A concept so old it comes to us in a dead language: divide et impera. The original phrase is attributed to Philip II of Macedon as he played Greek city-states off against one another in the fourth century BC. In ancient Greek, διαίρει καὶ βασίλευε; in English, divide and rule. A favoured tactic of emperors and dictators from Caesar to Bonaparte to Mao, it is also a staple of the modern workplace.
When workers organise to collectively withhold their labour while they negotiate with entities vastly more powerful than they are, it makes the news. Records are kept of the costs, duration, magnitude, and extent of strike actions: in some cases, in great detail. Using exceptionally fine-grained records of strikes and strike waves from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in the 1880s and the French Office du Travail in the 1890s, sociologists and historians have built a vivid picture of the dynamics of these class conditions.
‘Transgressive contention occurs in waves. People suddenly shift from quiescence to defiance; they strike, sit in, demonstrate, or riot en masse; protest spreads across social networks and from place to place,’ writes sociologist Michael Briggs in one such study. ‘Positive feedback is implied by the metaphors employed by historically minded observers to describe the dynamics of large strike waves: metaphors of wildfire, avalanche, and epidemic … for strikes and strike waves alike, I find that the size distribution follows a power law spanning two or three orders of magnitude.’
Odd. Just like on the sandpile, the line on the graph is a smooth slope all the way from the smallest outbreak of industrial action through to strike waves involving thousands of people.
Positive feedback – we’ve seen this: in the school strike, in the extinction rebellion: the moment of the whirlwind where the flywheel spins up and up until the state pulls some negative feedback out of its repertoire to disrupt its rise. With every additional worker deciding that the best way to negotiate is collectively, the chances of more workers joining the strike goes up. With every visible public action and show of defiance, the chance that more will follow increases. Every organiser knows this, but there is nothing like the rush of a campaign that suddenly gets traction, pulling in new waves of supporters, strengthening belief in the possibility of success and sending powerholders scrambling for a response.
On the sandpile, the tension is between gravity working to flatten the pile, and friction between individual grains working to hold it up. On the fault line, the tension is between continent-sized blocks of terrain trying to move past each other. Neither of these systems is an adaptive learning structure, and so their tremors remain forever constrained to particular scales and behaviours. But in human societies, the pressure is built up through raw inequalities and injustice, class polarities of wealth and power. These are vastly higher-dimensional collisions, with whole repertoires of contention, perceiving, remembering adapting and learning. Under certain kinds of synchrony, these systems are capable of wholesale transformations unavailable to simpler physical systems.
Researchers aggregating against strikes, anti-government demonstrations and riots worldwide between 1919 and 2008 summarised this line of thinking: ‘Civil unrest contagion occurs when social, economic, and political stress accumulate slowly, and is released spontaneously in the form of social unrest on short time scales to nearest and long range neighbouring regions that are susceptible to social, economic, and political stress.”
In systems jammed into a state of self-organising criticality by slow build-up of pressure, every single action matters. ‘What happens next depends directly on all of the events that have happened before,’ as one study found. No act of resistance or creativity is too small to count, because every powerful movement is driven by cascades of small events and reactions. Even actions that appear to have failed or made no difference to the disposition of power still shape the ground for the cascades and landslides yet to come.
All this tells us is there no upper limit on how outrageously successful a social movement can become. ‘The probability of an (unfinished) event doubling in size is constant, no matter how large it has become already,’ confirms Biggs. It’s as though the movement, when it begins, doesn’t itself know how big it is going to be.