There are many reasons for the mistrust of institutions in recent years, one in particular that I’ll focus on for this piece is that of authority being the villains in every social struggle in the past few centuries. Social analysis tends to be more restricted in the timescales it considers yet I think we have to appreciate how long this process has taken. As a member of the left, I am happy that the left has won most of the social battles of history but every single one from labor, to women, to gays, to the environment, to war, to everything else was won by rebels in constant struggle against government and social establishment. It is one thing to fight the power occasionally but almost every social advancement that has been made has been made through rebellion. When every right one possesses was earned through rebellion then the general view on all authority is likely to be cynical.
Now, looking at history it does seem quite absurd how long it took the established authorities to do the moral thing rather than just agree with the reformers and instantly try to make things better. It’s somewhat baffling that child labor wasn’t outlawed from the outset of the industrial revolution. However, we also know that faith in authority and institutions must be had to a degree or else things fall apart. When they fall apart, the people’s sympathies, ironically, don’t become less authoritarian but more because when people lose faith in the institution they lose faith in bureaucracy and not the human ability to resist the temptations of greed and power. The people think “Yeah, power has made the institution plutocratic and jaded, let’s destroy democracy and consolidate power in even fewer politicians!” Actually, I look at authority being the chief villain of social struggles since the Enlightenment and it tickles my fondness for Emma Goldman and Michael Baukinin which is way more consistent.
Perhaps, a healthier and more accurate telling of this story not that these rights have been won from authority but from society. In telling the stories of social struggles, we focus on when laws got passed and we focus a lot less on how, rather than the governments, lots of grassroots activism was on the wrong side of history, too. Civil Rights is mostly thought of as bold and courageous citizens against state governments rather than the much stupider stories of the “Massive Resistance” campaigns by racist white people who very much were grassroots. Or the surprisingly large and organized anti-suffrage movement, which included surprisingly large and organized women’s groups against women’s suffrage. Groups where they used parliamentary procedure and elected a hierarchy of positions to expressly oppose the legal ability to do exactly that in civil government.
Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is the most infamous example of placing the blame of society’s problem squarely on the powerful rather than on ordinary people. Not placing the responsibility for the sins of history on common people also absolves people of responsibility from today’s problems. It is less about people living morally and ethically and more about pointing at society’s institutions having failed. Indeed, those institutions have failed but those institutions failed in large part due to a lacking civicism and participation by the common people or a civicism in the wrong direction, although the latter is less the issue for today’s chief problem, that being the decline of liberalism. I am a political nerd who does politics every millisecond of every day but it used to be that people devoted a few days a month to civic participation. While there are people like Robert Moses and John Rawls I blame significantly for that, it is still not a Marxist conflict theory that is the basis for society’s problems but more the cognitive biases and personal inclinations of average people.
Henry Kissinger famously said that history is the memory of states and Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States” decries this idea in favor of a populist struggle against power being the primary lens through which to analyze history. Ironically, both are not that different since Zinn’s version is about how the state was influenced by grassroots movements. Yet, both the right and the wrong side of history are largely grassroots and fight each other as much as anyone else. For the sake of our institutions and to emphasize civic responsibility of regular people, we have to shift the narrative of the social struggles of history to one where grassroots movements fought it out and usually the better ones came out on top rather than a perpetual struggle of populists against institutions.
It is true that the history of social progress is one of rebellion but it is not the Marxist dream of a ruling class trying to exploit people for profit and then inventing things like racism as a means to control people. The establishment and the institutions which compose it are a grassroots movement that has control through the cultural hegemony of itself and its defeat, while rebellious ostensibly, is as much the cultural combat of ground-level forces as it is the less powerful against the more.