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04 October 2011

On Making a Difference

As I've mentioned before, I recently wrote a post for Ryan Anderson's blog Anthropologies. In it I argued that the purpose of anthropology is to "make a difference," and that the idea of "engaging wider audiences" ought to be secondary - a means to make a difference rather than an end in itself. This idea of "making a difference" has been with me for a while, but I've written little about it so far. So here I'd like to give some thoughts on what it means to make a difference and how I think it can be done.

First of all, there are some underlying assumptions that need to be cleared up.  One of these is that there is a world apart from our perception and/or representation of it (rejecting solipsism and extreme constructivism), and that, while we may never be able to completely know that world (because we are situated within it) we can contact it - we can alter and affect it, just as it can alter and affect us.

Another assumption is that the world is perpetually becoming.  This is what the second law of thermodynamics teaches us.  Time has an arrow, and entropy cannot be reversed, therefore, every moment is new.  As a result, we can only make a difference.  The question is, is it a difference which is the same or is it a difference that is different.  That is, is the difference we make one which recreates in the new moment the relations which persisted before, or is it one which creates new relations?  Every system will succumb to entropy, but a system can be reinforced or maintained by continually adding energy to it - in other words, by working to keep it around.  Think of a house or a car; if you repair it often, it will last longer.  As soon as you stop repairing it, it starts to decay.  It will likely decay either way, but faster if you don't do anything to fix it (that is, if you don't put energy into the system).  The same is true for any system - social, organic, mechanical, etc. 

Recently, I sat in a class and listened to a woman from USAID talk about some biodiversity conservation projects she had been involved in.  One involved growing chili peppers around farms to keep elephants out of farms (thus, hopefully, enlisting the farmers' help in preventing elephant poaching), and another involved helping people in Africa start farms so that they would stop some destructive fishing practices.  As I listened to her, I felt torn.  I'm generally skeptical of USAID anyway, thanks to an old professor who had worked with them in the past, but now I felt torn between wanting to be optimistic about these projects and this underlying cynicism I have towards the agency.  But what bothered me was that every story she told somehow involved bringing these people into the market system - creating a market for chili peppers, teaching people to farm so that they can sell their goods on the market and earn money to live.  What I realized is that, while USAID may be helping these people survive within the market a bit better, they do nothing to address the fact that it is the market system, which dominates the world today, that is causing a good deal of their problems in the first place. 

In essence, by using market forces to solve these peoples' problems, USAID is reinforcing and maintaining (fighting entropy) the very system that is causing a great deal of those problems.  For people who recognize this problem, the typical response is a reification of the system.  In other words, it is the system that is the problem and any small-scale changes are simply band-aids. Ultimately the solution that presents itself logically is revolutionary action to overthrow the system.  But this path is so fraught with problems that it's opponents have little trouble in branding revolutionaries as naive, idealistic, young folks who don't know how the "real world" works.  This is the classic conflict between making small changes that help a few people at a time versus changing the system - a prospect that is difficult to imagine, let alone implement.

What the revolutionaries don't see (they may, but it's often discounted) is that the system is composed of small relations, and that the system as a whole - where such a thing exists - is not something we can manipulate.  You have your revolution, you and your vanguard take control, you seize the means of production, the means of ideological production, and the political structure, you make your changes, but still you get feedback - still there are people who don't agree with the changes you're making, still there are people who resist, or people who simply don't fit into your nice neat system.  What do you do with them?  Past revolutions have treated them as "counter-revolutionary" and thrown them in prison or worse.  Is that what a just world looks like?

But there is hope.  Small changes to the small relations that compose a system can and do make a difference to the system.  The problem with band-aid solutions such as those that USAID supports is not that they are small in scale, but that they replicate the existing set of relations.  A successful solution will create not only new relations, but new kinds of relations - new possible ways of interacting.  These new kinds of relations may or may not directly undermine the existing set of relations, or the system as it is, but their very existence undermines the system by taking away some of the energy that goes into replicating it (thus causing it to succumb to entropy).  The more different kinds of relations exist, the more likely the system will transform or collapse, but also, the more opportunities people have for surviving or coping with such a collapse.

An example of this is the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham.  Rather than inciting revolution or giving in to market forces, they've chosen to solve small-scale, real world problems in ways that ultimately undermine the capitalist system.  By deconstructing representations of capitalism, and encouraging people to find non-capitalist resources within their communities, they have created new kinds of relations both within these communities and between communities.  In other words, they have helped to foster a "globalization otherwise" (in the words of the World Social Forum "Another World is Possible"). 

Now there's a values judgment that needs to be considered.  We can create new kinds of relations, but novelty is not the value that ought to reign.  New forms of oppression are still novel.  The goal, in my opinion, is to create new kinds of relations that are also more just and more sustainable than those that exist.  At the same time, there are just and sustainable relations that already exist, and where those cannot be improved upon, they ought to be maintained - why fix it if it's not broken? 

