Which way is the wind blowing? Or why we need a theory of social change
Bob Dylan famously sang “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows” these words chimed with 1960s youth across advanced capitalists countries, who were becoming increasingly captivated by a mass counter culture – fueled by the seemingly unending promise of emancipatory possibilities for democracy, peace, tolerance and sexual freedom. That social change was necessary in order realise such hopes was brought clearly into focus by the on-going struggles in the US for civil rights and against the naked brutal imperialism of the war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, continual fear of total nuclear destruction was a constant reminder of the madness of the prevailing social order. For the burgeoning ‘New Left’ it could not have been clearer which way the winds of change were blowing – the revolution was clearly just around the corner!
So much so that in 1969 a faction comprised of the majority of the leadership within the United States’ ‘Students for a Democratic Society’ (SDS) – which had an astonishing membership of over 100,000 students – published a pamphlet with the above lyric as its title. The pamphlet declared that the time had arrived for students to engage directly in revolutionary activities. After an unsuccessful attempt at ‘bringing the war in Vietnam home’ through four days of riots labeled the Chicago ‘Days of Rage’ – only 300 people turned up with the majority being badly injured or arrested by the waiting 2000 heavily armed police – which was condemned by the Black Panthers as being “anarchistic, opportunistic, adventuristic, chauvinistic and Custeristic”. The SDS was formally shut down, and the Weather Underground, as a solely clandestine revolutionary organisation, was formed. Yet the revolution failed to materialise and after 5 years of irrelevant bombings the Weather Underground imploded (or accidentally exploded themselves). Although most members avoided jail, the real price was the dissolution of one of the largest radical organisations ever to exist in the US; 5 years later Reagan was elected and with the disorganised and disillusioned left unable to counter the vicious neo-liberalism which he unleashed, the right was soon cemented the world over.
It seems that the winds of social and historical change are rather harder to determine than Dylan’s metaphor would suggest. Meteorological wind can be objectively observed as an entity which we are separate from, allowing us to investigate and measure it from a distanced and unaffected vantage point. The winds of social change sweep us up with them, making it impossible to separate ourselves from the process which we wish to understand. We cannot objectify that which we wish to study as we are subjectively fused with it, social change is a social relationship which we are part of. This makes it hard to separate our own individual trajectory from that of the general trajectory of change. For example, the Weather Underground mistook their own journey towards a revolutionary mind-set, for the trajectory of society generally, which was in fact moving in the opposite direction.
We cannot put social processes in a laboratory in order to examine them or even remove ourselves from them, but this does not mean that it is impossible to understand the winds of social change. There are clearly social patterns which can be identified and theoretically explained (generational reproduction of inequality is a topical example). But doing so is certainly challenging and inevitably leads to incorrect theories which must constantly be elaborated and reconstructed in the face of new empirical findings.
Moreover, the lack of a theory of social change is at the centre of many of the deficiencies of the contemporary left. In wanting to help achieve social change, but lacking any coherent idea of how to do so, left actors grasp at doing anything, along as it is something. Few left institutional actors, such as NGOs, politicians, think tanks or trade unions – which supposedly provide the progressive leadership – could convincingly explain how their political activities will actually achieve the world they wish to realise. The left today is marked by a lack of strategy for achieving change. This is a stark contrast to the left during much of the last two centuries; when the left aimed towards mass movement building, the pinnacle of which was the German SPD winning over a million workers to its socialist program by 1913. Today, the left can essentially only embrace defensive maneuvers and media stunts which do not reverberate beyond the web pages of the Guardian. In a context of austerity, unemployment and the dismantling of the welfare state, and despite the huge popular anger (as witnessed by last year’s riots) it is shocking that protests remain the domain of the usual suspects! Even when the left is on the front foot the policies pursued are invariably ‘reformist reforms’ rather than ‘non-reformist reforms’ by which I mean reforms which move us towards where we want to be going rather than just making the present more palatable.
This weakness can be historically traced to the economic changes which took place around 1980. These changes towards a ‘postindustrial‘ economy plunged the dominant left theories of social change into crisis. Both social democratic and Marxist theories placed the working class at their heart – as the emancipatory subject. Workers (especially industrial ones) were seen as having a rational reason to limit or end exploitation and class domination (seeing as they were the victims of it), and importantly they also had the practical ability to do so, as they constituted not only majority of population but also had structural power due to capitalists’ dependence on their labour. The end of the old blue collar industries then, obviously, caused confusion amongst the left. Especially, as such changes were seized upon by social scientists, who looking for any easy opportunity to gain fame, jumped upon the bandwagon that everything was changing, and in the process painted a false picture of history, ignoring previous significant changes in the nature of work and consumption.
For example, in 1920s Britain most traditional industries, such as cotton, coal and steel, witnessed a deep decline in output and employment and were replaced by new ‘high tech’ industries such as car factories and engineering firms. The left suffered grand defeats in the 1926 general strike and 1931 and 1935 general elections and, moreover, between 1920 and 1933 the trade unions lost half their membership and the number of strikes reached an all-time low. Culturally, too, Britain went through an unheard of transformation with radio, cinema and mass circulation papers becoming widely available. Intellectual poverty and dishonesty reached a panacea in what came to be known as ‘postmodernism’.
Postmodernism resulted in radical reevaluations of the traditional theories of social change such as Stuart Hall’s exposition of the need to focus on identity politics and Anthony Giddens’ ‘third way’ (basically traditional liberalism – free market fundamentalism plus social spending financed by growth). But as these theories were grounded only in the imaginations of sociologists, rather than social reality, they soon became exhausted, leaving the left without a theory of how change is possible and how it can be best strategically realised.
In my following blogs I will sketch a new theory of social change. By locating our present within its historical context and examining the micro processes of domination, I hope to show that insecure workers, who make up over 20 per cent of UK’s workforce, embody a huge emancipatory potential. Not only do insecure workers possess an objective rationale for opposing capitalism, but are also situated in a social position which immunises them to the ideological constraints which other workers face. It is in helping to organise and mobilise these workers that the left must place their efforts.
 Dylan, B. (1965). Subterranean Homesick Blues
 Kelly, J. (1998). Rethinking Industrial Relations. Mobilisation, Collectivism and Long Waves. London: Routlege.
 CIPD (2012) Employee Outlook Winter 2011-2012