By Otto Scharmer
Aug 17, 2016
Dallas, Ferguson, Nice. Turkey, Trump & Brexit. The simultaneous rise of global terrorism, of authoritarian strongmen and the far-right are the twin faces of our current moment. Even though Trump-type politicians and terrorism pretend to fight each other, on a deeper level they feed off each other. The more terrorist attacks occur in the US, Turkey, France, or Germany, the greater the chances that Trump, Le Pen, and their allies will be elected. But what’s more interesting is the intertwined connection on a deeper spiritual level: both movements, to various degrees, thrive on activating a social-emotional field that is characterized by prejudice, anger, and fear.
Geopolitics and international relations have long been framed by different levels: political issues arise; they are seen in light of their underlying systemic structures; those, in turn, are shaped by the self-interests of nation-states (levels 1, 2, and 3 in figure 1).
Even though this model sounds perfectly logical, here is the dirty little secret: it no longer works, it no longer explains what is going on. It no longer fully applies in a world of unparalleled global interdependency in which local attacks by randomly acting “lone wolves” on soft targets, such as those in Nice, Paris, or Dallas, are (and will remain) impossible to defend unless we start to address the deeper root issues that lead people to commit such acts of terror. These social-economic root issues are surprisingly similar to the issues that led, for example, people in Britain to vote for Brexit and in the US to vote for Donald Trump. Let me explain.
The political class was dumbfounded by the Brexit result and continues to be baffled by the rapid rise of the far right. Similarly, the leading economic experts were surprised and clueless when the global financial markets collapsed in 2008. Nothing in the old models of politics and economics prepared the decision-makers to deal with the tsunami that was (and is) coming their way.
Have these outdated paradigms of economic and political thought been updated since? Of course not. Certainly not in a structural way. Which is why below I would like to propose a fourth, deeper, level to the above framework. Adding the perspective of social fields to the conversation sheds some additional light on what is actually going on. By social field I mean the structure of relationships among individuals, groups, organizations and systems that gives rise to collective behaviors and outcomes.
Issues and events (level 1) arise not only from systemic structures (level 2) and the self-interest of nation-states (level 3), but also from the deep structures of social fields (level 4).
The Social Field of Absencing
There are two fundamentally different states of awareness that social fields can operate from. The first state is the one we see embodied in the aforementioned rise of terrorism, strongmen, and the far right. It’s a social-emotional logic that operates through:
This results in a self-reinforcing cycle of polarization and violence that begins with denial (disconnecting from reality outside), deepens via de-sensing and absencing (disconnecting from reality within), and finally results in various patterns of destruction(of things, of others, and of self).
I call the activation of that cycle the social field of absencing because it makes our human essence less present to the world, to each other, and to ourselves. We can recognize its pattern language in how ISIS brainwashes the young people it uses for suicide attacks. It’s a pattern that lurks all around us, including in politics (the rise of polarization and extremism), economics (structural violence of exclusion), and culture (the rise of fundamentalist ideologies). Absencing is enabled by habits and technologies that keep us inside our own filter bubble, and it is super-charged by a global landscape of historical trauma that, once reactivated, amplifies yet another round of violence in all its forms (direct, structural, cultural).
The Social Field of Presencing
Yet the real, and better, story of our present moment is not that. The real story of our moment lies in activating a second state of the social field that is increasingly available to groups and communities across all cultures. I call this the social field of presencing because it makes our human essence more present to the world, to each other, and to ourselves. It’s a generative social field that comes into being whenever groups move outside their habitual filter or bubble and engage in processes by opening the mind (curiosity), the heart (compassion), and the will (courage). What results is a cycle of co-creative action:
seeing with with fresh eyes (open mind)
sensing other perspectives (open heart)
presencing our highest future possibilities (open will)
co-creating those possibilities through learning-by-doing (realizing).
Figure 2 depicts both these social fields. They work as mirror images. Global politics and world economic affairs today emerge from the interplay between them, as it unfolds in systems around us and within us.
What’s apparent is that almost all the media coverage and attention are devoted to the upper half of figure 2: that is, the destructive cycle of absencing. The lower half of figure 2—the generative cycle of presencing—even though it is a profound experience in the life of countless change-makers globally, remains a gaping blind spot in our media, and in public conversation.
Root Issues: Three Challenges
The twin rise of Trump-type politicians on the one hand and the new global terrorism (which is impossible to defend with traditional mechanisms, such as metal detectors) on the other hand, have made one thing crystal clear: you cannot fight these fields of negativity (Trump) or destruction (terrorism) directly by choosing the old weapons. You can only fight them by addressing them at their root. And at the root of both phenomena lie the core issues of an economic, political, and spiritual failure to further evolve the operating logic of today’s societies.
The economic failure: creating well-being for all
The first failure, the lack of an evolving economy, goes back to the Thatcher/Reagan revolution almost 40 years ago. Since then, the world has seen an explosion of economic wealth that has mostly benefited the top 1% while leaving out almost everyone else, particularly the bottom half, who are still waiting for the “trickle-down” effect to kick-in. Those who vote for Brexit and for Donald Trump tend to have a lot in common. They are predominantly white, male, elderly, rural, and less educated—in short, the “losers” of globalization. Voting for Brexit and Trump is a way of expressing their frustrations with a system that has failed them for four decades in a row.
