What Can Les Mis Teach Us About Revolutions?

LesMiserablesMuch to my fiancee’s disappointment, we have not yet seen this movie. But after a great review by Erin Simpson on the connection with political violence, I am intrigued:

Why do some revolutions succeed, while others barely get off the ground? Many of the academic debates surrounding civil wars and insurgencies boil down to the relative weight of the opposing factions’ resources (means), grievances (motive), and political openings (opportunity).

The revolutionaries in Les Mis don’t lack for grievances. The revolution of 1830 had ended Bourbon rule in France, but disappointed both those who wanted to forge a republic and those who wanted the restoration of a Bonapartist regime. In addition, Paris was plagued by pervasive unemployment, censorship, poor public services, and a growing gap between factory owners and factory workers. But unwashed masses do not a revolution make — it was comparatively middle class Parisian students who led the 1832 uprising.

As the street urchin Gavroche makes clear in Les Mis, the students are afforded a compelling opportunity for their revolt: the public funeral of Gen. Jean Maximilien Lamarque, one of the most prominent anti-monarchist figures in France at the time. Co-opting public events and demonstrations is a standard tactic for urban uprisings — which is why, for example, government censors in China tolerate criticism of the regime but not calls for public gatherings or protests.

While the students have sufficient opportunity and solid grievances, they lack the means to pursue their revolution. Not only are they short on weapons and ammunition, they also lack broad public support: Few residents donate furniture to their barricades. As a result, the rebellion fizzles — government troops are able to march through Paris and isolate the rebels after a few short days. Clandestine organizations like the students’ secret society may avoid government detection, but wider mobilization is inherently limited — leaving only empty chairs and empty tables, as the survivors sadly sing.

This is exactly the kind of thing I love to read or blog about–see my take on Public Enemies for example. I hope to have a similar post if Gangster Squad lives up to expectations. Thanks to Trey Causey for sharing the link to the FP piece on Twitter.

For more on grievances and civil war, see Paul Collier’s Breaking the Conflict Trap.

Do Targeted Killings Work?

Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations rounds up answers from Daniel Byman (sometimes), Joshua Foust (maybe), Sarah Holewinski (probably not), Patrick Johnston (yes, if targeted selectively), and Pir Zubair Shah (probably, at least in Pakistan).

I have explored this question myself, as it pertained to Osama bin Laden (both before and after his death) and the removal of cartel leaders in Mexico. The latter question–whether leadership removals in Mexican drug-trafficking organizations leads to more or less violence–is the topic of one of my current working papers (somewhat outdated draft).

Wednesday Nerd Fun: The Science of Batman

Batman is a particularly entertaining superhero because he is in some sense the most realistic. There’s no need for an alternate universe or an elaborately fictional back story: he’s a guy with a cause and enough money to acquire the tools he needs. This premise was violated by certain plot elements in The Dark Knight Rises (see here), but the basic believability of Batman remained.

It turns out that Scientific American has not one but two posts on the science of Batman. The first piece, from 2008, answers such questions as, “How long would Bruce Wayne have to train to become Batman?” and “How would Batman get enough rest?”

In the more recent post, Paul Zehr tackles questions like “Why are Joker and Bane so difficult to beat anyway?” and “What revisions to the Batsuit are needed to protect against… concussion and spinal cord injury?” If these thoughts keep you up at night, you might also be interested in Paul’s book, Becoming Batman.

Does the Internet Have a Political Disposition?

Photo credit: The Cultured Traveler

This question may seem as strange as asking, “what does technology want?” or “does the Earth care if I drive a Prius?” But it is a question worth considering, and Mike Barthel answers in the affirmative. He argues that the structure of the internet gives it a libertarian disposition:

If you’ve spent any time around the comment sections of political blogs (which, sorry!), you know that they’re frequented by a lot of people boosting Ron Paul or calling for drug legalization. We tend to think that the problem is that those people are libertarian. But… [i]t’s not that a lot of people on the internet are libertarian. It’s that the political ideology of the internet itself is, in some deep way, libertarian.

