Ideological and economic theories of change

Yesterday, Mike Lux touched off a fascinating discussion on Open Left on Theories of Change.  The basic question was, what will it take to enact really monumental changes - like stopping global warming, enacting universal health care, or dismantling the military-industrial complex?  Lux listed seven theories, none of them mutually exclusive and some of them actually quite similar to one another.

I want to expand on that discussion a bit, by pointing out a couple of theories which Mike didn't list in the original post. Follow me across the flip for more...

The first theory is one Paul Rosenberg already mentioned, in a comment on the original thread:

I would add one more theory of change into the mix, and that's the counter-hegemonic Gramscian "culture war"/"war of position".

As a bit of background, I think Rosenberg is referring to Antonio Gramsci's theory of how revolutionary change can happen in society.  It starts with a "war of position", in which revolutionaries slowly insinuate their ideas into the media, schools, religious communities, and other cultural organizations.  It's followed by a "war of manoeuver", in which revolutionaries actively try to take over the government.  (Yeah, I'm getting my background information from Wikipedia.  Anyone want to know the history of Georgia?)

Gramsci was talking about Communist revolution, but it can be applied and retooled to other efforts of radical change.  The conservative movement, in fact, has applied Gramsci's theory quite successfully, although not sequentially.  Efforts to insinuate conservative opinions into the media, universities, and public policy institutions began in the early 1970s; these were joined by efforts to activate latent conservative strains within religious communities and businesses.  The conservative "war of position" was a concurrent electoral and legislative effort with many steps - the grassroots conservative takeover of the Republican party in the early 1990s, the 1994 Congressional elections, the K Street project and the attendant top-down conservative ascendancy in the House, documented in Off Center; and of course, the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004.

In some flavor, my own writing here has been focused on a similar theory - that the best way to achieve change is to create a culture of progressivism, which will transform the electoral an legislative playing field so that it's much easier to elect progressives, enact progressive legislation, and create a progressive judiciary.  For the most part I've focused on the elements of cultural change - the ideological institutions which are capable of making people progressive.

It's a nice theory, and one I enjoy applying to the news of the day, but I'll admit it suffers from a major weakness: it's not nearly fast enough, and time is not on our side, particularly with climate change.  This brings me to the second theory, which I think was hinted at but not really explicitly discussed in the comments: economic change, and gaming the economic system to bring about the change you want.

We could argue that the New Deal and Keynesian economics were in fact an exemplary application of this theory.  These days, this theory seems to be popular again.  The social enterprise movement seems to be essentially founded on this single theory.  I think this was also the idea that Bill Gates was getting at when he argued that philanthropy alone can't solve the world's big problems, and that a creative capitalist system is needed to solve them.

It's hard to deny the power of this theory, especially when we see how quickly it can act.  Increase the price of oil a bit, and watch the usage of public transportation skyrocket.  I'm a fan of this theory myself; indeed, this theory (applied to the problem of strengthening the progressive movement) inspires a lot of my writing on liberal entrepreneurship.

It's clear that both of these theories of change play an important role in addressing some of the big problems Mike discusses.  Economic change seems like a necessary part of the overall effort to stop global warming and enact universal health care, whereas ideological change is almost certainly a prerequisite for dismantling the military-industrial complex.  Obviously these aren't the appropriate theories for every problem, but they should be important elements of an overall strategy moving forward.

Disclosure: My company worked on a small technical/design project for OpenLeft last year.

Tags: creative capitalism, cultural change, Ideology, progressive strategy (all tags)



Bubbling up from the bottom
Like the growth of farmers markets in northern New England, a place that no one 5 years ago would have thought was suitable for agriculture again.  Between seasonal changes due to climate change, and the growth of niche agriculture, we are not only watching but actively involved in economic change.  A group of us progressive women got a farmers market started in our town this summer.  And this gives us the opportunity to talk about sustainability as we celebrate the market in the local media and in our talks with customers.  
Not to say that we don't need the government to come over to the side of the light!  But a two pronged (or more) approach will be faster.  Look at what the country's mayors have been saying over the past couple of months.  
by bloomingpol 2008-08-16 11:33AM | 0 recs
Re: Bubbling up from the bottom

Yeah, that's another good example; and I'd throw co-op farms (one of which I belong to) into the mix as well.  It'd be interesting to see if this kind of alternative industry is sufficient to change the agriculture industry, though I kind of doubt it.  "Help from above", in the form of different subsidy structures, is probably another part of the solution.

by Shai Sachs 2008-08-16 12:34PM | 0 recs
Re: Ideological and economic theories of change

I would argue that a large element of society depends on the Industrial Military Complex for their economic well-being. Thus, dismantling the industrial military complex will also require economic change.

In terms of progressive change, I'm not as optimistic as I was when I was young. As I grow older, I become more convinced that it is human nature to be conservative. Thus, progressive change usually comes as a result of disaster or gradually as a result of increase knowledge of how the real world works and then successfully persuading the public that the scientists and social scientists are correct. In the future, because conservatives are so much better at the art of persuasion and rhetoric than progressives, building a progressive infrastructure will be necessary to counter conservative propaganda. But this is tricky, because part of the progressive philosophy is that true knowledge can only be obtained through unbiased means. Thus, using the most effective tools in the art of persuasion is considered to be immoral to most progressives, and many people would find progressive think tanks not credible.

Much economic and social change can occur rapidly, but usually as a result of disaster. Perhaps, the greatest political change in this country occurred because of the Civil War and Great Depression. Thus, it may take a great disaster before Congress enacts sweeping legislation to combat global warming or universal health care.

On the other hand, if you are patient, some great progressive triumphs have occurred gradually. For example, it appears that each new generation are less racially prejudice than the generation that preceded them.

by Zzyzzy 2008-08-16 12:17PM | 0 recs


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