The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

How We Created A Population Incapable Of Radical Change

One of the defining characteristics of our era is that we believe we are free thinkers, and that we are good at making choices, but we’re wrong.

Our education system, as anyone who had gone through it knows, is about sitting down, not talking unless given permission, and giving the teacher the answer they want, the way they want it. Our adult lives are about giving the boss what they want, the way they want it. This is how we spend most of our time from about age five.

In our lives outside of work, we make choices from menus. We create almost nothing ourselves; the possibilities are predetermined. Even if we help create something that is on one of the menus, we usually work on a small part of it, at best. Our society creates, but as individuals, almost none of us create anything, and almost never anything important.

In our political lives, we again choose from a menu. “This politician or that politician.” Even if we are primary voters, few of us choose the politicians available among the primary possibilities, and if we somehow elect a maverick, they are soon defanged. (See “The Squad” for a good example.)

Our actual lives are about doing what we are told, and choosing from a list of choices created by other people.

We’re followers. Unimaginative followers. It’s not our fault, they got us when we were children and spent the rest of our lives conditioning us. Heck, they condition us, then get us to condition others. Those who are conditioned best become the next group in authority, and condition the next generation (though this is more true for bosses and politicians than teachers, still, teachers are given almost no freedom about what or how they teach).

This isn’t as “ancient as the seas” or anything; our particular pattern is about 150 years old, which is when wage slavery and mass schooling started. Oh, previous eras had other methods, but they had at least partially broken down by the 19th century, which is one reason why new methods were required. The other reason is that the old methods weren’t good at creating wage laborers. Say what you will about peasants and free farmers, they weren’t under close supervision, and they made a lot of their own goods and services.

The problem with all this should be obvious: When change is required, people who have been conditioned to choose from a menu created other people who spend their entire lives doing what they’re told in the way they’re told to please boss/teacher (or else live a miserable life, as boss and teacher control access to the good life) are not suited to create new choices, or even to choose something radical, something that isn’t on the usual menus they’ve been seeing all their lives.

The consequence is that for people to take action, en masse, we have to reach the point where it’s obvious, to paraphrase Lenin, that none of the choices on offer are safe and that doing something radical is necessary.

But since we’ve been trained solely for choosing from menus, we often choose stupidly. We Brexit under a Conservative like Boris Johnson. We elect a Trump. We keep selecting from whatever’s on the menu, and our only criterion is “this feels like radical change.” Often it isn’t, and if it is, it’s worse than the usual menu.

We recognize radical change is necessary, but lack the judgment to choose or create the right kind, because we’ve never had to make radical choices or to create anything large during our lives. Having never done either, we’re bad at both.

Creating unimaginative followers may please our elites, but it leads to hell when real change is necessary.



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  1. Willy

    I was going to tell yet another personal anecdote, but I don’t think there’s anybody here who doesn’t believe that we’re being conditioned to continuously consume… …to believe that if you aren’t continuously consuming while disregarding all consequences, that there’s probably something seriously wrong with you.

    To be more positive, there is talk amongst some MSM pundits that our youth have tired of all this destructive mindlessness, much of it at their own expense, and are increasingly moving towards radical change.

  2. NR

    I certainly hope you are right, Willy. Although I have to wonder how much positive radical change is possible in a society where the Democratic party is seen as the radical left by many. Negative radical change seems much more likely to me. I hope I’m wrong though.

    Also, thanks for this post Ian, it makes an important point.

  3. Dan Lynch

    Ian said Our education system, as anyone who had gone thru it knows is about sitting down, not talking unless giving permission, and giving teacher the answer they want the way they want it. Our adult lives are about giving the boss what they want, the way they want it. This is how we spend most of our time from about age five.

    That is true. But has there ever been a society where it was not true?

    Before there was mass education, children worked from about age 5 onward. If their parents were peasants or small farmers, they worked on the farm, essentially performing slave labor, and were beaten if they failed to perform.

    The only exception to this were the spoiled children of the wealthy, who had servants to do the work for them.

    It’s hard to imagine a cohesive society that does not value conformity. In my mind there is a great deal of evolutionary value to conformity and social cohesion. There is a little bit of value to independent thinking.

