Why does unrest spread?

Why does social unrest occur and spread?

This is a little bit of a trick question. It really implies three questions: What are the circumstances that make unrest in a population possible or likely? What circumstances need to occur in order to precipitate expressions of unrest in particular places? And what circumstances are conducive to spreading (or damping out) these local expressions?

First, how might we define the concept of “unrest”? To my ear the concept involves grievance and activism. Grievance involves the situation where individuals and groups feel that they have been badly treated by someone. Activism implies a disposition to act visibly and politically to protest or alleviate this mistreatment. Grievance can exist without activism, and there are instances of activism that stem from emotions other than grievance. But when these emotional and behavioral states come together we can refer to the resulting stew of behavior as “unrest”.

So let’s start with the causes of grievance. Power relations create the emotions of grievance: excessive conscription or taxation, insufficient attention to the interests of an ethnic minority, abusive and disrespectful treatment by the police. When individuals and groups believe they are being treated in ways that unfairly harm their interests or reduce their dignity, they are likely to feel aggrieved.

Grievance is a propositional emotion; it involves a subject, a harm, and a perpetrator. And this means that grievance is not simply a reaponse to suffering. Take a population that is experiencing dearth in the early stages of famine. Individuals and sub-groups may differ in their experience of grievance; they may hold different social actors responsible for their suffering (landlords, lenders, city people, the military, or the state, for example). And these differences have implications for how and when these groups may be aroused to protest and action.

What about “activism”? What kind of psycho-political state is this? It is a propensity to make the transition from political emotion to action — to go from resentment of the state’s behavior to the choice of joining a street demonstration; to go from anger about conscription to joining an anti-draft organization; to go from frustration about the landlord’s unwillingness to restore the heat to joining with others in a rent strike. “Activism” appears to be a complex characteristic of individuals and groups. For one thing, it seems to have a substantial component of culture and tradition baked into it. Cultures seem to differ in their responses to mistreatment; some communities seem to have resources for activist mobilization that others lack. Second, there appears to be a substantial degree of social learning through imitation involved in becoming “activist.” So it is likely that there is a degree of positive feedback involved in the spread of activist psychology.

So back to the original question: what causes the spread of unrest? There needs to be an issue that creates a grievance in a significant number of people. Something needs to happen to make this issue salient relative to other concerns. There needs to be a critical mass of people who share the grievance and possess the components of the social emotions of activism. And there needs to be a “spark” that allows activists to mobilize others.

Consider a hypothetical example — a company with dozens of factories in different parts of the country that is imposing a unilateral change in its contributions to worker retirement accounts. Suppose each factory has several thousand workers; and suppose that there is a range of responses to the retirement changes in the various factories along these lines:

  • Quiescence and grudging acceptance
  • Widespread grousing but no organized action
  • Wildcat strikes

What factors might account for these different responses to essentially the same event?

Several possible explanations might be considered:

  • The presence/absence of effective rank-and-file leaders
  • The presence/absence of effective local managers’ countermeasures (persuasion, cooptation, threats)
  • Strong/weak traditions of activism in different locations
  • Alternative narratives about what the changes mean (“inevitable in this business climate”, “better this than a lot of layoffs”, “higher management is taking this opportunity to stiff us”, ….)
  • High/low impact of the management changes on the interests of workers in each location
  • Strong/weak channels of communication among workers in different factories

It is, of course, a matter for empirical investigation to determine whether some or all of these factors played a causal role. But we can give good theoretical reasons for thinking that these are socially possible mechanisms that may underlie the observed differences in behavior.

We might speculate, then, that unrest is most likely to occur and spread when there is an abuse that affects a large number of people; there is a generally shared understanding of the nature of the abuse; there are effective local activists capable of arousing the indignation of the rank-and-file; there are accessible communication vehicles permitting the spreading of messages of dissent; the population has a tradition of activism; and the state’s managers are ineffectual in damping down the occurrences of protest. These conditions appear most favorable for the dissemination of unrest.

New forms of collective behavior?


Personal electronic communication and the Internet — have these new technologies changed the game for collective action? Here I am thinking of email and instant messaging, but also cell phones and other personal communications devices, as well as the powerful capacity for dissemination of ideas over the web — has this dense new network of communication and coordination fundamentally changed the ability of groups to pursue their political or social goals?

There is no doubt that these technologies are relevant to collective action. Communication, coordination, and assurance are crucial features of successful collective action — and these are precisely the qualities that current technologies offer. Moreover, the ability for a party or movement to disseminate its programs, ideas, and promises to potential followers is crucial for its ability to gather support; and this is what the Web offers better than any prior form of communications technology.

A couple of data points are relevant.

  • The City of New York has recently subpoenaed the software and records of TXTmob from an MIT graduate student (story). TXTmob is a software tool created more or less on the fly before the party conventions in 2004 to permit demonstrators to use text messages to assemble and disperse quickly and effectively.
  • Will.i.am’s music video of Barak Obama’s “Yes We Can” speeches has been viewed by eight million people since posting on YouTube — generating funds, votes, and passion for the candidate.
  • Cell phone photos and videos have made their way out of Tibet and Burma documenting the crackdowns that have occurred in those places — allowing passionate groups of people outside the area to bring their protests to bear.

So what is genuinely new in this list? Covert cameras and travelers have existed for a long time. Cell phones were available in Gdansk and Teheran during street protests there in the 1970s. And newspapers, magazines, and television and radio have disseminated ideas widely. So, again, is there any reason to think that current communications technologies have changed anything fundamental — either the nature of popular mobilization or the balance of power between the powerful and the numerous?

