Institutions are both the object and subject of most attempts to make change happen. The next five chapters will apply the conceptual framework of systems, power, and norms to the institutions that most activists belong to, ally with, or seek to influence.
People seeking change are often impatient, intent on addressing the problems of the world. In the words of one of the greatest activists of them all, they are consumed by ‘the fierce urgency of now’.1 From the perspective of ‘now’, institutions appear to be permanent and unchanging; in fact, they often depend on that appearance for their credibility. But ‘now’ is merely a moment on the continuum of history, and history shows us that the status quo is far less fixed than it appears. Yes, institutions are inherently conservative, but their normal (p.76) functioning provokes changes in the world, changes that buffet them and oblige them, over time, to either evolve or fail.
Examining history helps us question the world we take for granted, and understand what long-term trends are shaping it. By learning how today’s world has been constructed we can more realistically see how it can change. I recently lent Adam Hochschild’s wonderful history of the abolitionist movement, Bury the Chains,2 to my son Finlay. Confirming my view that this is the one book every activist should read, he found it a revelation. ‘What climate change, gross inequality, or poverty are for us, slavery was to them—a massive, immovable object. Yet, by being small cogs in a very large machine, driven largely by unexpected and uncontrollable factors, they were able to make a difference. So while it’s hard for us to see how we can possibly make a dent in something like inequality, we just have to remember that it’s been done before!’ He started to see everything differently—the people he passed in the street (whether black or white), the purpose and impact of activism.
History inspires a deep respect for the personal sacrifices and the campaigning acumen of our predecessors. In the UK, Friends of the Earth is running a fascinating exchange between historians and campaigners to learn from the activists of yesteryear.3 I was startled to learn that the Chartists (nineteenth-century democracy campaigners) at one point delivered a petition that was six miles long, with a third of the UK population signed up. And all without social media.
History can provide the intellectual ammunition to challenge the narrow orthodoxy of now. I vividly remember my ‘light-bulb moment’ back when I first took up international trade activism in the 1990s. It was provoked by a history book, Kicking Away the Ladder by Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang. He showed that the policies of (p.77) rapid liberalization that rich countries were then trying to force on poor ones were the exact opposite of the policies they themselves had used during their own take-offs. Rich countries used protection to build up their industries, and only later opened up their markets; now they were trying to force poor countries to liberalize straight away.
The double standards were breathtaking, and the impact of Ha-Joon’s book profound. At the WTO headquarters in Geneva, I saw how his concise presentation of history strengthened the determination of developing country governments and activists to resist the arm-twisting from rich countries, and how it sowed well-justified doubt in the minds of the liberalizers.
In systems terms, history reveals how different institutions emerged and evolved to reach the structure, culture, and practices we see today, offering useful insights on how to influence them. History inspires a healthy acceptance of pluralism, since institutions have taken many different paths.
History provides a kind of temporal positive deviance: by studying the historical outliers on any given issue, we get new insights and ideas. One of my next projects is to examine the politics and policies of redistribution that enabled dozens of countries to reduce inequality over periods of a decade or more.4 With inequality becoming an ever more pressing concern for activists and decision makers, it seems like a seam well worth mining.
History reinforces both curiosity and humility, an antidote to the hubris that sometimes afflicts the activist bubble. It reminds us that the conscious efforts of activists are usually less influential than accident or political and economic changes or ‘unusual suspects’.
Not every lesson of history is positive. The central role of conflict and war in driving change always depresses me. Luckily, history is not a straitjacket. Times change and institutions change. New factors, like technologies, women’s rights, or mass literacy, emerge to shake the (p.78) kaleidoscope of power and unleash the possible, as do new threats like climate change. History can be an engine of the imagination.
The next five chapters use the power and systems approach (PSA) to explore the historical evolution and current role of the institutions I consider central to achieving change: states, the machinery of law, political parties, the international system, and transnational corporations.
(1) Martin Luther King, Jr ‘I Have a Dream’, 28 August, 1963.
(2) Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (London: Pan Macmillan, 2012).
(3) Duncan Green, ‘What can today’s activists learn from the history of campaigning?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 26 November 2015, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/what-can-todays-activists-learn-from-the-history-of-campaigning/.