Internet activism in China


Guobin Yang’s The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online is a boundary-breaking book. It is a sociology of the communities who use the internet in China; it is a contribution to the study of social movements; it is a history of a recent period of China’s modern history during which internet activism became important; it is an ethnography of the wangmin — “netizens”; and it is a snap review of some of the hottest issues in front of the Chinese public today — environmental problems, corruption, exploitation of factory workers, abuse of power, and social inequalities. Much more than in North America or Western Europe, the internet functions as a location of social activism in China, according to Yang. And it serves an enormous audience; China’s internet population is staggeringly large. Yang estimates that by June 2008 “the number of internet users had reached 253 million” (2). He indicates that surveys find that online activists are mostly young and urban, but reflecting diversity in age and occupation (32). And Yang refers to a highly heterogeneous set of internet constituencies that include “homeowners, pensioners, migrants, hepatitis-B carriers, ant farmers, consumers, even computer gamers and pet owners” (27).

Yang puts his view of the role that internet activism is playing in China in these terms:

Analyzing online activism will both reveal the new forms, dynamics, and consequences of popular contention in the age of the Internet and will shed light on general patterns and dynamics of change in contemporary China. I show how Chinese people have created a world of carnival, community, and contention in and through cyberspace and how in this process they have transformed personhood, society, and politics. This book is about people’s power in the Internet age. (1)

So what is the significance of the online presence of China’s internet users? Does the internet represent a new tool for organizing and expressing grievances? Is it simply “performative” — a space where feelings and reactions can be more safely aired than in physical spaces? Yang takes the view that the activism expressed on the internet is “active” — it is engaged, it leads to groups having stronger affinities with each other, and it can lead to a different kind of politics and democracy in the world of factories, officials, corporations, and homeowners. And in the 1990s and 2000s, these forms of collective action are more likely to be non-confrontational than was true in the mobilization leading up to 1989.

It is challenging to conceptualize the concept of “internet activism.” Is it simply a communications technology? Is it a backbone of copper and fiber through which hundreds of millions of Chinese people can interact for large purposes and small? How does the social reality of “internet society” relate to our traditional categories of “government,” “economy,” “culture,” “religion,” etc.? Yang describes his theoretical approach as “multi-interactionism,” by which he means that internet activism develops in dynamic relationship to a handful of separate social factors that facilitate and constrain the actions users can take. He refers to state power, culture, the market, civil society, and transnationalism (7) as the large contextual factors that bound the social reality of the internet; and he argues that the creative and innovative users adapt flexible strategies for dealing with each in interaction. (He attributes this view to the interactionalist approach to contention taken by Tilly, McAdam, and others.)

A question that inevitably arises when we think about the internet in China is the issue of technology censorship. How important and effective are the Chinese state’s efforts to regulate and control the internet? Does the “great firewall” actually put a significant brake on the forms of expression and mobilization that can occur in cyberspace? James Fallows gave an assessment of the overall effectiveness of censorship in 2008 in the Atlantic (link); his view there is that the state’s aim is largely to make “subversive” uses of the internet more trouble than they are worth. Is this a fair assessment? Yang too suggests that the state’s efforts at censorship are fairly ineffective, writing that “state power constrains the forms and issues of contention, but instead of preventing it from happening, it forces activists to be more creative and artful” (7). This tends to support the idea that the advantage still lies with the user; and yet it seems clear that the state is devoting a very large amount of resources to the effort. Yang describes the situation this way:

An entire apparatus of institutions and practices have appeared for the control of the Internet. Under these conditions, Internet activists have three ways of negotiating political control: rightful resistance, artful contention, and digital “hidden transcripts” of the information age. The main issues in online activism reflect both the political constraints on contention and the social milieu of activism. (23)

Yang describes the institutions and rules that the government has created to control internet activism in some detail (47-53). And he argues that the Chinese state is aware of a fundamental contemporary reality: a relatively free access to the information superhighway is a critical component of economic success. So control and economic innovation are in conflict, and so far users have been successful in finding ways of expressing themselves and gaining access to ideas and information from others.

What sorts of issues have created strong responses from online activists? There are many examples of websites and campaigns that are stimulated as protests against injustice — police beatings and killings, bad treatment of workers or homeowners, etc. And there are many instances of campaigns that have to do with assertions of group identity and rights — for example, the hepatitis-B carriers or diabetes patients. So social protest and identity expression are key. But here is a more extensive list of issue areas that Yang identifies within online activism: popular nationalism; rights defense; corruption and power abuse; environment; cultural contention; muckraking; and online charity (55). And within the category of rights defense he lists: vulnerable persons, homeowners, forced relocation, hepatitis-B carriers and diabetes patients, consumer rights, human rights, and other issues of urban middle-class concern (56). (Many of these issues about rights are the same subjects that Kevin O’Brien identifies under the heading of “rightful protest”; Rightful Resistance in Rural China.)

We might close by asking what effects “internet activism” is likely to have in China. And after reading Guobin Yang’s book, we might offer a best guess that goes along these lines. The internet serves as a large, dynamic space of expression and contention, that plays a critically important role in shaping Chinese people’s political and social attitudes. Its importance is less as an instrument of political organization and mobilization, than as a decentralized medium of consciousness formation. The anger and sorrow that is expressed over a single wrongful death — repeated tens of thousands of times in a variety of forums and forms — can also produce a stronger sense of a need for change in China. And so the effects of internet activism are somewhat unpredictable. But we might speculate that it can lead in the end to powerful and popular demands in earthly China for important legal and institutional reforms. Perhaps Charter ’08 will be the big winner (link): legal protections and a broadened scope for life within civil society.

Theories of the Chinese Revolution


Let us consider a question fundamental to twentieth century world history: why did the Chinese Communist Revolution succeed? Was it the result of a few large social forces and structures? Or was this a case of many small causes operating at a local level, aggregating to a world-historical outcome? (See an earlier posting on “small causes.”)

It should first be noted that the CCP’s path to power was rural rather than urban. The Guomindong (GMD) had effectively expelled the CCP from the cities in 1927 and had detached the Communist Party from urban workers. (Note that this runs directly contrary to the expectations of classical Marxism, according to which the urban proletariat is expected to be the vanguard of the revolution. A massive contingency intervened — Chiang Kai-shek’s ability to wipe out the urban Communist movement in the Shanghai Massacre.) Further, the turning point in the fortunes of the CCP clearly occurred in the “base areas” during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45): the areas of rural China where the CCP was able to establish itself as the dominant political and military force opposed to the Guomindong and the Japanese Army. The success of the revolution, therefore, depended on successful mobilization of the peasantry in the 1930s and 1940s. How are we to account for its success?

This question has naturally loomed large in Western discussions of the Chinese Revolution since 1949. Two influential theories offer political culture and class conflict as causes of revolution, and neither of these high-level theories appears to be altogether satisfactory. A more plausible analysis refers to the local politics of class. Rather than postulating a single large causal factor, it is more plausible to understand CCP success as a concatenation of a number of small causes and advantages, deployed with skill and luck to a successful national victory.

