As you know, my first career was economics. The subfield of economics I did is called “political economy”. It’s about how different economic structures come about, how they are related to culture, and how they change. (This flavor is opposed to the dominant subfield which pretends there is only one way to organize an economy, and that it is beyond human social and political control.) The ‘change’ part means that I also studied social movements.
The first lesson of social movements scholarship is that bad conditions unfortunately do not automatically produce social movements, and then social change. Even very bad conditions. Very, very bad conditions. In fact, most of the time, even when they are warranted, social movements do not happen.
That is because even when the people who are suffering outnumber the people who are benefitting, the people who are suffering may feel powerless.
It takes very special circumstances to shift that perception and to inspire people to come together to dare to express their dissent.
Here’s another thing we know about social movements and social change. It doesn’t happen by philosophy, morality, or piles of facts. It happens by power. Policy changes happen by governments and institutions only when yielding is the cheapest course of action. So long as social protests pose no real threat, they can be politely (or not so politely) ignored. And most of us have had the experience of being part of some kind of protest or expression of dissent in an organization or in the streets, which has, disappointingly, been brushed aside. That is because in that particular situation, we did not generate the power to disrupt the operations of our opponents to the point that it became in their interest (cheaper) to give us what we want.
Right now, the Black Lives Matter mobilization is winning massive concessions from governments and organizations. It is changing the world, and fast. It is also restoring meaning and integrity to the political landscape – just when pundits and people felt that landscape was crumbling into chaos.
The concessions are a measurement of the power of the movement.
There are no new facts. There are no new moral perspectives on police brutality and racism. George Floyd was not the first such victim. It’s not even a new social movement; outrage against police violence, has been a persistent theme of anti-racism pretty much since the movement changed from anti-slavery to anti-racism.
What has happened is a new level of disruptive expression of power, and more of it.
The expression, disruptiveness, quantity, and efficacy are fresh. But the power itself must have been waiting there, just waiting to be used.
Of course there are conducive circumstances which social movement scholars have mapped: economic downturn + personalistic regime + world-systemic opening (the virus pause) + cultures of resistance (Black Lives Matter has been building for years and internetworking has been developed for mobilization).
People have come together in the streets in an assertive way. That could have happened last month or last year or 5 years ago. Organizations, and white allies, have leapt into solidarity in every possible way. As if they had been ready and were waiting for an invitation.
So whatever sense of powerlessness was afflicting people was in fact inaccurate. For how long have we been mis-assessing our power? For how long have we had everything we need to repair the world? For how long have we been living in danger and deprivation that could have been defeated by courageous collective action?
This is a heavy lesson that abused women and recovered addicts know well. The power to leave was waiting to be used. Our helplessness is mythical.
We need to refuse racism with great force. And then together turn our power to the other things that need to be refused, refuted, and mended.
Social scientists use the terms ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ to describe the ongoing tussle between the laws, customs, and institutions that define how things are in a given society and the (sometimes hard to believe in) possibilities for individual and collective action contrary or transformational to the structure in which it is embedded.
How to Power:
- Do research (especially about the law). Also: How much does it cost? What are the steps?
- List EVERY possibility. (Reject nothing outright.)
- Be crystal clear about what you want. Pour desire on the problem. (You get to choose devolution, abandonment, transformation, battle for victory.)
- Waste no time discouraging yourself (and don’t let anyone else do so).
- Ask for help. Who do you know who knows about this or some piece of it?
- Believe in the impossible. Know that your assessment of “possible” is wrong. (Watch circus.) The impossible, generally, are things we haven’t tried yet.
- Know that if you have a problem, others have it. Some of them are already in action. Find them. People are usually happy to share their experience. Some problems that seem individual, turn out to be collective.
These lessons apply from racism to global warming to lost friendships to broken baskets. It certainly applies to healthcare, where we need to be our own doctors and not helplessly submit to the recommendations of doctors-turned-salesmen for Pharma. I see powerlessness all around me, not only in making needed social changes but in our own personal lives.
Never doubt your power, but use it well. There’s a US anti-racist meme about “Karens”, white people who officiously try to criminalize people of color. This is a bad use of power, squandering it on ego. A better use is the project to mobilize food porn against racism.
Our power is waiting to be used. Every day.
“In life, there’s the beginning and the end. The beginning don’t matter. The end don’t matter. All that matters is what you do in between – whether you’re prepared to do what it takes to make change. There has to be physical and material sacrifice… The greatest reward is to know that you did your job when you were here on the planet.”