Autonomy-supporting reforms

By Graham Jones

Debates around the nature and speed of political change tend to hinge on a dichotomy between ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’. Proposals and strategies are often dismissed out of hand based on how they fit this preconceived framework: one either rejects large scale, rapid change as uncontrollable and totalitarian, or on the other hand rejects incremental changes as easily undoable and keeping us wedded to dominant social structures. Whilst both of these positions are clearly based on historical precedent and can be useful heuristics in certain situations, they are nonetheless generalisations that flatten our understanding of the dynamics of social change. It prevents us, for example, for understanding how individual reforms can have a knock-on effect that later lead to more ‘revolutionary’ changes. Is it possible therefore to think of reforms without reformism?

One increasingly popular attempt to overcome this binary is Andre Gorz’s concept of ‘non-reformist reforms’, in which reforms are carried out by a government that enable large scale transformation. Here, reforms are not dismissed simply on the basis that they do not lie within bounds considered acceptable to reproducing the current system, as they are in ‘reformism’. In his words, struggles for non-reformist reforms:


“assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.” (Gorz, 1968)


The fact that this is a ‘non-institutionalised force’ indicates that it is a question of whether reforms increase the power and autonomy of grassroots social movements. However, the ways in which the non-reformist reforms concept is being used do not always emphasise this element of autonomy, or fail to analyse it in detail.

(The following argument may seem to be little more than an ‘argument over semantics’, but given that the different uses of a concept can have real world policy implications, it’s an important discussion to be had. Following this however, I will turn to an examination of some dynamics of reform that hold regardless of how we choose to frame them.)

There have been a number of applications of this concept to the contemporary context, citing proposals such as a basic income, a shorter working week, or – in the US context – single payer health insurance as examples of non-reformist reforms. All of these in one way or another clearly support the potential for building a social movement, through securing the time, resources and health necessary to organising. But one of the key problems in most current Western contexts is that, should a left wing government get into power and enact such changes, they may well be out of power a few years later, and those reforms faced with their removal. In such a case, any ‘autonomy’ previously created by those reforms may be revealed to be illusory, as our close coupling to the state or to a particular piece of legislation comes back to bite us. In a radically interconnected world there can never be full autonomy from the effects of those around us – there are degrees of distance and intensity in any relation. We have to ask therefore not simply whether a reform will assist in the building of movement, but of the nature of the autonomy it provides: For whom? From what? To what degree? And for how long?

There is a second danger baked into the concept, in the implication that the ‘non-reformist’ element lies in the enaction of reforms themselves. The reforms are in fact merely clearing the playing field for a grassroots movement to increase its own power. The same reforms without that movement would not have the same character. The power lies in the reciprocal relationship between the institutional actors and the movement, not merely within the reforms themselves.

Although one might argue that both of these problems are surmountable through a proper elaboration of Gorz’s intentions, we rub up here against a perennial problem with the dissemination of concepts (or their ‘meme-ification’): entropy. As a term gains popularity, much of the original meaning will be sloughed off and it will attain its own associations. Any attempts at recontextualisation will struggle to scale at the rate that a concept disseminates. The structure of the term itself however can be altered to help tend it towards an alternative interpretation. It is for these reasons – to preserve as the key target of ‘non-reformist reforms’ the autonomy of a coherent social movement external to the state – that I propose reframing these as ‘autonomy-supporting reforms’.

As a positive term, autonomy-supporting reforms also breaks us fully from the concept of reformism, no longer allowing us to judge the appropriateness of a reform in terms of whether it negates reformism. Instead, the particular material situations into which a reform would be enacted are always the focus. Abstract debates over whether a reform like ‘basic income’ constitute a non-reformist reform in their essence are then meaningless – what have to be shown are the expected effects of a reform in a particular context. In one context, basic income may have that effect, whereas in another it may not. (Autonomy has previously intervened in this debate to precisely this effect – arguing that whether basic income is ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing’ depends on the wider policy context in which it is enacted).

With that stabilising intervention in the realm of semantics, allow me to try and embed some further specificity of meaning into autonomy-supporting reforms. (Meaning which may also become victim to that same entropy, but setting these down here at least puts us on the right initial footing). We noted two problems associated with reformism: reversibility and slow pace. We ultimately want changes which are rapid and irreversible, but without the uncontrollable dynamics and unaccountable processes which are often associated with them. I turn here to some analyses that I have developed in my book The Shock Doctrine of the Left, which views social bodies through the lens of complex adaptive systems theory.


Reversibility and thresholds


Sometimes small changes have small effects. Sometimes small changes have massive effects. One way to parse this difference is to think in terms of thresholds – or tipping points – which are crossed. Take a metaphor of walking around a mountain. Depending on your immediate surroundings, taking one step forward might simply lead you forward by one step; it could lead you to fall on your face as the ground drops a few feet more than expected; or it could lead you tumbling off the cliff face hundreds of metres. And in each case it is not only the distance of change that differs, but how reversible it is.

These kinds of irreversible thresholds can be found in all sorts of systems – everything from the threshold of Jenga pieces beyond which removal makes the tower collapse, to the threshold of oxygen deprivation beyond which brain damage occurs. In both cases, we can go back until we hit the threshold, at which point there is no return.

When it comes to reforms then, we can think in terms of the relative reversibility of the reform in question. The actual building of material infrastructure is less reversible than an increase in taxes – the latter can be reversed with the flick of a pen, whereas physical structures have to be actively dismantled.

Reforms which bring about changes which do not require continued coupling to the state are some of the least reversible – education for example, may have its funding cut, or curriculums changed, but those people previously educated retain that education. Introducing community organising skills into school curriculums – though certainly an unusual step – could be an extremely effective innovation in building class power. Something like publicly funded health insurance however can disappear as quickly as it is brought about. Both are able to play a part in the building of a movement, but where the effects of the former maintain some autonomy from the whims of the state, the latter is less secure.