Consider first a theory based on political culture. In a celebrated book in 1962 Chalmers Johnson argued that the CCP succeeded in mobilizing peasant support during the Sino-Japanese War because (a) peasants were nationalistic and patriotic, and determined to expel the Japanese, and (b) the CCP was the organization that showed the greatest military and organizational ability to oppose the Japanese military presence in China (Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945). Johnson maintained that the CCP downplayed its social program (class conflict, land reform, etc.) during the war, in the interest of a united front against the Japanese, and that its social goals played little or no role in its mobilizational successes. Peasants therefore supported the CCP out of nationalism, and were, perhaps, unpleasantly surprised at the social program that emerged after the defeat of the Japanese. This theory made a feature of political culture — nationalist identity — the central determinant of largescale collective action.

Mark Selden, an American Marxist sociologist, advanced a very different view of the CCP’s success in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (1971). He offered a class-conflict model, according to which Chinese rural society possessed an objectively exploitative class structure in opposition to which the CCP successfully mobilized support. Landlords, moneylenders, and the state exploited the peasantry by extracting rent, interest, and taxes. The CCP provided a program of social revolution aimed at overthrowing this exploitative order, and peasants followed this program, and supported the CCP, in order to pursue their class interests.

Johnson’s theory hasn’t stood the test of time very well because there is a dearth of evidence to support the idea that ordinary Chinese people did in fact possess the nationalistic identity and political commitments that the theory postulates. The chief failings of Selden’s model are substantial as well, however. Selden assumed that the realities of exploitation and class are relatively transparent, so that peasants more or less immediately perceive their class interests. And he assumed that collective action follows more or less directly from a perception of class interests: if there is a plausible strategy for furthering class interests through rebellion (i.e., the CCP), then peasants will be disposed to do so. However, the social reality of China was much more complex than this story would allow, with region, lineage, and village society existing as a more immediate social reality for most rural people than class and exploitation. So neither Johnson nor Selden provide a framework within which a fully satisfactory theory of the revolution can be constructed.

A more convincing view has been offered by a third generation of historians of the Chinese Revolution. One of those historians is Yung-fa Chen in Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937-1945 (1986). Chen offers an explanation of the CCP’s mobilization successes that depends upon a micro-level analysis of the local politics created in Eastern China as a result of local social arrangements and the Japanese occupation. Methodologically his approach is microfoundational and localistic rather than sweeping and mono-causal. And Chen’s main findings disagree in some important ways with both Johnson and Selden.

The main elements of Chen’s analysis are these. First, he confirmed the Marxist view that the CCP had a coherent social program (land reform and fundamental alteration of rural property arrangements), and that the CCP made this program a central part of its mobilization efforts. This program implicitly defined a forms of class analysis of rural Chinese society into poor peasants, middle peasants, rich peasants, and landlords, and endeavored to sharpen conflicts among these. Second, though, Chen rejected the view that these rural class relations and oppositions were fully transparent to participants, needing only the appearance in the village of a few ideologically correct cadres to mobilize peasant support. Rather, Chen held that the wide variety of rural social relations–lineage, family, religious organization, patron-client, friendship–worked as powerful brakes on the emergence of class consciousness. So a determined program of class-consciousness raising was needed, which the CCP attempted to provide through its “speaking-bitterness” sessions.

And, Chen maintained, peasants were highly skeptical of the ability of outside organizations to protect them against the wrath of local powers (landlords, officials) once the military threat had disappeared. A central problem of mobilization, then, was to create a local organization and militia that was capable of fending off Japanese and GMD military attack; that was sufficiently stable as to lend confidence that peasants could rely on it in the future; and to put forward a social program that would leave it well-positioned to begin the process of socialist reform through land reform, reform of credit institutions, and ultimately collectivization of agriculture and industry.

The heart of Chen’s analysis depends on the assumption that peasants are rational political actors, and will support a political organization only if they judge that (a) it will support their local interests and (b) it will be powerful enough to support its local followers. (This has a lot in common with Samuel Popkin’s arguments in The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam (1976).) Chen then considers available data on a large number of local communities in Eastern China during the war years in the base areas of the revolution, and finds that the CCP did a skillful job of satisfying both requirements. It was effective in creating military and political organizations capable of protecting local interests; and it was effective in communicating its class analysis to peasants in sufficient degree to lead to support for its revolutionary social program. But, contrary to the nationalist thesis offered by Chalmers Johnson, he argues that the CCP was very skillful in avoiding direct military confrontation with the Japanese Army.

Another impressive effort to provide a new reading of aspects of the Chinese Revolution is provided by Odoric Wou in Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan (1994). Focused on Henan Province, Wou attempts to uncover the complex set of factors that permitted the Communist Party to mobilize mass support for its program. He emphasizes organizational and political factors in his account: the strategies and organizational resources through which the CCP was able to move ordinary workers and peasants from concern with local interests to adherence to a national program. Wou provides fascinating detail concerning Communist efforts to mobilize miners and workers, Red Spears and bandits, and peasants in Henan Province.

Wou makes plain the daunting challenges confronting Communist cadres in their efforts to mobilize support at the village level: mistrust of outsiders, the entrenched political power of elites, and the localism of peasant interests in the region. Wou describes a social-political environment in the countryside that is reminiscent of Philip Kuhn’s account of the situation of local militarization during the Taiping Rebellion in eastern China—one in which elite-dominated militias had evolved as an institution of self-defense against bandits and sectarian organizations (Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864).

One of the most interesting and surprising findings that Wou puts forward is his contention that mobilization in Henan was not centered in remote and backward border areas, but rather included both remote and commercialized peasant villages (p. 129). This is somewhat inconsistent with Chen’s analysis, who focuses precisely on the tactical advantages of remoteness offered by the base areas.

Wou also makes an effort to crack the riddle of peasant mentality in China. Are peasants inherently conservative? Are they latently revolutionary, awaiting only the clarion call of revolution? Both, and neither, appears to be Wou’s assessment (p. 161). Wou finds a popular equalitarianism within Chinese peasant culture that provides a basis for Communist mobilization around an ideology of redistribution (p. 151); but equally he finds an entrenched hierarchicalism within Chinese popular culture that made subversion of elite power more difficult for Communist cadres (p. 135). (See an earlier post on the Chinese peasant on this subject.)

Wou also considers the political environment created for the CCP by the Sino-Japanese War. (This is the period treated by Chen’s book.) Guomindang power virtually collapsed in Henan Province, and the Japanese occupied eastern Henan in 1938. The three-way struggle between the Japanese, the Guomindang, and the Communist Party gave the Party new opportunities for mobilization against both its enemies. Here Wou makes the important point that structural circumstance—military fragmentation of society, in this case—only provides the opening to successful mobilization, not its sufficient condition. The organizational and strategic competence of the CCP was needed in order to make effective use of these new opportunities for mobilization. Successful play of the game of coalition politics gave the CCP important advantages during this period, and created a position of strength that contributed substantially to post-war success of the movement.

A central tenet of Wou’s analysis is the importance of Communist efforts to improve material conditions of life for the populations it aimed to mobilize. Famine relief, formation of production cooperatives, and revival of the silk industry represented efforts by the Party to demonstrate its ability to provide tangible benefits for local communities (pp. 314-326). These efforts had at least two beneficial effects: they provided material incentives to prospective followers, and, less tangibly, they enhanced confidence among villagers in the competence and endurance of the Party.

Both Chen and Wou make important contributions within a third generation of historical scholarship and interpretation of the Chinese Revolution. Their accounts are to some extent complementary and to some extent inconsistent — as one would expect in detailed efforts to answer profound questions about causation. And both accounts share an important historical insight: it is crucial to push down into the local village circumstances of social life and mobilization that the CCP faced as it attempted to generate commitment and support for its movement if we are to understand why it succeeded in mobilizing support from millions of rural people.

