Red shirts as a social movement

The redshirts in Thailand have moved onto the world stage in the past several months.  Massive protests in Bangkok have stymied the Thai government and have held the army and police forces at bay for months.  Demands from redshirt leaders and posters include removal of the military-backed government of Prime Minister Abhisit and a commitment to prompt elections.  In the background seems to be a demand for a shift in the playing field in Thailand, with meaningful attention to social inequalities.  And exiled former prime minister Thaksin plays a continuing role in the background, offering video messages at protest meetings and veiled instructions to redshirt demonstrators.  Efforts at clearing the protest encampment led to dozens of deaths in April, and a major crackdown this week seems to have succeeded in breaking the protest in Bangkok with another handful of deaths and a great deal of arson in the center of the city.  But there are indications that protests and violence may spread to other parts of Thailand.

What all of this implies is the presence of a major social movement in Thailand, supported by many thousands of rural and urban Thai people, mostly from the lower end of the socioeconomic order.  This much is clear through the journalism that has developed around the current turmoil.  What we haven’t yet seen, though, is a careful analysis of the dynamics and processes of this movement.  How is it organized?  How are followers recruited?  What resources are leaders able to call upon?  What are the grievances that motivate potential followers?  The time is ripe for a careful, analytical study of the movement.  And intellectual resources exist for such a study, in the form of the extensive literature on social movements and contention that exists in the current social science literature.  However, that literature largely focuses on social movements in the democratic West, and scholars in this tradition generally lack deep knowledge of the politics of Asian countries.  So we need to find ways of crossing boundaries if we are to make use of social movement theory in the context of the Redshirt movement.

One of the most important voices in the current literature on social contention is Doug McAdam.  His study of the black insurgency in the United States is a sophisticated and extensive analysis of the dynamics of the US civil rights movement in the South (Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970), and perhaps there are some parallels between the two movements.  McAdam’s work is entirely focused on examples of protests and mobilization in the United States.  But in the introduction to the second edition of this work he provides a clear and powerful statement of the state of the field, and his synthesis of the best current thinking about how to analyze social movements is of general interest.  So perhaps this is one place to begin the search for an empirically and theoretically informed study of the Redshirt movement.

Here are a few of McAdam’s central points.

Increasingly, one finds scholars from various countries and nominally different theoretical traditions emphasizing the importance of the same three broad sets of factors in analyzing the origins of collective action.  These three factors are: 1) the political opportunities and constraints confronting a given challenger; 2) the forms of organization (informal as well as formal) available to insurgents as sites for initial mobilization; and 3) the collective processes of interpretation, attribution and social construction that mediate between opportunity and action. (viii)

Or in short: political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes (viii-ix).  Here are brief descriptions of each of these axes of analysis.

Expanding political opportunities.  Under ordinary circumstances, excluded groups or challengers face enormous obstacles in their efforts to advance group interests….  But the particular set of power relations that define the political environment at any point in time hardly constitutes an immutable structure of political life.  Instead, the opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action are expected to vary over time.  It is these variations that are held to help shape the ebb and flow of movement activity. (ix)

Extant mobilizing structures.  … By mobilizing structures I mean those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize and engage in collective action.  This focus on the meso-level groups, organizations, and informal networks that comprise the collective building blocks of social movements constitutes the second conceptual element in this synthesis. (ix)

Framing or other interpretive processes. … Mediating between opportunity, organization and action are the shared meanings, and cultural understandings — including a shared collective identity — that people bring to an instance of incipient contention.  At a minimum people need to feel both aggrieved about some aspect of their lives and optimistic that, acting collectively, they can redress the problem. (ix-x)

So how can these basic sets of questions help in forming a careful analysis of the Redshirt movement?  McAdam’s general point is that these angles of analysis have emerged as key within dozens of studies of collective action and social movements.  They represent an empirically informed set of theoretical perspectives on collective action.  We shouldn’t look at these three sets of factors as setting a blueprint for collective action; but it is a good bet that new instances of social movements will involve each of these factors in some way.

