The Impact of Illusion on Change Strategy

Wall with the word change on it. An elephant and a donkey are using red and blue paint to change the color of the word
Illusion of Change

The core of the BBC documentary, “Hypernormalisation” was that falsity is being used on a global scale to facilitate various policy, political, and economic outcomes. I think this is a true but inadequate formulation, and it is leading to a variety of tactics (various attempts to detect and publicize falsity, or an organized focus on electing saviors, for example) that will be ineffective at undermining this core global system flow.

Imagine that this flow of falsity is a river after spring snow melt. The river is producing chaotic waves, eddies, general unpredictability. Chaos in one part of the river triggers change in other parts of the river, but the local changes it produces are lost through interaction with the various sources of chaos in the river flow over time. Any local victory is temporary.

You have a canoe or kayak paddle. If you are skilled, you might well be able to steer your canoe or kayak through the river by using the paddle to make a local change in your path so that you can navigate even in a river that is very chaotic. But, you would never delude yourself into thinking that you were fundamentally changing the river flow, that you were “conquering” the river by not sinking. Instead, you understand that the paddle allows you to make use of the local flow to reach your local goals.

Now imagine that there are 7 billion paddles in the river. Some of the paddles are quite large (say a government or international corporation), and most are small and personal. None of the paddles will alter the fundamental flow of the river, even though large paddles allow larger local change. Even if you watch the impact of all the paddles at once, you will find that each is operating locally and the river flow dominates the interactions of all those local efforts to produce change.

So, I don’t think this raging river of falsity is going to change in any basic way anytime soon, and energy put into changing the entire flow of the river won’t do that, but could even add to the total burden of illusion in the system through small local apparently controlled changes.

In addition, the people or organizations that have large paddles actually believe that the local changes they produce with their big paddles are controlling the flow of the river. So, they support and drive falsity additively to increase what they believe is their top-down control. Not only are they deluded about the extent of the chaos in the river, they are adding to it, believing all the while that the additional falsity they create increases their control, and not seeing just how local that increase in control is until some form of local system disintegration occurs. Part of the point of “Hypernormalization” is that it becomes increasingly difficult to make delusions coherent as they become more complex. “Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

The most illuminating recent example of this was the economic crash in 2007-8. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, 670 billion dollars in wealth disappeared, and the total for the crash was somewhere in the vicinity of 30 trillion dollars. Most of this “wealth” was illusory, but the impact of its loss was real. The proximate causes of this disaster were many, but I am interested in two of them because of their deeply delusional composition:

  • Derivatives: Put much too simply, the derivatives used during the housing bubble were algorithms that bundled transactions (say mortgages) as single units aggregating the risks of the mortgages, so that the risk of individual mortgages could be ignored. The points of this were much faster transactions and much quicker profits. The people who developed the algorithms were very smart about aggregating the risk but very dumb about the actual consequences of their use (the basic one being that everyone who used them lied about their composition).

    This pattern is general. People who are very bright think that creating something sophisticated is a sign of their personal power. But, like all humans, however smart, they are poor at anticipating the future use of their creations. I have also observed that if they are trying to make money off their creation, they don’t care what the future consequences are. The victims of those consequences are much like the ants you kill when you are traveling down a sidewalk in summer. You just don’t think about them.

    I suspect that at some point in the next few years, there will be various combinations of blockchains and derivatives touted as the brand new ultimate solution to solve the problem of trust (i.e., the delusion of trust) in finance.

  • Bubbles: Economic bubbles are social illusions about wealth and value. People ignore or lie to themselves about the illusions so that they can make money over short periods of time and space (like the paddle in the river).  The wealth isn’t real, but the illusion nonetheless has a real economic impact when the bubble bursts. The game of winning in a space of illusion is to make someone else pay the price for your errors. See the behavior of banks and mortgage companies for how economic impact is passed on to others.

Now, the global flow of delusion covers many more interconnected bubbles of meaning than just the economic. And, as in any complex system, these various arenas of meaning mutually interact with inevitable, extraordinary, and unpredictable consequences. No aspect of modern human life anywhere on the globe is exempt from this complex interaction of aggressive delusions.

