The Present is Pregnant with a New Future

Written by Olli Tammilehto

A key focus in social ecology has been the bringing about of profound societal change. This has been thought to mean a period of groundwork after which there would be a rapid revolutionary transition. Social movements, especially in cities, are seen as agents of change to a decisively more democratic and ecological society. This article contributes to an understanding of the dynamics of major societal shifts and the role of movements. It develops a theory of a pre-existing world—a “shadow society”—which enables societal transition, and makes a “societal phase shift” possible.

The first section of this article sketches out western thinking about gradual versus abrupt change in nature and society. The following section describes historical and recent instances of abrupt social change. The third section introduces the concepts of “shadow society” and “shadow personality” and delineates how they help to understand the dynamics of societal phase shift. The fourth section outlines how abrupt changes have been theorized in biology and asks if this theory can be applied to society and how it relates to the theory based on shadow society. The last section examines the implication of the societal phase shift perspective for social movements and their strategies.

Gradual versus Abrupt Change in Western Thought

The paradigm of gradual change has been very influential in western thought. In this view, real change only happens little by little (Brinkmann, 1974; Scoville, 2017). To force abrupt change is dangerous. Since Aristotle’s time the principle “nature does not make jumps” (in Latin, “natura non facit saltus”) has been widely accepted in natural philosophy (Franklin, 1986).

Also in social and political philosophy, and in social sciences, gradualism and its variation, reformism, have been popular. Social evolution has usually been interpreted as occurring bit by bit, in contrast to the notion of revolutionary change. Revolutions are considered to be normal in technology, but not in society. Technological revolutions are thought to come about because of the inner logic of scientific research and market competition. They are something to which society and people must just adapt. However, according to the cultural lag hypothesis, social structures follow technical change only gradually (see e.g. Wilterdink and Form, 2009). On the other hand, if social revolutions occur, they are doomed to fail. Since the French Revolution, the phrase “the revolution devours its children”1 has been r peated frequently.

After the revolts of 1968 and after the postmodern turn, it has been common to think that even aspirations to a revolutionary change are inherently dangerous. They contain a totalizing view on society which—if the movement in question is successful—is bound to lead to a totalitarian state (see e.g. Best and Kellner, 1997). Yet, as a matter of fact, even nature does make jumps. This is most obvious in phase shifts. For example, ice turns into water at 0oC without any intermediate stage. Ice does not become softer and only then liquid. There is a clear-cut jump in the constitution of H20.2

Leaps also take place at the macro scale. For example, a clear shallow lake can abruptly become turbid or muddy, even though the flow of nutrients to the lake has been constant for a long time (see e.g. Scheffer et al., 2001). Also, the global bio-geophysical system has experienced many rapid shifts during its aeons. A geological period may end and a new one begin very rapidly—even in just one year (see e.g. Masson-Delmotte et al., 2013). Human-induced climate change may also leap to a new state in the near future (e.g. due to the disappearance of the summer ice sheet in the Arctic). Such jumps can be expected to produce catastrophic consequences (see e.g. Collins et al., 2013). Thus, gradual change is only one possible pattern exhibited by nature.

Abrupt Social Changes in the Past and Present

Rapid and extensive social changes are also common as a consequence of wars, collapses of stock exchanges, etc. Yet, societies usually remain structurally the same after such changes. Therefore, you cannot speak about a societal phase shift or a change in the basic functioning of society. However, in some cases, local or wider society may abruptly alter course through a fundamental change.

When an earthquake, destructive flood or other natural disaster destroys the physical infrastructure of a locality, it also knocks down social hierarchies and market relations. However, according to many e pirical studies, social chaos or general panic does not usually ensue. Only elites panic because they lose their power (Solnit, 2009; Quarantelli, 2001; Clarke and Chess, 2008). The rest of the population immediately organizes itself horizontally; they form grassroots rescue teams and arrange food, shelter, and other support for survivors (Solnit, 2009; Fritz, 1996; Stallings and Quarantelli, 1985). Thus, new egalitarian social structures arise in a moment.

Fundamental structural changes also happen during social revolutions or insurrections. In the Finnish language “revolution” is vallankumous, which literally means abolishing power (in the sense of domination). This gets close to what often has really happened in the first stages of historical revolutions. Various hierarchies and many kinds of domination (power over) dissolves. In their place, councils, factory committees, assembles and other entities pursuing direct democracy are created. These organizations certainly have a lot of power or capability to get things done co-operatively, but power over or domination is severely restricted. Unfortunately, this stage usually only lasts a short time, and old domination structures are restored or new ones created (Bookchin, 1996; Bookchin, 1998; Foran, 2002).