Putting the point another way: we can read McAdam’s synthesis as posing a research framework in terms of which to investigate a new example of a social movement — whether the Falun Gong in China, the monks’ movement in Burma, the Maoist insurgency in India, or the Redshirt movement in Thailand.  It is certainly possible that a given case won’t fit very well into this set of questions; but McAdam’s hunch is that this is unlikely.

So it would be very interesting to initiate a careful study of the Redshirt movement along these lines.  Such a study would need to review the shifting circumstances of political power over the past ten years or so in Thailand, both at the national level and at the state level.  Certainly the military overthrow of the Thaksin government created “ebbs and flows” of the sort to which McAdam refers.  And the Yellowshirt demonstrations of 2008 also shifted the fields of power in Thailand.  What openings did these various events create for Redshirt mobilization?  Second, we would need to know a great deal more about the local and regional organizations through which Redshirt mobilization occurs.  What are those organizations?  What resources do they control?  How do they manage to succeed in mobilizing and transporting many tens of thousands of rural supporters to the center of Bangkok?  And how do they manage to continue to supply and motivate these supporters through several months of siege?  Finally, and most importantly, we need to know much more about the mentality and social identities of the Redshirts.  What do they care about?  What are their local grievances?  What are their most basic loyalties and motivations?  McAdam points out that most studies of successful social movements have found that activists and supporters usually possess dense social networks and deep connections to their communities; will this turn out to be true for the Redshirt movement?

There is a cynical reading of the movement that would almost certainly not stand up to this kind of careful analysis: the idea that the Redshirts are simply the pawns of Thaksin, and that Thaksin’s financial support to individual followers is sufficient to explain their behavior.  This doesn’t seem credible on its face; it makes the movement out to be an automaton controlled by a distant leader.  Surely Thaksin plays a role; but equally certainly, leaders and followers have their own issues, agendas, and passions.

The kind of study suggested here does not yet exist, so far as I can tell.  It would be necessary to pull together a great deal of local knowledge about the social constituencies and local organizations that are involved in the movement — information that isn’t presented in any detail in the journalism that has been offered to date about events in Thailand.  But once a researcher has pulled together preliminary answers to questions in each of these areas, he/she will be much better positioned to answer pressing questions of the day: will the movement survive the repression in Bangkok this week?  Will it spread to other locations in Thailand?  Will the government succeed in preserving the status quo?  And schematic answers to these questions would provide a much more substantial basis for understanding the movement and its location within Thai society.

Here is one small contribution to the effort.  McAdam emphasizes the importance of “identity shift” in the evolution of a social movement.  He thinks that a very substantial part of a movement’s strength and staying power derives from the new forms of collective identity that it creates.  There is evidence of shifting identities along these lines within the Redshirt movement.  Consider this interesting analysis of language from Thailand’s Troubles:

ไพร่, which sounds like prai, was a dusty word which rarely saw the light of day. Now on every other t-shirt worn by people of the Red movement printed large and proud is prai.

Prai has perhaps a dozen meanings including cad, citizen, plebian and proletariat. In the context of the Red movement protest, which includes an element of class conflict and rebellion over inequality, prai frequently means commoner and peasant.

This sounds quite a bit like a shift of identity, from disregarded poor person to proud member of a movement.

(Several earlier posts have focused on events in Thailand.  Here is a post from about a year ago on civil unrest in Thailand.  See also the social movements thread in UnderstandingSociety.)

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China’s inequalities


China’s Communist Revolution was founded upon the idea of equality. It was a basic principle of the early Communist Party that inequalities ought to be eradicated and the power and privilege of elite groups should be dismantled. Today in China the situation is very different. Farmers and rural people no longer have the support of the central state in their grievances against powerful forces — land developers, factory owners, power companies. And economic and social inequalities have increased dramatically in China — inequalities between the rural population and the city population, between manual workers and professionals, between eastern-coastal regions and western regions (link). Small numbers of elites are able to capture wealth-creating opportunities; the separation between wealthy and poor widens; and often the political power of office permits self-aggrandizement within China’s burgeoning economy. The situation of small farmers and of internal migrant factory workers is particularly bad, by all accounts; see Anita Chan, China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy.