Marx’s theory of political behavior


Marxism is concerned with the politics of class: the success or failure of working class organizational efforts, the occurrence of collective action in defense of class interests, the logic of working class electoral politics, and the occurrence of revolution. Marx attempted to analyze and explain a variety of political phenomena–e.g., the forms that working class political action took in 1848 in France, the reasons for Napoleon III’s overwhelming electoral victory in 1849, and the efforts by organizations of the English working class to achieve the Ten Hours Bill. What assumptions underlie Marx’s analysis of the political behavior of class? I would say that his theory comes down to three elements: a theory of individual means-end rationality, a theory of ideology, and a theory of class consciousness.

I believe, surprisingly, that there is much in common between Marxism and the rational-choice model of political behavior. (So does Adam Przeworski; Capitalism and Social Democracy.) The rational-choice approach postulates that individuals’ political behavior is a calculated attempt to further a given set of individual interests–income, security, prestige, office, etc. One might suppose that such an approach is unavoidably bourgeois, depending upon the materialistic egoism characteristic of market society. However, I maintain that Marx’s theory of political behavior, like his theory of capitalist economic behavior, is ultimately grounded in a theory of individual rationality. Roughly, Marx’s fundamental postulate of political analysis is that:

Agents as members of classes behave in ways calculated to advance their perceived material interests; these interests are perceived as class interests (i.e., interests shared with other members of the class); and class organizations and features of class consciousness permit classes to overcome implicit conflicts of interest between private interest and class interest.

Second, Marx’s theory of political behavior incorporates the concept of ideology. Ideologies, or “false consciousness”, are systems of ideas that affect the worker’s political behavior by instilling false beliefs and self-defeating values in the worker. An ideology may instill a set of values or preferences that propel individual behavior in ways that are contrary to the individual’s objective material interests. Further, ideologies modify purposive individual action by instilling a set of false beliefs about the causal properties of the social world and about how existing arrangements affect one’s objective interests. Rational individuals, operating under the grip of an ideology, will undertake actions that are contrary to their objective material interests, but are fully rational given the false beliefs they hold about the social world they inhabit and their mistaken assumptions about their real interests and values. An ideology is an effective instrument, then, in shaping political behavior within a class system; it induces members of exploited classes to refrain from political action directed at overthrowing the class system. And this is indeed Marx’s use of the concept; an ideology functions as an instrument of class conflict, permitting a dominant class to manipulate the political behavior of subordinate classes. It is an important task to try to identify the institutions and mechanisms through which an ideology is conveyed to a population.

A third important component of Marx’s theory of political behavior is his concept of class consciousness. The term refers to a set of motivations, beliefs, values, and the like, that are specific and distinctive for a given class (peasantry, proletariat, petty bourgeoisie). Marx holds that these motivational factors serve to bind together the members of a class and to facilitate their collective activities. Class consciousness takes the form of such motives as loyalty to other members of one’s class, solidarity with partners in a political struggle, and commitment to a future social order in which the interests of one’s class are better served. Marx describes such a complex of psychological properties, and their social foundation in The Eighteenth Brumaire.

“A whole superstructure of different and specifically formed feelings, illusions, modes of thought and views of life arises on the basis of the different forms of property, of the social conditions of existence. The whole class creates and forms these out of its material foundations and the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives these feelings, etc. through tradition and upbringing, may well imagine that they form the real determinants and the starting-point of his activity.” David Fernbach, ed., Surveys from Exile. Political Writings Volume II., pp. 173-74.

A class is supposed to develop its own conscious identity of itself as a class. Insofar as a group of people who constitute a structurally defined class fails to acquire such attitudes, Marx denies that the group is a class in the full sense at all (a class-for-itself as well as -in-itself). Marx does not provide an extensive analysis of the process through which class consciousness emerges, even within capitalism, but he suggests that it takes form through a historical process of class struggle. As workers or peasants come to identify their shared interests and as they gain experience working together to defend their shared interests, they develop concrete ties within their political groups which provide motivational resources for future collective action. Here again, we need to have a sociology of the institutions that contribute to the formation of this feature of social psychology — perhaps along the lines of the analysis offered by E. P. Thompson in Making of the English Working Class (link).

A central function of class consciousness in Marx’s political theory is to explain the moral capacity of members of exploited classes to join in prolonged, risky struggles in defense of their material interests. The concept of class consciousness thus functions as a bridge between individual interests and collective interests in classical Marxist analysis of political behavior. It gives workers effective motivation to undertake actions and strategies that favor their group interests, and it gives them motivational resources allowing them to persist in these strategies even in the face of risk and deprivation (i.e., in circumstances where the collective strategy imposes costs on the individual’s interests). This treatment of class consciousness shows a sensitivity to the point that political behavior is often driven by a set of motives that are richer than a narrow calculus of self-interest. Ralph Miliband’s work illustrates this point; State in a Capitalist Society: An Analysis of the Western System of Power.

Here, then, we have an austere model of political behavior that can legitimately be attributed to Marx: Members of groups form beliefs about their material interests, and they act intelligently to further those interests. Members of groups form beliefs about their social world that are sometimes seriously misleading about how the social world works (ideologies). And members of groups sometimes gain a social psychology of solidarity and loyalty that gives them a degree of capacity to act as a group (class consciousness). The eventual behavior of an economic group is the aggregate result of the group’s perceptions of its interests, its mental map of how the social world works, and the resources of solidarity that it possesses. It is a materialist theory; it is an agent-centered theory; and it is a theory that invites serious investigation of the processes through which the social psychology of a group are formed.

See prior postings on class, power, and mobilization: link, link, link. An important finding of much discussion of political mobilization since Marx’s time is that a purely economic and materialist account of political motivation leaves out a great deal of contemporary political behavior — for example, ethnic mobilization, identity politics, and political protest (Teheran today).

Microstructure of strife


Let’s work backwards in thinking about sustained inter-group violence, and begin by considering some of the street-level incidents that constitute a period of violence against or between groups. What factors are necessary to the occurrence of inter-group violence in a region? And how can an understanding of these factors contribute to better strategies of conflict reduction and prevention?

I’m thinking here particularly of ethnic and sectarian violence, including examples like these — periods of violence in Northern Ireland, upsurges of the Intifada, stone-throwing against vehicles of another group, violent ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, violent settler resistance to resettlement in Israel, ultra-orthodox attacks on more secular Jews in Jerusalem, or Hindu violence against Muslim communities in India. A group of teenagers throw rocks at visible members of another religious group. A cell of young men place a fire bomb in a department store in a Protestant area. A mob rages through a Muslim neighborhood, attacking innocent households. A gang of toughs pressures a minority family to move from the majority neighborhood with threats and beatings. What motivates the participants to involve themselves in these violent actions? And what social factors are necessary in order to turn a few violent individuals into a major violent inter-group event?

Quite a few earlier postings are relevant to various aspects of these questions (thread). And, as has been frequently mentioned here, Charles Tilly’s theories of contentious politics are crucial here (Dynamics of Contention, Contentious Performances). Here my interest is in line with the idea of promoting peace: if we understand the dynamics of contention better, perhaps we can do a better job of designing institutions and policies that minimize the occurrence of inter-group strife.

