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Friday Quote

8 Nov

From William Paley, 18th century British philosopher and originator of the notion of “contempt prior to investigation”:

contempt, prior to examination, is an intellectual vice, from which the greatest faculties of mind are not free…. This habit of thought, however comfortable to the mind which entertain it, or however natural to great parts, is extremely dangerous; and more apt than almost any other disposition to produce hasty and contemptuous, and, by consequence, erroneous judgments, both of persons and opinions.


The Myth of the Rational Insurgent

2 Feb

Lambert Strether over at Naked Capitalism reposted a presentation I delivered at Stanford last August, called “Confronting the Myth of the Rational Insurgent.” You can access his post and my presentation here.

A debate is unfolding in the comments section of the post. I address many of the questions raised here in a paper I am writing for the ISA Annual Meetings in San Diego in April. Most of the critiques the NC readers are raising about the data, however, are addressed and dealt with in my book with Maria Stephan. For anyone interested, the data and appendix used for the book are available at my research page.

As Maria and I emphasize, our book is not meant to be the last word. Instead, we hope it will catalyze new and improved research on the topic of civil resistance–a field I’ve been encouraging security studies scholars to take seriously. One of the ways I’ve been hoping to attract greater attention to the topic of civil resistance has been to develop this “myths” talk, which I have tested out on a few different audiences. It’s supposed to be provocative, and it generally has elicited fairly strong reactions. The response over at NC is no exception.

My hope is not to provoke discussion for its own sake. Instead, my goals are twofold: 1) to encourage more systematic empirical research on the topic; and 2) to persuade people, on the basis of existing empirical research, that nonviolent resistance can often be a viable alternative for challenging entrenched power.

Must-Reads for Rational Insurgents

27 Aug

In my various travels, people have asked me outright how they can overthrow their respective governments (I’m not naming names). My answer is always the same: I have no idea how they might go about this, and I have some pretty strong ethical reasons for not wanting to make suggestions either. However, I’d be happy to recommend some readings.

Here is my current top-ten list of must-reads for those wanting to become rational insurgents:

On War, Carl von Clausewitz.

The quintessential guide to strategy, and origin of the famed dictum: “War is politics by other means.” Nonviolent resistance is politics by other means too, and, although Clausewitz doesn’t really go there, lots of the same principles apply.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp.

This is the handbook for how to proceed with a nonviolent campaign. Sharp explains the fundamentals of power, strategy, and tactical choice; details the hundreds of methods of nonviolent action available to ordinary civilians; and describes lessons learned from previous conflicts.

A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall.

The authors explore how twelve historical campaigns  — from Nashville to the Ruhr Valley to Burma — have employed nonviolent methods to separate regimes from their main sources of power. Easy-to-read, and full of useful details, this book’s descriptions of the various conflicts are highly instructive. For those tired of reading, there is also a documentary film. See also Bringing Down a Dictator and Orange Revolution.

Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies, Kurt Schock.

An accessible primer on why some nonviolent uprisings succeed whereas others fail. Schock finds that successful campaigns are more resilient and tactically innovative, and he describes various case studies of how campaigns that shifted between concentrated and dispersed methods were able to avoid regime repression.

The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Clifford Bob.

While not exactly a handbook for insurgents, this book explains the reasons by some rebels get international support while others don’t. Bottom line: framing and marketing are key.

The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov.

A sobering account of the ways that authoritarian regimes can exploit the internet to crack down on pro-democracy uprisings. A must-read, given how generally optimistic people are about the potential for social media to be a “game-changer.”

Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire, Brian Martin.

Martin looks at why government repression sometimes backfires and other times doesn’t. Very instructive.

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Resistance, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.

I don’t care if it’s tacky to list my own book. Sometimes nonviolent campaigns need a little encouragement — and a good reason to avoid using violence. This book will give hope (and ammunition) to people relying on civil resistance to get what they want. We find that compelling evidence that while nonviolent resistance doesn’t always succeed, it has a much better chance at succeeding than violence.

