Can’t I just leave the playing field…?
by Lila Bosman
“Welcome to Africa” — were the words from a friend, accompanied by a fistbump, when I arrived home and relayed my disillusionment at being outright manipulated by a traffic cop into bribery. I felt sick with disappointment that I had allowed myself to be intimidated into playing into the hands of a corrupt system. Colluded in the endemic corruption that is eroding the very foundation of our country. Driving away, I imagined I could see the torn pieces of the social contract lying on the sidewalk.
The story above is hardly unique to my own context, give or take a few variables. Almost universally there are stories of people feeling powerless and defeated by seemingly unsurmountable systemic challenges. Power dynamics that feel so far out of reach, so incomprehensible, and so deeply entrenched that a small act of defiance like my reporting the incident feels naïve and useless. It’s no wonder people are collectively checking out in cynicism and closing doors to their worlds where it feels more contained and manageable. Alternatively, they revert to conspiracy theories and finding ways to arm themselves against the total onslaught, or finding comfort in magical thinking and surrendering to forces beyond their control.
To make matters worse, the most pressing problems in the world today are global, and seem so big in magnitude, that it’s hard to imagine how any of our individual actions could have an impact. Yet we are all affected by them. Think global pandemics, climate change, wealth inequality, unfair taxation of multinationals, mass migration, the threat of nuclear war. Just thinking about it feels too depressing for most. It is no wonder that ‘head empty’ memes dominated this year. We want to live in a world that feels fair, where our actions matter, where we feel safe, and hopeful for the future of our grandchildren. But it’s hard to bring your A-game when the odds are so stacked against us that it’s hardly any fun.
Don’t laugh at your fear-mongering conspiracy-touting friends… The game is rigged. Maybe not in the way they say, and not by design of those who benefit. They only know how to play the system effectively, and we who pick up the cost by taking more personal responsibility for our own choices, are merely acting as enablers. In a zero-sum game that will eventually lead to the demise of us all — including those who we thought were winning… We are all victims. It’s systemic, not personal.
It’s no wonder that activists and leaders who started out with pure intentions become disillusioned and enraged, and eventually check out of the game. Embittered, cynical, and blaming. Observing them, I asked myself why should I pay the social cost of stepping up, of even trying, and can’t I just leave the playing field? Is it even possible to check out in the interest of self-preservation? Believe me, if it was an option, I would gladly mind my own business and avoid anything even resembling politics. Paradoxically, it turns out, there is no option for any of us not to play — but what if there was a way to play it more effectively, without such a cost? As a team. By changing the rules.
First, let me backtrack a little and let’s consider a few options of checking out:
1. Death. I don’t mean this with any disrespect to anyone who, faced with the immense challenges in the world today, chooses to opt out of life altogether. This is, however, not an option for me, as I am driven by too much curiosity and tenacity and appreciation for life itself. Also, it would just shift the burden of responsibility on to the other players.
2. Delusion. According to the double-bind theory of schizophrenia, when a person is trapped in a traumatic situation of two conflicting and binding messages of “damned when you do and damned when you don’t”, without the option of leaving, one way of escaping the field is through delusion and psychosis. Again, no judgment of those who struggle in their sense-making and spiral into seemingly benign suggestions. Believe me, I’ve been there. However, as much as I still enjoy escapist fantasies, this is not an option either, nor is the short reprieve of addiction.
3. Move. Removing yourself from an immediate dangerous situation, or simply going in search of a better future, are valid reasons to move. However, mass migration and the plight of refugees have a further compounding effect: the pain of displacement for migrants and the need for others to accommodate or control the consequences. Migration is not the problem or the solution, it is a systemic symptom. Even if we look at the appealing option of moving off the grid and living peacefully in small communities or collectives, there is ultimately no escaping the planet.
4. Wait. This is the situation most of us find ourselves in. Not necessarily out of any ill intent, but mostly because it all seems too complex and any action seems futile. Waiting comes in many guises. It could mean simply waiting to see what happens, or waiting for someone else to take action. Or focusing on what is within your immediate reach, hoping that it would cascade into greater change. Or choosing a spiritual approach, hoping to exert influence by tapping into unseen forces. All of these approaches equally translate into inaction: we are dealing with the impact of societal structures, not supernatural energies.
Simply put, any action that does not directly address the system, is essentially inaction. We are all in the game. You cannot NOT play.