We can begin to analyze these examples by providing some analytical questions: what are the contentious social groups?Are acts of violence spontaneous or orchestrated? Are there contentious organizations providing a degree of stimulus and coordination to the violent acts? Are participants “professionals” or ordinary members of civil society? What is the nature of the grievances that motivate typical participants and stimulate the incidents of violence? What role do media play in the etiology of the outburst of violence? (For example, it is now well understood how radio broadcasts were used to spread ethnic killings in Rwanda.)

Studies of contentious politics can perhaps be summarized along the lines of a small handful of causal components:

  • motivation and mobilization of followers;
  • actions and reach of organizations;
  • availability of resources and opportunities; and
  • existence of social networks.

Who are the followers and what motivates them? What are the organizations that are working towards mobilization for acts of violence? What are the motivations and tactics of leaders of these actions? The role of political entrepreneurs and their private political interests appear to be important factors in the occurrence of ethnic and religious strife. (Atul Kohli offers this kind of analysis of Hindu violence against Muslims in India in Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability.) And finally, what networks of communication and mutual support exist among individuals, leaders, and organizations? (Mario Diani and Doug McAdam have a very interesting recent collection on the latter factor; Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.)

This broad analysis of the components of contention is useful for peace studies because it suggests a number of avenues of strategy and tactics for reducing inter-group violence. Violence requires followers; so reducing the motivations and grievances that ordinary people have to join a violent social group is obviously a positive step. (This pertains to the line of thought expressed in an earlier posting about the relationship between justice and peace.) Violent movements usually require organizations to coordinate and stimulate attacks; so governments and security services can work to disrupt or contain violent organizations. (The multi-decade struggle in the United States against the Ku Klux Klan is an example.) And, symmetrically, people interested in peace can support organizations in the same terrain that reject violence — thus reducing the appeal of violent organizations. Once the centrality of social networks is recognized in the mechanisms of stimulating, spreading, and escalating violence, security agencies can themselves undertake to map out the networks of violence that exist and disrupt them. And the crucial role that resources play in violent mobilization — access to funds, weapons, or media, for example — suggests a strategy of resource denial to the forces of order. The state and other agencies can work to reduce the availability of necessary resources to violent organizations.

It seems apparent that if we are to succeed in reducing social conflict and violence, we need to have a good understanding of the social mechanisms through which these conditions arise. And fortunately, there is a very rich literature on social contention that can be incorporated into the study of the structural conditions of peace.

Subsistence ethic as a causal factor


In his pathbreaking 1976 book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, James Scott offers an explanation of popular politics based on the idea of a broadly shared “subsistence ethic” among the underclass people of Vietnam and Malaysia. Earlier postings (hidden transcripts, moral economy) have discussed several aspects of Scott’s contributions. Here I want to focus on the causal argument that Scott offers, linking the subsistence ethic to the occurrence of rebellion.

Scott’s view is that the ensemble of values and meanings current in a society have causal consequences for aggregate facts about the forms of political behavior that arise in that society. Speaking of the peasant rebellions in Southeast Asia of the 1930s Scott writes,

We can learn a great deal from [peasant] rebels who were defeated nearly a half-century ago. If we understand the indignation and rage which prompted them to risk everything, we can grasp what I have chosen to call their moral economy: their notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation–their view of which claims on their product were tolerable and which intolerable. Insofar as their moral economy is representative of peasants elsewhere, and I believe I can show that it is, we may move toward a fuller appreciation of the normative roots of peasant politics. If we understand, further, how the central economic and political transformations of the colonial era served to systematically violate the peasantry’s vision of social equity, we may realize how a class “of low classness” came to provide . . . the shock troops of rebellion and revolution. (Scott 1976:3-4)

This passage represents a complex explanatory hypothesis about the sources of rebellion. Scott holds, first, that peasant rebels in Indochina in the 1930s shared the main outlines of a sense of justice and exploitation. This is a system of moral values concerning the distribution of material assets between participants (landlord, state, peasant, landless laborer) and the use of power and authority over the peasant. Second, this passage supposes that the values embodied in this sense of justice are motivationally effective: when the landlord or the state enacts policies which seriously offend this sense of justice, the peasant is angered and indignant, and motivated to take action against the offending party. Offense to his sense of justice affects the peasant’s actions. Third, Scott asserts that this individual motivational factor aggregates over the peasantry as a whole to a collective disposition toward resistance and rebellion; that is, sufficient numbers of peasants were motivated by this sense of indignation and anger to engage in overt resistance. On this account, then, the subsistence ethic–its right of a subsistence floor and the expectations of reciprocity which it engenders–is a causal antecedent of rebellion. It is a factor whose presence and characteristics may be empirically investigated and which enhances the likelihood of various social events through identifiable mechanisms.

The subsistence ethic may be described quite simply. Scott writes, “we can begin, I believe, with two moral principles that seem firmly embedded in both the social patterns and injunctions of peasant life: the norm of reciprocity and the right to subsistence” (167). Villagers have a moral obligation to participate in traditional practices of reciprocity–labor sharing, contributions to disadvantaged kinsmen or fellow villagers, etc. And village institutions and elites alike have an obligation to respect the right of subsistence of poor villagers.

Claims on peasant incomes . . . were never legitimate when they infringed on what was judged to be the minimal culturally defined subsistence level; and second, the product of the land should be distributed in such a way that all were defined a subsistence niche. (10)

Thus the subsistence ethic functions as a sense of justice–a standard by which peasants evaluate the institutions and persons that constitute their social universe. The subsistence ethic thus constitutes a central component of the normative base which regulates relations among villagers in that it motivates and constrains peasant behavior. And the causal hypothesis is this: Changes in traditional practices and institutions which offend the subsistence ethic will make peasants more likely to resist or rebel. Rebellion is not a simple function of material deprivation, but rather a function of the values and expectations in terms of which the lower class group understands the changes which are imposed upon it.

We can identify a fairly complex chain of causal reasoning in Scott’s account. First, the subsistence ethic is a standing condition in peasant society with causal consequences. It is embodied in current moral psychologies of members of the group and in the existing institutions of moral training through which new members are brought to share these values. Through the workings of social psychology this ethic leads individuals to possess certain dispositions to behave. The features and strength of this systems of values are relatively objective facts about a given society. In particular, it is possible to investigate the details of this ethic through a variety of empirical means: interviews with participants, observation of individual behavior, or analysis of the content of the institutions of moral training. Call this ensemble of institutions and current moral psychologies the “embodied social morality” (ESM).

In line with the idea that the subsistence ethic is a standing causal condition, Scott notes that the effectiveness of shared values varies substantially over different types of peasant communities. “The social strength of this ethic . . . varied from village to village and from region to region. It was strongest in areas where traditional village forms were well developed and not shattered by colonialism–Tonkin, Annam, Java, Upper Burma–and weakest in more recently settled pioneer areas like Lower Burma and Cochinchina” (Scott 1976:40). Moreover, these variations led to significant differences in the capacity of affected communities to achieve effective collective resistance. “Communitarian structures not only receive shocks more uniformly but they also have, due to their traditional solidarity, a greater capacity for collective action. . . . Thus, the argument runs, the more communal the village structure, the easier it is for a village to collectively defend its interests” (202).

