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On the Idea that "Things Will Never Change"

On the Idea that "Things Will Never Change"

By Dennis Loo (12/15/15)

Revised and supplemented

One can very frequently hear some version of the following from many people:

“The powerful will always misuse their power and mistreat those who are not in power. Even if the people who are out of power came to power, they will act just like those whose places they just took. It’s useless to fight the power. The powerful will always win in the end. So accept the way things are.”

Is this a widespread belief because millions of people have studied this question, looking at history and economic and political systems over the span of human societies’ existence and all arrived at the same conclusion after painstaking study and specialized training in the tools of social science?

By way of introduction to my discussion of this hypothetical quote that begins this article:

We are social creatures so as a rule we usually try to stay within a group – with there being natural variation along a spectrum for this norm - because being away from the group is not comfortable for most people most of the time and can cause us to literally die under some circumstances. But in order to see things clearly and correctly, this frequently means that you have to be willing to stand outside of the prevailing norm. Truth is not a simple thing to obtain and it usually involves a personal cost exacted for its acquisition. Remember Prometheus? Truth is not like low-hanging fruit. Finding out what’s true in a complex world is a complicated endeavor.

It’s not in the interest of the current system that you find out how the political system really operates and it’s not in their interest that you find out what’s true in many arenas in life. You have to fight very hard and against the grain to learn the truth and then you have to try to get others to see what’s true, which is also difficult because what you’re telling them goes against what they have been told so often and by so many for so long. This is even more the case if they are among those who actually benefit from the status quo. If they are among that group of people, it is extremely hard and, in many instances, impossible to convince people of what’s true if what’s true goes against their personal interests. Those who catch hell from the system everyday, however, or those who are observant and care about justice, are a very different audience. 

As someone who regularly interacts with students and others about political power and so on, if I had a dollar for every time I've heard this sentiment cited at the beginning . . . Not only do I hear it incessantly, it's boring to hear this tired nostrum, spoken with the assurance of absolute certainty! How is it that so many people can be so dead certain about something that is in fact ... not at all true? 

Let's first look at the question of the alleged invincibility of the ones in power and the supposed perpetuity of the system they govern.

This is from someone who actually studied the empirical data:

A political scientist named Ivan Arreguin-Toft compiled the data a few years ago by looking at lopsided wars over the last two hundred years. Malcolm Gladwell in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants cites Arreguin-Toft’s data.

When the underdog uses conventional warfare against his/her vastly superior rival, the underdog wins almost a third of the time: 28.5% to be precise. Hardly a recipe that conforms to what the majority of people believe so emphatically that they would call the victory of a superior force a slam dunk.

Here’s where the data get much more interesting: when the underdog uses unconventional warfare to fight against their vastly superior enemy, the underdog’s winning rate goes from about a third of the time to 63.6% of the time.[1]

I’ll repeat that: if they don’t use the superior forces’ methods, the weaker forces win 63.6% of the time.

Even when underdogs mimic their rivals’ methods, they actually win almost a third of the time. But when they eschew their enemy’s methods and adopt unconventional means that are suited to their particular circumstances, they win close to two-thirds of the time!

Gladwell goes on to ask why then do underdogs ever use conventional means? The answer he gives is very plausible and convincing: it’s hard to use unconventional means. It’s easier to use the ordinary ways of fighting; adopting novel methods is hard work.

Gladwell cites a number of examples to illustrate this, including George Washington who abandoned the guerrilla techniques that worked so well as soon as he could, adopting the American equivalent of the British style of warfare, then suffering defeat after defeat and nearly losing the war, and Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap who in 1951 departed from the people’s war methods used so successfully by the Vietnamese against the French in the 1940s, and immediately suffered defeat after defeat.

There is another aspect to this question besides it being hard and breaking with habit to follow guerrila war tactics instead of the tactics that your enemy is using. Here is where the question of whether you can successfully radically change the existing order comes up for discussion. To explain that point, let me cite here a passage from GDS in which I summarize in a highly concentrated fashion the viewpoint that you must come from if you really want a radically different world:

Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)

The methods one chooses is based upon a set of values and upon a philosophy. This will occur on a conscious and/or unconscious level. There is a relationship, in other words, between the means one uses and the ends one seeks. Spontaneously and inevitably, among those who seek to topple those who are oppressing them are some who do so imitative of those they seek to overthrow. But if these kind of people end up being the core leaders of a revolutionary movement, rather than those who seek an entirely different world from what now exists, then they will reproduce that which they replace. But it is not inevitable that this should happen. 

Their Way or Our Way?

As I discuss in Globalization and the Demolition of Society:

There is a sports adage that the winner in a game is the one who sets the tempo and style of the contest. If the other person or other team sets the pace, they have the initiative, and if you adopt the pace that most suits your opponent’s strengths, you will almost certainly lose.

