Why do social movements fail: Two concrete examples.

Sta­tus: Time-capped anal­y­sis.


I look at two so­cial move­ments which I think failed in their time: the Span­ish En­light­en­ment (1750-1850), and the Gen­eral Se­man­tics move­ment (1938-2003). The first one is more similar to the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity, and the sec­ond one is more similar to the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity.

Ex­am­ple 1: Why did the Span­ish En­light­en­ment move­ment fail (1750-1850)?

Why do I care about this move­ment?

The Span­ish En­light­en­ment was prob­a­bly the clos­est thing you could find in Spain to the EA/​ra­tio­nal­ity move­ments in the 18th cen­tury. I’m in­ter­ested in see­ing why it failed, and whether any les­sons can be car­ried over.

Note: Fol­low­ers of En­light­en­ment val­ues called them­selves liber­als /​ neo­clas­si­cists.

Cause 1: The move­ment played poli­tics, and lost.

The French, un­der Napoleon, in­vaded Spain. The En­light­en­ment move­ment al­igned it­self with French rev­olu­tion ideals and val­ues, whereas the com­mon folk hated the in­va­sion. Liber­als took po­si­tions of power in the new ad­minis­tra­tion, for which they were per­ceived as traitors.

After the French were defeated, most of the Span­ish elite went into ex­ile by royal de­cree (not only those who had worked with the French, but also those who had re­ceived offers). In gen­eral, liber­als and their ideas were per­ceived as for­eign to Spain; to a cer­tain de­gree, be­cause they were.

Cause 2: Lack of or­ga­ni­za­tional power?

This seems to not have been the case. “So­ciedades de ami­gos del pais”, which roughly trans­late to “so­cieties of friends of the coun­try” seemed to be abun­dant. Sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions which re­main un­til this day were cre­ated:

The Royal Span­ish Academy (en­trusted with the Span­ish Lan­guage) (1713), the Royal Academy of His­tory (1738), the Royal Botanic Gar­dens (1755), the Prado Mu­seum (among the top 10 mu­se­ums in the world) (1819).

Ex­am­ple: Car­tas mar­rue­cas (Let­ters from Morocco). A Span­ish Noble and his Moroc­can Noble friend talk about stuff per­tain­ing Spain. While in­sight­ful and in­ter­est­ing for me, I do not be­lieve that they were in­ter­est­ing for a ma­jor­ity of Spa­niards.

Ex­am­ple: Mo­ratin, Span­ish play­wright, wrote 5 come­dies. Con­sider his most pop­u­lar com­edy El sí de las niñas (The con­sent of the maid­ens)

  • Pro: Wildly pop­u­lar Was watched by 37 000 peo­ple, 25% of the pop­u­la­tion of Madrid at the time.

  • Pro: The plot is about the right to choose; a 16 year old girl con­fronts an ar­ranged mar­riage with a 59 old man. It may have had an effect on ar­ranged mar­riages?

Coun­terex­am­ple: Ramón de la Cruz. Started as neo­clas­si­cist, but couldn’t make enough money. He tried se­duc­ing the pub­lic in­stead, which made him wildly pop­u­lar. He wrote more than 300 the­ater pieces, which peo­ple liked but which weren’t par­tic­u­larly En­light­ened.

  • Note: This is a 60x fac­tor over the pre­vi­ous au­thor. 300 vs 5 works.

The Span­ish pub­lic de­vel­oped a strong dis­like for mor­al­iz­ing works; works which pushed for the reader to, in some sense, be­come more vir­tu­ous. This re­mains to­day: A bright friend of mine gave her dis­like of “prosa didác­tica” (di­dac­tic prose) as the rea­son for not con­tin­u­ing to read HPMOR af­ter the first few chap­ters.

Any­ways, there doesn’t seem to be that clear a con­nec­tion be­tween their fic­tion and their ac­tual work, un­like in Ayn Rand’s At­las Shrugged, or in Yud­kowsky’s HPMOR. In­ter­est­ingly enough, the EA move­ment doesn’t yet have such fic­tion, that I know of.

Cause 4: Lack of per­ma­nent poli­ti­cal power.

