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Transformational Politics

by Tom Atlee


This article was written in 1991. I have revised it slightly in Sept. 1999, as it is still remarkably appropriate, and may become even more so in the near future.

Fran Peavey, author of Heart Politics, tells a story from India of a bird that lays its eggs in the stratosphere. The egg plummets down, the embryo madly gestating into a raggedly little birdlet who, at the last minute, mere yards above the rocks and branch-spikes, breaks from of its shell and flits skyward toward the clouds.

This time of transformation is a real edge-of-the-seat affair, isn't it?

I visited Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1991 and was saddened to discover how, even in the midst of mind-boggling social changes, so much was stagnant. At the heart of the problem was a tenaciously inert mind-set: a deep, alienated irresponsibility showing up as apathy, fear, blame, inability to think critically or creatively, and disassociation from one's heart and neighbors. These things were apparently widespread, and took me by surprise.

But I recognized this syndrome as the brother of American alienation. Ours arose from our techno-consumerist culture; theirs from totalitarianism. Both systems are inimical to real selfhood and community. It hurt to watch Czechoslovakia, bursting with possibility, walk out of its cultural trap into ours. Little did Czechoslovakians suspect that freedom of choice, the pursuit of happiness, affluence and other exalted aspects of our society easily become - as ideology became in their world - strings through which to manipulate a puppet population.

As I began to put together programs for Czechoslovakia (my favorite being called "recovery from totality" [1]), my awareness of our common fate grew. We may be ahead of them in resources and they ahead of us on the curve of transformation, but we are both heading toward a moment of truth -- a realization of interdependence -- upon which all cultures are converging.

It is a good time to think hard about how to do politics appropriately.


In the ideal world, authority and power would be used

To the extent we use our authority this way, we will live our future culture while we build it.

We live in a culture where authority and power are seldom used this way, but rather


In our society, power is used to manipulate the public to think that their interests are served by the same things that serve the elites. Our mass-consumer economy, electoral politics, technological wizardry and media environment are all dedicated toward this end. These things make people feel they are supporting their own interests when they support the elites with their purchases, votes, flag-waving, etc.

So when we advocate policies like environmental protection that serve the larger society but undermine elite control, we are called "special interest groups." Over the long haul, that will change and is changing. In the meantime, we'll often have to act like special interest groups and fight as if we were.

This exemplifies a characteristic of politics during a transition from old to new: We'll have to do things in old ways to buy time and space in which to do (and learn to do) things in new ways. Step by step, we can replace adversarial/power-over methods with sustainable/holistic ones.

Neither "purity" nor "realpolitik" are appropriate for this journey. It is more useful to see this as a search for balances appropriate to circumstances and evolution in the direction of sustainability.


In general, politics is anything that influences the activities of the larger society in one direction or another.

Political phenomena fall into a spectrum (see chart after this paragraph) not unlike the rainbow of visible light. Although the different bands of this spectrum are depicted as distinct, they blend into each other just like yellow blends into green.


Consumer - "Politics is someone else's business. I'm just trying to live my life. I'm not interested in politics."

Characteristics: Isolation, search for personal security, addictions, opinions nonexistent or implanted from media, manipulated, "cocooning" (escaping into customized personal world), fear of authority and catastrophe, denial

Anti-political variant: Political disillusion results in sublimation of political energies into non-political personal, community, group, or cosmic realms, sometimes very idealistic.

Band 0-B - SPECTATOR Politics

News-tracker - "Politics is a spectator sport. The relevant questions are: Who's ahead and Where's the drama?"

Characteristics: Political gossip, stays informed through media (usually with no search for alternative or clarifying info), often doesn't vote even when partisan; political insight can range from sophisticated to pedestrian; much talk, little action.

Cynical variant: Political disillusion results in degradation of political energies into mere political critique, sarcasm, and the bad-mouthing of politics in general, as exemplified by current events.

Band 1 - ROUTINE Politics

Voter - "Politics is how our country is run. We should all do our part."

