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Five Lessons from “The Hunger Games”

11 Jun

So I recently read Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” series after being pleasantly surprised by the movie. I easily breezed through all three books on plane rides, on which I prefer reading fiction (yes, even teen fiction) rather than my typical literary fare.

Collins is no Steinbeck. Nonetheless, I (slightly hesitantly) confess that I was impressed with many of the underlying themes within the series—particularly with how well Collins seems to understand how people build and take power in oppressive systems. Besides the strong “shame on us for our oblivious, exploitative, violent consumerism…arise!” message of the series, here were my key takeaways from a conflict perspective. Spoiler alert, by the way.

1. All oppressive regimes end. Even totalitarian ones. In fact, the longer they endure, the more vulnerable they are to failure. Why? Because the more generations live under oppressive rule, the more likely they are to develop the skills they need to eventually undermine it. Katniss Everdeen develops survival skills—hunting to sell food on the black market, making tools out of basic objects, and knowing how to deprive the regime of what it really wants (her obedience)—that eventually help her to totally outsmart the Arena. The deprivations imposed on the districts of Panem turn out to give them the very tools that empower them to challenge the Capitol’s rule in the end.

2. Every oppressive regime has ambivalent insiders. All regimes are, in the end, totally dependent on the obedience of those who support it—economic, military, media, and civilian elites. When such insiders (Sinna, Plutarch, etc.) stop obeying the regime, and its pillars of support begin to crack, it’s the beginning of the end. Insiders, too, are often intimately familiar with the regime’s vulnerabilities and are therefore quite well-disposed to challenge it.

3. Power is essentially psychological. No regime can repress all of the people all of the time. So many regimes rely on terror to suppress dissent. And by and large, it works—until it doesn’t.

4. It’s all about exposing the lie. The psychological power of terror ends when people simply decide to stop being afraid. Then it’s all over. Like in the books when the Districts end up rebelling once they realize that 1) the Capitol is (and always has been) vulnerable to challenge; (2) all information coming out of the Capital is (and always was) lies; and (3) all they have to do (now and ever) is coordinate their uprisings. The people of the districts realized they had the power all the time. As soon as this “cognitive liberation” was achieved, it was all over for the Panem of the Hunger Games.

5. Girl power is real power. Of course a strong, smart, and independent female protagonist distinguishes the series from many others like it. This is a rather fantastical feature of the series—the apocalypse must have truly come and gone for such gender equity to be standard practice. In fact, many of the key political players in the story turn out to be female, with many of the male characters depicted as weak, passive, or possessing a level of self-doubt or naïve goodness that exasperates the heroine (um, role reversal!). Those female characters who are fairly weak and uninspired to action (e.g., Katniss’ widowed mother) are viewed with disdain by the stronger characters, but not because they are female–just because they are apathetic. But here’s the thing about girl power. I have a hunch (yet to be fully tested empirically) that in our contemporary, pre-apocalyptic earth times, when women are willing to mobilize against oppressive systems, their movements have far greater potential to win. Jay Ulfelder, Orion Lewis, and I recently looked at which factors are associated with the onset of major nonviolent popular uprisings and found that higher rates of female literacy (maybe a proxy for increased social engagement, economic influence, political power, or all of the above) are significantly associated with such onsets. When women join the fight, movements can become twice as large. Maybe women are more organized or more tactically disciplined (at least one colleague has mentioned this as a possibility). There are often taboos against public repression of women that can be used to the movement’s advantage. And women can deprive the regime of many things it wants—cultural, political, economic, and sexual obedience. In other words, I have a feeling that when men hit the streets, dictators shrug. But when women get fired up, dictators tremble.

–Reposted from The Duck of Minerva

New Data on Bandhs in Nepal

2 Nov

Bandhs are politically-motivated strikes, ranging from the closing of stores to nationwide strikes. Today Kristine Eck sent me this link to an extremely detailed and comprehensive online database of bandhs in Nepal. Worth checking out for those interested in data or strikes as a tactic.

New Tactic: Keeping Wall Street Occupied

31 Oct

This video is going viral. H/t to Sherrill Stroschein.

