Get with the Process

By Harry Oshman

This article was developed with thanks to Tristan Mules and Rodney Zivkovic, who contributed to some of the ideas.

We’ve all heard it said often enough: “time to get with the programme.” I think it’s time for us to take a new look at that slogan, and agree instead that it’s time to get with the process.

First, though, we are going to have to unravel in our minds what we have assumed a process to be. In our industrialised, commodified culture, we have been conditioned into thinking that a process is a mechanistic production-line series of predetermined steps that follows a linear path from resource inputs to a final product through the operation of a machine. In post-industrial corporate society, not much has changed. A process has become the business-like team effort of producing packages for sale. We go forth and organise society much like a series of production lines and corporate products in an artificial market.

Yet this is not how a process in the natural world works. A process goes from cause to effect in a transformative way along unexpected pathways, through an overall energy descent curve from a stage of flourishing to a stage of withering, before rebirth of the process occurs in a new form.

Think about the process of a living thing. The trajectory and sequence of behaviours is never hard-coded, never completely predetermined. A living process unfolds in and of itself with feedback – and so it evolves. There is no final product, and each small incremental step is itself the beginning of a new process whose beginning and end are not easy to pin down.

The free-marketeers who advocate for the market to drive processes of change will have you believe that this is the way they see a process as well. They claim to naturalise the market and make it appear that it operates like an ecosystem. But don’t be fooled by their cunning reinterpretation of natural processes. The free-market is a production-line socially engineered machine designed for wealth and power to flow upwards and concentrate. The documentary, Engines of Domination details how the machine of the free market is designed to work: The machine kills off almost all of the push-and-pull factors that would otherwise keep it in check, crossing all of the intermediate stages of carrying capacity to now exceed the ultimate planetary carrying capacity itself. The machine takes much more than it gives. It consumes resources and energy in cycles of increasing destruction, and does not stop until all resources have been exhausted.

Getting with the programme

So let’s try to rethink what a process is in terms of back-to-basics human social organisation, stripping away all the assumptions. It is not agenda-driven – there is no final product, and the evolution of the process is never set in concrete. A social process will flourish and then wither once its energy is spent or when the niche it once occupied no longer exists and it hasn’t been able to adapt.

I don’t know about you, but for me, when I hear the “get with the programme” agenda, no matter who or what declares it, an inner dread overcomes me. The “programme” usually feels like it is being dictated from above; but it comes not just from those that have power over us – it is embedded in the inner working of how social groups build themselves into a coherent form.

As social animals in a social process we are compelled to reach consensus, to seek conformity and absorb the social norms of our group as if they were a given, simply because we want our group to function and we want to be accepted in it. We gravitate toward an authority figure in the group, whether that person has good intention or not, just so long as they can keep the tribe unified. So the social group fulfills our basic need to define meaning and purpose. Yet this can mean that our social group starts to follow an agenda for its own sake, losing its way.

Here is the somewhat awkward news: getting with the programme is not just the purview of the military enlisting us into pointless wars we do not want to fight, or the ideology of the below poverty “Newstart” allowance getting us into exploitative jobs we do not want; it happens even in well intentioned social settings, like at your local activist group. How do you react when the group says that “we have to sack Prime Minister Tony Abbott….. so get with the programme,” when you know in your heart he is not the problem? Good old Tony is just a symptom of a much deeper defective process in our society that is trying to conquer and divide us. Tony is just a figurehead, a leader with the designated role of spouting mantras. Like George W Bush, Tony is there to spread the message that “if you are not with us, you are against us.” In effect the political system is a destructive in-group consensus-mandated process that is shattering the legitimate role of out-group criticism into a thousand powerless splinter groups that can be broken up and commercialised, all for the sake of concentrating power.

And the problems with getting with the programme don’t stop there. If you say that you work for The Wilderness Society, for example, people immediately understand the programme you are working on. You passionately care about wild places. But haven’t we have lost our way as we engage in identity politics and convenient labels? We identify with a cause because it becomes part of our personality profile, sometimes supporting it for no other reason. Yet really the group exists to see through a process of change. The group process should be something we value, but for some reason we are losing our capacity to value the embedded processes themselves. Part of the explanation is that the way we use our technology – especially social media – enables groups to form for the sake of identity politics, with little other function but to circle around identity formation in neat little bundles that reflect our comfort zones.

