Social Resistance

Resistance starts by working on alternatives

Cyberspace as tool and theatre in the struggle for social change

Part 2 – Linear vs Rhizomatic structures

A lot of exciting things have been happening in cyberspace lately: on the one hand, more and more people are using the internet to propagate and coordinate social resistance in a multitude of forms; while on the other hand governments and industry-chieftains become more and more convinced of the need to establish a tighter grip of control over cyberspace in order to protect their own interests and maintain the traditional relationships of power that have helped to serve these interests. I guess it should come as no surprise then, that some people have actually declared 2011 as  ‘the first year of the cyberwar’.

In this series of columns I’ll try to give an in-depth treatment of the different phenomena that are unfolding within this context, giving some background info on these issues as well as putting these developments in a larger (historical) perspective and distilling some practical tips and teachings on how to use cyberspace as a tool and theatre in the struggle for social change. In the previous episode of this series, I introduced the concept of the ‘digital reformation’ as developed by Steven McGeady; in this second episode, I want to talk about linear versus rhizomatic structures, thereby claiming that what we see happening today is in large part a logical consequence of exactly this transition from linear modes of thinking and organizing society towards this new approach and perspective based on the concept of the rhizomatic network. Enjoy… 😉

Linear Causality vs Overdetermination

Pretty much all human thought-systems are – and always have been – firmly based on a simple and straightforward vision of causality that is probably exemplified most clearly in the newtonian perspective on mechanics and its famous ‘third law of motion’: a certain cause results in a certain effect, so therefore a certain effect is said to be determined by a certain cause. Or, put in stricter newtonian terms: The mutual forces of action and reaction between two bodies are equal, opposite and collinear. It is no surprise then, that in traditional (propositional) logic, a whole bunch of inference and implication rules are based upon this premisse (e.g. modus ponens, modus tollens, hypothetical syllogism, constructive dillema, transposition, material implication, etc.). This perspective has indeed proven to be very practical in a lot of domains and has allowed humanity to gain an ever wider and more efficient control and mastery over its own (natural) environment and has also spawned a lot of technological advancements.

With the emergence of quantum dynamics some 100 years ago though, it soon became clear that a whole lot of other domains and phenomena are just not that simple and straightforward as Newton had made us believe them to be. Moreover, it was rapidly understood that this new perspective was much more suited to analyze most of the things social scientists occupy themselves with than the old newtonian model. This new perspective on causality of course also meant that the inference and implication rules of propositional logic I mentioned earlier could no longer be viewed as self-evident, and thus new logic systems would be developped (e.g. Brouwer’s intuitionist logic) in which these rules would no longer be accepted. It is no coincidence then, that around the same time Sigmund Freud coined the concept of ‘overdetermination’ as one of the cornerstones of his theory of psychoanalysis. What Freud wanted to express with this concept was the idea that a single observed effect is actually determined by multiple causes at once (any one of which alone might be enough to account for the effect). To illustrate this there is a much used example of the firing squad: the members of such a squad simultaneously fire at and thus ‘kill’ their target, but – at least apparently –  no specific member can be said to have directly caused the victim’s death (since everyone fired at the same time). Yet any one of the squad’s individual members firing at the victim alone would have been a sufficient cause for the victim’s death.

This concept of overdetermination was quickly taken up by such diverse fields as analytic philosophy, literary criticism, the philosophy of language, political theory and many others. It was the French marxist theorist Louis Althusser though who gave the term its most well-known articulation in his influential 1985 essay called ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’. For him, the idea of overdetermination was to be used as a way of thinking about the multiple and often opposed forces active at the same time in any political situation, without falling into an over-simplified idea of these forces being simply contradictory. It was thus possible to point at a variety of causes that played a role in bringing about a certain effect, without pinning any of these forces down as the primordial reason that directly caused the specific effect in question: it could be said what effect had been realized and what forces had helped to bring this about, but there was no longer a clear linear relationship between any of these causes and the ultimate effect they had produced together. Or in other words: the quest for origins and endings, the search for isolated causes and effects, the inquiry into linear and unambiguous chains and relationships of causality that had hitherto dominated the sciences, had simply become irrelevant…

A short sidenote on memes and 20th century French philosophy

In a future episode of this series, I will talk about the theory of memes and the way ideas tend to spread, mutate and evolve through the exchange of theories, experiences and thoughts within a given network of interconnected individuals; rather than just suddenly springing to life within the mind of some isolated individual genius. For now though, it will suffice to say that it is thus no coincidence that new types of ideas and theories are often coined quasi-simultaneously by different individuals within a given network. In the world of academics, this interconnected network is of course established by conferences, lectures, magazines and informal personal contact; all of which facilitate this mutual exchange of concepts and ideas.

So instead of focusing on the ideas of any given individual, it is way more interesting and elucidating to discern certain lineages of though and their relative importance or influence within a given network. Now, in 20th century French philosophy, there had tradionally been a few dominant lineages of thought: there was a structuralist lineage running from Ferdinand de Saussure over Claude Lévi-Strauss to the post-structuralist approach taken by the group of theorists assembled around the Tel Quel magazine to what would become known as postmodernist philosophy; a phenomenological lineage running from Edmund Husserl over Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer to theorists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; a psychoanalytic lineage running from Josef Breuer over Sigmund Freud and Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault to Jacques Lacan to Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari and others; and – most importantly – a dialectical lineage running from Immanuel Kant over Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to Alexandre Kojéve, Simon de Beauvoir and (once again) Jean-Paul Sartre to Guy Debord and the Situationist International to Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser and many, many others.

Untill the 1970’s, this last lineage of dialectic thought – and especially the work of Karl Marx – had been the most important influence on French philosophy. From the 1970’s onwards though, this hegemonic dominance of Marxist thought became replaced by the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche. (Keep in mind the concept of overdetermination here: There are always multiple and often contradictory forces at play at the same time, and thus we can discern the influence of different lineages of thougth in the work of any given individual, which are then combined and expressed in a unique style, expressing that particular individual’s personality and peculiarities. So although it can be said that first Marx and then Nietzsche have had the most influence on French philosophy during the 20th century; there has also always been a clear and distinct influence of the structuralist lineage, which could be said to be the defining trait of French philosophy throughout the whole of the 20th century. If for instance postmodernism has been the most famous expression of French philosophy during the latter part of the 20th century, it is clearly the combination of the structuralist lineage with nietzschean thought that has most profoundly shaped this postmodernist philosophy.)

