Why public protests are proliferating

When networked societies clash with hierarchical states

This week’s Economist has a couple of interesting articles on the proliferation of public protests in recent times—from the United States, to Britain, to Arab North Africa, India and now Turkey and Brazil. It attempts to understand the phenomenon within the frames of democracy and dictatorship, with technology as a key enabler.

Any study of these protests must contend with a simple, central question: given that the protestors’ grievances are not new, why did the protests take place now (roughly since 2010)? Corruption, economic distress, political oppression and elite control of political power, among others, have been around for decades. What changed enough to cause people to get onto the streets to protest?

It is possible to identify a number of factors: youth bulge, urbanisation, size of the middle class, mobile phone penetration and growth of social media are the most important among them. It is highly likely that these factors—in various combinations—have a causal relationship with the eruption of protests. The “why now?” question, can be explained by the fact that social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter are of fairly recent origin. Text messaging over mobile telephone networks is older, but it was only in the last decade that mobile phone ownership increased significantly as a fraction of the overall population. So the availability of technology could explain when the public protests took place.

Technology also suggests a more profound implication. The proliferation of public protests—across democracies and authoritarian states—might be the first signs of a clash between radically networked societies and hierarchically ordered states. (See this talk on radically networked societies.) As I argued in my Business Standard column in December 2011, “the popular legitimacy of today’s hierarchically-structured governments – and the political order they rest on – is under threat in radically networked societies.”

In other words, corruption, bus fare hikes, tree parks or economic policies that the protesters are abstractions or symptoms of the underlying dissatisfaction with the way the people are governed. A networked society is flat, its demands are diverse and often inchoate, decision-making processes are amorphous, and leadership diffuse. However, such a society is governed by a government that operates in a hierarchical manner, top-down and bottom-up, in silos, bound by hard rules and distinct leadership. While a networked society moves fast, a hierarchical government moves relatively slowly on account of its structure. To members of networked societies the hierarchical government appears slow, less responsive and remote, hence lacking in credibility and legitimacy.

The structure of the modern nation-state was forged in the Industrial Age. It now confronts the demands of the Information Age and is increasingly found wanting.

In my column I wrote: “One reason the United States emerged on top of the world order is because it had the best political system for post-Enlightenment industrial age societies. It may well be that the nation that best reinvents itself for the information age will have a shot at being the next great superpower.”

This raises a number of questions. What does a networked state look like? How does a hierarchically-ordered state change itself into a networked state? What does this mean for individual liberty? We do not have the answers yet.

PS. For the record, the Business Standard article I refer to in this post contained a typo that risks changing the entire argument. The sentence in the third paragraph should read “This is not a classical class struggle.” The “not” is missing in the published piece!

Iran, shaken and stirred

India should do business with whoever is in power

Why, many readers ask, has this blog been silent on the extraordinary events in Iran. Vacations and workloads aside, shouldn’t we be discussing the biggest stirring in Iran in three decades?

Yes we should. For whatever might be the immediate political outcome of the May-June 2009 presidential election and its aftermath the nature of Iranian politics has already changed, perhaps profoundly so. The Grand Ayatollah is no longer untouchable. The balance-of-power within the Iranian regime has shifted and has become more broadbased. The distribution of political power from the one to the few, and from the few to the many is good for Iranians. It is also good for most of the rest of the world, including for India. This is true regardless of who becomes president and who political prisoner No 1.

Don’t expect major changes in Iranian government policy—especially foreign affairs. Iran is an old civilisation, has a strong society and a distinct nation-state. Its interests are unlikely to change just because a new political leader or faction comes to power. That might have happened if the upheaval is on the scale of the 1979 Islamic revolution—in 2009, Rafsanjani-Mousavi are ideologically indistinguishable from Khamenei-Ahmedinejad. Salil Tripathi, hardly a hard-nosed realist, writes:

