By “second-order social change” (SOSC) I mean social change that involves changing the algorithm by which first-order social change (FOSC) occurs. For instance, if, today, (first-order) social change occurs as the result of some complex function of mass media dissemination of competing memes (including technological and social institutional innovations) and competing organizational efforts to advance them, SOSC consists of altering that complex function through which these (and potentially other) variables pass to produce FOSC. A common example of proposed SOSC is campaign finance reform, which would alter the relative weights of the relevant variables and the ways in which they aggregate.
SOSC requires the same organizational efforts, the same mobilization of human and material resources, the same FOSC algorithm that current FOSC requires. But it is directed toward changes less in substantive public policies than in procedural public policies. Campaign finance reform, for instance, isn’t about providing people with health care, or educational services, or increased safety, or child and family services, but rather about changing the way in which one aspect of the processes which lead to such substantive policy decisions operates.
I’ve posted frequently on the importance of, for many purposes, focusing on procedures and methodologies over substantive conclusions and outcomes (see, e.g., Ideology v. Methodology, The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, The Elusive Truth, Scientific Misconduct: There’s No Such Thing As Immaculate Conception). And I’ve posted on what I believe are the procedures and methodologies that we should strive for in the realm of popular political participation to improve both the quality of policy ideas generated and our ability to implement them (see, e.g., A Proposal, The Ultimate Political Challenge, The Foundational Progressive Agenda, “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few). Finally, I’ve posted on the nature of the social institutional landscape that should inform our attempts at SOSC (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix, Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization, The Economic Debate We’re Not Having).
Campaign finance reform, while important and powerful, is a relatively superficial example of SOSC, addressing a relatively superficial layer of public policy formation (electoral politics). Electoral politics exists within a context of popular opinions and predispositions, and the more fundamental forms of SOSC that we might attempt address that context rather than the processes which occur within it. Current grass-roots and organizational political activism focuses too much, first, on the electoral and governmental dimensions of FOSC, and secondarily, the electoral and governmental dimensions of SOSC. By doing so, it not only fails to address deeper foundational and contextual elements of social change, but also replicates many of the errors that such deeper-level SOSC would address.
The question facing those engaged in efforts to effect social change is: How should my time, energy and money be distributed among the various possible investments in social change? For many, a single substantive issue is compelling enough to attract all of their attention, whether it is a particular substantive policy issue (such as health care, education, or child welfare), or a social issue addressed through private and charitable means (such as raising money to combat breast cancer). Some distribute their investment among a few such substantive issues. And some focus their investment in the political sphere, trying to advance a set of positions on a spectrum of issues by getting candidates from a particular party elected, and by pressuring them to vote in particular ways once elected. All of these are reasonable investments of time, energy, and money in individual attempts to affect our world for the better, and all have a place in the overall distribution of such investments that we, collectively, should make.
But grossly underrepresented in this mix is the investment in affecting the way individual ideological convictions are formed, by using the same ingredients as we use in all other efforts to effect social change, but directing them instead in the combined challenge of advancing the production and successful dissemination of the most well reasoned social institutional understandings and subsequent policy ideas. Taking on the challenge of affecting the zeitgeist, making it better informed and more conducive to the interests of humanity, may seem too vague and daunting, but, I argue, it provides a very large bang-for-the-buck. In fact, failing to address it any large-scale focused way leaves us trapped in the same old vicious cycles of relative ineffectiveness, alternating between euphorias of triumph and depths of despair as we continually find that even our victories seem too small and woefully insufficient.
Fortuitously, SOSC is in many ways easier to pursue than FOSC, and more so the more deeply contextual it becomes, because, for the same reason that efforts are disproportionately invested in FOSC and in relatively superficial SOSC, few people are mobilized to resist attempts to address deeper layers of SOSC, or forms of SOSC that don’t directly threaten any vested interests. Term limit legislation in Colorado, for instance, ended up contributing to a Democratic takeover by openning up Republican held seats that would otherwise have been held indefinitely by the incumbents.
Ironically, term limits in Colorado was championed primarily by Republicans, which demonstrates both just how necessary it is to employ very good analyses when pursuing SOSC so as to avoid undesired unintended consequences, and the extent to which those who might be considered the “losers” of the results of the change are less likely to mobilize opposition to it (in this case, having mobilized support of it instead). I suspect, too, that many of those Republicans who supported term limits did not feel that they had made a mistake when it cost their party the majority in both houses of the state legislature, because they were focused on the value of the reform itself, divorced from its partisan implications. SOSC, more so the more contextual it becomes, has the benefit of appealing to non-partisan values rather than to knee-jerk partisan allegiances, circumventing and penetrating to some extent the obstacles posed by blind ideological partisan convictions.
Those of us who want to work toward improving the quality of life in our communities, our state, our nation, and our world need to invest more of our time, effort, and money in second-order social change, and particularly in deeper contextual varieties of SOSC. Those are the pressure points where dramatic social paradigm shifts can be effectuated (see The Variable Malleability of Reality).