Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Kantian Logic of Democratization: A Footnote on Levitsky and Way’s Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War

(A review of Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way’s Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Most political regimes in the world today allow for some form of electoral competition. As we saw in this post, towards the end of the cold war most stereotypical “dictatorships” (where competition by non-official parties was de jure forbidden and political control over the public sphere was nearly complete) began to give way to regimes in which control over the state depended in some way on winning real electoral contests. International pressure from Western powers, the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and popular protest all contributed to this outcome.

Yet elections, as anyone will tell you, do not equal democracy. Most of these “electoral” regimes – places like Zimbabwe, Russia, Romania, Armenia, Georgia, Ghana, Guyana, Kenya, Macedonia, Madagascar, Nicaragua, and many other countries - featured genuine political competition, with fiercely contested elections (unlike the meaningless “elections” held in many communist countries before the end of the cold war), organized oppositions which often held substantive legislative or subnational offices and could occasionally even win presidential or parliamentary elections (unlike in de jure one party states), and at least some islands of media independence (unlike the situation in many genuine dictatorships); but such competition was neither free nor fair by any reasonable standard. Incumbents persecuted or harassed their political opponents by legal or illegal means, intimidated or bought the media, packed supposedly “independent” judicial institutions with their supporters, used state resources without restraint for campaign purposes, and even occasionally fraudulently stole elections through good old-fashioned ballot stuffing and vote falsification in efforts to secure their position.

Consider a few examples. In Ukraine in the 1990s, “businesses that financed the opposition were routinely targeted by tax authorities” and in Ghana similarly “entrepreneurs who financed opposition parties “were blacklisted, denied government contracts, and [had] their businesses openly sabotaged”.” In Taiwan, the KMT used to outspend its opponents 50-1 in elections, and in Russia the Yeltsin campaign spent “between 30 and 150 times the amount permitted the opposition in 1996.” In the Peru of Fujimori, private television stations “signed “contracts” with the state intelligence service in which they received up to $1.5 million a month in exchange for limiting coverage of opposition parties.” (All quotes from Levitsky and Way, pp. 10-11). Everybody knows about the selective prosecution of potentially threatening “oligarchs” in Russia (like Mikhail Khodorkovsky) for tax reasons, not always without some justification (after all, they probably did not get rich by following the rules), but the tactic is common, though with local variations according to context (see, e.g., the Anwar Ibrahim case in Malaysia). Libel and defamation suits, especially, are the tool of choice for shutting down critical forms of media: according to Levitsky and Way, in the nineties newspapers in Croatia were sued for libel more than 230 times; in Cameroon at around the same time the use of defamation suits forced the closure of several newspapers. (We pass over in silence the use of libel or defamation suits in Cambodia, Belarus, Russia, and many other places as a way to intimidate opponents and silence critical voices). Sometimes media restrictions even get a decent veneer of justification, as when the Chavez government in Venezuela refused to renew the “over the air” license of RCTV, an opposition-leaning TV station, in 2007 for having supported the coup against his government in 2002. All of these actions are of course made easier if the government takes care to pack supposedly “impartial” or “independent” institutions (constitutional courts, electoral commissions, and so on) with government supporters (see, e.g., Venezuela and Malaysia). Finally, there are the more obvious tactics to suppress political competition, to be used when all else fails: beatings and imprisonment of opposition members by security forces (ask Morgan Tsvangirai and many other Zanu-PF opponents in Zimbabwe), old-fashioned ballot box stuffing, and vote falsification (in Serbia under Milosevic, Ukraine under Kuchma, and many other places).

Rather than thinking of these regimes as somehow imperfect or transitional democracies, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way argue that we should see them as authoritarian regimes in their own right. Levitsky and Way call them “competitive authoritarian” regimes (a term they coined in a widely cited 2002 article), and tell the story of their emergence and the reasons why some of them managed to more fully democratize but others did not in a recent book (Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, 2010). The book is a pretty impressive research achievement; the bibliography alone is 110 pages long, and it can serve as a good introduction to the post cold war politics of the 35 different countries they study.[1]

