Via Naked Capitalism

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The title of this post (and the post on specific protests to follow) is a bit of a misnomer: I will not be able to write “globally,” at least not immediately, because as we shall see in a moment, there are simply too many protests for our small crew. Second, it’s not even clear to me that “protest” is a term that applies to all the upsets and unsettlement that’s going on; Fisher et al. (below) speak of the “current wave of contention.” However, I’ll use “protests,” identified with “street protests,” for now, even though that word highlights the visible, tactical form of movements, as opposed to their content, surely different in the cases of Hong Kong and Catalonia, say, versus Lebanon or Chile. Third, “round-up” presupposes that sourcing is good enough so that protests can be compared and contrasted using roughly commensurate information; but the sourcing, at least in English, is not nearly good enough, partly because foreign desks have been gutted, partly through censorship, partly through provincialism. (I’d welcome in-country or knowledgeable reports from readers, since I think the story of global protest will be a continuing one. You can contact me at lambert [UNDERSCORE] strether [DOT] corrente [AT] yahoo [DOT] com.)

In this post, I’ll first look at the scale of current protests, because there are rather a lot of them, so many that you would think this story deserves more coverage than it is getting. Next, I’ll look at protests from three academic perspectives: Non-Violence (Chenoweth), Data Gathering (Fisher, Andrews, Caren, Chenoweth, Heaney, Leung, Perkins, and Pressman), and Class (Dahlum, Knutsen, and Wig). In the post following, I’ll use this perspectives to look at causes of the protests, and individual cases (probably Chile, France, Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, and Spain/Catalonia, though I reserve the right to change my mind on France, where censorship seems really bad.

Let’s start with some video. Here is a video of protest in Chile from David Begnaud, of CBS. As you can see, the crowd is enormous:

Here is a second video, also of Santiago, from journalist/documentary filmmaker:

And a third, from a writer, producer & performer and “founder member of the influential electronic pop group, Ladytron“:

You will note that all three videos have problems with provenance; we are not told where they come from or who made them when; all we can do is trust the account. Note also that each video makes an aware and accurate critique of “the media” (“curiously silent”). Marches for climate change, or against Brexit, Putin, or Trump get far better coverage. For some reason. But each video shows what any organizer of a street protest would regard as a success (policy outcomes or regime change or demands aside).

Here is a map showing street protests worldwide. Again, this is surely an enormous story, even the biggest story going, and the lack of coverage is, well, only to be expected:

(One might quarrel with the breakdown into “Economy/Corruption” vs. “Political Freedoms”; surely Chile’s protests, for example, have an aspect of political freedom, given Chile’s fascist past.) Here is a table, including (“GZero”) protests listed on the map above:

Bloomberg (2019) HRW (October 2019) Gzero (as of 9/1/2019) L.S.
1 Algeria
2 Azerbaijan Azerbaijan
3 Bolivia
4 Chile Chile Chile Chile
5 Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador
6 Egypt Egypt Egypt
7 France France
8 Guinea
9 Haiti Haiti
10 Hong Kong Hong Kong Hong Kong
11 Indonesia Indonesia Indonesia
12 Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq
13 Lebanon Lebanon Lebanon Lebanon
14 Libya
15 Netherlands Netherlands
16 Peru Peru
17 Russia Russia Russia Russia
18 Spain Spain Spain
19 Sudan
20 Uganda
21 Venezuela
22 Zimbabwe

Once again, protests in 22 countries is rather a lot (and these, as it were, the wildfires, not small flare-ups here and there). But note that none of the sources (including me, “L.S.”) have a consistent list; it’s extraordinary that Bloomberg, which is an actual new gathering organization, omits Haiti, and that Human Rights Watch (HRW) omits France (since the state violence deployed against the gilet jaunes has been significant, far me so than Hong Kong).

So how are we to make sense of these protests? The Dean, we might call her, of studies in non-violent protest (and hence of the violence that accompanies or suppresses it) is Erica Chenoweth, so we will begin with her (I would classify her as an academic rather than an advocate, like Gene Sharp.) From there, we will broaden out to look at how the data that any academic — and, one would think, news-gathering organizations — would use. Finally, we’ll look at what the previous two academic approaches do not really consider: The social basis of protests as a predictor of success.

