The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority by Martin Gurri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a fascinating and important book. Gurri’s thesis is worth examining and reexamining. While he probably overstates its explanatory power; it goes far in explaining and tying together many of the events in the last decade.
The essential idea is that the digital revolution has swept away the authority of traditional institutions leading to a public that is more and more negating and rejecting these institutions. In so doing he links together Egypt’s Tahrir square, the Arab Spring, the Indignados movement in Spain, Obama, the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, the Tent Protests in Israel, Brexit, and the rise of populism and figures like Trump. At first glance it seems bizarre to link such disparate things, but Gurri’s idea is that these can be explained by the crisis of authority caused by what he calls the Fifth Wave, or the information tsunami.
The thumbnail sketch is that the authoritative institutions of elites have long governed our world by controlling information. The government, media, academia, corporations, religious institutions enjoyed a near monopoly the creation and dissemination of information. This gave these institutions legitimacy and authority. But much like the printing press destabilized the creation and control of information in the 15th and 16th centuries, new digital and network technologies have empowered the public to upend the established order.
Gurri loves to point out that in the year 2001 the amount information created doubled all the information that had ever previously been created in history. And then 2002 doubled 2001. This is why he characterizes the digital revolution as an information tsunami. This wave came in fast and high – and washed away the foundations of the established institutions.
The digital revolution lowered the barriers of entry for anyone wanting to create or distribute information. Information was being created by everyone and could be shared by anyone. Experts didn’t need a Ph.D. and bloggers didn’t have to be Walter Cronkite. The ‘guild’ of information creation and control was broken open and anyone could enter: and almost everyone has. With this, however, all the conceits, errors, and mistakes of the established order get exposed. And elite and institution failure is everywhere. From scandals and corruption to the false promises of utopian ideologies; every mistake, every failure has it is proverbial 15 minutes of fame.
This all leads, argues Gurri, to the erosion of the authority and legitimacy of these institutions and the elites running them. The public is angry, dissatisfied, and disillusioned. It wants change. But the public, as a public, doesn’t have a positive alternative to propose. The public is a many, not a one. It is endlessly fractured and dispersed. While it can come together, it seems to be able to only to do so to repudiate. It is, as Gurri says, always against. We see this in Cancel Culture: the twitter-sphere just calls for people’s heads, for trivial and grotesquely awful behavior alike. It offers no chance of redemption, no hope for forgiveness and rebuilding. Just rejection.
And this is, I think, one of the most interesting parts of Gurri’s thesis. The public revolts, but only offers negation and nihilism. The system must be torn down, “defunded,” or the swamp drained, but no alternative is in the offing. We must reject new things: be it immigrants or technology. The world must be destroyed in order to save it.
Importantly, Gurri points out this rejection is not explained by economics: many of these movements and protests originate in the middle-class, the well off. This is not the revolt of the proletariat. Nor is it merely an issue of throwing off authoritarian regimes. Again many of these protest movements are in the freest democracies in the world. What explains and unites all these movements, if Gurri is right, is a worldwide rejection of elite and established institutions. In the eyes of public, these institutions have no more legitimacy and no more authority. But the public has nothing to offer to replace them.
Towards the end of the last chapter, Gurri gestures at some positive ways forward. Nevertheless, the picture he paints is a scary one. Far more so because I think he’s right in a lot of ways. That said, Gurri presents this as a thesis to be continually tested, not just accepted.
Covid and the responses to it, by the traditional authorities and the public, will likely prove to be an interesting test of his thesis. In the short term it appears to give the elites the veneer of authority and legitimacy. They have the answers. They issue mandates. They are doing something. Listen to the Science. So far the public has gone along—whether out of fear of the virus or out of a newfound respect for these authorities. But over the medium and long term, if Gurri is right, the failure (inevitable or not) to contain the pandemic will undermine the authority and legitimacy of these institutions even more. I think we can see that already in the attention and gleeful repudiation of the politicians caught breaking their own lockdown rules.
I’m not sure Gurri is right about everything; indeed, I’d bet he’s wrong about a lot. But I find his overall thesis and explanation of it intriguing. It seems to explain a lot of events and how they connect in some fundamental ways. It is worth a good long think.
(Russ Roberts has a great interview with Martin Gurri about the book: https://www.econtalk.org/martin-gurri-on-the-revolt-of-the-public/ )
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