Now what exactly did this shift from Marx to Nietzsche mean for 20th century French philosophy? Whereas the dialectical lineage, and thus the work of Marx, had firmly rested on the newtonian, mechanistic perspective of linear causality where isolated subjects and causes determine social evolution in a very straightforward way (a given thesis causes a contradictory antithesis to emerge and the tension between these two forces is then resolved or sublated in a new synthesis); it was precisely Nietzsche who was one of the first western philosophers to formulate a much more dynamic view on social evolution in which reality was seen as an ongoing and neverending struggle between a multitude of opposing and even contradictory forces, without any prospect of the tensions between these forces being resolved. (On a side note: It is indeed no coincidence that one of the first results of this new nietzschean influence on French philosophy was exactly the declaration of the death of the subject.)

The Rhizomatic Network

Which finally brings us to the work of Gilles Deleuze and his concept of the Rhizomatic network (which he developed in collaboration with Félix Guattari). Let me first make some preliminary remarks about the person Deleuze though, for there is clearly something quite odd and mysterious about the man: living a rather recluse life and being quite secretive about his personal biography, he was both somewhat of an outsider to and one of the most important influences on French philosophy from the 1960’s onwards. Drawing from a very broad range of influences encompassing all of the important lineages of French thought mentioned above (and more), he clearly was a product of his time and one of the most important innovators of French philosophy and a huge source of inspiration for his contemporaries. (The entire work of Jacques Derrida, for instance, can be viewed as a further expansion and thematization of Deleuze’s 1968 ‘Difference and Repitition’, while Michel Foucault – who was a very close friend of Deleuze – said in his 1970 ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’ that: “one day, perhaps, this century will be called Deleuzian”.) It should be no surprise then that it was Deleuze, through his 1962 ‘Nietzsche and Philosophy’ and other works, who almost single-handedly made Nietzsche – who was until then most commonly viewed as a reactionary mystic who was most well-known for inspiring the ideas and values on which nazi-germany had been built – acceptable as a source of inspiration for a wide array of French philosophers, thus preparing the shift from Marx to Nietzsche mentioned earlier. Due to his reclusive nature though, Deleuze long remained far less known amongst the general public than many of his contemporaries, who actually achieved a more or less rockstar-like status.

But anyway, let’s get to the concept of the rhizomatic network:  first coined in the second volume of Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ entitled ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1980), the idea of the rhizome was meant to be a model for the analysis of reality and the description of a certain mode of knowledge firmly based on the dynamic perspective of a continuing struggle of opposing and contradictory forces and thus an overdetermined conception of causality. To better clarify what they exactly mean with that, the authors contrast the rhizome with more traditional linear or ‘arborescent’ (= tree-like) models of knowledge and reality: whereas an arborescent conception of knowledge works with dualist categories and binary choices, rhizomatic theory and research allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation. So while an arborescent model works with vertical and linear connections, a rhizome works with planar and trans-species connections. To illustrate this last point, the authors draw on the biological concept of mutualism, in which two different species interact together to form a multiplicity (= a unity that is multiple in itself). Or in other words: the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the originary source of ‘things’ and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those ‘things’. A rhizome, on the other hand, is characterized by “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” So, rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.” The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation. In this model, culture spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way: The surface can be interrupted and moved, but these disturbances leave no trace, as the water is charged with pressure and potential to always seek its equilibrium, and thereby establishing smooth space.

To put all this in a more simple language: the rhizome is a network of interconnected nodes in which any node can be reached by any other, without there being some fixed point(s) of entry or exit within the network: the rhizome is that which “connects any point to any other point, while its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature: it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a milieu from which it grows and which it overspills. The rhizome proceeds by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. The rhizome pertains to a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits.” This rhizomatic network is thus, according to Deleuze and Guattari, governed by six basic principles:


  • 1 and 2. The principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can (and must) be connected to any other, while these different interconnected points can have a radical different nature
  • 3. The principle of multiplicity: the multiple has to be treated as a substantive “multiplicity”: a unity that is multiple in itself
  • 4. The principle of asignifying rupture: the relations between different nodes of the network may be deterritorialized (= broken off or destroyed) in a sudden and even violent manner without causing harm to the rhizomatic network itself: it will start again along one of its old lines, or form new lines. In other words: the rhizomatic network itself is actually indestructible
  • 5 and 6: The principles of cartography and decalcomania: a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model: it is a “map and not a tracing”, while any node can leave its imprint (or a copy) on any other node without the original node being destroyed

Strongly connected with this concept of the rhizomatic network is the idea of what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘nomadology’: the pathways and lines of interconnectedness that make up the rhizomatic network allow for nomadic movement to take place, while – according to the authors – the centralized state always depends on arborescent structures (e.g. totalizing forms of philosophy, repressive and / or bureaucratic institutions, etc.) to discipline and suppress rhizomatic modes of thought and nomadic movement which necessarily creates an openness that undermines the state. (Notice that ‘the state’ should be viewed here as any system or structure of centralized power that aims at suppressing openness, rather than a nation-state as such.)

Of course it is important to keep in mind that, when Deleuze and Guattari developed the concept of the rhizome, it was more meant as an ideal and a model for analysis than a description of a ‘real’ material reality. Since then though, the emergence of the internet (= global network infrastructure – established by the late 1980’s) and the world wide web (= network protocol that allows different nodes to establish connections with each other – established by 1991) materialized this concept of the rhizomatic network in a tangible reality. In fact, it could well be said that the only ‘real’ rhizomatic network we know today is exactly cyberspace. This means that, in Deleuzian terms, cyberspace is the quintessential ‘war machine’ that enables present-day nomads to fight against the different ‘state machines’ of this world.

What the repercussions of this real life rhizomatic network have been in the context of gatekeeping, information-management and relationships of power, will be the topic of the next episode of this series. Until then, you might just as well start practicing yourself in the fine art of nomadology… So long! 😉


Bram Langmans is a columnist at Social Resistance, chief editor at and a founding member of


Cyberspace as tool and theatre in the struggle for social change

Part 1 – The digital reformation

As all of you probably (should) have noticed, some rather interesting stuff has been going on in cyberspace lately: while governments and multinational corporations all over the globe are trying to impose ever harsher regulations on ‘net neutrality’ and the access to ‘classified’ and / or copyrighted information, the web itself is becoming rapidly more and more politicized: from the organization and coordination of civil protest through social network services as Facebook and Twitter, to the bypassing of government censorship through the production and distribution of crowd-sourced (audio-visual) accounts of police brutality and government repression; from the hacking and leaking of huge amounts of classified info, to the staging of digital sit-ins at the virtual gates of some of the largest and most powerful organizations in the world; from governments using phishing scripts to spy on their political opponents and ‘persona management software’ to influence and manipulate public debate, to the declaration of cyberspace as a ‘theatre of war’ by NATO, the US government and others; the least one could say is that we’re experiencing some pretty interesting times.

