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.

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