Corruption, as the use of system resources for a personal or social group aggrandizement, is another general delusional system. While drugs, trafficking, and arms sales show this delusional quality clearly, all corruption produces unintended consequences, some that support the delusions, and some that undermine them. And so do all the small, petty forms of corruption that are increasingly a part of our daily lives.

The delusions of global falsity are possible in their extravagant hubris because we have gotten good at using available resources and relationships for our small human purposes. I am not saying that our small human purposes are personally evil. They aren’t. But in the aggregate and socially, they are becoming increasingly evil in their impact. And again, no social component of the global falsity flow is exempt.

So, there is no way to control the entire flow of delusional meaning. That doesn’t mean that we can’t develop a strategy for operating more or less successfully within such a flow. It does mean that we can’t impose any top-down strategy that will somehow eliminate or even dramatically reduce the delusions over the short term.

Next Post: Principles of Effective Change in a Space of Delusion



Russian domestic worker answering question about her dreams (she has none)
Still from the Video

The full BBC documentary….

The link to this documentary was posted on FB by the son of an old friend that I have known for all the decades reflected in the video.

Hypernormalisation is a term created by Alexei Yurchak to describe the attitude of everyone in the Soviet Union during the last years before the crash in 1989. The people of Russia knew that the public relations version of their world created by the government was false, but it was so hard for them to imagine any alternative to the fake society in which they lived, that everyone behaved as though the PR version was the truth.

There is an old joke about a Soviet responding to a question about government control over the factory in which he works: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Note that the entire West was fooled by this faux version of the Soviet state and was shocked to find out that “things are seldom as they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream” when the Soviet Union disintegrated.

This documentary is about events since 1975 that point to the generalization of this substitution of fake for real around the globe. It is a long documentary (rolling near 3 hours) but can be watched in chunks on Youtube. It also contains disturbing images of violence, so be warned.

It has an air of conspiracy theory, and Adam Curtis reaches right up to that line, but he deftly uses the actual words of participants and actual events that I remember from the last 45 years to effectively build support for his ideas. I certainly can’t point to any of his notions and say they are obviously wrong.

He opens with an event that occurred in New York City in 1975 when the city’s sale of bonds to cover their debt of $275 million (a practice of the city of many years) had no takers. In the negotiations that followed, a board was formed consisting of 1 representative from the city and 8 representatives from the banks. It was this board that instituted the austerity program in New York City that destroyed its middle-class infrastructure and paved the way for the gentrified fortress of American elites the city has become today. At the time, I remember that this was recognized by social justice advocates across the country as a seminal moment, but its implications were generally lost from my memory, and I think others, through the intervention of the countless episodes of social degradation that have followed.

The major themes of the video are:

  1. Although money has always influenced politics, the politicians remained brokers for the use of it. The 1975 events in New York reversed this relationship. Curtis describes this as a shift in the role of who curates social stability. Traditionally that has fallen to politicians. Now, everywhere, finance has taken control over efforts to stabilize social systems as the standard way to reduce social instability, and politicians implement that control through financial, budgetary, and militarized mechanisms. Note that this reversal was deemed necessary because of the failure of politicians to provide enough social stability. Also, you should note the overlap of the banks that imposed austerity on New York in 1975 and the ones who were too big to fail after the 2008 financial crash.
  2. “Perception Management” has become the role of every elite institution globally regardless of apparent mission. While we focus today on “alternative facts” as though this process is new, the use of inaccurate favorable portrayals of events is so common and universal, that no one really notices most of it anymore. The accusation of “Fake” is now no more than a tool of ideological battle, and we simply gloss over the rest of the lies to avoid being overwhelmed. There is absolutely no concerted effort to restore the idea of “the facts control discourse”. There are so many lies told so relentlessly in the arena of public discourse that it would be impossible to do so.
  3. The management of perception has reached monumental proportions especially in any area where the use of financial control to gain social stability is failing. The poster child for this failure is the war on terror and it’s overlapping and various wars on black and gray markets. Curtis spends a lot of time on the Middle East as the foremost example of the chaos and misinformation (defined also as the impossibility of usable portrayal through perception management rather than simple lying).
  4. The rise of the use of personal suicide as a political and military weapon. The original inspiration for this was the elder Assad, but it truly flowered when Iran used thousands of children in their war with Iraq in 1980 to create paths through minefields by blowing up the mines with themselves. Although Iraq had a big advantage in weaponry (in large part from the US), they were first stalemated and then driven back by this hideous use of suicide. Now we see the worldwide use of many variants of such suicide including its use against the authors of the tactic, and the absolute inability of the West to stop it. We are beginning to become used to it. At the time, only war nerds like myself thought that was a significant military change in that otherwise pointless 8-year war.
  5. The failure of technological utopianism (and its allied idea of the individualistic focus as the path to happiness) to affect the rest of these forces. In fact, Curtis believes that art and culture have essentially abandoned the larger issues of social control and social justice by withdrawing to places of apparent safety. Art and Culture have been gentrified as much as the housing in New York City.

