Arendt, freedom, Trump

This passage, from a previously unpublished 1966 or 1967 lecture by Hannah Arendt, is a rich text for the week of Independence Day while Donald Trump is president:

The first elements of a political philosophy corresponding to this notion of public freedom are spelled out in John Adams’s writings. His point of departure is the observation that “Wherever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low . . . ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge.” The virtue of this “desire” Adams saw in “the desire to excel another,” and its vice he called “ambition,” which “aims at power as a means of distinction.” And these two indeed are among the chief virtues and vices of political man. For the will to power as such, regardless of any passion for distinction (in which power is not a means but an end), is characteristic of the tyrant and is no longer even a political vice. It is rather the quality that tends to destroy all political life, its vices no less than its virtues. It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to dominate, thereby excluding himself from the company of others; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the company of their peers and spurs them on into the public realm. This public freedom is a tangible worldly reality, created by men to enjoy together in public—to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others. And this kind of freedom demands equality, it is possible only amongst peers. Institutionally speaking, it is possible only in a republic, which knows no subjects.

Note, first of all, that Arendt, like John Adams, views “the desire to excel another” in public life as a virtue. She could be thinking pragmatically: by encouraging people to excel in debates, we motivate them to enter public life and do their best. We give them a reason to “love the company of their peers and [spur] them on into the public realm.” But I read Arendt as making a second point as well. She sees political excellence as an intrinsic virtue, as constitutive of a good life. Her theory differs from views of democracy that emphasize humbleness, self-abnegating service, or the dispassionate pursuit of truth or consensus. She admires people who effectively advocate their own views and obtain recognition for their special eloquence.

Excellence of this sort “demands equality.” As a matter of logic, you cannot display the virtue of persuasiveness unless the people whom you seek to persuade are your equals, free to agree or disagree with you. Thus anyone who develops a love of political virtue will fight for political equality. Helping other people to be equal is not just good for them; it’s a necessary condition of one’s own “public freedom,” meaning the freedom “to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others.”

The corresponding vice is “’ambition,’ which ‘aims at power as a means of distinction.’” For John Adams, virtuous citizens seek to distinguish themselves by demonstrating excellence and receiving the free respect of peers. This makes them fundamentally sociable; they seek company. In contrast, “the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction.” He tries to “dominate” or exclude others, seen as threats rather than peers. That leaves him alone, “exclud[ed] from the company of others,” with only his power over them as a connection to his fellow human beings.

Examples of civic virtue in Arendt’s sense are not terribly rare, but as a well-known case, I will cite our last president. Barack Obama is not self-abnegating. He demonstrates confidence and strives for excellence. He attempts to win arguments. But he never denies his fellow citizens’ standing in the public sphere or claims arbitrary power over others. On the contrary, almost every significant speech by the former president explicitly invites opponents into the conversation. Although President Obama is sometimes described as reserved or even mildly introverted, he “loves the company of peers” in the sense that he evidently appreciates the give-and-take of ideas in public forums.

In contrast, our current president understands speech as the mere display of power. Criticism is by nature a threat. A successful statement is one that demonstrates greater power. Trump doesn’t strive for eloquence–he doesn’t even spell-check his tweets. He demands loyalty to his person and shows no interest in differences of principle. He “thereby [excludes] himself from the company of others” and is fundamentally lonely in a way I don’t think we have seen in the White House since the last days of Richard M. Nixon.

I do not mean to imply that Donald Trump is a tyrant in Arendt’s sense. He lacks sufficient constitutional power for that; his incompetence provides an additional barrier. His efforts at domination tend to be more pathetic than terrifying. A tyrannical personality without tyrannical authority verges on a laughing-stock. Because the constitutional order creates independent peers for the president–members of Congress, judges, reporters, foreign leaders, and courageous citizens–a president who talks like a tyrant just loses friends and allies. Still, Arendt’s portrait fits, and if an extrinsic factor like a terrorist attack suddenly confers power on our national laughing-stock, the patterns she observed in 1789 and 1917 will become frighteningly relevant.

See also: Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and notes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution.

so, you want to strengthen democracy?