Writing this, my greatest concern was that I would be alienating some of the most caring and considerate people I know — that I would be eliciting guilt and defences, precisely because we are all just doing the best with what we have. Would it be such a stretch to assume that those in power in our governments are equally powerless, and their inaction is not due to their lack of concern? Our traditional systems of governance are no longer effective. Not on a global scale. Even if you could become the president of the most powerful nation in the world, you will run into an insurmountable deadlock. The era of the strongman hero is over. Destructive global competition dictates that in order to keep their national economy competitive and protect the interests of their citizens, no leader can take decisive action and risk losing out to others. Even international bodies like the UN and Global summits fall victim to the same dynamics. There is no mandate to implement any real change. The risks are simply too big, and the so-called free market, is not so free after all. The sovereign state is a myth.
So what can we do? Besides standing by and watching our certain downfall?
When I look at our incredible human ingenuity to problem solve and at all the amazing initiatives and ideas the world over, I believe we’ve got this. We have come too far to let it go to waste.
To be fair, let me first consider the traditional ways of taking action — before I offer a possible strategy. Please note that these actions had, and still have, merit in certain contexts, but are limited on a global scale, precisely for the reasons I mentioned above.
1. Petitions and peaceful protests. These are great methods for raising awareness and petitions have an established efficacy when addressed to people who are in a position to meet the demands. However, who are we petitioning when we want to tackle the big global issues? There is no-one in charge. Unless sufficient nations act together simultaneously in everybody’s best interest, we can petition as much as we like. So far, as we’ve seen, even when nations do come together, the best outcomes are goals that each nation is expected to attain, but without an indication of precisely what action each will take.
2. Disruption. There is a historic tradition of people trying to enforce change through decisive action, from civil disobedience and boycotting to outright terrorism. Again, with varying levels of success, though it may feel profoundly gratifying in the moment, driven by a sense of purpose in a cause. If taken to its conclusion on a global scale, what would this entail? A total systemic collapse? Unless we are very clear on what aspect of the system calls for change, a blind dismantling of all structures hardly seems like an ideal outcome. Even if that were possible, and we saw an end to globalisation, how long would it take until we eventually reach this point again, and see history repeating itself?
3. Democracy. The right to vote has been hard won for many, and even when a great many people have become disheartened by its efficacy, it is still the one civic action most of us engage in. We vote for leaders, hoping that they would be able to deliver on their promises. But their ability to take any real action on the most pressing global issues we are faced with today, are hampered by the stalemate position of needing to remain competitive internationally. Our votes have little to no effect at the global level. For now.
4. Leadership. There will always be those who enter the political arena directly, hoping to use their position of power to wield change. Sadly, by now it should be clear that even those in the most influential positions have their hands tied when it comes to making drastic inroads on global problems. However, with the right support, a public mandate, and collaboration, effective leadership may just be possible.
So what is the possible solution I’ve been hinting at? The potential strategy that gives me hope and motivates me to step up my game? The game plan that Noam Chomsky described as “ambitious and provocative but definitely worth a serious try”. One that asks us not to be better champions but to be better team-players.
I’ve long had a sense that the answer to our biggest problems lies in better cooperation, and I know I’m not alone in this belief. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that global problems know no boundaries. It used to give me hope whenever I saw a shift towards greater partnership, and narratives moving away from division to unity. It seemed inevitable that the eventual outcome would be for some form of global agreement. This, I thought, could be the crisis that sees the world cooperating on a global scale. However, in the responses from world leaders, it has been clear that they see the way out of the crisis as something that needs to happen on a national scale, rather than a global scale. This is why, in this moment of crisis, we need to radically change the way we think. To move away from destructive competition, while preserving national identities, and to truly bring about cooperation on a global scale. And this is what Simpol does.
The Simultaneous Policy Organisation, or Simpol in short, gives voters around the world a new way to pressure their leaders to address global problems.
The only way we can overcome destructive global competition, is if no nation need fear losing out to all the others. By knowing that everyone will agree and implement the policies, simultaneously, no one has to take the risk of making the first move. Everyone wins. This way we can break the deadlock and allow nations to look after their own interests, without the fear of compromising their international economic competitiveness. If this idea sounds completely impossible, then you are aware of the magnitude of how entrenched we are in the grip of this destructive competition. And to complicate it a little more, on any one policy, for example cutting emissions, some nations would potentially lose out more than others. However, if we combine it with another policy, for example increasing multi-national corporate taxation, then countries that lose out on cutting their emissions could be compensated by the proceeds from the tax increase. By combining two policies together, unfairness could be balanced out so that all nations would gain in the overall interest of everyone. Take mass migration for instance, the improvement of conditions in poorer countries is in the immediate interest of richer countries because the poor would not longer feel compelled to migrate. People don’t necessarily want to move, but with extreme wealth inequality, they inevitably continue to make their way into more prosperous countries, increasing the burden on welfare and other infrastructures.