Many examples of such grassroots organization during revolutions
include the following:

– sectional assemblies of the French Revolution in 1790–1793 (Bookchin, 1996; Tønnesson, 1988);
– factory committees, city and district councils, village assemblies and soldiers’ councils flourishing in Russia from February until October 1917, maintained until the Bolsheviks consolidated their power (Voline, 1990; Brinton, 1975; Bookchin, 2004);
– the 2,100 councils established in 12 days during the Hungarian revolution of 1956 before the Soviet invasion destroyed these councils (Gutiérrez, 2004; Arendt, 1958; Kosuth, 2007);
– shoras (workers’ councils) during Iranian revolution of 1978 (Landy, 1981);
– neighbourhood and workplace assemblies during and after the economic crisis that hit Argentina in 2001 (Sitrin, 2012; Fifth Estate, 2002); and
– the network of communes and councils which were put together in 2011, the development of which currently continues in Rojava, northern Syria (Knapp et al., 2016; Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, 2015).

Thus, as in nature, gradual change is only one of the ways that society modifies itself. In certain situations abrupt structural changes can occur in societies.

Shadow Society and Abrupt Change

How is it possible for society to change abruptly? One explanation is that society is never a fully integrated whole. In any society there are always conflicts, fractures and undercurrents. These are so widespread that you can speak about the shadow society that exists side-by-side the official society.3

An essential part of the shadow society is the shadow economy. It comprises the production and distribution of goods and service that are not recognized in the official economy, and thus not usually taken into account when calculating Gross National Product (see e.g. Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies, 1999; Gibson-Graham, 2006). This economic field is referred to by many terms with partially overlapping meanings: unofficial, informal, social, autonomous, post-capitalist, expolary, community, solidarity, subsistence, traditional, unregistered, indigenous, underground, family, black, grey, lumpenbourgeois, or third sector (Shanin, 1999). Examples include: unpaid service production in households; unofficial exchanges of goods and services among friends, acquaintances and neighbours; and unpaid peer support in solving various technical problems. The shadow economy is huge, especially in poor countries, but even in western Europe it is about as big as the official economy when measured in working hours (Stiglitz et al., 2009 p. 127).

The shadow economy has been conceptualized in terms of flows— production, distribution and consumption—as is common in economic discourse. However, it can also be perceived in terms of reserves or accumulated resources. From this perspective it is easy to see that both the official and shadow economies are based on resources that are neither paid for nor included in economic calculations. Part of this common wealth is human- made, such as our cultural heritage. Most of these reserves are, however, created by nature over millennia and aeons. When a resource is taken care of by a local, regional or global community, we can speak of a commons. Commons play an essential role in the shadow economy and many popular movements have risen to defend them against encroachment by the capitalist economy (see e.g. Bollier and Helfrich, 2012; Berkes, 1989).

These movements belong to a large body of social movements that attempt to create and change the rules under which they live.4 They are important political actors. Yet political discourse usually ignores these actors and keeps silent about them. Accordingly, there exists a kind of shadow polity alongside the shadow economy. A part of this shadow polity includes their internal decision-making processes. In many cases, these processes try to prefigure democratic decision-making in a hoped-for future society (Day, 2005; Graeber, 2013). In situations where open movements or social action groups are too hard or impossible to organize, the shadow polity takes the form of an invisible resistance, which can include loitering, disobedience and sabotage. These kind of activities have been widespread in peasant societies and in state-socialist—a.k.a. state-capitalistic—countries (Scott, 1985; Filtzer, 1996; Kopstein, 1996).

The shadow society carries on the traditions of countless movements, and former less hierarchic and more democratic societies that attempted to turn the course of history. Bookchin calls this important history “the legacy of freedom”, knowledge of which can lessen control of the future5 by the powers-that-be (1982). The use of the concept of “democratic civilisation” by the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has similar meaning (see Öcalan, 2016).

Human beings are social creatures and, as such, social conditions are reflected at the individual level. Like society, hardly any human mind or personality is a fully integrated whole. In different social circumstances we think and react differently and make different value judgements. This idea has been common during recent decades in post-structural thought: in different discourses the same person takes different subject positions (see e.g. Foucault, 1982; Henriques et al., 1984). Also, it has been widespread in Buddhist philosophy (see e.g. Kvaløy, 1992). Yet, the idea of the normality of a mildly divided self has appeared occasionally also in mainstream western philosophy ever since Aristotle. It appears whenever the phenomena of self-deception and weakness of will or akrasia (Aristotle, 1925 bk. VII; Rorty, 1988) are discussed.

