Tag Archives: political authorities

Stabilising a Protest Movement? Some Lessons from History (2)

Last week, we suggested that looking at a past protest movement, why it was born, how demonstrators mobilised and according to which space-time pattern, could help us understanding better what is happening nowadays in many countries. As the current protest movements spread, multiply and recur, it is most likely that we are faced with escalating situations. Understanding how political authorities, in the past, managed to stabilize a protest movement could shed light on the political decisions taken in the present. This knowledge gives us tools and indicators to assess and monitor various contemporary situations and evaluate their future dynamics.

Blind first response: escalating a protest movement

serment du jeu de Paume, David, escalation, protest movementThen, the political authorities initial feedback actions occurred as soon as the movement  appeared, in November 1915. They were not stabilising but escalating, as they did not end the protest but, on the contrary, increased it. Indeed, the answers dealt with only one part (the 1915 prestations) of the multiple motivations for escalation (all the issues that created the rising inequalities, as well as the related resentment and feelings of injustice), and were built upon the complete lack of understanding of the situation. They incorporated the belief in a potential plot, rather than considering the real causes for grievances.

This underlines that stabilising actions must be related to the reasons for escalation, and adds that partial solutions are not stabilising. It thus emphasises the crucial importance of understanding and the difficulty to obtain a realistic analysis when one is prey to biases and when one does not have time to reflect but must act immediately.

Stabilisation phase 1: Listening and immediate feasible redress

The first phase of the stabilising actions was to increase the authority’s understanding of the ‘opposition’ and of the situation, while taking immediate measures to show protestors they had been heard and taken seriously. Throughout January 1916, the peaceful and mainly non-violent demonstrations in Phnom Penh on the one hand, the dual authority willingness to listen and understand, on the other, allowed for real communication (i.e. exchange and listening truly to others, not communication campaigns created by advertisers and spin doctors) and consequent understanding to arise, with the exception of the Prey Veng Resident caught up in his anti-German fears. The authorities took note of the various reasons for discontent and gave immediate satisfaction to the protestors on the feasible and most urgent points, such as the buy-back of prestations done by a 22 January 1916 Royal Ordinance. By 1st February, the number of demonstrators reaching Phnom Penh had decreased to a few hundred.

Manifesto Real Democracy Now, protest movement, grievances

Nowadays, hardly anyone truly listens to demonstrators. At best, some quick anti-austerity, stimulus packages are constructed, according to old recipe, but demands and grievances are usually dismissed, when the protests are not completely ignored. The responses that are given are done according to the wishes of the most powerful actors and lobbyists, and following cognitive models that may not reflect anymore the entire reality.

Stabilisation phase 2: Rebuilding trust and asserting legitimate authority

The second phase was to increase the feeling of understanding and communication and to build trust to permit in-depth work towards reforms. The permanent commission of the council of ministers under leadership of the Résident Supérieur began to reflect on the peasants’ grievances. The King, after having condemned violence, abuse and the massive protests in Phnom Penh because they favoured unrest, issued a proclamation that detailed all grievances and announced that they would be seriously examined. Thus, by 10 February, the situation in Phnom Penh was judged normal.

A reassertion of the authority’s monopoly of violence through selective and just use of force accompanied these two phases. In the provinces, as the authorities had understood the three phases of the movement, it had the possibility to discriminate between different kinds of leaders and to know where and how violence originated. Thus, the state could reassert its monopoly of violence in a selective and proper way. The central authority struggled against any provincial authorities’ unjustified use of violence and against excessive and unfair punishment (all intrinsically escalating) and penalised them when they happened.

Thus, the means of violence remained in the hands of the authorities, which prevented the perception of a waning authority that would have led to more escalation. For example, towards the end of the movement, the villagers helped the authorities to suppress agitation and arrest agitating leaders.

The fundamental beliefs of the population and the specific structure of religious institutions and practices were understood and considered. Escalating ways to take advantage of the latter were prevented: in agreement with the heads of the two Buddhist branches  (Mohanikay and Thommayut), all travels by monks to Siam were suspended and all pagodas informed of this measure to prevent rebellious leaders using Buddhist robes and Pagodas networks to escape the authorities.