Two factors are important enough to significantly change the nature of struggles between the powerful and the popular. First is the capacity for coordination among a large group that is created by cell phones and IM devices. A “flash mob” can form and dissolve in minutes. This can make their actions and demonstrations more effective and more difficult to repress. And there is a secondary benefit for the organization — rapid multi-sided communication can help to maintain solidarity and commitment within the group.

Second, the low cost and broad distribution of web-based communication gives a new advantage to the numerous but poor. Swift Boaters required hundreds of thousands of dollars to disseminate their attack ads against candidate Kerry — whereas a six-minute video can reach millions of people on YouTube for free. This tips the balance of power away from the deep pockets towards the creative activist group.

So it seems reasonable to judge that these communications technologies are indeed a significant new element in the field of play of collective action. Groups can self-organize more effectively; they can coordinate their actions; and they can share and reinforce the urgency of their commitments through the use of cell phones, text messages, web pages, and dissemination points such as YouTube.

All this has implications for popular politics within a law-governed democracy. It is less clear that these technologies offer as much leverage for the powerless within an authoritarian state. Combine a powerful authoritarian state’s ability to monitor communications with a perfect readiness to repress activists and dissidents and to control the technology — and you get a situation in which these tools of communication are much less useful for an opposition.

The power of the authoritarian state


If any collective entity possesses power, surely it is the state in a dictatorship – the Burmese military dictatorship or the single-party states of Cuba or China. So how does an authoritarian state exercise power?

It is common to equate power with the ability to coerce and threaten in order to compel behavior. And certainly force and repression play a crucial role in authoritarian politics. But even within a dictatorship the instruments of coercion are less than total. When the priests and young people of Burma went into the streets of Rangoon a few months ago, the military rulers were able to use a mix of violence and restraint that permitted them to prevail against a budding democracy movement in Burma. But in the past twenty years rulers in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia, and Tbilisi have found that their arsenal of water cannons, secret police, and truncheons have not sufficed to silence the streets. Plainly, then, control of the forces of repression is an important component of the power base of an authoritarian dictatorship; but its scope is not unlimited.

As was true in other postings about power, we have to begin by asking about the relational situation of the relevant actors. What is the will of the state? What is the scope of behavior that the state wishes to control? Who are the agents who are subjects to the state’s power? We might put the geometry of state power into a simple diagram: goals and priorities => levers of influence (repression, persuasion, bribery, cooptation, horse trading) => varied actors (civil servants, military officers, community leaders, bandits, citizens) => behavior. From the dictator’s point of view, there are two sets of actors over whom power needs to be exerted: intra-state actors – persons charged within the government to carry out the dictator’s will; and actors in civil society – the citizens and organizations that make up mass society. Intuitively, the power of a state is measured by its ability to constrain the behavior of a set of actors in ways that permit it to achieve its goals.

Let’s look first at the intra-state actors. A state is a bureaucratic entity with decision-makers at a range of levels. Ministries and organs of the state — the police and military for example — have their own sources of power and domains of influence that are not fully within the control of higher authority. So the highest authority — president or general – has only a limited ability to directly impose his will upon lower levels. In the extreme case the executive can discipline or remove the lower-level director. But this lever is imprecise; it leaves the agency director a certain amount of undetectable freedom of action. So we can readily envision the situation where the executive has announced a certain priority for his government, and where two important ministries come into conflict over what to do. And one or both may be motivated by local interests rather than the priorities of the state. (This seems to be an important clue in explaining some current developments in China. Central policies enacted in Beijing are ignored or reconsidered in regional government offices.) In this instance we need to ask, what levers of power and influence does the executive have within the government itself through which it can compel compliance by both agencies?

At this level we find the familiar processes of cooptation, alliance, inducement — as well as threat — found in all organizations. Perhaps a singular difference is that the use of violence is closer to the surface in dictatorship than in other political organizations. But the task facing the fascist dictator has much in common with that of the executive of other large organizations with multiple agendas. The 20th century confronts us with some extreme cases — Stalin’s terrorism extended within his government as well as towards Soviet society at large, and Stalin used purges and executions to compel bureaucratic compliance. But it is an important question in organizational studies to assess the degree to which force and violence can effectively run a complex organization. And it seems likely that more ordinary mechanisms of persuasion and cooperation must usually be invoked.

So much for the problem of exercising power within the state. Now consider the larger and more interesting question of power used against civil society and ordinary citizens. The issue of power arises only when the state wants a certain kind of behavior and citizens don’t want to behave in this way. Take the large issues over which states want to exercise their will over citizens: taxation, conscription, and delivery of agricultural products. There is, first, the use of the threat of punishment to compel conformance. Draft dodgers can be hunted down and punished, villages can be threatened with violent retaliation if villagers avoid taxes, and food can be withheld from non-compliant regions (for example, Stalin’s war on the kulaks; see Lynne Viola, ed. The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside). Moreover, if the state can establish a pervasive network of police and informants, it can make its threats credible — with the result that compliance with law and dictum is reasonably high. So the organs of repression are certainly an important element of power for the authoritarian state.

Beyond violence, beyond effective enforcement, what other levers of behavior modification exist for the state? Two come to mind immediately: propaganda and the market. States often have a substantial degree of control over the instruments of thought formation — schooling, media, and communications technology. And experience has made it clear that there is a substantial degree to which a population’s behavior can be altered through these tools. Markets and other impersonal social mechanisms are another important mechanism for shaping behavior. China’s one-child policy was successful in altering the reproductive behavior of hundreds of millions of Chinese people. And these policies turned on a combination of coercion, enforcement, and financial incentives.

So perhaps the question of how authoritarian states exercise power is somewhat straightforward to answer: through organized repression, through artful command of a bureaucracy capable of acting cohesively, through the development of alliances with actors inside and outside of government, through cooptation of some actors to the disadvantage of other actors, through management of large social structures such as the market, and through the ability to set the terms of political behavior through the media and schooling.