Paradoxically, these facts about widening inequalities serve to point out something surprising: the sometimes narrow limits to the power of central state and party institutions — a point that Vivienne Shue made in The Reach of the State Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic. Regional and local officials are often able to undertake actions and policies that are directly harmful to poor people and directly contrary to central policies — and the central government is unable to reign them in. There are some deliberate policy efforts from the central state to improve the conditions of rural people — as a class and as a region of disadvantaged population. But those policies have often had little effect; the benefits that were intended to redress inequalities wind up in the hands of more elite actors — often private developers rather than public officials (link).

So how do Chinese people think about these facts — facts that are even more visible to them than to outsiders? Recent research seems to point out a generational difference with regards to the “sense of justice” that Chinese people bring to their perceptions of the society. Older people appear to have shaped a set of ideas about social justice under the Mao years that lead them to judge today’s visible inequalities very unfavorably. Younger people seem to be more accepting of inequalities — if they are earned. What is most morally offensive to younger people seems to be the fact that privilege of position allows some people to do much better than others — from access to education to access to high-paying jobs. Whether this is a function of corruption, cronyism, or the use of state and party power for personal gain — younger people seem to be very offended at these sorts of inequalities. Here is a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey released in July 2008; inequality and corruption rank high among sources of dissatisfaction in this survey. (C. K. Lee’s pathbreaking work on the sociology of law and justice makes these points very clearly. See some of her related work in Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt; here is a link to a recent article by Lee on “rights activism in China”.)

What should we think about China’s social future if these sorts of inequalities of opportunity and outcome continue to widen? Several points are worth considering.

First, persistent deprivation and inequality is certainly a contributing cause of social contention. So China’s current inability to redress these inequalities probably suggests a continuation of the pattern of social protest in China. (Tens of thousands of incidents of collective protest and resistance take place every year in China — and the rate appears to be rising; link.)

Second, the fact that China’s state institutions haven’t been able to regulate the local mechanisms of abuse of poor people (through property confiscations, for example) also suggests the likelihood of rising social contention. Confiscations are a leading cause of protest.

And third, a set of meaningful reforms in legal protections for all members of society, including secure property rights for farmers and labor rights for workers, would surely create an environment that is more acceptable to the younger people who are accepting of inequalities if they have arisen through processes that are procedurally fair and legitimate. So a more law-governed future for China, in which economic activity is regulated by a fair system of law, and a set of opportunities are available to make something like a level playing field, would appear to be the most sustainable course for China’s leaders to attempt to achieve.

Interestingly, these are exactly the sorts of reforms that are front and center in the recent Charter ’08 petition.

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.

eighteen forty-eight




The revolutions of 1848 were the stage upon which the “spectre haunting Europe” danced. Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Alexandre Herzen, Alexis de Tocqueville, and numerous other critical observers of Europe’s trajectory looked at 1848 as a moment of continent-wide social and political revolution. Mike Rapport’s 1848: Year of Revolution is a very interesting effort to synthesize the movements and events of the year in a specific attempt to try to assess the degree to which events in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Milan, and dozens of other European cities hang together as a “year of revolution.” It’s worth reading — even for those for whom the history is pretty familiar.

One reason that the book is so interesting is that the period itself is fascinating — the events, the social movements and causes, the mechanisms through which social contention spread and intensified, and the personalities who were drawn into engagement and commentary. The three men pictured above — Tocqueville, Herzen, and Bakunin — are only a sliver of the powerful and enduring personalities who played important roles during the critical weeks and months of unrest in a variety of cities. Another reason for the interest of the book is Rapport’s effort to separate out some of the causes and claims that led to mass protest in city after city — relief of impoverishment, anger at the impersonal economic relations of the time, and the claims of ethnic and national groups for self-determination. Fundamentally, Rapport suggests that mobilization and political demands flowed from two basic issues: the crushing poverty that segments of urban society experienced at mid-century, exacerbated by financial crisis and crop failures (Paris, Berlin), and the demand for political autonomy for national and ethnic groups (Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary). Finally, the book is distinguished by its effort to treat the full canvas of unrest and violence across much of the continent — not simply focusing on France, as one is sometimes inclined to do in thinking about 1848.