In the meantime, from the second part of February 1916 onwards, the King and the ministers, representing respectively the symbolic and acting parts of the Kampuchean authority, toured the most agitated provinces, explaining the proclamation, and the reforms on the one hand, scolding villagers for their behaviour, on the other. These tours first reinforced the feeling of communication and understanding and second lent legitimacy to the authorities’ actions and declaration of future actions. Third, they contributed to ensure that potentially remaining demonstrators would not travel to Phnom Penh and that they would not drag along other villagers, thus decreasing opportunities for violence. Residents similarly toured the less agitated provinces.

By the end of February 1916, the movement had ended.

Compared with our present, the difference is that, in many countries, even if national, regional and international political authorities travel frequently, they do so without the first phase of stabilisation having taken place, without grievances having being heard and without true communication. The shell, the appearance of communication has been kept but is the substance still there?

Disregard for historically constructed beliefs and norms, including fundamental respect for others (see below the video produced by the Greek Omikron Project struggling against constant slights), as not only religious ideas must be considered, also have the potential for transforming what should have been stabilising in escalating actions, witness, for example, Mrs Lagarde outraging comment on Greek citizens, or, more recently, Mrs Merkel’s trip to Greece and Ireland. Even if reactions are not – or not yet – mainstream and widely shared, the fact that they already exist collectively is a signal that something is amiss, as the master work of political scientist James Scott emphasises.

The means of violence definitely remain in the hand of the political authorities, but is their use perceived as just and legitimate, considering the fact that the other stabilising elements tend, so far, to be lacking?

Then, symbolic and coercive power interacted, mutually reinforced each other and lent legitimacy to the authority-system. Now, they do not.

Stabilisation phase 3: in-depth reforms

In Cambodia, the third phase, in-depth reforms, could now begin, as promises had been made with the King’s proclamation that had to be held. The Résident Supérieur took immediate measures aimed at reducing abusive or erroneous practices in tax collection, prestations and requisitions. For example, he recommended that Residents get closer to the population by multiplying tours to ensure effective control of the lower levels of the Kampuchean administrative apparatus, while posters were put up in all villages to explain to the inhabitants which taxes were owed by whom. Meanwhile, the dual authority had to examine the validity of the other complaints and to propose reforms, that were studied, discussed, enacted and applied by the end of 1917.

Thus, we can see first that communication and pooling of resources at all levels of the politico-administrative apparatus in a bottom-up and horizontal fashion were necessary to permit stabilising actions. The authority worked in a dual fashion and, even if final decision-making power remained vested in the French, it still reflected joint work, as the Resident did not discard the suggestions of the Assembly, but incorporated most of them into the final decisions.

Second, the speed with which actions were taken and the visibility of the first phase of actions that compensated for those that had to be delayed probably strongly contributed to the stabilisation.

New deal, multi dimensional stabilisation program, stabilisation, protests

Finally, this case confirms the necessity of multi-dimensional actions truly addressing the grievances of the protestors, selective and fair use of force and the importance of sustained and persistent efforts. The dual authority had taken the measure of the discontent and consequent risks, persisted in its stabilising efforts, and thus stabilised the situation for the next twenty years.

Why is it not happening today?

Many factors come to mind. Among the most obvious, first, we must recall that the 1915-1916 Cambodian protests movement was very large, relatively, and thus the shock for and risk to the political authorities was important. Most movements nowadays do not meet this criteria (see previous post). The incentives to truly consider protestors’ grievances and to actively endeavour the various phases necessary for a stabilisation thus lack. Furthermore, many of the countries where the protests take place are liberal democracies. In the  shallow understanding of Democracy (contrasted with what Kant’s political writings taught us and that Doyle reminds us), the election process mainly, or even only, is understood as granting legitimacy to citizens’ representatives and the resulting government. The latter may thus believe it is enough to be elected or re-elected to be fully legitimate. As hypothesized earlier, the type of political regime into which protests take place may affect  the credibility of the movement and its dynamics.