In this series of columns, I’ll try to give an in-depth treatment of these different phenomena, giving some background info on these issue’s as well as putting these developments in a larger (historical) perspective and distilling some practical tips and teachings on how to use cyberspace as a tool and theatre in the struggle for social change. In this first part of the series, however, I’ll limit myself to a general introduction of the notion of ‘the digital reformation’. Enjoy… 😉

Internet and Society

On May 30, 1996, a man called Steven McGeady – who was then vice-president for internet technologies at Intel Corporation – presented a keynote address to the first Harvard Conference on the Internet and Society. It is this rather little-known speech – which was later published in volume 10 of the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology under the title “The Digital Reformation: Total freedom, risk, and responsibility” – that I would like to take as my point of departure for this column.

Now what was it exactly McGeady was saying? First of all, he distances himself from what he calls the ‘more, better’ vision of the future that was rather prevalent at the time: the idea that the way the internet will change our lives, our work, and our society is limited to taking current institutions and dialing them forward, simply putting the words ‘virtual’, ‘electronic’, or ‘cyber’ in front of them and pretend that that is the apex of the future.  On the contrary, he says, “My concern is that we face a much more disruptive, a much less benign, and a much scarier future than we are being told. The future is not something that simply happens to us. It is something we create, and we march toward it blindfolded by the comforting homilies of industry chieftains at our peril.”

McGeady then takes on the hackneyed metaphor of the internet as being a similar technological ‘revolution’ as the Guttenberg printing press. Referencing the work of Max Weber, he points out that “The technology to print comparatively inexpensive copies of manuscripts was necessary but insufficient to really make information accessible in Western society” and thus bring about a radical change in the way society itself was organized: what really made the printing press into an important agent of social change, was not the ability to cheaply print a lot of books, but rather the widespread ability to actually read (and thus also write) these books. And indeed, this widespread ability to read and write only emerged some 50 years after the invention of the printing press, as a consequence of some radical idea’s propagated by a guy called Martin Luther and a movement now widely known as ‘the Reformation’. Or as McGeady puts it: “about 50 years between the invention of an enabling information technology and the radical decentralization of the political and social power in Western Europe. From that point on, it was just a series of steps that led to the Industrial Revolution and our modern industrial society.”

And McGeady goes on to state: “People bandy about the word ‘revolution’ and think that they’re being brave. Revolutions change political systems and governments. They’re certainly disruptive. But the Reformation changed virtually everything about Western society: religion, government, scholarship, education and business. That is what the personal computer and the Internet are inexorably doing: changing not only what we expect them to change, but everything.” However, as stated earlier, according to McGeady the future is not just something that happens to us, but something we ourselves are creating every single day. So as a logical consequence of this, he continues his talk by laying down some dreams and guidelines to create a desired future.

Digital literacy, Cooperation & Community

First of all, McGeady criticizes the ‘client-server’ model of ‘the information superhighway’:  the idea of the internet as a means to “delivering vast amounts of advertising and entertainment to your home and possessing only the ability to send back enough information to pay for it.” Instead, he holds a plea for an internet in which every netizen is able to create and publish their own web-content and express him or her self online, rather then just being passive consumers of prepackaged information / entertainment: “The [digital] reformation is not about the same old stuff turned into bits and delivered to your doorstep in a slightly new way. It’s about creating things on one’s own – interpreting the digital dogma on your own and contributing back into the stream.” (Always keep in mind we are talking 1996 here.) Just as with the printing press though, this implies the widespread ability to ‘read and write’: their is a need for the development of a set of digital literacy skills that every human being should be able to master. I think it’s fair to say we’ve made a pretty good deal of progress on this path during the 15 years since McGeady held his speech, but on the other hand, I also think there is little or no doubt we still have a long way to go here.

A next point McGeady makes is about the need to decentralize internet-infrastructure (and societal institutions in general) to better enable peer-to-peer communication networks and distributed cooperative work: “It is important to note that the PC and the Internet – now, and increasingly, as we get new technologies for distributed work – are truly useful only if users can find other people, band together, and cooperate. The creative ability for an individual in this distributed, cooperative environment, while greatly expanded over previous institutional structures, is currently limited by the technology for distributed communication and poor ease of use of that technology. We must build new technology that allows for interpersonal cooperation on the Internet. In the cooperation of individuals, we get a great deal of strength.” Again, I think it’s fair to say we made a lot of progress in this domain (I’ll talk some more about some of these cooperative technologies in a few upcoming episodes of this series), but all in all, there is definitely also still some room left for improvement here.

Last but not least, McGeady points out the necessity to create context and thus ‘community’ on the web: “Context turns information into knowledge. Context distinguishes a random piece of data from a fact that fits into a larger whole and makes a point, makes a difference. Context is provided by society, but being on the Intemet today is a lot like wandering around a shopping mall that’s been neutron-bombed. There are beautiful store windows and all this beautiful merchandise enclosed behind glass. You can wander around in this place, but there are no other people there. It’s a very spooky, very lonely feeling to be in a place where you see lots of rich information but have no idea whether people are crowded around it or whether no one is there. There is no context provided by the Web. […] Our community provides the social mores, the context in which we can interpret the information around us. […] We need to create the means and the mechanisms to build community on the Network. In the absence of it, I think that we’re doomed to see the Internet continue as a technological trinket and not as a fundamental social force.” And indeed, one of the most important developments we have seen on the internet in the last couple of years is exactly the emergence of social network services, the transition from a neutron-bombed shopping mall to a much more community-based global network. Of course, things can always be better, and it is always our responsibilty to make sure things do get better; but when reading that last quote, I can’t help but wondering if maybe it’s not just a coincidence that, with the emergence of ‘the social network’, internet actually is becoming more and more of a fundamental social force…

As McGeady already said though: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it. […] All of us are responsible for inventing the culture and the community that will create the Network of the future, and all of us are responsible for carying forward this digital reformation and ensuring that it turns out the way we want.”

So don’t just be slacking there – you know what you should do… 😉


Bram Langmans is columnist at Social Resistance, chief editor at and a founding member of

Putting children first

In this new column part of a serie on education, Nesibe Balta, author of school books argues that we should focus much more on the needs, dreams and the world of children within our education system.

“You’re in a classroom together with other teenagers. Your teacher is telling about the world that awaits you. One day you have to leave your school and one day you’ll have to make your own choices. It’s quite a lot when you’ve turned 16, but you’re well prepared and you know what real life is. Maybe you’re not that good in citing definitions and solving equations, but you’ve experienced real life several times and you know where you’re going. Sometimes it seems far away, but you’re sure that one day you’ll play your role in life, just like your classmates. You’ve traveled together down the path of education and now you start the last years of schooling together. Together you look forward to learning new things. Learning is a pleasure to you.”

How many teens can say this? How many teens long to learn and have great expectations for the future? How many teens want to go to school? And how many really know which road to travel? Indeed: just a few, too little to notice.

