Originally published here

In democracies, we are led to believe that we affect change simply by winning enough people over to our position. That if we could just convince enough people that we are right and our opponents are wrong, then meaningful change is both inevitable and imminent. That power is fundamentally a question of quantity.

This is a lie. Never was this more clearly demonstrated than on the 15th of February 2003, when millions of people across 60 countries marched in the streets in opposition to the Iraq War — the “largest protest event in human history”. The outcome? Mass media coverage, some impressive imagery, and lots of conversation; but they did not stop the war.

The story of the 2003 anti-war protests contains within it two lessons that anyone serious about political change must understand. First: the demonstrations were not an emergent phenomenon. They did not come about as a result of the masses organically rising up in unison. Rather, they were “carefully planned by an international network of national social movement organisations and […] preceded by multiple and elaborate inter- and transnational contacts.” In other words, they took place because of the efforts of a tiny minority of people occupying elite positions in their respective organisations talking to each other and coordinating. Fundamentally, the disorganised mass of protestors did not possess the capacity to direct itself; it had to be led by an organised oligarchic minority.

Second: in the final analysis, the powers that be were able to simply brush off the protests, despite the tremendous scale. They were, comparatively, a microscopically small group of people; but, crucially, they, like the organisers of the protests, were tightly organised and occupied positions of institutional power. They are the only people capable of affecting meaningful political change, because they are the only people with their hands on the machinery of power. When the hour of decision arrives, it is them and them alone who make the call.

Thus, those of is who are serious in our opposition to the current order must recognise that merely trying to get enough people onside is not the most effective use of our time. Do not misunderstand me: popular support is important and has its utility, but in the hierarchy of priorities it should be placed far behind the pursuit of elite-level organisation.

With this in mind, we must also recognise that quality of people must take priority over quantity of people. Elite-level organisation in service of meaningful political change demands a certain calibre of individual. A monomaniacal focus on mere quantity tends to lead one to neglect quality; and we, the scrappy rebels, the dissidents, cannot afford to be second-rate.

Finally, we must understand that being on the side of truth is not enough by itself. As much as we would like to imagine otherwise, the truth of the matter is that the masses are not moved by an appeal to facts and logic. Powerful rhetoric ignites the crowd, not data and statistics.

High-level organisation; high-calibre individuals; high-quality rhetoric. This is the formula for victory.