From the Arab Spring in the Middle East to the Yellow Vests in France, the last decade or so has seen a flowering of new social movements around the world. The United States has proven to be particularly fertile ground for these movements, which have included the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter. But while all these digital-age movements have at one point or another captured the spotlight, they have not generally proven as successful as some of their 20th century predecessors, such as the civil rights movement in the United States or the Solidarity labor movement in Poland.
To better understand recent social movements, we asked two regular contributors, Arnold Kling and Martin Gurri, to discuss what has changed and why. The following exchange—which occurred via email—has been slightly edited for clarity.
ARNOLD KLING: I was recently asked to describe the characteristics of successful movements in the 21st century. My initial reaction was that I could not think of any. I came up with the gay marriage movement, but it is in many respects a 20th century movement. I think that in the age of social media we are seeing instead many more street demonstrations. You saw them emerge overseas with the Arab Spring, and they continue with the Yellow Vests and Hong Kong, and I just noticed Thailand. And here in the US, we have had the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter.
But these street movements have yet to mature into anything that seems structured and organized. I don’t think that they belong to the same category as what we used to think of as a movement, such as the civil rights movement or the anti–Vietnam War movement. What do you think?
MARTIN GURRI: A lot depends on the meaning of that one word, “success.” The revolts of the 21st century have been fueled by negation and are ferociously driven to strike against the established order. If success could be claimed by battering down some structure or overthrowing some ruler, then many of these revolts could be considered successful. Street uprisings toppled dictators in Egypt (2011), Sudan and Bolivia (both 2019), for example. In France and Chile, insurgents succeeded in reversing government decisions that had triggered the protests. Even the Tea Party managed to break the Democratic control of Congress. In every instance, the networked public successfully demonstrated its anger and unhappiness with the elites and the status quo.
The puzzle comes in the nature of revolt and of political change. In the 20th century, radicals wished to transform society. To that end, they organized in command-and-control structures and espoused specific programs and ideologies. Change meant, above all, acquiring power, which made possible the imposition on society of utopian programs. None of this applies to the current forms of radicalism. To be a radical today means to share a sectarian contempt for power as a corrupting influence. Not one of the many dozens of revolts around the globe in the last decade has so much as attempted to take over the government. They remain eternally against. Often, as in France and Chile, they remain against even after the original objective has been achieved: the public in revolt will not take yes for an answer.
Politics in the last century rested on an industrial base. The revolution in the Soviet Union was considered a success when it produced vast amounts of iron and steel. By the same token, radical political action in our turbulent hour is an extension of digital life. It’s obsessed with the garnering of attention and the validation of identity. Organizational hierarchies, ideologies and programs would simply get in the way of these fluid motives.
Rather than transform society, the objective is to express the emotive force of an identity by its opposition to power. Being against is an existential posture more than a political stand. There is probably very little difference between everyday raging in a Facebook group and taking to the streets: the grievances, slogans and designated villains pre-exist the real-world protests. Success in this case means forcing powerful institutions to bow in submission and validation of your chosen identity—the sort of thing that is happening right now with regards to Black Lives Matter.
KLING: For me, success means measurable progress toward a goal. It also might mean the creation of a new institution that improves the lives of a group of people. The NAACP, for example. By those standards, the Arab Spring seems to me to be a failure, at least in Egypt. Black Lives Matter is also a failure. It seems to me that the decentralized nature of these protests is a weakness. By 20th-century standards, a movement needs to mature into having an institutional structure.
People who say that they sympathize with BLM will say that they wish that their leaders would do more to stop the riots. But there are no leaders in that sense. No one is communicating a vision to the participants, or articulating a strategy, or giving instructions. The so-called leaders do not appear in front of demonstrations and speak to participants. They are Andy Warhol leaders, who get 15 minutes of fame on Twitter or CNN. I think that would-be leaders fear, probably correctly, that if they tried to exercise authority, they would be attacked and deposed by the mob. So I would say that 21st-century movements have neither leadership nor followership.
So are these movements adapted to the media world but maladapted to the real world? How can that gap be closed? What changes can the movements make? How can elites that hold power in the real world adapt to the media environment?
GURRI: As Marshall McLuhan might have said, today the digital is the real. The daily lives of the mostly young people who become the public in revolt are shaped and channeled by digital information and expression. Their values are digital values: the hunger for attention, the constant need for validation, the emotive tone that ultimately fuels the rhetoric of the rant, the invention of identities and communities that overlap in weird dynamics, the disdain for everything that is not now and everyone who is not *them*.
All of this is true on social media and in the Seattle “Autonomous Zone” alike. There’s no sharp boundary crossed into the “real” when you’re communicating every waking moment. For those of us born in the 20th century, much digital behavior seems self-obsessed to a pathological extent. That’s certainly my opinion. From the other side of the generational divide, however, I suspect we Old Ones appear stuck on categories that don’t make sense anymore.
The Arab Spring, which you mention, was an early example of misunderstanding our moment. For many, the Arab revolts of 2011 seemed to follow the familiar pattern of 1989, when liberal democracy triumphed over the last totalitarian ideology. Even the label “Arab Spring” was deterministic: a flowering of democracy was the expected endpoint. That was sadly mistaken. With the exception of Tunisia, the episode ended in chaos and bloodshed, not freedom.
Unawares, we had reached the end of a centralizing era, in which a few elites made all the decisions, and crossed into the digital age, in which the polarities between the public and the elites were reversed and worked to disaggregate, to tear apart. The structures of information that helped to make possible the overthrow of dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi also made it impossible to replace them with democracy or any other stable form of government. A vast gulf of technological change, it turned out, separated the Middle East in 2011 from the Eastern Europe of 1989.
The Arab Spring was a horrible failure. Most participants themselves expected that democracy would follow naturally after the dictators fell. But I think this judgment is less certain when it comes to revolts in affluent, democratic countries: the Yellow Vests of France, the insurgents in Chile, BLM here. The lack of demands, which you note, makes it almost impossible to say what success would look like. The question for me is, what do the participants think?
To an outsider, their objectives seem very subjective. You can watch hours of videos of young protesters in Seattle, Portland and elsewhere, and never come across a coherent political demand. On the other hand, you often hear pride in how they are modeling, in their behavior and interactions with one another, the virtues needed to change the world. The assertion of moral superiority may mean that the participants consider the protests to be more performative and existential than political.
This, of course, is the way of the web. You are expected to express yourself, so long as you display the right virtue signals and stay within a narrow range of opinion. The world is changed by gaining and keeping millions of followers—hence the immense pressure to conform, enforced by digital mobs that, in this environment, serve a function similar to that of institutional structures.
The failure of protests to evolve into revolutionary institutions should not surprise anyone. After all, we are watching the great hierarchical organizations we have inherited from the 20th century crumble apart from the pressure of the digital storm. The temper of the times, I repeat, favors unbundling and disintegration. If that colossal machine, modern government, is sputtering and grinding to a halt, we shouldn’t expect a disorganized public to erect new structures that possess any staying power.
I’m going to make an act of faith and say that new institutions will arise that account for the digital environment and the web culture. With luck, they will embody our ideals of democracy and equality—maybe even nudge closer to these ideals. But it’s early days.