Now, I’d prefer to speak not so much of authoritarianism, democracy, and democratization (at this point at least) but of transformations in the prevalent varieties of political competition in the world. Modern “democracy,” on this view, is merely a system of normatively regulated oligopolistic political competition for state power, which does not sound particularly inspiring, except when we consider how hard it seems to be to achieve even that. In the post cold-war era full political monopolies have tended to decay into systems of unregulated political competition (“competitive authoritarian” or “party hegemonic” regimes) where rulers can often get away with the murder of their political opponents (literally and figuratively); only some of these systems of unregulated political competition turn into modern “democracies,” where rulers cannot so easily get away with murder of their political opponents. So the key question is: how do normatively unregulated systems of political competition turn into normatively regulated ones? How do we move from political systems where rulers “play dirty” by exploiting their control of the state (and oppositions do the same, if they win) to systems where they can’t get away with that, or at least not that easily? (The converse question is also important, though not the focus of Levitsky and Way’s book: why do systems of normatively regulated political competition sometimes break down, leading to regimes where rulers can get away with murder?). The problem is not so much about political turnover (ruling parties do occasionally yield power in competitive authoritarian regimes, even though this typically requires mass protest and other forms of extralegal action as well as winning elections) but about what can shift the kind of political competition that is enabled by a regime.

Levitsky and Way’s answer to that question is relentlessly structural – protest and opposition action plays little role. It is also reminiscent of an old argument in Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” (hence the title of this post; more on that later). In brief, they argue that neither Western pressure nor domestic opposition action by itself is capable of inducing democratization (at best, such international and domestic pressure can produce “electoralization,” not democratization: electoral turnover within normatively unregulated forms of political competition); it is only when domestic and international pressures for democracy are consistently amplified by social and economic links with Western democracies that elites in these regimes will consistently invest in credible ways of enforcing the norms of political competition (e.g., genuinely independent electoral commissions and judicial systems, a press that is not constantly pressured by the government du jour, etc.).

Let’s start with the obvious international pressures for democracy (or political competition, really). Since the end of the cold war most Western powers (at least the powers Levitsky and Way are interested in, the USA and the EU) have adopted an explicit “democratization” agenda, in which they have used various incentives to promote electoral regimes of varying credibility. The effectiveness of these pressures, however, varies with what Levitsky and Way call “leverage,” i.e., the influence Western governments are able to bring to bear on other regimes to make their politics more competitive. Western leverage is greatest for small, aid-dependent countries (like many African countries), and smaller for larger economies (like Mexico or Malaysia). It is larger when democratization is the primary issue on the foreign policy agenda of Western powers (as in many Latin American and Eastern European countries in the 1990s and early 2000s), and smaller when competing issues (like terrorism or other security concerns, especially since 2001) trump democratization (e.g., in the middle East, but also in places like Serbia and Croatia during the Balkan wars), or when other powers are able to provide support to authoritarian rulers (e.g., Russian support for Belarus in the early 1990s, and Chinese support for Burma or North Korea today). It is larger when governments can offer carrots as well as sticks, and smaller when only sticks are available (so the European Union had high democratizing leverage over those countries that were thought to be credible candidates for membership in the EU, but had less leverage over those countries which were unlikely to become members).

Levitsky and Way emphasize that Western pressure for democratization is very often quite superficial; Western powers are easily satisfied if the target government conducts more or less “clean” elections, and sometimes not even that. And they are not always especially consistent; only salient events, like elections, tend to engage them, whereas more ambiguous actions like politically motivated prosecutions or the abuse of state resources for election purposes can pass off uncriticized. (Incidentally, as this neat new paper by Simpser and Donno argues [gated], high quality election monitoring can have unintended bad consequences, pushing competitive authoritarian rulers to use practices that are generally bad for normatively regulating competition, like muzzling the media or packing the courts as a way of getting approval for “clean” elections on election day; too much focus on the quality of elections can thus worsen the quality of the surrounding institutions via strategic adaptation on the part of incumbent rulers).

Leverage is really helpful for democratization only when it is reinforced by what Levitsky and Way call linkage. By this Levitsky and Way mean the whole range of social and economic ties between Western democracies and competitive authoritarian regimes. These may include trade and migration links, the circulation of elites through American and European universities, various forms of communication across borders, and so on.  A high density of these ties helps produce consistent pressure for democratization (or rather, for enforcing norms of fair political competition) by amplifying the effect that even minor violations of the norms of political competition have on foreign and domestic publics, creating transnational constituencies for democracy, and providing incentives for elites in competitive authoritarian states to invest in the credibility of the institutions for monitoring violations of these norms. It is only when linkage is high that foreign pressure really becomes expensive for domestic elites in competitive authoritarian regimes, and not only in purely financial terms; when every suit your government brings against its political opponents produces an endless stream of NY Times articles, cancellations of visits from dignitaries, visa troubles, and in general international opprobrium from their peers and colleagues in Europe or the USA, adherence to the norms of political competition starts looking like a good deal.