Red Team, Blue Team: Simulating a Successful Nonviolent Resistance

12 Sep

If you are an activist in an authoritarian regime today, you need a plan–and a good one. With regimes threatening to drive pro-democracy resistance movements underground, it would be useful for opposition leaders to know their options, the different risk profiles of those options, and the variety of potentially effective methods they could use to avoid repression while keeping the momentum of the movement going.

Back in the days when I worked in emergency medical services (a long time ago), I participated in mass casualty-incident scenarios to learn how to effectively deploy our resources, anticipate and deal with curveballs (since nothing ever goes according to plan), and figure out how to save the most lives when real incidents occurred. Although simulations almost never go the way you plan, they give you opportunities to respond to unplanned events, which turns out to be as important as having a good plan in the first place. Moreover, lots of creative thinking can emerge out of these types of sessions. Well-designed red team/blue team exercises can help people to experience and prepare for a number of different scenarios without having to experience any of the adverse consequences of making mistakes in real life.

Military, marketing, and IT personnel often spend considerable time and energy on red team/blue team “games,” or “battlefield scenarios” that they use to map out strategy and to anticipate and respond to unforeseen events in constructive ways. The “red team” is often the one hatching up a plot to engage the opponent (e.g., a terrorist attack against a the US), and the “blue team” is given limited information with which to stop the red team within a given time frame (e.g., a way to thwart the attack). Red team/blue team exercises allow officers and strategists to develop a skill that is crucial for a successful nonviolent resistance: the ability to outmaneuver the opponent under adverse conditions.

Militaries and corporations often have massive resources and personnel to devote to simulations. They sometimes fly in “subject experts” to help design and implement the scenarios. Now, most civilians in most countries don’t have backgrounds in conducting red team/blue team exercises, nor are they in a position to “practice” nonviolent resistance in the streets or to fly in experienced activists to help them develop these skills. But when the stakes are high, as they are in Syria and many other places today, a few big strategic mistakes could end the movement.

How can nonviolent resistance movements strategize without subjecting themselves to detection or repression?

One way do so is by playing People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance. Developed by York Zimmerman and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, this game allows people to develop a scenario where their opponent in the game approximates their opponent in real life. The site says:

People Power is about politics, about strategy and about social change. As a leader of a popular movement you fight against tough adversaries who control the police, the army and bureaucracy, even the media. The only weapon in your hand is your strategic skill and ingenuity.

The game can be used by activists to develop strategic skills and experience in facing a militarily superior adversary. Part of the idea is to allow people to get used to making strategic mistakes (like choosing the same, predictable method over and over again, or failing to communicate the campaign’s message to a wider audience) against brutal opponents without winding up in prison.

It’s $10, but they will make exceptions.

Now, importantly, I wouldn’t suggest that playing a video game (if they could even access it in the first place) is going to improve oppositions’ chances against brutal dictators. That would be an especially arrogant and irritating claim.

But in the long term, I do think that strategic planning (and strategic thinking) is a crucial element to a successful nonviolent resistance. If activists today can improve those skills by playing a game, they should. If they don’t find a tool like this useful, they should invest some time in figuring out another way to do it. As Winston Churchill said, “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even though they rarely stick to their plan.” He would know.

Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

7 Sep

Al Giordano and crew announce the NYC Workshop on Organizing Journalism and Civil Resistance. Apply here.

Activists create an interactive map of the 43 prisons in Burma, where human rights and pro-democracy activists are currently imprisoned.

Israelis invoke Tahrir Square symbols and imagery in their 400,000-strong protests against wage inequality.

Syrians keep the pressure on, with more security force defections as a result.

The Diplomat’s Handbook is updated, with several new case studies available.

Activists in Tehran show disdain for the regime and break taboos by engaging in water fights. The regime blames the West.




Regimes Can Exploit Social Media Too

5 Aug

Lots of people have been talking about how social media created unprecedented opportunities for activists in the Middle East to organize and mobilize the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Although its publication preceded these protests, Philip Howard’s The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, released in 2010 by Oxford University Press, is perhaps the best book on the subject of how and under what conditions social media can change the political status quo. (For those interested in looking at applications and cases of digital activism, see the Meta-Activism Project. iRevolution is also a good resource).

