirit of revolution: The Resolves show that two individuals, with local interests at heart, found it worth their time to propose something radical, which called for a nearly complete doing away of British rule. Submitted before Congress nearly two years before the American Revolution, the Adams cousins weren’t riding a wave of revolutionary action, but added words to a growing American spirit that did not see Britain as its ruler in the near-future. The Suffolk Resolves were the product the a perspective that saw human systems as malleable in that particular moment.

I repeat the word malleability because it is key to understanding the enactment of radical change to pre-existing human systems: If Samuel and John Adams did not feel as if British rule over America could end, they wouldn’t have spent the time ruminating over it. This unformed feeling is the seed to change. If the feeling is there, the plants of revolution can grow—but that doesn’t mean they won’t get cut down before maturity. In an alternate reality in which the feelings of revolution existed but its soil was not fertile, the Suffolk Resolves would have been submitted to Congress and completely ignored. Ideas of change do not mean inevitable change, or else we could live in a Communist world right now. However, the theoretical-Communist spirit that saw malleability in human systems appears to only have lived for a few decades in the late-19th, early-20th centuries before, turning into a husk of its former self with the advent of the global-authoritarian-economist spirit that we still live with today.

Every human system adopted—whether it’s a national government, environmental program, capitalism, global supply chain, etc.—has no malice in its heart when it thinks that it is impenetrable to gaming, exploitation, or failure. When these systems are established, they actively educate its participants that, unlike all systems in practice before it, this is the system that no person should undermine because it man’s final version. When these systems are naturally gamed, exploited, and fail the average person, small revisions are made, but its stewards hold to the narrative that at its core, the system is infallible. The institution at hand will never give an inch regarding its fallibility until someone considers an alternative means to reach that system’s objective, or to do away with that objective altogether. Unfortunately, that is the institution’s job—to run and advocate for itself until people find it worth the time and energy to abolish. The British empire did not concede to the colonists until it had lost more than it could afford—even if it was apparent that British rule did not work in America, it was not like the King or his subjects would ever consider letting it go—because that would mean that there was something wrong with the system of governance, and by extension something wrong with the British empire. Like a psycho-analytic patient requiring catharsis to feel as if something has changed, the British empire required a full break from the colonists in order to end its failed reign over America.

Is there a way to capture the spirit that has powered the Industrial Revolution for about 300 years now, and employ that on the political and economic institutions we constructed so that our cultural spirit can encourage and adopt that which works for people, rather than what entrenches incumbents?