  4. GlassHammer


    The greatest impediment to collective action is not that we see can’t see “all the choices ahead of us are bad”, it’s that we are absolutely certain that “all choices ahead of us can be negotiated with”.

    We have a deep conviction that no matter what the choice is, somehow we will always be able to beg, bargin, trick, talk, or move it away.

    Now of course this is an absurdly foolish way of looking at things but it makes us feel good when we do less than what is required. And when the choice meets us on its terms, it’s full and unaltered terms, we say “No one could have known that negotiations were impossible.”

  5. mago

    From the formative years I recognized schooling as conditioning, and I rebelled through grade school, middle school and high school and beyond through university while paying a price every step of the way, which price is still being paid in old age.
    The personal aside, nobody’s really talking it to the streets, and even the extant protests—no matter the numbers—are lost in the louder noise.
    So what to do? Bend down, bend over or aspire to a higher rebirth upon dying?
    Lotsa questions no answers.

  6. Eric Anderson

    When radical change is necessary, lots of people die. It was ever so. The ones that survive, typically already existed on the fringe.
    See: Me, out on the geographic and cultural fringe.
    But (and you know this as well as anyone Ian) the safe evolutionary strategy is to stay in the center of the herd.
    During stable times, radicals get culled.

  7. bruce wilder

    For most people, their only “skill” is shopping.

    I have been watching a lot of TikToks put out by house builders and home inspectors lately — and one really smart guy whose woodworking encompasses making clever tools and jigs. It is fun to see skills but even more impressive to see organization.

    I am not sure how a house or almost any building gets built without serious errors — if it ever happens. So many details, first of all and then so many ways for the sequencing of tasks to go wrong.

    I cannot say that I now think many in the building trades are insufficiently “supervised”. Building inspectors all have many horror stories (not infrequently involving other inspectors).

    On the other hand, thoughtful builders can be quite impressive.

    We are trained to be sheep and caged flightless chickens. Does that explain the number and aggression of wolves and foxes? Maybe it does. And maybe it is the monopolizing of opportunity by the very few and very rich.

    As Ian says, the passivity, morally and practically, of we shopping sheep, so proud of the iPhones we do not understand, so forgetful of elite misbehavior, so nonchalant about a demented President with the right initial after his name.

  8. Ian Welsh

    If you want to think in evolutionary terms, remember that during crisis periods a LOT of people die. That’s why being on the margins works, because you are much more likely to survive mass casualty periods. Both strategies have adaptive advantage: being a conformer reduces attrition; being a non-conformer works because it reduces exposure to the big kills.

  9. Willy

    Every living thing wants to maximize their control over resources. In successful social animals this control is usually kept within socially acceptable limits. Unfortunately for humans, there’s plenty of history where large groups of humans haven’t been able to maintain socially acceptable limits while controlling resources, resulting in disaster for most of the group.

    I really don’t think the dynamics behind these collapses are that hard to understand. But I still have trouble with understanding how social animals prevent the hitting bottom part. Maybe instead of studying stuff like say, the Mayan collapse (with causes being pretty obvious), we should be studying those groups where collapse was impending but prevented.

  10. Ian Welsh

    No, this is a mistake promulgated by economics. Most beings want to satisfice, not maximize, because maximization comes with high risks in most cases.

  11. spud farmer

    When I was in school in the 1980’s, in the British influenced international school system in east Africa and the Canadian public school system, thinking for oneself was still, to a point, encouraged and traditional “western” freedoms like free expression, freedom of assembly, a free press and so forth were presented as positive and worth preserving and even fighting for.

    In high school in a small Canadian city we even formed an Anarchist Club (the logo was a baseball bat with the circle A symbol emblazoned on it) and boycotted school events like pep rallies for the sports teams that we thought had no educational value. That got us kicked out and we went to the school board office to file a complaint and then to the town newspaper which took us seriously and wrote a front page article with our story. We were eventually let back in without having to drag our parents in for a meeting as the principal had demanded.