Non-Violence (Chenoweth)

Erica Chenweth begins “Trends in Nonviolent Resistance and State Response: Is Violence Towards Civilian-based Movements on the Rise?” (Global Responsibility to Protect[1], July 2017) with the following rather discouraging statement, at least if you’re a protester:

Through 2010, nonviolent mass movements tended to be surprisingly effective in removing incumbent leaders from power or achieving territorial independence, even when they experienced some repression from the government. However, since 2010, the success rates of nonviolent campaigns have declined by a staggering rate (about 20% below the average)

(Hence, any black-leather clad dude fetishizing “taking it to the streets” should be regarded with a hermeneutic of suspicion.) Here is her chart that showing the decline:

She speculates that the cause of the this decline is due to Authoritarian Adaptation:

the ability of authoritarian governments to adopt more politically savvy repressive tools may be part of the reason for the decline in success rates in the past six years.21. Authoritarian leaders have begun to develop and systematize sophisticated techniques to undermine and thwart nonviolent activists.

Chenoweth provides this table, categorizing these techniques:

Examining this table, and thinking back to Obama’s 17-city coordinated paramilitary suppression of Occupy, as well as his successful decapitation of Black Lives Matter, and moving to the McCarthyism and moral panics of the present day, as well as ICE, one might almost conclude that the U.S. has become an authoritarian state, instead of the flourishing republic it so obviously is. Be that as it may, if you want to look at the protesters, rather than the State, as the drivers, footnote 21 is very suggestive;

21. There may be several other reasons for this decline in effectiveness. First, because non-violent resistance has become such a popular and widespread practice, it is possible that those wielding it do not yet have the requisite skill sets to ensure victory. For example, Kurt Weyland has shown that radicals in various European capitals mobilized against their dynastic sovereigns with a sense of , having witnessed a successful revolution in France in February of 1848 (Kurt Weyland, ‘The Diffusion of Revolution: “1848” in Europe and Latin America,’ International Organization 63/3:391–423 (2009)). They essentially drew what Weyland calls “rash conclusions” about their own prospects for success and attempted to import the French revolutionary model into their own contexts, failing miserably. Second, a higher proportion of nonviolent uprisings since 2010 possess —segments or groups within the campaign that destroy property, engage in street fighting, or use lethal violence alongside a predominantly nonviolent movement—than in previous decades. Violent flanks tend to undermine participation rates in nonviolent movements while discouraging security force defections (see Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock, ‘Do Contemporaneous Armed Challenges Affect the Out-comes of Mass Nonviolent Campaigns?’ Mobilization: An International Quarterly 20/4: 427–451 (2015)). Whereas the most successful decades of nonviolent resistance featured highly disciplined campaigns of nonviolent action, today almost 50% of primarily nonviolent campaigns possess some degree of violent activity from within….

Chenoweth’s strictures on “violent flanks” may apply to Hong Kong (though it is also true that the Hong Kong protesters have achieved their first goal, the withdrawal of the of the extradition bill). However, we should also remember the protester’s spray-painted slogan: “It was you who taught me that peaceful marches are useless.” We have yet to see. Perhaps practice has outrun the academics. Perhaps not. We will look at this issue more tomorrow; obviously, it applies to Chile.

Data Gathering (Fisher, et al.)

Chenoweth’s dataset of “major episodes of contention, 1/1/1900–5/1/2016” includes 237 non-violent and 235 violent cases. But if we seek to record and classify protests in near real time, there will be orders of magnitude more cases than that. Two projects to do just that are described by Dana R. Fisher, Kenneth T. Andrews, Neal Caren, Erica Chenoweth, Michael T. Heaney, Tommy Leung, L. Nathan Perkins, and Jeremy Pressman in “The science of contemporary street protest: New efforts in the United States” (Science Advances, October 23, 2019). This is a fascinating article, which I encourage all big data fans to read in full. From the abstract:

This article reviews the two most central methods for studying street protest on a large scale: building comprehensive event databases and conducting field surveys of participants at demonstrations.

