Amid mounting opposition to many of President Trump’s early executive orders, and with even more controversial actions probably on the way, one of the more radical ideas under discussion in some quarters is a general or national strike. The basic idea is that the entire working population, or at least a significant portion of it, stops work and engages in mass civil disobedience in order to paralyze the government – in effect, shutting society down until the objectionable policies are withdrawn.
There are a number of obvious questions about this possibly far-fetched proposal. Most importantly, while this tactic has been employed in Europe with some success, it has never been used in the United States; are Americans simply too individualistic to cooperate across lines of class, race, and geography? Additionally, what proportion of the working population would have to participate in order for it to be effective? And would the administration back down, even when faced with the prospect of economic chaos?
These are big unknowns, which only politicians, political scientists, economists and historians can speculate about, and far beyond the scope of this blog. However, one thing is certain: in 21st century America, to have any chance of success a general strike would have to rely heavily on social media. Indeed, social media is pretty much the only channel by which such a massive effort could be organized – and it’s not implausible, considering recent precedents like the Egyptian Revolution and, yes, the success of Donald Trump’s own social media efforts during his presidential campaign.
So what are some of the key functions social media would have to perform in the case of a general strike?
1. Do people care enough? Given the country’s deepening political divisions, a strike would logically be limited to areas where opposition to these policies is already entrenched, meaning (in the accepted political shorthand) “blue states” rather than “red states.” Even in the most partisan “blue states,” however, it’s still necessary to determine whether the level of opposition is sufficiently intense for a general strike to become possible – and social media provides a tailor-made means for doing this.
One model might use a simple platform similar to Kickstarter, in which people pledge to participate once a certain critical mass has been reached using fairly simple criteria – say, 25% of each state’s workforce, in states containing at least half the country’s population.
2. Choosing leaders and setting an agenda. Although social media has helped catalyze spontaneous mass movements with remarkable speed in the past, subsequent events have revealed the shortcomings of the leaderless, “crowd-sourced” approach to social movements – specifically, their apparent inability to accomplish anything beyond very short-terms goals. For example, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement agreed to do one thing – occupy a public space near some banks – before splintering into factions and eventually petering out.
On the other hand, social media could help overcome this obstacle, by enabling participants to debate and vote on goals and leaders before taking action. The goals would have to be limited, specific, and realistic, and people could make their pledges to participate contingent on agreement with the goals, in order to prevent the platform from becoming too extreme. The leaders would serve as spokespeople for the movement, presenting their demands and deciding when these demands had been met.3. Crowdfunding dissent. The thorniest issue for any general strike would be that of “solidarity,” meaning spreading the risk and mitigating negative impacts on participants. A mass labor outage carries the obvious risk of people losing their jobs, and even if employers are willing to temporarily overlook the disruption to their businesses, they are unlikely to sign paychecks for absent workers. While everyone participating would presumably be aware of these risks going into it, for a general strike to become practical, some kind of temporary financial support would have to be arranged for a considerable number of people who otherwise would be unable to participate – as well as longer-term (but not indefinite) relief for people who actually lose their jobs.
This would require crowdfunding on an unprecedented scale, with contributions deposited and disbursed from a central fund under the management of an independent financial controller. The risk of fraud could be limited, though not eliminated, with some of the verification techniques developed by fintech and microfinance companies. Social media could also help find new employment for people who lose their jobs, and reward employers who allow employees to participate with “buycotts.”