“Spoiling Inside and Out: Internal Political Contestation and the Middle East Peace Process,” Wendy Pearlman.

In this article, Pearlman details one of the major shortcomings of many resistance campaigns: the failure to achieve unity. The article contains lessons from the Palestinian conflict on why social movement organizations should avoid fragmentation.

Why Terrorism Does Not Work, Max Abrahms.

A cautionary tale for why adopting terrorism as a strategy will be counterproductive. The main point: people misinterpret the violence. Instead of hearing you say “I want political change,” they hear “I want to kill you.” Not the best way to convince people you have an attractive vision for their future.

What are your favorite readings on strategy? Feel free to post below.


For more information, see Carter, Clark, and Randle’s online bibliography of nonviolent conflict. See also the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s website and the the online video game People Power, which helps activists plan, implement, and reflect on their strategic choices against hypothetical dictators. You know these sites are worth checking out, because they are blocked in China.

Just to Clarify: I’m Not a Pacifist

24 Aug

I have gotten some interesting feedback about my article called “Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance,” which was posted in Foreign Policy magazine’s August 24, 2011 online edition. The strongest reaction has been related to the assertion that “nonviolent resistance is the moral thing to do,” which is contained in the (somewhat unfortunate) tagline below the article’s title.

I say it’s unfortunate because it distracts people from the overall point I’m making, which is that historically, nonviolent resistance has been a more effective strategic choice than armed insurrection against authoritarian regimes. People think I’m saying that using violence is immoral, whereas nonviolent resistance is moral. The question I took on in the Think Again piece wasn’t whether using violence against Qaddafi’s thugs was moral or immoral. In fact, I don’t know if using nonviolent resistance is always the moral thing to do, and I am not very interested in that question in the first place.

Because of the tagline, I am afraid that I come across as a pacifist who looked for evidence that nonviolent resistance worked where it actually didn’t. It’s the exact reverse. I’m a utilitarian who spent four years developing a research design so that I could scientifically test the hypothesis that nonviolent resistance is more effective than violence. I was a skeptic. And I was surprised by what I found. Hence the “Think Again” part of the title.

I will go on record here as saying that I am not a pacifist. I am interested in what works. At times, I think that violence is both necessary and justified. However, based on my own research, these times seem to be extremely rare, very complex, and highly contingent.

As for whether nonviolent resistance could have succeeded in Libya, well, we’ll never know. But here are three points worth considering.

1). As I mentioned, the movement was fairly spontaneous, unlike the highly coordinated campaign in Egypt. As Peter Ackerman consistently points out, planning is an essential element to a successful nonviolent revolution. As with any battlefield, a nonviolent campaign requires extensive preparation. But as far as I can tell from news reports, Libyans began protesting in earnest around Feburary 15, perhaps inspired by events in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. By February 19th, the movement became violent in response to bloody crackdowns by Qaddafi’s regime. Four days of civil resistance doesn’t give it a very long time to work. Just ask any Egyptian activist, who struggled for years before seeing Mubarak fall, or a Syrian oppositionist who has trudged along in dangerous uncertainty for the past six months. Again, I don’t fault Libyan fighters for using violence, and I do not call into question their bravery or moral fiber for doing so. I am just arguing that they did not fully exhaust nonviolent options before they resorted to violence.

2). The peaceful part of the Libyan campaign primarily consisted of protest activity. Such tactics are visible and disruptive, but also vulnerable to repression. There are a wide variety of tactics available to such movements that are lower-risk yet irritating to the regime, as I detail here. So almost always, nonviolent movements have options when faced with repression that do not involve selecting violence. The down side is that they take time to plan and coordinate. But choosing violence carries major risks to the movement’s ability to attract wide participation, which in turn can undermine the its ability to achieve sufficient noncooperation to disrupt the regime.

