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Notes on Social Change

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Moral Influences on Change

In the first half of the 20th century, a popular view was that political economy was the dominant factor in producing social change, with the economic factors being emphasised. That has never been my view. During my 20s, I thought that political factors were far more important than economics. My views have changed since my psycho-analysis, and now I believe that moral factors have primacy.

To be more accurate, moral factors are enough to produce change in society as a whole, though the change in free-thinking individuals is more complicated.

Sub - Headings
Two Dynamics of Revolutions 
Success and Failure in Revolutions
Two Effects
Language and Values
Inadequacy of Political Economy

Consider important changes in society. There are four main factors that create these changes :

- Moral reform
- Social reform
- Economic reform
- Political reform

Moral values, social values, economic values and political values are components of power, so their boundaries overlap. Of these four types of values, those of morality take dominance during times of social change. Changes in social, economic and political values are responses to an overall change in the moral climate.

My understanding of history and of the subconscious and unconscious minds shows me that moral reform (aided by a revolution if necessary) is the first stage of change ; social, economic and political reforms are just ‘follow-up’ operations, the putting into practice of the ideas generated by the change in current moral standards. Social reform only affects the intensity or the fairness of existing social practices, whereas moral reform changes them. And in the Britain of the 1980s, the political swing to extreme right-wing conservatism was just the backlash against the moral values of the 1960s hippie generation.

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Two Dynamics of Revolutions

I justify my views by looking at the effects of social abreaction. This process underlies all significant changes within society. In this process, moral, social, economic and political values are intertwined. However, the ascendancy of moral values is demonstrated in the initial stage of social catharsis. [¹].

The most radical form of social change is a revolution, and so it brings out more clearly the dynamics involved.

Consider the French Revolution.
French society of that time was ossified into a power structure that was no long relevant to the age. Power needed to be re-distributed, especially to the rising middle classes. An out-of-date power structure is a structure that has become unjust in some ways. So the sense of injustice is always in the background of social unrest.

Revolution was the only way to break through the dead structure of French society. The initial impulse was centred around such ideas as freedom, equality and brotherhood. The concept of freedom, as it is defined in any age, is an aspect of individuality. By contrast, equality and brotherhood (or socialism) are aspects of social ethics. Of these ideas the most powerful dynamic was that of freedom. [ A dynamic is whatever intense desire or emotion is driving the person's state of mind.]

When any social structure is dying it is always a concept of freedom that is needed in order to break through existing constraints. Once such constraints are surmounted, then new social concepts can be developed in the wake of freedom. Whatever social concepts are advocated, they get their magnetism only if they rest on a subconscious dynamic of justice. A society based on equality, for example, is a more just one than one based on inequality.

In any revolution, the two essential dynamics are
freedom for the individual
and justice for society.

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Freedom is not a social or political value, since no social or political system can give a person freedom. For example: in the American civil war, Lincoln ‘gave’ the slave population their ‘freedom’, but this was only a freedom to remain second-class citizens. Lincoln took away the incentive for the negro population to attain real equality with the white population. In the same way, recent American - British wars against Afghanistan and Iraq have removed dictatorial regimes but left only chaos behind, not freedom.

Freedom is an amoral value, and the person has to achieve it by his own efforts. This is true even when freedom is narrowed down into particular concepts, such as political freedom, sexual freedom, religious freedom. Anyone who simply follows a fashion of freedom will quickly abandon it when it becomes proscribed.

In a revolution, a new concept of freedom initiates a social catharsis. This freedom will include new ideas on personal relationships. What is acutely desired is more harmonious and happy relationships which respect the individuality of each person. But ideas of harmony and happiness mix up moral and immoral desires. So in the wake of the new freedom, other desires, usually previously-inhibited ones, are given their head. This results in forms of new immorality parading alongside the new morality. This pot-pourri gives the moral disposition to the catharsis.

Sooner or later the catharsis ends and the backlash stage of social abreaction begins. The backlash of guilt and resentment against the licentiousness of a new time of freedom institutes the moral reform of society as a whole. Hence the new ideas on the ethics of individuality by a comparatively few free-thinkers end in generating a new social and political morality for the masses. The advanced individual can evolve through refinement of virtues and the practice of idealism. But society as a whole progresses through moral reform. Overall, the free-thinker can set his own moral agenda, but the mass of society have moral change imposed on them by social abreaction.

The evolution of humanity is a recurring process of left-wing (progressive) ideas leading to a new right-wing consensus.

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Success and Failure in Revolutions

In the large theatres of social change, left-wing revolutions end in right-wing conservatism only when moral reform is involved. This is because revolutions cannot radically change the existing social conditioning of the adults: the revolutionaries’ idealism cannot abrogate a lifetime of such conditioning. So revolutionary change really benefits the future generations, since their social conditioning will be different and perhaps less alienating.

The initial catharsis indicates that the revolutionaries are certain that a new and just society is being born, in which new relationships can be explored. Once catharsis fades away, the subsequent guilt induces reaction, despair and dis-illusionment. These effects ensure that the qualitative changes in the social relationships of the revolutionary actors are not great. Nevertheless, the social catharsis implies that it is moral change that is primarily needed and sought. Moral change is the principal determinant in social progress.

Political revolution is not always needed, but political change is. In France, revolution occurred first and the moral reform of society came in indirectly as the backlash. By contrast, in England of the nineteenth century, revolution had ceased to be an option ; the more fluid character of English society (as compared to French society) produced by the industrial revolution precluded revolutionary activity. The freedom that was desired was economic freedom, and this could be attained without resorting to revolution. In this situation the case for the moral reform of society was emphasised directly. The prime directive was that moral reform should precede social reform: the legacy of Dissent and Evangelicalism emphasised the moral priority.

