How to Challenge Institutional Power

Varys smiled. “Some say knowledge is power. Some tell us that all power comes from the gods. Others say it derives from law. Yet that day on the steps of Baelor’s Sept, our godly High Septon and the lawful Queen Regent and your ever-so-knowledgeable servant were as powerless as any cobbler or cooper in the crowd. Who truly killed Eddard Stark, do you think? Joffrey, who gave the command? Ser Ilyn Payne, who swung the sword? Or… another?”
Tyrion cocked his head sideways. “Did you mean to answer your damned riddle, or only to make my head ache worse?”
Varys smiled. “Here, then. Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”

George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

You may have heard about some protests against the COVID-19 lock-downs, social distancing, and mask measures in your area. But more than likely, especially if you reside in the English speaking part of the world, you didn’t hear a thing. If you reside in any major city throughout the world, chances are that there has been at least one anti-lockdown protest near you, yet the media never covered it. Or if they did cover the protest, then they deliberately de-emphasized the scale of the protest or buried an article down pages blazoned with eye-catching headlines about a doubling of cases in your city (as though an increase from 4 to 8 is a sign of the next black death) or the next ambitious and decisive (but always ineffectual) government measures coming to you soon. The anti-lockdown protests, despite drawing some truly incredible numbers, are receiving almost no attention and having even less impact on government policies. By any metric they have been completely ineffectual. But why?

In a well-functioning republic (or parliamentary democracy, or whatever flavor of representative government that your country goes by) the purpose of a protest is to achieve the following:

  • Demonstrate to the government that there are a large number of people that support a certain cause and that these people are committed enough to this cause that they are willing to spend their valuable time and energy to promote it.
  • Bolster the confidence of the protestors. So that they know that their cause will be socially and democratically supported should it come time to vote on the issue (i.e. they won’t be throwing their vote away).
  • Raise awareness of the issue and attract more supporters by broadcasting a message via the media and demonstrating that the beliefs of the protestors are socially acceptable

Free societies are meant to be subject to a democratic check on power as the final and ultimate bulwark against tyranny. The vote is ultimately a clumsy and blunt instrument, and this is why the checks and balances applied by the constitution and three branches of government are applied first and more frequently, but, the theory goes, that a true tyranny cannot develop because the government must, in the end, fear the power of the people. But this is not happening.

When a government of the day sees that a protest is on-going it does not worry that they may be witnessing a movement of ideas and people which is going to vote it out of power. Instead, the politicians think to themselves: “I am safe because the opposition parties will not support the protestors either” or, “I am safe because the corporate controlled media will not broadcast this message, most people will remain ignorant, and the supporters of the movement will lack the confidence to vote against the government or commit to further activism” or, “if I am voted out of office now, in a few years our party will come back into power and I will regain my office” or, “if I am voted out of office now, the higher ups in the party or the powerful friends that I have made by scratching the back of big business will appoint me to a cushy job on some board of directors or as some sort of consultant”. While there are some rare exceptions where there is a genuine conflict of interest between opposing political parties or corporate entities (and in these cases you will see that protests actually are extremely effective) the norm in our democratic societies today is for the will of the people to be ignored almost entirely (a phenomenon which has been well documented and studied).

Understand all this, and you will understand that in order for people and civil rights groups to successfully challenge government power, they must disabuse themselves of the traditional notions of how protests work. Rather than think that we are demonstrating a threat to vote the government out of power we must instead act as though we are fighting against a tyrannical power structure and hostile media. This does not mean that the government literally is tyrannical (as despite an ongoing erosion of our rights, we still do enjoy many freedoms and prohibitions against inhumane and disproportionate punishment in democratic countries ) and neither does it mean that there is no place at all for traditional protests or that demonstrations need to become violent. Rather, what this means is that we need to shift our understanding of what exactly we are hoping to achieve and of what sort of methods and tactics have a chance at being successful as was done in the recent Hong Kong protest movement. We must understand that we will do no good trying to influence votes and should instead focus on: achieving a social consensus and then leveraging that consensus in the application of pressure tactics and in the weakening of perceived government power.

Traditional Protests Still Have Their Uses

Before jumping into how the COVID-19 protest movement needs to shift in order to be successful, I would like to briefly mention what role traditional protests still do have. I mentioned earlier, that one of the traditional goals of protests is to bolster the confidence of the supporters of the movement and to lend an air of social acceptability to the movement. Even given a government which is resistant to democratic correction and a censorious media, traditional rallies still fulfill these two roles very well. Although a lack of media coverage lessens the power of protests to draw in new supporters, they are still a good way to draw-in and develop an initial support base for the movement. And the importance of building confidence must also not be underestimated because the movement will necessarily die if enough of its supporters become so demoralized that they no longer believe that they have any ability to affect change. It is for this reason that frequent, and periodic day-time rallies (of the sort employed in the 2019-2020 Hong Kong Protests) are a vital part of a successful protest movement.

