Transform the System: A Work in Progress


America faces many problems. Addressing the root cause of those challenges requires us to improve ourselves, our culture, and our society.  The more we improve as individuals, the more we improve the world — in every sphere. The more the world improves, the more we improve. Those efforts reinforce each other.

Human beings are conflicted. We’re inclined to trust, which leads to love and cooperation, and we’re prone to fear, which leads to anger and domination. Both trust and fear are essential. A balance between the two is needed. When we’re thrown off, restoring balance requires self-awareness.

William James argued that no philosophy of life is adequate if it refuses to account for “the evil facts” that are “a genuine portion of reality,” which “may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.”[1] To deal with reality we have to see it for what it is, even when it’s painful.

James Baldwin said:

A day will come when you will trust you more than you do now and you will trust me more than you do now. And we can trust each other…. I really do believe that we can all become better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous and people are not yet willing to pay.[2]

One price we must pay is to acknowledge our weaknesses, admit our mistakes and resolve to avoid repeating them, and accept failure when our efforts fall short. That requires self-understanding.

Trust, compassion, and cooperation are growing in certain parts of America. But fear, anger, and efforts to dominate are on the rise too. By inflaming fear, politicians get re-elected, the media sells advertising, and as people get distracted financial interests gain more freedom to do whatever they want. Americans are getting sucked into a self-perpetuating downward spiral of fear, anger, division, top-down domination, and more fear. Countering that threat and nurturing trust will require mutual support that nurtures self-awareness and self-development.

Our personal problems are human problems. No one suffers from all of them, but if we’re honest, most of us will acknowledge that we’re troubled by at least some of them. If you face those that apply to you, you can work on them. We all need to become better human beings.

Far too often, in our inner world, we:

● focus on the outer world and neglect the non-material, or spiritual;
● avoid critical self-examination and don’t work enough on our self-development;
● minimize our own responsibility and scapegoat others;
● are judgmental toward others and ourselves;
● let our anger get the best of us;
● assume we’re essentially superior human beings;
● label others, place them in boxes, and keep them there;
● identify primarily with our tribe and forget our common humanity;
● react to others based on their skin color, gender, or some other arbitrary physical characteristic;
● dwell in the realm of ideas and neglect feelings;
● discriminate against people who have less education or income;
● envy and resent those who have more education or income;
● stereotype people who live in a different region of the country;
● don’t try to better understand those who disagree with us;
● are unable to agree to disagree and still communicate fruitfully;
● assume some one person must always be in charge;
● are too concerned about our self-interest and our family’s;
● are convinced we have the final answer;
● are unable to see many sides to the same issue.

In our social interactions, far too often we:

● talk too much and don’t listen enough;
● fail to engage in soulful, heart-to-heart, mutual dialog;
● spend too much time gossiping, telling stories about our past, or lecturing;
● don’t take enough time to develop good friendships;
● reduce others to tools to be used;
● don’t support others in their personal growth efforts;
● engage in logical arguments and ignore underlying universal irrationality;
● are mean, nasty, or rude;
● inflame fear and anger;
● spend most of our time dominating or submitting;
● indulge in dog-eat-dog competition;
● seek more power over others;
● only take care of ourselves and our family and neglect others.

And in our political activism, we:

● aim to crush opponents;
● give up on finding common ground, compromise, and reconciliation;
● forget to take care of ourselves and burn out;
● believe winning is everything;
● concentrate too hard on having an impact;
● don’t pay enough attention to how we work;
● overlook that means need to be consistent with ends;
● fail to consider if short-term goals are consistent with long-term goals;
● make the better the enemy of the good;
● work with organizations that won’t form coalitions;
● don’t nurture supportive communities that stay together and attract others;
● are too willing to impose suffering on innocent bystanders;
● assume that leaders are those who mobilize followers;
● indulge in either/or thinking, rather than both/and;
● fail to seek win/win solutions.

Those attitudes are learned. They’re largely the result of social conditioning. We need not beat ourselves up or blame ourselves for our weaknesses. We’re all victims. With intentional effort, however, conditioning can be unlearned. We can learn to control our divisive instincts and build up our cooperative instincts.

Chances for success will be increased if we understand the social system that we’re up against. Elizabeth Warren brought the crowd to its feet at the 2012 Democratic Convention when she declared, “The system is rigged.”[3] Donald Trump used the phrase to win the White House.[4] Bernie Sanders almost gained the Democratic nomination with his criticisms of “the system.”[5] Yet there’s little agreement on a key question: What is “the system” and how should we change it?