We may now formulate Scott’s causal thesis fairly clearly. The embodied social morality (ESM) is a standing condition within any society. This condition is causally related to collective dispositions to rebellion in such a way as to support the following judgments: (1) If the norms embodied in the ESM were suitably altered, the collective disposition to rebellion would be sharply diminished. (That is, the ESM is a necessary condition for the occurrence of rebellion in a suitable limited range of social situations.) (2) The presence of the ESM in conjunction with (a) unfavorable changes in the economic structure, (b) low level of inhibiting factors, and (c) appropriate stimulating conditions amount to a (virtually) sufficient condition for the occurrence of widespread rebellious behavior. (That is, the ESM is part of a set of jointly sufficient conditions for the occurrence of rebellion.) (3) It is possible to describe the causal mechanisms through which the ESM influences the occurrence of rebellious dispositions. These mechanisms depend upon (a) a model of individual motivation and action through which embodied norms influence individual behavior, and (b) a model of political processes through which individual behavioral dispositions aggregate to collective behavioral dispositions. (That is, the ESM is linked to its supposed causal consequences through appropriate sorts of mechanisms.)

What this account does not highlight — and what is emphasized by several other theories we’ve discussed elsewhere (post, post, post, post) — are the organizational features that underlie successful mobilization. Instead, Scott’s account focuses on the motivational features that permit a group to be rallied to the risky business of rebellion.

Mobilizing a movement


The red shirt demonstrations in Bangkok are very interesting. Throughout March 2009 there were massive demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people. They are mostly supporters of the National United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD; also designated as DAAD), the mass party of former prime minister Thaksin. And generically they are in opposition to the current government and to the yellow shirt movement that brought it to power in street demonstrations in fall 2008. (These demonstrations succeeded in forcing the closure of Bangkok’s airports, which was significant because it threatened the tourist economy upon which Thailand depends.)

The social composition of the red shirt movement is loosely described as consisting primarily of poor people, largely from rural parts of Thailand. The media coverage also makes it clear that the red shirt movement is able to call upon the support of thousands of urban Bangkok people, including taxi drivers. Their immediate demand is for the resignation of the current government, which came to power through undemocratic means. But more generally, the movement seems to call for greater social equality in Thailand and greater democracy.

The question I want to raise here is a pretty limited one but theoretically crucial. It concerns the processes of mobilization through which these tens of thousands of people were induced to travel to Bangkok and involve themselves in extended and increasingly risky demonstrations. In general, massive demonstrations don’t just happen; they need organization and planning. How did this mobilization transpire? What national, regional, and local organizations brought it about? I don’t have the expertise to answer the question, so I’m putting the issue out here, in the hope that some of the commentators on the #redshirt twitter feed will help with some specifics.

There are a number of different ways in which this mass mobilization might have happened.

One is through the efforts of an effective and extended party organization. It might be the case that UDD is a well-organized and well-financed organization with numerous professional activists in the countryside. There may be village- and town-based UDD offices that maintain a regular presence at the grass-roots level. The activists may be experienced at keeping the grievances alive, keeping political sentiments aroused, and — when the time is right — they may have the capacity to mobilize bus-loads of adherents for the trip to Bangkok. On this scenario, mobilization is analogous to the “get out the vote” processes through which political parties in the United States mobilize their supporters at the polls on election day.

Here’s a second way the mobilization could work. UDD might be an umbrella organization at the urban center with little grasp into the countryside and villages; but it may loosely lead a number of independent organizations that have a substantial presence in rural areas. Then, through coalition politics and a degree of high-profile leadership, the center and the coalition partners may call for mobilization, and coalition activists at the local level may take the organizational steps needed to elicit hundreds of bus loads of volunteers. This is a bit more challenging than the first scenario from the point of view of maintaining political unity — each partner may have a somewhat different agenda — but may be more feasible from the point of view of the level of resources needed by the central party. Here is a posting from April 9 in New Mandala that seems to suggest this type of mechanism.

I suppose there is a third logical possibility as well: a reasonably well-organized central party, no regional partners, but a mobilization that results simply from a widely broadcast “call to action”. Crudely — UDD leaders call for large street demonstrations; the call is broadcast on friendly mass media; and tens of thousands of rural people heed the call and make their way to Bangkok.

Naturally, we can ask exactly the same kinds of questions about the yellow shirt movement; and it is possible that the answers will be different in the two cases. I don’t have any way of knowing whether any of these scenarios is close to the realities in Thailand today. But it is worth knowing, and there are many smart observers in Thailand who can shed light on the matter. So, Thai tweeters, how does it work?

American urban unrest

photo: Newark, 1967

Several recent posts have focused on periods of civil unrest in other countries — France and Thailand most recently. The United States has its own history of civil unrest as well; and much of that history involves poverty, race, and cities. So it’s worthwhile taking a look at some of the dynamics and causes of the major urban race riots that have occurred in the United States in the past seventy-five years. Detroit, Newark, Chicago, and Watts stand out as particularly dramatic moments in American urban history of the late 1960s, and it is useful to tease out some of the historical contingencies and large social conditions that produced these periods of strife.

At the crudest level, we can tell a pretty compelling story about why these riots occurred. The facts of racial segregation and intense poverty and restricted opportunities for African-Americans created an environment where urban African-American youth had seething grievances and a sense of little to lose; a dilapidated and depressing housing stock reinforced this sense of isolation, anger, and hopelessness; and specific incidents triggered an outburst of urban violence against property (the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; specific acts of police misconduct; etc.). So structural conditions (racism, segregation, economic inequality, poverty, and limited opportunities) led to a political psychology of grievance, anger, and hopelessness in a large part of the urban population; and it was only a matter of time before a spark would fall into this tinder. Riots were predictable given the structural conditions and the resulting psychology.

But this is a commonsense folk theory of unrest; what do the experts think? Janet Abu-Lughod provides a particularly thoughtful and probing history of this subject in Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Abu-Lughod is a noted urban sociologist (though notably not a student of social contention in the Tilly school), and her approach is comparative and spatial. She wants to identify the similarities and differences that exist across a small number of cases of major race riots. She picks out six riots in three cities (Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles) over a period of about seventy-five years (1919-1992) and employs a method of paired comparisons. Her goal is to achieve three things:

First, I hope to illustrate the changing conditions of urban race relations over time, as these have been affected by internal and international patterns of migration, wars and wartime production demands for labor, legal changes governing housing segregation, and the civil rights movement.

Second, I hope to explain variations in riots in the three largest metropolitan regions by examining differences in their demographic compositions, the spatial distributions of racial and ethnic groups within each city, and the degree and patterns of racial segregation in their unique physical settings.

Third, I hope to demonstrate differences in the ways relevant city government regimes have responded to sequential outbreaks — ways that reflect the distinctive power structures of each city and the prior “social learning” relevant to race relations that evolved in each place. (8)

One of the things that is most original in Abu-Lughod’s treatment is the primacy she gives to the spatial features of urban geography and the geography of racial segregation in the various cities. She believes that spatial characteristics of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles explain important aspects of the six riots. But another original contribution is the emphasis she places on sequence and learning: an uprising later in time takes a somewhat different shape because of things that insurgents and authorities have learned from earlier uprisings. Both insurgents and authorities have “repertoires” of tactics that are updated by prior experiences.

Spatial considerations come into Abu-Lughod’s analysis in several ways: as a source of conflict (over de facto borders between racially defined areas), and a source of logistical difficulties for the authorities when it comes to the challenge of deploying forces to suppress rioters (in Los Angeles, for example). Urban development plans that intrude into black neighborhoods — for example, the expansion of the University of Illinois campus in Chicago — are also identified as a spatial process that provokes racial conflict.