This applies to political contests and wars as well: framing the terms of the contest and choosing the terrain on which the battle is fought essentially determines the outcome from the very start, unless the contest is reframed during the course of the fight. This is what Mao meant when he said in reference to guerrilla war, “They fight their way, we fight our way.” Revolutionary armies that seek to defeat a larger and better-equipped army by engaging in the style of battle that favors their opponent will be crushed.

As an illustration of what this means, in a 2002 military exercise, the largest war game ever conducted, the US simulated an invasion of Iraq. Retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper played “Saddam Hussein” in the exercise. Employing unorthodox techniques, Van Riper ripped apart the US forces at the very start of the game. Embarrassed by their devastating “defeat,” the brass overruled Riper’s “victory,” ordered their “sunken” ships and “killed” soldiers resurrected, and demanded that Van Riper ignore the brass’s amphibious landings and behave like the US military would in order to ensure a US victory.

Van Riper had at his disposal a computer-generated flotilla of small boats and planes, many of them civilian, which he kept buzzing around the virtual Persian Gulf in circles as the game was about to get under way. As the U.S. fleet entered the Gulf, Van Riper gave a signal—not in a radio transmission that might have been intercepted, but in a coded message broadcast from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer. The seemingly harmless pleasure craft and propeller planes suddenly turned deadly, ramming into Blue boats and airfields along the Gulf in scores of al-Qaida-style suicide attacks. Meanwhile, Chinese Silkworm-type cruise missiles fired from some of the small boats sank the U.S. fleet’s only aircraft carrier and two marine helicopter carriers. The tactics were reminiscent of the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in Yemen two years ago, but the Blue fleet did not seem prepared. Sixteen ships were sunk altogether, along with thousands of marines. If it had really happened, it would have been the worst naval disaster since Pearl Harbor.

It was at this point that the generals and admirals monitoring the war game called time out.

“A phrase I heard over and over was: ‘That would never have happened,’” Van Riper recalls. “And I said: ‘nobody would have thought that anyone would fly an airliner into the World Trade Centre...’ but nobody seemed interested.”

In the end, it was ruled that the Blue forces had had the $250m equivalent of their fingers crossed and were not really dead, while the ships were similarly raised from watery graves. . . .

“’You are going to have to use cellphones and satellite phones now,’ they told me. I said no, no, no—we’re going to use motorcycle messengers and make announcements from the mosques,” he says.

“But they refused to accept that we’d do anything they wouldn’t do in the west. ”

Then Van Riper was told to turn his air defences off at certain times and places where Blue forces were about to stage an attack, and to move his forces away from beaches where the marines were scheduled to land. “The whole thing was being scripted,” he says.[2] 

I am reminded here of games played with very young children who yell “No fair! You cheated!” when they lose. This war games’ debacle had previously been enacted in real life during the US defeat in Vietnam, where the Vietnamese so annoyingly refused to play by the same rulebook as the US. I am reminded here too of Conway’s Law. Conway’s Law states that organizations’ designs (e.g., their software products) will copy the communication structures of the organization itself. While Conway’s Law is intended to apply to the nature of designs created by organizations, I believe it can be usefully applied more broadly: organizations tend to see others, including other organizations, as mirrors of themselves, because their own internal organizational structure affects how the organization sees the world, how it receives information, and how it processes and interprets that information.

The US, for examples, tried vainly throughout the Vietnam War to find the headquarters (HQ) for the Viet Cong underground. They were convinced it would look like a Vietnamese version of the Pentagon with large, interconnected buildings. They never found such a complex because the Vietnamese did not create an HQ the way the US would have.[3]

Imagine if the rulers of this country had paid attention to their Iraq war game as it was initially played out. It would have demonstrated that they were going to get their asses kicked, even if and even though Saddam Hussein and his vaunted troops had capitulated, as they did. The Soviets, who had their asses handed to them in their 1970s invasion of Afghanistan, tried to warn the US rulers that the same thing was going to happen to the US as to them, as the Bush Regime prepared to invade and occupy Afghanistan and then Iraq. But the US rulers would not and really could not take heed because they are an Empire and empires by their intrinsic nature do not think they can be defeated, just as Goliath was convinced that he could easily crush David. It's their nature to believe this and is a direct by-product of their contempt for others that they exploit and plunder. 

The Most Popular Idea

Here’s a useful rule-of-thumb: if what you’re saying as your opinion is the most popular idea out there, it most likely is incorrect, especially when it comes to politics.

If what you’re believing also means that you are going along with the crowd and you’re not making any sacrifices in the name of changing anything – then what you’re believing has got to be a crock because laziness and fearfulness have never been associated with doing anything worthwhile – ever!

Everything really worthwhile requires that you make personal sacrifices and that you take risks. If it were otherwise and you didn’t have to make sacrifices and you didn’t have to take risks, then everybody would accomplish great and wonderful things that we would honor them for, right?

