The reification of social change

There’s a lovely expression in this newsletter describing how pop-futurist Alvin Toffler reifies ‘change’ “into an autonomous abstraction, something that appears to cause itself, with consequences society must then adjust to”. It’s worth reflecting on quite how mainstream this move has become, particularly with regards to a centrism which sees politics as a matter of adapting (or failing to) in response to social change. The nature of that change has, ironically enough, changed over the years: globalisation, the internet, artificial intelligence etc. But the conceptual structure is retained in which this reified change stands as the independent variable to which people must adapt or be left behind, at every level from individual life through to nation states and non-governmental organisations.

The social analysis this gives rise to tends towards the inane, not least of all because it usually comes hand-in-hand with a ‘modernising zeal‘ i.e. those offering it imagine the spirit of modernity whispering into their ears. To depart from their assumptions is seen axiomatically as an unwillingness to face up to whatever mega-force currently preoccupies them, mistaking their own lack of intellectual curiosity for a determined commitment to looking the future in its face. It’s striking that Tony Blair didn’t use a computer until 2006 and it leaves me wondering how those prophets of modernity actually experience social change as a mundane feature of their everyday life, as opposed to seeing it as something diffusely incipient ‘out there’ waiting for them to realise it.

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