Category Archives: crisis theorists series
Before the weekend, the Monkey Cage featured an interesting article on the Greek debt crisis and Thucydides. In general, I’m not a fan of the way that Thucydides and the History of the Peloponnesian War is trotted out within debates on international relations. The basic problem is that the famous quote plucked from Thucydides’s Melian dialogue, ‘The powerful do what they can, whilst the weak suffer what they must’, is potentially vacuous. There’s a question of whether the quote is even an accurate translation of Thucydides: apparently, Mary Beard claims that a closer translation would be ‘The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply’, which removes some of the natural necessity of the quote and assigns greater responsibility to the powerful. But putting this to one side, the quotation is circular and tautological if being weak is defined as suffering what one must and powerful means doing whatever one can without restraint. As I’ve emphasised (belaboured?) in discussions with countless students, a lot of power-talk in international relations is vacuous in this regard. These sort of parlour tricks, wheeling out old Thucydides to make seemingly-profound but platitudinous statements, are what provides fairly unsophisticated versions of realism in international relations with their superficial aura of plausibility. To talk about power properly, it’s necessary to distinguish between resources/relationships and outcomes, which enables a much more productive debate about what sort of resources/social relations generate control over outcomes under what sort of conditions.
But the article by Neville Morley is quite a bit better than the usual fare, as it discusses the way in which responses of actors placed positions of strength and weakness differ from what rational choice theories would predict. Thus it seems that the structure of the situation of bargaining among unequals has an influence over the goals that actors pursue. Perhaps this is another case where actors are operating according to heuristics, general strategies that are effective in a range of similar social circumstances. Maybe in their wider social experiences actors are used to using a position of strength to push for maximum advantage and used to shifting to moral appeals and unreciprocated cooperation when they are at a disadvantage. As the evidence I’ve read on cross-cultural experiments with game theory seems to indicate, actors may bring their wider social experiences of competition and cooperation with them into the laboratory.
The article makes some fascinating points about Varoufakis’s own research on game theory and the strategies that he has pursued as Finance Minister. But as someone in the comments points out, Morley’s piece ignores the fact of Athen’s eventual defeat in the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides classic has been read as a tragedy in which the Athenians, who expressed the hubris of the overly mighty in their arrogant dismissal of the moral arguments of the Melians, were eventually visited by nemesis. On this reading, there are lessons for the powerful as well as the weak.
In addition to her work with Giovanni Arrighi on Chaos and Governance (the inspiration for this blog), Beverly Silver has conducted path-breaking research into the development of organised labour as a political force within the context of the long-term development of the world economy. I can’t due justice to her full argument at the moment with an in depth engagement, but I want to draw out one of the points that she makes and use it to analyse the current situation we find ourselves in.
Silver notes the variety of different goals pursued by organised labour since it emerged as a political force around the globe, making the distinction between Marxian struggles and Polanyian struggles. The former are economistic battles on the part of labour for a bigger share of the gains from the production process, control over the conditions of work and so on. These can be thought of as workplace or within-industry struggles – the bread and butter of trade unions. Polanyian struggles, however, are broader struggles to secure social protections such as unemployment insurance and health insurance. These struggles are much broader and operate through the democratic public sphere rather than the sphere of production. Social democratic parties, supported by organised labour, successfully prosecuted Polanyian struggles in most ofWestern Europeafter WWII.
A central part of Silver’s argument is the notion that labour struggles take place through a cascading sequence or cycle of torchbearers. So for example, after Western Europe attained industrial maturity, the relocation of the centres of manufacturing to places such asSouth KoreaandBrazilgave rise to new economistic labour struggles in these industrialising nations. Mature economistic struggles often subsequently often turn into social struggles – as in Brazilwhere Lula, former the head of the metal workers union, became president on a Worker’s Party ticket and instituted a highly successful programme of social transfers to the Brazillian poor.
So for all the complaints from protectionists, outsourcing and de-industrialisation in the North seems to have opened up opportunities for the spread of social democracy (or at least welfare capitalism) in the South.