Linkage gets you not only an official EU protest over the treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko, it gets you a headline like “Europe Protests Ukraine’s Treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko” in the NY Times, the promise of an investigation by the Ukrainian government, and Joachim Gauck cancelling his travel plans to Kiev. I’m sure similar treatment of a Malawian opposition politician would not have rated anything close to the same reaction. (And Ukraine, in Levitsky and Way’s scheme, only rates medium, not high, levels of linkage). Linkage creates lobbies that constantly bring violations of the norms of political competition to the attention of Western foreign ministries and legislatures, and it creates elite constituencies interested in preventing such violations in the first place; it makes Western pressure consistent and predictable. This is why it was so hard, for example, for Vladimir Me├žiar to get away with relatively small violations of the norms of political competition when he briefly ruled Slovakia in the 1990s, and why it seems unlikely that Viktor Orban will be able to consolidate a truly competitive authoritarian regime in Hungary today. By contrast, when there are few regular ties between a competitive authoritarian regime and Western democracies, foreign pressure is erratic and constituencies for enforcing norms of political competition are weak, regardless of the level of leverage. High leverage and low linkage produces at best electoral turnover (i.e., it pushes incumbents out when they lose an election) without genuine transformations in the norms and institutions of political institutions (the opposition is likely to be just as bad as the government in its treatment of the press or its abuse of state resources), which is precisely what Levitsky and Way think happened in many African countries in the 1990s and early 2000s.

A parallel argument works for domestic sources of pressure, though I think here Levitsky and Way muddle the presentation of the issues a bit. They want to argue that domestic pressure is usually not that significant for either democratization or even electoral turnover (in contrast to some recent scholarship, which emphasizes the importance of protest and opposition strength). So they emphasize that what really matters is the strength of states and incumbent party organizations: when these are “strong,” protest doesn’t get you very far. Milosevic survived enormous levels of mobilization as long as his security forces held together, whereas in Madagascar or Haiti the state could barely control the territory, let alone prevent relatively small opposition forces from overthrowing the government (in Haiti, an “army” of about 200 rebels). But, as Levitsky and Way sometimes seem to acknowledge, the interesting question is not so much about turnover but about the fairness of the norms of competition; and here all the work is done by linkage, not state or party strength or opposition pressure. Only high levels of linkage, in their view, induce either victorious oppositions or incumbent governments to invest in credibly enforcing norms of political competition; in its absence victorious oppositions do not behave much better when in power than the governments they displace.

I also think that to speak of “state” vs. “opposition” strength is to reify the fluid character of these things. One can agree that oppositions win power in competitive authoritarian regimes where states and incumbent party organizations splinter (as in the so-called “color revolutions” in the early 2000s), i.e., transfer their loyalty to the opposition or remain neutral, but this hardly means that opposition efforts don’t matter much: successful opposition efforts are typically geared towards inducing such transfers of loyalty. The more interesting point Levitsky and Way make has to do with why some states and parties are so resilient in the face of opposition challenges – think of ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, holding together in the face of generalized economic collapse and a well-organized opposition movement. Why? Levitsky and Way point to the role of non-material incentives: whereas parties and states that are held together only through patronage (the ability to distribute jobs and benefits) tend to break down in the face of opposition pressure or economic crisis, security forces and parties that were forged in war or insurgency (in Armenia or Zimbabwe, for example), or are otherwise held together by some salient identity in addition to patronage (communism, ethnicity, etc.), tend to require far more pressure, indeed generational change, to break down. (This also works for regimes that are not competitive authoritarian but simply monopolize political competition: Cuba, China, Vietnam, etc.).

