It could be otherwise: contingency and social transformation
Credit: www.Pixabay.com. Public domain CC0.
As an avid social theory reader and pedagogue, one question particularly interests me: what are the intellectual tools needed to examine the social world and think critically about its transformation? Although it may seem abstract at first, I think a particularly important idea is contingency.
To say that something is contingent means that “it could be otherwise” – it is not necessary or inevitable that it exists as it is. Everything in the social world is contingent. All the institutions we are part of, the standards we follow and the practices we adopt could all be different because they were created by human beings. They only stay the same because people keep acting the way they do. If it stopped, everything would change.
It can be a real mindf**k for young people. It was definitely for me, when I was first encouraged to consider it as a 16-year-old sociology student in London. The idea of contingency helps overcome an important barrier to thinking and acting around transformation, which is the tendency to assume that the world around us is fixed, normal, or natural. This can foster a strong sense of possibility and empowerment, and make concrete change more plausible – essential seeds for any social movement. The idea of societal contingency helped spark revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries, when enough people stopped seeing their social order as divinely ordained.
In my work with groups of young people in Hackney, East London, I often show a video in which Steve Jobs, the ex-CEO of Apple, captures this point: “All you call life around of you was made up by people who aren’t smarter than you,” he says, “you can change it. Too often they are belittled in institutions and find themselves on the wrong side of prevailing social norms, so it can be liberating to think that these are human constructs that can be changed.
This basic understanding of contingency has value in galvanizing a sense of agency, but going deeper is essential if we are to think rigorously about social transformation. Jobs’ articulation is simplistic to the point of naivete, seeming to suggest that change is easy while ignoring interests, habits, structures, inertia and the kind of practical day-to-day necessities you rarely encounter if you’re a tech billionaire in Silicon Valley or Seattle.
Perhaps even more dangerously in terms of how we think about the social world, it also lumps together all that is humanly constructed as if it’s equally changeable, when it clearly isn’t. Gender, McDonalds, Ice Skates, and Cheese are all man-made, but they are not changeable in the same way, in the same timescale, or to the same extent.
Contingency is most fruitfully understood as a historical concept that can be used to examine specific features of the social world. To say something is historically contingent means that it could have happened differently from the beginning and could be very different in the future. It makes the social world less solid and less stable, drawing attention to the fact that all institutions, norms and practices were formed over time in particular places and through particular processes that did not have to be produce as they did – a way of thinking that has important consequences.
First, it challenges the idea of an “End of History” that is fostered in some corners of neo-liberal thought – the notion that liberal democracy has triumphed and will ever more prevail. Challenging this idea is an important prerequisite for social change, because the image of an unchanging political order numbs resistance. In his study of social obedience and passivity, for example, sociologist Barrington Moore uses a series of historical cases to show how “at many times and in many places” the perception of a “permanent present” has been a powerfully conservative force in creating an atmosphere of passivity and quietude.
Second, thinking historically helps convey the fact that different features of the social world are contingent to different degrees and in different ways. When thinking about transformation, it’s essential to consider that what you value most might have been formed very differently over time, but it might also be disappearing. Along the same lines, what you despise most might be stubbornly persistent. Thinking in this way helps guard against complacency about what must be continually defended, acquiescence toward what must be continually challenged, and the inability to judge between the two, which is fundamental to any successful engagement in social and political activism. .
Take the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), for example. If you grew up seeing the NHS as an inescapable part of the British political make-up and an everyday institutional reality, it can be easy to see it as normal, pervasive and unchanging. But looking at the NHS through the prism of historical contingency – particularly at a time when it is under threat – shows that none of these things are true. And it helps to mobilize concerns and illuminate the possibilities ahead.
The NHS was born out of particular historical circumstances – created after a period of war which resulted in greater national solidarity; by a Labor government with strong popular support; at a time when the “forward march” of the broader labor movement seemed inexorable; and as part of a broader project of building a welfare state designed to guarantee basic well-being for all.
Even so, its birth and development was never easy or straightforward. The NHS initially faced stiff opposition from some doctors, and less than three years after its creation it was already being modified, moving further away from its founding principle of free healthcare for all. In 1951, Labor Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell introduced prescription charges for dental care and eyeglasses, upsetting Nye Bevan (the architect of the NHS) so much that he resigned as Minister of Labour. In his resignation speech, he dismissed those who called the matter “trivial”, saying: “Avalanches start with the movement of a very small stone…The pebble starts, but no one takes care of the pebble until until it progresses, and soon everyone the valley is submerged.
Given the increasing commodification of the NHS, it’s clear the ‘rocks’ have since been moving and an avalanche isn’t out of the question. At a time when many believe the public health system is being quietly dismantled, it is useful to recognize that the NHS has never been invulnerable: it has always had both forces weighed against it and people dedicated to defending her – the “people left with the faith to fight for her,” as Bevan so aptly put it.
This consideration of historical contingency is important for activists because it provides insight into the precariousness of the social institutions they want to protect or transform. Similar ideas have been deployed in current Brexit debates, especially in progressive circles. A fundamental difference between the Lexit and Another Europe campaigns is their divergent narratives of the historical contingency of the European Union. For Lexiters, the EU is and always will be a neoliberal club, and its history demonstrates that all alternative possibilities are minimal.
On the other hand, those who push for another Europe make a positive argument for its contingency. For them, the EU is a dynamic project that has evolved throughout its history, so that it can be transformed into a force for progressive action. Looking at the question through the prism of historical contingency doesn’t give you an answer, but it does help you think about what is fundamentally at stake.
Ideas about contingency are invoked in different ways in a wide range of political arguments. In social policy, for example, some argue that the nuclear family is a natural necessity to be adhered to, while others say it is contingent and should be modified or preserved. Anti-globalization protesters claim that capitalist expansion is not a historical inevitability but a contingent process that can be contested. And a cornerstone of critiques of contemporary gender norms is the idea that gender is a fluid social construct that depends on time, place, culture and ideology.
Understanding contingency can help us better critique political arguments, examine the social world more rigorously, and define our positions on crucial issues. The current social order did not arise by chance or necessity, and neither will those that will replace it in the future. It is up to us to discern what is more contingent and what is more resilient; judging what is worth defending and what needs to be challenged; and act on our decisions.