We have the ability to take back the world, making democracy work for us again, where we get to choose what we want. Not the other way around. What’s more, we don’t need a new political party either. By telling politicians that we will give strong preference to those who are willing to sign a pledge that they agree to simultaneously implement a multi-issue range of policies to solve global problems, once sufficient nations are on board. In that way, politicians who sign the pledge gain an electoral advantage of those who don’t. There is no risk to them in the meantime, because the agreement would only come into effect once all or sufficient nations agree. And once it comes into effect, there won’t be any reason for them to withdraw, because they would simply risk losing our support again.
The principle is simple. Citizens sign on to Simpol, expressing their support, and this is communicated by their national Simpol organisation to their Member(s) of Parliament. As the number of Simpol supporters grows, politicians will know that their electoral success increasingly depends on them signing the pledge. Supporters can also directly write to their local representatives to encourage them to sign on. The biggest drawback with democracies is that their electoral terms are so short, and this is a long game. But because politicians who sign the pledge do so for life (unless they decide to cancel), and because they usually stand at every national election, the number of pledged politicians grows from election to election, so helping Simpol to overcome this drawback. (In the UK there are already more than 100 MPs who have signed the pledge).
Of course, Simpol does not offer a solution to all our problems. Simpol merely offers a platform for solving global problems by dismantling the destructive competitive standoff through simultaneous action. It is the vehicle that could drive the implementation of policies, developed by people who do not stand to gain more than others. Remember: team members and team-players, redesigning the game’s rules, with respect for healthy competition between ideas. Fair play. Decentralised global agreements, respecting diversity. Governance for liberation not oppression. In this evolutionary shift, differences become interesting, not threatening.
By signing on to Simpol you express your support for the principle, not the content yet, and you can withdraw anytime you are not agreement with the policies once we reach a point of implementation. It is only a first step, but it offers a way forward. Simpol offers the blueprint for a new operating system. At Simpol we are also very open to partnering with other enterprises with the same objective, as we have nothing to achieve by vying for the same population. Please reach out if you are part of a similar organisation or if you have a better suggestion for making this work. The strategy won’t work if we are pulling in different directions. What benefits you, benefits me, benefits us all.
In Africa there is a spiritual and philosophical principle called ‘Ubuntu’, as expressed in the Zulu saying: “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” (I am because we are). It is a concept of personhood in which the identity of the self develops interdependently through community. It is sometimes difficult to grasp for Westerners who define the self as something separate from, against, or in competition with others. Note that Ubuntu also extends beyond a purely humanitarian notion, to include all of the natural world. I am convinced that the planet could definitely benefit from a little more of the true spirit of Ubuntu.
Simpol is a non-party-political organisation, and if this idea of international cooperation makes sense to you, please support the campaign. It only requires a simple process of registration, and if you are concerned about sharing your information, I can assure you that it poses fewer risk than most forms you have completed. Your national coordinator will capture the data and store it in a secure manner, and we don’t share it with anyone, but we need it to canvas politicians — while making sure to protect your personal details. We also use it to keep you updated on developments, without flooding your inbox. If you’re uncertain about the merits of the project, please share it with someone whose opinion you trust and hear what they say. We are open to constructive feedback.
Currently the entire Simpol campaign is managed by a handful of dedicated volunteers. We have a structure to manage administrative tasks, but we need more volunteers to grow the campaign effectively. We need national coordinators in every country, we need translators, we need administrators. Simpol is entirely self-funded, and relies on proceeds from book sales and fundraising. We need funders and fundraisers. We also need to be more visible. We need writers, we need journalists to interview us, we need podcasts to host us, we need celebrities, thought leaders and movements to endorse us, and we need our supporters to share the information and talk about us. Please share especially if you know of an organisation that could benefit from a Simpol approach. When I say us, I mean every Simpol supporter. By signing on to Simpol you become part of a diverse community of compassionate changemakers, part of our team.
I hope to welcome you soon at simpol.org.
(The original article has been edited)
Lila Bosman is a systemic therapist and the Simpol National Coordinator for South Africa.