Achieve a Local Social Consensus

In the research data set, every campaign that got active participation from at least 3.5 percent of the population succeeded, and many succeeded with less


As we touched on briefly, the blueprint for a successful modern protest movement is to first gather leverage and then to apply that leverage in an attack against the government’s institutional power. As an average, every-day person wanting to fight against some injustice perpetuated on a population by their government, the primary leverage available to you is in numbers of people. A single ordinary person can achieve very little but with enough people banded together their coordinated economic, social, political, and physical power can move mountains. The bigger the numbers the better but even a determined minority can achieve alot when you consider that the remainder of the population is probably not similarly coordinated in their opposition. That is to say that much leverage can be applied if you are able to achieve or at least the appearance of, a local social consensus. In other words, convince the people in your immediate environment that your way of behaving is the socially acceptable and normal thing to do. Organizing a traditional rally can be a good way to build an initial support base, but from there you need to leverage that support to grow your numbers.

Want to Develop Social Consensus? Then Laugh in the Face of Danger.

Research indicates that the human smile evolved from the “fear grin” exhibited in modern monkeys and apes, an involuntary baring of the teeth used to communicate to the other primates in the troop that a predator has been spotted. A display of barely clenched teeth, on the other-hand, indicates that a predator has been spotted which is entirely harmless. This has lead scientists to speculate that laughter in humans may have evolved in humans as a way to communicate that a terrifying rustling heard in the bush or glowing eyes in the darkness was discovered to actually be nothing at all. Given that laughter is highly contagious the message that there is in-fact nothing to fear is quickly relayed to the rest of the tribe. This may ring true for you if you’ve ever broken out into uncontrollable laughter after being startled by sudden the popping of a balloon or surprised by some other similar, initially frightening, but ultimately harmless event.

So what does this have to do with protests?

If you’re reading this article, chances are better than average that you may be the sort of rare person who can be convinced by a disinterested look at the available data. But even then, probably not. Human beings are emotional thinkers by nature and convincing somebody of an idea by way of dry-facts and data is actually one of the least successful approaches possible. In-fact, people who already have a strong opinion on a subject are actually most likely to come away from an argument even more convinced in the veracity of their original position if presented with facts and evidence to the contrary. Any of you who have attempted to convince somebody else of the true scale of COVID-19 deaths by presenting statistics can attest to this. So, while facts and data still are very important for anti-lockdowners to retain confidence in their beliefs the best way to convince everybody else is via their evolutionary deep-seated, emotional mental machinery. Thus the bit about laughter.

There are two main drivers for why people believe in the predominant narrative about COVID-19: the media propaganda has triggered their fear circuitry and/or they have bought into the idea that the pro-lockdown, pro-mask, pro-social distancing, agenda is the more moral, socially acceptable, and authority-approved position (i.e. they have fallen-prey to group-think). As much as this is a strength for how it feeds perfectly into certain deep-seated evolutionary behaviors, it is also a great weakness. Fear, as we can see, is socially catching but it’s opposite, as I have explained, is also highly contagious. To combat an irrational fear of threats (such as predators or pathogens) in the population it is therefore sufficient to go out in large numbers and simply demonstrate your own complete lack of fear. With COVID-19 this is simple, go out in public without a mask, smile at people, laugh and be friendly, do not social distance from your friends (but be polite to strangers) do not comply with anti-covid measures. Arrange mass gatherings of people which are as highly visible as you can make them with no masks and no distancing (this is another benefit of traditional protests and rallies).

So that covers fear, but how about combating group-think? The easiest way of course is to create the illusion that the people on your side are actually in the majority (until hopefully one-day you really are in the majority). You can do this by way of signalling and/or by concentration of like-minded people (ideally both). Signalling is accomplished by adopting some highly visible symbol of your support for the movement such as logo worn on a tee-shirt or hat (in the case of COVID-19 refusing to wear a mask is a good start as well) and wearing it whenever possible. Concentration is accomplished via organized demonstrations or gatherings or simply by arranging to go out in public with like-minded friends when you do got out. If you are alone in a crowd wearing your movement’s symbol (and the symbol is already well-known by the people in the crowd) it can actually reinforce the notion in people’s minds that your movement is not socially acceptable so it is best to go out with a small group whenever possible. As you grow your numbers your goal is to use those numbers to create the appearance of an even larger local social consensus which will help you to draw in more supporters in a feed-back loop.

Applying your Social Consensus as Leverage

The best thing you can do is deal from strength, and leverage is the biggest strength you can have. Leverage is having something the other guy wants. Or better yet, needs. Or best of all, simply can’t do without.

Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal

Just as you cannot persuade ordinary people by using facts and data, you cannot challenge vested government interests by asking nicely. Just as the best way to challenge mass fear is to demonstrate your own fearlessness, the best way to challenge tyrannical power is to demonstrate that the tyrant is powerless. In ape societies, and you are an ape whether you like it or not, hierarchical power stems from an unspoken consensus in where that power lies. In other words, power exists where the people believe it exists. Governments which have ceased to operate for the good of the people want power more than anything else, in-fact they simply can’t do without it.

