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Theories of Change / theories of stasis

As part of a sustainable leadership course i've been given at IFLAS, I'm required to thing about my theory of change. A theory of change is a specific methodological approach to social activism, involving mapping out how you think the world works and how your actions are intended to improve it.

Here are some of the ideas that recur to me, in conversations, reading and thinking about how change happens.

  • The Swarm will prevail
  • We just have to reach a Tipping point / Imaginal cells in the chrysalis / 5% is critical mass
  • Capitalism will eat itself / collapse
  • institutions must be changed from the inside out.
  • wait for, or instigate a global political awakening (via social media?)
  • wait for, or instigate a global spiritual awakening
  • Seduce a rich person.
  • win freedom to act effectively by eschewing conventional sources of funding
  • Gain political power by hook or by crook
  • P2P technologies will obviate centralised authority (this was how Bitcoin emerged)
  • Personal / inner transformation should precede outer, social & political transformation
  • Change money, change the world (not very well thought out)
  • Support the political left with PR, think tanks, door-knocking, etc.
  • Social change is always gradual (even if political change is sometimes sudden)

But it occurred to me that I don't actually subscribe to any of these theories, and that i'm not even sure when and whether change ever even happens because it all depends on your perspective. For example did slavery end or was it merely replaced with wage slavery, racism and enforced by KKK? Was feminism a triumph for women or did it hollow out the instution of motherhood and family life as women became more and more required to work? Did the French, American and later the Russian revolutions bring about long term improvements to the lives of their citizens when compared with similar countries? What about the color revolutions? Would I be satisfied to have wrought any of those changes? I don't think so.

Here's another theory of change which occurred to me after reading A people's history of the United States. Change is trying to happen all the time; it keeps erupting to the surface; preventing it from happening takes considerable effort. The CIA has been destroying socialism for decades but the work is never finished. If they only stopped suppressing change, it would happen almost overnight.

Now I realise that every theory of change has an implicit theory of stasis, which is probably best made explicit. Think about it. Humanity's social systems are dynamic and complex, they have stable states and unstable states. Such systems, even very resilient ones protected by many kinds of negative feedback loops, DO change from time to time as their external conditions change and black swans happen.

Let us for now just pick an arbitrary word, capitalism, to label the dominant economic system which is even now eating itself. We should recognise that capitalism is resilient against many kinds of change. It is especially stronger than socialism, but it is also unlikely to fall to Bitcoin, or Islam or some hackers from an unknown country. In capitalism, a small elite has (arguably) unlimited resources to spend on technology, lobbying, surveillance & covert operations, and perhaps above all propaganda to persuade the people to pay their mortgages and their taxes, and not put their heads above the parapet.

So that is my theory of stasis! In view of it we can perhaps narrow our theories of change.

  • Change will not come from any one source or it would be neutralised.
  • If it threatens capitalism it will not be reported on mainstream media
  • it will not be funded from the usual places
  • Change will not take the form of a direct attack on capitalism
  • Technology may play a role, insofar as it can't be controlled by big money.


    Some theories of change are about longer term forces, such as the relation of technology, natural resources, modes of production and surrounding ideologies. Some such theories dont seem so amenable to desogning a project for "change". But technohope is widespread amongst some change seekers. The printing press was pretty powerful, after all.

    If you believe significant change would normal but suppressed then might u attempt a theory of change that focuses on reducing that suppression?

    If you think capitalism feeds suppression, including self suppression, then what does that suggest for change strategies? Some end up comfortable with sinply disrupting things, e.g. black block or forms of terrorism. Others prefer to grow organic veggies. Still others choose to focus on goals more achievable than revolutionary. Some tell themselves stories they are doing both revolutionary and practical stuff in the same act.

    Once you have a theory, are u prepared to lesrn about it through contrasting with experiences over time?

    We need stories to effect change. Stories that are more exciting and more believable than any we ever had before. And maybe they can be localised stories and maybe that is where the local governance comes in that you keep talking about.

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