I went on holiday last week and it rained, a lot, so I had plenty of time to read. One of the books I read was ‘Two Cheers for Anarchism’, James Scott’s latest book, and it really got me thinking. First, it resonates strongly with the work the Power, Participation and Social Change team at IDS has been doing on Unruly Politics, and second, if we are to take Scott’s argument seriously, it has huge ramifications for the ‘development project’.
So what is Scott saying? He isn’t saying we should get rid of all governments and become anarchists, but he is saying that if we see like an anarchist, or adopt an ‘anarchist’s squint’ as he calls it, we will see the history of social change differently. We will see that change happens through messy political contestation and perpetual uncertainty, it is not organised, it doesn’t happen through institutions, and it often occurs through unruly acts that do not have clearly articulated demands attached to them. He acknowledges that such acts can lead to an increase in state repression, and therefore do not automatically lead to progressive social change, but his basic premise is that ‘extra-institutional protest is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for major progressive structural change’. And many of these protests will constitute illegal acts, violence and, by definition, be uncontrollable.
So what does that mean for those of us, like the researchers here at IDS, who try to not only understand social change, but somehow to influence it too? Does it mean we should all quit our jobs and go out and start a riot? Maybe, but even then we can’t be sure that it won’t mean we end up in prison and the government introduces more draconian laws against protest. But, as a researcher, it got me thinking about why Scott’s argument makes me, and many others, feel uncomfortable. Intellectually, I get it, I agree with it. But practically, and personally, I find it difficult. I find myself returning to Lenin’s question, ‘but what is to be done?’ I want to be able to know that I can act, and organise with others, and that this will make a difference, it will contribute to social change. And this made me think back to another book I read not long ago, ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’, by Alain de Botton. He talks about the idea of ‘meaningful work’, where someone can make an imaginative connection between what they have done and their impact on others. Of course, what counts as meaningful will depend upon the values of that person and the society they live in, but my values tell me that meaningful work for me is one where I can ‘make a difference’.
The challenge Scott poses us, is that this desire to know whether or not one has ‘made a difference’, is precisely what takes the all important politics out of social change. Our desire to ‘objectively’ measure whether or not a development project has been successful, for example, deprives us of the important political debate about what assumptions underlie the supposedly objective definition of ‘success’. Our desire for clear, uncontested narratives, that explain how social change happens, make us impose causation where perhaps it didn’t exist, and blind us to the disorderly, unplanned, and unpredictable acts that disrupt order and drive progressive social change.
Katy Oswald is a Research Officer at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS. She can be found on Twitter: @ogmog