The key ideas to take away from this are: 1) Making a difference takes work (energy), but if you're working you can't help but make a difference, 2) the question, then, is what kind of difference are you making? 3) the difference you ought to make is one which creates new relations or maintains existing relations that are just and sustainable rather than creating or maintaining relations that are oppressive and destructive.  So ask yourself whenever you undertake any project - no matter how big or small - what kinds of relations am I creating or maintaining through this practice, and are those the kinds of relations I want?  We* create the world anew in every moment - what kind of world are you creating, and what kind of world do you want to create?

*By "we" I don't mean just humans - I mean all living entities, and, to some extent, non-living entities as well.

PS - Another critique of small changes is that they often tend to be "personal choice" changes, and often "consumer choice" changes.  This critique holds here too.  Personal choice changes - changing a light bulb, buying food at a farmer's market, etc. - do not create new kinds of relations.  In fact, to the extent that they are consumer choice changes, they will replicate the existing consumer capitalist system.  That's not to say that changing light bulbs and buying from farmer's markets is bad, but it's important to realize that these are differences which don't necessarily make a difference.


Jeremy Trombley said...

Levi Bryant has a wonderful post up that says all of this much better than I did.

btmc said...

Thanks for the post, it was great and timely for the occupy movement. I might disagree with you about the farmers market, a minor point, I realize. I think you're right about some farmers markets, that they are replicating or reinforcing a consumer system that is not just or sustainable. But I've worked and interviewed people who work at some farmer's markets, and though they are not as effective as farm shares in making our distribution and production of food more just and sustainable, they do a much better job of it than box stores like whole foods. This is because, I think, there is more of an opportunity to form relationships between food producers and food eaters, and more of an incentive to sell food locally, rather than moving it halfway across the globe where prices might be more favorable. One of the major criticisms of the mainstream organic movement is that it does nothing to de or reconstruct our food distribution system which is so wasteful, and farmers markets could be make a very good difference here.
Thanks again!

Jérémy said...

I am not sure I understand your dismissal (is it a dismissal ?) of the whole idea of a social revolution. Is the problem that we can't "manipulate" (i.e : change ) the system as a whole, or that not everybody will agree with the revolution (i.e : those who have the most stakes in the reproduction of the system)?
These are two different problems in my opinion.
About manipulating the system as a whole, who is the "we" that can't do that ? I think some people can, and do. For example, when the US government decided to end the convertibility between the dollar and gold in 1971, they pretty much manipulated the system as a whole. When chinese workers (for example) go on strike for better working conditions and better wages, they also try to, and, with cumulative effect, they do manipulate the system as a whole. When wokers and peasants worldwide engage in social struggle, through strike and other kind of direct action, they do manipulate the system as a whole. Now, obviously, to radically change the whole system, this would require massive direct action worldwide, with several countries in long general strikes and the like. I don't think this is at all impossible.
Finally, the taking of state power by a vanguard so-called elite is not a social revolution, it's a coup. A social revolution means the abolition of the state, capital and social classes.
Now, how to deal with attacks from people who don't like that is another question. Anarchist revolutionnaries in 1936's Spain didn't put people in prison for example, they freed people from prisons (this is not to say that everything was ok). But they indeed had to take the arms to protect themselves against the attacks of the fascists. And in my opinion (it's not only mine) one of the most truly revolutionnary action is the abolition of prisons and punitive "justice".

Jeremy Trombley said...

Jeremy, the problem is that "we" - by which I mean really anyone - cannot manipulate the system as a whole, rather we can only manipulate parts of the system. That not everyone will agree with the revolution is one possible manifestation of that inability. The examples you give of people manipulating the system are examples of people manipulating one part of the system which then has systemic effects. I don't mean to discount these actions, or the value of rising up and fighting for something you believe in. What I mean to indicate is the work that must be done, and the potential for uncertainty to arise from those actions. What I mean to emphasize here is that there is always work to be done, always a difference to be made. Revolutionary thought wants to take the easy way out - have your revolution, sweep away the unjust system, and quickly and unproblematically mpose your new system in its place. Once the revolution is over, the job is done. That's the kind of thinking I'm opposed to, and it's the kind of thinking I've encountered often in "revolutionary" circles.
In place of this kind of revolutionary thinking, I believe that it is more effective to go after specific practical (that is, taking existing conditions into account, not in the sense of being something that is facile or uncontroversial) changes, and allow these changes to have their systemic (and unpredictable) effects.
I'm a big fan of the Spanish revolution. It's a fascinating piece of history, and an inspiration for the creation of a just society. But they did not succeed in transforming the system (at least in the way they had intended), and where they did succeed, it was the result of specific practical changes, not the manipulation of the whole system. Furthermore, they may have freed people from prison, but they also killed an awful lot of clergy. If your goal is to transform the system as a whole, something must be done with those who don't agree with your changes - true justice requires small, iterative changes, which may or may not lead to systemic transformation.