Characteristics: Morality, conscientious voting, manners, "upright citizen," respect for authority, often simplistic thinking swayed by political imagery, formal democracy, patriotism, doesn't make waves

Band 2 - POWER Politics

Activist, Politician, Lobbyist, Corporation - "Politics is the struggle for power and influence. We fight to make other people and the government do what we want them to (to benefit ourselves, things we care about, or the general welfare)."

Characteristics: Competition, controversy, violence, gamesmanship, secrecy, us/them, win/lose, critical thinking, manipulation, impact, heirarchy, righteousness, debate, domination, rebellion, disrespect, black/white thinking, blame, search for leverage. [4]

Band 3 - CO-OPERATIVE Politics

Community organizer, negotiator, facilitator, neighbor, citizen - "Politics is public life, the shared solving of problems. We come together to make things better and to co-create our common future."

Characteristics: Discussion, common goals, organization, mutual aid, listening, co-action, common security, win/win, conflict resolution, mutual respect, fairness, citizen democracy, communities, grassroots initiatives, tolerance of diversity.

Band 4 - HOLISTIC Politics

World Citizen, Socially-conscious Systems Thinker or Engaged Buddhist, Deep Ecologist, Permaculturist - "Politics is our conscious participation in the whole [system, community, history, ecosystem, universe]. By increasing our consciousness of -- and taking responsibility for -- our connections to each other and our place in the whole, we can tap the wisdom of the whole and play a constructive role in its evolution."

Characteristics: Integrity, compassion, dialogue, satyagraha (truth force), service, solidarity with all life (including opponents), ethical/ecological awareness, collective intelligence, honoring the consciousness and aliveness of everyone and everything, creative use of diversity.

Just as few real-world objects are pure green, few political activities occupy only one band on the spectrum. Greenpeace, for example, involves itself in virtually all bands: thrills for the apolitical, experts for the dutiful, confrontation with the powerful, cooperative projects for grassroots groups, and a vision of respect for all life. Most of us concerned about the world live a bit in each band.

As transformational activists building a sustainable culture, we are called to do more than advocate our agenda, as in Bands 1-3. We are called to raise the quality and quantity of political engagement, per se.

One of our jobs is to enable people to move into higher bands - enabling the apolitical to vote, the voter to lobby, the lobbyists to come together in search of common ground, and everyone to see the "big picture" and to act out of awareness of their role in it. Another job is to introduce higher-band values (like diversity) and techniques (like consensus process) to lower-band realms (like corporations [5]).

Whenever we need to do lower-band actions we can learn to do them from a higher-band awareness or lift them into a higher-band mode. A boycott, for example, lifts consumption into the realm of power politics. And global consciousness can inform our voting.

The spectrum of politics clarifies the actions of powerholders. The ownership of most media, for example, and the dependence of election campaigns on money, allows elites to keep people either apathetic (since they can't win), dutifully compliant (as in patriotic), or engrossed in issue-battles which, even if won, wouldn't change the destructive system. For example, fighting for federally-enforced higher car mileage maintains dependence on cars, centralized power and government-subsidized highways and parking lots. An alternative approach -- taxes on gas and low-mileage cars, with the revenues used to subsidize public transportation and car-free city planning and community development -- helps transform the whole transportation system.

Powerholders sometimes introduce low-band elements (provocateurs, apathy, consumerist obsessions) into higher-band activities in an effort to disrupt them. If we are aware of this and stay grounded in Bands 3 and 4, our activities will be harder to disrupt. For example, the efforts of an agent provocateur trying to create dissention in a deep dialogue (a process to tap group intelligence) could simply become grist for the process-conscious mill of the dialogue. To succeed at this requires a high level of group consciousness and cohesion.

(For another version of the spectrum of politics, see "Transformational Politics (draft outline)"


The struggle for power is at the heart of American politics. Power-over is the governing principle of centralized government and management. Whoever is in charge, or whoever exerts the most pressure, gets their way. Individuals and interest groups battle for leverage. Bits of cooperative activity creep in - like alliances, compromises, political deals, protocols - if only to prevent the whole thing from tearing itself apart.

Into this fray we must go because that's what's available.