I’ve been less convinced about the causal role that social media have played. I see Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other digital media as characteristics of the recent uprisings, not necessarily causes. In fact, I’d argue that activists who rely solely on digital media to coordinate a revolution are quite vulnerable. Here is the reason why: oppressive regimes can (and do) use social media too. In fact, they caught on pretty quickly that a smarter response to activist digital media was not to shut down the internet (like Mubarak did), but rather to use these same tools to organize their own henchmen, or to track and trap activists.

This article on the failed uprising in Bahrain gives some good accounts of this phenomenon. In this case, the Bahrain regime used Facebook to organize counter-protests and intimidation tactics by loyalists. Patrick Meier reports that similar events occurred in Sudan, which used Facebook to create loyalists squads in remote areas to “defend” the regime. In some cases, the Sudanese regime even set up mock protest pages to trap the opposition. In one case, he writes:

Thousands of activists promptly subscribed to this group. The government then deliberately changed the time of the protests on the day of to create confusion and stationed police at the rendez-vous point where they promptly arrested several dozen protestors in one swoop. There are also credible reports that many of those arrested were then tortured to reveal their Facebook (and email) password.

Authoritarian regimes are crafty. They have lots of resources at their disposal, and they think strategically about the best way to use those resources to restore “calm” (read: maintain power).

What are activists to do? They should take a strategic approach, which involves switching up sources of communication; thinking like the opponent; and anticipating problems and planning for how to respond to them. A strategic approach would see social media as tools that, if captured by the other side, can be used against the opposition–just like any other weapon. As in battle, opposition strategists should always have back-up plans for how to communicate and coordinate with other activists once their main sources of communication are dismantled or intercepted. This may involve the printing of paper pamphlets and other materials for in-person distribution–a tool that Egyptian activists deployed in their struggle, and other more basic methods. And there should also be a plan C–a covert way to continue communicating and coordinating among relevant opposition groups if the distribution of such literature also becomes impossible.

The bottom line: over-reliance on any one tool makes a nonviolent uprising predictable. And predictability means vulnerability, whether on the battlefield or on the streets.

Do Educated Ethnic Minorities Choose Nonviolent Resistance?

4 Aug

Renat Shaykhutdinov has an interesting piece in the July 2011 issue of the Journal of Peace Education. From the abstract:

ethnic groups that enjoy a higher educational status are less prone to using violent strategies choosing instead peaceful protest. I test this hypothesis using data on 238 ethnic groups in 106 states from 1945 to 2000. The results of the statistical analysis indicate that groups with higher levels of educational attainment are more likely to engage in non-violent protest. Conversely, groups that enjoy lower educational status in their respective societies tend to use violent tactics.

The basic idea here is that ethnic minority groups that have better educational access and privileges than the majority (or “core”) population are more likely to use nonviolent protest to make territorial or group demands. Ethnic minorities that have no significant advantages (or the same educational access and privileges as the majority population) will be a little less likely to use nonviolent resistance, and ethnic minorities with observable disadvantages relative to the majority population should be more likely to adopt violence. You can read the article (linked above) to see the evidence he brings to bear on this question, his control variables, and the methods he uses.

This is a great, under-explored question with extremely important ramifications for the policy and advocacy communities. In general, we should probably think more about how learning shapes world politics. Moreover, I like Shaykhutdinov’s argument, mostly because I can get behind its policy implications (who is pro-educational-inequality-across-ethnic-groups and would say so in public?). Nevertheless, the article brings to mind a couple of issues for me.

  • What is the causal mechanism here? Shaykhutdinov argues that educational attainment (what he codes as “educational advantage” vs. “no significant educational advantage” vs. “educational disadvantage”) should reduce the propensity to use violence because education instills norms, values, and skills. I’d call this the “violence is for dummies” argument. This argument has some appeal, as well as some empirical support elsewhere in forecasting where nonviolent uprisings will occur. But we also knowthat a lot of the most dangerous terrorists or insurgents in the world have been educated elites–including many suicide terrorists. Those who use violence aren’t really dummies. Moreover, if education makes people less violent, then why do highly educated people in many societies commit the worst violence? Seemingly this argument would apply to government officials as well as to ethnic groups. But very highly educated people in the world have been some of the 20th Century’s greatest mass murderers (I’m thinking Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, of which many at the top were educated in France prior to returning to Cambodia and committing one of the world’s worst genocides). So why doesn’t educational attainment make violence go down in those cases too?

