Mass Movements in the 21st Century - Bitcoin, Terrorism & Social Warriors
Are revolutions and reactionary movements good or bad?
How do we deal with societal change in the Western world?
Most importantly, why on Earth am I involving social warriors, Bitcoin, and terrorism in a same essay?
Are revolutions good or bad?
By revolutions, I am talking about all kind of social disruptions: not only the violent and bloody ones, but also shaping changes such as the industrial revolution.
Being honest towards myself: I am selfishly on the side of preserving the establishment, as most of the people I interact with.
The theoretical perspective, however, most likely remains that revolutions of all kinds have had a very positive shaping impact on the evolution of mankind and society. Most of us would not be living in more or less free countries without them, and I would not even be able to write this.
All institutionalised societies oppose truly disruptive change
Institutionalised societies broadly try and avoid disruptive change. I am not talking about controlled innovation: I am talking about true disruption.
Even starting a company such as Google or Amazon only has relatively marginal impacts on society. Amazing impact, but still limited as far as society as a whole is concerned.
Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies), however, changes the game fully. Its general adoption would mean that states no longer control financial institutions (since financial institutions no longer exist as such in the world advocated by crypto-enthusiasts). Control on capital flows? Gone. Taxation as we know it? Gone. Central banks and influencing the world economy? Gone.
I would not spend much time comparing the speed and intensity of the regulator's reaction to most innovations and proven collusion/monopoly, to its reaction to Libra and Calibra - a mere possibility of the implementation at scale of the crypto-disruption.
No institutionalised state wants change for itself.
Preventing change is factually justified under totalitarian regimes
Preventing change is the bread and butter of totalitarian societies: change is the absolute main threat to their existence. Whether you are a pharaoh, an emperor, a queen, or a modern dictator, you don't want anyone to jeopardise what you have. Without any judgement on why and how his regime collapsed, remember what happened to Muammar Gaddafi and his family when change happened. For more on why totalitarian regimes fundamentally oppose change, read Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu.
When you lead a totalitarian society, preventing mass movements dangerous to your regime is both a necessity and a relatively easy game: your whole social organisation is geared towards control, and censure is an easy step to implement. Most importantly, it is easy for dictators to remain consistent and walk the talk: power is concentrated - censure is part of that privilege.
Addendum: A friend justly pointed out that this is only true of "true" dictators, not enlightened reformators. I.e. Muammar Gaddafi or Kim Jong Un, not Deng Xiaoping or Lee Kuan Yew.
But what about our "free" Western societies? How do they morally justify preventing change?
What does change mean to the Western world?
First, the latest mass movements of the 20th century led to the totalitarian regimes and global-scale atrocities of World War 2 and communism. Those events exacerbated our perception of risk associated with all mass movements. Western society became even more mass-movement-adverse - for very good reasons.
Second, news of terrorism is everywhere, always associated with mass movements such as radical Islam or other ideals. Random school shootings in the US or weekly stabbing in London does not seem to have nearly as much effect on our collective fear as terrorism has. We fear not only the events themselves, but also the irrationality of it. If mass movements such as the Arab Spring wiped out countries, what if it were to propagate to our own country, to our town, to our own door?
Therefore, we react.
How we deal with societal change in the Western world
We react... and we overreact.
We react by making sure minorities are not persecuted again.
We react by making sure the root causes of historically "never-again" mass movements such as National Socialism are heavily cracked down upon.
We react by preemptively censoring whatever could lead to another catastrophic mass movement.
Why this is both right...
This is right because it feels like the correct to do, at least from a moral perspective.
It is also right because it comes from good intentions.
Last, it is right because no one in their right mind wants another Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.
... and wrong
But it is also wrong because it happens to be generating unanticipated consequences, very much opposed to the generally agreed goal.
By putting such a massive focus on minorities, we are artificially creating even more compact groups confronting each other. Naturally, society remains unlikely to conform to their - sometimes rather extreme - expectations, if only because none of those groups could actually get what they want without de facto crushing others' dreams. Because of this disillusion in reality, many resort to proselytism as a mean to self-persuasion. And by crystallising this frustration in the reality, we move towards more and more fanaticism on all sides. Those people we are artificially putting into artificial buckets are therefore significantly most likely to be indoctrinated into mass movements. For a deep understanding of the nature of mass movements, read The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, which I summarised in detail here.
The Social Warriors of today could very well become the totalitarians of tomorrow.
Even the "majorities" start falling into radicalism as a reaction to them feeling constantly targeted and blamed. I believe that unanticipated events such as the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's elections are perfect examples of this reactionary movement.
What is the right thing to do?
Western societies are largely individualistic. Whether for the best of for the worst, this is a fact. It can largely be explained by several factors through our history: the atomisation of the family by Christianity, the mass displacements due to the two world wars and totalitarian regimes in the 20th century, the emancipation of women, the ease of divorce, the mass consumption of individual recreational leisure such as TV and video games, the disappearance of multi-generation households partially due to the discounting of elderly wisdom (explained by the fast expiration of knowledge in the 21st century), etc. No judgement on my side on those causes nor on the result, but the fact remains.
From a macro perspective, I believe that we need to better accept and leverage this individualism. Looking at this from a very positive point of view, it means that individuals should be able to choose their affinities with a variety of communities (family, friends, work, online, etc.) in a much more fluid way. Not putting labels on individuals based on a dichotomy of institutionalised compact groups - or worse, "minorities" - but very much a patchwork of individual preferences.
In a world of instant communication and unlimited connectivity, it feels a bit sad that we cannot move beyond putting people in boxes.
From a micro point of view, I believe that in order to achieve this, we need to work on ourselves as individuals. Setting goals and encouraging the right habits for ourselves, spending time with people whose company we enjoy, being creative. Without a certain level of mental health, it is difficult for individuals not to try and escape the self by reaching out to a compact group and lose their individuality in it. Said differently: if you hate yourself, it is rather tough to be tolerant of others.
We used to have much closer bonds with family, which lead to much stronger emotional support. But replacing our individuality by a group identity - based on a single society-dictated attribute - is reductive and can never be a suitable replacement. It is only the ground for more radicalism, more fanaticism, and for higher risk of dangerous mass movements.
for a fascinating journey through the nature of mass movements, I cannot recommend enough The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, which I summarised in detail here
for more on why totalitarian regimes fundamentally oppose change, I recommend Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu
for a very thorough analysis of the root causes of the French Revolution, read The Old Regime and the French Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville
for a scary ride inside Hitler's mass movement as lived by one of his close collaborators, read Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer
for a more positive story of how mass movements can be catalysts for better change, read Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra Vogel