How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement by Fredrik deBoer

Summary and takeaways from the book.

The book is an analysis of "a long string of failures for progressive social movements... the default state of such movements is failure... and suggest steps toward a future where we can win."

The author summarizes his observations on why social movements fail: "The two biggest are deeply entwined: the inability or refusal to generate coherent demands, and the addiction to intensely non-hierarchical—“horizontal”—decision-making."

ISBN: 9781668016015
Published: September 5, 2023
Pages: 256
Available on: amazon

The book is an analysis of "a long string of failures for progressive social movements... the default state of such movements is failure... and suggest steps toward a future where we can win."

The author summarizes his observations on why social movements fail: "The two biggest are deeply entwined: the inability or refusal to generate coherent demands, and the addiction to intensely non-hierarchical—“horizontal”—decision-making."

"Spend enough time in activist spaces and you start to see the patterns unfold before you, like a skipping record".

"Over that time, I have watched the same dynamics play out again and again, dedicated organizers falling into the same sad patterns that obstruct progress. The victories have been real, but the failures have been more frequent and bitter, sometimes resulting in the fracturing of groups and friendships".

Author gives an example of an peace rally he organized against the war where "We expended energy fighting an internecine war at home instead of opposing the brutal one on the other side of the world".

"Political change is hard; progressive political change is even harder. The inertia of established systems is remarkable, and we need never be overly critical of activists for failing to achieve change, given the inherent difficulties involved. That said, the lack of change that stemmed from the largest explosion of political consciousness in my lifetime is remarkable".
There is increased awareness, but there has been little change.

The book is for those who want to understand reasons for lack of change inspite of awareness.

Author acknowledges "book, will be taken as a harsh indictment of the people and groups that gathered together to demand change... purpose of critical engagement with protest movements is to strengthen them, make them better, to create the conditions where the world they dreamed of can become a reality".

Lack of coherence

"The refusal of Occupy protesters to generate a list of specific demands became notorious. The headline of a New York Times story on the subject sums it up well: “Protesters Debate What Demands, if Any, to Make.”"

This was intentional and their logic confusing. The occupy movement said "Demands are disempowering since they require someone else to respond" and that “demands are hegemonic”.

"there’s no sense of what a given protest or action intends to do."

"Occupy was able to get a pretty good ball of snow rolling down the hill. But nobody, including the protesters themselves, seemed to have any idea where it was heading."

"This resistance to developing a coherent lack of demands was emblematic of a larger problem with Occupy and, indeed, left organizing in general: the dedication to “horizontal” organization, the denial of leadership, the addiction to structurelessness."

Lack of Structure and leader

"Groups without any formal structure inevitably are dragged down by their least-productive members. I remember my frustration attending antiwar meetings in my early twenties when people who worked diligently for hours and hours every week were being shouted down by those who showed up to a meeting a couple of times a month and did little else. Leadership structures are common to human organizations for a reason; without leadership, endless time is wasted, groups are directionless and unfocused, and there’s no accountability."

"civil rights activist Jo Freeman published her classic article “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” In it, she meticulously described why horizontal organizing is a mistake."

"superficial denial of leadership can make power dynamics in a given group more unhealthy. If someone in a group has the title of president and acts in a way contrary to the group’s best interest, a frank conversation about their leadership can be had and, potentially, new leaders can be chosen. In a nominally structureless organization, there will be no formal means through which the most influential members lose power. "

"There’s a certain beauty to this kind of structurelessness, but it’s also naive and counterproductive."

Protests don't achieve much

Protests are necessary. "Protests have many purposes. Sometimes, they exist only to ensure that attention is paid to a great injustice so that no one can later say that a historic crime passed unnoticed".

Protests in themselves don't achieve much. "we had no effect at all on the US government’s actions. I believed, and still believe, that protest is necessary and righteous even when it achieves nothing tangible; we could not let the US invasion of Iraq go by without making a mark in history through our resistance. But still, everywhere I looked I saw failure".

On George Floyd protests: "America’s institutions spun into action. Universities, foundations, and nonprofits drafted statements in support of racial justice and began implementing programs to diversify their workforces and student bodies. An army of young activists were hired into academia, public service, and the nonprofit sector. Grandiose plans for total reconstruction of our society were devised. Reforms for education and government were proposed. And behind all of these ideas came an insistent, angry, insatiable demand: justice could wait no longer. And then, very little happened." "No major federal legislation would result from the upheaval of 2020." "Some cities and states enacted modest criminal-justice reforms, but many of these were later quietly rolled back."

"In Minneapolis, where Floyd’s murder had taken place, the drift over time was telling: the city council first voted to abolish and replace its police department, then later changed the reforms to simple budget cuts, then later enacted an increase in funding to the very department it had recently set about to dissolve."