This draft declaration offers an answer to that question. It argues:

1. Our institutions, our culture, and we ourselves as individuals are woven together into a self-perpetuating social system: the System.
2. The primary purpose of the System is to enable individuals to gain more status, wealth, and power over others by climbing social ladders.
3. America needs to transform itself into a compassionate community dedicated to the welfare of all humanity, our own people, the environment, and life itself.
4. Then Americans can create new institutions and reform existing institutions, our culture, and ourselves to serve that purpose.
5. That effort will require new ways of organizing political action.
6. Activists need to set aside time to support one another in their self-development.

That approach is all-inclusive. It pursues the interests of every unit: individual, family, community, workplace, city, state, nation, mankind, the environment, and all life. It asks no unit to sacrifice its true interests. If we all benefit, we all benefit. It does not try to impose a blueprint. It commits to experiment with ways forward until we find a path to achieve that universal goal. With a balance between trust and fear, everyone involved can have a voice.


This draft declaration is rooted in the values expressed in the Charter for Compassion,[6] the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[7]and the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[8] The Charter, which has been signed by more than two million people throughout the world, affirms:

      The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect….

      We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, affirms “the inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Article One declares, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

      According to the King Center:

      Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

      Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill….

The King Philosophy is founded on the Six Principles of Nonviolence:

1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. 
4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

Dr. King’s Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change are:

1. Information gathering.
2. Education.
3. Personal commitment.
4. Discussion/negotiation.
5. Direct action.
6. Reconciliation.

The goal of Kingian nonviolence is not to defeat enemies. Rooted in compassion, we leave the door open to reconciliation. We hate the sin without hating the sinner. With firm compassion, we restrain those who violate the rights of others. With constructive criticism, we challenge selfishness. With determined effort, we improve our mental and moral qualities — our character — and restructure our society to make it more democratic. The goal is the Beloved Community.

Numerous organizations integrate personal and social transformation with efforts that require extensive training and generally involve full-time, paid staff.[9] This draft declaration aims to take some of that knowledge out into the world in a way that can quickly enrich anyone’s life. The twelve-step movement, using a fairly simple tool, demonstrates the potential of that approach.[10] A simpler tool might spread even more quickly and help activists support one another in their self-development. For many people, that interaction could be a first step that leads to deeper work, both personally and politically.

In “Our Elites Still Don’t Get It,” David Brooks wrote:

The branches of individual rights are sprawling, but the roots of common obligation are withering away. Freedom without covenant becomes selfishness. And that’s what we see at the top of society, in our politics and the financial crisis. Freedom without connection becomes alienation. And that’s what we see at the bottom of society — frayed communities, broken families, opiate addiction. Freedom without a unifying national narrative becomes distrust, polarization and permanent political war…. Change has to come at the communal, emotional and moral level.[11]

If we ordinary Americans strengthen ourselves, we can improve our ability to work together and build broad, massive grassroots coalitions that act together in unison. We can address the many crises we face and enable everyone to become more fully human.

      America’s major problems include:

● Big Money has too much power.[12]
● Our society creates inherited inequality.[13]
● Many groups are oppressed due to their skin color or who they are.[14]
● Wages are stagnant.[15]
● Technology displaces workers.[16]
● The poor are divided by race and whites are divided by class, leaving us without enough unity to act effectively.[17]
● We’re losing the battle against global warming.[18]
● Growing individualism isolates individuals and undermines community.[19]
● More people have fewer friends with whom they discuss personal problems.[20]
● Our culture is becoming more selfish.[21]
● The war on terror creates more terrorists than it kills.[22]

Those problems are interrelated and share a common root cause: our social system. Understanding that system and agreeing on how to change it are critical.

To build a broad movement that is powerful enough to have a major impact, we need to bring to the table as wide a range of opinions as possible, clarify our differences, and seek agreement on some concrete action. That effort might lead to a campaign to push for positive changes in national policy that are backed by majorities of rank-and-file Republicans, Independents, and Democrats (many such proposals do exist).[23] As he reports in Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, Adam Kahane and his Reos Partners have had success facilitating that kind of process.[24]  We need not agree on everything. We can continue to have many disagreements, and still agree on specific steps to improve our situation.

      From the point of view of this draft declaration, systemic transformation would enable America to correct mistakes, more fully realize her ideals, and reinforce her best traditions. With that foundation, Americans could more easily respect authority (legitimate power), be loyal to one another, honor the sacred, defend liberty, assure that everyone gets a fair shake, protect the weak and vulnerable, punish those who are abusive, and reward those who do good. Those are American values.