There is something “Kantian” about the story Levitsky and Way tell in this book. In Perpetual Peace Kant argues that a “federation” of Republican peoples can spread “if a powerful and enlightened people” that makes itself into a Republic serves as “a fulcrum to the federation with other states so that they may adhere to it and thus secure freedom under the idea of the law of nations. By more and more such associations, the federation may be gradually extended.” This process does not involve a change in human nature; as Kant says elsewhere, “from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” All it requires is the growing interdependence of peoples, which eventually come to acquire interests in the preservation of republican norms and the maintenance of peace, and which thus make these republican “cores” grow outwards, slowly. Similarly here: norms of fair political competition only spread and become powerful through a process that involves a growing level of interconnectedness across borders. The idea is simultaneously optimistic – electoralization plus growing connections to the core (“globalization”?) make the zone of normatively regulated political competition grow ever outwards – and pessimistic – regimes that are “far” from this core will have fragile and generally unregulated forms of political competition regardless (this suggests pessimism about, for example, Mali). (Though they do not make much of this, their story also suggests that policies that prevent the growth of linkage – like the “embargo” on Cuba – are about the worst possible policy to encourage democratization). Of course, this story also assumes that political competition in the core does not decay, perhaps through processes that rob it of its importance – think of the growth of the national security state in the USA, or the ways in which the great recession has affected most European democracies. But Levitsky and Way tell it pretty convincingly, with masses of qualitative evidence; I learned a lot from this book.

[1] Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Benin, Botswana, Cambodia, Cameroon, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Gabon, Georgia, Ghana, Guyana, Haiti, Kenya, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Moldova, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Peru, Romania, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, Taiwan, Tanzania, Ukraine, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. All of these countries are classified as “Competitive Authoritarian” in 1990-1995; by 2008, two of them had become “fully authoritarian” (Belarus and Russia), and 14 had become “full democracies” by Levitsky and Way’s accounting. (One additional country, Nicaragua, first democratized and then became a competitive authoritarian regime again by 2008). Their cases do not include countries that became competitive authoritarian after 1995, or which were “party hegemonic” regimes in 1995 (too little competition; e.g., Singapore, in their view, though I suspect this case would be problematic for their theory) but might have become more open since then. They also do not include countries in which unelected offices are the most important ones, even if there is a significant electoral component (e.g., Morocco, Iran) or under foreign occupation. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Charles Tilly's Poetry, and the Use of Models in the Social Sciences

In a 1991 review essay discussing several books by James C. Scott, the late Charles Tilly gets cranky with rationalistic explanations of behaviour, in verse ("somehow I find the point easier to make in verse"):
Rationalists  imagine  life  as lightning chess, 
each  individual respecting well-known  rules, 
instantly sketching alternative scenarios 
that start from possible  moves,  comparing 
their merits, and choosing  the wisest means 
to  maximize the  probability of  victory, 
only to see  that the  opponent  is playing 
the selfsame  game. In such  a  caricature, 
few of  us  can  recognize  the  improvisations 
of  our  cluttered lives. Are  we  inadequate? 

Let's find  a betaphore,  a better metaphore, 
for the  expedients  by which we  rush through 
the  traps and troubles of  an ordinary day. 
We  resemble  kayakers, knowing the  long stream 
in which we  ride, more  or  less,  but never sure 
when  its course will bend, speed  up,  narrow, 
or thrust us upon  rocks and splintered trees 
savage storms have hurled into  the streambed. 

In fast white water we  often  cannot  tell 
whether we will founder, flip over,  crash 
into  the  bank, or  hurtle against obstacles 
within the  current. When  the  river slows, 
we  become  sentient  driftwood, silently gliding 
at the  pace  of swans. Or we  dig our  paddles 
into  the  depth -  one  side,  then the  other 
in order to  propel  our own  course  past fish, 
past tributary brooks, past fields of  flowers. 

The  riverbanks exist, our boat  exists, we  exist, 
the  current's force  exists, the  boulders  exist, 
and yet we  improvise, combining these  elements 
in  quick inventions, and sometimes  run aground. 

Still, life  as a surging kayak ignores the  fact 
that makes the  race worth  running: the sociability 
that ties  us to  other  humans and their poor  proxies 
dogs,  cats,  and faded  photographs - in strands 
of  gold,  or silk, or steel,  or yet  barbed wire. 

Metaphor  gives way to  metonymy, for our true model 
could  be walking through crowds, alone  or  in pairs, 
silent  or  in  earnest  conversation, at once  scanning 
faces  and facades, feet  moving in two-four beats, 
signaling our  approach with glances  and swaggers, 
knifing between  oncomers  who seem  separate or separable. 

