This article, written by Olli Tammilehto, has been published in Social Ecology and the Right to the City - Towards Ecological and Democratic Cities edited by Federico Venturini, Emet Degirmenci and Inés Morales, Black Rose Books, Montréal 2019. You can republish it in English or in any other language but you should first inform the author.

The Present is Pregnant with a Social Ecological Future

A key focus in social ecology has been profound societal change. This has thought to mean a period of groundwork after which there would be a rapid revolutionary transition. Social movements especially in cities are seen as agents of the change to decisively more democratic and ecological society. This article is a contribution in understanding the dynamics of major societal shift and the role of movements. It develops a theory of already existing another world, “shadow society”, that makes rapid societal transition, “societal phase shift”, possible.

The first section of this article sketches out western thinking about gradual versus abrupt change in nature and society. The following section describes historical and recent instances of abrupt social change. The third section introduces the concepts of 'shadow society' and 'shadow personality' and delineates how they help to understand the dynamics of societal phase shift. The fourth section outlines how abrupt changes have been theorized in biology and asks if this theory can be applied to society and how it relates to the theory based on shadow society. The last section inquires the meaning of societal phase shift perspective for social movements and their strategies.

Gradual versus abrupt change in western thought

The paradigm of gradual change has been very influential in western thought. According to it real change happens only little by little (Brinkmann, 1974; Scoville, 2017). To force abrupt change is dangerous. Since Aristotle's time the principle “nature does not make jumps”, in Latin “natura non facit saltus”, has had a wide adherence in natural philosophy (Franklin, 1986).

Also in social and political philosophy and in social sciences gradualism and its variation, reformism, have been popular. Social evolution has usually been interpreted happening bit by bit in a fashion opposite to revolutionary change. Revolutions are considered to be normal in technology but not in society. Technological revolutions are thought to come about because of the inner logic of scientific research and market competition. They are something to which society and people must just adapt. However, according to the cultural lag theory, social structures follow technical change only gradually (See e.g. Wilterdink and Form, 2009). On the other hand, if social revolutions occur, they are doomed to fail. Since the French Revolution the phrasethe revolution devours its children”1 has been repeated frequently.

After the revolts of 1968 and after the post-modern turn it has been common to think that even aspirations to a revolutionary change are inherently dangerous. They contain a totalizing view on society which – if the movement in question is successful – is bound to lead to a totalitarian state (See e.g. Best and Kellner, 1997).

Yet, as a matter of fact, even nature does make jumps. This is most obvious in phase shifts. For example, ice turns into water in 0 oC without any intermediate stage. Ice does not become softer and only then liquid. There is a clear-cut jump in the constitution of H20.2

Leaps take place also in macro-scale. For example, a clear-watered shallow lake can become turbid or muddy abruptly even though the flow of nutrients to the lake has been constant for a long time (see e.g. Scheffer et al., 2001). Also the global biogeophysical system has had many rapid shifts during its aeons. A geological period may have ended and a new started very rapidly – even just in one year (see e.g. Masson-Delmotte et al., 2013). The man-made climate change we are now experiencing may also have leaps in near future – e.g. because of the disappearance of the summer ice sheet on the Arctic. The jumps would have catastrophic consequences (see e.g. Collins et al., 2013).

Thus, gradual change is only one side of the behavioural pattern of nature. The other side is that in certain situations nature does not change bit by bit but by leaps and bounds. Below, when dealing with regime shift theory, we present a way of understanding these two sides of the workings of nature.

Abrupt social changes in the past and present

Rapid and extensive social changes are common as the consequences of wars, collapses of stock exchange etc. Yet, usually societies remain structurally the same after such changes. Therefore you cannot speak about societal phase shift or a change in the basic functioning of society. However, in some cases local or wider society go abruptly through a fundamental change.

When an earthquake, destructive flood or other natural disaster destroys the physical infrastructure of a locality, it also knocks down social hierarchies and market relations. However, according to many empirical studies social chaos or general panic does not usually ensue. Only the elites panic because they loose their power (Solnit, 2009; Quarantelli, 2001; Clarke and Chess, 2008). The rest of the population starts immediately to organize horizontally: they form grass-roots rescue teams and arrange food shelter and other support for survivors (Solnit, 2009; Fritz, 1996; Stallings and Quarantelli, 1985). Thus new, egalitarian social structures arise in a moment.

