#11. Reforms, Radical Reforms,Transformative Claims

Blog 11 – Reforms, Radical Reforms, and Transformative Claims

Not all reforms are alike. Some are short-term, address a particular problem, are ameliorative; others are long-term, structural, aimed at the deeper sources of a range of problems. The former are realizable within the existing legal, economic, and social structures of power; others appear remote from realizable agendas of change. How can we distinguish between the three types, or locate demands and claims on the spectrum they represent? And do so in a situation, such as that outlined in Blog#10, in which the objective potential of wholesale transformative change is drastically limited by the limited strength of the forces for change?

What are groups, such as the Right to the City One movement or the Occupy movements, deeply critical of existing social, economic, and political structures, to do in a situation in which the realistic possibilities for achieving their fundamental goals are remote? Both the Right to the City movement and many of the Occupy movements increasingly recognize capitalism as a fault-ridden system in which the major faults do not arise because the system is not working, but are simply because it is the way the system does work. The protest slogan, THE SYSTEM IS NOT BROKEN, IT IS FIXED, expresses the point colloquially. What programs, proposals, actions, might be adopted to move best in the direction of the ultimately desired goals, not to fix it, but to replace it? (With what, is of course another question, and a big one; the term “socialism,” for instance, is not frequently foregrounded in discussions; but that is another matter.)

Four different paths might be considered on the road to action. To begin with the criteria used to distinguish them from each other (and there are very tentative, and should certainly be thought through further, perhaps amended or replaced – but being explicit on what criteria are use is important.

What does “transformative” mean, recognizing that there are gradients to it?
I. The criteria for Transformation

1. Does the proposal redress the relations of power that cause and maintain the problem being addressed?
2. Is the proposal deep enough, going to the roots of the problem, or only address symptoms?
3. Is the proposal broad enough, taking into account all of the other factors affecting the desired outcome?
4. Does the proposal guarantee that the basic needs addressed by the issue are met, before resources are devoted to, or distributed according to, other criteria, i.e. contribution or merit?
5. Does the proposal give priority to human use values over economic market values, and respect the natural environment
6. Does the proposal provoke questions and make legitimate actions that go outside the existing framework of laws and institutions?

Examples below will help clarify application of these criteria. It should be clear that none will be met absolutely; they will be on the spectrum of actions categorized below.

II. The Four Types of Proposals

A. Efficiency reforms.

Some proposals are simply designed to make what is already being done more efficient, to achieve existing goals more economically or more cheaply. They may be simple proposals for greater use of technical advances (sharing medical information on a common computer system , facilitating larger markets and faster transactions in it), or streamlining administrative structures (one-stop regulatory decisions, consolidating bureaucracies, avoiding duplication of functions), or better accounting practices (requiring consistency in reporting, setting uniform standards, more requirements for more transparent reporting). These are reforms that can be accomplished with the existing patterns of power, on which often full consensus of all parties can be achieved. They are system-maintaining.

Every such change has some distributional impact: better reporting can help outsiders more than insiders, sharing information can reduce patients’ health costs or doctors’ incomes, larger markets can be more of a benefit for big firms than small. But these are side effects, of marginal significance, and do not move in the direction of significant social change.

They rely on the pressure of technical opinion for implementation.

B. Liberal reforms:

Liberal reforms are aimed at ameliorating the most undesired aspects of any given pattern or plicy. The focus is on the undesired consequences, on the systems rather than the sources, and the objective is to achieve the desired result by consensus, agreement of all parties. Relations of power are not addressed as such, and definitions of equity, to the extent the goal is explicit, take into account existing relationships and work within them. Ideally, the objective is to avoid harm to some without causing harm to others. Liberal reforms may have efficiency components as well. If they challenge the system at all, it is incidental to their explicit goals. Full inclusion within existing systems of production and distribution is often formulated as the goal.

They rely on public relations and electoral activity for implementation.

C. Radical reforms.

Going beyond liberal reforms, some reforms seek redistribution: to reduce inequality, in the process confronting the fact that some will benefit at the expense of others previously better off. Not only symptoms but also causes are sought out, but stopping short of the comprehensive analysis that a transformative approach would entail. Reforms remain doable within the existing system of institutions and laws, although perhaps significantly changing relations of power and wealth within them. They may challenge the existing system, but only incidentally. Patterns of production as well as of distribution are often addressed, but with limited remedial objectives.

They combine electoral activity with social movement and intellectual agitation for implementation.

D. Transformative claims.

Transformative claims seek to address the underlying systemic causes of inequities and injustices, looking comprehensively at the root causes of a particular problem but also at the systemic and institutional factors that nurture it. Their criteria are first and foremost meeting human needs, only secondarily merit or performance. They seek to meet the criteria suggested above, as to relations of power, depth of analysis, breadth of analysis, and satisfaction of needs. They are system challenging. They may include, in practice, liberal and radical proposals, but argue explicitly that their necessary ultimate goal goes beyond these and must be full transformation.

They provoke questions and support the legitimacy of actions that include but go beyond the technical, the electoral, the public relations and the social movement, and are not constrained by the existing framework of laws and institutions.

The taxonomy is cumulative, that is, Liberal proposals will have efficiency components, Radical proposals will have liberal and efficiency components, transformative proposals will have radical, liberal, and efficiency components.
III. Examples:

[These examples are suggested only as illustrative, and are thus far really only perfunctorily sketched. For each, there are groups and individuals who have gone much further in working out demands and claims, at all levels, who should be consulted on each issue. The point here is only to suggest the kind of differences to be found on each, and in each case running along a non-exclusive spectrum from dealing merely with efficiency to presenting the need for full-scale transformation. More detail and other examples would be welcome.]:

Higher education:
A: Efficiency reforms: Standardized conditions of private loans
B: Liberal reforms: Provide a public option for loans; provide substantially increased public grants
C: Radical reforms: Limit scope of private for-profit institutions.
D: Transformative Claims: Make higher education free.

Mortgage foreclosure :

A: Efficiency reforms: Higher reserve requirements of banks; judicial review of sloppy paper work.
B: Liberal reforms: Expand opportunities for voluntary renegotiation of loans; subsidize lowering of interest rates and writ-downs of loans; regulate rents taking into account landlords’ finances.
C: Radical reforms: Require write-down of loan principals; mandate continued occupancy at reasonable rents after foreclosure; facilitate non-profit administration; regulate rents taking into account occupants’ finances.
D: Transformative Claims: Remove housing from the speculative market through public acquisition or facilitation of conversion to private non-profit, limited equity, cooperative, or community land trust ownership, with adequate subsidies to cover maintenance and utilities at levels affordable to lower-income occupants; confiscatory taxation of speculative profits.

Public Space:
A: Efficiency reforms: Administer to protect surrounding property values.
B: Liberal reforms: Provide, expand, and administer to protect surrounding property values and quality of life of neighbors; regulate use by reasonable police measures; give zoning bonuses where privately provided.
C: Radical reforms: Provide, expand, and administer taking into account needs of surrounding community; Protect use against police repression, Require private provision in connection with new construction. Protect right of use by homeless.
D: Transformative Claims: Provide, expand, and administer adequately to satisfy the needs of the population as a whole; give priority to uses appropriate for the exercise of political democratic rights; mandate public use for these purposes of private property where necessary. Provide supportive permanent housing for homeless users.


A: Efficiency reforms: Planned decentralization/consolidation. Computerize records; permit cross-jurisdiction insurance in a transparent marketplace.
B: Liberal reforms: Finance Medicare and Medicaid properly. Permit unified bargaining with pharmaceutical companies
C: Radical reforms: Medicare for all. Buy out private hospitals and care facilities at asset, not income, values. National Health Service
D: Transformative Claims: Eliminate fee for service provision, comprehensive national health care system, without access restrictions.

Jobs and Labor Relations

A: Efficiency reforms: Full appointments to LRB; adequate information to workers;
B: Liberal reforms: Adequate inspections and enforcement of FLS, health and safety standards; facilitation of discrimination cases. card checks for elections; indexing minimum wage levels
C: Radical reforms: Living wage requirements for all jobs; expanded public service jobs; ceilings on management and ownership incomes and benefits
D: Transformative Claims: Requirement of worker participation in decision=making in ownership; public provision of all essential services.

City Planning:

A: Efficiency reforms: A independent technically qualified City Planning Commission with adequate staff
B: Liberal reforms: Advisory community planning boards
C: Radical reforms: Community Planning Boards with decision-making powers
D: Transformative Claims: Public ownership of land, city-wide assembly of Planning Boards with decision-making power.

IV. Conclusion

Given, as argued in Blog #10, that the objective and subjective conditions are not ripe for full-scale transformation, given that transforming the subjective conditions which in fact currently vitiate the potential that is objectively present, given that it will be a long-term process of action and education that will change these conditions, given that proposals in the real world are likely to be blend of types from efficient to liberal to radical, what practical conclusions for action can be drawn, if transformation is seen as a social and moral necessity?

The first conclusion is that all reforms, all demands, all claims, should include a transformative component, one that accompanies practical implementation with the acknowledgement of the transformations that would be needed for their ultimate success. That may appear as a purely theoretical tail on the frenetic dog of actual practice, but in the long run it is a crucial one. If a problem that is systemic is only approached in isolation, if its root are not exposed, its context ignored, it logical implications for action not considered, it will remain a problem and, if ameliorated, recur in other forms later.

The second conclusion is a more tentative one. The capitalist system is not a homogeneous one; it has contradictions and inconsistencies, and the extent to which capitalist forms, with their priorities for profit-making and accumulation give way to other forms of proceeding. The provision of police services, for instance, or of fire services, or some health inspection functions, are essentially non-capitalist, as any sophisticated welfare economics analysis will explain. The limitations of the physical environment, from global warming to exhaustion of natural resources to avoidance of cataclysmic disasters (think nuclear energy), may pose other limits to the pervasiveness of capitalist forms. But other areas of activity, other economic sectors, that re currently run on conventional capitalist market principles might be similarly excluded from the scope of market relations even without a wholesale transformation of the entire system. For instance, it is not inherently necessary for capitalism to survive that health care be provided only on a fee for service basis, or that education could not be entirely a matter of public provision. It is even conceivable (even intimations in the Marxist literature make the point) that the private control of land and its allocation on market principles is a hindrance to capitalist development; perhaps housing, at least up to some level of private luxury provision, could be taken out of the market.

In other words, transformative claims may indeed by realistic, even given today’s balance of power, without necessarily transforming the system as a whole. A sectoral approach, but one which addresses directly and up front the necessity for full transformation within that sector, might be an approach with possibilities of short-term successes. Transformative demands do not need to be all-encompassing, but they need to be clear both in their recognition of what is ultimately needed and in their frank acceptance of their limitations in the present situation.

Author: pmarcuse

2010: Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome. March 2022: Peter Marcuse passed away, age 93, in March 2022.

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