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Samizdata quote of the day – the degeneration of mass movements

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

– a frequent paraphrase of Eric Hoffer (that is actually better than the original IMO)

13 comments to Samizdata quote of the day – the degeneration of mass movements

  • Kirk

    Ideas, as well as organizations, have life-cycles. Which are very often not studied, as they are the air we breathe, the water we move through.

    I really wish that the term/concept “meme” hadn’t been glommed onto and used to death by all the cutesters; there’s some value, there, to describe and discuss the separate life of ideas, how they move, how they mutate, and how they propagate.

    It’s also valuable to track these things; you can go back to the dawn of the Christian faith and find a lot of the same themes and ideals that motivate the collectivist communists during the days of the early church, and those ideas and ideals worked out about as well as you’d think: The people who followed them died out. Same as the Puritans nearly did, when they tried the same stupidity. Collectivism might work for ants, but applying it to humans just ain’t on.

    We used to talk about something they termed the “band of excellence” in the US Army. I don’t really know how the hell the guys who came up with that intended it, but I always used it as a marker for how certain things would rise from “FUBAR” to “Working”, and then return to FUBAR. It’s almost a sine-wave sort of deal…

    You could take the operation of the Arms Room in a company as a micro-cosmic example: At some point in a unit’s history, the Arms Room is going to be a ruinous shitheap that takes several people’s careers with it, when the dysfunction reaches a crescendo. How that happens? It’s cyclic in nature: Take a shambolic Arms Room, one where the regulations and rules are not followed, and accountability not maintained. No matter how lucky a commander might be, that will eventually result in something drawing the attention of higher, and people are going to suffer the usual career-truncating consequences. The new commander coming in will see that, so he will carefully select and supervise the next set of people he puts in charge, having had the salutary example of his predecessor set before him.

    So, the Arms Room gets fixed. Stays fixed, so long as the commander keeps his eyes on it, and keeps good people in it. Where it begins to go wrong is with the next commander, who doesn’t see the Arms Room as an issue; it’s working, so why worry about it…? Thus, begins the long slide through mediocrity down to “OHMYGAWDPEOPLEAREGOINGTOJAIL!!!!!”.

    And, repeat. Usually takes two or three commanders, but I have seen one singularly incompetent and ill-judged commander do it in the course of the first six months of his command.

    It’s a syndrome you can set your watch by. When I inspected Arms Rooms for security policy adherence and so forth, I could pretty much tell you within five minutes of observation where they were at, in terms of that sine wave, and almost predict when the crisis was coming.

    If you look, every institution has these same cycles, and they stem from the nature of human attention and prioritization. Not all that many people prioritize things that they don’t personally experience as a problem, and if you never see or experience having someone casually walk into your house and take things, well… You’ll likely never develop or maintain the habit of locking doors, until it is too late.

  • jgh

    I’ve seen similar cycles in local government. You get a organisation that sinking under its own weight, and outsiders who don’t want to get involved publically critise it and make it their life’s work to destroy it. New people get onboard who recognise the morrass, and roll up their sleeves and fix it. It gets working, but the outside shit-stirrers keep stirring their shit, determined to destroy the now working organisation. They either get their oars in and actually destroy it, or the people who have rebuilt it get pissed off with the continual bating that they throw it in. And it sinks back into the morrass, and the shitstirrers shout that they are vindicated.

  • DiscoveredJoys

    Another Hoffer quote:

    It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from their sense of inadequacy and impotence. We cannot win the weak by sharing our wealth with them. They feel our generosity as oppression.
    ~ Eric Hoffer

  • Why does all of this make me think of Oxfam?

  • John


    I disagree insofar as I am unaware of any serious attempt to address the fetid shitstorm it has become.

    Saying your aid workers will stop raping children in Haiti and the Congo and that you didn’t mean the picture to look like J K Rowling do not count.

  • Martin

    When I was looking at the quote about neoliberalism in the thread below this quotation did spring to mind.

  • Steven R


    I know someone whose company had a CONEX container fall overboard when they were deploying to Iraq. It was amazing how much stuff that had to be written off because that CONEX went to Davy Jones’ Locker. I’m sure there were items and weapons in that CONEX that went back to the Spanish-American War that nobody alive had ever laid eyes on but were still on the books.

    That CONEX had more in it than was physically possible but no one at the Pentagon ever even considered questioning the loss statement. That captain was the luckiest company commander in US Army history.