Tocqueville’s Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 is a particularly intimate view of the events in Paris in spring, 1848. Tocqueville was a Deputy of the National Assembly and an aristocrat, and in January 1848 he gave a prescient speech in the Chamber of Deputies:

I believe that right now we are sleeping on a volcano … can you not sense, by a sort of instinctive intuition … that the earth is trembling again in Europe? Can you not feel … the wind of revolution in the air? (quoted in Rapport, 42)

In Recollections he chronicles his own experiences only a few months later, walking the streets of Paris during the street fighting in February 1848. He writes of his experience of February 23, 1848:

I took my leave early and went straight to bed. Though my house was quite near the Foreign Office, I did not hear the firing which so greatly changed our fate, and I went to sleep unaware that I had seen the last day of the July Monarchy. (Recollections, 35)

As I left my bedroom the next day, the 24th February, I met the cook who had been out; the good woman was quite beside herself and poured out a sorrowful rigmarole from which I could understand nothing but that the government was having the poor people massacred. I went down at once, and as soon as I had set foot in the street I could for the first time scent revolution in the air: the middle of the street was empty; the shops were not open; there were no carriages, or people walking; one heard none of the usual street vendors’ cries; little frightened groups of neighbours talked by the doors in lowered voices; anxiety or anger disfigured every face. I met one of the National Guard hurrying along, rifle in hand, with an air of tragedy. I spoke to him but could learn nothing save that the government was massacring the people (to which he added that the National Guard would know how to put that right). (36)

Rapport describes the massacre to which Tocqueville’s cook and the National Guardsman apparently refer, as being the instigating event that led to successful insurrection in February. It took place on rue des Capucines:

When the marchers came to a halt, they pressed against the soldiers, and the officer, apparently hoping to nudge them back a little, ordered his men to ‘Present bayonets!’ As the troops performed the manoeuvre, a mysterious shot burst into the night air. In a knee-jerk response the nervous soldiers let off a volley, the bullets killing or wounding fifty people. (52)

Tocqueville continues with his stroll on the morning of February 24:

The boulevard along which we passed presented a strange sight. There was hardly anyone to be seen, although it was nearly nine o’clock in the morning; no sound of a human voice could be heard; but all the little sentry boxes the whole way along that great street seemed on the move, oscillating on their bases and occasionally falling with a crash, while the great trees along the edge came tumbling into the road as if of their own accord. These acts of destruction were the work of isolated individuals who set about it silently, methodically and fast, preparing materials for the barricades that others were to build. It looked exactly like some industrial undertaking, which is just what it was for most of those taking part. (38)

(I’ve always thought it would be very interesting to take a group of students on a walking tour of the sites that Tocqueville mentions in Recollections — though many of the locations must have disappeared in the work of Haussmann in reconfiguring the urban geography of Paris. Timothy Clark has some very interesting analysis of Haussmann’s designs in The Painting of Modern Life.)

