Book Review: The Revolt Of The Public

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I.

Martin Gurri's The Revolt Of The Public is from 2014, which means you might as well read the Epic of Gilgamesh. It has a second-edition-update-chapter from 2017, which might as well be Beowulf. The book is about how social-media-connected masses are revolting against elites, but the revolt has moved forward so quickly that a lot of what Gurri considers wild speculation is now obvious fact. I picked up the book on its "accurately predicted the present moment" cred, but it predicted the present moment so accurately that it's barely worth reading anymore. It might as well just say "open your eyes and look around".

In fact, I can't even really confirm whether it predicted anything accurately or not. Certainly everything it says is true. Anyone who wrote it in 2000 would have been a prophet. Anyone who wrote it in 2020 would have been stating the obvious. Was writing it in 2014 a boring chronicle of clear truths, or an achievement for the ages? I find my memories are insufficiently precise to be sure. It's like that thing where someone who warned about the coronavirus on March 1 2020 was a bold visionary, but someone who warned about it on March 20 was a conformist bandwagoner - except about the entire history of the 21st century so far. Maybe the best we can do with it is read it backwards, as an artifact of the era when the public was only ambiguously revolting, to see how the knowledge of the coming age arose and spread.

We remember the Arab Spring, those few months in 2011 when revolts spread across various Arab countries and longstanding regimes were toppled by protesters with smartphones and Twitter accounts. Gurri hits the relevant beats, but doesn't limit himself to the Middle East.

In Spain, a vague formless group called the indignados (or Real Democracy Now, or Youth Without A Future) took to the streets. For months, they filled public squares, streets, and tent cities. Some protests attracted tens of thousands of participants; a few, hundreds of thousands. Some of them were vaguely socialist, but it wasn't exactly a socialist protest; in fact, the government they were protesting was dominated by the Socialist Workers Party. They were just sort of vaguely angry. From their manifesto:

Some of us consider ourselves more progressive, others more conservative. Some are believers, others not. Some have well-defined ideologies, others consider ourselves apolitical...but all of us are worried and outraged by the political, economic, and social landscape we see about us. By the corruption of the politicians, businessmen, bankers...

And so on.

At the same moment, hundreds of thousands of people were marching through the streets of Israel. The apparent trigger was a 25-year-old video editor named Daphni Leef who couldn't afford an apartment near her job. She started a Facebook page saying people should protest the cost of living, one thing led to another, and soon 300,000 people were marching through the streets of Israel and Leef was a national hero.

The protesters' message was savagely critical of the market-friendly government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and blandly admiring of themselves: words like "awakening", "renewal", and "rebirth" were thrown around by them, in an effort to describe the transcendental change they had brought about. They were not alone in applauding their actions. Opinion surveys showed remarkable levels of public support for the protests - up to 88% in one poll [...]

The Israeli protesters attracted contradictory political fantasies because of the fuzziness of their definition. This repeated a pattern established in Egypt and Spain. The lack of leaders, programs, and organizational structure was if anything more pronounced. Those who spoke to the media on a regular basis, like Leef, were attractive and clever, but they lacked the power to command or decide, and they quarreled constantly among themselves. The question of whether to negotiate with the government divided the protesters. The goal of social justice - supposedly the North Star of the uprising - appeared to be as foggy a notion to them as to their media admirers.

But also, in August 2011 600,000 people protested in Chile. In October, 80,000 Portuguese marched on Lisbon. In September 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement began in the US, eventually expanding to hundreds of cities:

The movement doesn't need to make demands, because this movement is an assertive process. This movement has the power to effect change. It does not need to ask for it. The OWS does not make demands. We will simply assert our own power to achieve what we desire. The more of us gather to the cause, the more power we have. Make no demands for others to solve these problems. Assert yourself.

In conclusion, 2011 was a weird year.