We  follow  those  pioneers  who  find an  open  path 
across the  traffic, follow  even  when  another path 
would  be shorter, or faster, or  easier on  the  feet. 
We  spot  a penny on  the sidewalk, a  gown  in  a window, 
or  a broken hydrant while  the  interior monologue  hums, 
the  exterior dialogue swirls, the  frantic tinkering 
of  every day continues. A  cameraman above shoots  film 
and charts human beings  as molecules  in a  channel, 
lawfully accelerating and slowing according to  density, 
flowing symmetrically around those  talkers who stop 
precisely in midpath, walkers miming viscous  fluids 
whose  laws they do  not  know. Meanwhile we  pedestrians
dream, improvise, weave, stumble,  curse, above  all, hope.  
("Domination, Resistance, Compliance... Discourse," Sociological Forum 6(3), p. 602). To which my first reaction was: WTF? Also: is this the only use of a poem to make an argument in sociology or political science? Are there others? (James C. Scott apparently promised a poem in "his next review" of Tilly's work - does anybody know if the promise was kept?).

I don't have a lot to say about the quality of the poem - let's say it's better than some, but it's no Dante. (I like the  "strands of  gold,  or silk, or steel,  or yet  barbed wire" image, for what it's worth - it brings to mind other "strands of gold" images in ancient poetry and nicely reframes them). As for the points Tilly is making - roughly, that most problems of everyday life are computationally intractable, so we "satisfice," and that our intrinsic sociality affects the patterns of social action that we observe - they strike me as unobjectionable in the abstract. But I get the feeling Tilly misunderstands the purpose of models in the social sciences. (I say this with some trepidation - it is far more likely that I am wrong about this than that Tilly misunderstood anything).

As Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo have argued in a recent book (and article) models are maps of phenomena. (David Schmidtz has made a similar claim with respect to theories of justice, and I think both draw on the work of the philosopher Ronald Giere). And the most accurate maps are not always the most useful, though it is important that maps be sufficiently similar in some relevant respect to the phenomenon they image for them to be useful. To this I would add that models are also toys ("toy models") and analogies ("metaphors" - Tilly alludes to this in the poem above). They enable certain kinds of rule-constrained "inferential play" (as toys) and disclose or conceal connections to other phenomena (as analogies or metaphors). (They are rhetoric too, qua metaphors, and hence serve persuasive purposes). But let's stick with the map imagery right now. Consider, to use an analogy Clarke and Primo point to, two maps of the London Underground:


From A Welsh View

Is any of them more "correct"? They are certainly useful for different purposes: they provide different forms of orientation with respect to the tube, and each of them has characteristic failure modes when used for other purposes (to which they may not be well suited). The first map is useful for people who are actually using the train - it helps you visualize the transfers you will need to make, as well as the approximate number of stops left until your destination. But it is not a very good guide to actual distances, and it does not provide any information regarding the urban or natural context of the stations. The second map, while being a more accurate description of the physical organization of the underground and of the urban and topographical context of each station, is much less useful to commuters, who are likely to find it too "busy." Neither of them, it is worth stressing, is a perfectly "accurate" representation of the tube, though both are "similar" to it in some significant respect, enough so that we can speak of them as "representations" of the underground.

Similarly with social science models: economists and (some) political scientists tend to prefer more "abstracted" maps of particular social contexts (like the first map above), since they tend to use such maps for purposes that would not be served by the more apparently "accurate" models that may be favored by sociologists or anthropologists or (other) political scientists (like the second map below). The major methodological disputes in the social sciences thus tend to be (sometimes covertly) about the legitimacy of the purposes for which these maps are used (and only secondarily about whether any particular map does serve any given purpose, though that sort of debate does happen too).

In the poem above, for example, Tilly seems to be saying that the "chess" map of the rationalists (which would surely include economists) is not a good map for making sense of social action because we are not like that. (It is interesting that Tilly also seems to allude to the physicist's map, which depicts social action on the analogy with fluid dynamics, whose laws the fluid particles do not understand but which also makes no reference to individual psychologies, unlike the economist's map). But the "chess" model - the model of rational agents - is not generally a description of our psychology, though it does describe a psychology that is in some respects similar to our actual psychology and in other respects dissimilar. To the extent that rationalistic models of human life are useful (and they may not be, certainly not for every conceivable explanatory purpose) they are not useful because they describe our psychology accurately (though they will be more useful the more the similarities to our psychology in the model are relevant to the explanatory purposes to which it is put), but because they may provide insight into how human action can aggregate into larger patterns (e.g., how markets can sometimes produce efficient outcomes, or how conventions can be self-enforcing), or make certain kinds of predictions (e.g., about when certain norms break down), or identify potential puzzles about social action, or even simply to point to  long-term forces pushing social systems in certain directions rather than others. The resulting picture of human action will tend to look (to the anthropologist or the sociologist) like a stick-figure drawing, but that is precisely the point, at least so long as the stick-figure drawing tells us something about human action that is difficult to see in the hyperrealistic map of the anthropologist or the somewhat broader frame of the sociologist.

