Spring 2017 Winning Short Essay
Do you understand social change to be merely cyclical, and if so, is there a way out of the cycle? Or do you believe that it is linear, and if so, what can one do about the pushback?
A Discourse on Social Change
What would it mean for “social change to be merely cyclical”? To begin, we must consider what is at stake when we discuss “social change.” Presumably this phrase refers to a change in social relations, such as a shift from monarchy to democracy, the liberation of an enslaved group, or on a “smaller” scale, the achievement of recognition of a certain societal right through struggle of a particular group, such as gaining the right to vote for women and African Americans in the United States, or the fight for marriage equality.
In a sense, it is clear such changes in social relationships are not permanent- there are numerous historical examples of countries that moved from colonial rule, to democracy, “back” to dictatorship, and so on. Furthermore, (as we are painfully aware of in the United States today) smaller social changes, such as the institution of certain environmental regulations, can easily be wiped away when new social groups come into power. So, it would seem, social change is merely a matter of power changing hands for a short time, before “inevitably,” these gains are lost, in the entropic tides of History. However, before we come to such a conclusion, perhaps we should consider the given alternative.
If social change is linear, and apparent losses suffered through the pushback of those opposed to the changes won are merely temporary, then there is nothing to fear. What could grant us such certainty? Well, for one, the fact that social change is not a mere change of relationships between people amongst static material conditions, but rather these changes are brought about through transformation of the material relationships that constitute our work, and way of life- such as the well known swath of technological developments rendered through the Industrial Revolution, to the developments of computer technology we have seen in recent years. These technological developments, and the knowledge that makes such developments possible, is certainly not easy to erase, nor is it simple to force a people back into bondage. The material basis, the history, and the knowledge we share of how far we have come grants us a certain security against social “regression.”
And yet the slight fear in the back of our minds, growing by the day, that perhaps humanity will soon face apocalyptic conditions, due primarily to the careless environmental destruction we have wrought, seems impossible to forget as well. In fact it is shocking how normal casual apocalyptic discussion has grown; particularly since the development of nuclear weapons, it seems a real possibility that “humanity” could destroy ourselves. Such a development would certainly be “cyclical,” and sound somewhat reasonable, given our knowledge of a time before humanity. Even barring complete destruction of human beings, we could surely imagine drastic environmental conditions that would lead to a selfish brutality almost unimaginable to the modern consciousness.
It would seem then, that we are trapped between the hopeless despair of an eternal return of destruction, selfish violence, and suffering, and the impossible hope of a utopian freedom, where we all live equally, caretakers of each other and our planet. And perhaps the responsibility demanded by occupying such a genuinely contradictory position is precisely what it means to be a human being, with the frustratingly limited freedom we are granted. To erase the dark cyclicality, the always possible collapse of cooperative niceties, inherent in a society composed of the free decisions of none but ourselves, is to risk actualizing these dangers so willfully forgotten. Yet to condemn human beings to eternal regression and suffering is to do no better, as it is to forget the possibility of change towards greater freedom and equality, which have indeed been realized only through hopeful conviction. It would seem then, that the only responsible way we can think historical social changes, and the very possibilities of liberation such histories imply, is with the cautious yet hopeful resolution that such essentially indeterminate matters call for.