Gurri argues all of this was connected, and all of it was a sharp break from what came before. These movements were essentially leaderless. Some had charismatic spokespeople, like Daphni Leef in Israel or Tahrir-Square-Facebook-page-admin Wael Ghonim in Egypt, but these people were at best the trigger that caused a viral movement to coalesce out of nothing. When Martin Luther King marched on Washington, he built an alliance of various civil rights groups, unions, churches, and other large organizations who could turn out their members. He planned the agenda, got funding, ran through an official program of speakers, met with politicians, told them the legislation they wanted, then went home. The protests of 2011 were nothing like that. They were just a bunch of people who read about protests on Twitter and decided to show up.

Also, they were mostly well-off. Gurri hammers this in again and again. Daphni Leef had just graduated from film school, hardly the sort of thing that puts her among the wretched of the earth. All of these movements were mostly their respective countries' upper-middle classes; well-connected, web-savvy during an age when that meant something. Mostly young, mostly university-educated, mostly part of their countries' most privileged ethnic groups. Not the kind of people you usually see taking to the streets or building tent cities.

Some of the protests were more socialist and anarchist than others, but none were successfully captured by establishment strains of Marxism or existing movements. Many successfully combined conservative and liberal elements. Gurri calls them nihilists. They believed that the existing order was entirely rotten, that everyone involved was corrupt and irredeemable, and that some sort of apocalyptic transformation was needed. All existing institutions were illegitimate, everyone needed to be kicked out, that kind of thing. But so few specifics that socialists and reactionaries could march under the same banner, with no need to agree on anything besides "not this".

Gurri isn't shy about his contempt for this. Not only were these some of the most privileged people in their respective countries, but (despite the legitimately-sucky 2008 recession), they were living during a time of unprecedented plenty. In Spain, the previous forty years had seen the fall of a military dictatorship, its replacement with a liberal democracy, and a quintupling of GDP per capita from $6000 to $32000 a year - "in 2012, four years into the crisis there were more cell phones and cars per person in Spain than in the US". The indignado protesters in Spain had lived through the most peaceful period in Europe's history, an almost unprecedented economic boom, and had technologies and luxuries that previous generations could barely dream of. They had cradle-to-grave free health care, university educations, and they were near the top of their society's class pyramids. Yet they were convinced, utterly convinced, that this was the most fraudulent and oppressive government in the history of history, and constantly quoting from a manifesto called Time For Outrage!

So what's going on?

Our story begins (says Gurri) in the early 20th century, when governments, drunk on the power of industrialization, sought to remake Society in their own image. This was the age of High Modernism, with all of its planned cities and collective farms and so on. Philosopher-bureaucrat-scientist-dictator-manager-kings would lead the way to a new era of gleaming steel towers, where society was managed with the same ease as a gardener pruning a hedgerow.

Some principles of this system: government management of the economy, under the wise infallible leadership of Alan-Greenspan-style boffins who could prevent recessions and resist "animal spirits". Government sponsorship of science, under the wise infallible leadership of Einstein-style geniuses who could journey to the Platonic Realm and bring back new insights for the rest of us to gawk at. Government management of society, in the form of Wars on Poverty and Wars on Drugs and exciting new centralized forms of public education that would make every child an above-average student. Homelessness getting cleared away by a wave of the city planner's pen, replaced by scientifically-designed heavily optimized efficient public housing like Cabrini-Green.

Realistically this was all a sham. Alan Greenspan had no idea how to prevent recessions, scientific progress was slowing down, poverty remained as troubling as ever, and 50% of public school students stubbornly stayed below average. But the media trusted the government, the people trusted the media, and failures got swept under the rug by genteel agreement among friendly elites, while the occasional successes were trumpeted from the rooftops.

There was a very interesting section on JFK’s failure at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy tried to invade Cuba, but the invasion failed very badly, further cementing Castro’s power and pushing him further into the Soviet camp. Representatives of the media met with Kennedy, Kennedy was very nice to them, and they all agreed to push a line of “look, it’s his first time invading a foreign country, he tried his hardest, give him a break.” This seems to have successfully influenced the American public, so much so that Kennedy’s approval rating increased five points, to 83%, after the debacle!