The political failure: creating direct, distributed, dialogic participation for all
The second failure is the lack of an evolving democracy. Around the world the future of democracy and governance is in question. The paralysis of Washington, DC, in national politics over the past decade-plus; the outcome of the Brexit vote, which generated a result that it seems most people didn’t really want; and the toxic impact of special interest groups that highjack the political process in many countries all are symptoms of a system that badly needs an upgrade—an upgrade to a system of governance that is more direct, distributed, and dialogic.
The Brexit referendum does not prove that referenda don’t work. If anything, it proves that we probably need more, rather than fewer, elements of direct democracy—but we also need to pair them with a real dialogue and factual information, as opposed to the bunch of lies and false claims that the pre-vote Brexit debate was based upon.
The very fact that the people affected most by the Brexit vote, youth and people in their 20s in Britain, were the demographic that participated the least in the actual decision-making, offers another lesson for upgrading democracy. We need more direct and distributed (technology-enabled) elements, with more true dialogue calling for new places of deep listening and dialogue across communities. These are the keys to regenerating a culture of civic, and civil, discourse.
The spiritual failure: activating the sources of human creativity
But maybe the biggest failure of elites in Europe and elsewhere concerns the spiritual void. Terrorism is the negative side of expressing human creativity (or the lack thereof). Every act of terrorism is an expression of a creative potential that has gone astray, that was unable to manifest in the context of true creativity that generates positive impact. Where does that problem start? It starts in schools that fail our kids by teaching for testing instead of nurturing their deeper sources of creativity and learning.
We find the same spiritual failure in the Brexit debate. The entire pro-EU argument amounted to a dismal attempt to scare people into believing that leaving the EU would have profound negative economic repercussions. Scaring people as a strategy of persuasion is a losing strategy. Ask the environmental movement how that has worked for them. This inner void was made even more visible by the leaders of the two main camps, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Cameron held the vote purely for personal gain—to secure his own reelection, effectively shifting the risk to the country as a whole. Boris Johnson did the same: positioning himself in a way that helped his future career at the expense of the country. The different priorities—personal ego vs. the well-being of the country—have always been crystal clear. Just look at the Republican Party in the US Congress, which chooses to hurt Obama over helping the country to succeed. Ego-awareness has always won. It’s that spiritual void, the lack of awareness that focuses on the well-being of the whole, that is the real breeding ground for a pre-fascist phenomenon like the Trump candidacy.
The spiritual void cannot be filled with just another ideology or another straitjacket of traditional ethical norms. That would mean moving backward. Moving forward means updating the educational system in a way that allows every human being to genuinely connect to their own sources of humanity and creativity, which happen to be the source for all social renewal.
Updating the Operating Code of Our Societal Systems
Summing up: If we look at the current challenges from a systems view (figure 1), we need to update the operating code in our economic, political, and educational systems. We need to abandon our current mode (ego-system awareness) and embrace another way of operating that works by activating generative social fields (figure 2).
Even though these kinds of positive changes are happening in the blind spot of today’s media reporting, there are countless grassroots activists and communities around the world that are tapping into the power of the generative social field. Over the past weeks and months I have seen and met powerful living examples of it from and in Costa Rica, Bhutan, South Africa, Brazil, China, Europe, and also the United States.
Living in the Plastic Hour of History
Throughout the 20th century we have seen both social fields arise: absencing and presencing. The field of absencing raised its ugly head the first time during World War I, ending a blossoming period of quiet global social movements. Then absencing returned even more viciously with the rise of fascism in the 1930s, embodied particularly by Hitler Germany and leading into World War II.
But then, in the last third of the 20th century, we saw a different logic of social change taking shape that resulted in millions of grassroots NGOs and civil society organizations taking initiative for positive environmental, social, or cultural impact in their communities.
Today it feels as if we—everyone alive right now—are living in a “plastic hour” of history, meaning that small differences today can have major impacts tomorrow. Many people feel that we live in a time of destruction and regression. I don’t quite feel that way. I feel that the sources of destruction and the sources of co-creation―that is, the fields of absencing and presencing—are simultaneously intensifying their global presence now.
History emerges from the interplay between both these fields. It’s a process that plays out in every country, culture, and community. It’s a clash of forces that we see not only on the level of exterior systems, but also on the level of the self. Systems change is personal; it is, as my colleague Peter Senge puts it, an “inside job.”
This is our moment. If you feel moved to make a difference towards helping to shift the global social field from absencing to presencing, here is one way how you can participate. You can join the u.lab—a global online-offline platform for prototyping the ego-to-eco shift in business, government, and education. The u.lab drew 75,000 participants in its first year (2015), which is an inspiring testament to how many people today are just waiting for the opportunity to redirect their attention fromreacting against absencing (the cycle of destruction) toward activating the field of presencing (the cycle of co-creation).
An introductory (90-minute, self-paced) course begins on August 15th, 2016, followed by a globally facilitated version that will convene tens of thousands of change makers worldwide that begins September 8th, 2016.
It feels as if we live in a plastic moment. A moment to connect more intentionally with others to co-shape a deeper shift that we begin see happening all around us: the activation of the intelligence of the heart, that is, of the generative social field.
For a more detailed discussion of Social Fields: Theory U, 2nd edition, 2016.
Otto Scharmer Co-founder u.lab, Senior Lecturer, MIT; Thousand Talents Program Professor, Tsinghua University