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Why big protests aren’t a good measure of popular power

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The recent wave of protests of the Black Lives Matters movement in the United States and around the world has opened up a space of political possibility for proposals, like disbanding abusive police departments, which seemed radical and utopian only weeks earlier. In the broad sweep of history, a similar process has been seen time and time again: Significant political change often only arises in the wake of mass protest and popular civic resistance.Surely mass protest is the fundamental expression of popular power? The bigger and more vibrant the protest, the more popular power there is? By contrast, when the society quietly chugs along, the greasy wheels of political and institutional processes smoothly turning without disruption, surely this shows a deficiency or an absence of popular power?This view of popular power–let’s call it the insurgent view–may be appealing on face value, but it contains a paradox. On the insurgent view, a basically oligarchic regime which is convulsed by protest counts as expressing popular power more authentically than a fair and equal regime which has mechanisms in place to deal with grievances before they reach boiling point. The insurgent view has often been traced back to the work of 17th-century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza: if we turn to the philosophy of Spinoza, we can fine-tune our understanding of popular power to escape this paradox.Some elements of the insurgent view find genuine support in Spinoza’s writings. More than any other figure in the history of political thought, Spinoza takes popular rebellion as the central political phenomenon needing to be understood. He himself witnessed many such disturbances, both in his native Dutch Republic, and as a keen observer of events in other countries. The novelty of Spinoza’s approach is his striking lack of interest in parsing whether rebellions are justified or not, and equal lack of interest in making distinctions between permissible and impermissible. . .

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News source: OUPblog » Philosophy

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