Catalog of social change

WE DON’T GIVE ENOUGH CREDIT to the many agents of social change. Maybe it’s because we’re so hung up on our own little efforts. Still, it’s good to take a tally every once in a while and remind ourselves we’re not alone. There’s a movement larger than us at work in the world. So who’s all taking part?

Jump to the following: Vanguardists, Embodiment politics, Culture jammers, Independent media, Culture workers, Coalition builders, Insider allies, Defectors, Dissenters, Disruptives, Cultural creatives, Contemplatives

These are folks who aim to break through the public’s consciousness with a “better way to go.” Often in the limelight, these folks are hard core: high principles, lots of sacrifice and noble aims. They sometimes see compromise as caving and tend to sneer at incremental change, or “change from within.”

Vanguardists could be vegans serving free meals downtown with Food Not Bombs, or “freegans” (who eat only free food, usually from dumpsters) who coordinate local barter economies. Vanguardists can also be seen in war zones, like Christian Peacemaker Teams, who literally stand in between Israeli tanks and Palestinian homes.
Back to top

Embodiment politics
Right behind those on the vanguard is an often quiet community of activists living out what I’ll call “post-turbo-capitalist” ways. These are folks like those at Anathoth Farm in semi-rural Wisconsin, the Simple Way community Philadelphia’s core, or Catholic Worker houses of hospitality in major cities.

Often these folks are visionary and inspiring, but there’s low fan-fare. You won’t find the hype that is associated with other aspects of the anti-capitalist community.

These people engage in “prefigurative politics,” a term Cynthia Kaufman uses in her excellent primer on the theory of social change, Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change, (South End Press, 2003). This group assumes “we should act right now as if we were living in the better world we are fighting for,” she says. This means, for example, creating structures without hierarchy, striving toward consensus decision making, and being conscious of environmental impact.
Back to top

Culture jammers
If you’ve ever seen a stop sign adorned with a “shopping” sticker in bold letters, you’ve witnessed the work of a culture jammer. These are folks who take the discourse of consumer culture, direct it at itself and allow the beast of consumer capitalism to bite its own tail.

Examples include the Billboard Liberation Front who will transform commercial messages into art or social messages, and “Whirl-Mart” actions on “Buy Nothing Day“http://adbusters.org/metas/eco/bnd// (ten or twenty activists enter Wal-Mart with empty carts, snake through the aisles and comment on the joys of not shopping). Culture jamming has found expression in Adbusters magazine and the book Culture Jam, by editor-in-chief Kalle Lasn.
Back to top

Culture workers
These folks change the world from the bottom up. Rather than focusing energy on the upper echelons of power – self-serving businessmen, government cronies and rogue military commanders – these people focus on concrete ways to change the culture.

This thinking stems from Antonio Gramsci, who used the word “hegemony” to describe how a population can consent to its own oppression. There’s always a tension between strong leaders (fascist or otherwise) pushing people around, and the people agreeing to go.

Culture workers understand the quiet force of social consensus and seek to move it in a positive direction. Male privilege, fossil fuel dependency, military economy: somehow the majority of us agree to these problems, whether we know it or not. This social consensus can be shifted through “culture work” such as popular education, independent music recordings, street theater, newsletters, social justice film festivals and discussion groups.

These are the types who turn protests into dance parties, have costumed soccer games, or revolutionary marching bands. Reclaiming public spaces for art and recreation is, for culture workers, an attractive alternative to the commodification of what was once shared.
Back to top

Independent media
A simple exercise will prove the point that our culture is dominated by a few commercial media conglomerates: Google the phrase “who owns what” and come to a site from Columbia Journalism Review that lists the top 20 or 30 companies that own almost everything in the North American media and entertainment industry.

For example, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns Fox TV, TV Guide, HarperCollins books, the LA Kings and 20th Century Fox, all of which feed into the corporation’s mutually reinforcing empire. Profit expansion and entertainment sedation go well together.

In response, there are media analysts (e.g., Nancy Snow), journalists (e.g., Amy Goodman, indymedia.org), broadcasters (e.g., NPR), programmers, publishers and others offering independent news, views and entertainment.
Back to top

Coalition builders
Change happens when people organize. Civil society, in the form of non-profits, NGOs or public interest research groups (PIRGs), can influence government policy (e.g., lobby for a higher minimum wage or rent controls). Or, they can create independent community services, like art classes in the inner city, cooking skills for low-income folks, health care, and tutoring.

