How does social change happen?
“We live mythically and integrally”— Marshall McLuhan
Changing the world remains a complex challenge, with no infallible formula for success. Nevertheless, we possess the record of those who have tried, from the 3000-year-old Taoist I Ching, to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, Brigitte Berger’s 1971 Societies in Change, and recently, The 8 Laws of Change by Stephan Schwartz in the U.S.
The I Ching describes Taoist principles of following nature’s patterns in one’s pursuit of social influence. The value of patience as well as perseverance, and the warning to “adapt to the times but remain firm in your direction,” provide timeless wisdom for citizens.
Some early Greenpeace activists were influenced by the I Ching, and more directly by the Quakers, Mahatma Gandhi, Chipko in India (the original tree-huggers), and American activist Saul Alinsky. The Quakers had confronted repression with pacifist moral dignity and sailed ships into nuclear test zones, inspiring the first iconic Greenpeace action.
Gandhi borrowed Quaker tactics in his campaign to liberate India from British colonization. Gandhi’s march to the sea represents quintessential social activism: inspiring thousands to participate in a meaningful commitment, exposing an oppressors’ violence, winning the battle for moral authority, and — most importantly — reframing the status quo story, not with words, but with symbolic, non-violent action.
As a young antiwar activist in the 1960s, I met older radical Ira Sandperl at the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, in California, which he had founded with pacifist folksinger Joan Baez. One evening, Sandperl asked me, “Do you want to know the secret to organizing?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Be organized,” he said.
Sandperl talked about attention to details, articulating clear goals, and organizing the work that must be done to achieve those goals. Never turn down a volunteer, he would advise. The work to do is practically infinite, so if a movement does not have a job for someone who wants to contribute, the alleged leaders are not performing their job as organizers.
The Quakers and Gandhi practiced a creative non-violence that included absolute respect for one’s adversary, to the point of not even insulting them. Saul Alinksy, whose Rules for Radicals influenced Greenpeace tactics, took a somewhat different view. “Ridicule,” he believed is one of the activist’s “most potent weapons.”
“Go after people and not institutions,” he advised. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Alinsky became a brilliant tactician, more aggressive than the Quakers or Gandhi, more willing to embarrass a perpetrator. In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has said that “The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in … mental attitudes and values.
We do not have to assume that one style is correct and the other wrong. Tactics must reflect circumstances, and as ecologists, we might understand the value of diversity. In any case, the tactics of The Quakers, Gandhi, Chipko, Baez, Sandperl, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Alinksy reflect a common understanding that the agent of change has to shift the culture’s prevailing moral story.
Classical theories of Social Change
Philosophers have attempted to explain social change, driven by evolution, conflict, natural cycles, economy, technology, and so forth. They theories have generally failed to provide a recipe for change.
Evolutionary social theory assumed that social change reflects biological evolution, an inevitable advance through predictable stages from simple to complex, from so called “primitive” to metaphysical, then scientific and industrial culture.
Historians Oswald Spengler (Decline of the West, 1918) and Arnold Toynbee (A Study of History, 1956) assumed societies moved through a rise, decline and collapse cycle. Vilfredo Pareto observed that social change often occurs when one elite group grows decadent, and another elite simply replaces them. Conflict Theory suggests that powerful elites maintain the status quo until oppressed groups rise up in struggle. We know, however, that conflict itself does not guarantee change and can even obstruct change.
Karl Marx and others believed that economic forces drove social change, and for Marx specifically, class conflict over control of production infrastructure. Technological theories suggest that innovation creates new conditions to which societies adapt.
Each of these these ideas may identify a possible agent of change, but the theories over-generalize. Social change is not simply biological evolution, not linear, not purely cylcical, nor driven only by class conflict or innovation.
Marx and Frederick Engels did accurately observe that neither individuals nor institutions come into being independently. Societies reflect nature in this regard: They are living systems, dynamic and complex, and no part of the system exists except in relationship with other forces. The relationship between nature and society was observed more accurately by Taoists and indigenous communities that honoured and learned from the dynamic patterns of nature.
When Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media, “We live mythically and integrally,” he referred to society as a living system, evolving within a web of complexity, with no single change driver. Biological evolution itself is not linear, nor cyclical. Evolution often consists of chaos, bursts of growth, transformation, collapse, disruption, randomness, and novelty.
Systems cannot be managed by any subsystem. Living systems change with vast, interacting inputs and feedbacks. When one disturbs a system in flux, inputs can have unintended consequences. We might observe, for example, that advanced technology provides benefits for some people, while contributing to ecological deterioration. Living systems don’t behave as we might wish.
