Monday, January 31, 2011

The Economics of Revolution

Has the price of revolution fallen? Gary North thinks so. In a brilliant analysis of the current situation in Tunisia and Egypt he observes that:
When the cost of political mobilization falls, more is demanded. When people can mobilize thousands of protesters without any centrally directed agency and without any organization that can be infiltrated and subverted, they are in a position to impose enormous political damage on any existing regime, as long as the regime really is corrupt, tyrannical, and hated.
 The Revolution Will Be Tweeted

Moreover, there are powerful network effects at play. Paul Ormerod has described them in relation to behavioural economics - we are strongly motivated to do what we see others doing. Or as Gary puts it:
When people around the world can see street protesters, this encourages thousands of other protesters, who had attempted to sit the fence, to get off the fence and go into the streets. There is safety in numbers. When they can see on television or on the web that there are thousands of people in the streets protesting, they assume that they will gain a degree of invisibility and anonymity if they join the protests. So, they leave the safety of their homes and join the protest movement. Because of social networking, this can take place so rapidly that government officials are unable to respond fast enough to put a stop to it before it is obvious that there are thousands of people in the streets.
We seem to be approaching a curiously Hayekian/Marxist moment - revolutions can take on a spontaneous order of their own, 'the People' really are revolting, without any leaders in sight. Indeed, Zbigniew Brzezinski is worried that the new revolutionary order might be about to become a global phenomenon. Out with the New World Order, in with the Newer World Order...

But I'm not so sure. Politics - whether dictatorial, revolutionary or even democratic - is about the holding and exercising of power. I subscribe to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's analysis of the political economy of power. Every political leader - including dictators - relies on the support of core group of supporters. what de Mesquita calls the 'selectorate'. In Hosni Mubarak's case that is the Egyptian army. Once they decide that their power interests - and economic wellbeing for that matter - lie in a different arrangement (be it democracy or another dictator) then Mubarak goes. Stratfor shares a similar Realpolitik view of the world. 

Behavioural Counterinsurgency

Nor should we forget that the military are the most diligent students of social science (see, for example, The Battle of Narratives). Already there is an emerging field of what I call 'Behavioural Counterinsurgency' that recognises the potential to defuse and deflect the kind of dissent now evident in Tunisia and Egypt.  Kenneth Payne has written a fascinating essay in the British Army Review on Some Principles for Influence in Counterinsurgency. Kenneth observes that:
The need to influence attitudes and behaviours is a central tenet of counterinsurgency campaigns. Here, both sides are competing for the attitudes of a wider population. To defeat the enemy, the counterinsurgent must persuade the wider population that his favoured outcome is both preferable and inevitable, and must also persuade the insurgent that he has no realistic chance of influencing them himself. Influence, then, is as integral to counterinsurgency as to all war.
Social network theory is reassuring in that respect. Social networks are not information neutral: we are insulated from most competing ideas by our lack of attention, by lack of access to different ideas from outside our smallish social milieu, and through our inherent cognitive conservatism: our beliefs and heuristics tend to have served us well enough. Why change? Social networks tend to cluster - we know relatively few people, mostly on the order of several  hundred - and many of them know each other too.

...People return to relatively few sources for validation - who do they know, who do they trust? So much the better for the counter-insurgent if those influential actors are on his side.

...Remember, though, that you’re not necessarily after the most obviously important man - but the most connected, and therefore conduits for ideas between different clusters, or social groups.
It is said Napoleon deliberately rebuilt the streets of Paris extra wide so that wannabe protesters would find them more difficult to barricade. No doubt the remaining 'Mubaraks' of this world will be anxiously taking a crash course in how to change the 'digital streetscape' in which their subjects live. But with the price of revolution now so cheap it may be too late for some. It appears to be for Mubarak anyway.

Mind you it does make you think though about our own domestic situation. Imagine a rebellion in Ireland in 2016: the rebels wouldn't have to take over the GPO - they'd just have to take over Facebook. Easier said than done of course.

1 comment:

  1. Is the most important man the most connected one? Or the one who is a 'conduit' for ideas as you say? I'd say it's more likely the man who can transduce the reality of peoples' lives and the social and economic environment they live in, into messages that can be understood in a manner that changes thinking. Once these messages become clear and significant enough, the dispersion of them will happen easily enough. - Perhaps we have developed this obsession with information networks and conduits to the detriment of thinking about the significance and force of what passes through them?!


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