This year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference explored a set of analytical tools that may be useful if you want to improve or defend democracy:

  1. You should decide where you stand on the current crisis in American democracy (which is mirrored in many other nations). You may conclude that there isn’t a special, short-term crisis, that the issues are long-lasting, or even that the Trump Administration has positive potential. That is still a stance on the current situation. This flowchart can help you navigate to a position of your own.
  2. You should decide on the core values that define a good democracy. Edna Ishayik presented a draft framework from Civic Nation in which the core values are deliberation, collaboration (or public work) and civic relationships. That framework is similar to the one in my book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. You may prefer alternative values, however.
  3. You should practice systems thinking. Social problems don’t have root causes. Almost every problem has many contributing causes. For each cause, there are other factors that cause it, in turn. These chains of causation often produce vicious or virtuous circles. To decide where to intervene, you must begin to understand the relevant factors and how they relate in a complex web. The Democracy Fund presented a draft systems map for US democracy, still in development. Here is an overview of the approach.
  4. You should think about multiple levels of power. This discussion goes back at least to Stephen Lukes in the 1970s. At Frontiers, Archon Fung offered a version of this framework, which has four levels. The first level is getting a better deal for an individual (e.g., obtaining a visa for a refugee). The second is changing laws or policies (e.g., restricting or liberalizing immigration law). The third is changing who decides and how decisions are made (e.g., by making visas subject to judicial oversight). The fourth is changing what people believe and value (e.g., shifting views about immigrants–for better or worse). Archon argued that organizations tend to focus on the first and second level of power, but the other two levels are more important. What are you doing about levels 3 and 4?
  5. You are going to need processes of one kind or another. Ceasar McDowell offered a framework of design principles in a version of this talk.
  6. You should try to maximize Scale, Pluralism, Unity, and Depth, even though those objectives are in tension, because bottom-up social movements only win when they have SPUD.

how to get a deliberative democracy

The annual Frontiers of Democracy conference ended on Saturday–and my thanks to the 150 dedicated and skillful participants. It’s billed as a gathering of people committed to various forms of democratic reform, but it tends to draw colleagues from one of the fields in which I also proudly work: deliberative democracy. Two thirds of the 100 people who completed a pre-conference survey said they work on dialogue and deliberation. Of those (about one third) who said that they are active in social movements, more than 60 percent also said that they specialize in dialogue and deliberation. That means that many participants organize and/or study events and processes that aim to be representative, balanced, transpartisan, inclusive, equitable, “civil” (in some version of that word), and discursive. Openly contentious forms of politics are not widely represented at the conference. Just over one quarter of attendees are interested in government reform, but since the vast majority of those also said they work on deliberation, I think the reforms they support tend to be public deliberations–rather than, say, voting rights.

I believe in deliberative values, although I don’t think they are the only values we need in a complex modern democracy. For me, the question is whether to pursue values such as deliberation directly–by organizing deliberative spaces and projects–or to promote changes in the political economy that might generate better deliberation as a byproduct.

For instance, I asked participants to consider eight possible responses to the current political crisis, of which two involved “winning the next election.” Half a dozen participants have told me they object to this option. For some, the framing is too partisan, implying that Donald Trump is the problem and that a Democratic victory in 2018 would be a solution. For others, the framing is too conservative, in the sense that it reflects support for our basic process of adversarial, representative democracy. Can’t we move beyond elections to become a deliberating (if not a beloved) community?

I sincerely welcome this feedback, which prompts a valuable discussion. Speaking just for myself, I would raise doubts about the strategy of promoting deliberation by being explicitly and directly deliberative. It’s plausible that Donald Trump represents a clear and present threat to deliberative democracy, not because he’s identified with the right and the GOP, but because he is opposed to truth, civility, inclusion, equity, and constitutional limitations. (I have argued that he is anti-conservative in fundamental ways). Further, it may be that when deliberative values are threatened by very powerful politicians, the pressing need is to defeat them decisively at the next election. Finally, it may be the case that the only plausible agents capable of defeating Donald Trump are Democratic candidates and never-Trump Republican candidates (including true conservatives). In that case, “winning the next election” is an essential and urgent step to defend deliberative democracy.

Likewise, it may be that the best way to revivify a moribund public sphere is to support contentious social movements that resist the two powerful “systems” of state and market and thus compel discussion of overlooked issues. These movements will not be deliberative. In fact, they may gravitate to occupations, boycotts, and other adversarial modes. But their byproduct is a more deliberative democracy.

My main point is that we must consider the choice between direct and indirect paths to deliberative democracy, taking due account of the institutions, incentives, power structures, and social divisions that actually exist in our society.

