Why do social movements fail: Two concrete examples.

by NunoSempere7 min read4th Oct 201915 comments


HistoryMovement Strategy

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.


15 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:51 AM
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Thanks for writing this up! I'm really excited to see more investigation into previous social movements and why they were or were not successful.

A while back me and habryka put up a bounty for people to compile a systematic list of social movements and their fates, with some interesting results. You can find it here.

Curiously enough, 'twas me who fulfilled the bounty.

I enjoyed reading this!

One note: Having a few more links to basic information (e.g. a general summary of the Spanish Enlightenment, a list of behaviors/actions recommended by General Semantics) would have helped me better understand both writeups. (I can Google this kind of thing, of course, but I might not find sources as good as those you consulted in your own research.)

Here is, additionally, a list of behaviors/techniques recommended by General Semantics which stood out to me for some reason. The problem is, though, that I find it difficult to say whether they're representative; for that, see the first link in my other comment: An overview of general semantics . With that in mind:

Extensional devices:

  • Indexing : Muslim(1) is not Muslim(2); Feminist(1) is not Feminist(2);. Remember to look for the differences even among a group or category that presume similarities.
  • Dating : Steve(2008) is not Steve(1968); Steve’s-views-on-abortion(2008) are not Steve’s-views-on-abortion(1988). Remember that each person and each ‘thing’ we experience changes over time, even though the changes may not be apparent to us.
  • Quotes : ‘truth’, ‘reality’, ‘mind’, ‘elite’. Use quotes around terms as a caution to indicate you’re aware that there is an opportunity for misunderstanding if the term is particularly subject to interpretation, or if you’re being sarcastic, ironic, or facetious. o hyphen : mind-body, thinking-feeling. Use to join terms that we can separate in language, but can’t actually separate in the ‘real’ world. Remember that we can talk in terms that don’t accurately reflect the world ‘out there.’
  • etc.: Remember that our knowledge and awareness of anything is limited. We can’t sense or experience or talk about all of something, so we should maintain an awareness that “more could be said.”

Variations of English:

  • E-Prime: eliminate or reduce forms of the to be verbs (is, are, were, am, being, etc.). In particular, reduce those that we consider is of identity (ex. John is a liberal) and is of predication (ex. The rose is red.)
    • “What’s this? What’s that?” Don’t answer, “It’s a table,” but, “We call it a table.”
  • English Minus Absolutisms (EMA): eliminate or reduce inappropriate generalizations or expressions that imply allness or absolute attitudes. Examples include: all, none, every, totally, absolutely, perfect, without a doubt, certain, completely.

Holding a stone

Bruce Kodish led the sessions dealing with experiencing on the silent level. One exercise was seemingly quite simple. We were told to pick out a stone, bring it to class, then for a few minutes simply experience the stone on the silent level. In other words, to use our senses without verbalizing our reactions to our senses. My inability to accomplish this simple task was enlightening. It emphasized to me how language can get in the way of our moment-to-moment experiences with “what is going on.” It also demonstrated the extent to which I generate meanings for things. While I was unsuccessful in shutting off my verbalizing, I was quite proficient in coming up with all kinds of thoughts-and-feelings-and-meanings about an ordinary, arbitrary rock. If I can ‘make up’ so much meaning for a random inanimate object, perhaps it would be appropriate for me to be hesitant and inquiring in my future evaluations of relationships with more animate beings.


General Semantics has several ladders, which illustrate different levels of abstraction. For example:


  1. Something is going on
  2. I experience what’s going on
  3. I evaluate my experience of what’s going on
  4. From my evaluation of my experience of what’s going on, I respond to and give meaning to what is going.

Example: You misunderstood what I was trying to say / You didn't write clearly enough benefits from that.


What Happens ≠ What I Sense ≠ How I Respond ≠ “What It Means”


What we sense is not what happened - What we describe is not what we sense - What it means is not what we describe.



Here is an example of these ladders being used:

What this GS stuff meant to me, at that particular time, was that I didn’t have to be consumed with guilt over the fact that I had decided to end my marriage. Divorce didn’t have a predetermined meaning — our daughter wasn’t forever doomed to be neglected and miserable; I didn’t have to walk forever with my head bowed, ashamed of taking actions to further my own personal happiness; my wife didn’t have to forever grieve over what I had ‘done’ to her. It was certainly possible that each of these outcomes could occur, but they were not unavoidable consequences of the event called divorce. Source: Here is something about general semantics, by Steven Stockdale, who was once director of the Insititute of Semantics.

Note that CBT says something similar

Regarding Spanish Enlightenment, I can't answer as decisively, because the sources I used were in Spanish, and they were combined with me just knowing things about Spanish literature and history, which made hypothesis generation much easier and much faster.

That being said, the English Wikipedia page Enlightenment in Spain might be a good starting point.

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

FWIW, my first thought was: "don't put all your eggs in one basket" / "don't rely on a single supplier of crucial resources." In fact, I almost immediately thought "this seems somewhat similar to EA relying a lot on a single source of funding, i.e., Open Phil."

[Not saying that I am in fact worried about this upon reflection, or that the analogy is useful. Just reporting my immediate reaction.]

Great work here. 

I like the content, though am not sure that "A list of causes" is the ideal organization.  I think with General Semantics there needed to be an ecosystem where the benefits were greater than the costs for a range of stakeholders, and in this case they plainly weren't.  Your lists of causes seem like about the right content for these benefits/costs.

I imagine another way of organizing this would be something like a list of the costs and benefits of the product and costs and benefits for the organizing, with the corresponding conclusions that the costs were generally higher than the benefits for the reasons you mentioned. 

Many of my interests are related to General Semantics, so I'd like to understand it better.

I think it's likely that it wasn't bad, it just wasn't done particularly well. It may have been ahead of its time.

It seems like a pity that it almost completely ended. I guess they basically didn't seem to find a mix of funding and great talent to continue the discipline. 

I wouldn't want it to be seen as a lesson that those ideas are a dead-end, which clearly does not seem true to me.

I got the impression that the field was pretty messy and early, a bit like Econ in the very early stages.

Many of my interests are related to General Semantics, so I'd like to understand it better.

Are you looking for any particular pointers?

Glad to see an analysis of GS!

I'll add that many movements fail by succeeding too well at something that was only incidental to the original aims of the movement.

What concrete examples were you thinking of?

I was thinking about

EA goodharting on analysis theater

Marxism becoming a counter-culture thing

Globalisation and China

Military industrial complex

(note I will not get into discussion of these due to politics. I think the lens is the interesting thing and would discuss more neutral examples. I was just answering the question honestly.)

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.

[I'm not a historian, low confidence:]

In his book A Culture of Growth, the influential economic historian Joel Mokyr claims that attempts to suppress intellectual activity in this period were somewhat toothless because they were rarely enforced consistently across countries. Intellectuals were thus able to evade suppression by moving, sometimes capitalizing on the competing interests of different rulers. More broadly, the book made me think that state-led conservative forces - including the Inquisition - were much less of a big deal than I had previously believed, even though they of course had some impacts including in some well-known cases such as the one you cite or the execution of Giordano Bruno.

So I wonder whether the fact that, for whatever reason, the movement was geographically tied to Spain is a crucial part of the full explanation here.