Accordingly, we can speak about a shadow personality that manifests itself when people act in a shadow society. We can include with it many traits that are repressed in present social circumstances. They exist only as desires and dreams, often only on a subconscious level.6 This sphere of the unfulfilled and subliminal constitutes a hidden potentiality in any human being.

We can now put forward an explanation for rapid and profound societal change: In natural or human-caused disasters and revolutions all the functions of the prevailing society weaken or stop working altogether. This side of society moves to the background. At the same time the repressed, under-used or underestimated functions of shadow society become essential. The other side of society gets stronger and moves to the fore. The roles of these social spheres are swapped. The same happens on an individual level: the shadow personality comes to the fore and the former normal personality must go by the wayside.

Yet if the new situation stabilizes it is conceivable that in the new shadow society qualitative changes will occur. It no longer only represents the former dominant society but, in part of it, develops seeds and seedlings of new social forms ready to come to the fore in the next societal phase shift. The process of social change may have a dialectical character, as many thinkers have proposed (see e.g. Marx, 1996; Bookchin, 1990; Bhaskar, 1993).

In a sense, the theory of shadow society is a generalization or extension of the theory of dual power in social ecology (Bookchin, 2000; Biehl, 1998, pp. 123–124). Dual power theory deals with the best case scenario, where social movements have been able to organize a strong counter-power based on a confederation of municipalities before any societal phase shift. This has not proved the case in most historical revolutions—most organization occurs during and after the shift. The theory of a shadow society tries to explain why the shift was, and will be, possible in these bad cases.

Regime Shift Theory in Biology and its Relevance to Society

We could simply leave our pursuit of understanding abrupt social change at this. However, it would be good to develop a more nuanced picture of societal phase shift, especially of the social dynamics during periods of approaching rapid change. Therefore, it might be useful to look at how rapid structural changes are understood in biology, and attempt to apply those ideas to society.

In ecology, regime shift theory has been popular during recent decades. It developed from complexity theory, which originated in mathematics as a description of non-linear systems. Complexity research tries to understand how complex systems exhibit simple, system-wide behaviour.

A regime is a certain behaviour pattern or an oscillation range of an ecosystem. Regime shift theory tries to understand, on the one hand, how a certain regime is maintained or why normally the variability of the system is within certain bounds and, on the other hand, how a rapid shift to another regime is possible (Scheffer and Carpenter, 2003; Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2015)

The key is the existence of negative and positive feedback mechanisms or loops. These exist where the “output” of the system has an effect on its “input”. Negative feedbacks maintain a system in its present regime. For example, when an influx of nutrients increases the amount of turbidity causing algae in a lake, the number of daphnia (small plankton animals) that eat them also increases and the clear-watered regime is maintained.

Positive feedbacks, instead, try to move the system to a different regime. For example, a small increase in turbidity kills some big water plants that protect daphnia. Fish then catch daphnia more easily, allowing algae to grow. The following turbidity increase kills more plants, which means that more daphnia get caught—causing more turbidity, and so on (Scheffer and van Nes, 2007; Jeppsen, 1998).

In normal circumstances, negative feedback loops dominate and the regime is preserved. Yet, in situations where the system reaches a tipping point, negative feedbacks may weaken and/or positive feedbacks may become so strong that the system rapidly moves to another regime.

Could this model be applied to society? What were the feedbacks that maintain the present order or try to change it? We could categorise as negative feedbacks all processes that gain strength when social order is endangered. For example, when a social change movement grows, there are attempts to undermine its influence by two opposite processes. On the one hand, a part of the movement is marginalized by labelling it violent and extremist, something from which ordinary people should keep at a distance. On the other hand, another part of the movement is integrated into the powers-that-be. It then seems that the movement proper is no longer needed because it has gained representation in the power structures (Mathiesen, 1982; Neocosmos, 2018).

Positive feedbacks, on the other hand, could be conceptualised as processes that potentially get stronger when the present order is challenged. For example, a social movement may encourage new people to join a movement or form new ones. A stronger and more versatile movement scene may encourage still more people to join, and so on. The same applies to many other things that happen in the shadow society. For instance, experiences in the shadow economy may provoke thoughts about alternatives, delegitimizing the prevailing order, and stimulating other activities in the shadow society, and so on.