But where does Silver’s account leave egalitarian struggles in the North, especially in the context of the present crisis? Well, one point of view is that such struggles are left high and dry. Faisal Islam points out that, rather than organising in response to the present crisis, employees are rolling over and accepting pay cuts. In the context of slack labour markets caused by technological change, the weakening of organised labour, immigration and competition from centres of manufacturing in the global South, the possibilities for economistic struggle seem very limited.
Indeed, this situation was anticipated over 30 years ago by Hobsbawm when he suggested that the forward march of labour had been halted. But rather than disappearing completely, the focus of egalitarian struggle has shifted in the advanced democratic nations to action in defence of existing social democratic protections. The site of struggle changed from industry to the broader public sphere. This was to some degree reflected in the writings of political theorists such as Habermas, who focused on the human capacity for communication as the potential source of progressive change rather than looking towards some dynamic within capitalism itself as radicals influenced by Marx had done.
Egalitarian struggles became linked issues such as human rights and sexual orientation, the set of issues arising from what some have called ‘post-material values’ or perhaps more accurately ‘emancipatory values’. So even as the importance of the workplace as a site of politics faded, campaigns for socio-economic equality endured and became linked to struggles to enable all individuals to live with autonomy, dignity and respect – even though these changes also led down the blind alleys of identity politics and anti-scientific thinking. The social basis of support for the egalitarian programme shifted though a process of realignment from the urban working class to a more diverse cross-class alliance including white collar workers, professionals, and networks of individuals involved in issue-specific campaigns.
John Walsh, writing a couple of weeks ago, was right therefore to emphasise that the Occupy protests are notable in that they have little link to wider struggles in the workplace or industry. As Walsh notes, that does limit the potential scope of the protests in important ways and gives rise to illusions such as the fantasy of progress without economic growth. But, like Faisal Islam, Walsh assumes incorrectly that economistic struggles are the only avenue to promoting egalitarian goals. If Silvers’ typology is correct and there are two quite distinct routes to the pursuit of equality in the contemporary world, then the prospects for campaigns on behalf of the interests of the majority within democratic societies might be a good deal better than some acknowledge.
I’ll expand on this further in the next post.
In the last post I drew upon Charles Tilly’s framework for understanding what he called contentious politics to shed some light on the tactics of OWC and aligned movements. That post analysed various common features of the gestation and development of such movements through mechanisms such as emulation, brokerage, formation of a blame narrative and the employment of a repertoire of contention. Although cautious about making claims for predictions about a process so open ended and dynamic as political protest, Tilly also offered some insights into how movements achieve success.
For Tilly and collaberators such as Tarrow working in the same tradition, the space for protest is strongly conditioned by the ‘political opportunity structure’ within a specific ‘political regime’. In other words, the space for protest depends on the specifics of a social and political context. Movements must be able to organise, communicate, reach out beyond their core base and to actually engage in some form of protest. Different opportunities result in different kinds of protest movements. For example, an acquaintance of mine was a dissident in communist Poland. He and fellow dissidents were severely limited in their ability to openly criticise the existing regime, but they took to wearing electronic resistors on their lapels to indicate that they were resisting the communist regime.
In many non-democratic Islamic nations, political movements were systematically crushed by autocratic governments. As a result, political protest retreated inside of the remaining social space the security apparatus had difficulty operating within and could not shut down, the Mosque. This left movements like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as the primary vehicles for anti-government discontent, explaining a significant part of the rise of political Islam over the past three-and-a-bit decades.
But the political opportunity structure does not totally pre-determine the fate of political movements, according to Tilly a great deal depends on the strategies adopted by political movements. Such areas are genuinely resistant to generalisation, they depend on issues of timing, leadership, when to consolidate and when to go on the offensive – the stuff of political judgement. But Tilly does repeatedly insist that, at least in modern democratic societies, mass movements engaging in contentious politics have to take steps to publically demonstrate four things as they issue their claims:
- Worth: Movements engaging in contentious politics usually appeal to some set of widely acknowledged moral or political principles. To have credibility they need to demonstrate that they themselves are morally worthy by the standards of society. The more worthy a group, the more difficult it is for the state or other opponents to confront that group with violence. Thus successful pro-democracy movements often induce a kind of paralysis in the authorities – who cannot crush them without destroying what remains of their legitimacy. In order to demonstrate its worth the OWC movement has had to rebut claims that they are composed of only the shiftless unemployed and troublemakers, emphasising the role of veterans in the movement. The Occupy London Stock Exchange movement has been able to position itself as standing up for widely shared values of social justice, acting as the conscience and representative of theUKpublic. Their standing was increased after the St Paul’s farce, relative to both a Church that some now seen as having failed in its own moral mission and an opaque and murky political entity in the form of the Corporation of London.