Fundamental structural changes happen also during social revolutions or insurrections. In Finnish language 'revolution' is vallankumous that literally means abolishing power in the sense of domination. This gets close to what often has really happened in the first stages of historical revolutions. Various hierarchies and many kinds of domination (power-over) dissolves. In place of them councils, factory committees, assembles and other entities pursuing direct democracy are created. These organizations certainly have a lot of power-to or capabilities to get things done co-operatively but power-over or domination is severely restricted. Unfortunately this stage has usually lasted only a short period of time, and old domination structures have been restored or new ones created. (Bookchin, 1996; Bookchin, 1998; Foran, 2002)

Many examples of such grass-roots-democratic organizing during revolutions include the following:

Thus, as in nature, gradual change is only one of the ways how society modifies itself. In certain situations abrupt structural changes happen in societies. In the next section we set about finding an explanation for this.

Shadow society and abrupt change

How is it possible for society to change abruptly? One explanation is that society is never a fully integrated whole. In any society there are always conflicts, fractures and undercurrents. These are so wide-spread that you can speak about shadow society that exists besides the official society3.

An essential part of shadow society is shadow economy. It comprises goods and service production and distribution that are not recognized in the official economy and thus usually not taken into account when calculating Gross National Product (see e.g. Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies, 1999; Gibson-Graham, 2006).

This economic field is referred by many terms with partially overlapping meaning: unofficial, social, autonomous, post-capitalist, expolary, community, solidarity, subsistence, traditional, unregistered, indigenous, underground, family, black, grey or lumpen-bourgeois economy or third sector (Shanin, 1999). Examples of it include unpaid service production in households; unofficial exchange of goods and services among friends, acquaintances and neighbours; and unpaid peer support in solving various technical problems. Shadow economy is huge especially in poor countries but even in western Europe it is about as big as the official economy when measured in working hours (Stiglitz et al., 2009 p. 127). Above shadow economy has been conceptualized in terms of flows – production, distribution and consumption – as is common in economic discourse. However, it can also be perceived in terms of reserves or accumulated resources. From this perspective it is easy to see that both official and shadow economy are based on vast amount of resources that are not paid for and that are not included in economic calculations. Part of this common wealth is human-made such as our cultural heritage. Most of these reserves are, however, created by nature during millenniums and aeons. When a resource of this kind is taken care of by a local, regional or global community we can speak of a commons. Commons play an essential role in shadow economy and many popular movements have risen to defend commons against their encroachment by capitalist economy (see e.g. Bollier and Helfrich, 2012; Berkes, 1989).

These movements belong to a large body of social movements that create and change the rules under which they live and thus are important political actors4. Yet usually political discourse ignores these actors and keeps silent about them. Accordingly, there exists a kind of shadow polity alongside with shadow economy. A part of shadow polity are also internal decision making processes in social movement and informal groups. In many cases these processes try to prefigure really democratic decision making in a hoped-for future society (Day, 2005; Graeber, 2013). In situations where open movements or social action groups are too hard or impossible to organize, shadow polity takes the form of invisible resistance including loitering, disobedience and sabotage. That kind of activities have been widespread in peasant societies and in state-socialist – aka state-capitalistic – countries (Scott, 1985; Filtzer, 1996; Kopstein, 1996).

Shadow society carries on the traditions of countless movements and former less hierarchic and more democratic societies which have tried to turn the course of history to another direction. Murray Bookchin calls this important history “the legacy of freedom”, knowing of which can lessen the control of future5 by the powers-that-be (Bookchin, 1982). The concept of 'democratic civilisation' of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan has similar meaning (Öcalan, 2016).

As human beings are social creatures, social conditions are reflected also on the individual level. Like society, hardly any human mind or personality is fully integrated whole. In different social circumstance we think and react differently and make different value judgements. This idea has been common during recent decades in post-structural thought: in different discourses the same person takes different subject positions (see e.g. Foucault, 1982; Henriques et al., 1984). Also it has been widespread in Buddhist philosophy (see e.g. Kvaløy, 1992). Yet, the idea of the normality of mildly divided self has appeared occasionally also in the mainstream western philosophy ever since Aristotle. It has come out when discussing the phenomena of self-deception and weakness of will or akrasia (Aristotle, 1925 bk. VII; Rorty, 1988).

