All men (women) are intellectuals . . . but not all men (women) have in society the function of intellectuals.” – Gramsci.
It seems incremental change, or what one would call the reformist agenda, is complex and slow, but perhaps more stable. Disruptive change, like a tsunami hurtling through the existing system, flattens everything easily in its path and is perhaps more destabilising and uncertain.
Incremental change may be predictable but does not always give in to all the demands of society. Rapid change, even revolutionary change, raises many expectations and hopes to rebuild a society and system with the promise of a better world – but the world’s entanglements of interest and power, which come back to fight another day, are not always revealed to us. So, nobody can foretell the future and the frictions we may face or the ease with which we can move.
Societies can pick and choose their mode of change but in some cases it is not they who decide but the force of nature, changes in the economics of technology or the will of others. Change is a fascinating process and is deserving of a science of its own. In my personal work – and when I do get the time to reflect – I realise I am in the business of change and not only the technical details of the cause at hand because the issues I and others fight for are dependent on how we understand small change (which one may call micro-arguments) and the process of large change (system-wide change).
In his book, The Great Leveller, Walter Seidel notes that transformative change rather than adaptive change (involving co-option or strategies involving incrementalism) has largely been brought about by catastrophic events: revolution, war, disease or natural events. Rarely have those in power voluntarily given up their privileges.
Gene Sharp, a political scientist – said to be the inspiration behind the colour revolutions – suggested that power structures can be toppled by persistent nonviolent action, as these structures cannot survive without obedience by the subjects of such a state. Sharpe, however, never guaranteed that all things will go well.
For Sharp, systemic disobedience overwhelms the senses of the ruling elite and their panic forces them to act in ways that play right into the hands of nonviolent mass movements. However, it only works if the mass movement is truly a mass movement and not an instrument of foreign interests that use these movements to serve their own geopolitical ends. So, not all democratic movements in the guise of democracy may be democratic.
Sharp is said to have had some influence on the strategies behind the 2011 Arab Spring, which started when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian informal trader, set himself on fire, which prompted the unleashing of years of bottled-up frustrations and anger that have had been simmering against the oppressive rule of authoritarian governments in North African States. The Arab Spring – which involved mass mobilisation – was enough to topple the regimes or force the negotiation of new terms.
The wave of critical mass mobilised during the Arab Spring – while seemingly similar in character – produced wildly different outcomes. The uprisings revealed to us that different social structures and forms of entanglement (with regard to centres or margins of power) produced different responses and effects. Change happened, as a sort of pyrrhic victory for the resistors, only in so far as the movements gave a punch but Goliath remained standing. If anything, Goliath reinvented the power structure and became stronger.
In Libya, anti-Muammar Gaddafi protests created a political fracture and gap that later involved foreign intervention egged on and championed by the French philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy, also known as BHL, who remains unrepentant about his actions, despite the disastrous outcomes in Libya. In Syria, this led to a full-scale civil war which also became a proxy war for regional powers and other powers, such as Russia and the US.
The lesson from the Arab Spring is that removing forces or people from power does not often translate into democracy and popular rule.
We should realise that what all of history shows – if that is the only thing we can learn from history – is that there is an impermanence in change. Perhaps the best posture towards change is to be stoic; fight for the things that remove oppressive acts but be clear that those in power can still turn the tables against us or those who we appoint to defend us as heroes and liberators from oppressive acts may themselves be disappointing.
Movements are also subject to betrayal. Amilcar Cabral, who fought an anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggle in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, was ultimately betrayed by his own comrades; he was assassinated on the eve of the declaration of the independence of the confederate of Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau.
We see phenomena at the surface but what we cannot see is the underbelly – these are the thoughts, networks of coalitions and actions of individual actors and how they all add up to produce systemic change.
Some micro-arguments have had merit: consider the US constitutional victory on the right of women to have an abortion, the famous Roe vs Wade case (1973), which is now going through a period of conservative backlash. Two things stand out: the transformative power of a single legal action for women in the whole of the US and then the overturning of this right where the universality of a decision is now muted by the change in time and the hegemony new forces of influence and conservative movements gathered to upset the status quo. Nonetheless, Roe vs Wade was a right won within the edifice of the existing constitutional system of the US but it did not change the fundamental structure and nature of the US system as a whole. The right was won but the superstructure of the American capitalist system remained.