Many have felt tempted to cast the rivalry of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi as one between darkness and light, falsehood and truth, fundamentalism and pragmatism, orthodoxy and reform, evil and good. Such Manichean distinctions are pointless. If a week is a long time in politics, three decades make an eternity. Given his bombastic rhetoric, it is easy to see Ahmadinejad as the villain, or the ruler of the land of chup and Mousavi as the hero, or the leader of the gupwalas, to borrow from the sharp distinction Rushdie made in his first post-fatwa novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. But they are cut from the same cloth. Mousavi is hardly the harbinger of light. As Iran’s prime minister from 1981 to 1989, not only was he (and remains) a supporter of Khomeini’s brand of Islamic revolution, but he also presided over a country where teenage boys were sent to the battlefront against Iraq with plastic keys, and told that those keys would open the doors of heaven once they attained martyrdom, as Marjane Satrapi’s stark graphic novel and film, Persepolis, reminds us. [Mint]

Leave aside Mr Mousavi’s past as a conservative and a supporter of nuclearisation, people can change their minds (political leaders more so). There is little that Mr Mousavi has said before and after the elections to mark him out to be a deliverer of profound change. While his cause might have galvanised long-suppressed political emotions into a popular movement, it is unlikely to even lead to his ascent to political power. (Yes, it’s too early to tell, so this estimate is a hazardous one)

What should India do? The government of India shouldn’t take sides in this business, it’s for the Iranians to settle. Once the dust settles, business continues with whoever is the winner. Here’s an old cheat sheet to provide further guidance.

That does not mean that Indian citizens or civil society groups should follow suit: one advantage of being a democracy is that different parts of the political spectrum can engage different actors independent of the government. (Of course, all those parts of the political spectrum might be apathetic, which is yet another failing of India’s foreign affairs community.)

Why lose sleep over a few thousand tribesmen

The Talibanisation of Pakistan does not necessarily need the Taliban to take over

Over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole argues that fears of the Taliban taking over Pakistan are overblown (via Chapati Mystery):

The Pakistani Taliban are not going to take over the Pakistani government. That worry doesn’t keep me up at night. They are small, and operate in a rugged, remote area of the country. They can set off bombs and be a destabilizing force. But a few thousand tribesmen can’t take over a country of 165 million with a large urban middle class that has a highly organized and professional army. [Juan Cole]

Coming from a professor of history, no less, that is a shocking statement. A few thousand violent individuals can well take over a country if the general population is supine and the security apparatus sympathetic. So how many violent individuals did it take on October 12, 1999 when General Musharraf seized power? Next door in Iran, Wikipedia tells us, “the final collapse of the Pahlavi dynasty occurred shortly after on February 11 (1979) when Iran’s military declared itself “neutral” after guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting.”

The political crisis triggered by the Supreme Court’s disqualification of the Sharif brothers does threaten to destabilise Pakistan further. Though unlikely at this point, it might even result in yet another military coup. This does not make the threat of a ‘Taliban takeover’ any less serious. That’s because ‘Taliban takeover’ does not necessarily mean a regime that places Baitullah Mehsud or a similar character in power. It could well place the army chief or even a politician at the helm, leave the civil bureaucracy largely intact, but replace the tattered 1973 constitution with the sharia. It won’t take long for the assorted jihadi groups in Pakistan’s cities and the countryside to start moral policing and dispense Taliban justice. The few thousand tribesmen are not alone—there are several tens of thousands of jihadis and jihadi sympathisers who can be mobilised for consolidating the revolution. Don’t forget their organisational capabilities were recognised to be superior to that of the Pakistani government in the aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2005.

To be sure, it is possible that developments in recent weeks have caused excessive panic in Washington. As Matthew Yglesias points out “Pakistan’s been a troubled place for a long time and Americans shouldn’t confuse a rapid increase in our level of interest in Pakistan’s troubles with a rapid escalation in the scale of the troubles.” It is possible that the military-jihadi complex wants to signal by actions what Musharraf did with words (“after me, the Taliban”). Even so, it is undeniable that Pakistan has never quite rolled back the first creeping then marching fundamentalism that has affected the state and society…since 1947. This at once creates militants with an agenda to overturn the political order, and also legitimises their cause in the minds of the people. A revolution is not only possible, it can be swift. Wikipedia also says that the Iranian revolution was “unique for the surprise it created throughout the world.” There’s no excuse to be surprised another time.