Home > #OWS, musing > What’s the best narrative for revolution?

What’s the best narrative for revolution?

December 9, 2013

Yesterday at our weekly Alt Banking meeting we had an extraordinary speaker, Merlyna Lim, come talk to us about social media and grass roots organizing.

Her story was interesting and nuanced; I won’t get everything down here. But there were quite a few sound byte takeaways I can express.

  • The organizing which culminated in the Arab Spring started way before Facebook or Twitter came to the region.
  • To a large extent social media has replaced chatting in the cafe, which we don’t do anymore.
  • But that’s actually a good thing, since many regimes are so oppressive they won’t let large groups of people hold regular meetings (and large can mean 5 or more).
  • Whereas social media is pretty good at energizing people to “get rid of their enemy” at a given critical moment, and mobilize on the street, it’s not that great at nuanced discussions for how to build something permanent and lasting afterwards.

One other thing I wanted to mention was Merlyna’s work on Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who self-immolated after getting into a dispute with a police officer.

The original story that got people mobilized in Tunis and out on the street, was that the police officer was a woman, that she slapped him, and that he was a college educated street vendor. It turns out these were white lies – he never finished high school, the police officer may have been a man, and there was probably no slap – but they built a narrative that people really loved. Merlyna wrote a paper about this available here if you want to know more.

That brings us to the question of why this particular framing was so appealing. Merlyna put it this way: plenty of other people had self-immolated under similar circumstances in Tunisia in the past 6 months alone. But they didn’t start a revolution because they were just very poor and didn’t have this story with extra (made-up) humiliating details. Killing yourself because you are frustrated at not having enough to eat just isn’t as compelling.

It reminds me of this Bloomberg View piece I’ve been chewing on for a couple of week, written by Peter Turchin and entitled Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays. He studies conditions for revolution as well, and claims that having a large unemployed but highly educated population – the “lawyer glut” we’re seeing today – is asking for trouble. From his article:

Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.

Food for thought. Does one have more sympathy for people whose foodstamps have been recently cut or for someone who got a law degree and can’t find a job? Or is the real outrage when both happen (or at least are said to happen)? Personally, and this is maybe because I’ve been reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, I’m not as worried about the lawyer.

Categories: #OWS, musing
  1. Guest2
    December 9, 2013 at 8:35 am

    The sociological literature of revolution is enormous, and long-studied.

    The story of the initial Egyptian uprising was covered in WSJ, the end result of careful planning and an endless cat-and-mouse game with police. As soon as a gathering occurred, the police would shut them down.

    In this case, however, protesters set up decoy sites and were able to establish a break-through protest in Tahrir Square, which soon became the center of an enormous, world-wide attention space. The sense of freedom from the police that was created was earth-shattering, and fed on itself for months.

    The dynamics of this phenom are in Collins, 2008, with photos that lay-out a three-fold structure of successive emotional amplification. The narrative you seek is to be found here — in the unique combination of micro- and macro- elements, but the key for social protest is the emotional energy.

    Part of the process that we are long familiar with from revivals and campaigns is a two-step process, which elicits high-emotion, but seeks to transform it into political commitment, which is the spine of successful protest. In the case of revivals, the mechanics developed in the 1830s, to create a social arena for the display of emotions, which concretized as commitments (say, a temperance pledge) by being visible and social. Effects varied, of course.


  2. Guest2
    December 9, 2013 at 8:54 am

    I think Turchin misses the point, echoed in Ivar Berg’s classic “Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery” (1971):

    “… it is clear that there can be problems in countries that educate a stratum of the population whose occupational expectations are well beyond the opportunities the economy may provide in the short or even the long run (24). …. as Professor Harris suggested, that the dissatisfactions of ‘educated’ workers who believe their jobs are far below those for which their education qualifies them are a genuine threat to the safety of a democratic society (140).”

    These words ring in my ear, loudly, reminding me of the waves of educated youths in Egypt that abruptly brought down a government there.