Again, I want to emphasize that I'm not saying you should not stand up for yourself and your beliefs. I'm saying that doing so requires time, work, and the recognition that you may not get what you want in the end.

Jérémy said...

Thanks for your reply, I think I see now what I didn't understand. You think there can be systemic changes, but this can only be done through actions on parts of the system, because there is no other way to act. I certainly agree with that.

But I don't agree with the way you seem to oppose small practical changes and revolutionary thought and actions. Certainly because we are not familiar with the same idea of social revolution.

The kinds of revolutionary thoughts and actions I most am familiar with (anarcho-syndicalism, social anarchism, libertarian communism) certainly do not conceive of the revolution as you describe it here, especially in that there is nothing "unproblematic" about creating a new social order, and the idea is not to impose some prefabricated system. The central idea being self-organization.
Furthermore, small scale social struggles and creations are not opposed to greater revolutionary goals. Small scale struggles are a kind of "revolutionary gymnastic" as Emile Pouget used to say. And the creation of new progressive social forms (cooperatives, associations for mutual aid etc.) is also completely part of the revolutionary struggle. The revolution can thus never really be "over". There will always be things to fight for and against, there will always be better forms of organization to create.

Yes, certainly something must be done with people who don't agree with the changes. But that is true for emblematic revolutionary action (insurections and the like) as well as for any other kind of actions. CEOs do not agree with strikes. Yet there are strikes, and I certainly don't think there is anything authoritarian in that. Big coffee companies owners do not agree with peasants forming egalitarian and self-managed cooperatives, etc.

I also don't agree with your appreciation that "true justice requires small iteratives changes". I mean, small positive changes are very good and welcome. Yet I don't think there are the only way to justice. I think some changes require large scale collective actions, and I don't thnik there is anything inherently authoritarian with this.

And thanks for pointing to the work of J. K. Gibson-Graham. It looks very interesting. I'll have to look into that.

Jeremy Trombley said...

To the extent that "revolutionary thought and actions" are about self organization and the "revolutionary gymnastics" you describe, I have no quarrel with them. These are the "small, iterative changes" I'm talking about. However, there is a tendency in almost all revolutionary thought to assume that the ultimate goal is to overthrow the system and replace it with another one - be it anarchist, fascist, communist, religious, etc. In fact, it's not just in revolutionary thought, it's in just about any talk of social change. This is what I critiqued in the Obama election (there's a post somewhere on here about it). Not that I think electing Obama was bad, but that the rhetoric of his election made it sound as if simply electing him would change the system. Clearly, that was not the case - though, I don't mean to degrade the changes he has made.

This revolutionary thinking I opposed to the "band-aid" thinking of USAID, where we try to use the system to fix small problems here and there. I'm actually proposing a middle way - small, practical changes which generate new kinds of relations. This is opposed to both the revolutionary thinking I described above and the "band-aid" thinking, and I think it is a better way to think about social change than either of the other two paradigms.

Large scale collective actions are fine too - like this Occupy Wall St. thing, I'm all for it. However, large scale collective actions must recognize that they cannot change "the system" but only parts of it, and that their changes will have unintended consequences - and the more broad the changes, the more unintended consequences it will have. These may be for the better, they may not. However, once the broad change is made - and this will be required no matter what, this is the real work that must be done - the better end can be facilitated by lots of small-scale actions to help it along. Thus, even those changes which are systemic (in the sense of impacting many different parts of a system) must be supported by small-scale actions (this is where the Egyptian revolution is at now). It's not that large scale actions are inherently authoritarian, it's that large scale actions, by themselves, are not effective. What people do after the revolution is far more important to me than what happens during it.

Speaking to my friend< Dan, as I was writing this, he pointed out that we maybe need the systems rhetoric as a motivation. I think I agree with that - we need an end vision to move towards. However, I still think it's important to recognize that, pragmatically, you will not get your end vision, and especially not without a lot of work (i.e. creating new kinds of relations). Otherwise, I think think there is a greater risk of falling into failure or the possibility of totalitarianism.

I almost think, following Bateson's concept of stochastic systems, that it might be more effective to simply create all kinds of different social forms and see if any take hold. In a sense, creating a kind of social diversity that can compete with the dominant system - very evolutionary... I'm not ready to give up my teleological vision of a more just and sustainable world yet, though! :)

Thanks for the comments, Jeremy, always good talking with you!

Anonymous said...

Some changes have to be made. Whether they are social political or cultural, whether they are revolutionary or small scale makes no difference. I agree with both of you. The change has to be major in the beginning then lots of smaller groups WORKING toward the final result. All of you people on this post seem very smart......get out there...get to work and help make the changes that are needed.....

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