    That same year we performed a Dead Kennedys song at the talent show and as part of our act we peeled the maple leaf off the Canadian flag and revealed a Nazi swastika underneath.

    That would be unthinkable today.

    For radical change to happen people need to be motivated by a popular vision of what the post-change world will look like. But we are incapable of imagining a world beyond capitalism – in part because there is no adversary like the Soviet Union to challenge capitalism and because the idea of the free thinking individual, limited as it was, is no longer prevalent in the education system. Instead of being encouraged think independently kids are taught to defer to various experts, like doctors and counsellors.

    Changes in the formal education system and lack of an official opposition to capitalism produces individuals that are much more circumscribed and more deferential to authority than previous generations.

    So what has to happen before people can think beyond the present again?

  12. Eric Anderson

    Ok. I’ll acknowledge my comment was a bit obtuse given the context of Ian’s post. It shouldn’t need to be said that nature and nurture are largely inseparable when contemplating human adaptation. Ian’s post being a good example of the importance of educating our children outside the classroom.

    We know our schools teach conformity. It doesn’t mean we, as parents, need to reinforce it. Or, neglect to provide counterfactual instruction.

  13. Willy

    Satisfice (vb): to act in such a way as to satisfy the minimum requirements for achieving a particular result

    Okay, so my cats prefer to get all begging-noisy for their treats because they know it’s easier than attacking the treat jar, since that could result in serious consequences.

    I once worked in a place which attempted a “total performance” philosophy. For years they’d been the local leader in their field but were now having business eaten away by spinoff companies. Their solution was clear. They had to get the very most out of each and every employee.

    Their strategy was two pronged. First, management held RaRa / fire and brimstone meetings with workers stressing their drive towards excellence. Second, everybody’s work accomplishments, quality and quantity, would be available for all to see on the public network.

    At the end of the day, the system was a complete failure. Many of the best employees went unrewarded and were even eliminated, while many of the worst were retained or even promoted. IMHO, this was the result because most of the employees unconsciously rejected the total performance system, because they knew they weren’t capable of total performance. And so too was most of senior management. And so things turned Lord of the Flies political.

    So where do we go with this?

  14. Mark Level

    Two comments– I’m a retired teacher (English & Social Studies credentials, the latter covering mainly history) & because I hated the US imperial and consumer system and was basically anarchistic since age 17-19 (because I grew up in a severely authoritarian household with a right-wing, inflexible father). I loved school because I was good at humanities (similar subjects to where I later gained credentials) & it was a safe place because once I turned 16 (oldest boy in the family) & my dad realized he could not force me to be an obedient, biz-loving Republican like himself, life at home became very difficult with constant brow-beating and berating me for daring to be an individual & “crazy” free thinker . . . anyway, when I became a teacher in my late 20s (after a decade of blue-collar work interrupted by trips to Latin America, which I preferred to the US), I played the classroom management game well enough to fly under the radar and introduce subversive ideas to students who were generally fine with them . . . one of my favorite anecdotes is from c. 2007 when I was teaching US history and I made sure when we got to the 50s, I taught a focused lesson about the US’s overthrow of the democratic Iranian government to install the Shah and the results of that– I happened to have a senior student in the class who was in ROTC and was scheduled to ship out to Iraq the year after graduation . . . he was sharp, though, & thanked me afterwards for covering the topic, saying it would help him look at what he was doing abroad in a more balanced way. I really appreciated that– additionally when I taught psychology I made sure to teach students about the Milgram Experiment (which was in the curriculum and textbook even before I got there) & how people obey those with perceived power implicitly . . . I was never challenged or attacked even though my district was in a somewhat conservative area of Northern California. The closest I ever came was when I had a Mormon student in class whose dad was on the school board, which at that time had 80% (4 of 5) Mormon, Republican, mostly elderly control– though our union eventually ousted all 4 because they were so anti-teacher and right wing . . . anyway, this boy’s board member dad came in to “observe” my class, spontaneously. It was unannounced but I was teaching something non-controversial that day & he saw that I was professional and engaged, so nothing came of it . . . 2nd Comment– my thanks to Spud Farmer for his anecdotes!! This is great and it reminded me of the SCoTUS “Bong Hits for Jesus” case!! So in that case, the school “discipline” was reasonable accd. to the patriarchal court because of course the students’ action was “disrespectful” to religion, etc. I’m sure if the case had been white students subtly needling or running down non-whites it would’ve been okay and “free speech.” Anyway, glad you won out, it is always nice to stand up for your beliefs and ideals and win under ridiculous attacks. Sometimes a little nudge toward independent thinking or even just modeling it has effects for years to come, any coward can be a conformist and engage in Group Think, but let’s face it, that leads to the kind of misery and oppression that we live under now, as Ian’s post notes.