Social explanation at its best is the art of selecting the right map for orienting ourselves towards some question. In some cases, that map better be quite detailed; if I am interested in getting a real feel for how people distant from me live, or how they can be motivated to rebel against injustice, I am often better off consulting the anthropologists' map than the economist's map. But in other cases, the thickly descriptive map just gets in the way of the particular type of understanding I may be seeking. Even given a certain kind of question, however, some maps will still be better than others. (Some maps give bad directions, or have inconvenient lacunae). In economics, for example, it seems that maps with explicit microfoundations are worse for predictive or policy purposes than maps without such microfoundations, though "microfounded" maps are not thereby useless. In political science, detailed understanding of the politics of particular countries is not necessarily very useful for predictive purposes, though it is certainly very useful for many other purposes. And further problems arise, of course, because fights about methods are also fights about resources and status. The  theoretical pluralism of "multiple maps for multiple purposes" tends to break down when certain mapmakers are marginalized, or when there is a perception that particular kinds of maps are being used for purposes to which they are not well suited while serving to attack the status of makers of alternative maps. Somehow I find it easier to make this point in haiku:
maps are different
but mapmakers are prickly
and love their maps best
(Ok, not a very good haiku. I'm sure you can do better.) 

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Limits of Protest in Complex Societies

(I’ve been invited by the Society for Philosophy and Culture here at VUW to host a session of their Symposiumon “Protest” on 5 April. I have taken this as an opportunity to try to figure out what I think about protest in general, and to speculate wildly on a bunch of related themes. Also, a riot of mixed metaphors)

Dissatisfaction with the social and political world can take many forms – everything from resignation and escape to covert resistance and sabotage to full-blown collective action. It is only sometimes that such dissatisfaction expresses itself as what we have come to understand as protest: collective public action that aims for social or political change. The past year has seen a great global wave of protest movements, among which the Arab Uprisings and the Occupy Wall Street movement are only the most well known. But what can protest accomplish in highly complex societies? What are the limits of protest?

Protest takes many forms: the repertoire of protest is large, and is constantly being re-invented in local idioms and adjusted to local circumstances. Some protests make clear “demands” on specific authorities; others enact their dissatisfaction in more or less spectacular ways, or refuse to speak with one voice. Some forms of protest are meticulously planned and organized; others happen spontaneously, taking advantage of very temporary circumstances, and are as much of a surprise to participants as to the putative targets of the protest.  Protesters have pursued all sorts of goals, from the liberatory to the repressive. Yet all protest is ultimately a form of voice (in contradistinction to exit, in Albert Hirschmann’s famous scheme). And voice generally has two dimensions: an instrumental dimension, and an expressive or communicative dimension. (I am tempted to say: there are locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary dimensions to protest, but that would complicate things needlessly).

Instrumentally, protest is (roughly) a form of coordinated public action that uses diverse tactics to put pressure on specific institutions to address particular problems or issues in more or less specific ways. (We should understand the tactics of protest very broadly: "symbolic" action - including, for example, sharing a video or wearing certain clothing - can be part of the repertoire of protest.) From this perspective, the success of protest is measured by the degree to which it forces these institutions to respond to the problems or issues in question in accordance with the claims or values articulated by protesters. Protest can (sometimes) do this because it can signal changes in the support of members of political coalitions within particular institutions, or in the commitment of important actors to support these coalitions; it can turn the attention of powerful actors within institutions towards the problems raised by participants in protest; it can communicate information about potential solutions acceptable to influential coalition members; and in general can shift public discourse in ways that frame the concerns of the protesters in favourable ways.  These are not the only things that protests can do, but they are the main things that matter for the instrumental success of protest. (For example, protest can sometimes directly create or destroy institutions, but in general it is best to conceive of protest as acting on institutions rather than generally creating or destroying them. More on this point below.)