Ex­am­ple: Car­los III, King of Spain, em­braced En­light­ened ab­solutism (ev­ery­thing for the peo­ple, noth­ing by the peo­ple), and is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to have been a good king. He was sup­ported by liber­als. Two kings later, Fer­nando VII ends up ex­iling all liber­als. The ebb and flow of good and bad kings didn’t stop.

Ex­am­ple: The Agri­cul­tural Re­port. A So­ciety of Pa­tri­otic Friends an­a­lyzes the situ­a­tion of agri­cul­ture in Spain, and pro­duces an Agri­cul­tural Re­port (1795), which pro­poses solu­tions. The re­port was com­pe­tently re­searched, ex­haus­tive, pop­u­lar, and widely read, but noth­ing came of it. Although the au­thor tries to be meek, the Church still felt an­tag­o­nized.

The les­son would seem to be some­thing like: if you can, try to do things out­side the poli­ti­cal sphere; it is too un­sta­ble (??).

Cause 5: Clash against re­li­gion. The Span­ish In­qui­si­tion.

The Span­ish In­qui­si­tion gen­er­ally made life hard for peo­ple who had ob­ser­va­tions to make against re­li­gion, tra­di­tion, etc. The Catholic Church had the first En­cy­clo­pe­dia (by D’Alam­bert and Diderot) in their list of banned books in 1759.

Ex­am­ple: Félix María Sa­maniego, be­sides his la­bor as writer of Fables, also wrote erotic works. He got in trou­ble with the In­qui­si­tion.


Be­cause of the dis­tance in time, it’s hard to ex­tract con­crete things to do, or not to do. One ex­cep­tion is to not com­pletely al­ign one­self with the los­ing side in a poli­ti­cal bat­tle (f.ex., anti-Trump in Amer­ica, anti-Brexit in Bri­tain, against the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion in Spain).

Another would be to look harder at the re­la­tion­ship be­tween liter­a­ture and what you’re try­ing to do; there wasn’t a clear nexus be­tween play­wrights and peo­ple who were try­ing to im­prove agri­cul­ture.

Yet a third would be to re­think the ap­proach to court­ing pop­u­lar opinion. Tongue-in-cheek: in Spain, de­spite the best efforts of both camps, the split be­tween liber­als and Catholics seems to have re­mained roughly con­stant.

Why did Gen­eral Se­man­tics fail? (1938-2003)

What was Gen­eral Se­man­tics? Why do I care about this ques­tion?

Gen­eral Se­man­tics was, in short, the pre­vi­ous ra­tio­nal­ity move­ment. Its pur­pose was to im­prove hu­man ra­tio­nal­ity, and to use that to im­prove the world. The ques­tion in­ter­ests me be­cause I see cer­tain similar­i­ties be­tween gen­eral se­man­ti­cists and cur­rent ra­tio­nal­ists (and, to a lesser ex­tent, effec­tive al­tru­ists).

What are some similar­i­ties with the cur­rent ra­tio­nal­ist/​effec­tive al­tru­ism move­ment?

Yud­kowsky and Korzyb­ski have cer­tain similar­i­ties. Both move­ments have fic­tion (but the Gen­eral Se­man­ti­cists seem to do bet­ter in this area, hav­ing had Hein­lein, A. E. van Vogt, etc.) Ra­tion­al­ity and gen­eral se­man­tics have similar goals.

CFAR looks similar to the In­sti­tute of Gen­eral Se­man­tics, which gave work­shops. All three move­ments had similar amount of cog­ni­tive power at their dis­posal, and their mem­bers seem to be­long to the same so­cial strata.

Did Gen­eral Se­man­tics fail?

On the one hand, this is a judge­ment call. On the other hand, yes, Gen­eral Se­man­tics failed. Although it in­spired writ­ers whose nov­els re­main, Gen­eral Se­man­tics doesn’t do much these days. In David’s Sling, the In­sti­tute plays at the level of na­tional poli­tics, in The World of NULL-A, Gen­eral Se­man­tics af­fects the So­lar Sys­tem.