  • Kirk

    @Steven R,

    Oi… You have no idea. Back circa 1985-ish, my unit went to the National Training Center for a training rotation. I was not there for the exercise, being at a school. I returned, and ran into one of my fellow squad leaders, who was back early from the rotation with his entire squad. I’m questioning him, and he tells me that they were in the middle of a battle when someone somehow set off a smoke grenade in the middle of their truck, which resulted in a flaming HMMWV rolling through the desert with about 8 guys standing around watching it burn… All that was left, when it was all over, were four steel rims and a bunch of aluminum rivulets draining off the final incline it stopped on. Whole thing took about two minutes from ignition to “…can’t put this out…”, and since they were moving and there weren’t intercoms between the back of the truck and the driver’s compartment, welll… Yeah.

    The best thing about the whole story was the final denouement on what got written off as having been on that truck. Everything major that was missing, across the battalion, was apparently loaded on that thing, from the mess kitchen’s burner units to a missing maintenance tent that had been phantom on the books for years… We calculated it all up, and when you looked at what was supposedly on that truck, compared to what you could have actually fit on it? Dear God… Somehow, a HMMWV had been carrying, during a combat training exercise movement to the attack, something like what would have taken at least three 5-ton trucks to haul around on a good day, with excellent packing.

    Everyone involved just averted their eyes, and made sure that the troops involved all got everything they’d lost (and, then some…) back brand-new, just to ensure their silence on the matter.

    Darkly humorous illustration of how the supply system “really works”, there…

    Now, if you want to witness sheer terror in that realm? We had a CONEX go missing on the return from our first tour in Iraq, same as the commander did, in your anecdote. This was worked through in mid-2004, before we went back for our second tour. As with your guy’s story, they somehow discovered that that CONEX had a second, shadow inventory that included everything else they couldn’t account for, so it all got written off as well. I think there was enough on that one that it would have taken at least another 20 foot container to take everything…

    Cue a bit of a shock when there was, lo and behold, an extra CONEX marked as ours that materialized when we returned from our second deployment… Everyone was down at the yards, going “That ain’t ours… WTF? Where’d that come from?”, and some damn fool started an investigation that turned up that that was the missing container we’d written off two years earlier, and that, no, it did not have all the high-value sensitive items in it, whilst the originally documented seals were still intact…

    I think you can extrapolate from there, what happened. The mess still wasn’t resolved when I retired, and they were talking about dragging people back from wherever they’d gone for the investigation over what all had happened, and where all that stuff had gone.

    Oh, and then, one of the “missing sensitive items” turned up on eBay, and another was reported as having been “found on installation” in Iraq by a unit that had taken over the FOB that unit had been on during the first deployment.

    If I remember right, they were were talking about dragging our retired Property Book Officer back onto active duty, to try and figure out what the hell had happened…

    This is why I laugh, semi-hysterically, every time I hear some civilian outraged over the Pentagon’s inability to pass an audit. Y’all really, truly, have no damn idea whatsoever. It ain’t just that the whole thing is inherently wasteful, it’s that the people involved are entirely clueless about everything. I watched an accomplished supply NCO take a situation wherein I was in charge of a unit supply room in a unit undergoing a complete makeover into a different sort of unit, and I’d just been dropped in after the original guy was shipped back to the US. I’m not a supply specialist in any way, shape, or form, but I managed to clean the paperwork up to the point where we at least knew what was unaccounted for. To the tune of about six million dollars, a sum which left me and the commander in a state of sheer f*cking terror, let me tell you. We finally got in a real supply sergeant, and he managed to get things massaged to the point where the commander was only liable for about three hundred dollars in missing gear, that was legitimately his fault. Great guy, and watching him work was a revelation.

    Funniest part was, the whole thing was nearly rendered moot when the damn building that our company was headquartered in caught fire one afternoon, shortly after he’d gotten everything fixed. We put the fire out, but let me tell you this much: If the commander and I had still been on the hook for all that missing crap? We’d have been down blocking the firetrucks from getting out of their station… And, likely, dancing around the funeral pyre of our property books.

  • Steven R

    I get it. I didn’t see much in the ways of shenanigans and goings on as far as the supply stuff went, being a mere cadet and all, but I know it isn’t just the Army. If you want some free dishes, go dredge the channel at Port Canaveral. In 1971 my dad was stationed there on a small cutter, which had a crew complement of about a dozen men. Some point shortly before he got there, the cook ordered some new dishes. He got enough full sets of dishes for a destroyer. Literally, like 300 sets of cups, plates, silverware, etc. He tried to send it back but the Coast Guard said those dishes were A) at first the cutter’s property and then said B) the dishes didn’t actually exist in their system. As the months and years wore on and various NCOIC and cooks came and went, they kept trying to horse trade them, but there isn’t a lot of demand for dishes and they took up a lot of space in the storage area back at the USCG station. So the cook came up with a novel idea: stop washing dishes. Whenever they were in port, instead of washing the dishes after a meal, they’d just throw the dishes over the side. It took a bit of time, but eventually they went through the pile.