Second, the Cambodian peasants showed their willingness to use violence. Currently, save, so far, for Syria and Libya, and for short outbursts of violence elsewhere, most of the movements are not only peaceful but also underline this aspect as one of their ideals. In terms of political dynamics, this begs the question of the possibility of successful completely peaceful political actions. To take an example further away from revolutions and escalation towards civil war, unions’ movements and actions involved much violence. The success of Gandhi non-violent movement springs to mind here, but it took place against the backdrop of other very violent actions, while the overall situation was largely different.

Estates-General of 1789, revolution, old, outdated orderLast but not least, we are probably in an overall escalating phase, where the various institutions that have been built in the past are not anymore fully adequate to deal with the reality of a transformed present, of a potential paradigm shift, of the multiple pressures that we must face while having largely contributed to create them. It is thus hardly surprising that actions grounded in the past lack a stabilizing character, as everything, from capacities to understanding and beliefs, must be adapted, transformed, sometimes created if we want to properly handle changes and be ready for the future. In this framework, protest movements are a constructive and crucial component of ours societies’ evolutions as it is only through the interactions they prompt, through the change they impose that a new better adapted system may hope to emerge.

——–

See previous post for archival references.

Kant, Immanuel, Political Writings edited by Hans Reiss, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Doyle, Michael W. 1983. “Kant, Liberal Legacies and Foreign Affairs,” Part 1 and 2, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 12, nos. 3-4 (Summer and Fall).

Scott, James, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press, 1985.

Protest Movements, Mobilisation, Geo-Temporal Spread: Some Lessons from History (1)

Since December 2010 with the “Arab Spring,” the world has become dimly aware that protests and demonstrations are now a common, everyday reality in many countries, even if this fact still tends to be very much downplayed. Earlier (weak?) signals could be found with the French 2005 riots and 2006 students’ protests, with the 2007-2008 food riots, as well as with violence in Greece during the winter 2008-2009.

Fifteen countries, mainly in Asia and Africa were hit by the food riots. Since then, at least 20 countries (Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Egypt, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Jordan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, U.S., UK, Yemen) have been the theaters of various types of protests with different kinds of escalations, while sporadic demonstrations also occurred elsewhere in the MENA countries, with the Arab Spring, in Latin America and Asia, following the Spanish Indignados and then Occupy.

The recurrence and spread of those movements, their links (notably since the Arab Spring, people on social networks know and help each other), even if each mobilisation has its own dynamics and challenges, show that, in general, stabilisation is not at work. Could a case from the past help shed some light on what is happening or not happening?

The 1915-1916 peasant movement in Cambodia involved up to 100.000 people, which represented approximately 5% of the population of the country, 30.000 of whom reached Phnom Penh (i.e 1,8%) to demonstrate peacefully.[1] To give a better idea of what such mobilization represents, nowadays, for a country like the U.K. or France, 5% demonstrators would imply approximately 3 million people; for the US, 15 million people. In Tunisia, on 19 and 20 February, 40,000 protesters were in the streets, and on 25 February, 100.000, i.e. respectively 0,37% and 0,9% of the estimated 2012 population. In Egypt, on 1st February 2011, between 1 and 2 million people protested in Cairo, i.e. 1,2% and 2,4% of the estimated 2012 population, while other demonstrations took place throughout the country. The peasant movement in Cambodia was thus huge quantitatively.

Causes, build up and lack of awareness

The main causes for the Cambodian peasant protest were reinforcing inequalities that were not perceived and thus not tackled by the political authorities (the dual administration of the French Protectorate and of the Kampuchean Kingdom).[2] Peasant resentment had progressively built up around issues ranging from taxes on tobacco to requisitions, with the latter and the underlying prestation or paid corvée system epitomising unfairness.

Actually, weak signals of discontent had previously existed, witness the multiplying peasants’ petitions brought to governors or residents from 1907 to 1913. Yet, as these signals were spread over time and space, they were insufficient to bring the awareness that would have allowed for reforms.