  15. Lex

    I don’t think the age of peasant farmers was likely as stultifying as many believe. For one, in that sort of situation everything is a problem to be solved so everyone needs to be a problem solver. Most everything needs to be made, so everyone is a maker (which is problem solving). Some will be quite good at a particular thing and become say the best carpenter in the village, but most likely you’ll still learn how to carve your own spoons and bowls.

    Even just a generation ago a farmer was a carpenter, mechanic, electrician, plumber and every other hat one can wear. It wasn’t an easy life, but I don’t know many modern people who feel their lives are all that east. The difficulty is just different.

  16. anon y'mouse

    if more of us were “capable of radical change”, then more of us would look, act and perhaps even live like Ted Kaczynski.

    and nobody wants to look, act nor live like Uncle Ted.

    not on a shack, not on the rack. especially not dying in a maximum security total lockdown prison.

  17. bruce wilder

    Being a hippie anarchist is fine as far as it goes, I suppose, but politics is about power, which ought to be about organizing society, organizing a better world, not futilely protesting a world run by others, where your contribution is a failure to participate in government.

    There is no opposition to the neoliberal order and has not been since the 1980s. Politics stopped being something people did, participating in the state. Politics as a social space was yielded to performance art designed to manipulate emotional response accompanied by art criticism. It stopped being about designing and building the society and became about predators feeding on the dismantling of the society, while political “observers” did theatre criticism. Choosing able leaders as part of a process organizing to accomplish political goals in governance was replaced by opinion polling and well-qualified candidates and credentialed experts.

    I submit that most people treat politics as unreal for the very good reason that it is unreal, a show no more real than some reality teevee competition or a fictional dramedy. FTX falling apart or the daily War in Ukraine alongside the retrospective The Crown on Netflix — willful suspension of disbelief required for “normal” enjoyment; conspiratorial speculations as lurid as desired give a further option of believing whatever you like.

  18. Astrid

    I’m going to again recommend the American Exception podcast and youtube discussions.

    Perhaps deep state skullduggery is old news to most of you folks, but the extent of it was news to me. It has made me more optimistic because if progress with smothered through so many hideous acts, then maybe it’s not human nature or human nature that’s inevitably dooming us. If the Anglo deep state dies the very stupid death that it deserves, maybe humanity can pick up the pieces and try to build something a little bit better.

    I will also recommend listening to the most recent summation podcasts from Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast. Remember that every revolution is unlikely until it happens.

  19. Ché Pasa

    People who have lived through the multiple deadly crises of the 20th century and their continuation into the 21st want (or seem to want) nothing more than stability of some kind. Most don’t want and can’t conceive of radical change, even when it’s happening right in front of them, precipitated by politicians, oligarchs, economists or on-air personalities.

    My point, I guess, is that radical change is taking place all around us. Environmental change certainly, but the whole neo-LibCon ideological experiment — and failure for most of us — as well.

    The People are showing little interest in precipitating more radical change, though the petit bourgeoisie is ready– much of it says –to take over the rotting apparatus of government and rule through their chosen dictator/saviour, but they haven’t figured out quite how they might do it or what the end result should be. Maybe we’ll find out as the hulks of parliaments and congresses in the Anglosphere lurch around looking for purpose and competence.

    I agree with Astrid who quotes Mike Duncan that every Revolution is unlikely until it happens. Yep.