Many youngsters are tired of school and tired of learning at the age of 16. They want to relax, play and party. Listening to teachers who tell them dull stuff isn’t on their list of favorite things. They don’t want to learn any useless facts. At the age of 18 they feel like leaving prison: they are free, they don’t have to go to school anymore. And that’s worth celebrating. But then real life starts and they have to make choices. But where do they begin? What will they do? Where to go? Some of them choose a profession, others go to university. But only a few of them know what life will bring. Just a few know which road they want to travel and where that road will lead them.

This isn’t a recent problem, but in the last decades, the situation became worse. The pressure on kids and teens is very high: they have to learn a lot by heart. Because of the high requirements they choose to learn only some of the offered knowledge or to learn all of the knowledge superficially.  Many choose the second option and only learn the minimum required knowledge to pass the exams and other evaluations. But once the exams end, they forget whatever they learned. They don’t master it. And after the holidays they have to learn it again, but once the school doors are closed all the knowledge has no use to them so they leave it all when leaving school. School seems like a game. The ones who master the rules win it. The ones who can’t play the game by the rules try it, but they rarely succeed.

School should educate children and prepare them for their adult life. But yet we see that education is used to suppress the masses. It’s a perfect weapon to shape the society of tomorrow like you want it. Our education system tells a lot about our society. it tells us how we see the world and others.  It reflects the values that are important to us. By teaching children these values we make sure that they are passed to the generations to come.

In our education system we value social adaptation and individuality (unless it conflicts with social adaptation). Also knowledge is highly valued: we start with the numbers, reading, computers and world orientation in kindergarten.  Children don’t play spontaneously but are guided in their playing. Playing must be useful and educational. Children are shaped the way society desires it. They are small production units and they must be useful to society.  They don’t have to shape the world of tomorrow, but they have to build the world of tomorrow on the foundations of the world today. Creativity is valued, but when creativity leads to changes, it’s chained. Children are not seen as individuals, they are the way the society shapes them.

Yes, school should prepare them for their adult lives. But when we look at the education system we see that children aren’t well prepared. They are only prepared to work and be useful. Young adults have to learn the things that are important for our species by themselves, like social interactions (human relations), reproduction and even important daily activities like eating, drinking or housing. Those activities don’t directly contribute to work, so they are considered less important. That’s why young adults barely know how to prepare food en why they have to call their parents each time they are faced with practical problems in their daily life. And when they become parents, they have no idea how to parent. They try to imitate the parenting of their parents or other parents without even thinking and without following their instincts. Relationships are based on trial-and-error and the rate of divorces is very high. we haven’t learned how to maintain longterm relations. We have learned about differentials and integrals, but we haven’t learned how to communicate with our partner.

Children are indeed production units. We don’t act for the benefit of the child but look at achieving goals. The goals to achieve are based on averages. The individual development of a child (starting from the moment of conception) comes to an end. We consider it very normal that a baby learns to talk when he’s ready (physically and mentally) but when a 6 year old isn’t ready to write we force him, even so with a 14 year old who can’t manage equations. Everybody is measured by averages. Those who are slower or faster than the average are separated and measured by other averages (based on those who are slower or faster than the average).
Children at the age of 4 begin to discover the world around them. They ask why-questions to understand the world around them. But their interest in the world stops when education starts. Passion is only for your spare time. In school you have to learn to silence your inner curiosity and you have to  do your learning the way the society expects it.

But this isn’t the way it has to be. It’s possible to create an education system that puts the child in the center.  Since the early days of humanity, children learned by imitation and trial-and-error. They master everything they need through practice. But in the last centuries the learning process has been controlled by society. We have to teach children how they have to learn. Yes, their curiosity is silenced. But an education system that listens to children and takes the individual development, abilities and restrictions of the child into account, is a system where children can develop fully. They learn how to contribute to society instead of replicating whatever society taught them.

In such a system, the child should be treated like a individual. But this doesn’t mean that adults should act like the child expects, that there are no boundaries and rules. No, adults are there to guide the child on his path to maturity. They help the child to understand the society we live in. The child learns by himself because he wants to learn. Teachers are there to help the child overcome obstacles and to challenge him when needed. Only in such a system can the child develop fully and contribute to society.  He will know his own limitations, abilities and respect society and contribute wherever he can.

Nesibe Balta is columnist at Social Resistance and freelance writer

Over verzet en haar gebroken werkelijkheid

Weer een troosteloze krant vanochtend. Weinig blij nieuws. Hier en daar de obligate uitsmijter, maar dan heb je het gehad. Het stemt tot nadenken dat men de samenleving in de beeldvorming erover meer en meer ten gronde lijkt te willen (moeten?) dragen. Alle dagen kommer en kwel. De crisis heerst, London brandt en het euro-disney sprookje lijkt voorlopig niet echt lang en gelukkig te leven. Dichter bij huis word je verketterd wanneer je kritiek durft te hebben op koning De Wever. Akkoord, het is erg gesteld met de algemene werkelijkheid. En niemand schijnt haar nog te kunnen redden. Om het met de hedendaagse economische bewoording te zeggen: de wereld lijkt af te stevenen op een faillissement.

Het hoeft bijgevolg niet te verbazen dat we ons liever verbinden met die particuliere wereld waar we zelf het middelpunt van zijn en nog een beetje controle over menen te hebben. Een beetje navelstaarderij is vandaag de dag niemand vreemd (ook deze tekst niet). Al te graag toeven we op het eigen eiland, een veilige vluchtplaats die we kunnen afsluiten voor de woelige wereldzee. Op die manier is het mogelijk de ogen te sluiten voor de dagdagelijkse wereldlijke werkelijkheid.

En toch is er iets wat zich telkens verzet. Of het nu dat uitgemergeld kindergezichtje uit de hoorn van Afrika is of de woede van in bivakmutsen verhulde malcontenten in London, telkens is er wel iets of iemand die vraagt dan wel dwingt de ogen te openen. Emotie en woede zijn daarbij sterke geleiders. Ze kunnen ons in één klap, letterlijk of figuurlijk, aangeven dat het eigen uitgangspunt wel eens verkeerd of onvolledig kon zijn. Maar hetzelfde geldt voor een goed opgebouwd betoog (dat schijnt bovendien beschaafder in de wereld van vandaag). Het ene argument kan door het andere zo van tafel geveegd worden. Steeds lijkt er dus wel iets te zijn dat duidt op het feit dat er nog een andere werkelijkheid is dan simpelweg de onze. Belangrijk hier is echter dat dit niet zozeer de waarheid van het andere aangeeft, maar eerder duidt op de beperktheid van het eigene.

Het gaat met andere woorden niet over een echtere waarheid of een logischer vertoog, maar om het inherente tekort of de intrinsieke onvolledigheid van het eigen (lees: elk) begrip van de werkelijkheid. Mijn werkelijkheid overspant dus nooit de hele wereld. Meer zelfs, er is geen ene werkelijkheid die de hele wereld kan vatten. De werkelijkheid schiet telkens al in zichzelf tekort. Ze is nooit volledig werkelijk. Of nog: ze verzet zich tegen haar eigen totaliteit. Ziehier de eigenlijke betekenis van verzet.