The difference between France and Britain was that the French free-thinkers needed political freedom whilst the British middle-class wanted economic freedom. However, both movements ended by instituting moral reform.

The political scenario of revolutions always takes the highlights, yet the real dynamics of the revolutions remain obscure if the power of the subconscious mind is not understood. Moral reform does not begin from existing social or political or economic values. The catharsis that initiates change has its roots in the change in the virtues of the individual. Only when the individual person changes can society change. All revolutions and reform movements begin with individuals, but end as social productions.

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Two Effects

However, not all social change induces a backlash, leading to moral change. It all depends upon whether the leading ideas of social thought are progressive or not. I consider that history is primarily the history of significant ideas, played out in different social and political settings. From this perspective, these ideas can produce two different effects:

In the Britain of the 1980s, the political agenda was accountability for large organisations and businesses, under the umbrella of Thatcherism (which was right-wing conservatism). This might seem to be progressive, which it was to some extent, but it was more of a demand for government-run organisations to clean up their act. As such, it resulted from the resentment and bitterness phases of the social backlash from the 1960s hippie era. If this era had not existed, then neither would Thatcherism have existed.

Hence even right-wing politics that seem to be progressive actually depend on the previous existence of left-wing progressive ideas.

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Language and Values

I look at a drawback to an excessive reliance on faith in times of change. Morality is the belief system necessary for developing faith in an external authority, whether that authority is god, a teacher, or the traditional mores and values of society. Faith re-orientates a person’s systems of beliefs and values. However, the person may expect more than this, and use his faith to stabilise his character. If he does this, then he puts himself at variance with the process of change.

To flow with change, it is not enough to be stable ; the person has to be flexible. Too much stability inhibits change and will eventually make his beliefs and values ‘old fashioned’: he will lose the ability to respond to new problems and new challenges. To be able to flow with change, it is always advisable to retain a degree of instability in one’s character. A function of social abreaction is that it de-stabilises a person sufficiently enough to force him to respond to change. [²]

Moral reform also changes the use of language. Language, being a social product, contains embedded social values. [³]. When moral reform changes the existing social practices, it does so by changing the current set of social values. Therefore moral reform leads to change in language use. As values change so language use changes in tandem with them (the reason that American English is different from standard English is due to the difference in values between the two societies – as the values continue to change in different directions so the two languages will continue to grow apart).

Whereas, when social change is low-key and does not involve moral reform, then it does not lead to significant change in language. Hence a period of moral change always instigates impassioned public debates about values, whilst low-key social change only produces low-key public grumbles.

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Inadequacy of Political Economy

Morality has to evolve. It has to evolve beyond the limitations of its own resentment. It has to evolve into new visions of justice and equity. An understanding of psychology will facilitate this process.

How useful is political economy to this process ?
Political economy influences social change and may provide material well-being. The quality of a material life may be improved for some, or perhaps most, people – but not for all. (Western-style economics requires a sizeable pool of unemployed people in order for the economic system to work harmoniously for the rest of the population. When one country is in full employment, the unemployed exist in the importing countries). A minimum degree of material stability is required before a person can devote himself to personal development. However, political economy is inadequate by itself to stimulate quality of life based on psychological, ethical, or spiritual principles.

Material well-being by itself does not necessarily lead to the desire to transcend materialism – sensuality is too attractive. Look at modern Europe: the more widespread abundance of economic affluence in the last years of the twentieth century has had little effect on developing standards of ethical responsibility. The reverse is usually true. The equating of values to market forces has seen only a deterioration of social standards, of standards that focus on the community. Market forces do have some good qualities, but ethics is not one of them. Political economy is not as important as it was once supposed to be.

The best that can be said for market forces is that they destroy out-of-date community standards, thus paving the way for new standards to be created (by other agencies). For example: the rise of international political agencies that focus on issues such as conflict resolution between nations or the propagation of humanitarian values occurred through the combination of the destructive effects of political economy and the moral effects that resulted from two world wars.

In order to create a good society, political economy needs to be subject to ethical constraints and boundaries.

What does the social abreaction achieve?
If society manages to assimilate the tail-end stages of resentment and bitterness then the lasting effect is to have brought the social morality up to date. The new standards of morality offer a better solution to current problems than the pre-catharsis standards did.

My ideas centre on the view that what governs the evolution of society is moral reform, aided by new ideas on freedom and justice. Such a formula for reform is the springboard for a higher maturity. All other factors have secondary importance.

The dynamics of progress for society are fed by ideas of freedom and justice,
within the constraints and regulations of moral reform!


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[¹]. In my understanding of social abreaction, the starting condition is catharsis, and the end product is resentment and bitterness. I formulate two laws of social change to describe this process. See the fourth article on Abreaction : Resentment and Bitterness, section Social Abreaction. Catharsis itself is analysed in the third article on Abreaction : Catharsis and Suggestion.
A good analysis of the effects of resentment and bitterness on moral standards is given in books by Friedrich Nietzsche. For example, On the Genealogy of Morals. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R J Hollingdale. Vintage Books. [1]

[²]. This responsiveness to change mirrors the process of character transformation, which is a process of removing weakness from oneself. The process is one of changing from instability to stability, and then progressing to flexibility. See the article Character Transformation on my website  The Subconscious Mind. [2]

[³]. The view that language contains embedded values is briefly described in the article Morality. In more detail, this view is described on my website A Modern Thinker, in the article Language and Society. [3]

Additional ideas on social, economic and psychological change are described on my website Discover Your Mind, in the articles Changing Attitudes and Conflict and Change.

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The articles in this section are :

Notes on Morality - problems of childhood conditioning.

Notes on Social Change - primacy of moral influences ; revolutions.

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Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath
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Ian Heath
London, UK

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