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Why big protests aren’t a good measure of popular power

The recent wave of protests of the Black Lives Matters movement in the United States and around the world has opened up a space of political possibility for proposals, like disbanding abusive police departments, which seemed radical and utopian only weeks earlier. In the broad sweep of history, a similar process has been seen time and time again: Significant political change often only arises in the wake of mass protest and popular civic resistance.

Surely mass protest is the fundamental expression of popular power? The bigger and more vibrant the protest, the more popular power there is? By contrast, when the society quietly chugs along, the greasy wheels of political and institutional processes smoothly turning without disruption, surely this shows a deficiency or an absence of popular power?

This view of popular power–let’s call it the insurgent view–may be appealing on face value, but it contains a paradox. On the insurgent view, a basically oligarchic regime which is convulsed by protest counts as expressing popular power more authentically than a fair and equal regime which has mechanisms in place to deal with grievances before they reach boiling point. The insurgent view has often been traced back to the work of 17th-century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza: if we turn to the philosophy of Spinoza, we can fine-tune our understanding of popular power to escape this paradox.

Some elements of the insurgent view find genuine support in Spinoza’s writings. More than any other figure in the history of political thought, Spinoza takes popular rebellion as the central political phenomenon needing to be understood. He himself witnessed many such disturbances, both in his native Dutch Republic, and as a keen observer of events in other countries. The novelty of Spinoza’s approach is his striking lack of interest in parsing whether rebellions are justified or not, and equal lack of interest in making distinctions between permissible and impermissible tactics. Such questions are, in Spinoza’s view, useless moralism, gratifying to philosophers who like to criticise everyone else, but a distraction from the political phenomenon to hand. When the people rise up, this makes manifest to us, in stark terms, the reliance of any political order on the power of the people. When the people rise up, it stands as a warning to rulers who would oppress the masses. Ultimately, the power of the people may come back to bite them.

Certainly, the insurgent view has some basis in Spinoza’s philosophy. But at the same time it misrepresents critical elements of Spinoza’s thought. I think that Spinoza’s divergences from the insurgent view have lessons for us today.

To see this, let’s focus on that most slippery of concepts, power. On the contemporary insurgent view, popular power is a perennial underlying potential of the people as a collection of equal individuals. From time to time, it bursts through the opaque and complex workings of modern political systems to express itself, calling politics back to the common good and away from sectional interests. The degree of the power of the people is proved by these moments of insurgent expression.

So power supposedly lies in momentous acts? I think Spinoza would disagree. For Spinoza, if we want to talk about an entity’s power, we need to consider overall array of effects the entity characteristically and durably brings about. Occasional acts, no matter how spectacular, are likely to be a poor guide to this more quotidian question of efficacy.

Spinoza most famously applies his analysis of power to ethics. Imagine a person who stands up for their convictions only on one occasion. The rest of the time, they are fearful and compliant. Should we say that they have the power to defend their convictions–they simply don’t often choose to exercise this power? For Spinoza, this is a wrongheaded approach. People do not straightforwardly choose to be fearful. Rather, fear is generated by certain identifiable material and psychological pressures. Insofar as the person does not regularly overcome their fears, this demonstrates that they lack sufficient power to counter the pressures that they face. Only a person who reliably acts with integrity and stands for their convictions can be said act from their own power.

The same point can be applied to groups. On the Spinozist analysis, the measure of a group’s power lies in how durably they generate the political outcomes that they desire. The people of a society do not only exist at the time of protest and revolt; they also continue to exist during more routine times. If the people only bring about their desired egalitarian political effects at those occasional moments of protest, at other times helplessly watching as their hard-fought wins backslide or are eroded, then that shows a deficiency to their power.

The Black Lives Matter protests are a momentous historical event. However, to return to our initial paradox, it is perverse to insist that popular mobilisation against an oligarchic regime is evidence of great popular power, unless and until it is translated into durable systematic outcomes. The protests in the United States occur against the backdrop of a profound and persistent failure to advance the common good, most strikingly along racial but also economic lines. On Spinozist analysis, this amounts to a profound deficiency of US popular power. We can hope that the protests contribute to strengthening of popular power, but the proof of that will lie in whether the new everyday function of US society durably advances the common good, even when the energy of revolt has dissipated.

What does popular power look like? Not momentous acts, but political and institutional processes that durably and systematically uphold equality and justice.

Image credit: Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash.

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