Epistemic status: very hand-wavy and vague, but confident there is a substantial and well-understood core. Hoping for an answer that elucidates that core more clearly.

It is something of a rationalist folk theorem that social movements face the risk of an "Eternal September", or of scaling into oblivion. (See e.g. this blog post by Leverage research, this paper by Owen Cotton-Barratt, David Chapman or Benjamin Hoffman on "Geeks, MOPs and sociopaths", and Scott Alexander on "the toxoplasma of rage").

I've had the sense that some cocktail of Hansonian/Dunbarian evolutionary psychology, basic game theory/microeconomics, memetic theory and Sturgeon's law, should predict this. That is, that some reasonably operationalised version of the claim "most social movements fail" is true.

Yet I am not able to point to >=5 historical examples of social movements that suffered this fate, along with some gears for what went wrong.

Hence I'm looking for links, historical examples, more fleshed-out gears, ... anything that might form a more rigorous reference point for an outside view on the fate of social movements.

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I feel like a lot of the answers so far are starting from a position of "things you have heard of", which comes with survivorship and or sensational failure bias. I think a useful approach would be to assemble a list of social movements from a given decade (using some algorithm that outputs a bunch of movements you hadn't necessarily heard of), and then seeing how many of them seemed to fall into this fate.

I will pay $100 to anyone who goes through a randomly selected subset of 25% of this Wikipedia list, and evaluates whether they have succeeded on a reasonable sounding metric. (By random I mean actually random, not chosen by the person doing the analysis).

The wikipedia article is obviously going to be biased towards somewhat successful movements, but it still seems like an OK source to learn at least some from, given that I haven't heard of at least half of the movements on that list.

I add $30 to the bounty.

There are 110 items in the list. So 25% is ~28.

I hereby set the random seed as whatever will be the last digit and first two decimals (3 digits total) of the S&P 500 Index price on January 7, 10am GMT-5, as found in the interactive chart by Googling "s&p500".

For example, the value of the seed on 10am January 4 was "797".

[I would have used the NIST public randomness beacon (v2.0) but it appears to be down due to government shutdown :( ].

Instructions for choosing the movements

Let the above-generated seed be n.

Using Python3.0:

import random
indices = sorted(random.sample([i for i in range(1,111)], 28))

I just used random.org for this. Here's my metric, I don't know if you guys count it:

  • -1: Clearly failed, repudiated by history (slavery in the US)
  • 0: Unclear if had any real lasting success
  • 1: Partial success - did something meaningful but has not fully accomplished goals, still active
  • 2: Major success - became a major, lasting cultural force, still active
  • 3: Total or near-total victory (abolitionism in the US), may or may not be still active

Random.org gave me the following 28 results. I've linked to the Wikipedia pages and provided my rating and brief justification for each. All of these are my attempt to rate these things as a dispassionate evaluator rather than using my own opinions of the value of these movements. My evaluations may be especially inaccurate for non-US political movements, feel free to correct me if you know more than me about any of these:

Slow movement: 0. Slow food is the most impactful aspect of this movement that I can identify and it's unclear to me whether it had any impact other than being a fad, though there's still some activity.

India Against Corruption: 0. Movement broke up via internal schism, and the bill that it was promoting failed. Anti-corruption is still a cause but this particular movement seems to have died out.

Animal rights movement: 2. The animal rights movement has clearly "moved the needle" on some issues and achieved broad mainstream recognition, but there is still a ways to go in terms of the deeper animal rights objectives and their views are far from universally accepted.

Gerakan Harapan Baru (New Hope Movement in Malaysia): 1. After their attempt to create a new political party was rejected, this movement took over an established political party and elected several candidates.

Pro-choice movement: 2. The "pro-choice movement" (supports abortion in the US) is clearly a major cultural force and has achieved several major victories, but is still very much still controversial and some of their gains have been reversed or are at risk of being reversed.

Slow Food movement: 1. This is slightly redundant with the Slow movement as a whole, which I already rated. I gave the Slow movement as a whole a 0 but I'll give Slow Food a 1 since it's been fairly relevant in its sector, albeit thanks to much less ambitious goals.

Effective altruism: 1. EA has moved substantial amounts of money and achieved relevant and growing cultural influence, but is not a "major cultural force" at this phase... yet! Growth mindset! (I'd like to reiterate that this is my private opinion and not that of any org!)

Voluntary Human Extinction Movement: 0. Voluntary human extinction is very fringe. I'm tempted to give it a negative number, but VHE/antinatalism is still somewhat active and it was a rather unlikely position to begin with.

Free love: 1. This movement was ultimately supplanted to a degree by other related causes in the "sexual revolution", but it did have a meaningful impact even if it didn't end up being the "final form". This could be argued to be a 2, I'd rate the sexual revolution as a whole there but free love in particular ended up being marginalized.