The video is also interesting because of the portrayal of the role that Donald Trump and his ongoing relationship with Putin has had on various aspects of this use of perception management.

What I took away from the whole of the documentary was the huge effort by global elites and social institutions to impose social control and create social stability, and the failure of those elites and institutions to actually succeed in doing that. They are trying just about every way imaginable to find methods of social control that lead to stability, and they haven’t been able to do that in finance, politics, insurgency, social conflict, cultural conflict, or ideological conflict. But, they are driving most of their potential allies (all of us), those who want real stability, from actual involvement in producing it by offering all of us only faux roles through the use of political slogans.

I think there are some exaggerations in the video, but it is hard to argue with the flow and overall impact of it. I am going to explore some of those exaggerations and why I believe that the trends, which Curtis identifies, relentlessly sabotage the very goals that both elites and insurgents pursue.

If you choose to watch the video, watch as much as you can, but don’t feel that you have to watch it all. It is brutal.

Next Post: The Impact of Illusion on Change Strategy

Trauma and Freedom

A sheep with its four legs tied
World View

Chuck Swinehart and I have had several conversations about the role of victim-proofing as a strategy to counter the trauma of bullying, and I wrote what is below to frame that discussion.

I tend to view recovery from trauma (regardless of the source) as an active process that involves choosing agency over safety, mutual support over invisibility, and a focus on managing symptoms that have arisen from the trauma experience(s) to free up time and emotional energy for a life of choice. On the other hand, victimhood is about avoiding social judgment, hiding, and denying or ignoring symptoms resulting from trauma.

There is a tremendous amount of moral judgment involved in trauma as evidenced by the universal experience of shame in trauma. The predator is always overtly judging the victim as inferior and devalued in the act of bullying. People who have been traumatized internalize these judgments about themselves, and they live as though social life consists of judgments of inferiority, victimization, and so on (see the current memes in reality shows for endless examples). Before a trauma victim chooses active recovery, they view every admonition to change the way they are as a moral judgment of their current inferiority and vulnerability. They don’t experience the admonitions as suggestions to move to a path of freedom. They experience them as threats.

Victim-proofing is a framework for building agency once you have decided to follow the path of recovery. Before that, it is viewed by the person as a threat of retraumatization.

Since parents, siblings, and friends often view their primary social relationship with a bullied or traumatized person as a duty of protection from further victimization, they buy into the idea that helping the victim hide and avoid are the requirements of their obligation to support the victim. Also, when family and friends get frustrated or burned out trying to support a victim, they become judgemental, reinforcing the victim’s view of themselves as helpless.

The key to getting past the strategy of safety first and move onto the road of personal agency and choice is peer support. Peers can deal with the false choices of victimhood because of their shared lived experience. They can treat the management of a particular symptom as a problem to be solved, with suggestions from their own struggle rather than judgments of the moral and social inferiority of the victim. 

A victim-proofing strategy without peer support will be interpreted as devaluing judgment by any victim who still thinks that protecting themselves is the only practical path for preventing further victimization. The way to use victim-proofing is to embed it in ongoing mutual support by peers with lived experience. Over time, the world will open up to the possibilities of personal free choice, as symptoms become increasingly manageable. 

Where Do We Start?