      To help develop a transformation strategy, this draft declaration addresses the following questions:

1. What is “the system?” Does it have a central purpose? If so, what is it? How is it structured and how does it operate?
2. How do we, as individuals and with our organizations, reinforce the system?
3. Would a transformed society have a new mission? If so, what should it be?
4. How would a transformed society be organized? What would it look like?
5. How can activists improve how we operate? How can we overcome divisions, such as those shaped by race, class, and gender? What strategies will help us succeed?
6. What forms of leadership are most effective? Is leadership always defined by the ability to mobilize others? Must leaders always be in charge? How should victims of oppression have more voice in how to deal with it?
7. What easy-to-learn method could be widely used to provide mutual support for self-development and political activism?

Preliminary answers to those questions are suggested as food for thought in the following chapters. You’re invited to comment on those answers at the end of each chapter at If you want to submit your own answer as an essay, feel free to post it elsewhere and include a link to it in your comment.

Whatever your political and spiritual perspective, you’re welcome to participate. The aim here is to find widely shared beliefs that could be the foundation for massive, grassroots movements. You can participate either as an individual or with a group that works in person, online, or with conference calls. If possible, please discuss these issues with others and formulate a joint response. Thinking together is a great way to think. You can buy copies of this booklet on Amazon or print copies from the website.

The proposals presented here are not the best we can do. Other authors could compose better answers. Hopefully they will. Everyone is welcome to start from scratch with a much different approach.

Soon I will convene a workshop to evaluate this work-in-progress and agree on feedback. For more info, see Everyone who comments on the website and leaves their email address will be invited to collaborate. (Respondents’ email addresses will not be visible to the public or sold.)

Working together, let’s help transform the system.

NEXT: The System


Roger Marsden:
I like the humility in your introductory comments about your experiences; what has worked; what hasn't; seeking collaboration, etc. stated in a way that invites collaboration.
The sections are nicely organized - feedback to click to next section.
"Fear is essential." hmmm? I always understood the opposite of love is not hate - it's fear. (?)
In that part with William James and James Baldwin there could be some CG Jung shadow work.
America needs to transform itself into a compassionate country...etc., there are points made as to how to do it but more about people who don't just "disagree" but hold VERY different values. Negotiation requires desire on all sides.
America's major problems - more about how we evolve with more people and less jobs.
Freedom without connection becomes alienation, etc... I like that.

Wade's reply:
Thanks for the kind words. I agree that Jung's shadow work is relevant, given my limited understanding. Given that dangers are real, yes, I believe some degree of fear is essential -- if it is balanced with realistic trust.... The thesis is that fear can lead to hate, and trust can lead to love. It's an effort to get to the root causes of the love/hate tension. Thoughts?

To comment, please use this form. Comments may be posted here.

Name *



[1] Quoted in Banville, John, “The Most Entertaining Philosopher,” The New York Review of Books,” Oct 27, 2011. 41.

[2] “Filmmaker Interview — Karen Thorsen,” American Masters, Nov 29, 2006.

[3] "Elizabeth Warren: 'The System Is Rigged,'" The Atlantic, Sep 6, 2012.

[4] “Trump told workers that the system is rigged. Now he’s showing them just how much,” Washington Post, Sep 4, 2017.

[5] “The Populist Prophet,” New Yorker, Oct 12, 2015.

[6] Retrieved from

[7] Retrieved from

[8] Retrieved from

[9] Retrieved from

[10] Retrieved from

[11] “Our Elites Still Don’t Get It,” The New York Times, Nov 16, 2017.

[12] "Money has too much of an influence in politics, Americans say," MSNBC, June 2, 2015.

[13] Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, “The Inheritance of Inequality,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 16:3, Summer 2002, 3-30.

[14] "What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me?", YW Boston, March 29, 2017.

[15] "Why Wages Aren’t Growing," Bloomberg, Sep 21, 2017.

[16] "How Technology Is Destroying Jobs," MIT Technology Review, June 12, 2013.

[17] “The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism,” The New York Times, Feb 20, 2018.

[18] "World is losing the battle against climate change, Macron says," Reuters, Dec 11, 2017.

[19] Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 2000.

[20] "Americans Have Fewer Friends Outside the Family, Duke Study Shows," Duke Today, June 23, 2006.

[21] Twenge, Jean M. "The Narcissism Epidemic," Psychology Today, Retrieved from

[24] "Why a 'war' on terrorism will generate yet more terrorism," The Guardian, Nov 30, 2015.

[23] Google “polls backed by majorities of Republicans, Independents, and Democrats.”

[24] Kahane, Adam, Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, Oakland: Berrett-Koehler, 2017.