Verzet is datgene wat van binnenuit aangeeft dat een werkelijkheid nooit de volledige realiteit kan vatten. Als schisma van de realiteit verwijst het naar datgene wat niet gevat kan worden; datgene wat telkens ontsnapt. Het is het inherente vreemde aan het eigene. Verzet werkt als openheid of breuk van binnenuit tegen elke vorm van begrenzing of sluiting.

De hedendaagse samenleving lijkt echter komaf te willen maken met zulke opening of breuk. Veeleer poogt ze zoveel mogelijk de eigen (meta-)fysieke grenzen te sluiten. Er lijkt hoe langer hoe minder plaats voor datgene wat afwijkt, datgene wat vreemd is. Bovendien gaat dit gepaard met een toenemende bekrachtiging van het normerende eigene. Datgene wat anders is, is niet slechts simpelweg vreemd, maar verdient ook steeds minder leefruimte. Het is ondergeschikt, naïef, marginaal, crimineel (denk aan de rellen in London), … of ronduit onjuist.

Met het hedendaagse discours is een mechanisme geïnstalleerd geraakt dat het vreemde fundamenteel afstoot dan wel handig incorporeert (Che Guevara lijkt tegenwoordig meer waarde te hebben in de vorm van T-shirts), maar telkens opnieuw vanuit een doorgedreven instrumentalisme: het vreemde heeft geen bestaansrecht op zich. Het heeft louter instrumentele waarde.

De samenleving vandaag is in die zin niets anders dan een gesofisticeerde vorm van totalitarisme. Het beschouwt haar eigen werkelijkheid als eenduidige juiste totaliteit. Daarbij vergeet of negeert het steeds haar eigen interne incongruentie, haar eigen impliciete verzet. Het komt er op aan aandacht te hebben voor die inherente breuken: het verzet een verzet geven. Enkel op die manier is het mogelijk te ontsnappen aan de huidige algehele hang naar ondiverse totaliteit.

Verzet geeft met andere woorden niet enkel aan dat het anders kan of dat we anders kunnen denken, maar dat het steeds al anders is. De werkelijkheid is immers altijd al anders dan simpelweg zichzelf. Het komt er op aan deze realiteit te leven: vivre la résistance!


Pieter Meurs is philosopher and columnist at Social Resistance

Ethische principes voor wie streeft naar sociale verbetering

Christophe Calis moraalwetenschapper geeft een aanzet tot gesprek over de ethische principes voor wie streeft naar sociale verbetering. Eerste ethisch principe is praktijken van het vertegenwoordigen van anderen. Het tweede ethisch principe is alle alternatieve praktijken moeten ruimte krijgen en gepromoot worden.

Verandering, verbetering van onze situatie, willen we allemaal. ‘Change we can believe in’. Echter, alle gekende recepten voor het maken van onze samenleving blijken uitgewerkt. De ontgoochelingen stapelen zich op. Ook Obama, voor velen de laatste strohalm van hoop, blijkt niet opgewassen tegen de krachten van ontwaarding van het leven, met het treurige schouwspel van de « schuldendeal » als laatste dieptepunt.

De ontreddering is groot. We lijken in een tijd te leven van cynisme, angst, wanhoop en depressie. Mensen die zich constructief wensen op te stellen verenigen zich, vaak via sociale netwerken. Ze gaan op zoek naar nieuwe ideeën en programma’s voor concrete acties. De chaos en onenigheid is echter groot. Veel kloven lijken onoverbrugbaar. De enen zoeken naar radicale oplossingen, de andere naar nieuwe vormen van activisme en eigen inbreng, we slaan elkaar om de oren met ideologische rhetoriek. Daarom dreigt de kracht van het momentum te verzinken in de chaos van de onderlinge onenigheid.

Hier wil ik twee ethische principes naar voor schuiven waarvan ik geloof dat ze ons allen kunnen verenigen. Ze kunnen als een basis dienen voor ons sociaal verzet, ongeacht onze individuele ambities, intellectuele achtergrond, ideologische basis of methodes.

De twee ethische principes klinken als volgt :
1ste ethisch principe : Praktijken van het vertegenwoordigen van anderen – ofwel in wie ze zijn of wat ze willen – zouden, zoveel mogelijk, vermeden moeten worden.
2de ethisch principe : Alle alternatieve praktijken zouden ruimte moeten krijgen en zelfs gepromoot worden.

Ik zal deze twee stellingen hier kort toelichten.

1ste ethisch principe : Praktijken van het vertegenwoordigen van anderen – ofwel in wie ze zijn of wat ze willen – zouden, zoveel mogelijk, vermeden moeten worden, of het principe van de non-representatie.

Spreken in naam van anderen is fundamenteel onwaardig, tenzij er grondige redenen toe zijn. Mensen zouden moeten spreken voor zichzelf, of daarin zoveel als mogelijk toe aangemoedigd worden. Indien hen de middelen daartoe ontbreken dienen die zoveel als mogelijk aangereikt te worden. Onderwijs speelt hier een fundamentele rol in. Iedereen kan spreken voor zichzelf en niemand hoeft ongevraagd te spreken in naam van een ander.

Deze kritische houding tegenover representatie heeft natuurlijk zijn repercussies voor de representatieve democratie zoals we die nu kennen. Hoewel de representatieve democratie bij haar ontstaan een goed idee was, kunnen we moeilijk vasthouden aan het geloof dat ze in onze hoogtechnologische 21ste eeuw het summum van ons kunnen benadert.

Dit betekent niet dat er een wet dient te komen tegen praktijken van het vertegenwoordigen van anderen. Het gaat hier om een gedragsprincipe, een voorschrift voor actie, geen aanbeveling tot strafmaatregelen. Zich consequent scharen achter deze richtlijn, op gelijk welk niveau, geeft ons, naar ik geloof, wel een garantie voor echte diepgaande sociale verandering in de richting van democratischer-worden.

2de ethisch principe : Alle alternatieve praktijken zouden, allen gelijkwaardig, ruimte moeten krijgen en zelfs gepromoot worden. We kunnen dit ook het principe van de differentie noemen.

Mensen zijn creatieve wezens. We merken overal nieuwe sociale experimenten, soms bewust en doelgericht, soms voor het plezier, vaak uit pure noodzaak. In dit opzicht kunnen grootsteden benaderd worden als interessante samenlevingslaboratoria. Alle praktijken die, zelfgekozen of niet, afstappen van het traditionele representatiemodel, verdienen onze aandacht en aanmoediging. Of het nu gaat om nieuwe vormen van collectivisme of singuliere levens, elke praktijk heeft het recht om voor zichzelf te spreken. Belicht het anders-zijn, de alternatieve levensweg, geef een stem aan wie echt uitgesloten wordt uit de samenleving. Belicht het creatieve en het expressieve.