Thus, when the peasant movement started and spread, the authorities perceived it as sudden and massive, because of their lack of awareness. Early explanations for the causes of the protest included references to an uprising synchronous with event happening in Cochinchina and the possibility of a German-sponsored plot, maybe involving exiled Prince Yukanthor, his wife and Phya Kathatorn. With hindsight, such a plot, as all conspiracy theory, was far-fetched. Yet, for some of the actors (e.g. the Prey Veng Resident, The Gouverneur Général Roume and his Director of Indigenous Political affairs), it was a reality when the demonstrations exploded.

anarchist, bomb, terrorism, King Alfonso XIII, SpainThe insecurity and fear created by World War I, combined with the general European apprehensions regarding anarchist and revolutionary terrorist attacks and assassinations, added to a wariness arising from the removal of most troops from Indochina were conducive to belief in plots. A false understanding and awareness settled that favoured escalation. Indeed, as the protests were not understood, then wrong actions were taken, because those answers were built on the erroneous analysis.

Full awareness and conscious analysis of the widespread and deep peasant discontent reached the highest levels of the dual authority only after the escalation took place, during the Summer 1916.

Trigger

When the Kompong Cham Resident sent convocations for prestation labour to Ksach-Kandal in November 1915 in prevision of road works, even though the peasants had already done their prestation for the year, the villagers used the traditional form of protest to express their discontent. They went to the King to ask for redress. As these specific demands were met, they went back to their villages, but, considering their other motives of discontent, the matter was not closed as the authorities expected.

On the contrary, the villagers planned to come back for more, i.e. the possibility to buy back the 1916 prestations. This was legally offered to them, but rarely used because the small Kampuchean population meant a lack of manpower and thus led to transform prestations into requisitions to see public work done.

Mobilizing through social network and communication

The villagers spread the words of their earlier protests’ success to neighbouring villages, demanding others to follow the movement. Messages were transmitted orally by travelling leaders and via letters originally sent by the inhabitants of Kompong Cham. The letters’ contents show not only the easy use of threat and the commonality of violence, but also the way the letters were circularised to obtain mobilisation as they were transmitted from villages to villages.

Anonymous letters circulating in the villages of Prey Veng and Svay Rieng (translation 1916) – The inhabitants of Khet Kompong Cham mobilize those of Khet Prey-Veng by using threat:

“The Khum of Lovea-Em has left this letter this 15/1:

“All the village of Kas-Kos must leave on 20/01. If someone does not leave on this date, we shall come in group to hit him with knives without fault. We shall also hit with knives his children and grand-children. Moreover, we shall burn his house – beware to the one who does not leave. Because we are all very discontented.”

Other letters ended with these sentences:

“Once you will have received this letter, seriously take your precautions. If someone does not want to listen; gather and beat him until his last generation.”

Or

“Have this letter circulate in all provinces and khums once you will have read it. Signal any delay in any village and the whole village will be severely punished.

In each Khum, the Mékhum will have to write the words “seen” on the verso.”

Shared discontent, communication and threat allowed the mobilisation to grow and spread.

We need little imagination to see that the processes that are currently at work through Facebook and Twitter are very similar, with “only” different means of communication. Those new media allow for quicker spread, and abolished distances. As far as the content of current messages are concerned, it seems that threats are not – or not yet – commonplace. If we look at another recent mobilization, the successful anti-SOPA actions, carried mainly on the web, we may wonder, considering the hidden characteristics of cyber attacks, if the implicit fear of reprisals such as being hacked could also have played besides other factors a role in the mobilisation achieved, would it be only unconsciously. Another threat was definitely at work during this protest, the impossibility to access many web services that have become an essential part of our everyday activities.

Space-time pattern: Speed of communication, escalating phases and geographical spread

Then, the slow means of communication introduced differences in the kinds of mobilisation achieved. Each movement involved three escalating phases:

  1. Original peasant discontent and consequent demonstrations;
  2. Young villagers hoping to reach leader status and thus pushing for continuation and spread of the movement;
  3. Bandits, millenarian leaders or vengeful individuals taking advantage of the created disorders.

Each phase implied escalation in violence. Thus, the further away the villages reached, the closer they would be in terms of time to the more violent phase for the initial villages. Yet, because the authorities, once they started understanding what was happening – even if full awareness had not taken place – were also taking stabilising actions, the further away the villages, the more likely stabilising actions were operative and thus the more likely the initial mobilisation was deflected.