Marx’s writings of the events of February and June in France are more analytical and more political at a nuts-and-bolts level. Marx’s face-to-face experience of the events was more fleeting than Tocqueville’s — Rapport recounts Marx’s rather unsuccessful efforts as a political speaker, attempting to raise class consciousness (231). (Blanqui and Proudhon both seem to have been more successful in this vein.) But Marx followed the events carefully through available journalism, and he made every effort to interpret the comings and goings in a way that made sense to him from the framework of historical materialism and politics as class conflict. Here is how Marx described the outcome of the bloody June repression of the revolution in Paris:

The Paris workers have been overwhelmed by superior forces; they have not succumbed to them. They have been beaten, but it is their enemies who have been vanquished. The momentary triumph of brutal violence has been purchased with the destruction of all the deceptions and illusions of the February revolution, with the dissolution of the whole of the old republican party, and with the fracturing of the French nation into two nations, the nation of possessors and the nation of the workers. The tricolour republic now bears only one colour, the colour of the defeated, the colour of blood. It has become the red republic. (N.Hr.Z., 29 June 1848)

There remained only one way out: to set one section of the proletariat against the other. For this purpose the Provisional Government formed twenty-four battalions of Mobile Guards, each composed of a thousand young men between fifteen and twenty. For the most part they belonged to the lumpenproletariat, which in all towns, forms a mass quite distinct from the industrial proletariat. It is a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all sorts, living off the garbage of society, people without a definite trace, vagabonds, gens sans feu et sans aveu, varying according to the cultural level of their particular nation, never able to repudiate their lazzaroni character…. Thus the Paris proletariat was confronted by an army of 24,000 youthful, strong, foolhardy men, drawn from its own midst. The workers cheered the Mobile Guard as it marched through Paris! (Eighteenth Brumaire, 52-53)

For me, one of the most interesting questions about 1848 is also the most basic: were these disturbances “revolutionary,” or were they something different and perhaps less historically significant over the long sweep of the century? Were perhaps the “February days” better described as simply a short period of civil unrest and plebeian rioting; and were the “June days” simply a show-down with a state and military increasingly willing to use force to exert its will? And might we think that it is best to look at Berlin, Milan, Vienna, and Paris in 1848 as largely separate social upheavals brought together in a relatively short period of time, but lacking the internal connections that would constitute a large revolution? In other words, was 1848 really a “year of revolution”, as Rapport says in his subtitle, or was it less dramatically, a year of unrest, rioting, and eventual political change?

One reason for posing the question in these terms is the fact that the concept of “revolution” is a very imposing one. When we think of “revolutions,” we think of the great examples — France 1789, Russia 1917, China 1949. We think of organized revolutionary parties; mass movements; political contest over control of the state; a program of fundamental social and economic change; and eventual seizure of state power. Against this sweeping set of unifying ideas, one might say that 1848 never reached this threshold of significance and unity.

But perhaps this way of putting the question gets it backwards. Perhaps it is the “great” revolutions that need a second look — as Rapport suggests somewhere in a single sentence. Perhaps it is the Russian Revolution that has been over-dramatized, and the widespread social and political upheavals of 1848 are more genuinely revolutionary than the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in one corner of Europe. The upheavals across Europe in 1848 are continental in scope; they involve a confluence of related claims (for autonomy for national groups, for poverty relief, for a democratic voice in government); and they did in fact result in “regime change” in Italy, France, Austria, and Germany. And, as Rapport, Tocqueville, and Marx seem to agree — by June 1848 in France, at least, there was a polarization around class lines and the primacy of the social question.

So it’s a simple question, really: were there any “revolutions of 1848”?

Marx and the Taipings


It is interesting to observe how Europe’s greatest revolutionary, Karl Marx (1818-1883), thought about China’s greatest revolution in the nineteenth century, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). We might imagine that this relentless advocate for underclass interests might have cheered for the poor peasants of the Taiping Heavenly Army. But this was not the case. Marx wrote about the Taiping Rebellion several times in the New York Daily Tribune and other newspapers, and his analysis and his sympathies are fascinating. His articles are as close to blog postings as one could get in the middle of the nineteenth century; they are topical, opinionated, and pretty revealing about his underlying assumptions.

The Taiping rebellion was enormous in every way: perhaps 20 million deaths, armies approaching a million soldiers, sustained Taiping control of large swatches of Chinese territory and cities, and an extended time duration of fighting (about fifteen years). The American civil war took place during roughly the same time period; and the Taiping rebellion was many times more destructive. It is a truly fascinating period of world history, and one that had important consequences in the twentieth century. (Mao and the Chinese Communists largely represented the Taiping rebellion as a proto-communist uprising.) So how did Marx respond to this social catastrophe? In a thumbnail — his observations show a remarkable blindness to a contemporary historical event that seems tailor-made for the framework of his own theories of history and underclass politics.