Wie zich engageert in micropolitieke strijd zal op natuurlijke wijze samenspannen met wie uitgebuit wordt. Ik geloof dat voor wie op straat wil manifesteren, een sociaal geëngageerd boek wil schrijven of een blog onderhouden, een grassroots-beweging wil vervoegen of opstarten, burgerlijke ongehoorzaam wil zijn, of kiezen voor radicale actie, deze twee ethische principes kunnen dienen als gemeenschappelijke leidraad.
Indien mijn stelling klopt, dan zijn deze twee ethische principes waar we ons allen kunnen achter scharen een belangrijke stap naar vereniging van krachten.

Ik zou graag van u, lezers, reacties sprokkelen. Op basis van tegenargumenten kan ik deze twee ethische principes verder onderzoeken, dit wil zeggen, hun nut, geldigheid en weerbaarheid testen.

Christophe Calis is columnist bij Social Resistance en moraalwetenschapper

Over onderwijs

Nesibe Balta is schrijfster van schoolboeken. In deze serie artikels ze meent dat radicale hervormingen binnen het onderwijssysteem hard nodig zijn. Er is nood aan nieuwe alternatieve die een betere toekomst bieden voor de jongeren van vandaag.

Een aantal jaren geleden stond ik zenuwachtig voor een nieuwe klas. Het was een unieke kans voor iemand met mijn diploma: een vervanging in een technische richting (laatste graad). Mijn verwachtingen waren zeer hoog na het lezen van de geziene leerstof. Eindelijk een kans om mijn passie voor computers te delen met leergierige leerlingen.
Ik verwachtte vragen waar ik met moeite op kon antwoorden en wachtte gespannen op het rooster waar de leerlingen me op gingen leggen. Maar al snel zakten al mijn verwachtingen als een pudding ineen: de leerlingen beheersten nauwelijks de geziene leerstof en hun interesse was zeer gering. Een aantal lessen later ontdekte ik dat de meesten nauwelijks geïnteresseerd waren in techniek. Sommigen hadden uit gemakzucht voor deze richting gekozen, anderen omdat er geld mee te verdienen viel en nog anderen om de verwachtingen van hun ouders in te lossen. Het was een kleine minderheid die iets voelde voor techniek, maar ook zij waren nauwelijks enthousiast.

Hetzelfde overkwam me bij andere vakken en andere richtingen. De leerlingen keken meer naar hun horloge dan naar het bord en velen wensten stiekem dat ik onderweg naar het lokaal een been zou breken. Ik begon me af te vragen hoe dit kwam. Van collega’s hoorde ik gelijkaardige verhalen. Wat is er mis met het onderwijs? En waarom blijven we onze kinderen naar school sturen als we ons zo hebben verveeld op de schoolbanken? Zijn er alternatieven?

Wat is er mis met het onderwijs?

Vraag 1 is simpel te beantwoorden: alles en niets. De kwaliteit van het onderwijs in Vlaanderen is zeer goed: de leerlingen scoren zeer hoog op kennistests. Waar is dan het probleem? Dat is juist het probleem: de leerlingen weten veel, maar beheersen ze het ook? Als we kijken naar jongvolwassenen zien we dat de werkgever hen in veel gevallen moet opleiden: de kennis die ze op school hebben opgedaan is ontoereikend en vaak achterhaald. In andere landen is het nog erger gesteld, maar is dat een reden om trots te zijn op ons onderwijssysteem?

Veel jongeren zijn schoolmoe en het aantal schoolverlaters is relatief hoog. Kinderen ontwikkelen hun talenten niet en verbergen zich achter een masker van desinteresse. Dit heeft niet enkel gevolgen voor het kind, maar voor heel de maatschappij. Stel je voor dat we in een samenleving leven waarin elk kind zich ten volle kan ontplooiien, rekening houdend met zijn eigen unieke talenten, vaardigheden en beperkingen. Als het kind eenmaal volwassen is, kan hij een mooie bijdrage leveren aan de samenleving. Hij heeft dan zijn roeping gevonden in zijn beroep dat hij met plezier uitoefent. Er zou meer welvaart zijn, minder criminaliteit en vooral minder depressies. Misschien een utopie… maar is het het proberen niet waard?

Waarom sturen we onze kinderen naar school?

Vele generaties hebben liedjes geschreven over het nut van school. In sommige liedjes wordt er over nutteloze leerstof gesproken, in nog andere wordt de school (of de leerkrachten) streng toegesproken. Als wij ons zo verveelden op school en het nut niet inzagen van alles wat de leerkrachten ons vertelden, waarom sturen we dan onze kinderen naar school? Simpel: omdat we niet anders weten.

Weinig mensen weten hoe het schoolsysteem juist in elkaar steekt. Ze sturen hun kind vaak naar de dichtsbijzijnde school of kiezen een school op basis van andere praktische criteria. In Vlaanderen is er geen schoolplicht, maar leerplicht. Weinig mensen zijn zich hiervan bewust en nog minder weten hoe huisonderwijs juist werkt. Velen denken dat ze geen andere keus hebben en geven hun kinderen de gouden raad om gewoon hun best te doen. School is een noodzaak. Het kan niet anders. Of wel?

Zijn er alternatieven?

Er zijn veel alternatieven. In Vlaanderen hebben we het geluk dat we (t)huisonderwijs mogen geven. De enige voorwaarde is dat je je kind onderwijst. In andere landen zijn er veel richtlijnen en voorwaarden en kan je niet zomaar je kind thuis onderwijzen. Maar huisonderwijs is niet het enige alternatief. Er zijn steeds meer “alternatieve” onderwijsvormen (diverse methodescholen en methoden zoals Dalton, Montessori, Sudburry, Eigenwijs (Iederwijs) en Natuurkind. Ook het traditioneel onderwijs neigt steeds meer naar onderwijsmethodes waarbij het kind centraal staat. Toch zijn we er nog niet.

In een onderwijssysteem waarbij het kind alle kansen krijgt, moet niet enkel het kind centraal staan, maar ook de leerkracht. De leerkracht is de begeleider van het leerproces die inspeelt op de leerbehoeften van het kind. Helaas zien we in de praktijk dat leerkrachten sterk ondergewaardeerd worden. Hun beroep is een uitdaging waar hun opleiding hen nauwelijks op voorbereidt. Bovendien moet een leerkracht kinderen voorbereiden op een wereld waar hij zelf geen ervaring mee heeft. Veel leerkrachten komen immers rechtstreeks van de schoolbanken en hetgeen ze geleerd hebben is meestal zelfstudie.