- Unity: This requirement is pretty straightforward. Strong political campaigns can claim ‘E pluribus, unum’, drawing diverse individuals under a common banner. This might be where the OWC protests find themselves weakest, as the goals as well as their make-up of the protesters are diverse. Nonetheless, opposition to accelerating inequality has provided a common enough of a focal point to unify the movement thus far and allowed it to issue a reasonably clear public message about its goals, even if the specifics are vague.
- Numerousness: Protestors must show that their claims are supported by large numbers. This might be because they need to demonstrate that their claims are not just the special pleading of a malcontented minority, but it also serves to demonstrate that their claims are supported by large numbers of people who, if they chose, could take more direct and disruptive action. In the OWC occupations efforts have been made to both attract more participants and to appeal to the idea that the occupiers are part of a much larger 99%. Opponents of OWC have tried to undermine such claims through the (somewhat incoherent) ‘We Are the 53%’ slogan, demonstrating the importance of the claim to numerousness. The ‘We Are the 1%’ style rebuttals, however, fail to understand the dynamic of protest within a democracy.
- Commitment: Protest movements attempt to demonstrate their depth of commitment to the principle underlying their claims by ostentatious public actions designed to remove scepticism that they are unserious or narrowly self-interested. Classic examples might include the Jarrow Crusade, or Ghandi’s hunger strike. Hence in the current round of protests, critics of Occupy London Stock Exchange have made the claim that protesters are not really sleeping in their tents at night. This is an attempt to undermine the public perception of their commitment.
As the above suggests, Tilly’s framework is relatively simple and intuitive but is nonetheless quite helpful in understanding the some of the dynamics involved in the current round of political protests.
What thoughts might sociologist Charles Tilly have offered if he had lived to witness the #OWC protests? Probably something considerably more eloquent and erudite than this blog post. Nonetheless I’d like to offer some ideas drawn from the eminent historical sociologists rich and insightful work examining the nature and evolution of popular protest and collective action. The following mainly draws upon Dynamics of Contention (2001, with McAdam and Tarrow) and Contentious Politics (2006, with Tarrow), which examine what Tilly referred to as ‘contentious politics’: episodes and campaigns of non-institutionalised claim making.
The Occupy protests (as well as the Tea Party in the USand the student protests in the UK) are clearly examples of movements engaging in contentious politics. Tilly’s schema for analysing such movements employs a set of mechanisms which account for the strategies of those involved in collective action. Movements make normative ethical/political claims that (usually) draw upon principles which are widely accepted within their wider social context, as members of OWC do when they point out that extremes of inequality have undermined the cherished American principle that with hard work anyone can achieve a middle-class lifestyle.
An important part of such claims is the blame narrative, which assigns responsibility for the complaint with a political set of agents and identifies that which the movement is protesting against – ‘the 1%’ and the Wall Street financial sector in the case of OWC. At the same time, movements must try to appeal to a broad set of supporters from whom they can draw moral and practical support. This involves brokerage, the attempt by activists to find grounds for a common platform with groups beyond the original ‘base’ of the social movement. This is depicted superbly in the film Milk, which highlights Harvey Milk’s skill at building bridges with social groups beyond his core constituency of homosexual men.
Movements tend to draw on a relatively narrow repertoire of contention, a ‘script’ of common protest actions varying heavily from place to place. Movements tend to emulate the repertoires of other successful protest movements, perhaps best demonstrated by the wave of ‘colour revolutions’ in which successive groups of democratic activists in different nations drew on the techniques of past movements for democracy. OWC has clearly drawn on both the experiences of anti-war and global justice movements over the past decade and emulated the tactic of occupying a central urban space employed by the Egyptian protestors in Tahrir square.
As this post is already fairly long, I’m going to break it into two parts. The second will look at Tilly’s framework for analysing what movements actually have to do to successfully press their claims and offer some thoughts about OWC’s strengths and weaknesses.