Ideological and economic theories of change
by Shai Sachs, Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 10:37:02 AM EDT
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.