    Now, that said, Collins (Violence, 2008) lays out rather stringent requirements for street violence, all apparently met in Egypt. Mere frustration and what Berg calls “status inconsistency” does not create a violent revolution. Neither does “relative deprivation”. There has to be a media focus that maintains emotional energy. (See Randall Collins, “Social Movements and the Focus of Emotional Attention” (pages 27 – 44) in Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements, Jeff Goodwin and James Jasper, available at books.google.com.


  3. rob
    December 9, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    The emotional difference between lawyer/food stamps story recalls Thaler’s ‘reference price’ as a measure of value over quality or absolute dollar value (rational price).

    Prestige plays into the culture at every point. Linguists (Ferguson, Labov, e.g.) have long observed that most nations include at least two languages, one recognized, standardized, legalized and prestigious, the other often unrecognized as a language at all, especially among its own speakers, viewed by them as “slang” or “improper” language and “ungrammatical” (as if linguistic communication were possible without structure). Injustice at the low end is not recognized as injustice but viewed as an expected norm — the internalization of authority and prestige among the dispossessed.

    Did Merlyna point out that QE2 — which steeply raised food prices across the world — played a crucial role in the Arab Spring?


  4. Josh
    December 9, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    I couldn’t tell from your post whether you are looking for history (why did this thing happen) or a recipe (how can you make it happen)? If the former, it seems that there are too many reasonable hypotheses and the data set isn’t available for falsification. In particular, for any condition Y believed to cause outcome X, we usually don’t know when Y was present without X happening because the information is lost (why would you record when nothing exciting happened?) Even so, you should still watch all the videos in Jon Green’s World Crash Course b/c it is super cool. Here’s a link to the first of the series (or maybe the whole playlist?): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yocja_N5s1I&list=PLBDA2E52FB1EF80C9

    If the latter . . . do you really want violent revolution? Based on panel data, I’d submit that life in the US is pretty kick-ass. Sure it isn’t at all perfect, but is your confidence that what would follow is enough of an improvement with high enough certainty to pay the transition costs?

    FWIW, I don’t think the full costs for regime change have been paid in the middle east, at least not Libya and Egypt which I follow moderately closely. I don’t know so much about Tunisia, so maybe that’s ok, and the case in Syria is obvious (if no longer of sufficient interest to main-stream western media to bother reporting it).


    • FogOfWar
      December 9, 2013 at 7:35 pm

      Completely agree. Was going to post the following mathy-analysis question: what do you think the odds are (or really, what data and how would you go about computing the odds) that a revolution will wind up as a net positive thing in a given situation? My intuitions are (1) this is going to be almost unimaginably difficult to figure out with any kind of good data and (2) the answer is almost always going to be “really low” until you get into the world of brutally repressive regimes (USSR “disappearing” people in Eastern Europe comes to mind).



  5. albrt
    December 9, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    What disgruntles me more than the individual situation of the lawyer or the foodstamp recipient is the fact that the democrats’ excuse for collaborating to cut foodstamps is that the real solution is for more people to go to school and become unemployed lawyers.

    Austerity and admonitions to overschool yourself are the only solutions we’re going to get from our political class. Really.


    • pjm
      December 10, 2013 at 2:52 am

      albrt, here, here!


  6. shah8
    December 10, 2013 at 3:13 am

    Those of you talking about how revolutions are so dependent on failed expectactions…

    Wouldn’t you say that deflationary periods are very dangerous, then?

    If so, isn’t there merit in maybe thinking that we’re probably in a pre-revolutionary stage?


  7. Guest2
    December 10, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Here is some modeling that is applicable to social movements, revolutions. Pages 228 and 230 at books.google have interesting graphs.

    Collins, Randall, and Robert Hanneman. Ch 7 MODELLING THE INTERACTION RITUAL THEORY OF SOLIDARITY. In, The problem of solidarity: Theories and models (1998).


  1. December 9, 2013 at 7:08 am
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