Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Theories of Social Change

One of the fundamental differences between progressives and conservatives is that the former are necessarily concerned with creating social change, and the latter with stopping or slowing it.  Progressives call themselves that because they have always been interested in progress, that is, positive social change.  Historically, progressives have aimed to change society to make it more just, by creating economic, political, and social systems lead to human development and good quality of life for all, while conservatives have tried to hinder such change.  

In the 21st century humanity is also struggling with the destructive effects of the massive technological power it has itself unleashed, which threatens nuclear war and environmental destruction, necessitating changes to our social practices and institutions.  Thus, we need positive social change not only for basic social justice but as a matter of survival, to protect our species and environment from the dangers that modernity poses to life on Earth.  

It is therefore necessary for progressives to understand different influences and levers of social change in order to promote positive change and to overcome conservative stratagems and efforts to hinder those changes.  Ultimately, the shape of social institutions themselves must be a subject of conscious and democratic control.  The people ought to be able to democratically deliberate and act on the question, “What kind of society do we want to have?”  Conservatives will say that’s social engineering, but I’m talking about nothing more than went on during America’s own founding period, when it gave itself a new constitution and implements policies to industrialize. 

Many theories of social change have been posited by historians, social scientists, journalists, and common people; I think most people have ideas about how societies can and do change because they would like to see some changes, because they want to other changes to be prevented, or because they just want to understand the world they live in. Yet most, if not all, theories of social change seem to explain only part of what is, in the end, a very complex, multi-causal process.  

The list of theories of social change that I give here is really my own impressionistic view and should not be taken for an exhaustive academic survey, and my comments are admittedly broad and superficial.  But the intent here is not to deeply and comprehensively analyze all theories of social change, but to lay out the most common alternatives, to serve as a starting point for discussion:

  • Great Man theory of history: the idea that powerful world-historical figures such as Caesar or Napoleon drive progress through the force of their personal charisma and vision.  The actions of the “great men” of the 20th century -- Hitler, Stalin, and Mao -- defeated this view, although a more modest version exists among some political and management analysts that leadership and individual choices do matter, especially at critical junctures. 
  • Change by Legal Fiat: the idea that a government can simply pass a law to create a desired change, perhaps one of the most common theories of change among apolitical people.  Things are, of course, more complicated, for while modern governments do posses many tools to create change, people often resist it. Take America’s civil rights legislation of the 1960s: it brought down the oppressive Jim Crow system in the South and ended formal political exclusion of African Americans, but the social and economic equality that many also hoped would follow from these legal changes did not occur.  
  • Random Walk - History has no grand purpose, but is a story that we humans tell to make sense of what is essentially a random, and even at times chaotic, series of events that are only loosely connected at best: while one individual event might cause the next individual event, evidence for the existence of large-scale patterns is weak or non-existent.
  • Marxian Materialism: one doesn’t have to endorse communist revolution to see Marx’s theory of history as insightful.  Marx argued that economics was the primary foundation of society: societies in different eras are shaped by their production techniques and technologies, which creates a corresponding mode of politics, society, association, and culture.  Primitive hunter-gatherer societies have rudimentary hand tools and are organized into small tribal units; agrarian slave and feudal economies organize agriculture into a manor system; and industrial capitalism introduced mechanized manufacturing and organized production into a mobile labor force and massive corporations.  On Marx's theory, even consciousness itself is a product of the economic base, as the ruling class in any period has the power to use education, religion, and media to propagate its own ideas.
  • Technological Determinism: A simplification of Marx’s materialist theory in which technology is an ineluctable force rather than just a primary condition.  As the information age has progressed we have been told that technology make our online privacy impossible to protect from business and government, and we just have to accept this fact.  Resistance is futile, we are told, so we end up accommodating ourselves to technology rather than making the technology serve us.  One advocate has been Alvin Toffler, a huge influence on Newt Gingrich, who saw the computer revolution as not just a force that could be directed for positive change, but as an inevitable wave that we could either ride or be swamped by. 
  • Environmental Determinism: a related way of thinking to technological determinism in the study of history is environmental determinism, in which it is climate, geography, and natural resources primarily determine how history turns out for groups of people, rather than their choices and actions.
  • Autonomous Institutional Change: This is the idea that some political institutions are inherently better than others, say, because they bring out the best in people or create incentives for cooperative and productive behavior rather than incentives for selfish and destructive behavior.  A recent example is the book Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, which argues that countries with liberal political and economic institutions become wealthy, and those that lack them do not, regardless of culture or natural endowment.
  • Evolutionary Progress: society is on an natural evolutionary path of progress, with science and technology leading humanity into a bright, rational, and peaceful future.  This rosy-eyed view seems plainly disproved by the bloodshed of the 20th century and our current environmental crisis, which themselves are the results of technology, over-consumption, and overpopulation created by modern science, engineering, medicine, and economics.  It ignores the fact that both science and reason are morally neutral, and thus do not lead to automatic improvement in he human condition.   
  • Progress Through Crisis-and-Response: economic and social crises such as the Great Depression cause major social and political changes in response, such as the New Deal.  The theory is based on political re-alignments that, like a pendulum, swing back and forth after several decades: one political party governs until it becomes corrupt and oblivious to the long-term needs of the country, which causes a crisis that shakes people out of old ways of thinking and causes a change their party identification and voting behavior so that a new party takes over government and responds to the crisis.  This theory is rooted in the metaphor of a pendulum or a machine, and social change is often felt to be automatic or machine-like; progress may not occur smoothly in a straight line as history swings back and forth, but over the long run progress does occur and problems get solved, so there’s no need to worry.
  • Shift of Power and Worldview: This is my own theory of social change: I think that history shows that, over the long run, historical change occurs when a marginalized group moves from the periphery of society to the center of power, combined with a change in worldview of the administering/middle class of a society.  For example, in the ancient Roman world the establishment of barbarian kingdoms inside the empire and the adoption of Christianity ended antiquity and ushered in the medieval world, which in turn was transformed into modernity as merchants went from being a despised underclass to capitalism’s elite, and as Catholic Christianity was displaced by the more pluralist and humanist Protestant Reformation. 