Accordingly we can speak about shadow personality that manifests itself when people act in shadow society. We can include to it also many traits that are repressed in the present social circumstances. They exist only as desires and dreams, often only on a subconscious level6. This sphere of the unfulfilled and subliminal constitutes a hidden potentiality in any human being.

We can now put forward an explanation for rapid and profound societal change: In natural or human-caused disasters and revolutions all the functions of the prevailing society weaken or stop working altogether. This side of the society moves to the background. At the same time the repressed, under-used or underestimated functions of shadow society become essential. The other side of the society gets stronger and moves to the fore. The roles of these social spheres are swapped. The same happens on individual level: shadow personality come to the fore and the former normal must go by the wayside.

Yet if the new situation stabilizes it is conceivable that in the new shadow society qualitative changes occur: it does not any more represent only the former dominant society but in part of it develops seeds and seedlings of new social forms ready to come to the fore in the next societal phase shift. The process of social change may have a dialectical character as many thinkers have proposed (see e.g. Marx, 1996; Bookchin, 1990; Bhaskar, 1993).

In a sense the theory of shadow society is a generalization or an extension of the theory of dual power in social ecology (Bookchin, 2000; Biehl, 1998 pp. 123–124). The dual power theory deals with the best case scenario where social movements have been able to organize a strong counter power based on a confederation of municipalities before the societal phase shift. This hasn't been the case in most historical revolutions: most of the organizing has happened during and after the shift. The theory of shadow society tries to explain why the shift was and will be possible in these bad cases.

Regime shift theory in biology and its relevance to society

We could leave our pursuit of understanding abrupt social change at this. However, it would be good to get more nuanced picture of societal phase shift, especially of the social dynamics during the period of approaching rapid change. Therefore it might be useful to look how rapid structural changes are understood in biology and see if those ideas could be applied to society.

In ecology regime shift theory has been popular during recent decades. It is a development of complexity theory, which originated in mathematics as a branch of theory of non-linear systems. Complexity research tries to understand how complex systems can have simple, system-wide behaviour. A regime is a certain behaviour pattern or an oscillation range of an ecosystem. Regime shift theory tries to understand, on the one hand, how a certain regime is maintained or why normally the variability of the system is within certain bounds, and, on the other hand, how a rapid shift to another regime is possible. (Scheffer and Carpenter, 2003; Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2015)

The key is the existence of negative and positive feedback mechanisms or loops. They are phenomena where the “output” of the system has an effect on its “input”. Negative feedbacks maintain a system in its present regime. For example, when an influx of nutrients increases the amount of turbidity causing algae in a lake, the number of daphnia (small plankton animals) that eat them also increases. Therefore the clear-watered regime is maintained.

Positive feedbacks, instead, try to move the system to a different regime. E.g. a small increase in turbidity kills some big water plants which protect daphnia. Therefore fish catch more easily daphnia allowing algae to grow. The following turbidity increase kills more plants which means that more daphnia get caught causing more turbidity and so on (Scheffer and van Nes, 2007; Jeppsen, 1998).

In normal circumstances negative feedbacks dominate and the regime is preserved. Yet, in a situation where the system has reached its tipping point, negative feedbacks may weaken and/or positive feedbacks may become so strong that the system starts rapidly to move to another regime.

Could this model be applied to society? What were the feedbacks that maintain the present order or try to change it? We could categorise as negative feedbacks all processes that gain strength when social order is endangered. For example, when a social change movement grows, there are attempts to undermine its influence by two opposite processes: On the one hand, a part of the movement is marginalized by labelling it violent and extremist, something from which ordinary people should keep at a distance. On the other hand, another part of the movement is integrated to the powers-that-be. It starts to seem that the movement proper is not any more needed because it has representative in the power structures. (Mathiesen, 1982; Neocosmos, 2018)

Positive feedbacks, on the other hand, could be conceptualised as processes that potentially get stronger when there is a challenge to the present order. For example, a social movement may encourage new people to join this or other movements or to form new ones. A stronger and more versatile movement scene may encourage still more people to join, and so on. The same applies to many other things that happen in shadow society. For instance, experiences in shadow economy may provoke thoughts how things could be and delegitimize the prevailing order stimulating other activities in shadow society and so on.