Consider the protests in Egypt that forced Mubarak from power. How did a relatively small proportion of the population occupying in a mostly nonviolent manner a variety of public spaces succeed in overthrowing a ruler who had been in power for over 30 years and was apparently backed by the USA and a professional military force? The protests did not threaten him physically; rather, they provided the opportunity for members of Mubarak’s coalition of influential supporters to reconsider their support of the old dictator. The very costly signal of commitment given by the crowds assembled for 17 days at Tahrir (and elsewhere), bringing the country to a halt, probably made the upper echelons of the army recalculate the costs and benefits of standing with Mubarak (and having to potentially direct soldiers of uncertain reliability to massacre the assembled crowds). The protests further focused the country's attention budget on a single, specific issue (who should be in control of the state) and framed the problem in a way that was favorable to protesters. Finally, the fact that the protestors had articulated a clear, unifying demand (Mubarak must go) made it possible in turn for the members of Mubarak’s coalition to respond in ways that would defuse the protest. Yet though this was no mean achievement, it is obvious that 17 days of concentrated mass action (with longer roots - there was a lot of preparatory work before those 17 days) are hardly sufficient to completely reconstitute the institutions of the Egyptian state, not just shifting elite coalitions. I do not mean to imply that many people believed that they would, though some of the rhetoric coming from participants and supporters of the Egyptian uprising sometimes gave that impression; only that we need to understand the fundamental limitations of protest as an instrument of social and political change. 

I can think of at least three important limitations. The first is perhaps the most obvious: though, as I noted above, the protest repertoire is large and protesters constantly innovate (the Egyptian protests succeeded in part because of innovative ways of deceiving the police, building up a movement, and identifying promising political opportunities), they are in a race with other actors who are not sitting tight. Develop a tactic that exploits a vulnerability in the political opportunity structure – like the “Occupy” tactic we have seen spread in the past year – and opponents on the other side of the issue will often enough develop something that, if it doesn't entirely counteract the effectiveness of your tactic, will certainly render it less effective. Revolutionaries are creative, but dictators can be too. Technology can give a temporary advantage to one side rather than another, but these advantages rarely last: Facebook and Twitter can help protesters organize, but they can also help opponents track protesters down and infiltrate them. Among the only generalizations that we can make with any certainty is that during the last century "nonviolent" tactics (of which there is an enormous variety) seem to have worked better (and produced better ultimate outcomes) than "violent" tactics to produce political change even in highly repressive contexts. (We are talking here about protest from a purely instrumental point of view; non-violent protest may well be normatively justified in other ways). But in the long run, I suspect the advantage remains resolutely with the defence: states and large institutions typically have resources that allow them, if nothing else, to wait you out or overpower you, as long as those at the top can learn from the mistakes of others.

To be sure, resourceful and creative protest organizers can create new opportunities, while lumbering institutions are sometimes slow to react. As in "regular" warfare, raw numbers and luck sometimes count for more than tactics. But there is no known protest method that can systematically grow a movement and be invulnerable to all counter-tactics, no “nuclear bomb” ensuring unconditional institutional surrender. In the long run, all protest tactics can be counteracted by some counter-tactic, and every counter-tactic in turn will be likely rendered ineffective eventually; hence the advantages of second-comers (Egypt) where protest movements can learn from first-comers who demonstrate the viability of particular protest methods (Tunisia), but the disadvantages of late-comers (Syria) where regimes have observed ways to foil  these tactics. More importantly, there is no protest tactic that can ultimately reconstitute the whole of society if only enough people joined in - no grand general strike that can put an end to the system once and for all. Great social movement protest campaigns are thus typically hard slogs, not lighting victories; they can last many years (indeed, the uprising in Egypt had roots in movements going back a decade or so, and many failed actions through which a movement was built and much was learned), and at the end of the day they only steer the great ship of state slowly in one direction rather than another. (The image of the ship of state is very old - as old as Plato in Western political thought - but it can still serve as a useful analogy for social and political change: if society is like a supertanker, significant political change requires immense energies to turn it around even a little, but too much pressure - civil war, etc. - occasionally breaks the ship and sinks it, spilling the toxic waste all over the place.)