This seems too strong to me. I see the internet more as a landscape upon which political behavior can occur, rather than a determinant of outcomes. Barthel disagrees:

We’re accustomed to thinking of the internet as being a neutral place, a blank sheet upon which we are free to write and do whatever we desire, whether liberal or conservative, corporate or anarchist, commercial or free. The internet is just a tool, and it is up to us what we do with it. But tools are not neutral…. The development of the internet and of web culture, in other words, partially determines how it is used.

Rather than thinking of the internet as a tool, I would liken it to geography. This point of view still allows for Barthel’s position, and in fact many scholars argue that geography has a major influence on political outcomes (for a recent example, see here). That type of thinking leads to statements in the study of political conflict like, “mountains (or forests) cause civil war.”*

My position is much more akin to that of James C. Scott in The Art of Not Being Governed. Scott describes the history of peoples in upland Southeast Asia fleeing to the mountains to avoid governance by the lowland kings. In the words of the Chinese proverb, 山高皇帝远,人穷志气短。: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” I have gotten a bit far afield from Barthel’s original argument but my point is that people with political dispositions use geography, they are not controlled by it. In other words, libertarians flee to the internet for the same reason that Southeast Asian tribes fled to the mountains–because it is an as-yet ungoverned place. In Barthel’s words:

The internet has chosen, time and time again, efficient corporate power over any form of (visible) state control.

Perhaps in the end Barthel and I are closer to agreement than disagreement. At the very least, he makes several important points. The first is that corporate governance of the internet is not necessarily any more benevolent than state control. The second great point is near the end:

This is not to argue that the internet is bad, though it would be great if we stopped thinking the internet is entirely and always good. Rather, it’s to suggest that if you are the kind of reader who thinks the government is, generally speaking, better than corporations, we might apply that to the internet as rigorously as we do the offline world. Governments in China, Pakistan, Egypt, and sure, even America have intruded on our legitimate rights online, but that doesn’t mean governments are inherently hostile to online activity. It just means we need to work harder to make sure those decisions are responsible and just…. We used to think that strong, persistent collective organizations dedicated to protecting our rights were the best way to ensure we weren’t trampled on by moneyed interests. Now we think everything will be OK if we flip out on Twitter en masse, or change the background color of our avatar. That’s fine for now, but if the internet really is becoming a central part of our lives and a place where we conduct our most important activities, then maybe we should have the same protections there as we do when we’re not on our computers.

I could not have said it better.


*Note: I’m only partially kidding about this geography-civil war nexus. For a recent example, see the first page of this recent paper by a top scholar in the field.

A New Blog on Political Violence

This has already been shared by brighter lights than mine, but readers of this blog might be interested in Political Violence @ a Glance. Not surprisingly, many (all?) of their recent posts have to do with the Middle East/North Africa region. Contributors include Erica Chenoweth, Page Fortna and Andrew Kydd. I had the impression that Jason Lyall was involved, but he is not listed on the author page yet. I’m looking forward to seeing more from all of the contributors.

Peru Claims Shining Path ‘Defeated’

The capture of Peruvian terrorists, brought to you by Gatorade

From the BBC:

[Peruvian President] Humala said the capture of Shining Path leader Freddy Arenas this week signalled the end of the Maoist guerrillas in the Alto Huallaga Valley.

The Shining Path posed a major challenge to the Peruvian state in the 1980s but has since dwindled.

Small gangs remain in the south-east, where they run much of the drug trade.

The announcement came a day after Peruvian security forces made public the arrest of Mr Arenas in the Alto Huallaga Valley….

The security forces said Mr Arenas, better known as Braulio, took over the leadership of the Shining Path in the region after the arrests earlier this year of previous leaders Comrade Artemio and Walter Diaz.

“Not only have we caught the last of the historic leaders, Artemio, but also those leaders who took over from him, totally defeating them,” President Humala told TV Peru.

Readers familiar with Sendero Luminoso will recall that similar remarks were made in the early 1990’s when the organizations founder Guzman was captured. In a May 19, 1993, article in The Guardian, then-president Fujimori was quoted as saying: “The people are convinced terrorism will be overcome and they’re replying by going to work. If we continue like this, Sendero will soon be defeated.”

In December, 1994, the mayor of Ayacucho (the city where Sendero was founded) said “without reservation that the Shining Path no longer exists in the place where it was born,” according to the New York Times. Maybe this time the politicians are right.