Much of the drama of history is found in processes of large social and political change, both slow and rapid. The sudden collapse of the Soviet system in 1989 and 1990, the success of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, the decades-long rise of the nationalist right in France and the United States, the rise of fascism in Germany, Austria, and Spain in the 1930s, the success of movements for female suffrage in most western democracies since the beginning of the twentieth century — these are examples of social and political change that are of great importance for the future of humanity, for better and worse.
There is a school of thought that wants to think of social change as being largely the result of human agency: parties, leaders, social movements, organizations, and social classes bring about changes that they “want” that they plan for. And sometimes this is true enough: the Republican tax-cutting policies of the past forty years in the United States have brought about a lot of social change, and a lot of that has been deliberate. Ideology and class interests, conjoined with a determined and persistent political party, have led to a substantial shift of wealth and income to an ever-smaller percentage of the population.
But much social and historical change doesn’t look like that story. The change associated with GOP tax activism is a large and important one; but it is a pretty simple one as well. It is more akin to a pirate band taking plunder from a defenseless coastal population than a long, complex process of engagement with social forces, groups, and structures aimed at creating change.
Unquestionably there is a vast amount of agency, both individual and group, in typical processes of large social change. But much of this agency is contentious and decentralized, with widely different objectives, plans, strategies, and coalitions associated with different configurations of actors. Groups set out with one set of objectives; internal conflicts lead to adjustment and re-prioritization of objectives; other groups hijack the activism and organization of competitors and redirect their efforts towards a different set of goals altogether. The result is a set of outcomes that often would create an enormous sense of surprise for the activists and actors who were involved in collective efforts at the beginning: is this what we were striving for?
This feature of the multiplicity of social actors is what makes the field of contentious politics so important and so interesting. Scholars like McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (Dynamics of Contention) have highlighted the complexity that underlies large social movements, and the social mechanisms through which multiple actors interact, compete, collaborate, and divide from each other. And it turns out that some of the same dynamics that are discovered in large processes of social movements are also found in more ordinary social environments as well; this is the special insight offered by Fligstein and McAdam in A Theory of Fields. Corporations, universities, and government agencies all embody some of the mechanisms of “contentious politics”.
But social movements represent just one important source of social change. In broad perspective, there are a handful of different kinds of social factors that are involved in important examples of social and political change. And, significantly, all of these mechanisms play out in a social world which also possesses some dynamics of its own that are largely beyond the reach of purposeful intervention.
Change through social movements
When major segments of a population are mobilized around an issue, they can become important sources of social and political change. This raises questions from several perspectives. First, what factors lead to successful mobilization of a group? Second, what tactics and strategies are available to social groups through which they can bring about change through collective action? And third, what tactics and strategies are available to “incumbents” — current power holders and the structures that they control — through which they can defeat the efforts of groups involved in collective action? Concerning mobilization: a group needs to be sensitized to an issue that it can be brought to care about, and this rarely happens spontaneously. Rather, leaders and organizations are needed to convey messages, gather resources, plan for collective action, and the like. As McAdam and Kloos show in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America, the Tea Party served such an organizational role in conservative mobilization in the 2000s. Concerning tactics: groups can exercise their political will through mass actions — demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, boycotts, and electoral contests. They can engage in “everyday forms of resistance,” in James Scott’s words. And they can support “ideological” campaigns, promulgating and legitimizing the perspective of their group to other non-committed social actors. Finally, incumbents (governments and existing power-holders) can use ideological means to discredit the insurgent organizations. They can use the legitimate enforcement of the legal system to interfere with mass actions. And they can call upon organized force — both official (police, military) and unofficial (militias, armed organizations) against the actions of insurgents. All of these dimensions have been visible in the collective actions and reactions that have occurred around the Black Lives Matter movement in the past year and a half.
Change through influential organizations
Social mobilization is rarely spontaneous. Rather, there is a need for organizations that have resources and capacities that permit them to rally supporters, conduct strikes and demonstrations, and coordinate efforts with other groups and potential allies. Coordinated collective action requires communication, confidence-building, and resources. Organizations like labor unions, political organizations, religious hierarchies, and kin groups are all able to fill these roles. Charles Tilly highlights the importance of the Catholic Church during the uprising in the Vendée (The Vendee); the Solidarity organization in Poland originating in Gdansk provided this impetus in 1980 (link); and SNCC was able to offer substantial organizational impetus to civil rights activism in the South in the 1960s. So organizations are a highly important ingredient of social mobilization; further, they can play an important role in determining the direction and strategy of a social movement. Labor unions in the United States in the 1960s played an important role in advancing the cause of civil rights, and much of this effort was prompted by the emergence of dissident union activism within unions like the United Auto Workers, including the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM). Activism by African-American auto workers pushed the UAW into a more active position on the struggle for racial equality. (Here is a brief description of some of this history; link.)
Change through state power
The New Deal and the social agenda of the Roosevelt administration were examples of largescale social change initiated by a government. FDR and his political allies were able to enact programs and legislation that profoundly changed the relationship between ordinary people and the economy in which they lived. A generation later the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, supported by the advocacy and political efforts of the Johnson administration, led to a significant change in the political status of African-American citizens. As McAdam shows in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, these changes would not have been possible without wide and persistent activism and mass mobilization of the civil rights movement; but equally, they would not have occurred without the political efforts of the Johnson administration.
