Monday, December 14, 2015

Reform vs revolution: visions of social change

There is a dispute or tension at the heart of most attempts at addressing injustice: should we seek achievable incremental change to make a broken system slightly less damaging to those who are victims of its injustice or risk more ambitious change that attempts to shift some of the fundamental reasons for that injustice?

For instance, the recent Paris Agreement, viewed through the incrementalist model was an outstanding semi-miraculous success, yet viewed through the lens of justice, was a further entrenching of the power of the systems that have caused the problem and which show little inclination of doing anything like what is necessary to avoid suffering on a grand scale.

Expressing the latter perspective, Slavoj Zizek says (and I've never managed to discover if he is quoting someone else at this point), "the worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves", that is, some attempts at incremental improvements to the worst aspects of an unjust system can simply be part of maintaining that system by making it more palatable to the consciences of those who are the system's beneficiaries.

Yet a similar charge gets levelled against the idealists: by demanding more, the possibility of making real tangible improvements to the lives of suffering people is sometimes lost. Oliver O'Donovan praises the virtue of compromise, which means being willing to do "the best that it is actually possible to do", that is, to avoid making the best the enemy of the good.

But the tension here is not always destructive. We are not always necessarily faced with a choice between token improvements that inoculate against further change or demands for impossible systemic change that suck the energy from incremental reforms. Sometimes, strategic piecemeal reforms can help to express, build and solidify public opinion regarding values that ultimately lead to more ambitious changes. And sometimes, demands based directly in ideals reveal the truth of an injustice with a clarity that enables much-needed reforms to occur.

But the reason that this tension is perennial in all movements for change is that this dispute between reformers and revolutionaries cannot be decided a priori. In O'Donovan's language, "what is possible" is itself highly contested. Who is to say that what currently seems impossible might not become thinkable under the pressure of a sustained radical social movement?

Such judgements about what is indeed possible must be made according to close attention to the particulars of the situation, while also being informed by a vision of divine providence being capable of doing more than we ask or imagine; hard-nosed assessments of political openings must be combined with a strong sense of historical contingency, cultural malleability and the omnipresent possibility of repentance.

Put another way, reformers ought to be strategic in seeking reforms that will heighten rather than lessen the visible tension between reality and justice. Where there is a choice between improvements that tend to make the powerful feel more comfortable and improvements that help to further reveal the injustice of the present order, then pick the latter. And revolutionaries ought to articulate visions and select strategies based on a credible (if ambitious) path towards change, where the next step is comprehensible as movement on a journey towards justice.

Of course, this doesn't mean antagonism between reformers and revolutionaries will cease, or that all will agree on where the convergence between competing strategies might lie, but hopefully it can help in avoiding some of the more egregious dead ends.

So was the Paris Agreement a miraculous unprecedented step towards international cooperation or a woefully inadequate further betrayal of future generations and vulnerable lives everywhere that further reinforces the power of the perpetrators?

Your perspective probably reveals where you lie on the spectrum between reformer or revolutionary. For me: it is both.
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