In 1853 Marx wrote a piece for the Daily Tribune called “Revolution in China and in Europe” that encapsulates his own understanding of what the Taiping revolution was, and what brought it about. He lays the largest causal role on the effects of the Opium Wars a decade earlier. English cannons smashed the appearance of invincible power and authority of the Imperial Chinese state and imposed humiliating conditions on the Chinese nation. “Before the British arms the authority of the Manchu dynasty fell to pieces.” And, simultaneously, trade and financial penetration by the European powers occurred in ways that were almost fatally deleterious to the Chinese economy and polity. Forced opium trade led to a rapid depletion of Chinese silver reserves; and the forced availability of English textiles led to severe dislocation for Chinese textile workers. “In China the spinners and weavers have suffered greatly under this foreign competition, and the community has become unsettled in proportion.”

Nine years later Marx published another article on the Taiping rebellion, this time in the German newspaper, Die Presse. The article, “Chinese Affairs,” begins with a pretty remarkable bit of Asiatic stereotyping:

Some time before the tables began to dance, China–this living fossil–started revolutionizing. By itself there was nothing extraordinary in this phenomenon, since the Oriental empires always show an unchanging social infra-structure coupled with unceasing change in the persons and tribes who manage to ascribe to themselves the political super-structure. (442)

In this piece he picks up a somewhat different theme from that of the earlier article. Here he offers an interpretation of the Taiping rebellion against the backdrop of Manchu colonialism: “Why should there not be initiated, after 300 years, a movement to overthrow it?” So the 1853 theory postulates the weakening of the Chinese social order as a chief cause, while the 1862 theory postulates a nationalistic motivation — a desire of Han people to overthrow Manchu rule. (An irony here is that the Taiping movement emerged with key support from Hakka people, a cultural minority within the Han population.)

The interpretation that Marx offers for the occurrence of a vast rebellion in China, then, is largely an exogenous one: war, trade, and European intrusion led to a total disruption of China’s social order; Manchu colonial rule created nationalistic unrest; and rebellion ensued.

Marx then goes on to a description of the nature of the rebellion and the rebels.

What is original in this Chinese revolution are only its bearers. They are not conscious of any task, except the change of dynasty. They have no slogans. They are an even greater scourge to the population than the old rulers. It seems that their vocation is nothing else than to set against the conservative disintegration of China, its destruction, in grotesque horrifying form, without any seeds for a renaissance. (443)

There are no agents in this description, no social program, and no agenda for change. Instead, there is only blind violence and destruction. Marx quotes with evident approval the dispatch of Mr. Bruce, the English Ambassador to Peking, who decries the violence and disorder of the Taiping armies. And Bruce’s central observation is the violence and rapaciousness of the Taiping armies, stealing or destroying all property in the regions they controlled.

Notice what Marx’s analysis does not do. It does not identify the class nature of the Taiping movement. It does not ask what were the social causes that led Chinese peasants to follow the Taiping armies. And it does not ask what was the social program of the Taiping movement. The Taipings are represented as a cipher — just an irrational uprising of millions of passive followers.

So whatever happened to the tools of historical analysis that Marx recommended — the forces and relations of production, the concrete circumstances of class relations, the intimate connection between material conditions of life and political behavior, and the emphasis on exploitation and rebellion? Why was Marx not disposed to ask the basic questions about the Chinese case: who are these people? What are the social relations from which they emerge? And what are they attempting to bring about in their rebellion? Why, in short, didn’t we get something more akin to The Civil War in France, with an effort at a detailed social and political analysis of the uprising?

