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Micro-arguments and process of large change – Part 2


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Micro-arguments and process of large change – Part 2

21st April 2023

By: Saliem Fakir


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This article is a continuation of the last instalment of this column, which concluded by highlighting the transformative power of a single legal victory in the US – the granting, in 1973, of the right for women to have an abortion – and the overturning of that right through its being muted by the passage of time and the hegemony of new forces of influence and conservative movements gathered to upset the status quo.

It is not only the left that has movements; the right does too. Let’s remove all illusions that the right does not study Antonio Gramsci or Karl Marx.


When it comes to superstructures, we may find some wisdom in the work of Douglass North and his concept of path dependence. North argued that path dependence comes into being through the creation of institutions that settle norms and practices that, in turn, preserve political, social and economic relations. Path dependence is a product of past practices that have normalised the status quo. One can suggest this as a settlement surrounded by a web of actors and an institutional fabric that reinforces the same practices, even though the face of the players change over time. The question is whether changing one path dependence leads to change in the system. For instance, does shifting from coal to renewables change the nature of the political economy or merely shifts the rents and incentives from the energy sector from one interest group to another, while leaving people behind or even in deeper poverty? This is an often unappreciated dimension that climate activists who are so eager to change the world miss: you change the technology but not the underlying economic relations.

Movements may also have different stylistics in terms of movement leadership. Take the nonhierarchical mode of running movements such as Fees Must Fall (FMF) in South Africa or the Occupy movements in the US. They just exist and connect only in so far as they share the same sentiment on change.


FMF resembled the Arab Spring revolts. It started off as a protest against unaffordable fees at institutions of higher learning and for the decolonisation of education but later snowballed into other arenas of political struggle that the movement itself did not have the bandwidth to control or the capacity to know what to expect next, given the flotilla of many struggles channelled into one process. FMF was also beset with its own internal leadership dynamics – with nobody in charge and everyone the leader. Universities were the geography of battle but the situation never got to the point, like the French student protests in 1968, where the movement won the support of unions and other formations, later snowballing into national civil unrest and disobedience.

Once all the dust had settled, the FMF protest became a distant memory and many of the student leaders are now in plum positions, having joined the status quo. Did they all turn Gauche Caviar? And why did the rest of society not march with the FMF movement?

Contrast this with the African National Congress (ANC), which, despite describing itself as a liberation movement, is effectively a professional body that has been in existence for decades, and was a vertical power (hierarchical) that in the last days of the negotiated settlement relied on the mass democratic movement on the ground (a quasi-horizontal movement but with the capacity to organise across issues and groups) that led a truly scaled-up set of civil disobedience acts to force the hand of the apartheid regime into a process of negotiation. Part of the reason why the ANC wanted to seize the moment as it shifted from an armed insurrection to negotiations was to place itself at the centre of the negotiations with the apartheid regime, according to Andre Odendaal’s new book, Dear Comrade President.

Let’s not forget that movements can have their own class structures – little is often spoken about this.

An unequal class structure within a movement will not be missed by astute observers, as poorly resourced groups watch how suburban well-educated civil society actors have different access to resources, funders and global megaphones. Class differences can be perpetuated, for example, when actions that aim to achieve environmental goals without delivering the promised alternative economic outcome for a specific community cause will only go so far, because those who ultimately sacrifice at the altar of noble goals need to live like everybody else.

Gramsci’s insights are useful as his central thesis is to connect the idea of civil society with the concept of hegemony. Society is fractured by differences in ideas or held together by the same set of ideas. A hegemony prevails because some key web of ideas that today reside in the organic fervour of civil society become the idea of the day – they are now the ideas of state, economic actors and those that have the power to change the material conditions of society. No movement can succeed with some notion of the construction of hegemony and the use of power.

Sometimes the laboratory of action – rather minor and seemingly inconsequential – on its own may lead to nothing. The act of civil disobedience in itself may be good at one end of the spectrum, if there are single-issue concerns but yet fail to connect with movements that may see the political structure and the economy as the problem, the central issue. The two groups may not see that when it comes to Gaia (mother earth) that everything is connected.

At best, movements in the mode of micro- arguments, working from the outside trying to influence power in the inside, can try to secure a pact for change (which may deliver little) or even to gain the seat of power themselves and change the world into their image.

Change is complex – we do not always know cause and effect – and so we must shun the fixation with method and say anything goes as long as it works and brings about the change that is what all the commons agree is the best for now and in the years ahead.


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