Triggers for Social Change

By | July 16, 2015

Perhaps the paramount research question confronting sociologists today is: why is it that those being exploited and oppressed are not rising up? And as a follow-up: what are the most likely drivers of social change? In this blog I focus on the second question and consider and comment on several possible ‘drivers’.

The primary characteristics of post-1970s financial capitalism can be succinctly stated. In general: relations of class (based on concentrated capital ownership) have come increasingly to dictate to relations of command (the state), resulting in a rapid growth of material and social inequalities. This reinvigorated and liberating class/command dynamic has seen rule by a governing oligarchy with a capacity to sponsor a ubiquitous neoliberal ideology to rationalize and underwrite its claims to rule for the public good.

More specifically, as David Harvey has asserted: (i) organized labour and its capacity to defend wages has been sabotaged; (ii) capitalism has become even more competitive, facilitating a territorial shift of power towards East Asia; (iii) financial corporations have been empowered; (iv) accumulation by possession has been used to augment class dominance; (v) the debt economy – governmental, corporate and household – has become the default option; and (vi) asset market bubbles have been used before and after the crisis of 2007-8 to compensate for poor returns in production.

Harvey asks if global capitalism can survive it present traumas:

Yes. But at what cost? This question masks another. Can the capitalist class reproduce its power in the face of the raft of economic, social, political and geopolitical and environmental difficulties? Again, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. But the mass of the people will have to surrender the fruits of their labour to those in power, to surrender many of their rights and their hard-won asset values (in everything from housing to pension rights), and to suffer environmental degradations galore to say nothing of serial reductions in their living standards which means starvation for many of those already struggling to survive at rock bottom. Class inequalities will increase (as we have already seen happening). All of that may require more than a little political repression, police violence and militarized state control to stifle unrest.’

So the scene is set; and it is strangely but indubitably difficult to see which forces for change might emerge, and how.


Once socialist-inclined parliamentary outfits like Britain’s Labour Party have tended to be dragged rightwards during financial capitalism (it’s recorded on Thatcher’s CV). Moreover it remains that likely Labour will opt later this year for a ‘new new Labour’ leader rather than Jeremy Corbyn (Andy Burnham could yet lose out). And yet in countries like Spain as well as Greece there have been party-political stirrings: hard-left, anti-austerity, parliamentary options have been embraced. A reasonable hypothesis would be that in staid, reserved, politically subdued and quiescent Britain what is now a run-of-the-mill social democratic Labour Party will remain a malfunctioning firework, light blue paper but absolutely no need to stand clear. Context is vital. Triggers are all. Parliamentary parties like Britain’s Labour follow, not lead.


While up to and including postwar welfare capitalism it was evident that collective action on the part of the working class was the most likely threat to a then larger, more disparate and less compacted capitalist ruling class, this seems no longer to be the case. Workers’ organizations have been disestablished; narratives undone, colonized and distorted; and solidarity compromised. BUT I still judge this the most probable source and resource for change. It is within the working class, and most notably in what Paul Higgs and I once defined as its ‘displaced segment’ (incorporating the under- as well as the unemployed) that true, deep suffering coupled with fatalist hopelessness coalesces. When all’s said and done, as they say, misery, hate and reaction are natural by-products of callous and anonymous exploitation and oppression. There need to be apposite contexts and triggers however.


What about Standing’s concept of the precariat, since (kind of) absorbed into the GBCS? It is unquestionably the case that many conventionally designated middle- as well as working-class jobs are now less secure than was the case from 1945-75. The post-baby-boomer generation has suffered from a deepening of the age- as well as gender-, ethnic- and – I would contend, fundamentally – class-related divisions of financial capitalism. The salariat has been overtaken by an enduring labour-market unpredictability. But the putative precariat is not a class-in-itself, let alone a class-for-itself. In fact it is not a class at all. Rather it is a reservoir or pool of distal recruits for social change.


The postulation that new social movements (NSMs) fuelled by identity-formation and recognition might precipitate change is a European one largely unacknowledged in North American sociology. And probably with reason. NSMs are in my view (i) significant precursors of cultural shifts (eg re-feminism, ethnic and gay relations and rights), but (ii) just potential triggers for a more revolutionary transformation of society. It should be noted, however, that many NSMs cannot fully realize their agendas in the absence of just such a transformation.

An observation or two are warranted. What the Occupy movement exposed was a vigorous philosophical consensus around critiques of capitalism (‘in the spirit of Marx’), but the lack of any agreed alternative. Indeed, the anarchist arm of the movement comfortably prevailed over what might be précised as the neo-Marxist arm. It is in fact far from easy to construct and disseminate ANY compelling narrative for the future given the (postmodern) or relativistic character of the culture issued in by financial capitalism.

A few qualifications are in order however. First, TINA was repeatedly trumped by THERE MUST BE AN ALTERNATIVE and, a distinct advance, LET’S LOOK FOR AND FIND IT! Second, as my old American friend and world systems theorist Terry Boswell showed empirically, any given movement’s apparent failure to achieve its immediate goals nevertheless often paves the way for future kindred movement gains. Third, contingency matters hugely: a ‘coming together’ of members of the working classes, the precariat, NSMs and even social democrats amongst the UK’s Labour MPs offers the optimal prospect for a governmental ‘crisis of legitimation’, and just such a coming together can be triggered by a one-off event (like the police shooting of Mark Duggan and subsequent urban riots in London and elsewhere in August of 2011).

We sociologists cannot predict well. Here, nevertheless, is my scenario for change. An unanticipated trigger event – after the manner of the London riots – might occasion a coming together of activists for change around an expediently loose coalition of overlapping interests and agendas. The bottom line will be the widespread recruitment of those who remain dependant on wage-labour, increasingly via the brutally succinct mechanism of the zero hours contract. It comes back to class relations (as the 19th century bearded one predicted, and I have the t-shirt).

The moral of this brief blog? If you want to further justice and solidarity, which necessarily involves contesting and nudging ideology aside (echoes of Habermas here), then look for allies within a framework and programme of permanent reform towards a revolutionary shift in the way we organize our affairs. Loose alliances and  networks are crucial. THEY’RE OUT THERE! Commitment to a better society for all is attainable.

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