  • Kirk

    The thing that kills me about that whole issue is that the same set of idiots running the forces say (from the one side of their mouths…) “Report fraud, waste, and abuse of the taxpayer’s dollars…” and then do the exact opposite. “Oh, you guys didn’t use your ammo allocation for this fiscal year? Well, gee… That must mean you didn’t need all of that, and we’ll just start lopping that off of next year’s allocation…”

    Which leads directly to young Second Lieutenants being directed to go conduct “EXPENDEX” events towards the end of the fiscal year, under the knowing tutelage of their wise-in-the-way-of-the-world platoon sergeants, so that all that ammo gets expended to no good training purpose…

    Then, the worthies running the friggin’ asylum wonder a.) why do all the junior officers lie to us in their reports, and b.) why do they all get out as soon as they can…?

    What’s even more amusing is observing the dear little faces on the senior leaders when you point these things out to them, and they try to accommodate themselves to the cognitive dissonance they’ve self-generated. It’d almost be comedy, if it weren’t so maddening and expensive.

  • Paul Marks.

    I do not agree with the quotation.

    If something becomes a racket – then there was something wrong in it (in PRINCIPLE) from the start.

    “How did American unions become a racket?” – because Collective Bargaining (as W.H. Hutt spent his life explaining – see “The Strike Threat System”) rests on government intervention against the principles of justice (real justice – the ancient enemy of Social Justice) – it rests on, for example, governments allowing the obstruction (“picketing” – “picket line” is a military term for what is a paramilitary act) of the employer’s property – when that vile creature Disraeli (who was being praised to me by a Conservative only yesterday) passed this in 1875 he was showing that he did not know, or did not care, about justice (about private property rights) – and did not care about UNEMPLOYMENT which is what successful “Collective Bargaining” must lead to.

    It is the same for the idea that an employer may not dismiss someone for not turning up to work – for “going on strike” (“strike” is a meaningless term in Common Law or Roman Law – if you deliberately do not turn up for work, your employer needs to be able to dismiss you – and without jumping through hoops).

    “But we want higher wages and better conditions of work – without higher productivity” – the only (only) way that can be done is via UNEMPLOYMENT – that was true in 1875 (Act of) and 1906 – when Winston Churchill and others denies that the 1906 Act would mean higher unemployment, and set up government “Labour Exchanges” to, supposedly, deal with the higher unemployment they claimed they did not expect. And it true now.


    “How did race relations become a racket”.

    Again – because even in the 1960s it was based on state violence, or the threat of it.

    It was based on telling people what to do, backed by threats of government violence and private injustice (“Social Justice” is INJUSTICE) – when, for example, President Johnson and Senator Hubert Humphry said the 1964 Act would not lead to quotas and would not lead to jobs being filled by people who would do those jobs less well – they were either lying, or they were very misguided.

    The Hollywood account of such things as the background to the Detroit riot of 1967 – is a tissue of lies.

    In short “the racket” did not start recently, with the exploitation of the death from the drugs he had willingly consumed of Mr George Floyd, the movement was in PRINCIOPLE wrong – the moment it started to demand government violence, or the threat of it, to get the “equality” and “Social Justice” it demanded (and both those terms were used in the 1960s – they are NOT recent).

    In every case the “Great Cause” that “becomes a racket” had this principle, this principle of government, or private, violence or the threat of it, in there.

    In short – the “Great Cause” was a “racket” from the moment it started to demand government intervention – or private violence.

  • Paul Marks.

    In short….

    “The movement has degenerated – in the past it was good”.

    No the movement was not good in the past – it had an evil principle, government and/or private violence, in it from the start.

    What happens is that this evil, the evil that was there from the start, becomes more obvious over time.

  • If something becomes a racket – then there was something wrong in it (in PRINCIPLE) from the start.

    No. Many a fine institution has been taken over by careerists once the first generation of founders have faded away. A certain think-tank comes to mind but I lack the bandwidth to go down that rabbit hole just now.

    As Robert Conquest put it: Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.