But let's not accept this status quo. Most government programs establish dependence or privilege or otherwise reinforce the power-over, adversarial system. We need to realize that depending on the power-over machinery of government to achieve our ends (e.g., empowering federal agencies to police polluters) is reinforcing the old unsustainable system. To the extent we want to facilitate transformation, we need to ask ourselves: In what ways do these proposals move our culture through the transition and in what ways do they root us more firmly in the old power-over ways of doing things?

In many cases (like controlling pollution), we have to depend at least in part on power-over, adversarial solutions, because the power balance in our society is so skewed. But we needn't do it from the old mindset, because we're mad as hell or can't envision any better approach. We can do it because we've consciously decided it's a tactical necessity in our strategy for building a non-adversarial, decentralized, sustainable society. From a strategic perspective, we want to increase the amount of participation and imagination (compared to the amount of domination, control and resistance) in any solution. We also want to not merely solve problems but move in the direction of a sustainable society.

Ways we might use government power appropriately and strategically include:


While we are engaged in this realm of power struggle, we can experiment with upper-band approaches to power, both for our own experience and to find out which ones can facilitate transformation within the existing system - and of the system itself.

For example, we can promote the use of power in the service of values, not interests. A Green Party candidate, for example, might make it clear that her purpose is not to serve her constituency or the powerholders, but to build a society that will support the welfare of people for thousands of years - and that people should only vote for her if they share that value.

Many people will say that's not good politics, meaning that it won't get you elected. We should look carefully at what we want to do with the power of an office, if it's not to further our values. Should we use candidacies to change the terms of electoral debates toward a discussion of values - or to win? What effect would each option have on the transition?

We can experiment with enabling the bad guys to do the right things. What would help Muxxup, Inc., stop polluting? In many bad companies there are good people who, with help from us, could create good effects. When we attack their company directly, they may be disabled from allying with us because they'd be betraying their company. But if we are publicly ask the company (or privately ask the insider allies) what we can do to help them reduce their pollution, such people would probably be empowered to make a difference from within.

Even if we did what we were going to do anyway (take the company to court, demonstrate in front of their factory) we can benefit from not being adversarial. "We believe Muxxup contains basically good people who need this demonstration to help them stop polluting. We're offering them our help." We might even admit: "We haven't been as active as we could in cleaning up our environment, and we thank Muxxup for getting us involved."

To my knowledge no one has done anything like this. I wonder how Muxxup's PR people would handle it...

Another approach would be to creatively personalize the powerholders and our relationship to them. [6] Gandhi used this approach. He steadfastly refused to treat people as if they were their roles; even in very trying circumstances he would treat them as real human beings. He once challenged a judge who was trying him for sedition, saying that if the judge believed the laws were just, he must give Gandhi the maximum penalty and, if he thought the laws unjust, he must step down from his judgeship since he could not in good conscience do his job.

There are undoubtedly many powerholders who are immune to being treated as real human beings, or who keep themselves too insulated to reach. But some will be affected. It is always worth the experiment. Gandhi won some powerful converts with his principled humanity.

I know of one project, the Nuclear Dialogue Project (in the US, their address was 145 Witherspoon St., Princeton, NJ 08542) in which small groups of citizens "adopted" nuclear policy-makers, studied their histories and writings, and started years-long written and in-person communications with them, concerned human-to-concerned human.

In a very real sense, we are all in the same boat. As Betsy Rose sings: "We all came here on different ships, but we're in the same boat now."  This understanding underlies the higher bands of politics. We are challenged to apply that understanding to Band 3 politics, to transcend adversarialness and attempt to transform ourselves even as we transform the struggle for power.


We shouldn't wait to be elected to act like a government. In Czechoslovakia the dissidents became the government almost overnight, and found it much harder to be wise leaders than wise critics ("Havel's Choice," Vanity Fair, Aug. 1991). If we are serious about transforming this culture, we need to assume the mantle of leadership before it is given to us.

This could mean creating shadow governments that go beyond think-tank policy recommendations. They would have no institutional power, but would try to model how institutional power could be better used than it currently is. They would actually do scenario studies to see what resistances and resources would be involved in putting positive policies into practice, and what they would do to deal with such contingencies if they were in charge.

When the USSR came apart or Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait or massacres occured in American high schools or small countries, these shadow politicians could have been there with proposals and comments about how their past policy recommendations would have changed things. This would simultaneously benefit those working in the shadow governments (as preparation and learning) and introduce the public to alternatives. Perhaps they'd be impressed enough to vote some of those involved into office.

