Measure is unceasing

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).

Cause 3: Their literary works were not that popular

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)

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.

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

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.