Abu-Lughod draws several general conclusions based on the pairwise comparisons that she has made. One important conclusion concerns policing. She argues that a well-trained, restrained, and disciplined police force is more likely to sustain peace in tumultuous times and less likely to worsen conflicts when they arise (270); whereas undisciplined and violent police forces greatly worsen the degree and duration of conflict. And second, she argues that the cases suggest that cities in which the city administration has taken steps to enhance trust and collaboration with the organizations of disadvantaged populations will be least likely to suffer major race riots. “Where there is ongoing interaction between well-organized protest movements, with leaders capable of articulating specific demands for change, and a responsive local government, the more quickly hostilities can be brought to an end” (270). So there are specific steps that cities can take to attempt to reduce the likelihood of prolonged major race riots.

But these points don’t address the most basic causes of race riots: poverty, segregation, and severe inequalities of opportunity across racial lines. As she points out, the Kerner Commission in 1968 urged the nation to address these inequalities; the Johnson administration undertook to do so; and very, very little progress has been made in the intervening forty years towards greater social justice along these lines. So perhaps her most sweeping and penetrating conclusion has to do with the depth and severity of the problems of race, poverty, and segregation we continue to face in American cities, and the likelihood this creates for future major disturbances.

Given the obdurate persistence of racism in American culture, and the widening divides in the racial/ethnic/class system over the past three decades (attributable to changes in the international division of labor that have reshaped labor demands in the United States, coupled with massive immigration and a generation of neoliberal national policies that have shred the welfare safety net woven in the Great Depression), I am amazed that major urban rebellions have thus far been so constrained. (269)

One thing that this account has not addressed is the element of organizations and leadership. Abu-Lughod presents the riots she treats as if they were simply wholesale reactions of the mass populations of Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, to a pressing set of structures and grievances. And this appears to make these periods of strife as being non-strategic — reactive rather than purposive, expressive rather than political. But it is a key insight of the resource mobilization approach that we need to spend particular effort at discovering the organizational resources that were available to insurgents; the background thought is that uprisings require mobilization and coordination, and that this is impossible without some sort of organization. So were there organizational resources that helped to sustain and spread the urban riots of the 1960s?

Abu-Lughod doesn’t ignore urban activist organizations altogether; for example, she talks about the role of the NAACP and the Urban League in organizing and negotiating skillfully in support of the economic and political interests of African-Americans in New York during periods between major riots. And she refers to the organizational capacity of the Congress of Racial Equality in New York as a substantial asset in the ability of the black community to organize and sustain protests against police brutality in 1964 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But the periods of strife themselves seem to be largely disorganized, in her narrative, and CORE organizers exerted themselves to damp down the violence rather than sustain it. Generally the civil rights organizations appear to have played the role of peace makers rather than insurgents.

A good complement to Abu-Lughod’s analysis is Tom Sugrue’s recent book, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. This is a very careful and detailed treatment of the sustained activism and achievements of major civil rights organizations in the North that were aimed at achieving greater equality for African-Americans. And it gives a very nuanced appreciation of the degree of political sophistication and activism that existed in the urban African-American communities of the north throughout the 1960s. Sugrue documents in great detail the strategies and commitment of organizations such as CORE, NAACP, and the Urban League. But I think Sugrue agrees with the basic view that the rioting itself was not the result of insurgent organization: “There is little evidence that the urban rebellions of the 1960s were planned, coordinated, and controlled. What was most striking about the long hot summers was not their coordination or coherence. Their very spontaneity convinced many leftists that they were manifestations of a popular — if still undeveloped — revolutionary consciousness” (334-35).

If this interpretation is correct (spontaneous rioting without organization through such vehicles as street gangs, underground groups, etc.), then the spatial considerations that Abu-Lughod focuses on really are crucial; our explanations of the spread and persistence of violence in these cities depend on neighborhood-level mobilization alone. And it suggests that American urban riots were somewhat different from insurgency movements in other countries; they are more spontaneous and less organized than the campaigns of the aggrieved mentioned in prior postings (1848 Paris workers, Thai red shirts, student protests in France).

Thailand’s redshirts and civil unrest

photos: Battaya demonstration 4/11/09 (top 2); Bangkok 4/12/09 (bottom)

Thailand’s civil unrest took a new turn Saturday (4/11/09) when “redshirt” demonstrators managed to push through security forces and invade the resort hotel where ministers of ASEAN were preparing to meet. These demonstrations were organized by the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD). The ASEAN meeting was scheduled in the Pattaya beach resort, roughly 90 miles from Bangkok. (Here are some very graphic photos of the hotel invasion published in a Thai news publication.) Demonstrators smashed doors and windows in the hotel, raced through the building, and found their way to rooms where several ministers were lunching. The ministers fled through the back of the hotel and were evacuated by helicopter and boat. Reports indicate that the early phase of the demonstrations in Pattaya was opposed by local people (“blueshirts”), who attempted to block the redshirt march to the resort; but they were quickly overwhelmed by a show of force by the redshirts (report). The Thai government immediately canceled the ASEAN meeting and evacuated the ministers from the country. Large demonstrations continue in Bangkok today by redshirt activists, and the situation is unfolding rapidly. (Here is a GoogleMaps image of the environs of the Royal Cliff Beach Resort (A) where the ASEAN meeting was to occur.)


Some commentators describe the basic struggle as one between former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s followers who want to see a major redistribution of power and resources in Thai society (redshirts; DAAD), against the forces of the status quo and the powerful and privileged, represented by current prime minister Abhisit (yellowshirts; PAD). (Others denounce Thaksin’s motives as being corrupt and self-serving, more interested in power than social reform.) Redshirt support tends to draw from poor and unemployed Thais, largely rural, whereas the yellowshirt movement tends to reflect the powerful groups in Thai society, including the military and business elites. The redshirt demonstrators are supporters of Thaksin and are demanding the resignation of Abhisit. Thaksin was forced from office in a military coup in September 2006. Demonstrations by “yellowshirt” groups and the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) against the government by the People’s Power Party allied with Thaksin in September and October 2008 led to the closure of Thailand’s major airports and had a large economic impact on Thailand by its effects on tourism. Abhisit became prime minister in December 2008. Thaksin is playing a visible role in encouraging the current round of demonstrations against the government and is evidently positioning himself as the only person who can bring the redshirt movement off the streets. (Here is an article by Michael K. Connors that provides much of the recent background. Michael Connors’ blog, Sovereign Myth, will be interesting to follow as well.)

In other words, Thailand has been undergoing a period of intense social unrest for several years, with major contentious organizations at work to further their programs and mobilize followers, and with occasional outbursts of major urban demonstrations and riots. And the relations among the most powerful groups in Thai society seem to be up for grabs: the military, the business elites, the middle class, the urban poor, and the rural poor. Each segment wants something; and increasingly it seems that their demands find expression in mass mobilizations in the streets of Bangkok.

These events are interesting from several points of view. One is the simple fact that a relatively small group of demonstrators was able to bypass Thailand’s security forces in their security deployment for a major international summit. This seems roughly as shocking as if demonstrators had succeeded in penetrating the meeting rooms of the G20 in the Excel Centre in London. News reports suggest that the police and army units offered no resistance to the protesters in their assault on the resort hotel. This seems to imply that the government has uncertain control of the police and security forces — an impression reinforced by demonstrations taking place today in Bangkok in which demonstrators have succeeded in seizing police vehicles and weapons.

