I heard the outstanding Chilean political scientist, Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, at the American Social Sciences Association meeting in Philadelphia earlier this month. Regrettably, his participation in the panel discussion on Populism was not recorded but we are fortunate that he was at the IMF later and gave this sparkling interview to a Fund representative. It is well worth listening to.
Hearing Prof. Kaltwasser speak got me thinking. As I followed my thoughts I asked myself whether the political trends we are seeing in this country and in many of the advanced countries of Europe could take a turn towards the violent. Is revolution out of the question. Somehow, I don’t think so.
Political leaders have long agonised over the causes of political instability, not least because it threatens their hold on power. But in recent years they have had plenty of good company. Sociologists and political thinkers too have found themselves stumped, as much by sudden outbreaks of political upheaval as by its failure to occur where it is most expected.
A Tunisian fruit seller’s self-immolation setting off a conflagration across the Middle East that eight years later has yet to be extinguished—in the bargain wrecking Western foreign policy towards the region—is no less mystifying than the phenomenon of long-term unemployment in Greece and Italy where a quarter of the workforce has been jobless for half a decade or more, yet has failed to produce mass protests or sustained violence that would menace the stability of the political system.
Social scientists ought to dust off their copies of a half-century old book, Why Men Rebel, written by an American political theorist, Robert Gurr, now an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland, trying to make sense of these events. Written in the late 1960s at a time of widespread public disorder in American inner cities and savage internecine violence in the newly decolonised states of Africa, the book enjoyed short-lived fame as a guide to the causes and timing of political upheaval.
Gurr identified a handful of characteristics that predispose societies to violence. Of these the most important was the idea of relative deprivation. He made individual psychology, collectively organised, the centrepiece of his theory. In a uniquely American fashion he made psychology lie at the root of extreme politics. He argued that grievances are interpreted by people through their economic and social position relative to others who were once like them. He contrasted his notion of a deprived group with the more static idea of an economic class where individuals were expected to broadly identify with those who came from a similar background and performed similar work to themselves, paying no heed to each individual’s relative success. Class solidarity in the pre-Gurr world was never fine-grained. It merrily glossed over differences in individual outcomes.
Gurr’s deprived group on the other hand was made up of people who felt the sting of being outsiders, deeply aggrieved towards those who had now become insiders. If this makes the deprived seem little more than a collection of sore losers one wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But one would miss the theory’s many subtleties if one had to stop there.
Gurr asserts that his emphasis on relative deprivation is the only way to understand how mass mobilisation occurs. The success of one deprived group in propagating its grievance inflames other groups with their own grievances, whether they arise from economic inequality or from religious or other cultural identity differences. These groups do not coalesce around a common core because such a core does not exist, but rather are carried forward by the momentum of the swelling movement. The convulsions in the Arab Spring countries would appear to validate Gurr’s hypothesis, though the political theorist could not have imagined the scale and speed with which the upheaval spread due to the existence of social networks on the internet.
Gurr does not make the light of the capacity of states to repress and coerce the population of protesters, often even using insiders to fight the army of outsiders. He believed however that pluralistic democracies have a kind of soft power (though he does not use that term anachronistically, since it came into vogue many years later) that gives them higher state legitimacy and so less need to use repression since its deprived groups have other outlets to express their grievances.
This conclusion is surely too simple. Gurr’s work, fresh and scintillating though it is in re-discovery, needs to be updated. The pleasingly paradoxical result that democratic states lack the apparatus of repression because possessing it makes them more vulnerable, ignores lots of other evidence that a hidden repression, exercised for instance through a corporate media that transmits messages of passivity and conformism, may be a fuller explanation behind the apparent stability of our distressed Western societies. And now with return of a darker kind of democratic populism—one that has strains of nativism and a strong assertion of sovereignty—I would be tempted to go further. Perhaps Trotsky’s aphorism with which I began this post will apply to our societies after all. What’s worse, we may well be in the midst of it without even knowing it.