3). The success of the Libyan uprising will no doubt go down in history as a success for violent insurgency. But my point #2 notwithstanding, Juan Cole has argued that there was considerable civil resistance prior to the opposition’s overtaking of Tripoli. In an August 22 interview on Democracy Now, he said:

We’re seeing a revolution coming to its final phase. We’re seeing yet another popular cascade. The reason for which the freedom fighters could enter the capital so easily—many of them just walked in or drove in and came relatively quickly to the center of the city—was because the city had already overthrown the regime. Beginning Saturday night, working-class districts rose up, in the hundreds of thousands, and just threw off the regime. So they softened up the situation for the fighters to come in. And we’ve seen this picture before. This is like what happened in Tunisia and Egypt towards the final phases of those regimes: the capital city throws hundreds of thousands of people into the downtown area to demand that the dictator depart.

h/t to Stephen Zunes for this source.

Khaled Darwish’s op-ed in the New York Times today seems to corroborate this somewhat, although the sequence of events is a bit fuzzy. I have bolded potential evidence of noncooperation in the following passage:

I saw cars filled with families from the surrounding areas stream thickly toward the Souq al-Juma area and the Tajoura neighborhood east of it, over which the rebels’ flag of independence had been raised. Rebels had flocked there from Misurata, the western mountains and other liberated towns. Around noon, a convoy of Red Cross cars drove through the city, their flags raised.

I settled into an apartment in one of the buildings, to make sure that a sniper could not come in and get up to the roof. The night before last, young men had discovered a sniper in a recently abandoned apartment in the building across the street. He hadn’t hit anyone, but they made out where he was, then climbed up there. They locked the large iron safety door, with its chains and giant locks, and left him to his fate.

Around 1 p.m., I watched pickup trucks loaded with young men as they cradled the body of a martyr — God bless his soul — and called on people to pray for him. They headed toward the Sidi Buker cemetery, or maybe the Hani one. Those cemeteries used to be monopolized by Colonel Qaddafi and his dead; now they have been put to a different use.

Just as the rebels of Tripoli have broken the Qaddafi hold on the city, they have also broken the chains of the past. Our martyrs’ names will be written in bright letters on the record book of Libya’s unbroken history.

I heard the chants of “God is great” from children and women in the mosques as I flipped between radio stations like Radio Free Misurata and Radio Free Tripoli, now in our hands after fierce fighting. I was looking for the state-controlled station, which poisoned the minds of a generation that graduated not from college, but from the nightclubs of Bab al-Aziziya, the Qaddafi compound, to sing the blasphemous praises of that unholy exterminator of his people.

The shelling continued. I heard voices and saw plumes of smoke. I heard the planes high above, and some artillery from a direction I couldn’t identify. I heard that Al Sarim Street was full of the bodies of the dead, including women and children who had fallen to snipers’ bullets and were left in the street because no one dared approach.

I haven’t been able to find any additional corroborating evidence of mass civil resistance yet in the media, but if this is true, then nonviolent resistance had a pretty important part in the “endgame” of the Libyan revolution, and as such, deserves at least some credit for the opposition’s victory. You don’t hear that too much on the news these days.

Once more, for the record: I’m a guns and bombs scholar who found a fascinating and counter-intuitive relationship between the use of nonviolent resistance and the success of mass uprisings.

I am making a utilitarian argument, not a pacifist one.


I cross-posted some of these ideas about Libya at Waging Nonviolence today. Check out the post here.

Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance

24 Aug

Check out my Think Again piece at Foreign Policy magazine.