Back in re­al­ity, in 2003 the In­sti­tute con­sid­ered be­com­ing part of the Texan Chris­tian Univer­sity in or­der to sur­vive Source. I think that the im­pres­sion that this para­graph gives is true to re­al­ity. Com­pare:

Our sem­i­nar-work­shops were usu­ally about three weeks long, but grad­u­ally over the years, they be­came shorter as the pace of liv­ing in­creased in our cul­ture. The length of sem­i­nars shrank to twelve days, then eight, and at the pre­sent time, they oc­cupy only week­ends. We hope to re­turn to the longer sched­ules soon, to give time for the es­sen­tial train­ing we con­sider very im­por­tant. Source

  • It is not clear to me that any courses are be­ing held now as of Fall 2019

Any­ways, here are some po­ten­tial causes of its de­cline:

Cause 1: Peo­ple played poli­tics.

Two differ­ent or­ga­ni­za­tions com­pet­ing for the same fund­ing, the ETC (a mag­a­z­ine) and the In­sti­tute for Gen­eral Se­man­tics. Ini­tially, the mag­a­z­ine was sup­posed to pay part of its rev­enues, but at some point this changed. Drama en­sued. Source. In par­tic­u­lar, the main force be­hind that split, S. I. Hayakawa, manou­vered him­self into a po­si­tion of power, then un­ex­pect­edly left to be­come the di­rec­tor of an uni­ver­sity, San Fran­cisco State.

Cause 2: Their courses did not work.

I have the nag­ging doubt that, if Gen­eral Se­man­tics had worked, if it had given peo­ple su­per­pow­ers, and if its trans­mis­sion had been pos­si­ble, they wouldn’t be in such a bad shape to­day.

As a com­par­i­son, con­sider Sto­icism, and in par­tic­u­lar, Mar­cus Aure­lius’ Med­i­ta­tions. Peo­ple find the book con­sis­tently use­ful be­cause read­ing it gives one the gen­er­a­tor for “I am ul­ti­mately the only one re­sposi­ble for my feel­ings, and it is not a good idea to worry about things out­side my field of con­trol”, and this no­tice­ably im­proves peo­ple’s lives. It’s a good piece of cul­tural tech­nol­ogy, and thus sur­vives.

A way to find out whether a course works would be to carry out a suffi­ciently pow­ered ran­dom­ized trial. How­ever, from per­sonal ex­pe­rience, I have found that this is not triv­ial.

Cause 3: Death of the Charis­matic Leader.

After Korzbin­sky died, there was Hayakawa, but, as men­tioned, he had bet­ter things to do. It is not clear to me whether the other promi­nent mem­bers were as charis­matic. It seems to me that the pat­tern: “death of a leader leads to a slow de­cline” is not un­com­mon.

Here is a quote from Hayakawa:

the So­ciety, in any case, will con­tinue to be the most effec­tive agency for spread­ing gen­eral se­man­tics — IGS or no IGS. GS is big­ger than AK, MK, or any one of us, just as the the­ory of rel­a­tivity is big­ger than Ein­stein or any of his stu­dents. And the So­ciety, which is built on the sub­ject and not the man, will sur­vive as long as the sub­ject sur­vives. It was struc­turally con­ceived that way, planned that way, and ETC. is run that way. And by run­ning for pres­i­dent, I wish to re-as­sert this policy. [Note: he at­tained the pres­i­dency, then left, con­tribut­ing to the move­ment’s de­cline].

Note that there is a pre­dic­tion in there: “And the So­ciety, which is built on the sub­ject and not the man, will sur­vive as long as the sub­ject sur­vives”. Without the man, the sub­ject only sur­vived for a time, it seems to me.

Cause 4: Not enough peo­ple at­tained mas­tery.

(...) I would guess that I have known about 30 in­di­vi­d­u­als who have in some de­gree ad­e­quately, by my stan­dards, mas­tered this highly gen­eral, very sim­ple, very difficult sys­tem of ori­en­ta­tion and method of eval­u­at­ing—re­vers­ing as it must all our ‘cul­tural con­di­tion­ing’, neu­rolog­i­cal ‘canal­iza­tion’, etc.(...) Source.

...To me the great er­ror Korzyb­ski made—and I car­ried on, fi­nan­cial ne­ces­sity—and for which we pay the price to­day in many crit­i­cisms, con­sisted in not re­strict­ing our­selves to train­ing very thor­oughly a very few peo­ple who would be com­pe­tent to uti­lize the dis­ci­pline in var­i­ous fields and to train oth­ers. We should have done this be­fore en­courag­ing any­one to ‘pop­u­larize’ or ‘spread the word’ (hor­rid phrase)… Same source.