With the beginning of the Internet at the turn of the 21st century, bloggers and social media influencers short-circuited the established hierarchy. America's crimes and failures in Vietnam had percolated slowly and inconsistently through word of mouth, with most people content to believe whatever sanitized version the nightly news told them. But when America had crimes and failures in Iraq, leaked photos of torture in Abu Ghraib spread instantly across the Internet; there was no opportunity for elites in government and media to come to an agreement on how much of it they were going to share or what the narrative should be. The scientific equivalent (Gurri argues) was Climategate, where hackers leaked the emails of top climate scientists and everyone got to see exactly how the sausage got made and decide for themselves whether they trusted it or not. And then there was the 2008 market crash. For the first time, people were able to go on Facebook and the comment sections of their favorite blogs and talk about how everyone involved in finance and government was a crook who needed to be hung from a lamppost. The discussion had a momentum of its own, and people who wouldn't have dared think a heretical thought if they'd been listening to Walter Cronkite found themselves adding to the avalanche.

In Gurri's telling, High Modernism had always been a failure, but the government-media-academia elite axis had been strong enough to conceal it from the public. Starting in the early 2000s, that axis broke down. People could have lowered their expectations, but in the real world that wasn't how things went. Instead of losing faith in the power of government to work miracles, people believed that government could and should be working miracles, but that the specific people in power at the time were too corrupt and stupid to press the "CAUSE MIRACLE" button which they definitely had and which definitely would have worked. And so the outrage, the protests - kick these losers out of power, and replace them with anybody who had the common decency to press the miracle button!

So for example, Gurri examines some of the sloganeering where people complain about how eg obesity is the government's fault - surely the government could come up with some plan that cured obesity, and since they haven't done so, that proves they're illegitimate and don't care that obesity is killing millions of Americans. Or homelessness - that's the fault of capitalism, right? Because "we" could just give every homeless person a home, but capitalism prevents "us" from doing that. Or if you're a conservative, how come the government hasn't forced the liberal rot out of schools and made everybody pious and patriotic and family-values-having? Doesn't that mean our lack of strong values is the government's fault? The general formula is (1.) take vast social problem that has troubled humanity for millennia (2.) claim that theoretically The System could solve the problem, but in fact hasn't (3.) interpret that as "The System has caused the problem and it is entirely the system's fault" (4.) be outraged that The System is causing obesity and homelessness and postmodernism and homosexuality and yet some people still support it. How could they do that??!

(is all this deeply uncharitable? we'll get back to this question later)

Any system that hasn't solved every problem is illegitimate. Solving problems is easy and just requires pressing the "CAUSE MIRACLE" button. Thus the protests. In 2011, enough dry tinder of anger had built up that everywhere in the world erupted into protest simultaneously, all claiming their respective governments were illegitimate. These protests were necessarily vague and leaderless, because any protest-leader would fall victim to the same crisis of authority and legitimacy that national leaders were suffering from. Any attempt to make specific demands would be pilloried because those specific demands wouldn't unilaterally end homelessness or racism or inequality or whatever else. The only stable state was a sort of omni-nihilism that refused to endorse anything.

(I’m reminded of Tanner Greer’s claim that the great question of modernity is not “what can I accomplish?” or “how do I succeed?” but rather “how do I get management to take my side?”)

Gurri calls our current government a kind of "zombie democracy". The institutions of the 20th century - legislatures, universities, newspapers - continue to exist. But they are hollow shells, stripped of all legitimacy. Nobody likes or trusts them. They lurch forward, mimicking the motions they took in life, but no longer able to change or make plans or accomplish new things.