One could continue the adaptation of the language and results of regime shift and complexity theory but it is not possible within the scope of this essay. Yet complexity theory is part of systems theory to which Bookchin and many other thinkers have an aversion because of its mechanistic approach (Bookchin, 1990 p. 149). The aversion is justified in regard to much of system discourse. However, complexity research goes beyond mechanistic models and tries to understand entities with memory, history, evolution and "revolutions" (Ernst, 2009; Ramalingam, 2013 p. 142). In fact it has much common with dialectical thinking (Ernst, 2009).

Nevertheless, complexity theory operates with many of the same concepts as the rests of the systems approach, like that of feedback loop. This is a significant problem if it results in forgetting the uniqueness of life and human society. One solution is to take some relevant ideas from regime shift theory but formulate them in a different language. For example “positive feedback loop” could be “self-reinforcing social process” and “negative feedback” could be “self-attenuating social process”.

Societal phase shift and social movements

So, what is the relevance of all of this? If the above theory of shadow society that makes abrupt social changes possible is a partly adequate way of understanding society, what are the consequences?

First of all, this view can give hope in our seemingly hopeless situation. Climate change, biodiversity loss and other dangerous trends will lead to a global catastrophe if they are not stopped soon (See e.g. Steffen et al., 2015). It is easy to see that the reason for inaction are the structures of our society. Yet, social change is usually thought to be very slow. This contradiction creates hopelessness. Therefore, seeing that in principle society can change very rapidly brings hope.

However, in this chain of thoughts lurks a danger. It can create a complacent attitude: Our analysis shows, that revolution happens anyway. We don't have to do anything – just wait and relax. This is wrong conclusion: the countercurrents or positive feedbacks on which societal phase shift or revolution is based, are precisely our activities. If we are not active, countercurrents will be too weak and there won't be any revolution or, if it starts, it will fail quickly.

Although this analysis does not weaken the importance of movements and alternative projects, it provides another perspective for them. Making a systemic change in society is not building a new society one block at a time. Movements and projects cannot do it because no one knows which of their achievements will remain, and under present circumstances it is probable that many of them will falter. Instead, a reason why these activities are important is that they defend existing shadow society and prefigure what society should and could be after a phase shift. Another reason is that they advance and work out processes – which can be called positive feedbacks – that, when a suitable situation arise, shift society to another phase, in other words, contribute to a revolution.

So far in societal phase shifts “grassroots regime” has lasted only a short period of time. There are many reasons for the restoration of the hierarchical order. Outside pressure or even war has enforced the return. But often inside forces had an important role. For example, in the Russian revolution Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik party were instrumental in suffocating the grass-roots democratic institutions that sprang up all over the country in 1917 (Bookchin, 2004; Brinton, 1975).

For many it is difficult to believe that the grassroots democratic regime is the real thing on which the future of society could be build. They think that this is just a party after which the Party takes over and surpasses the “inefficient” grassroots structures. Indeed, real democracy is very different from the present governance with its hierarchical structures.

However, for most people it is not so strange because, in its embryonic form, it has been widely exercised in the shadow society. Keeping in mind the utter destruction and misery caused by the existing order and the bleak or non-existent future it is promising for us, one may wonder if we are under a spell of some sort when we regard the predominant society as normal. Perhaps the feeling that this is normal and there are no alternatives is an effect of the distorted mirror that the prevailing society and its cultural machinery keep in front of us. Shadow society and its blossoming in crisis situations may give a more adequate image of what we are and what future society could be.


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1Originally in French (du Pan, 1793 p. 80) as: "A l'exemple de Saturne, la révolution dévore ses enfants."

2An abrupt change takes place if the solid is crystallized. Some solids – e.g. glass – are not crystallized and they turn into liquid gradually. These solids are called amorphous. (See e.g. Complex Systems Group, 2015)

3I have developed this thesis earlier in (Tammilehto, 2010; Tammilehto, 2012). A similar theory is presented in (De Angelis, 2007).

4Heywood in his widely used textbook defines 'politics' as “the activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live” (Heywood, 2013 p. 2)

5As George Orwell writes in his novel Nineteen eighty-four: “'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'” (Orwell, 1955)

6The situationists hinted at revolutionary desires that are repressed but exist in the subconscious (Baumeister and Negator, 2005 pp. 38–40; Situationist International, 1963)


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