  20. anon y'mouse

    there is no “participation” possible in a neoliberal government, so there is no “failure demonstrated by protesting hippie anarchists”.

    the failure is that people get up and go to work for this system to stay as it is every day. millions and billions of people everywhere doing nearly everything they are doing. not just the managers, who are co-benefitting (it’s the top 20%, not just the memed “1%”)vs the rest of us poor slobs just working to keep a roof and food and teeth in our mouth.

    yet as we work to do these things, we also in our way keep the system in its place and the top 20% evolve it into what they and their masters envision for the rest. other than rahrahh at the political football game, which is all an illusion, there is nothing to do politically except down tools, pick up pitchforks and march.

    do you see anyone else marching? yeah, they don’t want to get shot at either and they need their next paycheck for bills past due already a week ago.

    oh, and those spooks that had to pull of so many nefarious deeds against the rest of us that Astrid is hopeful about? there’s millions of them earning a paycheck too. and some even convinced of their own righteousness while they do it. they get up every day, put their socks on and go to their jobs fucking up our world for their masters.

    stop that with notes on a website about “the (common) People’s failure” to engage in government.

  21. Mark Level

    Thanks to Astrid for the recommendation. I was already cognizant of American Exception’s podcast because they’ve done a lot of shared podcasting with 2 of my favorites who (like Ian) I also do monthly support of, Chapo Trap House and Ben Norton’s Multipolarista– in fact, I heard a long Multipolarista podcast with Ben and Aaron Good of AE just in the last 2 days on some interesting info about the US actually supporting the big OPEC “boycott” jacking up of gas prices in the late 70s because all the oil was paid for on international markets in $$$, so the US actually benefited in a big way over time (Michael Hudson has covered this as well). Additionally the 2 of them discussed that the US deep state likely crashed the oil markets in 2014 to damage 3 deep state enemies, Venezuela, Russia and Iran. This is nowhere near as crazy as it sounds if one examines the data, the Saudis were complicit both times in strangling the market (1970s) then over-producing to glut and lowering the price in 2014. Up until Biden did his phony Kabuki about making Bonesaw a “pariah”, & the US lost a major partner (now cozying up to BRICS and rejecting the US, which even Bonesaw recognizes is utterly hypocritical about lecturing anyone on “human rights” or press freedom. Julian Assange, cough cough!) Anyway there is lots of great info out there if one digs just a bit and we are living thru “interesting times.” I thought again about Ian’s header for this piece and I think it is too strong . . . Americans are not just scared of “radical” change, they are scared of even timid, incremental change, as the fact that Bernie was demonized as a “crazy” Socialist who would found gulags for the rich, had the Dem. Presidential nomination stolen from him 2x right out in the open, with the Dem voters obediently going for shambling, hard-right old Joe once Obama cleared the rest of the field away– & now Bernie shills for his “friend” Joe who deliberately botched college loan forgiveness, handed the party over to Mansion & Enema the first 2 years of his term and s%its all over the faux-Progressives who recommended tiny amounts of actual aid to people post-pandemic, only respecting them when they vote for billion$ more to be shoveled to the failed Ukraine proxy war. . . Anyway, I agree that revolution can occur very suddenly when things get bad, I think we may be seeing some attempts in EUrope after a hard winter, we’ll see . . . but the US, I don’t know, I think a pretty large majority is thoroughly soaked in what Nietzsche called “slave morality” & will continue to serve the Oligarchic dream until they’re freezing, starving or homeless. But that may be only a couple of years away anyhow, we always need to have hope NOT from the political class, who provide little beyond a boot to the face.

  22. Trinity

    Great conversation with Eckhart Tolle and Russell Brand. Tl;dr … lots of insanity going on.

    See the comments for a link to the entire conversation, this is a snippet.

  23. Trinity

    The change that everyone (who isn’t insane) either knows or senses but can’t face is: that everything we do affects everyone and everything else. Mostly in small ways (or really big, if one is insane). We are at 8 billion people now, so the combined effect is huge.

    There’s a reason the fake narrative about “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” remains alive and well. It’s designed specifically to insist that this idea that we are all connected isn’t true, so the insane can do as they please. They are literally affecting billions now, mostly negatively, and loving it (because they are insane).