One could further adapt the language and evidence of regime shift and complexity theory, but the scope of this essay is limited. Complexity theory forms part of systems theory, to which Bookchin and many other thinkers maintained an aversion because of its mechanistic approach (Bookchin, 1990 p. 149). Such an aversion is justified in regard to much of system discourse. However, complexity research goes beyond mechanistic models and tries to understand entities with memory, history, evolution and “revolutions” (Ernst, 2009; Ramalingam, 2013 p. 142). In fact, it has much common with dialectical thinking (Ernst, 2009).

Nevertheless, complexity theory uses many of the same concepts as the rest of the systems approach, such as feedback loops. This is a significant problem if it results in forgetting the uniqueness of life and human society. One solution is to take some relevant ideas from regime shift theory but reformulate them. For example “positive feedback loop” could be called “self-reinforcing social process” and “negative feedback” could be called “self-attenuating social process”.

Societal Phase Shift and Social Movements

So, what is the relevance of all of this? If this theory of shadow society helps to adequately explain abrupt social changes, what are the consequences? First of all, this view can provide hope in our seemingly hopeless situation. Climate change, biodiversity loss, and other dangerous trends will lead to a global catastrophe if they are not stopped soon (see e.g. Steffen et al., 2015). It is easy to see that the reasons for inaction are the structures of our society. Yet, social change is usually thought to be very slow. This contradiction creates hopelessness. Therefore, seeing that, in principle at least, society can change very rapidly brings hope.

However, within this chain of thoughts lurks a danger. It can create a complacent attitude. Our analysis shows that revolution happens anyway. We don’t have to do anything—just wait and relax. This would be a wrong conclusion: the counter currents or positive feedback loops upon which societal phase shifts or revolutions are based are precisely our activities. If we are not active, counter currents will be too weak and there won’t be any revolution or, if it starts, it will fail quickly.

Although this analysis does not weaken the importance of movements and alternative projects, it provides another perspective for them. Making a systemic change in society is not building a new society one block at a time. Movements and projects cannot do it because no one knows which of their achievements will remain, and under present circumstances it is probable that many of them will falter. Instead, a reason why these activities are important is that they defend the existing shadow society and prefigure what society should and could be after a phase shift. Another reason is that they advance and work out processes—which can be called positive feedbacks— that, when a suitable situation arises, shift society to another phase. In other words, they can contribute to a revolution.

So far, in societal phase shifts, the “grassroots regime” has lasted only a short period of time. There are many reasons for the restoration of the hierarchical order. Outside pressure or even war has enforced their return. But often inside forces play an important role. For example, in the Russian revolution Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik party were instrumental in suffocating the grassroots democratic institutions that sprang up all over the country in 1917 (Bookchin, 2004; Brinton, 1975).

For many it is difficult to believe that the grassroots democratic regime is the real thing upon which a future society could be built. They think that this is just a party after which the party takes over and surpasses the “inefficient” grassroots structures. Indeed, real democracy is very different from the present governance with its hierarchical structures.

However, for most people it is not so strange because, in its embryonic form, it has been widely exercised in the shadow society. Keeping in mind the utter destruction and misery caused by the existing order and the bleak or non-existent future it is promising us, one may wonder if we are under a spell of some sort when we regard the predominant form of society as normal. Perhaps the feeling that this is normal and there are no alternatives is an effect of the distorted mirror that the prevailing society and its cultural machinery keeps in front of us. Shadow society and its blossoming in crisis situations may show us a more adequate image of what we are, and what future society could be.


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1. Originally in French (du Pan, 1793 p. 80): “A l’exemple de Saturne, la révolution dévore ses enfants”.
2. An abrupt change takes place if the solid is crystallized. Some solids— e.g. glass—are not crystallized and they turn into liquid gradually. These solids are called amorphous (see e.g. Complex Systems Group, 2015).
3. I have developed this thesis earlier in Tammilehto (2010; 2012). A similar theory is presented in De Angelis (2007).
4. Heywood, in his widely used textbook, defines “politics” as “the activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live” (Heywood, 2013 p. 2).
5. As George Orwell writes in his novel Nineteen eighty-four: “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’” (Orwell, 1955).
6. The situationists hinted at revolutionary desires that are repressed but exist in the subconscious (Baumeister and Negator, 2005, pp. 38–40; Situationist International, 1963).

May 8, 2021

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