Movements for social justice

It was argued in an earlier post that social progress is best pursued through incremental, gradual steps that can be evaluated as we go along (post). It was also suggested that programs of change that are bent on achieving huge systemic change and the establishment of a complex new set of institutions are unwise, because of the contingency and unpredictability of social processes (post).

How should these ideas be tested against historical cases of large struggles for social justice — for example, the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa or the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s in the United States?

Several things are clear. First, both of these movements for racial justice aimed at — and achieved — large, discontinuous change in their home societies. Second, each involved strategies and struggles that were inherently risky: the probability of failure and suffering for participants was high. But third, the end state towards which these struggles aimed was not a highly complex, untested and novel set of institutions. Rather, each movement aimed at securing a system of law that treated black people equally and democratically — a system whose properties we understand well. So no one could argue in 1955 in South Africa or Alabama that a system of democratic equality within a racially neutral system of law could have catastrophic unforeseen consequences.

In other words, the major civil rights struggles were risky with respect to strategies but low-risk with respect to possible outcomes. Racial equality is not a hazardous social reality.

But here is another salient point. Even if the range of possible outcomes of a struggle against apartheid or Jim Crow might include some social disasters, it is inconceivable that we would conclude that the black population should simply accept and endure its oppression. People who are subject to enduring injustice have a right to demand justice and to mobilize so as to bringing justice about.

One of the constraints I mentioned on social change in an earlier post is that we need to test proposed new institutions in terms of how they would work, given people as they are (post). But this is slightly questionable, in that it takes existing social consciousness as a given rather than being itself an object of change.

In particular, a successful outcome of either of these struggles entailed changing more than laws and institutions; each required a change of consciousness and morality in the white population of power-holders. If the majority of the white population had remained violently racist, then democratic racial equality may not have been a sustainable social order. (This is the kind of scenario that Michael Mann takes up in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing.) So a strategy for change required changing both structures and consciousness. And this means that we have to be reflective about what sorts of factors we take as fixed rather than changeable.

This also implies a change of emphasis in the analysis of social progress argued previously. Some crucial advances in social justice have been anything but continuous and gradual; but have rather been daring, improbable, and crucial. Being deliberative about strategies of social change does not imply being slow to act or reluctant to take on large challenges.

The Real Utopias project has done really interesting and important work on new ideas about democracy and new thinking about ending economic exploitation and class power (link, link). What this project hasn’t done yet is to address issues of racism and persistent racial inequity. And yet this is a pressing issue, in the United States and other countries. It would be great to see some of these activist-scholars turn their attention to racial progress.


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