Women's suffrage movement: 3. So successful, at least in the West, that every now and then pranksters circulate petitions to "end women's suffrage" and people sign because 'suffrage' sounds like 'suffering' and the suffrage movement has been so effective that it is now broadly disbanded and people don't know what it is anymore.

Black Lives Matter: 1. While this movement certainly achieved prominence and could be said to be a major cultural force in the United States, it remains to be seen how lasting and impactful this will be - the movement is still in its first five years.

Anti-capitalism: 2. Anti-capitalist movements may have failed to overthrow capitalism completely, but they had a lasting impact on world history and are still politically relevant in many areas of the world.

Children's rights movement: 2. Child labor has been greatly reduced, but there's still a ways to go, especially in non-Western countries. This should perhaps be a 2.5 or so?

Organic movement: 2. Organic food has become a significant industry and "organic" certifications are now considered important. However, while organic things are trendy at present it's unclear if the influence here will keep growing.

Rural People's Movement: 0. Failed political movement in Weimar Germany. Several of its people were arrested after they began terrorist attacks and the Landvolk newspaper was repeatedly suppressed. Naziism superseded this to some degree; I almost gave this a -1 but it may have been a precursor to later developments.

Mad Pride: 0. Unclear to me whether this has had a substantial or lasting impact. Mental illness terms have been destigmatized to some degree but this seems to me likely the result of broader factors.

Narmada Bachao Andolan: -1. Attempted to stop the construction of a dam - the dam was constructed anyway, and while this group may have delayed that I still count this as distinctly failed.

Temperance movement: -1. This movement was so successful in the short term that they were able to amend the Constitution in the United States and implement Prohibition, but this proved to be dramatically unsuccessful, was repealed less than fifteen years later, and is now widely derided.

Occupy movement: 0. This movement attracted widespread attention for some time, but after the "protest camps" died down it has fallen out of the public eye. It is possible this movement drew national attention to the issue of income inequality but it is unclear that they were responsible or that this will last.

Situationist International: 0. This movement was very influential in France in the late 1960s, but closed down in the 1970s and its lasting impact, if any , is unclear.

Time's Up (movement): 1. This movement is very recent and is broadly part of the #MeToo movement. It is popular in a certain sense but it is unclear whether it will have a substantial, lasting impact (though I certainly hope it does!)

Landless Peoples Movement (South Africa): 0. It is unclear to me whether this movement is really having a big impact.

Pro-life movement: 2. Like the "pro-choice movement", the "pro-life movement" (opposed to abortion in the US) is a major cultural force and has had some victories recently. It is unclear what the lasting impact of this will be, but at least right now it's quite a big deal.

Anti-nuclear movement: 2. The anti-nuclear movement was very effective at stopping nuclear power developments in the West and remains powerful in several respects, but has not achieved or come close to achieving full nuclear disarmament.

Counterculture movement: 2. As Wikipedia says, "The era was also notable in that a significant portion of the array of behaviors and "causes" within the larger movement were quickly assimilated within mainstream society, particularly in the US, even though counterculture participants numbered in the clear minority within their respective national populations."

Brights movement: 0. My assessment is that the Brights movement is an essentially failed rebranding of the atheist/skeptic/secular humanist movement.

Free software movement: 1. The Free software movement has been broadly supplanted by open source, but hasn't been entirely replaced, and is clearly still culturally relevant. If open source were the question I'd probably give it a 2 rather than a 1.

Via Campesina: 1. This movement claims to represent very many people and coined the term "food sovereignty", but it is unclear to me how organized and effective it is. I could easily see this being a 2.

Looking at this list I kind of want to see these movements mapped on a timeline. When did they start? How fast did they grow?

My method was reading the Wikipedia page and answering the following questions:

1. Was the movement succesful as a community?

  • 0: nope
  • 1: to some extent / ambiguous.
  • 2: clearly yes.

2. Did the movement produce the change in the world which it said it wanted?

  • 0: nope
  • 1: not totally a failure / had some minor victories / ambiguous.
  • 2: clearly yes.

3. Was it succesful at changing laws? | Was that its intent?

4. Is it fringe (0), minority (1) or mainstream (2)?

5. Bias: how sympathetic am I to this movement?

  • 0: I am unsympathetic.
  • 1: I am not unsympathetic
  • 2: I like them a lot.

I feel that for the amount of effort I'm spending on this, I'm going to have to rely on my gut feeling at some point, and that the pareto principle thing to do is to have well defined questions.

In case I or someone else wants to develop this further, a way to improve on question 2 would be:

  • a) Identify the three most important objectives the movement claims to have.
  • b) For each, to what extent has it been achieved?

I excluded "Salt March" because I saw it as doublecounting "Nonviolence", and excluded "Reform movements in the United States" because it was too broad a category. I kept "Student Movements", though.