Change through education, media, entertainment
Public perception and worldview plainly play a crucial role in social mobilization and engagement in a struggle for social change. It is evident, then, that the content and pervasiveness of the institutions through which the opinions and perceptions of ordinary citizens are shaped are significant factors in the impulse towards social change. If children and young adults are exposed to values of human equality, freedom, and democracy throughout their education, it is more likely that they will be responsive to issues of racism and authoritarian state behavior later in their lives. On the other hand, if the content of the educational system downplays the importance of equality and democracy and minimizes the history of racial and sexual discrimination, then many in the population will be unmoved by calls for mobilization for greater equality. The influence of right-wing media on political attitudes has been well documented for the past several decades, and this is intentional: the owners of Fox News and similar sources have a message they want to convey, and their programs embody that message. And social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or right-wing sites like Parler and Rumble have proven to have an enormous capacity for generating hate-based activism. The institutions of education, media, and entertainment must be counted as causal factors in the occurrence of social and political change.
Change through generational and demographic shifts
These factors serve to identify some of the direct and purposeful sources of social and political change. But, as historians like Emmanuel Ladurie and Ferdinand Braudel demonstrated (link), there are long waves of change in history that are only remotely related to the intentions and purposes of the current generation. Long, slow processes can lead to substantial social change over time (link). For example, Paul Abramson and Ronald Inglehart argued that a large factor driving change in post-World War II democracies was “generational change and value replacement” (link). Here the idea is that value change in a nation is less about individuals and more about the shifting mix of cohorts of individuals over time. Here is their formulation of this hypothesis in the abstract to this paper:
Generational replacement has had a major impact on the distribution of materialist/post-materialist values among Western publics. Between 1970 and 1984 the ratio of post-materialists to materialists increased substantially in West Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands, and increased somewhat in France. In Belgium and Italy materialist values increased as a result of short-term forces conducive to materialism. In Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands population replacement contributed to the rise of post-materialism. In France, it reversed short-term forces contributing to materialism, while in Belgium and Italy population replacement partially offset short-term forces that contributed to materialist values. Analysis of the impact of generational replacement sheds light on the development of value orientations in Western societies and on a process through which attitude change occurs among mass publics.
Inglehart extends this argument along with Pippa Norris in Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism to offer a degree of reassurance about the likely future of extremist populism: the tide of progressive attitudes towards race and ethnicity is very powerful, and right-wing extremism should be expected to decline.
A similar argument can be made about demographic change in the ethnic composition of a region or country. No particular individual needs to change his or her culinary tastes, in order for the ratio of Swedish restaurants to Polish restaurants to shift as a result of largescale immigration of Swedish families into the region. And if Swedish people are, on average, more liberal than Polish people, then the region becomes more liberal — even though no individual has become more liberal.
Other longterm causes of large social and political change
It is clear that there are longterm processes of change in the world that affect us greatly, but appear to be “systemic” rather than agentic. Did anyone intend the deindustrialization of cities in what came to be known as the Rustbelt — Cleveland, Peoria, Milwaukee, Flint, Erie? Was there a grand plan behind the sudden ubiquity of the Internet, websites, and social media? Does the shift in population balance between the midwest and the south and plains states reflect a plan or policy? In all instances the answer in “no.” These are extended, anonymous processes that result from activities aimed at other goals altogether — outsourcing of manufacturing to reduce labor costs, creation of new products like iPhones and advertising-supported websites to enhance profits, individual families and employers making decisions about where their economic and social lives will be best pursued. And yet each of these changes is highly consequential for the future. Justin Gest dissects the social and political consequences of deindustrialization in The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality; the change in social and political life created by the internet revolution is palpable; and the political map deriving from the 2020 Census is discouraging to the current Democratic majority. Populous industrial states will lose seven seats (all but one in the industrial midwest), and southern and plains states will gain seven seats (all but Oregon in the southern or plains states). This is a very significant shift in the balance of political power between regions in the House of Representatives.
What all of this implies is that we humans can affect the direction of our societies through our actions and collaborations; but the certainty and power of our efforts are distinctly limited. There are large obstacles to effective social and political struggles for a set of shared goals; there are formidable resources available to the “incumbents” who oppose the achievement of our goals; and there are large, impersonal forces that are largely impervious to agentic intervention. This does not imply the counsel of despair; but it does suggest the importance of having a realistic and fairly modest expectation of how much success can be achieved in a foreseeable period of time. Two of my favorite aphorisms on this topic are from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Karl Marx, and they are contradictory. Dr. King wrote, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Dr. King’s sentiment is probably too optimistic; there is nothing inevitable about the achievement of a just society. On this topic, Marx seems to have the more realistic view.
(Here are several earlier posts that are relevant to this topic: real utopias, social progress, social justice movements, progressive politics, purposive social action, protest and dissent, power and social movements, corporate power, unintended consequences, and the civil rights movement.)