The 2007 book Getting to Maybe: How the World was Changed, by Frances Westley and others, discusses three classes of problems within systems. Some problems, such as riding a bicycle, appear relatively simple and easily replicable. Other challenges — building an energy infrastructure, are complicated, tricky, but a practitioner gets better with practice. However, some dilemmas — raising a child or changing a social policy — are complex. There exists no infallible recipe for shifting a complex system. Getting to Maybe, observes that when one sets out to change a complex system, expect:
1. you will be changed by the process
2. the goal may change along the way
3. relationships, not individuals, do the changing, and…
4. the system may not change in the way you intend.
When working with complex social systems, change agents must influence the larger context — the cultural story — and then let that context find its new state of dynamic homeostasis, which is not a state that will be designed, engineered, or managed by anyone.
Actions reverberate, theoretically forever, throughout the entire system. Every action represents participation in a dynamic network, and that action will influence the entire system in ways not predicted or intended by the actor, including feedback on the actor. In modern politics and media theory, we call this “blowback.”
Successful social innovators will study patterns of behaviour systems. Social systems, like biological systems, remain in a dynamic, shifting balance, until homeostasis is so disrupted that the system passes through a “state shift.”
Change the Story
The 8 Laws of Change by Stephan Schwartz reflect these characteristics of dynamic living systems. Schwartz observes that (rule 1) successful change agents work in networks, sharing a “common intention,” and although they share goals, they (2) remain unattached to “cherished outcomes.”
Schwartz reports that successful change agents (3) accept long-term, generational change, and (4) do not covet fame, credit, or power. They (5) respect all other contributors, even adversaries, and (6) practice absolute non-violence, equality, fairness, and leadership without arrogance or control.
Finally, (rules 7 and 8), Schwartz describes how effective activists, make a personal, life-affirming choice to live with integrity, in both private and public action. They practice personal introspection and become a living model for the principles they espouse. They walk the walk.
The Greenpeace documentary, How to Change the World, articulates five “rules” for change. Writer, directory Jerry Rothwell explains: “This isn’t intended to be a definitive proscription, but these were the themes that I noticed among the original Greenpeace activists.”
“The revolution will not be organized,” recalls the nature of complex systems. Goals, yes. Cherished outcomes? You’re dreaming.
“Let the Power Go” suggests that modesty, in the face of complexity remains appropriate. “Put your body where your mouth is,” and “Fear Success” are other ways of saying “integrity” and “modesty.” Greenpeace co-founder, and and 1940s pacifist Ben Metcalfe used to warn the younger activists: “Fear success.” Why? Success brings notoriety, money, and power, that can corrupt the best intentions. Fear success, because with success, your own weaknesses will be exposed. The convincing agent of change must overcome his or her own attractions to the spoils of victory.
Finally, if all else is in order, “Plant a Mind Bomb.” In the early television era, Greenpeace cofounder Bob Hunter used this term, mind bomb, to describe what today we might call a “meme” or “going viral.” All the great social transformers — Gandhi, the Suffragists, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Aung San Suu Kyi, Chipko, Greenpeace — understood, often intuitively, that their actions had to disrupt the cultural myths that protected the status quo.
The new story is not necessarily written in words. It is written by actions. Placards and banners prove far less effective than visible personal sacrifice at the precise point of the injustice, as witnessed in Gandhi’s well-trained volunteers accepting brutal beatings on their march to the sea. In one afternoon, the Indian people captured the moral high ground, and the British exit became inevitable.
This is the power to unsettle the taboos and deceits that keep the power structure justified in the public mind, whether in 1916 or 2016. Effective social change tactics require extraordinary creativity and social awareness, but once the cultural spell is broken, the system has already begun its transformation.
Links and resources:
Change in complex systems:
Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows, 2008.
“Seven lessons for leaders in systems change,” Center for Ecoliteracy.
The Systems Bible, John Gall, 2003
Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan, MIT Press, 1964
Mind and Nature, Gregory Bateson, E.P. Dutton, New York,1979;
“How do systems get unstuck?” Deep Green, April 2015
Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy, 1998
Some useful books on social change:
Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky, 1969
Societies in Change: Brigitte Berger, 1971
Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, 1999
The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell, 2000
Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed, Frances R. Westley, 2006
The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Women of Color Against Violence, 2007
The 8 Laws of Change by Stephan Schwartz, 2015
Influential novels about social change
Animal Farm, George Orwell
The Color Purple, Alice Walker
The Melancholy of Resistance, Lazlo Kraznahorkai
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
How does social change happen?