At the very least, it would show we were serious.

We might even begin to build real Band 3 and 4 quasi-governments among ourselves in our bioregions, communities and networks, laying the foundations of tomorrow's decentralized, sustainable civil society. One interesting approach is sortition, Ernest Callenbach's and Michael Phillip's proposal for a legislature chosen by random lottery (A Citizen Legislature, Clear Glass, 1985; or New Age Journal, July 1984, p. 47). There are abundant Band 3 and 4 ideas for governance crying out for intelligent trial (see the imagineering tale "The story of Pat and Pat, the view from the year 2019" for a broad selection).


One effort to generate a holistic form of Band 3 cooperative politics is Frances Moore Lappé's work with the Center for Living Democracy (RR#1 Black Fox Road, Brattleboro, VT 05301, [802] 254-1234). My conceptualization of Band 3 on the chart is derived from her definition of public life. She goes on to say that public and private are complementary dimensions of our individual lives. We each have a deep personal need to share in the creation of a common future and thus to participate in a public life that makes sense to us. [7] (See the article Living Democracy for more on this approach.)

In citizen democracy, self-interest encompasses everything we care about, and power is power-with, the enabling quality of relationships. Politics involves people gathering together so as to pursue their self-interests more effectively than they could alone.

The archetypical American Band 3 tradition is the New England Town Meeting. A few more recent approaches include


Transformational politics is always looking for the interests, values and assumptions that underlie the surface drama of political debate and struggle.

Hidden behind the embattled positions of Band 2 adversaries are their interests -- what they're trying to protect or accomplish. Those interests are, in turn, rooted in their values -- what they consider important, right and good. And those values are rooted in their assumptions about life -- what they consider to be real or true.

All these have political significance. For example:

Bringing values to the foreground is a major task of transitional politics. One approach is to advocate holistic values like sustainability. Perhaps a more holistic approach would be to help people clarify what their values are, to help them see the impact of their lives (or of some company or policy) out in the world, and then to help them explore how that impact fits (or doesn't fit) with their values. Transformation happens when they decide to change either their impact or their values. Of course, this is best done in dialogue with others.

I saw an excellent video of a high school teacher asking his students who should be punished for the Holocaust. They struggled back and forth (Hitler? SS soldiers? Holocaust administrators? The German people?), arguing with each other, fine-tuning their own sense of ethics and responsibility. There is no answer to these questions, only a certain deadness or sensitivity to the issues they raise.

This personal act of values/impact clarification is what I call holistic responsibility. You could call it taking the world personally. I and many of you are trying to become more vegetarian, more organic, more simple and self-reliant in our lifestyles. I, for one, don't do this out of guilt or political correctness. I do it in an effort to reduce the dissonance I feel between my values and my impact. Pure harmony between them is impossible. Our culture demands compromise if we want to stay alive and/or make a real contribution. Once again, it is a matter of balance and direction. We do the best we can.

And we stay conscious. That's the hard part - not sliding into denial or righteousness or ignorance This is important because everything we do (or don't) is contributing to what happens next. All of us are full participants, inevitably. To the extent we can be aware of our role, making conscious choices about it, and staying aware of what's happening, we can co-navigate toward a sustainable society.

Of course our political action, service, spirituality, voting, being informed, etc. -- or lack of them -- are as much a part of our role as our organic-ness and self-reliance. It's all a seamless whole.


In exploring resources for my Czechoslovakian "recovery from totality" project, I talked with a friend, Jeff Groethe, who taught peer counselling at the Berkeley Free Clinic. I discovered he also was on the advisory board of an organizational development firm which tries to enable organizations to become learning organizations.

The idea entranced me and I explored further. Jeff told me that a key tool for them was "dialogue" - which I called, earlier in this article, "deep dialogue," and which he described as a process for accessing group intelligence.

