2001 : WHAT QUESTIONS HAVE DISAPPEARED?

[ print ]

a cofounder of GBN, a Partner in the Monitor Group of Companies
What will life be like after the revolution?

The disappearance of this question isn't only a trace of the deletion of the left. It is also a measure of our loss of faith in secular redemption. We don't look forward anymore to radical transformation.

Perhaps it's a result of a century of disappointments: from the revolution of 1917 to Stalin and the fall of communism; from the Spanish Civil War to Franco; from Mao's long march to Deng's proclamation that to get rich is glorious. Perhaps it's a result of political history. But there was more that had to do with psychological transformation. Remember Norman O. Brown's essay, "The place of apocalypse in the life of the mind"? Remember R. D. Laing's turn on breakdown as breakthrough? Remember the fascination with words like 'metamorphosis' and 'metanoia'?

Maybe we're just getting older and all too used to being the people we are. But I'd like to think we're getting wiser and less naive about the possibility of shedding our pasts overnight.

It's important to distinguish between political liberalism on the one hand and a faith in discontinuous transformation on the other. If we fail to make this distinction, then forgetting about the revolution turns (metanoically) into the familiar swing to the right. Old radicals turn reactionary. If we're less dramatic about our beliefs, if we're more cautious about distinguishing between revolutionary politics and evolutionary psychology, then we'll retain our faith in the dream that we can do better. Just not overnight.

p.s. Part of the passion for paradigms and thier shiftings may derive from displaced revolutionary fervor. If you yearn for transfiguration, but can't find it in religion or politics, then you'll seek it elsewhere, like the history of science.

p.p.s. There is one place where talk of transformation is alive and kicking, if not well: The executive suite. The business press is full of books about corporate transformation, re-engineering from a blank sheet of paper, reinvention from scratch. Yes, corporate America is feeling the influence of the sixties as boomers reach thte board room. And this is not a bad thing. For, just as the wisdom to distinguish between revolutionary politics and evolutionary psychology can help us keep the faith in marginal improvements in the human condition, so the tension between greying warriors for change and youthful stalwarts of the status quo will keep us from lurching left or right.

JAMES OGILVY is co-founder and managing director of Global Business Network; taught philosophy at Yale and Williams; served as director of research for the Values and Lifestyles Program at SRI International; author of Many Dimensional Man, and Living without a Goal.