He uses this as an example for "how difficult it is to translate protest into power."

Author quotes Dr. MLK talking about riots(not protests): "The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win, and their participants know it. Hence riots are not revolutionary but reactionary because they invite defeat... They offer an emotional catharsis,” he said, “but they must be followed by a sense of futility."

"King... endorsed the rioter’s anger, with his “language of the unheard” comment, but dismissed their tactics."

Publicity not enough

"problem with the revolutionary spirit of 2020 was not the desire for systemic change. Not in such a rotten system. The problem with 2020 was that activists and journalists and academics mistook heat for light. "

"publicity is necessary for a protest movement to succeed. But if the last few years proved anything, it’s that publicity alone can’t make change."

"The trouble with utilizing public attention and the news cycle, though, is that the public and the media are both fickle. The nature of public attention is to change its focus over time; the news cycle is a cycle because it changes over time."

"Once a saturation point is reached, fatigue sets in, and the energy that powered the meme is dissipated."

Online activism

"there is no such thing as an online social movement. Political projects that extend no further than a web browser will always be subject to faddishness and burnout. The internet is fickle; it frequently amounts to a record of the day-to-day whims of bored people."

"the internet cannot be the prime mover of political change."

The author supports this by giving examples from MeToo movement and Arab Spring.

Organizing, Structure, and Leadership is critical

"the revolutionary spirit of 2020 suffered from a lack of organization."

"as billions of dollars poured in to support the cause, the lack of a central organization that ensured transparency and accountability meant that there was no clear direction for the movement to go."

"without such an overarching organization, the various movements and causes that helped generate the spirit of limitless political possibility could not come together for real populist power."

Suggestions for change

Make "socioeconomic hardship" the core issue. Organize along (economic)class lines. Author calls it "class-first messaging". "people recognize that in a very deep sense they’re in it together, against the wealthy, the corporations, the reactionaries in our government, the system. The community of people who know what it’s like to struggle to pay the rent is larger than any racial, gender, ethnic, or religious group."

"what form of exploitation do the most possible people face? And the obvious answer there is socioeconomic hardship. "

"public polling reveals a nation full of people who feel economically insecure."

The author admits there will be backlash from those who are financially comfortable and those "who aren’t, ambitious strivers". However, they generally don't want change. They just want attention, catharsis and psychodrama.

"organizing along [economic]class lines does not entail dropping messaging about race, gender, sexual identity, or similar. When the problem is racism, call it racism. Never shy away from confronting racial or gender inequality in explicit and frank terms. But orienting around class lines means using shared economic need as the organizing principle through which we create the majorities necessary to actually do something".

Fight tactical battles to gain solidarity and remind everyone that this tactical battle and specific case is part of larger problem. E.g. join fight for racism as it is poor and powerless who suffer the most.

"don’t moderate or compromise on the actual policies that we demand. We work to build the biggest possible coalition, which always entails—which must entail—appealing to people’s sense of self-interest, not to their abstract sense of justice for others."

Stand in solidarity for all those who are socio-economic-politically powerless.

Simple messaging: "Language is core to persuasion and persuasion is core to politics."

State clearly in simple messaging what has been done, and what you will do. Don't be abstract. Talk about something more than justice, identity, freedom as people don't connect with abstract ideas they don't understand.

Instead talk of concrete ideas: 25% inflation, no jobs for graduates, dogs and cats in more houses than children, declining real world income, uncertain future.

Ignore political correctness in language e.g. chairperson. This makes us look artificial and un-authentic. That is not how people talk. People will think if some of your words are inauthentic and artificial, rest of your words are too as well.

Don't wait for the youth or next generation. It is our time now. Stop preparing the next generation. Experience is the best teacher. They will learn by example when they see you lead and act.

The time is now. Don't wait. "You cannot wait for something or someone to come and save us." "steady and unromantic work of making the world a little better, one day at a time, has its own rewards."

Another good way to learn about why/how social movements fail is to compare them to how corporations get things done. There is:
Clear agenda: e.g. change a tax law to give them relief.
Clear organization structure with clear roles and responsibilities e.g. lawyers, lobbyists, Board of Directors for strategy and decisions, Public Relations people.
No emphasis on political correctness
No psychodrama, no theatrics.
No delaying to next election or financial year.
Clear leader for accountability: CEO, CFO, Board.
Those who have clear well-defined objectives, are organized, and disciplined... win.

Perhaps, that is why corporations rule the world.

To quote Sir Humphrey from the British TV Series Yes Minister: "The history of the world is the history of the triumph of the heartless over the mindless".

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