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The case for hard: why social transformation demands lots of social friction

Hovering above the restrictions of place and culture, detached from democracy, and technocratic to its core, a new discourse favours a frictionless approach to solving social problems.

Credit: Karen Ockerman aka Mear One/http://notionalvalue.blogspot.com. All rights reserved.

At a New America Foundation breakfast discussion in New York in June, 2014, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed “the case for reparations” - compensatory payments to the descendants of those who were enslaved by the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Reparations are a hotly-contested idea in the United States, in part because they trigger many people’s fear of exploring the post-slavery legacy of racism. But Coates started his explanation of this resistance with poignant simplicity: "It's hard. It's very, very hard," he said.

Coates went on to delineate the conflict that emerged in America between the ideals of rugged individualism in a uniquely providential country; and the reality of constant plunder, violence and exclusion that runs through African-American history, perpetrated by both individuals and government institutions.

In emphasizing how hard it is to close this gap, Coates was not simply expressing empathy towards his fellow citizens at the daunting prospect of racial reckoning. He was also pushing back against the broader desire to find a ‘frictionless’ method of addressing racism and its effects.

Accepting collective responsibility for racism is painful, disorienting, and raw, and that means that reparations must be pursued through the most contentious institutions in society – namely social movements and government. The only real way out of the impasse America has created for itself is through, not around, these institutions and the struggles they represent, at both the personal level and in politics.

Over the past several decades however, many commentators have celebrated the continued decline of government and the increased freedom and mobility of capital, both in terms of economic production and the exchange of information. Neo-liberal globalization has eroded the power of preexisting public and social obligations, since corporations need not remain in any place that demands too much of them, to say nothing of their cosmopolitan profiteers.

One result of this process has been the emergence of a new discourse around social change in which the outsize impact of corporations and benevolent plutocrats is celebrated. Hovering above the restrictions of place and culture, and detached from democracy and public accountability, this new discourse favors a technocratic approach to social transformation in which solutions to the world’s problems are invented and imposed.

With an increasing focus on private institutions, and a fetishization of data in place of nuanced cultural narrative and history, private power has sold itself as more capable of advancing the social good than either public institutions or collective action. In the absence of obligatory transparency or accountability, greater speed and efficiency are certainly possible. And if enormous concentrations of money and power can be deployed for social benefit, why stifle them by introducing the friction of a democratic counterweight?

That’s a good question, but the answer is quite clear: the work of persuading a critical mass of citizens to take action on reparations or any other important problem is incredibly long and hard, yet in a democracy it’s also essential. By contrast, the vocabulary of many of today’s corporate leaders and “philanthrocapitalists” celebrates workarounds to democracy and public action in the same way that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs celebrate their ability to ‘disrupt.’ Both groups relish the ease with which they can accomplish their aims, once all competing interests have been neutralized.

For example, the CEO of Airbnb said this to the Wall Street Journal: "I want to live in a world where people can become entrepreneurs or micro-entrepreneurs, and if we can lower the friction and inspire them to do that…then this is the promise of the sharing economy."

Another recent article – this time published in the bible of philanthrocapitalism, the Stanford Social Innovation Review describes how “public sector innovators” are being “unleashed” to improve government “by replicating the market conditions that have long fostered breakthrough innovation in the private sector.” Examples include improvements to public parking systems that would “require the city to migrate away from an established system that employed many workers and relied on existing infrastructure - the type of situation that has long made it difficult to implement innovations in the public sector.”

Note that ‘innovation’ here seems to be a euphemism for ‘marginalizing workers and circumventing demands for transparency’ – in other words, removing the obstacles that are inherent to the democratic process. This use of language reveals the real weakness of this mentality: if a project can be made easy, (for example, by removing oversight or abolishing the need to negotiate with labour unions), then it must be an improvement, a better way of achieving social change.

The author Evgeny Morozov calls this ideology “solutionism” – “an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.”

Like most important public policy problems, however, reparations are ‘solutionism-proof.’ In a rebuttal to the rhetoric of those who want to achieve progress without obligation or sacrifice, reparations and other measures to address racism and racial injustice demand grassroots movements to prompt centralized state action. As Ta-Nehisi Coates concludes, “It’s not that the state owes [black people] anything, it’s that we are the state. We built the state.” Even a commentator as conservative as Howard Husock acknowledges that political reform provides the only avenue for the collective introspection and sacrifice that reparations demand: “to the extent that we decide, as a polity, to redistribute income for certain purposes, government can do so.”

There should and will be a ton of ‘friction’ involved in acknowledging the gut-wrenching truth of exploited labour and stolen property. Deciding on large-scale, redistributive action, particularly regarding the consequences of racism, is just about the most difficult mandate one could adopt in the United States. The answer to a national legacy of racial oppression cannot be arrived by short-circuiting democracy. It demands a level of personal inquiry, a willingness to sacrifice, and a commitment to collective action that is completely missing from the new discourse around privatized, high-tech, frictionless social change.

Reparations will be hard fought and hotly contested, with different interests marshalling the full forces of persuasion and debate. To truly address the legacy of racism, any resulting prescriptions will require the universal acceptance of collective responsibility. At the most basic level, this would mean persuading the public to accept either a new tax or vastly reshuffled government budget priorities. But the prospect of collective repayment for the exhaustive and formalized pillaging of black property, labour, families and more would force an entire society to recognize that it has been complicit in a history of systematic criminality.

Reparations are a crucible for tackling national myths about history and collective responsibility in America. Facing up to these myths would generate tremendous frustration, outrage, and potential political gridlock – so to those afraid of friction they would be ‘grossly inefficient’ to say the least. Wrestling with centuries of formal discrimination would impose obligations on everyone in the US, forcing people to reckon with painful narratives that are often marginalized or silenced.

But sanitized social change – carefully engineered and described in the most anemic terms available – isn’t change at all. Power concedes nothing without a fight, and the fight is always worth it. Reparations for racial discrimination show why the wrenchingly difficult processes of confrontation, negotiation and repair both rely on and encourage the human traits most crucial for deep-rooted social transformation: empathy, obligation, humility, sacrifice, patience and a never-ending commitment to democracy. 

About the author

Amy Schiller writes, researches and consults at the intersection of philanthropy, political theory, and feminism. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, The Daily Beast, and many other places. She is a PhD. candidate at The Graduate Center at CUNY, and has worked as a major gifts fundraising consultant, campaign director, and political organizer. Follow her on Twitter @justaschill and read more at amybessschiller.com.


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