Friday, March 18, 2011

Why the Quick Collapses in Arabia

ht MR

Why are the Arabic countries collapsing so quickly?  In the case of Libya, we have a comeback of sorts, but the country is going to be a mess for some time. The United States is having similar protests in Wisconsin where in some cases the police are siding with the protesters.  Why does this not lead to the collapse of Wisconsin?

Jared Rubin, of Cal State Fullerton,  has a theory, and data to back it up.  In Centralized Institutions and Sudden Change, he asks why sudden and massive social, economic, and political changes occur when and where they do?  We have discussed here some of  the internal pressures that may lead to disruption or revolt, but we have not talked too much about the mechanisms for external shock to make changes.

Centralized repressive regimes are able to negotiate small shocks well because they are able to suppress subversive action quickly and effectively.  If you know people who by the mere whisper of discontent landed in jail, you are not likely to show any distress over small external distributions.  This does not mean you’re happy, it just means that the cost outweighs the benefits.

However, if the shock is such that enough people react/protest to where the regime can no longer punish the subversives, it acts as a signal to others who are also unhappy, but more cautious, that there has been a change, and it is possible to act either safely, or at least with a possibility of success.

Legitimacy may exist not only when people believe in the legitimacy of the government, but when they believe that other people will act in a manner that supports the legitimacy of the government…I suggest…that when a centralized authority chooses actions not in accordance with the established set of norms, it loses indirect legitimacy only when citizens see others acting in a way that undermines legitimacy. Otherwise, citizens may continue to falsify their preferences, and the government will still be treated as legitimate…Legitimacy can thus be fragile in centralized regimes, as high levels of private dissatisfaction entail that a shock can lead to a significant change in people’s beliefs about what others believe.

Historical examples of massive and unexpected changes occurring in centralized regimes include the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Taiping Rebellion in China (1850-1864), the fall of Iron Curtain governments, and the Protestant Reformation amongst many others. In this paper, I employ the insights of the model to analyze the numerous austerity protests which occurred in the developing world since the 1970s. An econometric analysis of these protests from 1976-1992 suggests that protests were more severe in decentralized economies if they followed small shocks…but were more severe in centralized economies if they followed large shocks.

One nice aspect about this theory is that it works well within the context of changes in information technology.  These are not “organized” revolts by the “cells” of underground movements.  So they don’t need the cell phones initially to organize, they need the cell phones to confirm that people are pissed off in areas outside of their immediate town, and that overt protest has reached a viable stage.

In the case of Libya this portion of the collapse was very quick.  What Gaddafi did to extend the situation was bring in large numbers of mercenaries from Sub-Saran Africa mostly from Chad and Niger.  These troops are more than willing to fire on large groups of unarmed civilians.  While they are probably not a terribly courageous group, the mercenaries will be at least be familiar with their weapons and have rudimentary unit training.  link

Bahrain also has sources of outside aid in the form of Saudi Arabia.  Because this conflict has elements of the typical Sunni versus Shiite (Ruling Class versus Populous) the fact that the larger Saudi Arabian forces are Sunni will also be an important element.  But Bahrain has the potential to become a mini-Lebanon, which is why the rulers had been so cautious.

On a more positive note, the theory also explains why the protests in Wisconsin, at least to date, do not have the same effect.  People are used to protest.  There is no general expectation that protesters will be punished.  Thus the protests do not signal a change in regime.  In a pluralistic regime, it would likely be the reverse of expectations, violence by the authorities that would threaten a change.  Thus fairly marginal people, such as at Waco and Ruby Ridge get a disproportionate support because of government violence against them.  When it occurs to people more in the main stream, civil rights activists in the South or students at Kent State, it is able to cause a large enough opinion shift to affect the normally inert political process.

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