Five rules of voluntary collective action

Paul Evans
3 min readMay 10, 2023

Here are five rules that I’ve drafted that I believe apply to voluntary collective action.

#1: Consensuses are usually weaker than you think.

When people want to change something for the better, they make the mistake of thinking there is a strong consensus around the nature of the problem.

They will also overestimate how much everyone else cares, how much they are motivated to act, and how much everyone else wants the same solution.

#2: Getting a shared understanding is harder than you’d expect.

Most people who want to solve a problem by collective action will also underestimate how hard it is to get everyone else to agree on a shared description of that problem.

#3: If you think there is a shared agreement, you will often be mistaken.

Whenever people meet to discuss things, many ‘participants’ will quietly tune out of the discussion without anyone else noticing, creating a false impression that they have been heard, and represented.

This is why those people may also overestimate how easy it is to agree on what they should do about it together.

#4: Some links aren’t as strong as you would like them to be.

Where a collective strategy has been agreed upon in theory, most participants will have a surprisingly different understanding about who-does-what.

In many cases, the people who agree to cooperate with the plan will either quietly do nothing, do something else, or even do something that undermines the group effort.

#5: “Voluntary” collective action is often a mirage.

If it sounds like “The Voice of the People” it is often just well-hidden money.

Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash

To enlarge on that final rule, if a group of people is successful in doing voluntary collective action, the people who see the results without having taken part will overestimate how easy it was.

When others see these successes, they will often assume that those who did it, did so for malign intentions.

They may be right about this, because nearly all the obstacles set out in Laws 1–4 can be removed by using money — and that money will usually have been paid for by the people who benefit from the collective action.

That’s why terms like “Astroturfing” and “Greenwashing” exist.

Because Voluntary Collective Action is more difficult than you would think, and it is indistinguishable from action that has been quietly funded, Rules 1–5 tell us that successful collective action happens when you…

  • Keep it simple — identify with broad interest groups wherever possible (e.g., ‘employees’, ‘consumers’, ‘cyclists’, etc). Anything more complicated or detailed will result in widespread misunderstanding, and ultimately, failure.
  • Find a way of raising money so that you can pay someone with professional skills to act for you instead of trying to ‘do it by committee’. Otherwise, only the interests of people who are able to be active will dominate at the expense of everyone else — and that can often make things worse.
  • Think about how you motivate and manage the people that you hire to work in everyone’s interests (and to know what they are). It will determine how successful you will be.

As a personal, political observation at the end of this, the politics of protest is, in large part, the target of this post. I believe it to be futile, and even counterproductive.

If I were terrifically wealthy and right-wing, I would invest in a false-flag operation to encourage the left to fetishise protest politics. Watching the various demonstrations that took place on the fringes of the Coronation in London recently, I’d be laughing myself hoarse at the moment.

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Paul Evans

Author of “Save Democracy — Abolish Voting” published by @demsoc — everything written in a personal capacity. Personal website: www.paul-evans.org