Getting with the process

So what if you are working inside a process that has no convenient squeaky-clean label to make it visible and socially acceptable? Perhaps one that is about protecting wild spaces, but it is small, evolving and nameless? Dean Puckett provides a visceral example of exactly this in his documentary Grasp the Nettle, in which a rough-and-ready collection of ‘misfits’ against development occupied an undeveloped tract of land in London’s urban jungle, a weed-infested, wasteland of broken glass bottles and oil-stained ground. Hardly a pristine wild place.

Basically, if you are not with the programme you have to work it out as you go. It means that the group is tasked with the process of adapting itself to the situation it finds itself in, to be tolerant and to be joyful when ambiguity and group goals are not clearly defined – because they represent an opportunity for discourse and interaction. A group that doesn’t have a socially acceptable programme, or even a programme at all, is still a group of thinking, feeling people that are in a process of redefining and evolving. Enjoy that, because it is natural.

What too, if your group is not actually on its own, because you can see through the various programmes and agendas that come from within and without the group, and into the invisible world of the processes that are behind everything, cutting through the crap and seeing the process of nature itself? Yes, nature is not just out there in the wilderness. Nature exists in the urban jungle too. Be it the human world of social group formation, or the world of ecosystems, both are part of an invisible process that we can perceive if we open up our eyes. But to do that we have to cut through the disease of our individualistic culture that is judgmental, dispositional, even at times narcissistic, making it really difficult for a group to evolve with changing circumstances.

When the programme turns into a process

Let me give you an example to make it a bit clearer – an example Puckett homed in on in Grasp the Nettle. Say you and your fellow activists have decided to occupy the CBD of your local city, and your programme is to protest against yet another futile war your country is involved in. It has an amazing energy and you have established a base camp in the park opposite the town hall that has already lasted a couple of days. In today’s heavily policed state that would be almost impossible, but hear me out. The programme is to get the large anti-war banners hung up on the big old tree at the front of the park, but even that is logistically complicated. Everyone is tired, fogged out from lack of sleep, and it is hard to make decisions. So you stick with the programme because that is the simplest thing to do. You want this thing to work.

The protest is not going well though. Not many TV stations are turning up, the journos from the papers are not there, and your social media pages are filled with lots of crap clicktivist ‘likes’ but no coordinated action. It seems not many in the group are all that interested in the war protest anymore. Many in the group are starting to fall to the sidelines, losing the discourse and deliberation you once had. On top of that it is just plain tiring.

To make matters worse, all these well-meaning drunks, drug addicts and homeless are flooding into the scene from the surrounding city streets, seeing that something interesting is happening where they hang out. Your group presence makes this a safer place for them than their usual haunts. Some are loud, creating trouble, deflecting attention away from the programme. Others flooding in are desperately lonely, fatigued, hungover, in cold turkey, desperate for food, cash, anything really. The sheer number of people flooding in is more than you expected, and it is getting chaotic because the new arrivals are not focused on protesting the war like you are.

Let’s take a pause, and move beyond where Grasp the Nettle successfully went, into the realm of a thought experiment. Your group of activists, trained to perceive the possibilities in newly evolving situations, see the dynamics at work.  An unexpected, yet wild, social process is rising up like a perfect storm as more and more homeless flood in. The new emerging life-filled process you are not totally in control of is actually an evolving opportunity. It is quickly realised that the programme that was so long in the planning is ineffective. So you go into a temporary hiatus while the new process gets the attention it deserves and you reconfigure your approach.

Instead of an anti-war protest, which is still urgent and vitally important, the situation around you is changing. We want to keep the process of positive change going, but there is a concern that we might be putting the cart before the horse now and we could be tackling our cause in a different way. War is largely a social justice issue with individuals mostly from poor socially disadvantaged groups being sent to the front line to kill innocent civilians in economically poor areas. They are the ones left with the post-traumatic legacy. So why not switch to a social justice issue which is also very important? It is hard to detach from the programme sometimes, but opportunities do come from crisis. You have living, breathing people on the scene that are suffering under a brutal, callous system that abandons those who do not get with the programme. At the end of the day, does it matter if you aren’t following your original programme any longer? You are still in the process of doing good, and you can feel that in your bones.