It is hard to escape the answer to this question: it is Eurocentrism in the extreme, and a consequent inability to see the implications of his own categories of analysis for this otherwise intriguing case. This isn’t exactly news, of course. But it does underline the importance for today’s historians of finding ways of treating world history without imposing the categories of European experience. A China-centered analysis of the Taiping rebellion has a very different look from the sketch we find in Marx’s descriptions. (See an earlier posting on historical comparisons for more on this point.)

There is a great deal of very good contemporary historical research on the Taiping rebellion. Here are a handful of good contemporary treatments:

Cole, James H. 1981. The People Versus the Taipings: Bao Lisheng’s Righteous Army of Dongan. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.
Kuhn, Philip A. 1970. Rebellion and its enemies in late imperial China, militarization and social structure, 1796-1864, Harvard East Asian series, 49. Cambridge, Mass.,: Harvard University Press.
Kuhn, Philip A. 1977. Origins of the Taiping Vision: Cross-cultural Dimensions of a Chinese Rebellion. Comparative Studies in Society and History 19 (3):350-66.
———. 1978. The Taiping Rebellion. In The Cambridge History of China v. 10, edited by D. Twitchett and J. K. Fairbank.
Spence, Jonathan D. 1996. God’s Chinese son: the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. New York: W.W. Norton.
Wagner, Rudolf G. 1982. Reenacting the Heavenly Vision: The Role of Religion in the Taiping Rebellion. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, Univ. of Calif.

These histories bring out many different aspects of the Taiping story, and they don’t all agree. They also bring out an element that is entirely missing in Marx’s comments — the influence of Christian missionaries on the formation of Taiping ideology. But what they all agree on is that the Taiping movement was socially complex, with a strong ideology, a very specific set of demands about property and social institutions, and pretty complex military relations. And they certainly agree that the relationship between Manchu rule, European colonialism, and internal social factors is far more complex than Marx’s story allows.

Both articles discussed here (as well as a large number of postings on India) are included in Karl Marx on Colonialism & Modernization: His Despatches And Other Writings on China, India, Mexico, the Middle East and North Africa, a volume edited and introduced by Shlomo Avineri.

Labor protest in China


C.K. Lee’s book, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt, is a very important contribution to the sociology of contemporary China. The field needs this kind of innovative and theoretically adept work. And one of the great strengths of the research is the fact that it takes the Chinese context seriously in a profound way; it is “China-centered” sociology. This stands in opposition to work that brings a theoretical perspective (often inspired by European experiences and theorists) and then attempts to “apply” the theory to the data of Chinese experience. C.K. does not make this mistake. The book is a major empirical and theoretical contribution to the effort to better understand current social realities in China. But it is also an important and innovative example of how to use sociological theories more generally to arrive at a sociology of urban 21st-century society and social change.

The book looks at the rising incidence of labor protests in post-reform China. Abrupt and profound social changes are occurring that have had a great impact on the condition of working people: privatization, dissolution of state safety net, new export factory system with labor supplied by rural immigrants. C.K. looks at two regions and two “situations”: Rustbelt (Liaoning in the northeast, where protests are stimulated by the loss of employment, unemployment benefits, medical care, unpaid pensions) and Sunbelt (Guangdong in the south, where protests are stimulated by discrimination, exploitation, and horrendous working conditions). These are conditions that Anita Chan documents in China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy. Towards the end of the book C.K. summarizes the two locales as representing “The death of socialism and the birth of capitalism” or words to that effect. The title is important: “Against the Law” captures both the central theme of protest – workers appealing to agencies and the central state for their legal rights – but also to the insurgent and often repressed status of their protests.

C.K. is interested in exploring the sociology of these labor worlds in an appropriately “local” way: what are the specific features of the Chinese economy, Chinese production, Chinese policy and law, and Chinese culture that produce two rather different patterns of protest and contention in two segments of the Chinese manufacturing economy?