This re­lates to: CFAR not spread­ing their man­ual, Effec­tive Altru­ism not want­ing to be­come main­stream, some effec­tive al­tru­ists be­ing very elitist, the effec­tive al­tru­ism hand­book be­ing available for free as a pdf on­line. It doesn’t seem such a bad strat­egy to fol­low the (im­plicit) ad­vice of one of the most ca­pa­ble gen­eral se­man­ti­cists as she looks back and thinks about what she’d do differ­ently.

Cause 5: Mastery might not have been worth it.

An Aik­ido mas­ter vis­ited our dojo and he stood like a moun­tain, tow­er­ing above me, even though I was much taller. He ex­uded an aura of power, and there is a sense in which I want that. There is an­other sense in which I don’t want that be­cause I do not want to ded­i­cate my life to Aik­ido in the same way that the mas­ter has.

After 7 years, I can speak Ger­man fluently, and re­cently passed the C1 exam. Now, to a first ap­prox­i­ma­tion, I’m find­ing out that all the cool peo­ple speak English any­ways. Gen­eral Se­man­tics might ex­hibit a similar pat­tern: Be­cause of op­por­tu­nity costs, there is an im­plicit as­sump­tion that spend­ing three months learn­ing Gen­eral Se­man­tics makes you win at life more than spend­ing three months learn­ing an ob­ject-level skill, like pro­gram­ming. It is not clear to me that this was the case for Gen­eral Se­man­tics.

Nonethe­less, for the ra­tio­nal­ity move­ment, it might or might not be worth it to go fish­ing for tech­niques in Korzyb­ski’s Science and San­ity or in Hayakawa’s Lan­guage in Thought and Ac­tion, or to di­rectly ask the IGS for tech­niques.

Cause 6: The move­ment didn’t give things to do to its mem­bers.

You could write ar­ti­cles for ETC, or­ga­nize a lo­cal chap­ter, try to be­come an in­struc­tor. There were things to do. But maybe not enough. The Catholic Church offers op­tions rang­ing from light in­volve­ment: read­ing texts at Church, be­ing part of a pro­pa­gan­dist or­ga­ni­za­tion, tak­ing part in youth camps, to to­tal com­mit­ment: be­com­ing a priest, a monk or a nun. Similarly, if you want to de­vote your life to fur­ther­ing the in­ter­ests of the Demo­cratic Party, it seems to me that you can do that.

The abil­ity of a move­ment to ab­sorb as much en­ergy from its par­ti­ci­pants as they can give is not nec­es­sar­ily a pos­i­tive at­tribute, but I think it’s one which con­tributes to its sur­vival. See also: After one year of ap­ply­ing for EA jobs: It is re­ally, re­ally hard to get hired by an EA or­gani­sa­tion.

As an aside, it seems to me that sev­eral move­ments have the pat­tern “if you want to be­come more in­volved, be­come an in­struc­tor”: Aik­ido, Non-Violent Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Cir­cling, CFAR. It seems to me that Gen­eral Se­man­tics never quite crys­tal­lized the pat­tern.

Cause 7: Be­cause the im­por­tant in­sights keep be­ing found again, and again, and Gen­eral Se­man­tics didn’t have any­thing unique.

It seems to me that the ba­sic in­sights of Gen­eral Se­man­tics have been found again and again by CBT, med­i­ta­tion, In­ter­nal Fam­ily Sys­tems, Non­vi­o­lent Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Fou­cault, good an­thro­pol­ogy. I think you could even get them from Hei­deg­ger’s es­say Plato’s Doc­trine of Truth if you stared at it hard enough. The an­swer to “is Gen­eral Se­man­tics the best at what it does?” might turn out to be: “no”. This re­lates to: A friend talk­ing about “effec­tive effec­tive al­tru­ism”.

Cause 8: Not enough money.

There might not have been any­thing wrong with Gen­eral Se­man­tics per se. If a ran­dom mil­lion­aire had given them some money at a cru­cial mo­ment, they might still be al­ive and flour­ish­ing.


The above are what seem to me to be some po­ten­tial failure points which the cur­rent ra­tio­nal­ity and effec­tive al­tru­ism move­ments might want to avoid if they want to keep ex­ist­ing in 100 years. It might or might not be overkill to hire a his­to­rian for a deeper anal­y­sis.