Otto Scharmer’s Axial Shift — A geekily specific rebuttal that absolutely nobody should read
Okay, I promise I’ll be brief. This is going to be stream-of-consciousnessy.
I prefer this sort of thing as a conversation, so if anyone wants to geek out on how to frame politics today — hit me up. I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
I’ve admitted to not being a huge fan of Otto’s work before. I worry that it obscures more than it reveals, that it exists primarily to refashion a subset of contemporary political thought in to an educational product, a flattening of the novel and complex in to the familiar and manageable.
His latest thoughts on politics raised some ire. It’s worth reading first as this whole piece refers to it. Otto’s thoughts have a big impact on systems change discourse in the social impact space, which itself is a powerful (and, to an extent, systems-compatible) sub-community of the broader changemaking community.
I want this to be a generous criticism. Otto is on the right side of history and we are in a time where good, bold ideas about what the future could be are sorely needed. I think he is correct that we do need a global change in consciousness and that inner work is understated in value — even eco-anarchist groups, the ultimate systems-change agents, are starting to borrow from the Otto playbook. I’ve been through a U-process myself on a nature retreat and found it invaluable.
However, our ideas about how change happens (and/or what change is happening) need to be on point. Rather than deconstruct the whole piece, I’ll focus on the first third as it typifies my concerns:
On Left vs. Right to Open vs. Closed
Otto argues that our division between left and right is no longer serving us:
In all [countries that have recently elected right-wing, neo-fascist leaders], the main axis of political conflict is no longer primarily between left and right, as it was in the last century, but between open and closed.
That the new right-wing is typified by a certain closedness is a fair observation. Unique to the emergent neo-fascist right-wing parties is even a closedness to international trade, a retreat from global markets, in addition to more obvious examples (closing off to refugees, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, etc.).
Where I disagree with Otto is in his discarding of left vs. right as outdated organising categories. Left and right have always been, and will continue to be, shifting categories that have different meanings based off place, time and context. Indeed, the terms originally referred strictly to the French Parliament in the late-1800s.
The categories we use to understand our polities must be fluid terms, able to cope with changing realities. That Trump is unlike Ronald Raegan is hardly reason to invent a new term. It annexes and simplifies reality, and falsely presents Trumpism as discontinuous with the Republican party.
It’s also worth mentioning how poorly “Closed,” maps on to “Trumpism,” and how poorly “Open,” maps on to the new political left (Greens, Corbynism, SYRIZA, and Sanders).
Consider, for example, the politician in the U.S. who wanted to hike taxes on the wealthiest, retreat from U.S. military interventionism in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and regarded the U.S. bank bailout as ‘socialism for the rich’? This advocate of the poor was Steve Bannon, Trump’s former Chief Strategist, white nationalist, and former executive chairman of Breitbart. What are we to make of his politics, are they “open,” or “closed?”
Or consider the left’s splintering in to the micro-politics of identity. How are we to categorise the popular leftist notion that a person who identifies as a minority cannot possibly be known or understood by someone from a privileged, majoritarian background? Witness this in the framing of an argument in terms of identity — “As a <x> person.” Is this a case of a person “opening,” up to the particularities of a shared injustice or “closing,” to a universalism that transcends identity?
As a final example, Otto argues our new axial debate around economics is between GDP and well-being. Bhutan is cited as an example — a country with only one state-mandated television channel and a policy of actively discouraging tourists with high fees. That Bhutan may be “happy,” because it is closed is a notion that should give us some pause. Is Bhutan “closed,” to the world or “open,” to preserving its own history?
Our politics is in a topsy-turvy, emergent moment that defies simple axial categorisation. Closed-open is insufficient to understand a nation’s polity — which is ultimately what “left” vs “right” is intended to organise.
Otto seems to want to move beyond or reframe debates that are very much still alive and unresolved — the same could be said of his thoughts on economics and education later in the piece.
So why this need for reinvention of the historical dialectic of left-right in to such loaded terms as the approbatory “open,” and pejorative “closed?” It’s Otto’s revisionism and simplification that obscures our complex, emergent political reality and its many contradictions — and risks mismapping the reality that Otto seeks to change.