This explains the apparently sudden explosion of violence in some areas, such as Prey Veng, where 2000 demonstrators assaulted the Pearang salakhet (provincial tribunal) to free arrested leaders, and where the Indigenous Guard fired on the crowd killing eight individuals. These areas were far away enough to be reached during the third phase of escalation, but close enough not to feel the effects of stabilising measures. This also explains the quasi or total absence of demonstration in areas located further away, such as Kampot, Takeo, Pursat or Battambang.

The communication speed-rate explains the space-time pattern of the demonstrations. The first demonstrators of Ksach-Kandal reached Phnom Penh on 3 January 1916, the bulk on 7 and 8 January. By 20 January, the inhabitants of various Prey Veng villages had left for Phnom Penh, while the inhabitants of Thbong Khmum in Kompong Cham were about to depart. For Kompong Chhnang, the movement had spread from Choeung Prey to Mukompul in Kompong Cham to Lovek to Anlong Reach in Kompong Chhnang, but could not go further.

The consequences for our present and near future are crucial. Regarding awareness and understanding, thus capability to deal with protests, a slow pace of communication plays into the hands of those who truly want to understand. A slow pace of communication thus favours stabilisation, if we are in an overall stabilising phase.


View Initial London riots / UK riots in a larger map

On the contrary, technological sophistication allows speed, collapse of phases, quasi-instantaneous geographical spread, and helps muddling understanding. Besides other biases, this favours de facto escalation if the “cognitive systems” of administrative apparatuses do not efficiently incorporate technological changes, with serious effects for our twenty-first century as we now witness almost incessantly. The incapacity to understand forbids awareness, which leads to escalating actions, which, in turn,  contributes to an overall escalating phase.


View Protests for Week of 02/18/2011 in a larger map


[1] This post is a shortened and revised version of pp.114-125, Lavoix, Helene, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘genocide’ : the construction of nation-ness, authority, and opposition – the case of Cambodia (1861-1979) – PhD Thesis – School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), 2005, where new available evidences allowed to further the analyses by Milton Osborne “Peasant Politics in Cambodia: the 1916 Affair” Modern Asian Studies, 12, 2 (1978), pp.217-243; Forest, Cambodge, pp.412-431. The interested reader will be able to refer to the original text to find detail and full references fo archives. Figures for the mobilization are from A. Pannetier, Notes Cambodgiennes: Au Coeur du Pays Khmer; (Paris: Cedorek, 1983 [1921]); pp.46-47 CAOM/RSC/693/249c/mouv1916IAPI/24/10/1916. Alain Forest estimates the overall population of Cambodia in 1911 at 1,684 million. The 1921 census finds 2,395 million inhabitants.

[2] For a schematic representation, see Lavoix, Ibid, appendix 4.2. p.321, for detailed explanations on the dual authority in Cambodia, see, notably, David P. Chandler, A History of Cambodia, (Boulder: Westview Press, [1992, 2d ed.]); Alain Forest, Le Cambodge et la Colonisation Française: Histoire d’une colonisation sans heurts (1897-1920), (Paris  L’Harmattan, 1980); Milton Osborne, The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia: Rule and Response (1859-1905), (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1969); Lavoix, ibid.

Featured image: Incidentes durante la Huelga General del 14 de Noviembre 2012 en Madrid By Popicinio from Madrid, Spain 20121114215920  Uploaded by ecemaml, CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Red (team) Analysis Weekly No27, 22d December 2011

No27, 22d December 2011

Weak signals of polarisation are emerging regarding the interactions between the new opposition nexus and political authorities, and prospects for further and more widespread instability rise, notably in India – no need to mention Europe anymore. In the meantime, international tension does not abate with Iran, and now a transition going on in North Korea. Meanwhile cybersecurity was very much spotted as being increasingly a concern, but nothing new here.

Nevertheless, a Merry Christmas or Season’s Greetings to all!