I had experienced this phenomenon (if not Jeff's process) during the Great Peace March across the US in 1986. In a smelly fertilizer factory east of Denver, with no place to sit and with rain and hail clattering on the roof, dozens of marchers took turns sharing (through a portable PA system) their thoughts and feelings about whether we should march all together or strung out in an undisciplined line. There were hundreds of us, we were wet and tired, and this was the most passionately divisive issue among us. But by the time the rain stopped, we all knew we'd walk together in the cities and spread out in the countryside. There had been no vote - indeed, not even a decision. That's just where the talking took us. The group came to a point where it knew.

Quantum physicist David Bohm, creator of dialogue process, tells of a North American tribe of hunter-gatherers who met in a circle from time to time. "They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader. Everybody could participate... The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other so well." [8]

For most people, the word dialogue means a discussion. For David Bohm a discussion involves bouncing ideas back and forth. Dialogue, he says, is different. In dialogue "people are no longer primarily in opposition, nor can they be said to be interacting, rather they are participating in this pool of common meaning, which is capable of constant development and change." [9] Dialogue is the process through which a group gains access to a level of intelligence unavailable to individuals.

I am fascinated by the significance of being able to achieve this level of group connection predictably. [10] Does this open a door to a culture capable of conscious learning and evolution? It is hard to imagine a more fitting tool for Band 4 holistic politics.

Related to this new form of dialogue is the practice of strategic questioning, developed by Fran Peavey. The archetypical strategic question was, "Why is the emperor wearing no clothes?" It implied other potent questions like, "Why have we not talked about this before?" and "Shouldn't we do something about our emperor? - and about ourselves?" The purpose of a strategic question is allow for a shift in the significance of a situation so that options for change can emerge. It assumes that the answers for any society or individual reside within them, and its purpose is to elicit such answers rather than to provide them.


Holistic politics, together with higher forms of cooperative politics, constitute a new paradigm politics. It is one facet of our culture's megatrend away from the mechanistic worldview (ref: Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point, Marilyn Ferguson's The Aquarian Conspiracy, and John Naisbitt's Megatrends). Looking at politics in terms of transformation, sustainability, enablement, holistic responsibility, dialogue, values, etc., lifts politics out of a linear, mechanical world of forms and forces, entities and quantities...and recreates it in a universe of relationship, wholeness, process, quality...and no boundaries.

In the mechanical paradigm it is almost as if everything is contained in - and defined by - boxes, structures, boundaries. Ideas are contained in categories, objects in forms, people in skins, countries in their borders. Each is defined by what's inside and outside its box and what that box looks like.

The new paradigm is not so interested in boxes and their boundaries, but rather in the center/heart/spirit/essence of things, and in the relationships between them, and in the larger contexts and dynamics in which they live and which their lives embody.

For example, the old paradigm sees humans as bodies and personalities to be decorated, manipulated, defended or attacked. Its politics specializes in such things. The new paradigm, from which our new politics is evolving, sees us in terms of the personal creativity, meaning, and identity which arise from within - in a dynamic, mutually-defining dance with the world around us. The new paradigm says that this heart-to-heart dance is who we really are, and what the world is. Its politics, of course, embodies that perspective.

A politics rooted in such principles is transformative because its focus on creative relationship (rather than on forms) frees it from the dynamics of attack and defense and makes it more naturally adaptable - freely responding to and participating in change. Like protoplasm and spirit, this politics can create and abandon forms, as necessary, while it, the creative force, survives them all. That very fact, of course, is what makes it sustainable.


Additionally, this new paradigm offers a way out of the the territorialism that bedevils traditional political activism. Here's a scenario familiar to activists:

The monthly meeting of Local Folks for Peace is in progress. A woman has just suggested that they ought to address environmental and economic issues. A man replies, "If we try to fix everything, we'll succeed at nothing. We'll lose our focus. Let's stick to peace, OK?!" An argument ensues - the woman insisting that the environment and justice are related to peace, and the man responding sarcastically that "so is everything else, so why don't we just do everything at once!"

A young man, new to the group, stands up and says: "Wait a minute. You're both right. And I think there's a way we can address other issues without losing our identity. Why don't we think of ourselves as peace-centered activists. Our central concern is stopping wars, resolving conflicts and the other dimensions of peacemaking. But we're all deeply sensitive people and peacemaking shouldn't limit our concern. I think of peacemaking as my special way of addressing any issue. And I view other issues as avenues for advancing the cause of peace. For example, our military is vulnerable as one of America's worst polluters. The Pentagon budget could be used to build schools and houses and repair the environment. Militarism is the blood brother of sexism and the enforcer of injustice.