Anti-poverty organizers meet fair-trade activists, organic food producers meet with bike mechanics from the worker cooperative. You could even say it’s like charity meets self-help. But it’s neither: this is people power.
Back to top

Insider allies
The ranks of the middle and upper classes and other privileged groups have well-meaning individuals who want to share power. Some of these folks may even favor radical change, change that challenges their own power. They’re convinced major change happens when people on the inside of major institutions act as catalysts.

On the grand scale, you’ve got your CEOs for climate change and rich celebrities stopping AIDS. Closer to home, you’ve got people like the civic bureaucrat who finds money for the food bank, or the police officer who initiates training in racism-awareness. Insiders may be crucial allies (or infiltrators, depending on your perspective).
Back to top

Among the ranks of every bastion of power, there are individuals who smell hypocrisy and hit eject. They become experts for how not to do things. Defectors pop out from all over the place: the military (like ““refuseniks”“:http://www.refuseniks.org/ in the Israeli Defense Forces who refuse to carry out operations in the West Bank and Gaza), the media (e.g., Jelly Helm), the church (some liberation theologians) and medicine (witness the rise in “alternative” health care). Others, like anarcho-primitivists, for example, wish to defect from industrial civilization altogether, favoring small-scale, rural off-the-grid living.
Back to top

Unlike defectors, who first enjoy mainstream status and then abandon it, dissenters speak out, often from the margins of their social group. Most newspapers, schools, churches and governments have their radicals/mavericks/loudmouths – they usually get tagged with a label of some sort. While annoying to many, these individuals often articulate frustration from below, problems with the status quo.

In theological circles, this dissenting voice can take the form of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (we could say “prophecy,” but that word is overused). Powerful characters are not assumed to be good; any concentration of power is meant to be challenged.
Back to top

Here the explicit strategy is to impede business as usual. To compare: Culture jammers disrupt but don’t force it on others. Dissenters offer subversive speech but leave the actions to others. Disruptives see the need for action now, and step in the way to impede business as usual.

Disruptives often enter the circle of power from a location on the fringe. A good example is when hundreds of cyclists merge on a street and flop to the ground in a “die-in.”

Perhaps the best-known agitator in the mid-twentieth century was Saul Alinsky (see his book, Rules for Radicals).

“My critics are right when they call me an outside agitator,” he said in an interview with Playboy in 1972.

“When a community, any kind of community, is hopeless and helpless, it requires somebody from outside to come in and stir things up. That’s my job – to unsettle them, to make them start asking questions, to teach them to stop talking and start acting, because the fat cats in charge never hear with their ears, only through their rears.”
Back to top

Cultural creatives
It’s worth mentioning this group as evidence of the “mainstreaming” of alternative values. Here we have concern for the environment, aversion to advertising, downplay of luxury living, and a spiritual sense of our interconnectedness.

They eat organic, ride nice bikes, give to progressive charities and read enlightening magazines (like Utne, Yes! and Geez). While they would claim to be making a broad cultural shift, sometimes it seems they trust radical change will just happen, or leave it to others to initiate. According to Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, authors of The Cultural Creatives, there are 50 million of these “optimistic, altruistic” people in the US.
Back to top

These are folks who occupy a subversive presence in both consumer culture and activism because they are able to curb desire and address root causes. Youth meditating in front of a police line, a woman who regularly goes to yoga class, a man who faithfully sees his spiritual director, a Buddhist who learns simplicity and interdependence – these people are a source of sustenance for the movement.

Joanna Macy, a Buddhist teacher and activist, uses public education workshops to examine our culture’s ailment and fortify our resolve to change things. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, started the Centre for Action and Contemplation. Rohr represents a growing awareness that action without contemplation can be draining and short-lived.
Back to top

Aiden Enns is publisher Geez magazine. This article is protected by Copyright 2007, Geez magazine. For permission to reprint in any form, contact Geez magazine at geezmagazine.org.

Issue 5

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 5, Spring 2007, Humanity Has Big Issues.

Like this article? Subscribe to Geez and get more like this delivered to your door, ad-free, four times year.

View comments, or leave one yourself

Hide comments

(No one has dared comment yet.)

Sorry, comments are closed.

Issue 5, Spring 2007

Get Our Newsletter

(Tasteful and spam-free, guaranteed.)

All content is © 2005–2024 Geez Magazine and its respective authors.   (Ascend)

Geez Magazine | 1950 Trumbull Ave. | Detroit, MI, USA | 48216