For what it’s worth, my own view would be that it’s important to build and sustain a movement devoted to explicit work on dialogue and deliberation. Deliberative experiments yield knowledge of group processes, generate models that can be inspiring, and produce a cadre of professionals whose well-deserved reputations for skillful neutrality make them useful at opportune moments.

But I don’t see a political strategy for taking such work to scale. I don’t see who would pay for it or what would motivate most Americans to participate in it. (And I think the disproportionately white, middle-class makeup of the Frontiers participants reflects the limited appeal of this approach). Professional proponents of dialogue and deliberation will succeed when–and only when–powerful grassroots political movements, including parties, force changes in our basic political systems. It’s their work that increasingly draws my attention.

See also: three views of the Democratic Party when democracy is at risk; saving Habermas from the deliberative democratssaving relational politics.

a sketch of a theory of social movements

Any social movement needs resources, such as money, existing organizations with members, physical spaces, tools for communication, people with special skills, allies within existing power structures, etc. These resources are somewhat flexible; for instance, you can do without money if you have in-kind assets.

The social movement deploys its resources to organize actions, such as mass meetings, boycotts, strikes, processions, performances and occupations (among many others).

These actions coalesce into larger campaigns, each of which has a narrative arc: origin, growth, crisis, end. A set of campaigns constitutes a true movement with a larger arc. (However, a single campaign can have the spirit of a movement.)

Campaigns accomplish immediate outcomes, to varying degrees. These outcomes include: demonstrating the capacity to enlist and deploy large numbers of people, who are reasonably diverse yet unified behind the cause; sacrificing goods, salary, time, personal safety, or even lives; demonstrating legitimacy, whether of the “respectable” kind (orderly marches led by clergy and parents with children) or more challenging types (occupations by dispossessed people, funerals of martyrs);  discussing questions of means and ends within the movement to achieve at least a working consensus on core issues; enforcing tacit norms about what means and ends are appropriate for the movement (e.g., no violence in a nonviolent movement); and communicating with outsiders, at least so that they know the movement’s positions, and ideally so that the outsiders learn from the insiders, and vice-versa.

I’d offer a functionalist explanation for why campaigns seek these immediate outcomes: they confer power. As a result of its actions, the movement can put tangible pressure on target authorities. The powers-that-be lose money due to boycotts, lose elections due to voter mobilization, lose allies who defect to the movement, or lose control of streets and buildings.

It then becomes possible to negotiate an end to a particular campaign, even if the larger movement continues on with new demands and new target authorities. The negotiation may be relatively formal: movement leaders sitting around a table with officials. Or it may be tacit, an understanding that if the law is changed, then most of the protesters will go home. Even if there are formal negotiators, the ultimate success of any settlement depends on its popularity within the movement and within the official institutions.

Some movements fall apart before they can exert enough pressure to negotiate. A few movements do not end with negotiations because they supplant the powers-that-be, becoming the new authorities. I think those cases represent the boundaries of social movement politics, the points at which movements cease to be such.

[See also: what is a social movement?social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own)does Occupy Wall Street need a demand?we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth) and Charles Tilly, Social Movements: 1768-2004 (Boulder/London: Paradigm, 2004); Marshall Ganz, “Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements,” in Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) pp.177-98.]

Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the American Revolution may not be accurate history, but it is valuable political theory, and it finds an eloquent echo in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

Arendt argues that the American revolutionaries began by seeking liberty, which they didn’t define sharply but which mainly meant negative individual freedom (On Revolution, p 20). (On this point, Phillip Pettit disagrees, arguing that the founders were motivated by opposition to “domination,” or subjugation to another person’s discretion.) In creating new institutions that would protect negative freedom, the revolutionaries discovered “public freedom”—the freedom to create together. And they found that this was a source of happiness for them. “They were enjoying what they were doing far beyond the call of duty” (p. 24).

Freedom, for Arendt, is in no tension with equality, because political equality can only exist among equals, free people who decide together what to do. She writes, “Freedom was understood as being manifest in certain, by no means all, human activities, and that these activities could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man required the presence of others. Freedom itself therefore needed a place where people could come together—the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper” (p. 21). Equality is not natural but is created by people who decide to govern themselves on terms of freedom (pp. 30-1). Aristotle calls equals who govern together political friends.