Anyways, you can find a .csv table with the results here or a Google Drive link here. I might play around with the results further, but for the moment:

Socially, the average movement does pretty well, with an average of 1.3/2, distributed as: 16% are 0s, 36% are 1s and 48% are 2s . With regards to effectiveness, the average is 0.72/2, distributed as: 44% are 0s, 40% are 1s and 16% are 2s.

I'm on this.

I'll PM habryka about what to do with the bounty given that there were two respondents.

Overall I'm excited this data and analysis was generated and will sit down to take a look and update his weekend. :)

So: habryka did say "anyone" in the original description, and so he will pay both respondents who completed the bounty according to original specifications (which thereby excludes gjm). I will only pay Radamantis as I interpreted him as "claiming" the task with his original comment.

I suggest you pm with payment details.

Yep, send me a PM with payment details.

Look at the time-stamp: you're getting a random number from the 26th of December, not a fresh random number.

Ah, cool. That makes sense and is quite sad.

I'm not particularly interested in bounties and therefore am not trying to randomize anything. I've worked backwards from the end of the (alphabetically-ordered) list and find the following:

  • World Cleanup Day: Too early to tell.
  • Women's suffrage movement: Unqualified success.
  • Women's liberation movement: Big success. Movement (or something like it) is still around, but its present-day balance of good versus harm is controversial (or should I say "problematic"?).
  • Women Against War: actually two movements. One in the 1950s was anti-Vietnam-War; it doesn't appear to have had much success, but the war did eventually end. The more recent one is, I think, too recent to evaluate.
  • Wikimedia: Still around and going strong. Not clear to me to what extent "social movement" is a good description of it, though.
  • Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign: Seems like it still exists and is still campaigning against evictions in South Africa. Appears to have inspired similar campaigns elsewhere in the world. I don't know how much actual success it's had.
  • White Wednesdays: this seems to be one person's campaign rather than an actual movement, and at only ~18mo old too young to assess for this sort of problem.
  • Voluntary Human Extinction Movement: clearly hasn't _succeeded_ since the human race is still here and its population is still growing; my impression is that VHEMT hasn't had any impact to speak of, but I haven't heard of it suffering anything Eternal-September-like.
  • Via Campesina: Still seems to be around and pursuing something like its original goals. I have no idea how much difference it's actually making (still less whether any difference is actually beneficial, but that's not really the point here).
  • Veganism: Still around, still pursuing original goals; I think roughly constant over time.

What's your "reasonable sounding metric" of success?

None. Just giving impressions. I didn't do anything like 25% either :-).

Off the cuff:

  • Temperance movement in the United States
  • Much of the radical left movement from the 60s to the 70s (ex. Students for a Democratic Society -> Weatherman)
  • Georgism
  • The Shakers

Another useful line of inquiry might be factoring out what success for a social movement looks like, find social movements that "succeeded", and see what happened to the social movements they were competing against.

It seems to me that they failed for different reasons.

I would suspect the failure of most social movements is overdetermined. Social movements by default are designed to change the status quo, and the status quo tends to be stable and intrinsically resistant to change. Social movements are often ideologically originated and may be aimed at achieving something practically impossible.

Another phrasing might be that most social movements fail because a sober analysis would have shown that there was never any realistic possibility for most social movements to succeed, even if they had more resources, smarter people and better planning.

One of the founders of Greenpeace eventually left the organization due to a "trend toward abandoning scientific objectivity"

It seems to me that not Endless September but internal fracturing is the ultimate fate of social movements. It could be explain in the terms of "endless" influx of new "gurus", who create new interpretations of the main idea, fight for power and create more and more sects.

The podcast Rationally Speaking recently had an episode on the Mohists, a "strikingly modern group of Chinese philosophers active in 479–221 BCE." They discuss what caused the movement to die out and draw comparisons between it and the Effective Altruism movement.

First of all, what is failure? If you compare what many social-democratic parties were able to get to what they talked about when they were founded, I assume they have failed. But if you consider the growth of welfare states, they might have succeeded (though causality is hard to attribute). And if you consider that they as parties have often been in power, they might have succeeded. Social movements, including parties, drastically change when they get closer to power. They lose members, gain new ones, change their platform and their criteria for success.

Secondly, what is the population of social movements from which we want to have examples? Consider Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation started the Arab Spring. I assume there were and are many politically-caused suicides who cause nothing like that. You could see each one of them as a social movement that failed.

Thirdly, the observation problem. I guess for every J. K. Rowling, there are thousands of manuscripts not even accepted by publishers. But it would be hard to list even one of them except if you wrote them yourself.

it would be hard to list even one of them

Aside from self-published books, there are also series which got published up to a point, but the publishers didn't accept the next book in the series. (And no, I did not write either of these.)

Always good to see data on such things, data which I neglected. That at least reduces the survivorship bias of observation.

I've read a lot of books, and it's the only example I was able to come up with. I'm not aware of a lot unfinished series actually, just a) a few series which might not have an ending, and b) a handful of series I never finished.

Luddites and communist movements in countries that didn't adopt communism come to mind