Saul Alinsky, the community organizer best known for his 1971 book, Rules for Radicals, had a useful metaphor for explaining why some social movements tend to burn bright and then burn out before making the change they seek. A successful revolution, he insisted, must follow the three-act structure of a play: “The first act introduces the characters and the plot, in the second act the plot and characters are developed as the play strives to hold the audience’s attention. In the final act good and evil have their dramatic confrontation and resolution.”
In other words, a movement needs a period of incubation—of conjuring, planning, debating, and convincing. The problem with the activists Alinsky was observing was that they sprinted to that third act, taking shortcuts that led, he wrote, only to “confrontation for confrontation’s sake—a flare-up and back to darkness.” It’s a dynamic that seems particularly true today, when social media provides us with extremely effective bullhorns that can call people to the streets with enormous speed and scale, or allow for the most clickable version of a radical idea to race around the internet before being fully developed.
If our movements today can devalue that slow, unseen incubation, the stories we tell about how social or political change unfolded in the past tend to leave out this part as well. Many of those narratives, whether about women’s suffrage or the civil-rights movement, feel foreshortened, cutting out the years of struggle, or the need for debate and patience, for trial and error. Instead we zero in on the charismatic leaders’ big speeches. We fixate on the moments: policemen on horseback chasing down protesters, or a man standing up to a tank. This leaves out so much.
Luckily, some books have explored how change actually works, describing a longer range of time and a wider cast of characters. The eight books below each focus on how a status quo crumbles, and they tell the most rewarding sort of story: about a dissatisfaction shared by a small group of people that grows and grows until it alters our relationship to society, to one another, to nature itself.
The Pasteurization of France, by Bruno Latour
Latour is one of the most influential French social theorists of the second half of the 20th century. His particular interest for the past four decades has been understanding the way science continually reshapes our sense of reality. But he never formulates these shifts as the result of one great thinker exposing a truth to the world. Instead, Latour looks to the various networks and interests that mold these dramatic changes. Spreading an idea is more like war than a revelation, with the slow vanquishing of mental territory. In this 1984 book, translated into English in 1988, he went back to the 19th century and Louis Pasteur’s then-revolutionary notion that microbes cause infection and disease. How did people come to “see” germs and take steps to combat invisible enemies? It was a painstaking, grinding process, almost a political campaign, in which the scientific establishment and then farmers and industrialists had to be won over to Pasteur’s prescriptions. Even a scientific insight now everywhere understood as objective truth—that killing bacteria as a way to avoid illness is an achievable and good practice—needed to first conquer accepted reality.