July 29, 2011

Tactical Discipline

Filed under: Civil Disobedience — Russ @ 1:56 am


Yesterday at Naked Capitalism Yves linked to this piece describing a study of social networking and the proliferation of ideas. The study found that when the proportion of “committed opinion holders” dedicated to an alternative idea reaches 10% in a population, this is likely to constitute critical mass and trigger a non-linear jump in the propagation of the idea. At that point the rate of its spread is likely to greatly accelerate.
Readers of my blog and comments are familiar with how often I say things to the effect that “we only need a critical mass of activists” and “this number doesn’t even need to be that high to start with”. So I’m always interested in any example or evidence that backs this up.
Beyond that, where it comes to anything which I see as lying in the realm of tactics (as opposed to the realm of principle), the first and main question I ask of anything is, How can this be used for the fight? I have zero prejudices beyond that.
In this case, history proves that victorious movements (as well as those who contended but lost) usually experienced exactly such a tipping point where their membership leapt from a small band to a larger mass. It’s important to get people to understand this fact, because the way things are for now lots of people may have anti-system and even pro-relocalization sympathies but feel daunted by the seeming impossibility of the task. How can a scattered bunch of isolated individuals and small groups take on the kleptocracy, history’s most monumental power structure? But if these allegedly isolated individuals and groups understand that they’re only the pioneers of an already-growing movement which, if they keep working hard and spreading the word, will soon reach a point where its growth will suddenly surge, it can provide a morale boost. It’s a major milestone short of the total victory which seems so far off, one to which we can look forward in a much closer future.
The fact is that given something like this, the most important thing isn’t whether or not it’s objectively and timelessly “true” in an ivory tower sense, but whether people believe it’s true. If they believe, this is the most important factor in making it come true in reality, as a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s the way history has always worked.
So when I saw this study my instinctive response was to say, “For anyone who needed quantitative evidence that all we need in order to achieve transformational effects is a critical mass far below a majority of the population, here it is. There’s no need to fear – just keep saying to yourself: 10% All we need is 10%.”
I didn’t respond by knee-jerking about how all statistics is bunk, or how this study “sounds like 90% bullshit”, to quote one of the other commenters on it, who were pretty much unanimous in disparaging it. While some of these commenters are pro-bankster, many of them are normally at least sympathetic to the anti-system project. You’d think they’d have had a similar reaction to mine. But nope.
Unfortunately, many people aren’t really serious about what they claim their ideals to be. They’re really prone to nihilism wherever they see a good chance to go into detached Internet hipster mode to goof on something, anything. In this case, statistics is of course an easy target. As a rule, statistics is bunk. And I don’t doubt that anyone who wanted to find methodological issues with this study could find them. There almost always are.
But that’s not the right way of looking at things. For anyone who really wants to fight, the right way to look at any statistic isn’t with a knee-jerk “all statistics are lies” nihilism. The right viewpoint is to ask: Is this statistic pro-corporate, or could it have an anti-corporate application? If the answer is Yes, that’s the most important factor.
Now, I’m not saying this number is likely to have any great importance. In the end people will believe or not believe in the movement’s future viability based on more subjective factors. Mirabeau didn’t have statistical studies to back up his famous contention that ten men acting together could dominate a hundred thousand who stand apart from one another, yet this claim has given heart to beleaguered fighters ever since. Still, if studies backing up the basic idea are available, it can’t hurt to use them, and may help.
This little flap is just one example of how far we still are from a real class war consciousness, from the mindset which looks at everything and asks, “What is it from the point of view of the class war? How can it be used in this struggle?” To indiscriminately reject (or accept) all inputs from any category, for example statistics, isn’t a disciplined mindset, but rather a form of crackpot discipline, in the same vein as conspiracy theorizing. It makes one feel superior and “cool”, but achieves no constructive end. The real discipline is to be always on the alert without bias for the possible uses and dangers of things, to be always searching these out.
So that was my response to this example. I invite anyone to read the comments and ask whose reaction is more likely to have any constructive use whatsoever.
Getting back to the example itself in conclusion, it’s true that this 10% (or 12% or 20% or whatever the number really is; the point isn’t the exact number, but the fact that it’s far below 51% or 70% or whatever people might think they need) have to be committed “opinion” holders, meaning that they’re not holders of shallow, flighty opinions but unshakable convictions who are committed to spreading and fighting for those convictions. Then we’d achieve the effect Mirabeau described.


  1. Yeah, it doesn’t really make any sense to me to criticise that study for not accurately modeling the transmission of belief systems or whatever. Even the article describing it does a pretty good job of saying “given this set of assumptions, here’s what happens to a network composed of nodes that act in the following way”. It’s a reductive approach, but trying for a holistic, “realistic” approach to modeling how humans interact smacks of hubris and is likely to be a total waste of time. We can line up that study’s findings alongside our historical examples of movements which achieved significant social change with a relatively small hard core of committed cadres or believers. It provides an interesting explanation of how that can actually happen, and that’s useful in and of itself. It’s probably also worth noting that the study was funded by the US military, so it’s not like they picked the most radical pie-in-the-sky marxist sociologists they could find to justify their own beliefs, or anything.

    Comment by paper mac — July 29, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

    • Some of the scoffers were also saying the enemy can use this too. (The military was involved with this. Horrors!) As if they didn’t know that already and weren’t doing it already.

      As you say, it just purports to be quantitative evidence for what we already knew empirically.

      [From time to time I go delete the spam membership submissions at the SMF place. (I also confirmed one I knew was real.) But there’s a few which I can’t tell if they’re real or not, so I left them in limbo.]

      Comment by Russ — July 29, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

      • I haven’t checked the new members application list in a while, as the overwhelming majority were spambots. I have to sit down at some point and figure out how to modify the board to be more bot-proof.. I know of a couple other SMF boards that have instant registration, but the only thing they have that’s different in the reg process is a question like “What color is this text”, and the text is red, so you type red. I’m not sure how to add that in, but it seems to be effective, oddly. I’ll have a look at that after the long weekend.

        Comment by paper mac — July 29, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

  2. […] tipping point at which point the movement ideal starts to exponentially propagate itself. This mass may be as low as 10% of the population.   There will certainly be vast convulsions in the mass psychic energy, and the forms this will […]

    Pingback by Urban Uprising (London) and Implications for the New Movement Morality « Volatility — August 10, 2011 @ 1:46 am

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