Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What People Can Become Accustomed To

Doing research on protests in India for work over the last several weeks (while also happening to be watching Mad Men - not at work, just in general over the summer) it's really struck me how variable the standards on acceptable police behavior are.  In my country, events like the Chicago riots and the Kent State shootings were huge cultural moments that shocked the nation, sparked widespread condemnation and self-reflection, and played a pivotal role in mobilizing the anti-war movement.  Meanwhile, in India, similar incidents were almost commonplace.  I've read about literally hundreds of protests on a wide variety of issues which follow the basic script: "demonstrators marched to the square shouted slogans [against caste discrimination, against corruption, for a separate Telangana, a separate Vidarbha, etc...].  When the demonstrators refused to follow police orders to disperse, police threw tear gas grenades and opened fire, killing [2, 4, 7, 15, 30, etc...]."  While these crackdowns do occasionally backfire, sparking demonstrations against them, very often the crackdown passes by with no condemnation and seemingly little notice.

So here's the puzzle: Why do levels of tolerance for police brutality vary so widely across different societies?  Both of these societies were democracies with stated commitments to human rights, protection of their citizens, etc... What are the key difference that lead to "minor" incidents sparking such domestic backlash in the United States while much more "major" incidents in India have little to no effect?

I don't have a good answer (though that would be a really great article) - but a good answer could really help in our understanding of how nonviolent movements mobilize.  Backfire effects have been critical for a lot of nonviolent movements, so predicting when they're likely to occur or not occur could be really key.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The March on Washington

Today it's fifty years since the "March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom," known best, of course, for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

I'll admit I'm woefully understudied in the civil rights movement, particularly for someone who studies civil resistance.  I have this book on my shelf waiting to be read.  And all this month, of course, there's been brilliant coverage (See here and here for example) while I have been busy trying to put together the bibliography for my thesis (and discovering some of nastier corners of doing logistic regression with small data sets).  But I do have some thoughts about the civil rights movement generally  

The civil rights movement changed the facts on the ground.  MLK, James Lawson, and other leaders wielded nonviolent weapons to radically change the conversation from a political one that could be dismissed or outmaneuvered to a central inescapable cultural theme.  

The movement also had a powerful strategic core.  They worked progressively from small, achievable victories to build momentum, participation, and public profile.  Rhetorical goals of freedom and equality drove people forward, but desegregation in one city after another built strength for the movement to keep going.

They also used what nonviolent action scholar Gene Sharp calls "political jiu jitsu," the tactic of manipulating your opponent's very violence to undermine his power.  Martin Luther King Jr's oratory inspired, but the images of defenseless black marchers being attacked by police with dogs and fire hoses just a few months before were critical in making segregationists the villains in popular imagination and motivating public opinion against them.

That's all, just some minor reflections.  Now watch this.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Pragmatic Pacifism

Just finished reading this excellent article: "The Failure of Pacifism and the Success of Nonviolence" by Dustin Howes.  Howes' basic argument is that traditional pacifism, a principled rejection of the use of violence, has politically failed.  Unlike the many other grand ideologies of the last few centuries: Liberalism, Realism, Marxism, Fascism, etc... pacifism has never reached the point where it has been accepted as the dominant ideology of at least one particular society.  This lack of political traction has been matched by a lack of consideration in the academy.  While all of the ideologies mentioned above have been exhaustively studied, pacifism rarely makes the pages of respected academic journals and has typically not been taken seriously by political theorists.  However, while traditional pacifism has largely failed as an ideology, the methods and techniques of nonviolent action which have largely been developed by pacifists have become a dominant force in hundreds of instances of transformative political change around the globe, in major epochal shifts in global society such as the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women, and in the overall decline in violence around the world.  These empirical realities point to a new kind of pacifism, a "pragmatic pacifism" which maintains the complete rejection of violence but does so on the grounds that the evidence suggests that nonviolence on the whole is a superior method of achieving political ends.  Violence will doubtless continue to occur, but "creative nonviolence" is always able to devise a superior strategy to overcome it.

The linchpin of the argument, is, of course, the empirical question.  If the evidence of the superiority of nonviolence to violence isn't convincing, then Howes' "pragmatic pacifism" becomes deeply problematic.  He does extensively cite studies on the ineffectiveness of various forms of violence and the superior effectiveness of nonviolence, but no doubt for some the empirical question is still very far from settled.