A strong word for the kind of excellence and flourishing that the founders discovered in revolutionary action was “glory” (p. 196). Arendt is not a deliberative democrat who understands public discussion as a quest for consensus about the right thing to do. She is more of a performative democrat who sees politics as a place for demonstrating excellence to friends and to posterity.

In retrospect, we can explain the founding of the American republic in terms of contingent causes: France and Spain gave military support to defeat Britain, Parliament was divided, the size of the colonies made them ungovernable, etc. That is the perspective of a spectator. But the founders saw themselves as agents (p. 52), initiators of a story whose end was not determined.

The hard question posed by the Revolution was how to make the “public happiness” enjoyed by the founders in Philadelphia in 1776 or 1788 available to all Americans across time: the question of scale and sustainability.

In Miranda’s Hamilton, these themes are pervasive. The whole story is about Hamilton’s quest for glory and his discovery of freedom among friends (and Burr’s exclusion from the “rooms where it happens”). The themes of freedom, equality, friendship, glory, story-making, and expanding the scale of the revolution come together neatly in the the tavern scene where Hamilton and his friends sing “The Story of Tonight”:

[HAMILTON]
I may not live to see our glory!
[LAFAYETTE/MULLIGAN/LAURENS]
I may not live to see our glory!
[HAMILTON]
But I will gladly join the fight!
[LAFAYETTE/MULLIGAN/LAURENS]
But I will gladly join the fight!
[HAMILTON]
And when our children tell our story…
[LAFAYETTE/MULLIGAN/LAURENS]
And when our children tell our story…
[HAMILTON]
They’ll tell the story of tonight
[MULLIGAN]
Let’s have another round tonight
[etc]
[LAURENS]
Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
No matter what they tell you
Raise a glass to the four of us
[LAURENS/MULLIGAN]
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us
[MULLIGAN/LAFAYETTE/LAURENS]
Telling the story of tonight
[HAMILTON]
They’ll tell the story of tonight
[LAURENS/MULLIGAN/LAFAYETTE]
Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
[etc.]

saving Habermas from the deliberative democrats

“God save me from the Marxists”–attributed to Karl Marx

Jürgen Habermas is often presented as the master theorist of deliberative democracy, the author who believes that a society should approximate an “ideal speech situation” in which “the only force is the force of the better argument.” People apply his theory by creating deliberative fora, such as citizen’s juries or Participatory Budgeting processes, that approach an ideal speech situation. People criticize him for being utopian or overly rationalistic.

There is some basis for this interpretation of Habermas, but it overlooks that he is a sociologist with an abiding interest in the big Systems of a modern polity: markets, firms, legislatures, courts, unions, and the like. He understands modernity as a process of differentiation in which institutions that have diverse organizational logics and incentives arise and interrelate. I haven’t encountered a point at which he advocates creating ideal participatory fora and adding them to the mix of social institutions (although he may have done so somewhere in his voluminous works). What he does advocate is social movements, especially the “New” movements that have arisen since the 1970s, which he understands as efforts to resist the encroachment of the state and the market on everyday life. He names, as examples, squatter movements that occupy houses in German cities, and anti-tax protests. He argues that these movements revivify the public sphere by forcing the public to debate the proper role of state and market in relation to private life. A better speech situation results as a byproduct of contentious politics.

The New Social Movements are not deliberative fora to which representative citizens are invited to discuss public issues and reach agreement on policies. Instead, they combine “discourse” with a whiff of tear gas. I think they are needed for a full appreciation of Habermas.

See also: Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we needHabermas and critical theory (a primer)the New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today

starting the 9th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies

The 9th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies begins this morning and continues for two weeks, with 6½ hours of seminar discussion daily.  This year’s participants hold degrees in religion and literature, social policy, social welfare, international relations, political theory, philosophy, management, education, public administration, communications, geography, and sociology. They come from Liberia, the Philippines, Latvia,  Colombia, Nigeria, China, and the US. And they come from graduate programs, faculty positions, or staff roles at Brandeis, Harvard, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, Penn State, Sheffield, Syracuse, University of Colorado, University of Ottawa, University of the Philippines-Los Banos, University of South Florida, Vanderbilt, the UN mission in Liberia, the US Embassy in Brazil, the Chicago Community Trusts, and the private sector.