When I talk to my liberal friends it is clear to me that many of them believe the Crisis-and-Response theory and have been simply waiting, for a long time, for a Great Depression/New Deal scenario to repeat itself.  Their expectation seems to be that eventually a major crisis, probably economic, will cause the scales to fall from peoples’ eyes, expose the poverty of conservatism and the corrupt incompetence of the Republican party, and cause a major realignment politics, thus restoring the regulatory welfare state to its pre-Reagan strength.  However, there is good reason to believe the Crisis-and-Response theory no longer holds.  Naomi Klein, in her excellent book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, documents at length how the ideology of capitalism has become so entrenched in the centers of power that now the solution of first resort to a crisis is always more deregulation, more privatization, more markets, more consumerism, and more power ceded to corporations, not government action.   In The Shock Doctrine Klein shows how doctrinaire, Chicago School-style economists worked hard to infiltrate and colonize academia, statehouses, Congress, Washington think tanks, foreign governments, and international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund, positioning themselves to ensure that their theory is always the one turned to in a crisis -- even when free-market capitalism caused the crisis in the first place.  What happened in Chile in the 1970s after Pinochet’s coup?  The Chicago boys moved in, privatized and corporatized the economy, and ended egalitarian social programs.  What happened in Poland, Russia, and elsewhere after the Soviet union fell?  Mass uncoordinated privatization and the creation of oligarchic, corporate-driven economies.  What happened after Hurricane Katrina?  Privatization of the schools and clearing of poor neighborhoods for developers.  Klein gives example after example of contemporary capitalism either creating or exploiting crises in order to strengthen itself, and it may be that capitalism now keeps everything in constant turmoil, using low level of crisis as a form of control.  

The main point, which I will discuss in another essay, is that these theories, including my own, tend not to account for the deliberative element of social change: that people can, and should, decide what kind of world they want to build. If humanity is going to face this century’s challenges and save civilization and the biosphere, then people are going to have to purposefully change their society through a long process of deliberate transformation.


  1. I think your theory (Shift of Power and Worldview) does account for the deliberative element--it is a result of people purposely, deliberately demanding/working/organizing toward change that can result in their moving from the periphery of power to the center of power (although it is hardly ever easy and many times impossible to accomplish). The extent and power of the blowback elicited is probably correlated with how much the social movement threatens the power structure at hand. (This is one of the reasons that I think gay rights is not a very radical political move--there is blowback, but nothing like the blowback against people demanding economic justice.)

  2. Karla, you're right I think in that it can happen that way. I had been thinking of it more in terms of intellectual developments that spread and take hold among people without power in unguided, unconscious way, such as when Christianity emerged in ancient Rome; that really doesn't seem to me to be something that was promoted through deliberative democracy. But then again people did gather toegther in communities of faith and deliberate about it, so maybe there's an element of conscious promotion there that I have a tendency to minimize.

    I certainly hope that people start making a change in worldview happen in terms of economic class, despite the resistance of the power structure. Some advanced Western countries have made some good advances in recent decades on a lot of identity issues, such as gay rights and feminism, although of course those advances still have far to go. Yet in our identities as working people we have actually regressed during that same period -- identity politics has ignored that aspect of identity to the detriment of everyone who's not in the 1%, IMHO. It's time to consciously set out to change that aspect of our worldview and move regular workers to the center of the power structure too.