There is a theoretical point about power which is also important to Howes' argument.  Howes argues that nonviolent action is superior to violent action because it operates on an understanding of power which is more nuanced and accurate.  Instead of the simplistic "power comes from the barrel of a gun" approach, nonviolent action has typically sprung from a more interdependent understanding of power.  Power fundamentally arises from the consent of others.  Violent sanctions may be able to create fear which coerces this consent, but the consent is still the fundamental source of power.  If consent is broadly withdrawn, no regime's power can remain intact.  Even military studies which Howes cites argue that traditional understandings of military "hard power" are poor predictors of who will win in any particular conflict and that the more nuanced understanding of power as involving consent and support is superior.

The article is certainly thought-provoking.  Both skeptics and dyed-in-the-wool pacifists will doubtless take issue with various points in it.  For the skeptic, the empirical piece will be doubtful.  For the old-fashioned pacifist the emphasis on pragmatism over principle is likely to be problematic.  Pacifist forebears whom Howes mentions such as Adin Ballou were famously not concerned with pragmatism (though Ballou does argue that Nonresistance can be made to function in a political community as a whole).  Nonresistance was a duty imposed by the gospel rather than a pragmatic political strategy, and to remove that moral element would be to gut the very essence of the belief.

On the empirical question too, Howes overplays his hand to make his point.  Studies which he uses to bolster the case for the superiority of nonviolence, particularly Chenoweth and Stephan, don't make claims quite as broad as he uses them for.  Chenoweth and Stephan argue that nonviolent resistance works more frequently than violent insurgency, but in very particular contexts and also over the long-term strategic perspective, not over the short-term tactical perspective.  Thus while an argument can be made with that evidence that a nonviolent uprising is more likely to overthrow a dictator than a violent insurgency, it doesn't really support the central point of Howes' "pragmatic pacifism" that creative nonviolence will always find a way to adapt to and overcome violence in a superior fashion than violence.  Other studies which Howes uses have similar limitations.

If anything, "Pragmatic pacifism"  seems to be more of an attempt to legitimize an ideological perspective by jettisoning its moral or religious foundations.  The motive is certainly understandable, but the empirical limitations of his work makes his argument suspect.  Nonviolent political action is often successful, and more so than violent resistance in many circumstances (a fact which not enough people realize).  Political actors should take that knowledge to heart.  But that increasingly well-established empirical fact is insufficient to make full-fledged pacifism "pragmatic." True pacifism, it seems to me, still requires an act of faith and a moral commitment to hold on to that act of faith.  This certainly doesn't have to be religious faith, though that has traditionally been the source of pacifist principles, but some act of faith in human nature or the inherent value of human life at the very least.

Having made my critique, though, I will say that development of theory for the study of nonviolent action is really critical and for that reason, Howes' article is both important and brilliant.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

When Mass Protests Work

This article by Christian Caryl in Foreign Policy addresses a question that may have occurred to many over the past several months observing mass protests in Turkey, Brazil, Bulgaria, Egypt, and elsewhere: why do seemingly very similar patterns of protests sometimes work and sometimes not?  Caryl indicates that mass demonstrations seem to have power because of their "public challenge" and ability to "erode" government services.  However the overall thrust of his article is that the success of mass protests can't be meaningfully predicted or explained and that political science has little or nothing to contribute.  I credit Caryl for recognizing the complexity of the phenomenon in question, but in this instance he mistakes complexity for inscrutability and ignores a great deal of knowledge that's out there regarding when mass protests succeed or fail.

 A few points:

1. Size matters - but not as much as you think.

Mass anti-government demonstrations are impressive primarily (at least on television) for that "mass" aspect.  Numbers are important both for communicating the widespread agreement throughout society on the movement's agenda and for undermining the ability of the regime to perform day to day functions.  Chenoweth and Stephan point to high levels of participation as a primary advantage of nonviolent campaigns over violent insurgencies.  But, as Caryl rightly points out, size alone isn't enough for a movement to succeed.  Massive protests across Turkey failed to unseat Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan this year, or bring democracy to China in 1989, or end military rule in Burma in 1988.  And protest movements much smaller than these have been wildly successful.  So demonstration size, while perhaps important, is neither completely necessary nor fully explanatory.  Why?