    Pol Pot

  • To me, one of the most important effects he may be picking up is the fact that ethnic groups that enjoy educational “advantages” may simply be “advantaged” in general. Privilege is privilege. I suspect that educational advantages would be highly correlated with business advantages, for example. The problem is that advantage–or status–may be explaining both the educational status of the groups and their adoption of different protest techniques. What I mean is that ethnic groups that enjoy privileges in society may not wish to threaten that privilege by appealing for more rights through violence. People with less privilege, on the other hand, are already starting from a lower point on the social totem pole. They likely already face considerable barriers to social, economic, and political satisfaction, and educational access is simply more of the same. It is precisely these conditions that may explain both their educational disadvantages and the grievances that they use to justify their violence. This is the classic endogeneity problem (and to be fair, there are no easy ways to overcome this problem statistically).
  • Does the type of education matter? Substance of education might be important. For instance, people who have spent their entire lives in parochial schools may have different feelings about nonviolent and violent resistance than people who have spent their entire lives in public schools. People who receive training in civil resistance methods during their education may be more likely to favor these methods over violence (and vice versa!). A potentially more precise (and theoretically defensible) type of education might be whether the ethnic group has had access to training from other civil resistance or civil society organizations on how to launch an effective nonviolent protest, versus contact with violent insurgents on how to train for a violent uprising.
  • Ironically, I think that oppressive regimes would much rather face a violent insurrection than a nonviolent one. Check out this creepy video released by the Iranian Interior Ministry to see what I mean:

Civil resistance campaigns are scary for autocrats. They don’t know how to competently respond to them. Violent insurgencies, on the other hand, are relatively easy for them to dispose of, using a wide range of repressive tools that are readily available to them. If we took Shaykhutdinov’s conclusions to their logical policy implications, therefore, scholarly-inclined autocrats might use this research as a pretext to generate more educational inequality among their ethnic groups. That way, they could continue to suppress these minority groups socially, economically, and politically, while also denying them the fundamental skills and knowledge required to launch effective nonviolent challenges to the regime. Yikes.

But not so fast, autocrats. I think the empirical relationship between educational advantage may be overstated a bit in Shaykhutdinov’s piece. Take a look at the cross-tabulation below (from the article).

What this table tells me is that the preponderance of ethnic groups in the sample are either advantaged or equal to society as a whole. Few ethnic groups in the sample (only 12 out of 238) were really disadvantaged, and among those that were, only 1 adopted a purely violent strategy. Among the most educationally privileged groups, however, over 15% resorted to a purely violent strategy (the highest percentage of all three categories), whereas only 10% of the educationally-equal groups used a purely violent strategy. A roughly equal percentage of them (38-39%) used nonviolent resistance. As such, the “middle” category of a “mixed” nonviolent and violent strategy is doing the most work in the statistical analysis. But the middle category is the one that is the most problematic fro the theory, since the theory relies on the notion that educationally-privileged ethnic groups should avoid violence, not use it occasionally.

To me, the cross-tabulation suggests that Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis has little support. I am not sure if there is some colinearity in the regression that moves the coefficients into being significant, but my guess is that the substantive effects of educational equality are pretty small.

From my reading, here are the four key takeaways:

  • Shaykhutdinov should be commended for taking on a crucial question that needs further inquiry. We need more research on the relationship that education has on the choice to use nonviolent or violent resistance (or both), using methodological techniques that can help us to account for potential endogeneity.
  • There seems to be a weak positive association between educational advantage (as well as general education of the overall population) and the adoption of nonviolent strategies of protest, though the association needs further testing.
  • If Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis is robust, then educational inequality may be a “structural” impediment to nonviolent mobilization. This means that people who want to promote the spread of nonviolent resistance (and reduce the spread of violence) should focus on improving the educational status of ethnic minorities in troubled countries.
  • If there ends up being no support for Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis, we should be encouraged that educational inequality is not a “structural” impediment to nonviolent mobilization. Even the educationally disadvantaged should be able to adopt and practice nonviolent principles. This should scare autocrats, because it means that one of their tools–deprivation of educational rights–doesn’t really make a difference in terms of an ethnic minority’s ability to rise up and make demands of them.

Regardless, we need to know the answers to these vital questions. Kudos to Shaykhutdinov for taking the first cut.