A New Opposition Nexus and Why it Matters for our Future: #OccupyWallStreet, Los Indignados, Anonymous and Others

Human societies are politically organised systems, polities, which are themselves organised within a larger system, the international system (corresponding approximately to the second and third level of analysis of Kenneth Walz). Those systems, the shape they take, their specific socio-political organisation are not static but evolving over time out of various dynamics and underlying processes.

“To the people of the world: You are Anonymous. You are Legion. You are the media. You are the voice of truth. You can not forgive. You can not forget. They should expect us.”

As individuals, we feel rightly those systems as all-powerful, if we are aware of them. They are complex systems, the result of myriads of interactions at various levels that also generate emerging properties, which are then imposed upon each unit according to the level at which it is located. The force of the collective thus animates them. However, as we are also part of the individuals who interact and make the emerging properties, then we are not powerless. It is one of the great strength of Anonymous to have perceived this phenomenon and to spread empowerment in its message. We can also see this at work in the slogan “We are the 99″ used initially for A99 Operation Empire State Building (Video March 2011) and now adopted by Occupy Wall Street, or in the emphasis on democracy European revolution movements started last Spring.

Furthermore, trying to understand how those collective forces evolve and where they are heading are one of the best ways to reduce uncertainty and get better prepared for a future that is already in the making, even if the fine details, if the specifics of the coming unfolding events remain shrouded in mystery. It is necessary to know why, where, when and how to act. This is valid for any actor, from you and me as individuals, to companies or any economic agent, and even more so to governments, present and future.

To make sense of events and anticipate what might happen, we, as human beings, always rely upon a cognitive model, most of the time unconsciously (Epstein, 2008).

The cognitive model that is used here (Lavoix, 2005) considers that as political systems function (more or less efficiently, at least efficiently enough to endure), they allow their corresponding societies to evolve and become more complex. Meanwhile, the political structures and forms of socio-political organisation would also need to adapt accordingly. However, who says human societies and systems, says interests, habits, norms, fears, etc., which are all changing at different pace and according to different dynamics. Hence, adaptation is most often made neither easily nor willingly.

As political systems become increasingly ill-adapted, various movements of protests against the existing system emerge with an increasing frequency, while the whole system moves towards a higher level of tension. Those various movements of protests are the new opposition nexus. Those protests are at once symptoms of the need for change and actor of this change. Indeed, it is out of the interactions between the new opposition nexus and the existing political authorities nexus (that includes all political actors that contributed to create the existing system, the system that needs to be changed) that the new needed socio-political organisation will be progressively created. Meanwhile, both the new opposition and the actors composing the existing political authorities will evolve. Hence, for example, the apparent lack of clear, simple stated goal of the #OccupyWallStreet movement that is often thrown in their face in news articles is not a flaw, but evidence of their belonging to this process. Goals and ideas will evolve, while the apparent confusion may well come from the fact that they are read through old lenses, through the prism of a world that is already fading.

It is in this framework that the various protest movements happening throughout the world are read and understood as part of a new opposition nexus. Observing them, trying to understand them, attempting to decipher if they are part of the new or of the old, or how both old and new can mix and interact, paying attention to their evolution, to their interactions with existing political authorities should give us keys to understand better what is lying ahead, from levels of tension and potential escalations, to the type of socio-political organisation our societies with their specificities, challenges and complexities need to create.

There is no fatality towards success or failure, towards peaceful or violent change. However, if history is to be a guide, then, in the past, most often violence, wars and collapse of systems have also been needed, at one stage, to allow for the emergence of the new. Shall we be wiser?

References

Epstein, Joshua M. “Why Model?” Santa Fe Institute Working Papers, 2008.

Lavoix, Helene, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘genocide': the construction of nation-ness, authority, and opposition – the case of Cambodia (1861-1979) – PhD Thesis – School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), 2005.

Waltz, Kenneth Neal, Man, the state, and war: a theoretical analysis, New York: Columbia Press University, 1954, 2001.

Following #OccupyWallStreet

If you want to keep up to date with #OccupyWallStreet, its geographical spread as well as actions, movements etc., check out these synthesizing websites

Occupy Together.

The Occupy USA aggregator.

News from @Occupy_USA.