What principles might guide us in these increasingly interesting times in which we live, when the fate of our civilizations, if not our very species, may hang in the balance? When the governmental, economic, and other institutions upon which we depend appear highly dysfunctional and unable to address any of the significant challenges we face, from nuclear proliferation to global hunger to persistent economic disruptions, let alone prioritize climate change as the challenge that poses the greatest threat if we don't act immediately?
George Santayana observed, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Perhaps remembering a lesson past can guide us in these times.
Jonathan Schell writes that during the darkest hours in communist Poland, when most felt resistance was futile, a democratic movement dawned, led by the Workers' Defense Committee (usually known as KOR - the acronym of its Polish name) and inspired by Adam Michnik. Michnik concluded that while it was impossible to defeat the totalitarian army and police forces, resistance was possible with:
"[A] program for evolution ... addressed to independent public opinion, and not to totalitarian power. Such a program would offer advice to the people regarding how to behave, not to the government regarding how to reform itself."
"The adoption of an overall policy of direct action in society entailed the adoption of a number of other policies that were novel in the closed society of Poland [openness, truthfulness, autonomy of action, and trusting]"*
"The policies of openness, truthfulness, autonomy of action, and trust, which together might be described simply as a policy of militant decency, were not elements in any master plan, but they were a piece. They equipped KOR not so much to do battle with the government as to work around it. Although KOR did not have any designs on state power, it did hope that activity independent of the government would spread by contagion - that there would occur a sort of epidemic of freedom in the closed society. [KOR cofounder Jan Josef] Lipski observes, 'The long-range goal of KOR was to stimulate new centers of autonomous activity in a variety of areas among a variety of social groups independent of KOR. Not only did KOR agree to their independence but it also wanted them to be independent.' Its hope was abundantly fulfilled in the years just ahead."
"The classic formula for revolution is first to seize state power and then to use that power to do the good things you believe in. In the Polish revolution, the order was reversed. It began to do the good things immediately, and then turned its attention to the state. ... Its simple but radical guiding principle was to start doing the things you think should be done, and to start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in Freedom of speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely."
"Nothing illuminates the inner spirit of KOR ... more clearly than its final act. In September of 1981, the members decided that its role was being filled by Solidarity, and voted the KOR organization out of existence. ... When KOR's reason for existing dissolved, it dissolved" (Schell, Jonathan. 2004. The Jonathan Schell Reader, Introduction to Letters from Prison by Adam Michnik, New York: Nation Books).
Conditions today are perhaps as daunting for some as conditions in communist Poland were in 1976 - especially for those living under totalitarian regimes, but also perhaps for those in non-totalitarian systems that don't recognize the severity of the challenges we face or implement "solutions" that often seem to compound the problems they're supposed to resolve. In light of these circumstances, here are some guiding principles (informed by KOR's experiment) we might consider to guide our actions:
Transparency As a starting point, the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines transparent as: "free from pretense or deceit; easily detected or seen through; readily understood; characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices." Transparency may be said to include two elements: Communication - the ability to access information - and Trust - the ability to trust the information you access. The principle of Transparency resembles KOR's guiding principles: "open, truthful, autonomous, trusting," and the elements of Transparency - communication and trust - are prerequisites for nonzero, win-win game playing (which is posited as the easiest perspective from which to understand the evolution of everything from organisms to organizations in Nonzero: The Logic Of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright.) Transparency may guide us to the win-win opportunities we need to evolve humanity's condition in a positive direction.
Urgency Many scientists predict we are near tipping points that will unleash uncontrollable, unpredictable, devastating climate changes; nuclear weapons (still) on hair-trigger alert could destroy all human life on the planet; 1 person dies every second, 4,000 every hour, 100,000 each day, 36 million each year, as a result, directly or indirectly, of hunger.... Yet how close are we to tipping points that may unleash cascading global changes analogous to those that ended the Berlin Wall, South African apartheid, the totalitarian communist Polish government, and the Soviet Union?
Inclusivity Again, as a starting point, the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines inclusive as: "broad in orientation or scope; covering or intended to cover all items ...." We need to include as many people, perspectives, and creative ideas as possible to find win-win solutions to the challenges we face.
What other principles might guide human progress in this critical time? Compassion?
And toward what goals might these values, or others we might choose, guide us: peace, preventing/adapting to climate change, feeding the hungry, protecting human rights, ending the crisis in the middle east, spiritual enlightenment, creating a just, thriving and sustainable world? Perhaps all of these, and more; perhaps we don't need to agree on - and can't know - our ultimate destination. "In the direct action in society practiced by the opposition movement in Poland, means and end were rolled into one. Every means was an end, and vice versa. For example, each of the 'means' of KOR - openness, truthfulness, autonomy, and trust - was also an end. A courageous act or a truthful word was a good 'end' - in itself, it enriched life, made life better .... [T]he journey and the destination were the same ...." (Schell 2004).
"One was the policy of openness. When KOR was founded, in September of 1976, its members wrote a declaration of purpose to which they not only signed their names but also - an act without precedent for an opposition group in Poland - affixed their addresses and telephone numbers. Thereafter, the committee followed as much as possible a policy of open, public action. Closely related to the policy of openness was the policy of truthfulness. In all its statements and publications, KOR strove meticulously for factual accuracy. Characteristically, there was both an idealistic and a pragmatic reason for this policy. The members believed in telling the truth for its own sake, and they also calculated that in a society surfeited with lies an organization that hewed strictly to the truth would win support and gain strength. Another new policy was "autonomy of action." Autonomy was what the opposition wished for Poland as a whole and for every person in Poland. The members of KOR inaugurated it by making it a principle of their own actions. 'There was no question of ordering someone by command of the organization to do something he did not want to do,' Lipski, writes, and he adds, 'There was a principle that if what they wanted to do was not contrary to the principles of KOR they should be allowed to pursue their own ideas. And this is why everything that was done was done by people motivated by their own initiative and enthusiasm, and thus produced the best results.' It is striking that the activists of the Polish opposition spoke as much of autonomy, which is the capacity of each person for acting freely, as they did of liberty, which is a person's right to do so. (In the West, you might say, we as individuals have great liberty but little autonomy. We have the right to determine the shape of our own future, but we do not bother to avail ourselves of it very much.) Still another policy was that of trust. Ordinarily, we think of the trust we place in someone as more or less a by-product, produced involuntarily in us by the other person's trustworthy actions, and do not think of it as the result of a policy, or even of any intention on our part. But for KOR trust was indeed a policy. One reason for this was the danger of infiltration by undercover police: a decision had to be made regarding what steps, if any, should be taken to guard against this. KOR's decision was to reject suspicion and all the equipment and procedures that go with it, and 'to trust everyone within the bounds of common sense.'" (Schell 2004).