As previously mentioned however, the reversibility of a reform is not necessarily inherent in the reform itself, but partly a result of the movements that produce it, how a particular reform is framed, and how people are involved in that process. If a left Labour government came up with some policy idea on the hoof and implemented it with little fanfare, it is unlikely to have a significant effect on raising consciousness. Whereas if the same reform was developed through an empowering democratic process of open public consultation, education and debate, then proliferated through a party and then implemented by the state, a process which was well publicised and attributed to those movements, it can have far more transformative effects. The embodied, emotional connection to changes being held within the public consciousness can make even piecemeal reforms harder to undo. Its this kind of thing that makes it dangerous when movement achievements are appropriated for party political gains without attribution to people on the ground who worked to achieve them.




If we see systems as embedded within systems – each whole system itself a part of a larger whole and so on – then we can start to see how crossing thresholds can create a cascade of changes. Indeed, much of post-work discourse is predicated on such a potential cascade of thresholds. The price of technology may reach a threshold where it becomes cheap enough to replace a significant amount of labour, which increases unemployment. This may knock on to lower average household income, which knocks on to consumer purchases, which knocks on to capitalist profits, business leaders then demanding a government response. Unemployment may also pass a threshold that leads to social unrest, which could pass a threshold beyond which government response becomes demanded from the public also. Intervention at any point of this chain could speed or slow this process, or divert this energy in to some other direction.

In their books Resilience Thinking and Resilience Practice, Brian Walker and David Salt use what they call a ‘thresholds matrix’ and a ‘state and transition model’ to help visualise this dynamic in ecological systems. The thresholds matrix is a mapping out the different scales and domains of a system and how thresholds relate between them. The example below is of a fairly simple system, albeit one in which there are still interactions between social, economic and biophysical spheres at the local to regional level. A system of greater complexity may fill all areas of the matrix, and have numerous thresholds within each area. We could repurpose a tool such as this to visualise for example the interaction of thresholds in a social system such as those previously described – unemployment, cost of technology, rate of automation, household income, profitability etc., showing how a national focal scale plays down onto the household scale and is embedded within a global scale.

(The 'Thresholds Matrix'. Walker and Salt 2012, p. 70)

In contrast the state and transition model below shows how an overall system state will tend to change, with or without intervention. Again, we could repurpose this tool to visualise how reforms can initially shift a social system to a new state, but the dynamics of the capitalist system may shift it back without further interventions. For example, how a basic income could increase household disposable income, which could influence a rise in rents, thus necessitating further policies such as rent caps, which could lead to further system changes and so on.

(The 'State Transition' model. Walker and Salt 2012, p. 80)

Both of these are useful tools for collective analyses. Complex systems will always defy the ability of individuals to understand them, but by pooling knowledge we can often come to more accurate and useful models – and indeed Walker and Salt describe undergoing this collective process for analysing ecological systems, bringing together relevant stakeholders to collectively map a shared system in a workshop setting. Whilst mapping the expected cascades between sections of society will never be fully accurate (both due to unexpected events and the limits of our knowledge of such complex systems), applying tools such as these may help us to better predict likely outcomes of our interventions. It could also play a part in the kind of collective education and debate around policy generation that I have previously noted can help to reduce the reversibility of a reform. And even if a political situation is not specifically mapped out in this way, it is a useful mental visualisation of how thresholds can relate to changing system states in general, and forces us to think in this more non-linear fashion about the expected results of policies.

For one thing, it highlights how single interventions can have a multitude of cascading effects (whether positive or negative). If we try therefore to enact some huge single change from the centre and propagate it down through all social systems, we quickly lose control, not knowing what each new threshold crossed will drag us towards, how the chaos in one system will knock on into another. Instead, like a Rube Goldberg machine, we have to have elements in place before pulling the trigger. This means other things have to happen long in advance – disseminating alternative visions of society, creating resilient alternative institutions which are ready and able to take over state functions if and when they fail, building a well networked social movement ready to mobilise at a moment’s notice, and shaping public subjectivities so that we are both able to act within the new society and also desire its creation. These social, discursive, psychological and institutional changes have to begin from below, climbing upwards, at which point the party-enacted reforms are merely the reflection and solidification of, not the leader of, this process.




To maintain the original intent of Gorz’s ‘non-reformist reforms’ we should turn to thinking of autonomy-supporting reforms, emphasising that the revolutionary nature lies not in the reforms themselves but in the growth of power for movements beyond the state. Analysing the relative reversibility of a reform, and the way in which it creates non-linear cascades of change, can help us to better control the inevitably unpredictable outcomes of the rapid change that is absolutely necessary in our current context to beat looming threats such as technological unemployment and climate change. It is important to bear in mind however that even if we tried to avoid all rapid changes, we couldn’t – because thresholds and the cascades which lead off from them will occur whether or not we are their architects. In the context of interlocking chaos across all economic, ecological, social and psychological systems, markets will fail, technology will disrupt existing social processes, the climate will produce catastrophic effects. The only option is to intervene in our own ways to shape and guide these changes, never assuming we can fully control them, but always realising our fundamental interconnection and embeddedness within them.


Graham Jones is the author of The Shock Doctrine of the Left (2018, Polity Press). He can be found on Twitter at @onalifeglug




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Lewis, K. and Stronge, W. (2018) A right-wing think tank is now supporting Universal Basic Income – but they’ve missed the point. Guardian. [Online] [accessed 15th June 2018]

Walker, B. and Salt, D. (2012) Resilience Practice: Building Capacity to Absorb Disturbance and Maintain Function. Island Press.