One of our inspirations is this “Framing Statement” by Harry Boyte, Stephen Elkin, Jane Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom, Karol Soltan, Rogers Smith, and me.  At one point in the Statement, the “civic ideal” is defined (in part) as “Public spiritedness, or the commitment to the public good, the res publica (to make explicit the republican roots of this idea in the Western tradition), a certain form of patriotism, a loyalty directed toward political communities.”

I like to present the ideal of public spiritedness in this way. If you look around a university, you will see lots of people asking the following questions:

  • What is going on? For instance, who is in poverty? How is the global climate changing?
  • What causes these patterns and what would change them? For example, would a global carbon tax reduce emissions?
  • How should things be? (What is justice?)
  • What should be done–for example, by the government?

But if you’re public-spirited, your question is different. As a public-spirited citizen, you ask:

  • “What should we do?”

A “Copernican turn” is a terrible cliché and sounds arrogant. But it works as a metaphor for what the authors on our syllabus have tried to accomplish. Copernicus kept all the planets and other heavenly models from the old system; he just moved the sun to the center. Civic Studies retains all the components (governments, markets, etc.) of standard social science and political theory, but it moves the citizen to the center. It’s an effort to theorize rigorously from the perspective of “we.”

don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic

Beginning in the late 1960s, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman shook the prevailing assumption that human beings can plan and make decisions rationally. Their experiments demonstrated that we use “simplifying heuristics rather than extensive algorithmic processing” to make decisions. We err in predictable ways even when we want to think rationally (Gilovich & Griffin 2002).

Tversky’s and Kahneman’s revolutionary program spread across the behavioral sciences and constantly reveals new biases that are predictable enough to bear their own names. Attribution Bias means explaining one’s failures as the results of difficult external circumstances, while others’ failures must flow from their bad choices. The Control Illusion is the tendency to overestimate how much we control events. The Halo Effect causes us to overvalue work by people whom we have previously judged as talented. And the lists go on for pages.

These phenomena are held to be deeply rooted in the cognitive limitations of human beings as creatures who evolved to hunt-and-gather in small bands on African plains. Not only has the burgeoning literature on cognitive biases challenged rational market models in economics, but it undermines the “folk theory” of democracy taught in civics textbooks and widely believed by citizens and pundits. The folk theory holds that “Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do these things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy” (Achen and Bartels 2016). Citing the research on human cognitive limitations as well as other evidence, Achen and Bartels argue that this folk theory is not only false as a description of actual politics in the United States; it is impossible.

Such evidence should be taken very seriously. No reform program will work that doesn’t address human cognitive limitations. But we can design solutions. For example, people are not very good at measuring time, but most of us carry little prosthetic devices on our wrists that tell us what time it is. We’ve also sprinkled our walls and computer screens with clocks that are synchronized so that we can coordinate billions of people’s time.

Similarly, a newspaper is a prosthetic device for telling us what important events are occurring around the world that are relevant to our decisions as consumers, workers, and citizens. We didn’t evolve to know the news, but we have built tools that tell us the news.

To be sure, human cognitive limitations make the news business a hard one. We human beings are not very good at separating reliable information from misinformation, at seeing the world from perspectives other than our own, or at absorbing information that challenges our prior assumptions. We are not automatically motivated to pay for reliable information about public issues.

Some of these points have been known for a very long time. Francis Bacon, for example, was an acute observer of human cognitive limitations. Around 1880, there was no such thing as a professional, politically independent, reliable press in the United States. If people had considered the many reasons to doubt that human beings can know or value the news, they would not have set about to create the modern press.

Instead, naively, they went ahead and built the press. And they made it work by selling a desirable package that included entertainment and advertising as well as hard political news. The metropolitan daily newspaper had a pretty good run until new forms of advertising and entertainment finally shrank it in our century. Behavioral science would have predicted the demise of the independent newspaper–but about a century too soon. In fact, “the press” (reporters, editors, journalism educators, and others) sustained the newspaper as a tool for overcoming human cognitive limitations for decades. Nor is the newspaper the only such success story. Behavioral science would not predict schools and universities, research labs, or public libraries, either.

The moral is to be sober about the limits of reasonably rational and ethical human behavior without ever giving up on our ability to create better tools and contexts.

Sources:

  • Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016)
  • Thomas Gilovich and Dale Griffin, “Introduction–Heuristis and Biases: Then and Now,” in Gilovich and Griffin (eds.), Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

See also: hearing the faint music of democracyJoseph Schumpeter and the 2016 election.