You want to ask yourself: how come so many people think exactly the same way as you do, if you think the way I described at the beginning of this?

The reason is the same reason why the most popular ideas are the most popular ideas and it’s not because they are true: they are most popular ideas because the people with the most power to disseminate their worldview and the ideas that serve their interests propagate them constantly.

As you know, the things “that everyone knows” are as prevalent as candy at Halloween. And they are about as cheap as candy too.

The ruling ideas, as Marx said, are the ideas of the ruling class.

You will notice that those in power do not popularize the idea that there is such a thing as a ruling class. Indeed, they popularize the idea that anyone who even uses the phrase “ruling class” or who uses the phrase “class” unaccompanied by “middle” first, i.e., “middle class,” and who doesn’t confine their talk about class to the existence of only one class – the “middle class” – is engaged in incendiary language and is trying to manufacture “class warfare” where it does not exist.

In England, unlike in the US, talk about class is open and common. Class standing is part of the common parlance. Not in the US. Everyone here in the US is "middle class." LOL.

People Will Always Resist, Covertly or Openly

Here’s the truth about the logical corollary argument, almost invariably cited along with the hypothetical sentiment that begins this article: the notion that the public is made up of happy sheep who are perfectly content to go along with the way things are because they are too stupid, too credulous, too easily satisfied, too much in denial, and/or too shallow to do anything else but accede to oppressive authority:4 

Nobody likes being mistreated or misled, once they realize that they are being misled. All of us know, whether consciously or unconsciously, when we are being mistreated. We will inevitably react against this mistreatment, whether that reaction is overt or covert and whether that reaction is productive or just acting out.

What is inevitable is that there is a reaction against being mistreated. Even animals that are mistreated will find ways to retaliate, why wouldn’t humans?

The idea that the apparent stable status quo exists only because the public must want it that way is a direct result of the folly inherent in democratic theory: that the people run things, rather than elites. 

What is not inevitable is that peoples' reaction is based on an accurate understanding of what is causing the problem and that the path that people choose (consciously or unconsciously) is going to resolve the problem, worsen it (e.g., see the Zionists' brutal mistreatment of Palestinians on the grounds that the Holocaust should never happen ever again to the Jewish people as opposed to never happen to anyone) or be at least a step in the right direction.

For example, devices that people use to respond to mistreatment include drinking alcohol excessively or drug use or self-harming behaviors such as cutting one’s self, eating excessively, or other addictive behaviors, or coping by going into deeper debt. Another example is when you are talking to someone who is mistreating you and you don’t feel the right to speak openly about your feelings to show your displeasure: you will express in subtle or not so subtle non-verbal cues such as in your body language your distress. A third example of displeasure is for women who are mistreated or disrespected in a relationship to withhold sex or engage in it unwillingly or only partially engaged in it. Another path is to take on these mistreatments by speaking out and organizing others to speak out against these inequities. The examples are many and the point is that universally people who are mistreated will respond in some fashion rather than simply swallow it and love their mistreatment. Even people who respond to mistreatment by identifying with their oppressor are responding in a way to try to alleviate their suffering.

These examples are meant to illustrate the fact that what appears on the surface of things to be the status quo is always underneath the surface bubbling with contradictions and those contradictions and power struggles are capable at any point in time of becoming open conflict but what is the missing ingredient in that is whether those who are dissatisfied with the status quo are acting with an accurate understanding of what is really causing the inequities. That is where theory plays its role in either shining a light on the matter or obscuring you from seeing reality.

So the next time someone around you says "things will never change," laugh good-naturedly and tell them what you know that they don't. 


[1] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath:: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, 2013, p. 21-22.

[2] Julian Borger, “Wake-up Call,” The Guardian online, September 6, 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/sep/06/usa.iraq, accessed September 2, 2010. This explains the English spelling of certain words. 

[3] Dennis Loo, Globalization and the Demolition of Society, 2014, pp. 323-324.

[4] It is true that some people, when shown that the government and media are lying to them about something or about somethings, will initially dismiss this as impossible. This is not because everyone is in denial but because many people need to believe that authorities are not world-class liars and acting in counter-productive and/or murderous ways because if they suddenly switched from great faith in authority to utter disbelief their world would be upended and psychologically this would be difficult for them to accept. The lesson in cases such as this is not that the majority are in denial and that this explains the surface quiescence of things but that they need to be shown repeated examples and dramatic proof that their current belief in the system is ill-founded and that there is in fact an alternative to the current state of affairs. These kind of people, however, are frankly not the ones that those who want to change the world radically should focus our main efforts upon. There are many people who already are deeply suspicious of what authority tells them and they are the ones who are most likely to respond to the truth and act upon it, in turn affecting others broadly throughout society. Here is an article that explores these questions in depth here.

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