"When we join, for example, with environmental- and justice-centered activists to advocate using funds from the military budget for meeting human and environmental needs, we are all working for peace. They have not lost their focus; and we have not lost ours. Not only are all these issues connected, but we can and should use those connections to create peace - at the same contributing our peacemaking perspective to those other causes. As far as I can see, the whole problem doesn't have to be a problem at all."


We share with all peoples of the world the challenge of seeding and cultivating a profoundly democratic, creative political culture.

Luckily, intelligently, we are in the midst of creating such a politics, one that is actually a way of life. Even now we are evolving politics out of the so-called "halls of power" into our hearts, our homes, our communities and our vast, alive, interconnected world. We just need to do more of it, more consciously, with flexibility and a healthy respect for our own mistakes.

If you are interested in seeding communities of concern, dialogue and cultural transformation - or if you know of more activities like those described in this article - let me know.


1 "Totality" is a Czechoslovakian term for the totalitarian culture which includes the above-described mindset as well as authoritarian institutions and a set of assumptions designed to replace individual experience and conscience. Vaclav Havel, former dissident leader and president of the Czech Republic, wrote extensively about totality in his essays, pointing out its presence in the West, too: "Our task is to resist the anonymous, impersonal and inhuman power of ideologies, systems, bureaucracy, artificial languages - whether in the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology or cliché, all of which are the blood brothers of fanaticism and the wellspring of totalitarian thought." (Politics and Conscience)

2 Enablement and many other facets of this article have economic and social implications. James Robertson proposed in New Options (12/26/89) a multi-level global economy, with each level designed "to enable its component sub-economies to be more self-reliant and more conserving." David C. Korten applies enablement to international development in In Context #28.

3 The Achilles Heel of the politics of enablement is many people's unwillingness to participate. They want to have someone else envision, decide and manage things. They don't want to be bothered. A large part of the problem is that powerholders don't want people to participate, so the society is designed to distract and channel people rather than to encourage creative participation. This is already changing in the business world. And there are many schools and communities that are working on cooperative, participatory modes. These we can and should help, in order to build a population ready and able to participate in broader politics.

4 Discussions of power bring up class, race, gender and other issues of oppression and privilege. While it is true that the use of power (including violence) by oppressed people has a certain greater legitimacy than the use of power by oppressors, it is also true that the shadow side of power politics degrades all involved regardless of who uses the power -- and that both oppressor and oppressed are dehumanized by oppressive systems. I see intrinsic value in all efforts to move beyond oppressive systems and the use of "power-over."

5 Corporations are particularly good for this. Since international trade is in such flux, companies will try anything to give them an edge. Advanced band 3 and 4 organizational techniques have had a better reception in the business world than among activists.

6 This is one facet of heart politics - politics motivated by our sense of connection to people and shaped by their thoughts, feelings and needs. See Heart Politics, by Fran Peavey (New Society Publishers, 1985). One of many forms of activism inspired by Fran is The Listening Project (c/o RSVP, 1901 Hannah Branch Rd., Burnsville, NC 28714) which sponsors door-to-door canvasses not for fundraising or advocacy but to bring to life the concerns of the people of a community by actively listening to them. Heart politics occupies the border between Bands 3 and 4.

7 This need has often been frustrated, warped or buried by our culture. See footnote 2.

8 On Dialogue, David Bohm, David Bohm Seminars, PO Box 1452, Ojai, CA 93023, p. 11.

9 David Bohm in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter M. Senge, Doubleday, 1990, p. 241. Also see "Transforming the culture through dialogue," Utne Reader Mar/Apr 91, pp. 82-83; and On Dialogue, David Bohm Seminars, PO Box 1452, Ojai, CA 93023.

10 This state is akin to the state of "real community" described by M. Scott Peck in The Different Drum, Simon and Schuster 1987. He describes a way to achieve that state predictably, as well. The two methods appear highly complementary.