There is no longer a role for leaders qua leaders; they would attain office, fail to solve everything immediately, and get torn to pieces. To adapt, leaders have become “protesters-in-chief”. Gurri says that Obama's presidential speeches took an unprecedented turn from "here is why America is great" to "I stand beside you in your conclusion that everything sucks and in your desire to change it". Obama marched with protesters and validated their anger. In the afterword for the second edition, Gurri holds up Trump as a different sort of protester-in-chief, somebody whose very existence sends a message of "I hate the elites and everything they stand for", and who consequently gets a pass on not having solved all problems yet. These leaders portray themselves as outsiders, just as angry and oppositional as any blogger or Occupy denizen or Tea Party sign-waver, but equally powerless in the face of the true elites, who are vague and formless and everywhere and not up for re-election (maybe this is linked to increasing discussion of the Deep State?).

How do we escape this equilibrium? Gurri isn't sure. His 2017 afterword says he thinks we're even more in it now than we were in 2014. But he has two suggestions.

First, cultivate your garden. We got into this mess by believing the government could solve every problem. We're learning it can''t. We're not going to get legitimate institutions again until we unwind the overly high expectations produced by High Modernism, and the best way to do that is to stop expecting government to solve all your problems. So cultivate your garden. If you're concerned about obesity, go on a diet, or volunteer at a local urban vegetable garden, or organize a Fun Run in your community, do anything other than start a protest telling the government to end obesity. This is an interesting contrast to eg Just Giving, which I interpret as having the opposite model - if you want to fight obesity, you should work through the democratic system by petitioning the government to do something; trying to figure out a way to fight it on your own would be an undemocratic exercise of raw power. Gurri is recommending that we tear that way of thinking up at the root.

Second, start looking for a new set of elites who can achieve legitimacy. These will have to be genuinely decent and humble people - Gurri gives the example of George Washington. They won't claim to be able to solve everything. They won't claim the scientific-administrative mantle of High Modernism. They'll just be good honorable people who will try to govern wisely for the common good. Haha, yeah right.

II.

Speaking of humility, Gurri is nervous about being a false prophet, so he suggests a test to determine whether or not his thesis has stood the test of time:

[Egyptian dictator Abdel] al-Sisi aspired to the presidency, and his fate will provide a powerful signal with regard to the claims I have made in this book. If he can repress his way into a stable and long-lasting dynasty in the mode of Nasser and Mubarak, my analysis will be falsified. This isn't an impossible outcome. The future...is unknown. But as I observe, from afar, recent events in Egypt - and in Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, Turkey - I confess to many misgivings about the future of democracy, [but] far fewer doubts about the restlessness of the public or the crisis of authority.

As I write this in 2021, al-Sisi remains dictator of Egypt. He's only been in power seven years, so he has a while to go until he matches Nasser's 16, but I get the impression Gurri didn't expect him to last this long.

Gurri divides the world between the Center and the Border. He thinks the Center - politicians, experts, journalists, officials - will be in a constant retreat, and the Border - bloggers, protesters, and randos - on a constant advance. His thesis got a boost when Brexit and Trump - both Border positions - crushed and embarrassed their respective Centers. But since then I'm not sure things have been so clear. The blogosphere is in retreat (maybe Substack is reversing this?), but the biggest and most mainstream of mainstream news organizations, like the New York Times are becoming more trusted and certainly more profitable. The new President of the US is a boring moderate career politician. The public cheers on elite censorship of social media. There haven't been many big viral protests lately except Black Lives Matter and the 1/6 insurrection, and both seemed to have a perfectly serviceable set of specific demands (defunding the police, decertifying the elections). Maybe I've just grown used to it, but it doesn't really feel like a world where a tiny remnant of elites are being attacked on all sides by a giant mob of entitled nihilists.

And also - consider universal health care. Lots of countries have universal health care. It's not an impossible High Modernist pipe dream that can never be accomplished. Or stopping illegal immigration - many countries manage this just fine, America could do it if it wanted to. Democrats hold protests and get angry demanding things like universal health care, Republicans hold protests and get angry demanding things like an end to illegal immigration, and both sides lose some faith in government when they don't get what they want. But these aren't insane demands which inevitably bleed into nihilist temper tantrums after predestined failures. They're just normal political requests for achievable goals, which various interest groups will fight over and then the government will either do them or not. Yeah, Occupy Wall Street was kind of silly, but most of politics continues to be the struggle for normal potentially achievable stuff. If we admit that, what's left of Gurri's thesis?