Continuing the thought experiment: The protest starts to build much more traction now. There is unexpected social energy from showing compassion for these people who have crashed the party. You start rearranging your protest so that the homeless are now actively involved in it. They are now engaged as active participants and are empowered to contribute. They start to give you ideas. Social media is flooded with live on-the-minute stories that these people are telling about their issues with substance abuse and mental illness. Even the police are sympathetic because they are beginning to see building compassion for the cause, and they are conflicted about whether to close down your base camp. Your group then beds in where it is with a new message. Amazingly, new unexpected activists are arriving able to give relief, those that can relate to the issue of homelessness and drugs, and so the movement keeps building. Weeks, even months later, the base camp is still there and thriving.

Finding new tools

Being able to see the process that runs through life at a deeper level than the programme means that you have a new set of tools that allow you to adapt better and cope with all manner of problems. It is true that compartmentalising groups into neat, squeaky clean boxes like The Wilderness Society means that everyone has clarity about what you are doing; but processes out there in the real world are now getting complicated and messy, so we need to be adaptive and cross lines more.

Division and conflict are reduced as well. The common thread is wanting better outcomes for the environment and for social justice. But when we compartmentalise into specific programmes we open ourselves up to being divided and conquered – not just through the commodification of advocacy and activism, but also internally through division as members within start to argue about their pre-judgment of the programme, spoiling the positive process. Judgment is toxic and comes part and parcel with an individualistic culture playing identity politics.

Can we make the switch?

But it need not be that way. One way or another, the objectives of the group are going to change. Fluid processes are the normal way nature works (even when abrupt changes happen), yet ironically almost all of us are very uncomfortable with fluidity. When we see the invisible world of process, we realise that it is inevitable that at some point our group spontaneously formed, flourished and now begins to wither. There is no need to fight that; just go with it because it is natural. It is the underlying assumption that only a limited number of pre-packaged programmed outputs are possible that is unnatural.

At the same time, realise that the group is still committed to the process of reform; it is just that the process needs freedom to flourish, perhaps in a new way, in a different direction. It is not about the specific programme that the group was involved in; it was always about the freedom you had to pursue a path with a single mind until the next step in the journey is reached. Freedom comes not from there being a thousand possible choices, but from deciding that you want to be in a process of reform, come what may. In effect you are free because you have no choice; you have made the decision to pursue a better world. The freedom of this can be personally liberating, and can be a unifying force even when the programme has dissolved away. The energetic process is still there, and so is the journey.

So we aren’t fighting over labels and causes, but for the freedom of the process we are engaged in to be allowed to flourish. None of us can know what the ultimate result will be, but we are held together in unity by the thread of a process, unburdened and undivided. This gives us the ability to switch emphasis even to switch alliances, staying focused on just making sure that the process of what we are doing is not being stifled by a production-line mentality where only one result is possible, where the process has no room to evolve and flourish, and has been rigidly framed as if it were meant to be a machine in operation.

The conservation of change

At a really deep level, the invisible process of nature itself works to no programme. Think about what nature does. Is there ever a programme in nature? If we think of nature as an infinitely complex entanglement of processes subject to push-and-pull factors that are constantly blending, combining, evolving, and transforming under the common drive of energy and life force, is human social organisation any different? Sometimes a process in nature is destructive, like a meteor strike that wipes the planet in an instant, but by and large processes in nature are constructive in the sense that they are transformative. As soon as one process dies, another is reborn. So long as there is sufficient energy and the necessary conditions exist for flourishing to occur, then there is conservation of change.

The process of nature is always fascinating at some level, but usually unpredictable and messy. You may not be getting with the programme, but in your heart you know that you are part of the big plan, written by an invisible process that is working within you and without you. Your activist group knows it too.

Time to get with the process.

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