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System Change and Non-Reformist Reforms

How do we distinguish system changing initiatives from reforms that seek social betterment within the current system?

How do we distinguish system-changing initiatives from reforms that seek social betterment within the current system? We need a basis for knowing what initiatives are truly transformative and not merely transactional. The question is a fundamental one.

Take climate. Urgent action must be taken within the context of the current system, but we also need to promote deepchange in that system. In the United States, President Obama has finally “got the message” on the imperative of climate action, and important international negotiations in Paris late in 2015 are looming. We must make as much progress as humanly possible in these contexts, with all their limitations.

But we will never go far enough and fast enough as long as the effective priorities are ramping up GDP, growing corporate profits, increasing incomes of the already well-to-do, neglecting the half of America that is just getting by, consuming endlessly, focusing only on the present moment, helping abroad only modestly, and other dominant features of our currentsystem of political economy. As the climate demonstrators have chanted, “system change, not climate change.”

The first step is to try to find solutions that work at both levels. The European social philosopher André Gorz introduced the concept of “non-reformist reforms” to refer to initiatives that seem on the surface to be straightforward reforms but in fact contain the seeds of deeper, systemic change. One of his proposals was for a guaranteed basic income, an idea that has been urged by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Americans, sometimes in the form of a negative income tax. Measures that enhance economic security lead not only to better lives but also to a better democracy and politics. Another non-reformistreform would adopt a dashboard of economic, social and other well-being indicators that could move America beyond its GDP fetish. In any case, given political realities, it makes good sense when assessing initiatives to search hard for those that are non-reformist reforms.

Here, then, is the beginning of a checklist by which to assess policy and other initiatives. Other tests could be added. Not all these tests will apply to each initiative, but taken together they provide a framework for assessing whether a proposal has the potential for deep, systemic change. A positive answer suggests the initiative seeks to transform, not merely reform.


  • Does the initiative move an ever-larger share of the economy away from the profit motive (or toward what David Grant, in The Social Profit Handbook, calls “social profit”)?
  • Does the initiative assert ever more democratic control throughout the economy over financial investment decisions and the creation of money?
  • Does the initiative diversify the ownership of productive assets and businesses through public enterprises, public-private hybrids, cooperative enterprises, and other forms of economic democracy?
  • Does the initiative increase wealth among the many rather than accumulating it among the few?
  • Does the initiative promote a new world of locally and employee controlled, earth-friendly and cooperative enterprises rather than further entrench large corporations?
  • Does the initiative assert more democratic control over the actions, size, governance, and motivations of large corporations?
  • Does the initiative promote the growth and health of the commons rather than commodification, commercialism, and the enclosure and capture of commons assets by for-profit corporations?
  • Does the initiative promote limiting the market to what it does well?
  • Does the initiative move away from the growth fetish, GDP worship, and efforts at aggregate economic stimulus and toward policies that invest in and otherwise promote discrete, democratically determined priorities, high social and environmental returns, and alternative indicators of human and environmental well being and progress at various levels?


  • Does the initiative increase decentralization and the diffusion of power and control, both economic and political, rather than their concentration? Does it respect the principle of subsidiarity?
  • Does the initiative reverse the evident trends toward corporatocracy and plutocracy, reassert people power over money power, and reclaim government by, for, and of the people—real democracy at all levels from local to global?
  • Does the initiative enhance human freedom and protect both liberty and privacy?
  • Does the initiative recognize the important role of planning in successful governmental undertakings?
  • Does the initiative contribute to the ongoing strengthening of the movement for deep change?
  • Does the initiative contribute to a more just, peaceful situation internationally rather than the opposite?


  • Does the initiative increase not only equality of opportunity but also actual social and economic equality, including the elimination of poverty?
  • Does the initiative promote community, solidarity, care, and inclusion rather than strife, division, and social neglect?
  • Does the initiative strengthen children and families rather than weaken them?
  • Does the initiative protect, promote, and celebrate diversity of all forms rather than promote social isolation, marginalization, discrimination, or homogenization?
  • Does the initiative work against consumerism, materialism, and “affluenza” rather than depend on them? Does the initiative embrace the maxim: work and spend less, create and connect more?


  • Does the initiative envision the economy as nested in and dependent on the world of nature, its resources, and its systems of life?
  • Does the initiative recognize the rights of species other than humans and otherwise transcend anthropocentrism?
  • Does the initiative recognize that environmental success depends on correcting the underlying drivers of environmental decline and working for deep, systemic change outside the current framework of environmental law and policy?
  • Does the initiative respond to global-scale environmental challenges through innovative approaches like the establishment of a World Environment Organization that is every bit as powerful as the World Trade Organization?

As the climate example shows, there are many times when we will need to pursue reform and transformation simultaneously. Indeed, most of the big issues we confront call for this approach. If we try, we should be able to find Gorz’snon-reformist reforms in many cases. But we don’t want to sell short the transformative part of the package, and the tests sketched here should help us avoid this pitfall.

This article was excerpted from Gus Speth’s new report Getting to the Next System.

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