Picture of mountains with quote, That's the Beauty of Starting Lines: Until you begin a new venture, you never know what awaits you, by Amby Burfoot
You Have To Start Somewhere

It is less important, as they say, where we start than that we start. Resistance, like any other complex undertaking, doesn’t happen using some simple procedure. We live in a world of uncertainty and nothing will change that in the short to medium term of our advocacy.

For the disability community, the following values provide a framework for the first steps in the resistance:

  • Person Centered Planning (however and wherever it happens)
  • Ongoing Real Stakeholder Impact
  • Maximizing Resources for Supports (not just money)
  • Maximizing the Impact of Peer Supports and Peer-run organizations
  • Transparent Comprehensive Rights Protection

Although systems may set the environment of supports for our real lives through their control over money, rules, and marketing, they don’t set the terms for resistance.  We do that through our life experience, our relationships to each other, and our creativity.

One of the realities of disability is that it is the common experience of members of every single human community on earth.

I imagine you have heard that before. Although true, the statement glosses over the way that community differences in culture and history and the universal presence of stigma around disability, as well as around cultural, racial, and gender differences, interfere with our ability to work together to maintain the values I listed above.

It is precisely for this effort of building our disability community resistance across cultural, economic, and social communities that I believe the model of implicit engagement that I have described in recent posts has the greatest promise.

There are many potential communities with which we could pursue engagement, but the vehicle for great outcomes needs to be our common values as members of the global disability community.

Because implicit engagement is local and very quiet, its success needs to build from the bottom, whatever we might be doing nationally or publically. Our successes in implicit engagement will feed into our public efforts, locally, regionally, and nationally. We can also use our local successes to reach out to the communities with which we are engaging elsewhere through the successes we have implicitly developed.

We need to start thinking about who in our “neighboring” communities, communities with whom we have significant differences, might share our concerns about resisting the marginalization of people with disabilities in our local area. And we need to approach them quietly.

Next Post: Functional Psychopathy (I’m going to try it again)

Advocacy Through Private Engagement

social community engagement as diverse connected avatars
Community Engagement Network

Although engagement as a tool can be used in any advocacy relationship, I am focusing on the use of engagement between communities that are currently and historically unable to effectively communicate with one another. My examples in previous posts were chosen to illustrate that such communication is possible and productive if certain assumptions are embraced:

  • Communication will initially have to be implicit rather than explicit because of the current or historical lack of public respect between the communities
  • It is common in these situations for there to be a long history of mocking, disdainful, humiliating, and sometimes violent interchange between members of the communities. This framework of mutual disrespect and emotional/physical abuse drives the conflict along with the self-reinforcing belief that the never-ending win-lose-win-lose cycle actually constitutes progress. Every success, no matter how minor (or large-scale, for that matter) is seen as another sign pointing to “our” ultimate victory, and the collateral damage of the conflict is assumed to be the price of that victory. (Gee, where have we heard that before?)
  • Disrespect has to stop before engagement is possible. There has to be an arena in which respect is bounded but appropriate.
  • A vehicle for productive engagement is an outcome that both communities value, and especially where there is a long history of humiliation and hate, the outcome must be local and valuable to both communities on its face. Part of this equation is that the outcome does not depend on promises of future change.
  • Implicit communication allows the development of respect between the engaged parties through mutual support that doesn’t require public justification to the larger community.
  • The outcome stands on its own as a valuable product without there being any need by either community to accept the beliefs or the blame (however this is expressed) of the other community.
  • Repeat as possible over time.

Such engagement can be explored entirely independently of the larger regional, state, and national conflict/strategy between the communities. It can be started as soon as a practical outcome is discovered. Initially, it requires no resources at all other than a simple conversation about the possibilities of achieving the valued outcome. Also, since the beginnings are implicit rather than public, failure to engage over this first outcome is no indicator that another more successful one might be found.

I have learned over the years that the non-public nature of the success of such an approach reduces the risk of the ordinarily required public displays of trust and the possibility of betrayal and the reinitiation of hateful conflict. In fact, the public conflict can continue while respect is built over time.

Politicians have done this for years. We need to start embracing such a strategy for individual and systems advocacy.

Next Post: Where Do We Start?