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
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With regards identity politics, there’ve been a couple of posts on libcom recently that people might find interesting to read:
which, coincidentally to your blog, Alex, my reading group are looking at tomorrow.
Hi Craig, thanks for you comments while I agree that we shouldn’t disregard identity politics – there a great deal of normative reasons why they are important and I would certainly get involved in anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-homophobia campaigns etc. (in fact I was the Equalities Officer at my Student Union)- my point is rather that identity politics alone do not provide a good base for creating a mass movement. As I will go into more in my next blog, a key to mobalisiation is the creation of a group identity. This makes it impossible to mobalise the masses purely around oppression of marginalised groups. Of course the oppression of marginalised groups can feed into the a wider sense of injustice aimed at the system more generally (such as the civil rights movement in the US) but these campaigns must be linked into a wider analysis of the systemic injustice faced by the wider masses. A good example of what I mean is the Black Panther Party linking black oppression into US imperialist oppression in other countries as well as oppression of the white working class through the capitalist workplace.
I guess it’s not clear what postmodernism is but a good definition is John Kelly’s “the core of postmodernism is the idea that advanced capitalist countries are passing through one of those rare periods marked by a sea-change in people’s attitudes, behavior and in the institutions through which they act” – I would add that postmodernism is premised on the fact that such changes are not a frequent feature of the history of capitalism and that there is no returning to more class based attitudes, behaviors and institutions. I think this must be rejected especially as the capitalist class has probably never been as class conscious as it is today while the underlying class nature of society remains intact.
Hi Alex, an very interesting article and I look forward to your subsequent posts. Completely agree with you on the Left’s lack of a strategy for achieving change. From a historical point of view, the weathermen were tiny and were not at all representative of the New Left – they were far smaller than the RAF, who were in turn not at all representative of the West German New Left. Although your article didn’t do this there’s a tendency in some quarters to lament the decreased attention paid to Marxist theories – embodied by developments in the New Left – and then straight lines are drawn to either voluntaristic terrorism or post-modernism, for example. While we should absolutely talk about class and theories of social change, we don’t need to reject post-modernism, identity politics out of hand in order to do so – given that these can mean very diverse and conflicting things. I haven’t read Stuart Hall very closely (at all) but I would hesitate before reducing a concern with identity politics to “the imagination of sociologists” not in tune with “social reality”.
Hi thanks for the comments, in regards to Nick’s points, I think there are two important things to recognise 1) the majority of insecure workers are NOT ‘casualised’ (in the UK only a few per cent of workers are temps or agency workers, unlike some other countries such as Spain and Italy). This is because UK workers have so few protections (they can be fired without a reason and with only one weeks notice if employed for less than two years), there is not much incentive for employers to use agency and temporary staff compared to labour markets which still have strong protections for permanent staff.
Secondly, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that power analysis approaches to industrial relations are flawed. For example, historically many of biggest strike waves have taken place during periods of high unemployment such as the 1920s and late 1970s are two examples but there are many more an excellent book on this is Kelly, J. (1998). Rethinking Industrial Relations. Mobilisation, Collectivism and Long Waves. London: Routlege.
But my next blog will go into all this in more detail.
Really interesting blog post Alex; it’s something I’ve been thinking for a while too, that the current left is seriously lacking in strategic thought. Much of what we do seems to be pure spectacle just intended to make ourselves feel better, or cargo culting previous actions with no understanding of the changing society and conditions around us or why previous attempts at radical social change failed. I’m looking forward to hear your ideas on what we can do to address this.
I’ve been making a similar point for a while, but mine comes more from the anti-globalisation front. How can the alternative deal with postcolonialism, or indeed ‘anticolonialism’? All current models are embedded with expansion theories (like growth, markets, etc) which don’t take in the plurality of global economic models, making them neocolonial.
We need to find an alternative that accepts the positive aspects of postmodernism – that society and people are diverse.
Perhaps this is where the left falls very very short?
Love it that you are sticking it to post-modernism: it is a cancer that has infested left discourse, to the point where subjective, individual experience is elevated to the same level of importance as objective macro level general conditions.
However as for the precarious, casualised 20%, what power do they have? Change comes from holding a metaphorical gun to the capitalists head, or it relies only on moral force. Politics can allow an organiser to align conditions to the self-interest of different social actors and sectoral interest groups, but ultimately you can’t get away from it. Look at USDAW. They are a warehouse worker union with real power, propped up by the cash they get from dues of supermarket and shop workers who have no industrial power, and for whom they can do little (because they have to recruit a third of their overall union membership every year, with the high staff turnover in the sector).
Thanks for commenting, I will argue that any future leftwing mass movement will have insecure workers at the heart of it. Like how industrial workers in the heavy industries were previously. But I don’t think that this is a barrier to building a wider movement. Just that these workers are faced with a sitution in which the injustice of the system is clearer. Whereas the exploitation which most workers face is often obscured making them on average harder to mobalise. So limited resources should be prioritised towards mobalising insecure workers. Also I think this group will continue to grow in contemporary capitalism.
This is really interesting and well argued.
Just to clarify, will you be making the case for the left to give up on mass movement building and focus in exclusively on the 20% of folk who are insecure workers?