It is also interesting to consider what must be occurring beneath the surface in order to support the mobilization and coordinated actions of large groups of redshirt demonstrators in Pattaya and Bangkok. What are the forms of organization, leadership, and communication that support this extensive level of mobilization? What kinds of networks have been established to permit quick and effective mobilization? How are radio and television, cell phones, text messages, and twitter feeds being used to rally supporters? Where does the money come from that both redshirts and yellowshirts have identified as being important inducements to participation by poor people? For that matter — what sort of organization or mobilization took place in order to bring the blueshirts mentioned above into action in Pattaya? (A story in The Nation suggests that this may have been the result of efforts by a government agent.) In Bangkok “red” radio stations appear to be broadcasting calls to action by supporters of the DAAD. FM 92.75 and FM 107.5 are mentioned in a current story in The Nation.

As for leadership — one leader of the redshirts in Pattaya is mentioned in several news reports, Arisman Pongruengrong. If you google his name today, you’ll find he was arrested within the past twelve hours (post, post). Here’s a photo of Arisman in Pattaya on Saturday:


Another dimension of interest is a “new media” point: it is possible to get a fair amount of real-time information about the demonstration and public attitudes by following relevant keywords on Twitter. If you search for #redshirt on Twitter, you’ll get a steady stream of comments and events (search.twitter.com). (There are other utilities that permit easy Twitter searches as well — for example, tweetvisor.) And it seems possible to put together a spatial and temporal picture of the events based on references to specific streets and intersections. With enough patience it would be possible to annotate the Google map clipped above with specific events mentioned in the twitter feeds: taxis blocking this street, APC seized on that street, etc. Here’s a start of a map of Bangkok indicating the locations of Government House and a major protest blockade on Din Daeng Road.


Contentious politics is an enormously interesting and productive component of contemporary social science. The evolving situation of contention in Thailand seems tailor-made for a detailed analysis by researchers within this tradition. I’d love to see a research paper that extends McAdam-Tarrow-Tilly’s Dynamics of Contention by providing a detailed “tagging” of the development of these protests in terms of the chief social mechanisms of mobilization and contention that these authors highlight — escalation, brokerage, identity shift, radicalization, convergence, and framing, for example. And unlike the unfolding of the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 1980s, Thailand’s current contention can be investigated pretty deeply just using the tools available on the desktop: Google, Twitter, Blogger, Facebook, and access to virtually every newspaper worldwide.

MTT make an important point throughout their treatments of periods of contention: the deeply contingent nature of social contention. We can explain many of the component processes of an uprising. But we can’t discover “laws” of uprisings that would permit confident predictions of outcomes. And this point about contingency seems especially compelling today: even knowing the basic intentions and resources available to the various parties in Thailand today, it is impossible to predict with confidence what the next few weeks will bring. Will the government decide to use the coercion option? Will this succeed — will security forces obey orders to use force against civilians? Will the exercise of force provoke even more powerful expressions of unrest? And if the government decides to continue its current policy of restraint — will the current redshirt movement simply gather more and more steam, will it take over important government buildings and television stations, will it be in a position to forcibly bring about a change of government and the return to power of Thaksin? Or will even more surprising turns of events emerge, outside this range of more-or-less foreseeable contingencies?

Transnational protest movements



We’ve seen a fairly large increase in the occurrence of large international protest movements in the past thirty years. The anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s drew a substantial following across Europe and to some extent North America. (Historian E. P. Thompson played a significant leadership role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; see for example PROTEST AND SURVIVE.) Anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Washington, and Davos drew substantial support from international organizations and participants. Major anti-war protests occurred in numerous European cities after the onset of the US-led war on Iraq. And now protests in London against the G20 meeting and in Strasbourg against NATO have drawn supporters and groups around Europe (post). (Here is a current account of the Strasbourg protests in the Dernieres nouvelles d’Alsace.)

These movements are riveting in a number of ways, from the point of view of sociology and international politics. We can ask questions at every edge of the phenomena:

Power and influence. How effective are mass demonstrations at achieving their declared goals? Do mass demonstrations influence government and multinational policies in the direction intended by the organizers and followers? For that matter — how much of an influence can a large demonstration in Rome have on a subsequent effort to mobilize over a similar issue in New York? What is the role of mass media in the timing, pace, and public impact of large demonstrations?

Mobilization. What processes of mobilization and organization are at work in these specific periods of mass mobilization? To what extent do modern transnational protests embody a significant degree of common purpose and political identity? (Here’s a recent post on the difficulty of defining a group mentality.) What organizations have the most influence in determining the strategy and tactics of the mass political actions that are called for? What networks of leaders and counter-politicians can be discerned in the period of mobilization leading up to the mass event? What is the nature of the networks that exist within the various communities of interest — environmentalists, anti-war activists, anti-globalization activists? What sorts of issues have proven most potent in mobilizing significant numbers of adherents and organizations from different countries? What motivates followers to heed the call and bring themselves to London or Strasbourg? What is the combination of commitment, identity, and adventure that results in involvement?

Internal politics. What factors internal to a movement — whether environmentalist, anti-globalization, anti-war, anti-nuclear — lead to cohesion and dissension within the movement? What factors lead to the occasional outbreaks of violence between protesters and police? (See an earlier post on this question.) Is violence a deliberate tactic on either side — militants or forces of order? What role do organizations such as anarchist groups and other radical, rejectionist groups play within the broader movement? Is it possible for small groups of rejectionists to “hijack” the large demonstration for their own purposes?

These questions overlap several distinct areas of research: resource mobilization theory, social movements, international relations theory, and comparative politics. (This is a point that McAdam, Tilly, and Tarrow make in Dynamics of Contention: there is much to be gained by studying these contentious movements across the traditional areas of study.) And the questions are probably further complicated by the availability of internet-based forms of communication and mobilization.

Sidney Tarrow has turned his attention to international protest movements as a particularly interesting form of “contentious politics.” His 2005 book, The New Transnational Activism, treats international protests and their movements from the point of view of the Tilly-McAdam-Tarrow framework of theory and analysis of contentious politics. Here are a few framing assumptions from the introduction:

Students of domestic movements long ago determined that collective action cannot be traced to grievances or social cleavages, even vast ones like those connected to globalization. Acting collectively requires activists to marshal resources, become aware of and seize opportunities, frame their demands in ways that enable them to join with others, and identify common targets. If these thresholds constitute barriers in domestic politics, they are even higher when people mobilize across borders. Globalization is not sufficient to explain when people will engage in collective action and when they will not.

Nor does combating globalization automatically give rise to “global social movements.” For Charles Tilly, a “social movement” is “a sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target authorities” that uses a well-hewn contentious repertoire on the part of people who proclaim themselves to be worthy, unified, numerous, and committed.

For one thing, forming transnational social movements is not easy. Sustaining collective action across borders on the part of people who seldom see one another and who lack embedded relations of trust is difficult. For another, repertoires of contention grow out of and are lodged in local and national contexts. Even more difficult is developing a common collective identity among people from different cultural backgrounds whose governments are not inclined to encourage them to do so.