If only as a matter of animal instinct, the leaders of tyrannical governments understand that their power comes only from the perceptions of the people. And you may find that they are surprisingly sensitive to any challenges to those perceptions. In Quebec for instance, the government was quick to walk back on its threats to shutdown holiday gatherings and then pretended like it was their own decision all along after people took to social media in huge numbers to declare that they would be celebrating Christmas as normal no matter what the government said. The Quebec government did this because they understand just how damaging it would be to their legitimacy (i.e. their power) if so many people openly defied them. So, this is your leverage: defy the government’s authority. Do this blatantly and obviously, and in large numbers. Encroach upon their centers of control. Use the local social consensus which you have created to oppose the local consensus belief in the power of the government to enact draconian measures upon you.

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic response, the goal is to lift all draconian measures and to ensure that they can never be enacted again, the goal is not to topple the whole government. This is a strength to be taken advantage of, because it is far more difficult to convince a sizeable portion of the population that the government has no authority at all than it is to convince them that the government has no authority to lock you in your home, force you to wear a mask, force you to close your business, restrict your movement, force medical interventions upon you etc. To challenge the government’s authority in this, what you need to do is to pick any single policy which the government has ostensibly enacted to control the spread of COVID-19, concentrate your people into one place and oppose it. If your business has been forced to close, open it anyway. If your right to gather indoors has been restricted, gather in-doors. If you are made to wear a mask, refuse. The value in these kind of demonstrations is doubled when you consider that these are also all good ways to gather more support by demonstrating against fear. And this will be a good start, but you cannot stop there.

How to Make the Government Give-in? Be Relentless, and Continue to Escalate Until they Back-Down.

If the government believes that it can just ignore you, and that you will eventually just go away on your own, they are not going to back down. This is why it is crucial that your demonstrations are frequent and periodically recurring. Demonstrate regularly every week or every month if that’s all you can manage. It is important to be considerate of the needs of the members of your movement, so try to work-around the fact that most people have to work for a living. Stay disciplined and remember that you are threatening something that the government badly needs, and so if you are doing everything right to make your threat seem credible, they will eventually fold.

Also important is to continually escalate as you grow your numbers and as the government digs in their heels. If the government is not relenting, this may mean that they believe that they are too powerful to be challenged and do not consider your movement to be enough of a threat. So, then your mission must be to literally embarrass them. Eventually you will need to challenge them in the places where they feel most secure. March on government buildings, call for a general strike to threaten their control over the money supply (but remember to continue focus on defying the specific policies that you take issue with). But you can’t go straight to this until your movement has grown large enough and your people are committed enough. You also need to establish a moral right to make such direct claims against the government authority. The basic sequence to achieve this is: first, establish a clear public list of demands, hold a demonstration in support of these demands, promise to escalate your protests if the demands aren’t met (it is critical not to escalate faster than what your level of public support allows), repeat, make the level of defiance and encroachment on government power ever more extreme as you grow your numbers. Do not ever let the government think that you have no where else to escalate to, it is a powerful negotiating tactic to always leave them wondering what you might do next.

Conclusion and Summary

Modern western governments have become very resistant to democratic corrections. If we wish to challenge the draconian COVID-19 measures we cannot expect to be successful if we use traditional protests and rallies on their own. But, if we manage to make a successful demonstration against fear we can build a large enough social consensus to challenge the public consensus of the government’s power. This may not be enough to make a tyrannical government back down at first, but if we are consistent and regular with our demonstrations, relentless in our pressure and if we apply this process as a positive feedback loop of ever escalating defiance and ever growing numbers eventually the government will relent to our leverage and we will be victorious.

I have summarized this process in a simplified blueprint, below.

  1. Build up an initial support base by organizing a traditional rally, using social media (if you are not being censored too badly) or simply talking to the people around you.
  2. Adopt a symbol for your movement, wear it on your person when in public and make sure that members of your support base do the same.
  3. Try to go out in groups if you can, so that you can concentrate your numbers for the appearance of social consensus.
  4. Combat fear by laughing in the face of danger. Refuse to distance or wear masks.
  5. Be friendly, pleasant and polite. Smile, and yes literally be jovial and laugh.
  6. Draft a clear list of demands.
  7. Organize a series of regular, periodically occurring demonstrations in which you gather in numbers to blatantly and visibly defy draconian measures.
  8. Promise to escalate in the level of defiance and encroachment on government power centers if the demands are not met by a deadline.
  9. Escalate your tactics in proportion with your moral authority and the size (in numbers of people) of your movement.
  10. Repeat.
  11. Never let the government think that you have nowhere left to escalate to, be relentless, be confident in your success, do not give up. Make them give-in.