Anarchists Anonymous: Rationality Without Morality is a Bummer

8 Aug

Now, this hack into the Syrian Ministry of Defense was pretty spectacular. Here is the message Anonymous pasted, in English and Arabic, on the site:

To the Syrian people: The world stands with you against the brutal regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Know that time and history are on your side – tyrants use violence because they have nothing else, and the more violent they are, the more fragile they become. We salute your determination to be non-violent in the face of the regime’s brutality, and admire your willingness to pursue justice, not mere revenge. All tyrants will fall, and thanks to your bravery Bashar Al-Assad is next.
To the Syrian military: You are responsible for protecting the Syrian people, and anyone who orders you to kill women, children, and the elderly deserves to be tried for treason. No outside enemy could do as much damage to Syria as Bashar Al-Assad has done. Defend your country – rise up against the regime! – Anonymous

For news about Anonymous, click here. On that site, you’ll find a propaganda-ish video promoting their work:

For the last couple of days, I’ve been pondering whether Anonymous qualifies as a rational actor.

The first thing a rational insurgent will do is establish a clear set of goals. In this case, the goal appears to be total free speech–the inability of any government or any person to maintain any privacy. The rational insurgent will then survey the field of available methods by which to pursue those goals, selecting the techniques that will yield the highest return. Anonymous certainly seems to have a comparative advantage using cyberwarfare, and resorts exclusively to this highly effective strategy. Under rationality assumptions, in conflict, the incentives are generally to be maximally forthcoming with information about one’s credibility and resolve. Anonymous has clearly been forthcoming with information, releasing statements and digital media claiming and explaining different cyberattacks. So, on the surface, they’re pretty much on target as strict definitions of rationality go.

But this case is a little more complex.

First, rationality is more a process of means than ends. We simply assume that actors have goals, and make no judgments about whether the goal is crazy or sensible, right or wrong. This group’s goal is essentially anarchy. They apparently want total, free, unrestricted information, which would involve governments, corporations, hospitals, and other institutions letting go of any privacy or confidentiality. In my view, this goal is unachievable. It also violates one of the most fundamental human rights (see Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), which innumerable people have fought and died for over the millenia. And, they seem unwilling to practice unrestricted information themselves. If they were really committed to their stated goals, they’d go ahead and tell us who they were.

Second, in addition to taking down the Syrian Defense Ministry’s website, Anonymous’s compatriots Anti-Sec have also been hacking into domestic law enforcement in the United States in retaliation for the arrests of hackers affiliated with their anarchist cybernetwork (h/t to Jack D). The network claims to have “no sympathy” for the well-being of law enforcement officers in the release of their personal information, since they’ve been “oppressing” people for so long. That’s too bad. One of my family members is a cop, and he spends most of his time protecting us from folks who literally want to hurt us. He gets threatened all the time by violent suspects and has gone to considerable lengths to get his personal information removed from public records to protect himself and his family. In our system, law enforcement officers exist because we pass laws (including many that constrain their actions to guarantee something close to due process) and pay taxes willingly funding their positions. We rely on them to improve our quality of life. As indiscriminate cyberattack that fails to distinguish between legitimate targets and off-limits ones confuses people. Is the group for the people, or against them? Don’t they realize that in our system, law enforcement are civilians too? Don’t they appreciate that the very presence of law enforcement is, in part, what has assured them the quality of life that has allowed them to develop the skills they now use against law enforcement? Under rationality standards, mixed signals are a bad idea, as they distort the opponent’s perception of what the group wants. One way to mix the signals is to be indiscriminate about targeting, which makes it look like antagonism for antagonism’s sake, no matter how many communiques the group issues to explain its actions. Anonymous and its network seem to think that everybody is a potential target, whether they sympathize with their overall objectives or not.

Rationality can be tricky. A group can have a ridiculous goal but still use rational means to achieve it. But because this group has an arguably unachievable goal, uses mixed signals, and seems to be willing to throw literally everyone (except themselves) under the bus to achieve their goal, I’m not sure their stated goals are truly sincere. Instead, I think they are of the type I’d call “non-rational,” an especially perplexing type of insurgent who appears rational but is really just disrupting society for disruption’s sake.

Now that I’ve said all this, I really hope they don’t hack me.