At the risk of being premature or missing Gurri's point, I want to try telling a story of how the revolt of the public and the crisis of legitimacy at least partially stalled.

Gurri talks a lot about Center and Border, but barely even mentions Left and Right. Once you reintroduce these, you have a solution to nihilism. The Left can come up with a laundry list of High Modernist plans that they think would solve all their problems, and the Right can do the same. Then one or the other takes control of government, gets thwarted by checks/balances/Mitch McConnell, and nothing happens. No American Democrat was forced to conclude that just because Obama couldn't solve all their problems, the promise of High Modernism was a lie. They just concluded that Obama could have solved all their problems, but the damn Republicans filibustered the bill. Likewise, the Republicans can imagine that Donald Trump would have made America great again if the media and elites and Deep State hadn't been blocking him at every turn. Donald Trump himself tells them this is true!

With this solution in place, you can rebuild trust in institutions. If you're a Republican, Fox News is trustworthy because it tells you the ways Democrats are bad. Some people say it's biased or inaccurate, but those people are Democrats or soft-on-Democrat RINO traitors. And if you're a Democrat, academic experts are completely trustworthy, and if someone challenges them you already know those challenges must be vile Republican lies. Lack of access to opposing views has been replaced with lack of tolerance for opposing views. And so instead of the public having to hate all elites, any given member of the public only needs to hate half of the elites.

You could think of this as a mere refinement of Gurri. But it points at a deeper critique. Suppose that US left institutions are able to maintain legitimacy, because US leftists trust them as fellow warriors in the battle against rightism (and vice versa). Why couldn't one make the same argument about the old American institutions? People liked and trusted the President and Walter Cronkite and all the other bipartisan elites because they were American, and fellow warriors in the battle against Communism or terrorism or poverty or Saddam or whatever. If this is true, the change stops looking like the masses suddenly losing faith in the elites and revolting, and more like a stable system of the unified American masses trusting the unified American elites, fissioning into two stable systems of the unified (right/left) masses trusting the unified (right/left) elites. Why did the optimal stable ingroup size change from nation-sized to political-tribe-sized?

Or is this ignoring fundamental asymmetries? The Right can (sometimes) muster up trust in Donald Trump and Fox News, but they still seem pretty Border. Meanwhile, the center-left is celebrating mainstream journalists and universities and experts with a vigor that seems perhaps more desperate, but no less intense, than in the 20th century. Perhaps this will change; the Right could swing back to being Romneycrats, and Bernie and AOC could still take over the left. But so far it doesn't look that way. Maybe the occasional tendency of the US to switch party systems has captured the center-vs-border conflict and subsumed it into the broader left-right one.

III.

Overall, reading this book was a weird experience. Gurri admits in his afterword that he wrote the book to try to describe "subterranean currents" that were on track to invisibly change the world, but that everything went so fast that within a few years after publication those currents were obvious to everyone and the book was kind of pointless. I hoped that Gurri would have some kind of special insight into what was going on, but he really just had the normal insight that everyone has now, only a year or two earlier. So, without meaning any insult to him or his prescience, I wouldn't recommend this book unless you want to read 400 pages of someone going on and on and on about extremely obvious stuff.

The one exception to my disrecommendation is that you might enjoy the book as a physical object. The cover, text, and photographs are exceptionally beautiful; the cover image - of some sort of classical-goddess-looking person (possibly Democracy? I expect if I were more cultured I would know this) holding a cell phone - is spectacularly well done. I understand that Gurri self-published the first edition, and that this second edition is from not-quite-traditional publisher Stripe Press. I appreciate the kabbalistic implications of a book on the effects of democratization of information flow making it big after getting self-published, and I appreciate the irony of a book about the increasing instability of history getting left behind by events within a few years. So buy this beautiful book to put on your coffee table, but don't worry about the content - you are already living in it.