Thursday, May 30, 2013

A brutally political vision of a better tomorrow

There are two kinds of politics. The first is the I have a dream kind - the formulating and propagating of ideas about how the world should and ought to be. Dreams, visions, utopias, better tomorrows - all the good stuff.

And then there's the policy document kind.

Something that most people are either blissfully unaware or all too aware of is the difference between these two kinds. Those who are so lucky as to be unaware can spend oh so many joyous hours in the company of better tomorrows - those tomorrows that follow after the Revolution, the Rapture, the Realization of the Free Market or any other Singularity you might imagine.

Those of the unlucky persuasion are stuck with either the writing, reading or unhealthily close interpretations of policy documents. Which can be just as interesting, boring and hellishly narrowly focused as it sounds - depending on the particular circumstances of who, what, why, and how much money it would cost.

These two kinds are related. But not as a direct line from the one to the other, but rather as a long circuitous series of indirect routes and Chinese whispers. Which, as you may or may not know, means that the intentions that enter into the one end does not necessarily translate into the intended consequences at the other end.

To formulate it in a soundbite: all political visions must survive being translated into policy documents.

Not just a policy document, but many of them. Not just once in order to enunciate and expound the vision for a better tomorrow, but at least once for every institution that is expected to make this better tomorrow happen. At least once in order to make it clear that this particular institution is indeed involved in this betterment, and then an innumerable number of times in order to make it clear exactly how this betterment is supposed to be done.

The easiest way to visualize this is to think from the top down. First word must pass from the top of the hierarchy to the level below it, and then from that level to the level below it - and so forth until we reach the proverbial man on the street, the ordinary people.

Which means that a whole lot of translating, misunderstanding and office politics will have meddled in the political vision by the time it reaches those who are supposed to make it happen. And, unsurpisingly, means that it is harder than it looks to change the ways institutions work, even when the vision of the better world is perfectly clear at the top level. (Be that at the level of central government or the level of theory.)

This difference between the two different kinds of politics tends to be what makes people bitter, cynical and apathetic. On the one hand, the better tomorrow is a better place. On the other hand, the inertia and general indirectness of actually existing political institutions is enough to make even the most bravehearted of idealists lose heart. Nothing ever changes!

The thing is - they do. They are nudged, budged and ever so imperceptibly moved in this direction and that. It's not a big blob of inert political matter that envelopes the lands in a permanent status quo, but rather a vast collection of interconnected and mutually affecting social contexts. Changes in one place has consequences in another, which has consequences in yet another, and so on - and the key to making change happen is to nudge, budge and wiggle at as many of these places as possible at the same time.

Legislation is one of these places. But when it comes to making social change happen, it is not by any means the only place that matters. It is an important place, to be sure, but not the only place. But if you treat it as the only place that matters, you miss out on all that nudging and budging, and all the associated opportunities to affect change.

All political visions must survive the translation into policy documents. And you can help that translation - at all levels. Wherever and whoever you are.

That's a vision for a better tomorrow if there ever was one.

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