November Practice: Revising Systems to Serve the Common Good

November 01, 2018 | by Julia Davis

Woman holding baby near trailer

Photo: Johann Walter Bantz, Unsplash

The decay spreads over the State, and the sweet smell is a great sorrow on the land. Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce. Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the state like a great sorrow.
—John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath

The word “can” in this passage from The Grapes of Wrath is not about ability but rather about the artificial limits placed on what’s possible by systems that we either expressly or tacitly agree to. One of these systems is capitalism, which makes profit a rule, even though profit is not a “natural rule,” that is, not a rule that actually governs what is possible. Sometimes, in order to serve the common good, it is necessary to release our thoughts and actions from the limits of these systems. This is easier said than done. It will take practice.

Begin by identifying a limit—in some system of government, economics, religion, etc.—that you live by that does not serve the common good. Perhaps it was designed to, but in reality does not. Perhaps it provides you security but does not align with your own sense of values. In what system do you find that limit? What is it?

Imagine how you might revise a system so that it meets a common need. (Some might think of this as a “hack.”) Innovate a way to redirect power and resources away from the few’s desire or convenience and towards the many’s necessities. Commit to an achievable goal. We invite you to share your observations and/or goal below.

This practice was adapted from the We the People Book Club The Grapes of Wrath Reading Guide. As part of our partnership with our friends at Spirituality & Practice, we are sharing practices to help us all “practice democracy” from the inside out. Visit Spirituality & Practice's The Practicing Democracy Project for more practices and a wide array of resources.