“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,” said Karl Marx in one of his most celebrated passages, which eventually became one of his two epitaphs (the other one being, “Workers of all lands, unite”).
Marx was certainly right to argue that social theories should be not just about understanding the status quo but also about offering a vision for its improvement; but he was wrong to imply that no one before him had thought like that.
For the last several thousand years at least, human beings have tried imagine a different world from the one they live in, and worked together to create it. Human history is littered with countless visions of – and struggles for – an alternative social order. These may have been large-scale social experiments based on elaborate theories, like Marxism, the welfare state or neo-liberalism. Or they may have involved daily struggles for survival, safety and dignity by oppressed and underprivileged people, even though they may not have had any sophisticated theory about their alternative world. However, the capacity to imagine an alternative social order and cooperating to create it is what distinguishes humankind from other animals.
Despite the fact that much of human history has been about attempting to create different realities, we do not understand the process of social change very well.
To be sure, we have grand historical narratives that describe social change as the results of interactions between technological forces and economic institutions, such as property rights; Marxism is the best example of this. We know quite a bit about the way in which society is transformed because of the changes in political-legal institutions, such as the court system or international trade agreements. We have interesting and detailed accounts of how certain individuals and groups – whether they are political leaders, business leaders, trade unions, or grassroots groups – have succeeded in realising visions that initially few others thought realistic.
However, we do not yet have a good theory of how all these different elements work together to generate social change. To put it a bit more dramatically, if someone wanted to know how she could change certain aspects of the community, nation, or the world she……
The post Ha-Joon Chang
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