2. Attacking "pillars of support" and developing points of leverage are critical.

Simply "hitting the streets" may not be a recipe for regime change because it may not really tap in to the sources of a regime's power.  In order for a movement to truly achieve change it must hit the regime at the sources of its power.  A helpful analogy for this is Robert Helvey's "pillars of support."  A regime relies on various wings of government, outside organizations and factions, and cultural frames to maintain its power, its pillars of support.  Some are more critical to maintaining the regime, others are less so.  Mass demonstrations which undermine critical pillars are more likely to succeed.  One major pillar in almost all regimes is the military and other security forces.  A major distinction between the mass demonstrations in Egypt and any of the others which Caryl mentions was the demonstrators' ability to successfully divide the military from the regime (both in 2011 and earlier this month).  Because the military is such a critical support for the government the loss of its loyalty led directly to the government's collapse.  Kurt Schock, in a comparison of several successful and unsuccessful "unarmed insurrections," discusses this principle in terms of "points of leverage."  Mass demonstrations tend to succeed if the demonstrators have some sort of leverage which can be used to compel the regime to step down.  Demonstrations of a particular size are in and of themselves a kind of leverage, but one which may not hit directly at the regime's sources of strength.  Thus demonstrations are likely to be stronger if they are connected to other methods which directly sanction the regime through meaningful leverage points.  Economic non-cooperation through tactics such as strikes and boycotts are one prominent example of these kinds of methods.  Most regimes need a certain level of economic cooperation in order to continue functioning.  If mass demonstrations are tied to mass economic shutdown, they will have significantly more leverage to effect change.  

3. Organization, strategy, and tactical innovation help make that happen.

Another misconception about mass demonstrations that Caryl engages in is looking at them as spontaneous or at least semi-spontaneous events - natural disasters, almost.  Of course, while some demonstrations do seem to almost start spontaneously, typically the appearance of "spontaneity" is a result of a short media attention span rather than truly inexplicable sudden social upheaval.  Even the famously "unexpected" mass social uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring came in the context of years of social organization and agitation by various social groups across the Middle East.  And just as the onset of mass demonstrations is typically preceded by long periods of nascent social organization, so their success is often tied clear strategic thinking.  Schock in particular points out the importance of tactical innovation, and the ability for a movement to shift between "tactics of concentration and dispersion."  For instance, the Iranian revolution of 1979 began with many nonviolent mass protests and demonstrations.  When these demonstrations (a tactic of "concentration") were violently repressed (with casualties possibly in the thousands), the movement, rather than simply giving up, shifted its tactics to primarily focus on a stay-home strike by oil workers (a tactic of "dispersion").  This innovation both undermined a crucial pillar of support for the Iranian regime (money from the oil business) and made the movement more difficult to violently repress.  Organization, strategy, and tactical innovation help mass demonstration campaigns remain resilient in the face of repression and maintain their momentum until the goal is achieved.

4. But there's a lot we still don't know.

 Having said that, there are certainly a lot of questions about mass demonstrations and nonviolent political contention in particular that remain unanswered or poorly understood.  A traditional focus in political science on the actions of states on the one hand and armed actors on the other has left the actions of the people themselves less well understood.  There is a lot of fascinating research that is changing that, though.  Check out this volume of the Journal of Peace Research (currently available for free...not sure how long that will be for) for some examples of good work being done on the subject.

The fact that mass demonstrations are often poorly understood and difficult to predict doesn't mean that they are fundamentally beyond the ability of political scientists to understand or predict, it just means that there still remains a lot of work to be done to reach that point.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and the Balance of Structure and Agency

This article from the BBC caught my attention this morning.  I've been following the protests surrounding the Zimmerman verdict and the article brings up some interesting points about where they might be expected to go based on the parallels to the killing of Emmett Till and its role in sparking the civil rights movement.

The conditions around Emmett Till's death are also good illustrations of the major structure or agency debate surrounding civil resistance and social movements generally.  The debate centers on whether social movements arise and succeed simply because of outside factors, particularly "political opportunity structures" as argued by people like Kitschelt, or whether individual choices, embodied by particular leaders or organizations, can successfully spark a movement and lead that movement to success, as argued by the civil resistance literature of people like Ackerman and Kruegler.  Are social movement defined by structures imposed from above or choices made from below?

Doug McAdam offers an important synthesis of these two perspectives in regards to the civil rights movement - both political opportunities and intelligent individual choices are necessary but insufficient to create change.  In order for a movement to be sparked, individuals must be able to recognize and take advantage of the opportunities which exist.

The article about Emmett Till above nicely dovetails these two elements.  Till's killing wasn't particularly different from many other brutal lynchings that took place around the same time but it had a powerful impact because of both structural factors and individual choices.  Structurally, it came almost immediately after a period of optimism from the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and in the larger context of the Cold War where it was critical to US interests to be perceived as morally superior to the USSR.  But individually the death had particular impact because individuals, particularly Till's mother Mamie, chose to expose the brutality of what had been done.  Without the open casket funeral and the nationally-publicized photos of Till's abuse the event would likely have had little impact.  Structure was important but not enough - Agency was important but meaningless without the larger structural context.

