Social Stagnation and Cultural Change

2 March 2009


Rapid, dislocating social change is not for the faint at heart.

Rapid, dislocating social change is not for the faint at heart.

A couple of days ago in Permutations of Imagination I wrote, “This pervasive and relentless change that marks the world today has been embraced to a remarkable degree in popular culture.” Upon reflection I realize how potentially misleading this statement is, and for that reason I need to offer some qualifications.

Firstly, a clear distinction between social change and cultural change needs to be made. Each can be isolated from the other in theory, although in practice change in one will drive change in the other, and vice versa. Thus it is possible for a people to wholeheartedly embrace a culture of pervasive change even while living lives of social stagnation. Contrariwise, it would be possible for people living lives of dramatic social change to embrace a culture of unchanging verities.

Let me try to give an example, so I’m not merely talking in abstractions, as I have tendency to do. Historians of the Middle Ages sometimes note that the peoples of medieval Europe did not see that their world had changed significantly from that of antiquity. Where we see change, they saw continuity. And they saw continuity for ideological reasons. Because of a Biblical passage in the Book of Daniel predicting four empires followed by the end of time, together with the widespread belief that Rome was the fourth empire and that the end of time hadn’t quite arrived yet, it was thought among the learned that what we call medieval civilization, and regard as an entity distinct from the civilization of antiquity, was simply an extension of the ancient Roman Empire, admittedly down at its heels and expectant of the Millennium. I take this to be an example of a people living lives of social change but embracing cultural stasis.

One of many interpretations of the four empires in the Book of Daniel.

One of many interpretations of the four empires in the Book of Daniel.

My other example will be a little more familiar to most, because my other example is staring us all in the face each time we look in a mirror. Today those of us in the industrialized West (and perhaps also in the industrialized East) live lives of social stagnation even while we embrace a culture of continuous change. In my Political Economy of Globalization I used the phrase acculturation to absence of change in order to describe the strong resistance on the part of traditional societies to social change. But such resistance is not confined to traditional tribal societies.

The current recession adds a certain edge to resistance to change. Even when the economy was doing well, there was tremendous resistance in the US to meaningful economic change. And this is understandable. People want stable lives, and if they have a job that is relatively comfortable and earns them a living, they don’t want to be forced to do something different. Thus the fear that was inspired by NAFTA that jobs would be “exported to Mexico” (not withstanding the fear among Mexicans that cheap American corn and wheat would devastate these sectors of their near-subsistence economy). The worst politicians play on these fears. The last election campaign had the democratic candidates fighting each other to prove who was the most stridently opposed to NAFTA.

Because people fear for their jobs and fear for their livelihoods, they fear economic change, and economic change is tied to social change. There was scarcely any more profound social change in human history (other than the neolithic agricultural revolution) than the economically driven Industrial Revolution.

On the one hand, our contemporary culture celebrates change. Much has been written by commentators about the mythology of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who proves himself by tales of how many times he went bankrupt and yet bounced back. This is an extreme form of the American Dream, but the fact that it is celebrated in the media is significant. Most people quite simply don’t have the stomach to fail repeatedly and then jump back into the fray for more of the same. My Permutations of Imagination mentioned other signs of a culture celebrating change, such as the role of chaos theory in popular discussions of scientific innovations.

However, and on the other hand, we have, especially in North America, mature institutions of an industrialized society, and everywhere one looks there are signs of social stagnation. Social and economic structures, once very fluid in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, have become highly rigid. Social mobility is mostly an illusion. If your parents were rich, you will probably be rich. If your parents were poor, you will probably be poor (as I discussed in The Birth Lottery).

In such a social and political climate, each social group tends to jealously protect what it has, resisting any change as probably heralding painful re-adjustment to different social and economic conditions that could even destroy the social group in question. The rich content themselves with their vacation homes in The Hamptons and the poor content themselves with whatever they happen to have. There is little tolerance for risk. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Keep a hold of what you have, and be content with it. These are the mores of an essentially feudal society, and we can see our own world even today gradually slipping into a new feudalism.

None of this inevitable. One can easily imagine (after all, we are living in age informed by the possibility of imagining dramatically different futures, which is one reason we have a culture of tolerance of change) a radical technological breakthrough that would be a real “game changer,” forcing society to change in accommodation, rather than, as is usually the case, technology is adapted to serve the perceived needs of some society. We can also imagine what geopolitical theorists now call “strategic shocks,” that is to say, sudden and massive social or political change that upsets the established order and creates opportunities for those ready to take advantage of them.

Also, we aren’t quite so rigid that change is unthinkable. It is easy to point to examples of far more rigid industrialized societies. For example, French workers regularly strike when the government threatens to cut government jobs, or threatens any of the benefits attached to these plum positions. All over the world, in fact, people look to the security of a government job as the ultimate payday. In some societies this is viewed as part of a de facto social contract. The BBC recently ran a story about Moroccans with graduate degrees who have protested because of their poor job prospects. However, some of these protesting PhDs had refused work in the private sector because they thought they were entitled to a government job. Their complaint is, essentially, that the government should create a job for them whether or not it makes any economic sense to do so.

Things could be worse, and things could be better. That’s not very profound, but it is the way of the world. More importantly, we can, from this point, make things worse or make things better. And it is often difficult to recognize which is which.

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