Er moet veel veranderen in het onderwijs. Er moet respect komen voor het individu en voor de maatschappij waarin we leven. Kinderen moeten leren in de maatschappij van leerkrachten die hun vak met passie doorgeven en leerkrachten moeten niet gehinderd worden door allerlei bijkomstigheden. Enkel dan kunnen ze hun creativiteit ten volle benutten in het voordeel van hun klas.

Ja, er moet veel veranderen. Gelukkig zijn we op de goede weg. Er zijn veel stemmen van leerkrachten, ouders en leerlingen die vragen om een beter onderwijs. Geen onderwijs waar feitenkennis hoog aangeschreven staat, maar onderwijs dat je werkelijk voorbereidt op je leven als volwassene. Het komt eraan. Er zijn kleine veranderingen die rimpelingen veroorzaken in het onderwijslandschap en er zijn individuen die geloven dat het anders en beter kan.

Veranderingen in de maatschappij beginnen altijd klein. We mogen ook niet vergeten dat de kinderen van vandaag de samenleving van morgen zullen vormgeven. Zoals wij hen opvoeden, zal de wereld er morgen uitzien. Als we een betere wereld willen, zullen we moeten beginnen bij het onderwijs. Door kinderen te leren hoe ze een bijdrage kunnen leveren aan een mooiere samenleving, maken we de wereld al een stukje mooier. En dat is toch wat we allemaal willen? Een mooiere wereld, voor onszelf en de generaties na ons.


Nesibe Balta is columnist bij Social Resistance en freelance schrijfster

About education

Nesibe Balta is freelance writer and author of school books. In this series of columns, written for Social Resistance, she claims that we need radical change in our education system. New alternatives should be supported in order to guarantee a better future for the children of today.

Several years ago, I stood nervous before a new class. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for someone with my degree: an interim function in a technical direction (high school seniors). I would have a chance to share my passion for computers with them. After reading the curriculum already taught,  my expectations were very high. I expected many difficult questions from these genius minds.

But when I was standing before them my expectations fell apart: the students barely knew the curriculum and they weren’t motivated at all! After a few classes I learned that most of them weren’t interested in technology. Some chose this direction because it was known to be easy, others to make money and some because their parents wanted it. Just a minority liked technology, but like the others, they weren’t very interested.

The same thing happened with other courses in other directions. The students were more interested in their watches than what happened on the black board. Many students secretly hoped I wouldn’t make it to the classroom. Maybe I would break my leg on the stairs? I wondered where their lack of  interest came from. My colleagues told similar stories. What’s wrong with education? Why do we keep sending our kids to school? Are there any alternatives at all?

What’s wrong with our education system?

The first question is very easy to answer: everything and nothing. The quality of the education system in the Flanders is well known. Our pupils score very good on knowledge. But where’s the problem then? The problem is that they know a lot, but do they really master it? Many employers have to re-educate young adults. In most cases the knowledge of the young adults is shallow and outdated. It’s even worse in some other countries. But is that a reason to be proud of our education system?

Many youngsters are tired of school and the amount of drop-outs is relatively high. Children don’t develop their talents and hide themselves behind a mask of indifference. This has consequences for the child, but also for our society. Imagine a society where every child could develop all its talents fully! A society where a child is treated like an individual with its own talents, abilities and limitations. A child that grows up in such a society can contribute something beautiful to the community. He does his job with love and passion. There would be more wealth, less crime and less depressions. Maybe it’s a dream, but isn’t it worth trying?

Why do we send our children to school?

Many generations wrote songs about school. Some sang about the stuff they learned and others addressed negative emotions towards school and teachers. Why do we send our children to school if we were bored ourselves and considered school to be useless? Easy: because we think there are no other options.

Just a few people know how the education system works. The majority sends their kids to the nearest school or chooses a school for some other practical reasons. In Flanders, going to school isn’t mandatory, but the law requires children to learn.  Only a few people know this and even less know how homeschooling works. That’s why the majority thinks they have no other option but to send their kids to school. School is necessary and you just have to do your time. There is no other option? Or is there?

Are there any other options?

There are many other options. In Flanders we can home-school our children. You only have to prove that your children are being educated. In other countries, the rules are stricter and not every parent is allowed to home-school. But homeschooling isn’t the only alternative. There are a lot of “alternative” education systems like some method-schools (Freinet, Steiner and Dalton) and private schools based on other principals like Montessori, Sudburry, Eigenwijs / Iederwijs and Natuurkind in our region. The traditional schools also show interest in other methods and are beginning to experiment with methods that put the child in the center.

But that’s not enough: in a system where the child can fully develop, he’s not the only one in the center. The teachers also deserve our attention. Teachers are the ones who guide the learning process and who meet the learning needs of the child. This profession is a challenge for which their education hasn’t prepared them. They have to teach about a world they barely know themselves: most teachers start teaching straight after their own schooling. They have no working experience and have to learn a lot by themselves.  It’s a profession that is highly undervalued.

The education system has to change a lot. There should be more respect for the individual and the society we live in. Children should be taught within the society by teachers who want to pass their passion. Teachers should be able to use all of their creativity for the benefit of their classes. Therefore they shouldn’t be bothered with non-educational work.

Yes, we need to change a lot. But we are on the right track: there are a lot of voices of teachers, parents and students asking for a better education system. We don’t need a system build on teaching facts, but a system that truly prepares youngsters for their adult lives. It’s coming: there are small changes that ripple throughout the pond of education. And there are individuals who believe in a different and better education.

Changes always start out small. We mustn’t forget that the children of today build the society of tomorrow. The world will be shaped in the way we educate our children. If we want a better world, we should start with better education. We can change the world by teaching children how they can contribute. We can teach them how to make a better world. And isn’t that what we all want? A better world for ourselves and the generations to come.

Nesibe Balta is columnist at Social Resistance and freelance writer

On learned helplessness and the feeling of agency

Bram Langmans argues that the main driving forces behind any successful act of social resistance is the feeling of agency which means being in control of your own destiny and being able to produce some desired effect or outcome by undertaking particular individual action(s).

There exists a widely shared misconception which states that, if you are in a really bad situation, you will do whatever you can to escape it. In truth however, it has been shown that, if you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you will be more inclined to just give up and accept whatever situation you are in.

In this column I will argue that one of the main driving forces behind any successful act of social resistance is precisely this feeling of agency, of being in control of your own destiny and being able to produce some desired effect or outcome by undertaking particular individual action(s).

From 1967 onwards, Martin Seligman and Steve Maier started administering electric shocks to dogs. They did this to expand on Pavlov’s famous experiment in which he made dogs salivate at the sound of a bell. The idea at the time was that animals – and thus humans – could be conditioned to exhibit specific physiological and emotional reactions upon the use of specific external stimuli once a sufficiently firm mental association between a given stimulus and a certain reaction had been established within a subject. The results of Seligman and Maier’s experiment contradicted the predictions made by these behaviourist scientists though, and most of the psychological community was puzzled with amazement.

