Has the time come to revive the radical political pamphlet? /The Rules’ critique of neoliberalism as presented in The One Part Planet proves that it is.
Back when I was at university and feeling particularly idle one night, I had an idea to test my college magazine’s “we-publish-anything” policy and also have a bit of fun.
I decided to make up a bunch of absurd ‘facts’ and submit them under the heading Did You Know?.
Chuckling to myself, I made-up ‘facts’ such as: “Bhutan has two national flags: one for when it’s sunny, one for when it’s raining”, “In the Malay language, there are 4 words for ‘fridge magnet’ but none for ‘fridge“, and “There are no mice in Nicaragua”.
The whole thing was clearly silly and my intention was that readers might just about believe the first claim - that “pork is a mild aphrodisiac” - and maybe even the first few, but as the facts got increasingly ludicrous, they would realize the exercise had been a hoax all along.
Once the magazine was published the next week then, I was astonished to realize that barely anyone had got the joke.
Everyone of course had instantly known that some of the facts were complete nonsense - the scientists, for example, knew full well that iguanas don’t have seven lungs, and I doubt any film buffs really believed the working title for Jaws had been ‘What a Big Shark!’ - but while they all discarded certain specific claims, very few questioned the validity of the list as a whole. The facts they knew to be false, they discarded; the rest they still took at face value.
I tell this story not just as a cautionary tale to any editors who receive submissions from me late at night, but to highlight one essential cognitive bias.
Namely, that it is not particularly difficult to be skeptical towards individual details - the numbered ‘facts’ - but it is rare for that skepticism to broaden out into a questioning of underlying assumptions. In this case, the premise of the list as a whole. Sometimes all those trees just end up obscuring the wood.
It is this tendency that partly accounts for why so few people realized my list of made-up facts was complete bullshit, but which also helps explain one the conundrums of the progressive movement: that despite widespread acknowledgement of huge global injustices and inequalities, the underlying assumptions of the system tend to get an easy ride.
There is plenty of rightful outrage at corruption, endemic poverty and systemic exploitation, yet from most political discussions to mainstream media debates, and from well-meaning ethical consumerist actions to celebrity-sponsored charity campaigns, there appears to be an implicit acceptance that what we’re doing on a broad scale is basically fine. The problem, apparently, is that we need to do it a little better, tweak it here and there, or add something else on top.
It is well-known that workers’ rights in many places are systematically trampled on; that a billion people are chronically malnourished even though we produce enough food to feed the world one and a half times over; that the governments of developing countries lose at least $1 trillion each year through tax havens; that levels of greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating despite an apparent commitment from world leaders to decrease them; that the richest 1% of the world own half of all global wealth; and that, according to World Bank figures, 80% of the world’s population live on less than $10/day while 60% live on less than $5.
All this is acknowledged and provokes anger. But in the same way my college readers were skeptical of the claim that “Pope Benedict used to be a professional arm-wrestler” yet never questioned the integrity of the list as a whole, it is rare that outrage at global injustices translates into doubt at the efficacy of the system itself.
It seems that no matter how extreme, numerous or engrained the inequality, poverty or oppression, the idea that large-scale change is necessary is still simply ‘too radical’ for most.
Of course, it is not just our cognitive biases that prevent a greater acceptance of progressive views. Advocates of market liberalism have been hugely successful in painting their ideology as non-ideological common sense. But the question remains: if knowledge of deep global problems is not enough to make people question the wisdom of the status quo, what can?
There are certainly many possible answers to this question, and any struggle of ideas has to be waged at several levels on several fronts.
Some strategies will no doubt need to be smart and innovative, drawing on new forms of communication and technology. But at the same time, perhaps we also need to look back to older tried and tested tools: things like the humble political pamphlet for instance.
This is exactly what the activist organization /The Rules has done with The One Party Planet, a 60-page pamphlet that provides a detailed critique of neoliberalism and the unbridled power of the 1% (or rather 0.01%).
We are essentially a “one party planet”, it argues, bringing together several different strands of reasoning and evidence, because the global political and economic elite all essentially hold the same worldview.
From American CEOs to Chinese party officials, and from African presidents to Russian oligarchs, there is an overwhelming consensus that unrestrained selfish competition is not only the best, but the only possible, way to organize society.
This is not a conspiracy concocted in dark smoky rooms, and the individuals at the top don’t share some grand master plan. But the internal logic of their actions is one and the same, and this has contributed, the pamphlet argues, to a situation in which an unelected elite wield incredible influence over politics and inequality has reached outlandish levels.
In response to this, The One Party Planet culminates in a carefully argued call for a global uprising.
This might seem like a contradiction - how can you carefully call for an uprising? - but that is perhaps where the power of the political pamphlet, and this one in particular, lies.
Unlike books, which can be long and detached; newspaper articles, which can be brief and fleeting; and documentaries, which are received somewhat passively, the political pamphlet speaks directly to the reader with enough time and space to make a clear and detailed argument. It can make the apparently radical seem self-evident.
And perhaps this is one of the greatest weapons the progressive movement has right now. After all, the evidence and statistics about poverty, inequality and corruption are increasingly being understood and accepted - the facts have become mainstream.
Maybe what we need first and foremost now then is fairly simple - something that will sit us down, talk us through it, and connect the dots. Something that can make the case that the foremost global problems of our age are not isolated but interconnected, not superficial but structural, and not inevitable but man-made. The One Party Planet does this with impressive depth, humility and conviction.
Download the pamphlet here
James Wan is the Senior Editor of Think Africa Press. His work has featured in a wide range of publications and in 2013 he was shortlisted for The Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition. You can follow him on twitter at @jamesjwan