Advice for those who want to change the world

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The world needs changing in all sorts of urgent ways: the great question is how to do it. The most popular and appealing answer has long been that one should try to write a book, retreat to a mountain-top, lay down one’s thoughts with passion and cogency, try hard to sell as many copies as possible and wait for change to emerge.

Immense prestige has surrounded this activity for the last 200 years at least and it can seem, from a distance, that it has been deeply successful as well. Some books have undeniably made a splash (Das Capital, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Silent Spring, The God Delusion…)

Richard Dawkins in London

© Fiona Hanson/AP/Press Association Images

And yet, big book sales aside, the world has continued to change a lot less than it should, remaining surprisingly committed to its familiar wicked ways, despite the existence of so many wonderful, thoughtful, revolutionary and popular books.

That’s because we’re missing an insight. Books – however marvellous they may be – cannot, on their own, change very much, and the widespread belief that they can, strongly holds back progressive causes and the effectiveness of enlightened minds.

A book is of course an ideal place to lay down an ambition, sort out one’s thoughts and gather a constituency. But that’s about it. A book on its own cannot bring about real change because the world as it currently stands isn’t held together simply by ideas: it is made up of laws, practices, institutions, financial arrangements, businesses and governments. In other words, its muscles are made up of institutions and therefore, the only way to bring about real change is to act through competing institutions. Revolutions in consciousness cannot be made lasting and effective until legions of people start to work together in concert for a common aim and, rather than relying on the intermittent pronouncements of mountain-top prophets, begin the unglamorous and deeply boring task of wrestling with issues of law, money, long-term mass communication, advocacy and administration.

In the Republic, Plato confessed to a profound and melancholy understanding (gathered from bitter experience) of the limits of intellectuals, when he remarked that the world would never be set right until, in his words, ‘philosophers became kings, or kings philosophers’. By which he meant that thinkers should stop imagining that ideas can change reality and recognise that only institutions, ‘kingship’ in this context, have any chance of working a proper influence on the world.

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How do you change this?

Partly, the problem comes down to temperament. The types who have good ideas generally aren’t good with money, they get bored with details, they may have the spiky characters which mean they can’t get on with other people, they don’t like going to the office or sharing the platform. Our collective ideal of the free thinker is that of someone living beyond the confines of any system, disdainful of ‘boring things’, cut off from practical affairs and privately perhaps rather proud of being unable even to read a balance sheet. It’s a fatally romantic recipe for keeping the status quo unchanged.

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Shelley/Nietzsche: both wanted to change things, neither was too good with administration

As a result those with an interest in changing things have typically run what are, in effect, cottage industries. They may have managed to secure a brief spike of fame for themselves, but they haven’t been able to place their achievements on a stable footing, consistently replicate their insights or bridge their weaknesses. Sole authorship cannot be a logical long-term response to solving the complexities of the most significant global issues.

The modern world is not, of course, devoid of institutions, just most of them are the wrong sort. The mightiest institutions are commercial corporations with unparalleled power, scores of employees, a ruthless focus on profit and a single-minded interest in the material side of life.

There’s one exception to this that change-aspiring thinkers should spend some time studying: religions. What makes religions distinctive and inspiring in this context is their genius for getting organised. Whatever one thinks of their ideas (this news outlet is deeply secular), religions are not just about ideas, unlike what atheists sometimes make the mistake of thinking (taking them on at the level of ideas is therefore doomed because they are, in fact, first and foremost institutions). Religions are enormous agglomerations of people with a relentless appetite for administration and bureaucracy. So for example, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism have all managed to stick around for a very long time because they have related larger ideas about the salvation of mankind to such ‘boring’ activities as running banks, legal teams, community centres, orchestras, youth movements, weekend retreats, radio stations, lecture halls and clothing lines.

Some 30 000 youths light candles in the

© Getty

They start them young

Plato’s hope that philosophers might be kings, and kings philosophers, was partially realised many hundreds of years after he expressed it, when in 313 A.D., thanks to the efforts of Emperor Constantine, Jesus took up his position at the head of a gigantic state-sponsored Christian church and thereby became the first quasi-philosophical ruler to succeed in propagating his beliefs with institutional support.

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An intellectual making friends with power

A similar combination of power and thought can be found in all the major religions, alliances which we can admire and learn from without subscribing to any of their ideologies.

The problem with the world today isn’t that we lack good ideas. We have great, sound, beautiful, enlightened ideas to last us a hundred generations. Enough new books! We don’t have to work stuff out. We have to make what we already know very well more effective out there. The urgent question is how to ally the very many good ideas which currently slumber in the recesses of intellectual life with proper organisational tools that actually stand a chance of giving them real impact in the world.