Systemic change: introduction

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” – Ursula Le Guin

Human nature is just fine

Most people are perfectly nice – kind, friendly, honest and with a desire to leave the world a better place than they found it. But some people aren’t. It’s only a small minority, but some people are selfish, greedy and ruthless. The problem is that in this system, those kinds of people will do very well, and reach positions of influence. In fact, the current system is biased in favour of people like that. And so we need a new system – one that rewards good qualities rather than bad ones. The problem is not ‘human nature’, and it’s not enough to replace corrupt people at the top of the corporate ladder, because similar people will quickly replace them. People die, and companies come and go – think Lehman Brothers or Enron. The problem is the system itself.

An opinion which perhaps embodies why we need systemic change

Alan Sugar on the Apprentice: “She is ruthless. She’ll walk over anybody, chew them up for breakfast and spit them out. That’s what I like about her.”

Lifestyle change is not enough

99% of this website is about incremental change – about ways in which people can change their lives, one topic at a time. But it’s not enough, because not enough people will do it. Think about the most popular food, furniture or clothing brands, retail outlets, newspapers, magazines, TV programmes and books; about the ubiquity of advertising; about the most popular political parties; about the ability of the corporate media to shape opinions – then ask yourself if enough people are going to change. The corporate system we live under, apart from promoting bad human qualities, is inherently damaging to nature and to democracy, and therefore has to be replaced. Incremental lifestyle change without systemic change is a case of one step forwards and three back.

We can’t get a better system with violence

If change has to be more than incremental, that means it has to be – well, revolutionary. But we don’t mean revolution as in violent revolution. That won’t work – it’s been tried before, and the people who take power using force always end up keeping it using force. Karl Marx’s revolutionary idea was the last (implementable) one as far as systemic change is concerned – but the 20th century showed that it wasn’t the right one. Some will say that Marx’s idea was never really tried – but if we go down the route of violent revolution, we’ll always get a Stalin or a Mao in the end.

Mikhail Bakunin

Mikhail Bakunin warned Marx that his approach would result in totalitarianism.

It’s all about implementability

So if incremental change is not enough, and violence doesn’t solve anything, but we definitely need to change the system, we need a strategy to do it. But before you put forward your favourite idea, remember that it has to be implementable. It’s a waste of time saying that your idea is to switch power to local, democratic institutions, or to get corporate money out of politics, or to stop manufacturing weapons if you don’t have a strategy to make it happen. We can all wish for things that are basically unimplementable – that’s the easy part.

Taking a ‘left’ or a ‘right’ position affects implementability. We all have to talk – Christians to Muslims, vegans to hunters, socialists to conservatives. If we don’t talk, we’re making enemies of each other and that can only result in stalemate. Left and right can surely agree that we need a better system, that gives power to the best amongst us – the most honest, compassionate and intelligent.

Michael Moore and Ron Paul

It’s not about left v right any more.

What about pure democracy or no leaders at all?

Some people point to new technologies and suggest that they could be used to help us transition to a system of pure democracy – electronic referenda on all issues, for example. That may well be an improvement on the current corporate system, but a potential problem is that the vast majority of people don’t really understand the issues, and many people will vote in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of all. This could be very bad news for minorities or for the environment. This kind of pure democracy has been described as ‘two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner’.

So what about no state at all – libertarianism? Well, without government we’d need to organise well to prevent corporations from running the show (although mutualists like Kevin Carson argue persuasively that multinational corporations would lose their ‘economies of scale’ without state assistance). Anarchists take it a step further – let’s remove the power of the state and of corporations – it’s more consistent. It would take time however, and it could be argued that there’s no way to transition from the current system to a leaderless system in one move – the current system is too entrenched. Furthermore, there are issues around technology: cloning, nuclear weaponry, genetic modification, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence – all these things present huge risks for the future of humanity. Currently, decisions about whether we use these technologies or not are made on the basis of how much money can be made from them, which is clearly a bad idea – but in a leaderless system, who would make those decisions?

Let’s start discussing ideas. People who suggest this are often ridiculed for not already having the big idea that will change the world, as Jeremy Paxman did to Russell Brand. But that’s asking too much of an individual, and it may not be a good idea to have a blueprint for what a new system would look like. We have to start talking.

Paxman and Brand discussing the need for systemic change

Whatever you think of Russell Brand, it’s unfair to expect him to come up with a new system in a TV interview, just because he’s not too keen on this one.

To summarise

  1. It’s not about corrupt individuals or corporations – the problem is the system itself; we have to change it.
  2. Individual lifestyle change is essential, but not enough to change the system, because only a minority will do it.
  3. Incremental change is too slow to change the system – if it starts to challenge corporate power it will be bought.
  4. Violent revolution never delivers better leaders.
  5. Any new idea has to be implementable.
  6. Systemic change can be initiated by relatively few people – it always has.
  7. We need to talk.


The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.

Dave Darby is a founder-director of and He’s not a ‘specialist’ in system change (who is?), but he’s happy to debate / discuss (he wrote the intro above, so you can see where he’s coming from). He’s part of a group building a national mutual credit trading bloc, and he sees system change coming via the ‘low-impact economy‘ rather than violent revolution or the ballot box.

We'd love to hear your comments, tips and advice on this topic, and if you post a query, we'll try to get a specialist in our network to answer it for you.