Structure, Ideas, and the Functioning of Social Change

10 Dec

In August, Waging Nonviolence published an article on how same-sex marriage in the United States went from being a political impossibility in the late 1990’s to a political inevitability today. In regards to the manner of the victory, the authors Mark and Paul Engler write, “Rather than being based on calculating realism — a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate — the drive for marriage equality drew on a transformational vision. It was grounded in the idea that if social movements could win the battle over public opinion, the courts and the legislators would ultimately follow.” For them, same-sex marriage is sweeping the country now not because of an abundance of political money, effective lobbyists, and committed lawmakers, but because “average” Americans changed their opinions on its morality. When it came time for them to vote on the issue, political figures had to listen to the (democratic) will of the people.

In a very different article a few weeks earlier, Jim Sanders made the case that the success of the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria is because the group’s strategy does not conform to the government’s expectations. Group’s imagined contexts (or in other words, a worldview) set the boundaries for which strategies are possible, and the context in which Boko Haram sees itself is very different from Nigeria’s, “They have created their own reality, an amalgam, as John Campbell says, of twenty-first century technology and esoteric (medieval) Islamic texts, which they hold up as guiding documents.” Boko Haram has not sought to engage in traditional electoral politics, formal or informal. For Sanders, Boko Haram is “postmodern” because its strategy derives from a significantly different belief system, rather than, as Mark and Paul Engler put it, “…a shrewd assessment of what was attainable in the current political climate…”

Both articles make claims on how change can happen. For Sanders and Englers, political structures (by structures I mean a set of political relationship that are not all horizontal) can be shaped entirely by ideas. For this thesis on the functioning of change to hold true, the assumptions that power is diffuse and that horizontal relationships based in ideology have the capacity to change vertical relationships based on authority without needing a weakness in those structures must also be true. In short, Sanders and the Englers are implicitly arguing that ideas are the basis of how society is organized (or at least can be), rather than the logic of bureaucratic politics.

These claims align broadly with postmodern theories of power and change. Foucault, for example, writes in Power/Knowledge that power is, “…localized here nor there, never in anybody’s hands”. Gene Sharp’s theory of power, which may or may not be generally classified within the postmodern school, shares many similarities with Foucault (Mark and Paul Engler devote an entire section of their article to detailing Sharp’s theory of power). Sharp makes the important insight that power is relational. By that, he means that “power” exists only in individuals’ relations to each other, rather than being a monolithic force that exists within institutions and governments. Sharp’s project in describing power is demonstrating how social movements can accumulate it and ultimately overthrow regimes. He uses the metaphor of pillars of support, which activists seek to knock over, by gaining allies, one at a time.

The problem with postmodern theories of power, and by extension the two articles I’ve cited above, is that they tend to minimize the ability of structures to attain and wield power. Let me explain (with examples first, theory second). Sanders and the Englers argue that ideas are the primary driver for achieving the change they describe. However, both articles sell themselves short by failing to highlight the effects of structures on ideas in their respective scenarios. Though Boko Haram’s strategy is a result of an imagined context quite different from others’ expectations, the context it imagines can’t be disentangled from political structures, or to say it differently, structure and ideas form a feedback loop. By this I mean that Boko Haram’s military force has created a balance of power (which creates a political structure) that gives Boko Haram’s ideas space to exist. The counterfactual here is that if Boko Haram could not muster the military power to evict the Nigerian government from much of northeastern Nigeria, its ideas would be inconsequential in terms of social change, and would probably not exist in their current, outrageous form.

Initially I found Mark and Paul Engler’s thesis to be quite convincing, but after putting it on my Facebook wall, fellow Swarthmore alum Jonah Wacholder pointed out some of its holes. Jonah wrote, “Everything about the fight to achieve same-sex marriage, from its choice as a goal to the (successful) tactics used to achieve it, was grounded in a series of pragmatic political judgments…[same sex-marriage advocates] kept marriage litigation out of the federal courts until 2009. They accepted civil unions in multiple states. They compromised on religious exemptions to bring in recalcitrant state legislators. They deliberately adopted a public relations strategy that focused on same-sex couples that met the norms of conventional respectability as thoroughly as possible.”

Therefore, while proponents of same-sex marriage did try to shift public opinion, they also calculated their strategy to partially conform to structural constraints. This dual theory of change was both top-down and bottom-up. It sought to both change the structure that ultimately determined the status of same-sex marriage while influencing the norms that informed the structure’s thinking. Whether transformational change on same-sex marriage was possible without engagement with the concentrated power of political structures is impossible to know for sure. However, the fact that advocates assumed focusing solely on moving public opinion was sub-optimal implies ideas alone couldn’t substitute for working to alter political structures and political ideas.

The implication I see here is that seeking to achieve change solely with ideas, which can be defined as horizontal power relations, overlooks the strength of political institutions and structures. This brings me back to Gene Sharp. He would argue that structures are simply the accumulation of person-to-person relationships, and therefore vulnerable to change through the same tactics as individuals. However, this neglects why structures are powerful in the first place. The structures exist because of the strong quality of relationships between individuals in those structures, which are not only based on ideas. Bureaucratic politics play a strong role in determining the cohesion of structures, and this force is more impervious to alteration from outsiders. Sharp is not naive in the need to wield power and leverage support to achieve political change, but I would argue that in not distinguishing between power relationships based on ideology and power relationships based on structure and authority, he fails to fully describe what makes political institutions resilient to change. In terms of change, political institutions are usually more successful at removing pillars of support from activists than vice versa.

In some cases, significant social change can happen primarily through the power of ideas. While the fight for same-sex marriage was about both responding to structural opportunity and norm diffusion, ideas played an important role. Jonah again, “We’re succeeding for homophobia (at least sometimes, for some people) because the political tactic of coming out is brilliant and extremely powerful when you have a group that exists in every family and every socio-economic category. (Successful same-sex marriage advocacy leverages this by connecting the same-sex couples who want to marry to people the audience knows and has emotional commitments to, or could imagine knowing and having emotional commitments to.)”

In some movements, like same-sex marriage, the role of ideas (and public opinion) can have an out-sized effect of determining outcome. However, in most cases attempting to disentangle ideas from structure/opportunity is a futile endeavor: focus only on ideas and you’ll never achieve change, focus only on structure, and you have no rationale for achieving change. The only answers are imperfect.

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