    If there was one thing that could change the world for the better, it would be a deepened understanding that none of us operate in a vacuum. Every decision we make has an effect, however small. Every word we speak or write has an effect, Every poor homeless person living on the street weakens us all, as a city, as a state or province, as a nation, as a planet. Every child who goes hungry … well, you get the idea.

  24. bruce wilder

    Russell Brand and Eckart Tolle are doing quite well selling merch to people seeking transformation of some kind, turning spirit, hope and a longing for a better world into a brand to be marketed via YouTube, Rumble, Discord, TikTok and Twitter. Against the madness, who is to say it isn’t the way ?? Maybe the Revolution begins with the impulse to accessorize!

  25. Soredemos

    Posts like this I think reveal how shitty an experience Welsh specifically had with school more than anything else. Your anecdote is far from universal. There’s been a tension in Western education between actual nurturing of curiosity and intellect and merely preparing peons to be cogs in the capitalist machine for at least a couple hundred years.

  26. Trinity

    Well, Bruce, at least those people who follow RB or ET are trying to change, effective or not. Maybe change will become a habit for some of them, and become more effective over time. There ain’t a thing wrong with a little consciousness raising. At a certain point in my life, I found ET’s book to be very helpful. It’s easier to think effectively when one isn’t quite so anxious. And increasing our anxiety is what the insane are doing to us, and very effectively.

    Reminds me of my favorite joke that people seem to love:

    Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A: Only one. But the lightbulb really has to want to change.

    People seem to forget that it is natural (in line with our nature) to change over time. Nature is nothing but constant change. The insane don’t want us to change at all. Hmmm, I wonder why? And are they changing? It appears they are not.

  27. Ian Welsh

    My parents moved a lot, so I went to multiple schools. So, umm, no. That’s the /structure/ of school. There are a few school systems out of the mainstream where it doesn’t entirely apply, Montessori, for example, but they are for a small minority.

    If you don’t do what you’re told you get bad grades and the very structure of a classroom is based on doing what you’re told. To deny that is fantasizing and the occasional teacher who lets you use a bit of creativity on projects or wants a bit of alternative thinking doesn’t change that (and I had a few of those.)

    My teen years were spent in a boarding school. It had issues, but I got out of it with a better education than most people, something which was made clear to me when I went to university and the class work was a joke and people who said they had straight A’s in high school came to me for help.

    This stuff is made clear by tests that measure creativity, by the way. Children go in creative geniuses, and come out inflexible.

  28. bruce wilder

    Well, Bruce, at least those people who follow RB or ET are trying to change, effective or not. Maybe change will become a habit for some of them, and become more effective over time. There ain’t a thing wrong with a little consciousness raising.

    Not a thing wrong with a lot of consciousness raising.

    I have run into the idea that personal consciousness-raising — a kind of personal psychological or philosophical transformation in which an elevated moral awareness crosses a threshold into a kind of enlightenment — has critical political implications, before. It is quite common. I do think people need consciousness-raising, for personal psychological health — meditation, philosophical reflection, et cetera — all good! The political implications ? — hmmm.

    Politics — good politics aimed at improving the material human condition — also requires a kind of “consciousness-raising” and enlightenment, but it is social “consciousness-raising” and enlightenment, where people learn about how social and political systems work and about their personal stake in the functioning of social and political institutions. It is the kind of thing labor unions and professional associations do in organizing their members; the kind of thing bottom-up ideological political parties and movements do. So, there’s a metaphor or analogy that applies, for sure.

    In American politics, though, it has become too often an excuse for narcissism and virtue-signaling amid deep corruption — an obstacle to radical political change, not a means. It is the kind of thing Adam Curtis was trying to draw attention that was happening in political culture in the 1970s. It is the stuff “Woke” is made of. It is the notion that everyone will just spontaneously “see” the wrong of “racism” or “ecological pollution” or whatever and turn away as an individual ethical gesture and . . . problem solved.

    Politics doesn’t work that way. Politics is conflict of interests and reasoning together about cooperation. Yes, a concept of Enlightened Selfishness is very helpful, but only in a context of understanding institutions.

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