The second important instrumental limitation of protest is also pretty obvious, and has to do with the scarcity of the most important resource that voice requires to be effective: time (or, more specifically, coordinated time). Protest works to focus attention; it concentrates the diffuse and uncoordinated dissatisfaction of many into a unified chorus, and amplifies this dissatisfaction in ways that attract the attention of publics that might share some of these dissatisfactions, and of political coalitions that can act to change the circumstances giving rise to them. But in the short run, the attention budget for all issues of interest is limited; attention can be shifted, not created, since we are a finite number of human beings who live only a finite amount of time. So protesting X means not protesting Y; and protesting X means not doing A, B, and C, at least for the duration of the protest. There is always some other pressing issue that loses out in the competition for attention, some other problem that could be plausibly argued to be more important: to protest is to make a claim about the proper priorities of an institution. (But how could we know?). 

Of course, sometimes X and Y can be subsumed under Z: instead of protesting the gender gap in pay or racism in some particular institution, people protest inequality in general, or capitalism, or the system. But insofar as the effectiveness of protest depends on its ability to shift support within political coalitions, it should be more effective when the "solution" to a problem depends on shifts within one or a few such coalitions (e.g., when it is a matter of of dumping a dictator) than when it depends on untangling multiple coalitions in complex networks of institutions (e.g., when the problem is to democratize an entire society). The best protest can do for more complex problems is to trigger shifts in public discourse ("put things on the agenda") that in turn may catalyze forms of deliberation and "social cognition" capable of generating useful ideas about how to unravel these knots (without resorting to the classic Gordian solution with its attendant violence). And here the communicative or expressive dimension of protest also plays a role: a protest brings forth a public and induces a conversation within it, even if the conversation often leads in directions neither planned nor approved by the protesters.

Here it is also worth noting a difference between protests and institutions. Institutions as it were "store" coordinated action and constantly regenerate it as they use it for specific purposes (but they can squander it if they use it for purposes for which they are not well designed); a protest, by contrast, is always in danger of exhausting its fuel supply. A protest discharges its forces like a battery or perhaps a capacitor; an institution is more like a generator, capable of powering complex circuits of action for longer periods of time to act on complex problems. This is why it makes sense that protests are often directed at institutions, but also why their effects can be so ephemeral. Long protest campaigns can at best transform movements into institutions, continually regenerating the possibility of protest as coordinated action (consider classic human rights institutions like Amnesty International). But instrumentally effective protests will normally tend to simplify and narrow the focus of collective action – to paper over differences of opinion and interest among participants and focus on specific, clearly articulable and above all simple messages that economize on the "coordination energies" necessary to keep the movement together, like the demand that Mubarak step aside; and they will become less effective as the problems they tackle increase in complexity (involving more tangled coalitions of people) and their potential solutions impact participants in more complicated ways. Local protests about issues that are of concrete significance to participants and where key political coalitions are well known will thus tend to be more effective than protests about global, diffuse and complex problems where it is not even clear which political coalitions should be the targets of action (e.g., protests about global warming). 

This is connected to the third important limitation of protest. Effective protest tends to run on simple moral narratives, because human beings tend to be energized to act collectively by simple moral narratives, and protests that do not articulate simple moral narratives will ceteris paribus mobilize fewer people; but the world does not run on simple moral narratives (especially not modern complex societies with many only vaguely visible and poorly understood interdependencies). Protest is often very effective for making dictators leave power, but it is only marginally useful for ensuring that a constitution makes sense, and it is much easier to coordinate large numbers of people to do something about "bad guys" than to coordinate them in ways that will make a lasting difference to complex problems. (There is probably an evolutionary reason for this). Consider the example of the Kony #2012 video: a simplistic moral narrative was able to mobilize millions of people in symbolic solidarity against a bad guy (and perhaps shift the agenda within powerful institutions), but it is highly unlikely that such action will produce lasting and significant positive change where it matters most (though in the best case it may get people involved with local groups in Northern Uganda, and perhaps to learn more about complex problems). 

None of this is to say that because protest has limits, it should not be used. Far from it! Social change of any kind is hard; but protest, as a form of voice, is only one potential method of change. (Various forms of exit are also important; and the parallel building of institutions - starting a new society in place of the old - is also a time-honored way of acting in the world). Moreover, protest should not be viewed only in instrumental terms. Protest at its best opens up public spaces of appearance, where people can experience the joy of acting together, as Hannah Arendt put it. It is expressive as well as instrumental, and there is nothing wrong with that: protest can be a tactic and a party.

[Update 4/6/2012: minor typo fixes]

[Update 2, 4/7/2012: fixed errant pronouns, link]