What direction the Trayvon Martin protests will go remains to be seen - it certainly looks as though the protests have some staying power.  However, the structural context and political opportunities don't seem favorable to the movement having a substantial impact.  The gun lobby is well-organized to oppose any sort of push for changing "stand your ground" laws, etc... and without some further widespread, highly-visible impetus the movement seems likely to eventually lose momentum.  The justice department civil rights case against George Zimmerman may go somewhere but other than that there doesn't appear to be much potential for movement.  These things are unpredictable, though and the choices which protest leaders make over the next weeks and months may end up surprising us.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What "V for Vendetta" Teaches us (and doesn't teach us) about Civil Resistance.

This post may seem a bit dated as the movie's been out for around seven years now, but the continuing recurrence of the Guy Fawkes mask (Prominently present in the three mass protest movements of the year: Turkey, Brazil, and Egypt and in other places as diverse as freedom of information protests by the group Anonymous, the Polish Parliament, and the streets of Bangkok), speaks to the movies' continuing power as a symbol of revolution and resistance.

But does the Guy Fawkes mask and the story behind it really represent anything more than a pop culture symbol of resistance to authority?  What lessons does "V for Vendetta" really teach about how revolutions are really fought and won?

(It may be unnecessary to put a spoiler alert on a movie seven years old but for courtesy's sake I'll throw one in anyway...Also for those of you keeping track, all of this is in reference to the 2005 movie, not the original 1980s comic series)

1.No regime is monolithic.

It's a common misconception (and one often echoed in popular media coverage) that authoritarian political regimes are a single, coherent power structure that can only be beaten by a force greater than their own.  The Third Reich in Germany, for example, is typically seen as a direct outgrowth of the will of Hitler.  But this view is radically simplistic and simply wrong.  Authoritarian governments are often characterized by intense and often violent internal power struggles, and even more fundamentally rely on the obedience and cooperation of lower ranking supporters who may not share their brutality.  Revolutions which take advantage of these internal tensions and dependencies have much better chances for success.  V for Vendetta illustrates this point brilliantly.  Adam Sutler, the dictator of Britain, relies on a council of high-ranking supporters to carry out his wishes, including the power-hungry Adam Creedy and the morally-conflicted Inspector Finch.  V skillfully uses both Creedy's lust for power and Finch's basic decency to wean their support away from Sutler and turn the regime upon itself.  Creedy delivers Sutler to be executed by V in an attempt to make his own play for political power, and Finch defects by refusing to stop V's booby-trapped train from destroying parliament after V reveals the extent of the Norsefire government's brutality.

2. Violent repression often backfires.

Another common misconception is that nonviolent civil resistance movements are effective only as long as the regime they face is unwilling to use violence to repress them.  While violent repression certainly can suppress a revolutionary movement the realities are much more complex and dynamic.  Sometimes a brutal act committed by a regime causes a movement to collapse, but other times brutal actions by the regime, particularly if they're seen as unreasonable or unjustified, provide the spark that mobilizes a much more powerful revolutionary force.  In "V for Vendetta," Finch spells out this process in his monologue on what will follow V's mass distribution of Guy Fawkes masks.  In the video which overlays Finch's speech one of the government "fingermen" shoots a young girl wearing a mask, which sparks a riot, the imposition of martial law, and the eventual mass mobilization of the people of London in the final scene of the movie.   Real-world parallels include the Santa Cruz Massacre in East Timor, the nonviolent siege of the Dharasana Salt Mines in India, and the brutal repression of civil rights marchers in the 1963 Birmingham Campaign.  As with V's distribution of masks, the Birmingham Campaign was intentionally chosen to provoke arrests and repression in a highly brutal, visible way, with the strategic objective being to provoke political backfire.  Thus far from being the government's ultimate trump card, the use of violent repression is a multifaceted strategic action that can sometimes have unpredictable consequences and can be manipulated by the civil resistance movement for its own ends.