Lee emphasizes the contingency of these developments and their dependency on rather proximate causal / social factors. She believes that the nature of the mobilizations and protests is affected by the way in which they are framed. Writing about Rustbelt protest: “My main concern … is to analyze how the characteristics and limits of worker protests are linked to the mode of state regulation of labor and the social reproduction of labor power” (71). Elsewhere she makes the point that Sunbelt protests have less mobilizational “staying power” because of the living situation of migrant workers: they return to their villages in times of distress, and their movement collapses. She distinguishes sub-types of Rustbelt protests by their underlying issue: nonpayment protests, neighborhood protests, bankruptcy protests. In other words, rather specific circumstances that set the context for life and work in the two regions and sectors have substantial effects on the nature of dissent and protest that results.

She also highlights the nuance and heterogeneity of the social realities she studies. “What strikes an outside observer as a homogeneous group confronting common economic predicaments growing out of structural reform is experienced from within the group as fragmented interests, unequal treatment, and mutual suspicion” (84). So she doesn’t make the mistake of assuming homogeneity of “workers” or other social categories.

So a particular strength of her approach is that it emphasizes the contingency, variation, and internal heterogeneity in social processes that we should expect. “Theory” is a help but not a blueprint.

A substantive and important point that C.K. arrives at is the “cellular” nature of labor protest in China today. She refers almost all of these protests as “cellular” – meaning they lack a larger regional base of organization. Also they are fairly spontaneous; not much local organization or planning is needed or provided. This cellularity derives from specific features of the social environments in which labor protests emerge in China today. “A confluence of institutional factors produce the prevailing pattern of cellular activism. State work units provide the physical sites of communication and coordination, organize workers’ interests, and define the boundary of the aggrieved community” (112). But state surveillance and repression prevents the incubation of organizations – such as independent labor unions – that might convey local activism to a broader regional level.

A second substantive point – perhaps her most fundamental point, and the inspiration for the title of the book – is the unusually central role that appeals to legal rights play in current examples of labor protest. Kevin O’Brien refers to this strategy as “rightful resistance” (Rightful Resistance in Rural China). C. K. makes the point clearly at the end of the book: “The centrality of the law and legalism is salient, and is perhaps a unique Chinese way of popular contention, triggered by the regime’s decentralized legal authoritarianism. Even without formal or conscious cross-class alliance against the state, the common and ferocious charge of ‘against the law’ is a powerful and haunting chorus to the Chinese regime” (261).

A third important characteristic of C. K.’s analysis is her insistence on the agency and subjectivity of the workers whose actions she considers. She pays attention to their consciousness and ideas and their need for self-respect and dignity – these all play important roles in the movements and activism she describes. She insists on seeing workers as agents, not victims: “Like the making of class, we cannot predict the outcome but can explain the trajectory of when and which ideological interpellation underlies what collective action” (122). And she emphasizes the “moral indignation” aspect of many protests. “I seek to understand the indigenous meanings, relations, and institutional context that come packaged with these terms when they are invoked in the rustbelt, often simultaneously” (114). This means that it is a sociologically important area of research, to attempt to provide a deeper understanding of the consciousness of the men and women who make up this history.

I am also appreciative of the methods of investigation and research that Lee uses. She makes skillful use of her sophisticated understanding of various relevant pieces of sociological theory and analysis; her deep and expert knowledge of the chronology of legal reforms and policy shifts that have affected industry and labor in China since 1980; and an expert command of the macro-level economic and political data that are available about industrial change and labor unrest. But these forms of theoretical and empirical knowledge constitute a foundation for a more qualitative kind of research: careful case studies of particular factories and disturbances based on her own fieldwork, along with interviews of participants that bring the book into the range of a kind of industrial ethnography. In other words, the arguments of the book are situated within a strong theoretical and empirical understanding, and are moved forward through synthesis of many of her own observations and interviews with participants. This combination gives the book a particularly acute flexibility when it comes to understanding the complexities of the social situations in Guangdong and Liaoning. Her analysis of the two situations is not merely an expression of her underlying theories; rather, it is a sensitive “portrait” of the nuanced series of developments that are found in the two regions.

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