 

civic life and health research

This is an online lecture (video, slides, and discussion questions) entitled “Civic Life and Health Research.” It’s offered by, and thanks to, the Tufts Clinical Translational Sciences Institute (CTSI), where I hold a research professorship. Dr. Thomas Concannon introduces the CTSI and the session. I then offer four frameworks for understanding civic life:

  1. social capital
  2. collective efficacy
  3. common pool resources
  4. the public sphere

For each one, I explain why there are important empirical and conceptual connections with public health that have implications for both research and practice. Public health really serves as an example to illustrate how to apply these concepts, so the talk might be of some use in other fields as well, such as education or economic development.

(You can find and register for other free CTSI courses here.)

social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own)

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the glorious chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement that began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the segregated bus. This story is usually misrepresented in ways that hide Parks’ planning, leadership, skill, and feminist radicalism (see the real Rosa Parks). In any case, at least 99 percent of the city’s African Americans quickly started boycotting the bus company. That meant that 17,500 workers needed a different way to get to work.

At first, Black-owned taxi companies carried them for the price of a bus ticket, but then the city threatened to enforce a minimum-fare law. Next, more than 150 people volunteered to drive boycotters to work in their own cars. These volunteers “responded immediately,” Martin Luther King recalls in Stride Toward Freedom, but “they started out simply cruising the streets of Montgomery with no particular system.” That must have meant that many workers missed getting available rides. Ministers responded by calling for new volunteers from their pulpits, and even more drivers came out, but that meant (King writes) that “the real job was just beginning–that of working out some system for these three hundred-odd automobiles, to replace their haphazard movement around the city.”

Committees were formed and roles were assigned. It was easy to identify [morning] pickup locations, because African Americans lived in dense urban neighborhoods. But “we discovered that we were at a loss in selecting [afternoon] pick-up stations,” because domestic workers were employed all over the White neighborhoods. Two Black postal workers helped design regular routes. King recalls all this organizational work with evident pride, and concludes, “Altogether the operation of the motor pool represented organization and coordination at their best. Reporters and visitors from all over the country looked upon the system as a unique accomplishment.”

I’d like to draw two theoretical implications from this story.

First, we tend to think of social movements as examples of contentious politics, along with protests, strikes, and even revolutions. Contentious politics has a substantial literature. A separate literature concerns how communities organize themselves to provide services and manage common resources over the long term. For the most part, these two discussions are rather separate. They draw on different disciplines and have different dominant rhetorical styles. But actual social movements rely heavily on what could be called “common pool resource management.”

The two postal workers who designed routes exemplify lessons from the research of Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues: local people tend to have the most detailed relevant information; clear rules enable coordination; and public goods can be rotated geographically to serve many people. I’ve been arguing that we should combine the political-economy of Elinor Ostrom with the insights of Gandhi and King for a more complete civic theory.

The practical implication is that people who want to confront power often benefit from learning how to organize systems and processes that look like nonprofit enterprises.

Second, it’s commonplace to note the dependence of the civil rights movement on “social capital,” especially in the form of churches and unions. Both institutions play explicit roles in Dr. King’s narrative of Montgomery. But this analysis can leave you at a loss if you’re part of a community that doesn’t happen to have much social capital. And social capital can be mysterious, for it is invisible, and its connections to tangible outcomes seem obscure.

Indeed, social capital is a metaphor: Montgomery’s African Americans did not have a literal deposit of social capital in the bank. When social capital is measured by asking individuals about their tendency to join groups and to trust one another, it’s hard to see how we could boost these assets or why they would be important politically.

A different way of looking at social capital is as a concrete capacity to solve collective-action problems, such as providing free rides to 17,500 people every day. That may have been easier in Montgomery because so many people were already organized in other successful, functioning groups, such as the Black churches. “Labor, civic, and social groups were our staunch supporters,” King writes, “and in many communities new organizations were founded just to support the protest.” Like other forms of capital, social capital can be built up in one place and used in another. But what mattered was actually organizing the carpools to sustain the boycott. Skillful citizens can pull off such successes even in the absence of existing high levels of social capital, when they design good structures.

In short, social capital is a metaphor for self-organization, and people can self-organize.

See also what is a social movement?Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need; and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II).