Historians pay a lot of attention to important periods of social change — the emergence of new political movements, the development of a great city, the end of Jim Crow segregation. There is an inclination to give a lot of weight to the importance of leaders, visionaries, and change-makers in driving these processes to successful outcomes. And, indeed, history correctly records the impact of charismatic and visionary leaders. But consider the larger question: are large social changes amenable to design by a small number of actors?
My inclination is to think that the capacity of calculated design for large, complex social changes is very much more limited than we often imagine. Instead, change more often emerges from the independent strategies and actions of numerous actors, only loosely coordinated with others, and proceeding from their own interests and framing assumptions. The large outcome — the emergence of Chicago as the major metropolis of the Midwest, the forging of the EU and the monetary union, the coalescence of nationalist movements in France and Germany — are the resultant of multiple actors and causes. Big outcomes are contingent outcomes of multiple streams of action, mobilization, business decisions, political parties, etc.
There are exceptions, of course. Italy’s political history would have been radically different without Mussolini, and the American Civil War would probably have had a different course if Douglas had won the 1860 presidential election.
But these are exceptions, I believe. More common is the history of Chicago, the surge of right-wing nationalism, or the collapse of the USSR. These are all multi-causal and multi-actor outcomes, and there is no single, unified process of development. And there is no author, no architect, of the outcome.
So what does this imply about individual leaders and organizations who want to change the social and political environment facing them? Are their aspirations for creating change simply illusions? I don’t think so. To deny that single visionaries cannot write the future does not imply they cannot nudge it in a desirable direction. And these effects can indeed alter the future, sometimes in the desired direction. An anti-racist politician can influence voters and institutions in ways that inflect the arc of his or her society in a less racist way. This doesn’t permanently solve the problem, but it helps. And with good fortune, other actors will have made similar efforts, and gradually the situation of racism changes.
This framework for thinking about large social change raises large questions about how we should think about improving the world around us. It seems to imply the importance of local and decentralized social change. We should perhaps adjust our aspirations for social progress around the idea of slow, incremental change through many actors, organizations, and coalitions. As Marx once wrote, “men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” And we can add a qualification Marx would not have appreciated: change makers are best advised to construct their plans around long, slow, and incremental change instead of blueprints for unified, utopian change.