Spontaneity in popular movements in the face of power

The likelihood that subordinate groups may often deliberately choose spontaneous forms of popular action for the anonymity and other tactical advantages they provide would, if its implications were pursued, remake our perspective of popular polities. Traditionally, the interpretation of the crowd has emphasized the relative incapacity of lower classes to sustain any coherent political movement—a regrettable consequence of their short-run materialism and passions. In time, it was hoped, such primitive forms of class action would be replaced by more permanent and farsighted movements with a leadership (perhaps from the vanguard party) seeking fundamental political change.38 If, however, a far more tactical reading is accurate, then the choice of fleeting, direct action by crowds is hardly a sign of some political handicap or incapacity for more advanced modes of political action. Such events as market riots, “price-setting” grain and bread riots, machine breaking, the burning of tax rolls and land records by swift mob action instead may represent a popular tactical wisdom developed in conscious response to the political constraints realistically faced. Spontaneity, anonymity, and a lack of formal organization then become enabling modes of protest rather than a reflection of the slender political talents of popular classes.39

+39. For a path-breaking analysis of social protest in United States history that is sensitive to these issues, see Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail.

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I have elsewhere bemoaned the fundamental paradox at the centre of anarchist politics: when the point of the movement is the lack of hierarchy, how are they to win against those whose advantage is coordinated hierarchy? It has also been parodied by The Onion. But Scott here makes a compelling case for the spontaneity and transience of such movements as being purposeful weapons of the weak.


dom-art-resist Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. ↩︎ 1