3. Overcoming fear is a crucial step.

One of the most powerful and disturbing sequences in the movie is when Evey is kidnapped by V (unbeknownst to her) and tortured and interrogated repeatedly until she no longer fears death and is willing to be killed rather than comply with the regime.  This kind of freedom from fear, while of course pursued unethically by V, is another essential principle in successful civil resistance campaigns.  Gene Sharp, one of the foremost theorists of nonviolent action, emphasizes repeatedly that freedom from fear is an essential first principle for pursuing nonviolent action.  Civil resistance veterans at the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies devote an entire chapter of their manual on nonviolent action to the question of overcoming fear.  Fear of sanctions, of what the opponent is able to do to the nonviolent actor, is most often the critical factor which gives the regime people's obedience.  If the civil resistance movement is able to help the people overcome their fear then the state will be unable to gain their obedience.  Without the obedience of the people, the power of the state will be dissolved - the state will have a choice to either kill its people or accede to their demands.

4. Laughing is important too.

No dictator can stomach is a joke at his own expense.  In "V for Vendetta" the TV star character Gordon is "disappeared" after he runs an episode of his show which mocks the dictator, Adam Sutler.  While the episode isn't delved into much further in the film, there are implications that the mocking episode was a crucial point in turning the British population against their government. Humor and mockery are classic "weapons of the weak" that the oppressed use to undermine the power of their oppressors. Humor puts dictators in a dilemma.  To allow it to occur undermines the fear which they use to cow the populace into submission (a crucial part of their power), but to use violent force to stop it makes them look thin-skinned and weak and can provoke backlash.  Revolutionary humor and mockery provides an easy way to make people want to join your cause.  Everyone can get on board with a revolution that's having a good time!  The masters of revolutionary mockery were most definitely Otpor!, the Serbian youth movement that spearheaded the "Bulldozer Revolution" which overthrew Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.  Among other things, Otpor put up a barrel in a mall in Belgrade with a bat and a picture of Milosevic and invited Serbians to take a swing at it (the police, not sure of what to do, ceremoniously arrested...the barrel, provoking more laughter from the crowds).  Activists in Uganda, banned from demonstrating, led a march in downtown Kampala on authoritarian President Museveni's birthday.  When police arrested them (and their birthday cake) for not getting a permit to demonstrate (which would have been denied) the activists responded that they wanted their march to be a birthday surprise!

V for Vendetta does fail on a few crucial points, though.

1. Killing leaders is less important than coercing soldiers.

In the final sequence of V for Vendetta the mass uprising which goes to watch V blow up parliament isn't massacred because Sutler and Creedy, the two most powerful leaders of the government, have been assassinated by V.  Without clear orders from above the soldiers on the ground stand down and allow the uprising to continue.  This sequence of events, while possible, doesn't match the behavior that is more typically observed when governments face off against popular protest movements.  Field commanders often independently instruct their soldiers to fire on unarmed protesters, sometimes in even more brutal fashion than would be approved by higher-ranking leaders (who are often more concerned about political backlash).  A classic example is the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in India.  A breakdown in the chain of command would be just as (if not more) likely to provoke an extremely violent response by field commanders.  A much more effective strategy is to directly appeal to the soldiers themselves and bring about defections.  Critical moments in recent nonviolent revolutions have occurred when soldiers and commanders refused to obey orders from brutal dictators, not when the dictators themselves were removed from the picture.

2. How the revolution succeeds is extremely important.

And my personal biggest problem with "V for Vendetta"?  The ending.  The dictator has been assassinated, parliament explodes to fireworks and the 1812 overture, and as all of Britain takes off their Guy Fawkes masks we are assured that everything will be ok.  The problem, of course, is that revolutions don't simply end when the dictator is gone.  As David Rothkopf points out in this article, mobilizing dramatic street protests are the least of the many problems that a revolutionary civil resistance movement faces. The power of elites and inertia against political change may doom even the most popular revolutions to little or no impact on their society.  If a revolutionary group wants to succeed for the long term, how they succeed is very, very important.  Bringing a million people onto the streets is one thing.  Ensuring a peaceful, prosperous, free society is quite another. In a current working paper of my own I use statistical analysis of every successful nonviolent campaign from 1900-2006 (From the NAVCO 1.1 dataset) to show that the transition mechanism that a civil resistance campaign uses to achieve power has strong,significant effects both on how democratic and especially how peaceful that country is in the future.  One of my strongest findings is that dramatic popular uprisings where the people simply assume power (similar to the one portrayed at the end of "V for Vendetta" ) actually have the worst track record when it comes to creating democratic, peaceful societies in the long term.  Winning the revolution isn't the endpoint where no more decisions are necessary - it's a critical juncture where it's essential that the movement think strategically about the long-term consequences of their actions.

Having said that, the ending really is an amazing piece of cinema, and still gives me chills when I see it. Enjoy!