In Part 1 of Seligman and Maier’s experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of ‘yoked pairs’. A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in parallel with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn’t stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently ‘inescapable’. Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.

In Part 2 of the Seligman and Maier experiment, they put these three groups of dogs in a big box with a little fence dividing it into two halves. They figured if they administered an electric shock, the dog would hop over the fence to escape. And indeed: when they put a Group 1 or 2 dog in the box and tried to zap it, it immediately jumped the fence. The Group 3 dogs however – who had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks – for the most part simply lay down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn’t even try – they just sat there and took it.

Most of us are actually just like these Group 3 dogs: we’ve learned to be helpless and just accept whatever situation it may be we find ourselves in, rather than taking control of our own destiny and changing that situation for the better. The sheer scale of multinational corporations and ‘the globalized economy’, the extent to which political decision-making takes place in supranational organisations with often little or no democratic accountability, the inescapable routine of work-eat-sleep just to keep up with ever-increasing financial demands, the pervasiveness and single-mindedness of most of the media- and entertainment industries on this planet; it all too often makes us feel so small and insignificant in comparison to those who we perceive to hold ‘real power’ over the fate of humankind – so that most of us are just inclined to ‘sit there and take it’.

Luckily enough however, there is a brighter side to Seligman’s experiments: of the roughly 150 dogs that partook in his experiments during the latter half of the 1960’s, about one-third did NOT become helpless. Instead, they managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation, despite their past experience of helplessness. To explain this peculiarity, an appeal was made on Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory, which concerns itself with the way subjects attribute a cause or explanation to an unpleasant event.

The theory includes the dimensions of globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality: A global attribution occurs when a subject believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts, a specific attribution occurs when the subject believes that the cause is unique to a particular situation. A stable attribution occurs when a subject believes the cause to be consistent across time, unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time. An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors, while an internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person.

With the use of these dimensions, a subject’s attributional or explanatory style can be formulated, which proofs to be the key to understanding why subjects respond differently to adverse events and why learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation, but at other times generalizes across situations: Although a group of subjects may experience the same or similar negative events, how each subject privately interprets or explains the event will affect the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression.

On one end of the scale, there is a pessimistic explanantory style, which sees negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I fail on pretty much any level, all of the time”); on the other end we find an optimistic explanatory style, which views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent. Obviously subjects with a pessimistic explanatory style are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and clinical depression. Moreover, these subjects also experience more problems with their health and well-being, are more likely to produce tumors, and so on, than their optimistic counterparts.

Now what does this story tell us? When confronted with the many injustices and tragedies of this world, we all too easily give in to apathy and nihilism. By doing this, we are choosing futility over optimism – we are giving in to learned helplessness. The reason we are doing this, however, is just a matter of perspective: it is our view of the situation which makes us feel small and helpless, rather than the situation itself.

In reality, everything which gets accomplished in this world, is accomplished by groups of individuals who are passionate about changing a given actuality into in new and more desirable situation. That means each and any one of us has the power and potential to produce some desired effect or outcome by undertaking particular individual action(s). And it is exactly this realization of one’s own power of agency that lies at the very heart of any form of social resistance. Without it, we just give in to learned helplessness – we ‘sit there and take it’.

In order to stimulate social resistance, it is thus of the utmost importance to propagate a feeling of agency and an optimistic attitude. It is only under these circumstances that initiative, innovation and creativity can freely flourish and alternatives can thrive. And it’s all basically just a state of mind.

So go out there, and smile – and show the world what it’s capable of!

Bram Langmans is columnist at Social Resistance, chief editor at and founding member of

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Identity crisis of democracy

Today, there doesn’t seem to be a recipe for the world any longer. And the more it remains untouched, the greater the risk of a general lack of taste. Or worse, the possibility of being burnt. What is at stake is the way in which we relate to the world.

Contemporary politics, mainly portrayed by the liberal democracy, is gradually showing more and more breaking points. They are no simple cracks and tears, but profound ruptures coming from within. The contemporary crisis does not merely refer to superficial ecological or economical problems, but challenges the very foundations of our relation with the world.

The question remains wither or whether another political system is possible today. And no one seems to be able to answer this question. Even more, today, it appears that with the increase of supranational entities, a possible answer not only removes itself gradually from ordinary everyday life, but also becomes more and more penetrated by the preferences of these decision-makers. In other words, on the one hand the general or global political play appears to become of progressively less concern to us.

On the other, it means the powers that be try to straighten the question marks hanging over the fate of the world to their own convictions. But an exclamation mark is nothing more than a question mark in disguise. If anything, a crisis first of all makes clear the politics of the world, all politics, lacks unity or certainty.

A radical definition of democracy might even well be situated in such a lack: in difference and uncertainty. Even more, these could well be democracy’s abysmal grounds. A democracy that becomes instrumentalized by an indefinite thought of unity – be it that of the coalition of the willing, of an apparent neoliberal end of history (cf. Fukuyama) or even that of a so called third way – looses its democratic nature.

As such, it rather refers to a unity of a people, its demos, and no longer to the inherent difference and diversity of such a people. Unfortunately this seems to be the case in a world that increasingly flirts with right-wing demagogues and a discourse of capital. Just think about the differences between rich and poor, north and south, good and (the axis of) evil, between the haves and havenots. Or closer to home: the presumed difference between Flanders and Wallonia and the Flemish claim to limit democratic prosperity to the northern part of the country. Today it seems the people that should govern a democracy does not concern everyone.

The contemporary global crisis at least has to do something with such a thought of exclusivity. And a world, every world, both that of the (supra-)national decision-makers and that of a single individual, can never be complete, which means global, when people are being excluded. A world is indeed the space where everyone can take place (if not there, then where?). If a politics of the world, a cosmopolitanism, wants to signify something today, it needs to place itself above all within such a (cosmo-)polis: within the being-in-common with others, be that within the (Aristotelian) city, within a country or within a world.

Politics primarily refers to the questioning of this common of being. Such an inquiry is nothing other than an exploration of its own foundations and can hence be no reference to an answer that already is penetrated with arguments for the benefit of one or another presumed exclusivity. Rethinking democracy does not in as much refer to the invention of new political forms or systems, but assorts a retracing of its own premisses. Democracy is all about possibilities of opening and re-opening (meta-)physical space. And this demands for another approach of reality than the one that suppresses the world today.

Such an approach does not stop or end at its own limits or exclusivities, but opens up onto its own involvement. This is nothing other than an engagement with the world, an engagement that might bring us further than the limits of our own selves. An engagement that can only concern you and me.