Tarrow’s central hypothesis about transnational protest movements comes back to the core idea of “opportunity structures.” International organizations and networks have created a new set of opportunities for transgressive groups who have an interest in challenging the status quo.

Tarrow identifies several important types of sources of evidence and theory for his current work: international political economy, anthropologists and students of public opinion, specific studies of international protest events, studies of transnational networks and institutions, and theorists of the idea of “global civil society.” He explicitly locates the book as falling squarely within the research program established in Dynamics of Contention; his goal is to make use of this ontology of social mechanisms and processes to provide a sociology of transnational protest.

What I’m eager to see is some of the concrete empirical work that this approach suggests: specific empirical studies of the networks, organizations, and dynamic processes through which major transnational protests have unfolded in the past decade or so. It would seem that some important new tools helpful for such study are now much more readily available — essentially, using the internet to track organizations, announcements, and efforts at mobilization. Tarrow provides some of this research — for example, in his summary of research on the networks and localism of participants in the “Battle of Seattle”. But this level of analysis seems to be where the action needs to be at this point in the study of transnational social movements. But Tarrow is certainly right in thinking that this subject area is important, and it is one that follows very logically from the framework of analysis of social contention developed by himself, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly in the earlier Dynamics of Contention.

Social control of crowds


There is a pretty high level of social protest taking place in France today. Strikes and demonstrations are taking place in many cities, involving students, faculty, workers, and other ordinary people. (Here is a recent news roundup dated March 19, 2009, on strikes, demonstrations, and manifs in the past month or so, and here is a BBC report on a round of large strikes in January.) The demands largely have to do with the current economic crisis, unemployment, changes in the social security system, and proposed reforms to higher education. French people are demanding specific changes from the government, and the government does not seem to want to compromise.

These collective actions carry out a tradition of public protest in French political culture that goes back at least a century and a half (Charles Tilly, The Contentious French). And few politicians in France will have overlooked the fact that public protests have sometimes developed into even more confrontational forms of collective action and conflict — in 1968, for example, and in the banlieue in 2005. So the current round of protests and mass demonstrations has a significance in French political history that raises the possibility of even more intense civil conflict in the next twelve months.

What is to prevent the possibility that large organized demonstrations and strikes may develop into more violent conflicts between the population and the state in the future? How can the state ensure that large-scale peaceful protest — a basic democratic right — doesn’t turn into episodic rioting and civil unrest when political stalemate emerges or when economic and social conditions worsen?

The question is a pressing one, because very large demonstrations and protests are volatile and unpredictable. When there are tens of thousands of participants and a range of leading organizations in a large demonstration, it is possible for the actions of the crowd to develop in ways that were not intended or anticipated. A peaceful march down a central boulevard can proceed from beginning to end with a great deal of internal discipline, with organizations maintaining ranks and preserving order. Many of the photos of manifs in French cities are distinguished by the prominent signs and banners the protesters carry announcing the organizations they represent — labor unions, student organizations, faculty groups. And these banners themselves are an indication of organization and discipline. So large, peaceful protests can be organized and carried out successfully.

But the same march can also degenerate into skirmishing and street fighting involving small groups of activists and police. A small splinter group of violent protesters may break away from the march to engage in acts of violence against property — burning cars, smashing shop windows. And these acts may spread by contagion to other parts of the crowd. Or a group of activists may deliberately confront the police with stones or bottles, with the goal of provoking violent reaction and an escalation of conflict. (This appears to have happened repeatedly in Athens a few months ago, and it was an anarchist tactic in the anti-globalization protests that took place in many cities a few years ago.) Or a group of police may engage in a demonstration of power intended to intimidate the crowd, leading to police violence against members of the crowd; again, this violence may spread to other locations. Even an unfortunate accident can lead to an outburst of violence — a frightened driver losing control of his car and injuring a group of demonstrators, for example, can lead to panic and escalation. And any of these small outbreaks of violence can spread through the larger crowd, leading to an uncontrollable spasm of action and reaction.

So how can the authorities in a democracy develop strategies for ensuring that peaceful protests avoid violent escalation? I suppose the most direct strategy is to consider the demands themselves and evaluate whether they legitimately call for changes of policy that ought to be enacted. Compromise over the central issues leading to mass protest presumably has some effect on the likelihood of violence and disorder. If the people are convinced that the government is acting unjustly, the government ought to at least consider whether there is some legitimacy in these complaints.

A second strategy is more tactical. Recognizing that protest is likely to occur, it makes sense for the authorities to work with the organizers and their organizations to arrive at agreements about the scope and nature of the protest. The route, location, duration, and other conditions of the protest can be negotiated. And the authorities are well advised to attempt to gain the support of the organizers in an agreement to maintain internal discipline within the demonstration — to win the agreement of the organizations themselves to attempt to suppress possible outbursts of violence by minority elements within the crowd.

A third strategy involves, of course, policing. The authorities have both the ability and the obligation to use police powers to ensure public order. And this means that they need to plan intelligently for the disposition and behavior of police forces to contain possible violent outbursts. But the use of police force is a delicate political art. Heavy-handed, intimidating policing seems to be as likely to provoke violence as to suppress it. Police behavior that depends upon the conspicuous threat of force likewise is likely to be provocative — a double line of police with truncheons and riot gear, with face shields providing a disturbing anonymity, is likely to provoke fear and aggression in the crowd that it confronts. And, of course, police behavior that crosses the line to overt acts of brutality is almost certain to provoke violent response, as news of police violence spreads through the crowd. But it is also possible to err on the side of insufficient police presence; forces that can be quickly overwhelmed create the situation of a sudden escalation of violence by a crowd that has suddenly realized that there is no barrier to further violent actions.

It would seem that the ideal prescription for a policing strategy is something like this: enough police force in the vicinity to respond quickly and decisively to acts of violence by members of the crowd; positioning of police forces in fairly inconspicuous locations so their presence is not itself a provocation; and well-trained police forces who can be trusted to refrain from unnecessary violence against protesters. (The “police riot” in Chicago in 1968 plainly led to rapid escalation of violence in that situation.)

What makes this question so complicated is the fact that it involves social actions, conflicts, and relationships at many levels: the basic conflict between organized groups with explicit demands and the state with its interest in enforcing its policies; the limited degree of control that protest organizers have over the behavior of followers; the fact that smaller groups and organizations within the protest movement may have goals that are more radical than those of the main organizations; the fact that the authorities have only limited control over the forces at their command; and the fact that there may not be acceptable compromises that successfully resolve the conflict between protesters and the state. These factors make the behavior of the crowd somewhat unpredictable, and they introduce major sources of contingency into the way in which a particular day of protest and season of dissent play out.

Bringing the discussion back to France in 2009, there seem to be several large possibilities for the coming year. The government may decide that it needs to adjust some of its policies in order to reduce the level of popular dissent and unrest; it needs to reach a social compromise. The government may hold firm but the dissenting organizations may grow fatigued or discouraged — so that the current round of protest and strikes subsides. Both sides may hold firm but an equilibrium level of protest and response may be reached, with neither side escalating to a higher level of civil conflict and violence. Or, finally, both the government and the protest movement may hold firm and protests may spiral upward into greater levels of social conflict, with riots and violent protests ensuing. More and more force may be exerted through police repression, and this may lead to more widespread and more aggressive demonstrations in the following weeks. And, of course, all of these scenarios are likely to have consequences for electoral outcomes in the coming several years.

%d bloggers like this: