Movements are always a distorted lens on the ideas they embody

Please don’t hate me for this one. I don’t think I’m better than other people. I’m just laying out in blunt terms what others have tiptoed around.

  1. The problem

I want to spell something out in this post that I think many people know, but which goes underarticulated because it’s kind of mean. I apologise for this. I really do feel poorly about it. I don’t like measuring people up in this way, but it’s one of those things you’ve got to be sharp about to be honest about.

I remember reading an internal socialist party document once. It was very careful in its words, but essentially the document argued that during periods of “downturn” in class struggle socialist organisations which were “keeping the flame going” would inevitably attract dead-enders, no-hopers, people who were mostly looking for a social outlet etc.

In the bible (1 Corinthians), St Paul remarks of the Christians of his time: “Brothers, consider the time of your calling: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” i.e., the people joining up to Christianity at the time even by their own admission were not people conventionally seen as intelligent, financially successful or strong.

This isn’t exclusive to tiny religious and political sects. It applies to pretty much all social movements. I don’t want to be mean, so I won’t name the movement but there is a certain social movement which I have in mind that regularly makes people remark “Urrrgh, X sounds cool in theory, but have you met the Xers? No thank you.”

Bluntly, movements always have and will attract a lot of dead-enders. This is because normal people don’t need movements as an outlet- they already have friends and are capable of curating their own social lives. Dead enders are more likely to have trouble in this department, thus are more likely to gain something from the constructed social life offered by movements.

  1. N.B.

Most of the examples I use here are from political movements because that’s where I’ve spent a lot of my life. However I believe the dynamics I describe apply to a lot of other movements, from music (Punk) to even some philosophical movements (e.g. New Atheism)

  1. The taxonomy

There are essentially four types of people who join relatively marginal social, religious and political movements, as well as certain types of intellectual and artistic movements:

  1. People who aren’t doing so well in the game of life.
  2. Thoughtful, whip-smart, highly committed and charismatic people.
  3. People intermediate between 1 & 2 with some features of both.
  4. Genuinely normal people.

Category 4 is the rarest- so rare that we won’t talk about it much further. Category 2 is the second rarest, more or less invariably. Whether 1 or 3 is the most common probably depends on what the movement is about and the context. I myself probably started life as a 1 and clawed my way, through the infinite patience of mentors, to a 3.

Why are these types particularly attracted to social movements? Well, it’s no great mystery.

Category 1- The losers join social movements because:

A) They’re lonely, and a social movement is a group of people who sort of have to be friends with you.

B) When you’re behind anyway, why not gamble on something that might make it big? Become an early adopter of a plan to change the world?

Or the more sincere reason: C) Because their beliefs and values have been formed through a lifetime of exclusion from the dominant power structures. Thus their values and the values of critical social movements often have much in common.

To be clear, the reason the “losers” can’t curate their own social lives is not always a lack of social skills. Sometimes, for example, they are perfectly charismatic but have burnt all their bridges through intermittent erratic behaviour. Sometimes they’ve just been unlucky in some way. A loser in this sense is someone who has turned to a social movement because they have to in order to cope. There’s more than one path to that outcome.

Category 2- The stars are attracted to social movements for one of two reasons depending on the individual and how cynical they are

A) because it allows them to be a big fish in a small pond

B) because they’re deeply committed to their beliefs, and will pursue them even if means hanging out with uncool people.

Category 3- The inbetweeners are attracted to these social movements for both sets of reasons in varying degrees.

  1. The resultant neuroses

People in these groups, especially those who aren’t dead-enders, are acutely aware of the dead-ender problem. The number of people who have started or led movements for a time, only to lament that they can’t stand their own followers, is huge. Often these laments are some variation on “they only understood the form of what I was teaching, not the essence.” Rightly or wrongly, the dead enders are accused of not getting the ideas, or at least not the deeper underlying truths of those ideas. I don’t know if it is actually true that the dead-enders don’t really get the ideas, but it’s a common perception. Certainly, some forms of dead-enderism seem to correlate with a lack of insight.

Sometimes people even go so far as to claim that the majority of people following the movement are actually a block on its success- that the movement would be better off leaner, but higher quality.

My favourite contemporary example of sniping at one’s own followers is the grandees of dirtbag left Twitter who are constantly complaining that their “reply guys” just ape them by repeating phrases like “normal country” and “Hellworld” without understanding the spirit of critical irony and convention busting that was meant to power it. Of course, this being Twitter & the Dirtbag Left, it’s hard to be sure how much of the scorn is performative irony and how much is real exasperation- but my guess is “all of it is both ironic and heartfelt at the same time”. There’s something very funny about seeing would be underground rebels reduced to complaining about slavish followers.

As has been remarked by 50 million other authors, the tension between the leaders and followers is most especially a problem for movements based around “breaking the rules”. The leaders watch in despair as their modes of rule-breaking become the new rule by people who just don’t get what it’s really about.

I suspect these neuroses have been around for a lot longer than we realise. Histories of movements are mostly written about those we would classify as the “stars” of movements. Stars are also more likely to write the histories as well. This tends to submerge underneath the waters of Lethe lot of the angst about dead-enders. Still, nothing is entirely lost. It’s been a while since I’ve read any of it, but I remember getting the impression reading between the lines that some of these issues plagued 19th and early 20th-century socialism.

  1. The contradictory role of size

Now you might think that the dynamics that I’ve described here only apply to radical ideas. They don’t. I’ve met the youth wings and gone to branch meetings of all 2 1/2 major parties in my country if anything they were even a little bit sadder than the socialist groups, the libertarian groups etc.

Despite the fact that seemingly more mainstream movements are no less filled with losers, it does seem that as movements expand the people in them get more normal, and as they shrink they get less so. I remember Occupy in my home town, which continued for an unusually long period of time. It very clearly moved back and forth between these extremes(1).

David Graeber makes a similar point about anarchist and direct action groups in Direct Action, an Ethnography. He also points out that the proportion of women in these groups rises as the group grows larger, often closer in time to an important “action” or “event”. I to have observed this, and I believe this gender dynamic to be linked, although I’m not going to feign a hypothesis about why it is so.

In Ruling the Void Peter Mair talks about the hollowing out of political civil society. Parties all over the world have fewer and fewer active participants. Based on accounts I have read of social movements throughout history, I do not think that this is isolated to formal political parties. Especially from 1990 to the GFC, activity was minimal. After the GFC there has been something of a slow recovery, but it remains to be seen how permanent and signficiant it is. Activity in various movements is still modest compared with the 70’s. This is not only true of political movements- even cultural movements seem pallid now. Sometimes it feels like only strange weirdoes like myself remain.

  1. The implications: evaluation

So why am I laying this stuff out? Well, over the last five years or so, I’ve noticed a rise in arguments of the form “X is a bad idea because the people who follow X aren’t living normal fulfilled lives”. This takes a lot of forms, e.g. duelling Chad vs Virgin memes etc.

Now I don’t think we can dismiss this as an argument by simply labelling it ad hominem. If an idea is causing problems in living, and/or turning out and attracting unbalanced people, we should at least understand why before moving on. It is prima facie evidence that an idea doesn’t work in practice if everyone who likes it isn’t doing so well.

But I would caution against taking this argument too seriously, precisely because movements, especially their zealots, are always like this, and now maybe more so than ever.

To end on an upbeat note, maybe, in the end, the ‘losers’ have the last laugh, because in getting involved, in making ideas and arguments, even if they are never the leaders, they are more likely than the conventionally successful people who stay away from movements to affect history.

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One thought on “Movements are always a distorted lens on the ideas they embody

  1. “Here’s to the crazy ones.”

    I noticed many down-on-their-luck types in the early Bitcoin days when it was all cyberpunk-ish meetups in Austin and SF. Some of them are rich now. Being an early adopter is low-risk but sometimes high reward.


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