Of event databases, they write:

Tracking protest events in real time is fundamentally a discovery and coding problem. It resembles the data collection components of past efforts to study protest by aggregating data from third-party sources (51, 54). Unique to today’s environment is the sheer number of sources and the time-limited nature of the discovery-and-review period: Given the transience of information on the internet compared to print media, thousands of sources produce reports of variable reliability on a daily basis. Researchers must archive and extract information such as where, when, and why a protest took place, as well as how many people attended, before that content is moved behind a paywall, deleted, or otherwise made unavailable.

(Encouragingly, the event database is a citizen science effort.) However:

these event-counting methods also have several reliability, coding, and discovery limitations and challenges, including (i) resolving discrepancies in reported data, such as crowd size, for the same event reported by multiple sources; (ii) evaluating the reliability and bias of each source; (iii) requiring manual review of what can be hundreds of potential protest reports every day; (iv) accurately and consistently coding events in near real time; and (v) having an incomplete list of sources and an incomplete list of reports from known sources.

Of field surveys, Fisher et al. write:

The complex environment of a protest leads researchers to focus their attention on several considerations that are not common in many other types of surveys. First, it is impossible to establish a sampling frame based on the population, as the investigator does not have a list of all people participating in an event; who participates in a protest is not known until the day of the event; and no census of participants exists. Working without this information, the investigator must find a way to elicit a random sample in the field during the event. Second, crowd conditions may affect the ability of the investigator to draw a sample. The ease or difficulty of sampling depends on whether the crowd is stationary or moving, whether it is sparse or dense, and the level of confrontation by participants. Stationary, sparse crowds that are peaceful and not engaged in confrontational tactics (such as civil disobedience, or more violent tactics, like throwing items at the police) tend to be more conducive to research. In general, the presence of police, counter-protesters, or violence by demonstrators are all likely to make it more difficult to collect a sample. Third and last, weather is an important factor. Weather conditions, such as rain, snow, or high temperatures, may interfere with the data collection process and the crowd’s willingness to participate in a survey.

The Women’s March after Trump was elected was one subject of surveys:

In her book American Resistance, Fisher examined seven of the largest protests in Washington, DC, associated with opposition to President Trump: the 2017 Women’s March, the March for Science, the People’s Climate March, the March for Racial Justice, the 2018 Women’s March, the March for Our Lives, and Families Belong Together (81). Her results… show that the Resistance was disproportionately female (at least 54%), highly educated (with more than 70% holding a bachelor’s degree), majority white (more than 62%), and had an average adult age of 38 to 49 years. Further, she found that the Resistance is almost entirely left-leaning in its political ideology (more than 85%). Resistance participants were motivated to march by a wide range of issues, with women’s rights, environmental protection, racial justice, immigration, and police brutality being among the more common motivations (83). She also found that participants did not limit their activism to marching in the streets, as more than half of the respondents had previously contacted an elected official and more than 40% had attended a town hall meeting

I think Thomas Frank would recognize “the Resistance,” although Fisher seems to have an odd concept of what “the left” might mean. For example, there’s no mention of strengthening unions, the minimum wage, or the power of billionaries, so I wonder what her coding practices were.

The authors conclude — as a good academic should do! — with a call for further research:

Moving forward, best practices will require forming teams of scholars that are geographically dispersed in a way that corresponds with the distribution of the events under investigation. While previous studies have concentrated on conducting surveys in different regions and in major cities, the datasets would be more representative if data were collected in multiple locations simultaneously in a way that represents smaller cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

Consider an event projected to take place in 300 cities simultaneously in the United States or Europe. Suppose that the target areas were stratified into 12 regions or countries. If a survey was conducted in three types of locations—one city, one suburb, and one rural site or one capital, one college town, and one urban area with neither a capital nor a university—in each region, that would require the survey to go into the field in 36 locations (or roughly 12% of events). Such a task would likely require a minimum of 12 to 36 scholars working together, each coordinating research teams to collect survey data at events in their region. Even more resources and institutionalization would be required to conduct crowd surveys at a genuine random sample of events.

Beyond collaboration among multiple scholars, scaling up the administration of surveys would also require standardization of the instrument, sampling, and practices in entering and coding the survey data.

Ironically, the scale of the effort to survey and record such an event — say, each scholar would have a team of 10, for a total of 360, would be within an order of magnitude or so of that required to organize it! (There were 24,000 Bolsheviks in 1917). What this article does show, however, is how blind the public and the press are flying (though doubtless the various organs of state security have better information.)

Class (Dahlum, et al.)

Finally, we arrive at Sirianne Dahlum, Carl Henrik Knutsen, and Tore Wig, “Who Revolts? Empirically Revisiting the Social Origins of Democracy” (The Journal of Politics, August 2019). They conclude:

We further develop the argument that opposition movements dominated by industrial workers or the urban middle classes have both the requisite motivation and capacity to bring about

democratization…. We clarify how and why the social composition of opposition movements affects democratization. We expect that both the urban middle classes and, especially, industrial workers have the requisite motivation and capacity to engender democratization, at least in fairly urban and industrialized societies.

Other social groups—even after mobilizing in opposition to the regime—often lack the capacity to sustain large-scale collective action or the motivation to pursue democracy. We collect data on the social composition of opposition movements to test these expectations, measuring degree of participation of six major social groups in about 200 antiregime campaigns globally from 1900 to 2006. Movements dominated by industrial workers or middle classes are more likely to yield democratization, particularly in fairly urbanized societies. Movements dominated by other groups, such as peasants or military personnel, are not conducive to democratization, even compared to situations without any opposition mobilization. When separating the groups, results are more robust for industrial worker campaigns

Why? Our old friend, “operational capacity“:

The capacities of protestors are found in their leverage and in their abilities to coordinate and maintain large-scale collective action. Leverage comes from the power resources that a group can draw on to inflict various costs on the autocratic regime and thus use to extract concessions, including political liberalization. Leverage can come from the ability to impose economic costs on the regime, through measures such as moving capital assets abroad or carrying out strikes in vital sectors. Other sources of leverage include access to weapons, manpower with relevant training, and militant ideologies that motivate recruits. Urban middle classes score high on leverage in many societies. Many urban professionals occupy inflection points in the economy, such as finance. Industrial workers can also hold a strategic stranglehold over the economy, being able to organize nationwide or localized strikes targeting key sources of revenue for the regime. In addition, workers often have fairly high military potential, due to military experience (e.g., under mass conscription) and, historically, often being related to revolutionary, sometimes violence-condoning, ideologies (Hobsbawm 1974).

Riots and uprisings are often fleeting, and opposition movements are therefore more frequent than regime changes. Hence, in addition to leverage, protestors must be able to organize and maintain large-scale collective action over time, also after an initial uprising, in order to challenge the regime. In this regard, groups with permanent, streamlined organizations can effectively transmit information, monitor participants, and disperse side payments. Organizations also help with recruiting new individuals, networking with foreign actors, and experimenting with and learning effective tactics. The urban middle classes have some potent assets in this regard, as they include members with high human capital, which might enhance organizational skills. Various civil society, student, and professional organizations can help mobilize at least parts of the middle classes. Industrial workers typically score very high on organizational capacity (see Collier 1999; Rueschemeyer et al. 1992). They are often organized in long-standing and comprehensive unions and labor parties and have extensive networks, including international labor organizations and the Socialist International. In sum, we expect opposition movements dominated by the middle classes or industrial workers to be related to subsequent democratization. Yet, we anticipate a clearer relationship for industrial worker campaigns, due to their multiple sources of leverage and especially strong organizational capacity allowing for effective and sustained challenges to the regime.

Lots to ponder here, including the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of a quintessentially “urban middle class” protest, the Women’s March, potential differences between Hong Kong and (say) Chile, and much much more — including the operational capacities of our own working class, and the effects of deindustrialization and gutting unions. I wonder of the condition of teeth, as a class marker, is included in any survey coding?


I hope this survey of the literature has been stimulating. I will have more to say about invididual protests tomorrow.


[1] I’m super-uncomfortable with the “responsibility to protect” framing (which is why so much of the focus of the article is on state violence, presumably as a justification for the U.S. to intervene). That suggests to me that Chenoweth runs with the wrong crowd, at least part of the time.

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