Game theoretic models of social unrest often represent governments and oppositions as unitary actors engaged in a sequence of moves involving binary choices. At any given time, an opposition can keep playing by the rules or choose to protest. If the opposition chooses to protest, the government can respond by conceding to protesters’ demands or repressing them. If the government represses, protesters can respond by dissipating or escalating. Ditto for the government on its next turn, and so on until either one side wins decisively or a bargain is struck that lets everyone get back to “normal” politics.
That class of models can and has produced important insights into the absence, occurrence, and dynamics of social unrest. At the same time, those models deliberately bracket some of the most interesting and arguably important aspects of social unrest—that is, the politics occurring within those camps. “Government” and “opposition” are shorthand for large assemblages of diverse individuals, each making his or her own choices under different circumstances and with different information. The interactions summarized in those formal models depend on—are constituted by—the actions and interactions occurring at this lower, or “micro,” level.
That micro level is harder to understand, but it’s what we actually see when we observe these eventful periods up close in real time. The ongoing occupation of parts of central Hong Kong—which, yes, is still happening, even if it has mostly fallen out of the international news stream—offers a case in point. As Chris Buckley and Alan Wong describe in today’s New York Times, protesters in Hong Kong right now are openly and self-consciously struggling to make one of those strategic choices. Here’s how Buckey and Wong describe the efforts to escalate:
Most mornings for weeks, in one of the pro-democracy protest camps here, Wong Yeung-tat has berated, mocked and goaded the government and, increasingly, the student protest leaders and democratic politicians he deems too timid.
“The occupy campaign needs to be taken to a new level,” he said in an interview. “There needs to be escalation, occupation of more areas or maybe government buildings. The campaign at this stage has become too stable”…
Mr. Wong’s organization, Civic Passion, and a tangle of like-minded groups, Internet collectives and free-floating agitators have grown impatient with the milder path supported by most protesters. They argue that only stronger action, such as new occupations, can force concessions from the Hong Kong government and the Chinese Communist Party.
Mainstream protesters fear confrontational tactics could tear the movement apart and anger ordinary residents, many already tiring of the protest camps.
“It will be difficult to narrow the differences,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, the chairman of the pro-democracy Labor Party, who has been castigated by the movement’s more zealous wing. “We have already escalated to a high point. If it would further alienate public opinion, then that’s something we don’t want to see.”
Through Buckley and Wong’s eyes, we see the participants standing at the figurative fork in the road—or, if you like, the node in the decision tree. And, as protesters argue and experiment their way toward a phase shift of one form or another, the government does the same. We usually don’t get to witness much of the government’s internal debating, but their tactical experiments are easy to spot, and Hong Kong is no exception on that front, either.
We still aren’t very good at understanding exactly how those decisions get made or predicting how the larger process will unfold. We are, however, pretty good at recognizing some of the patterns that comprise these episodes (which are themselves figments of our theoretical imaginations, but still). In fact, the dynamic unfolding in Hong Kong right now is very much like what Sidney Tarrow described in Power in Movement (p. 24):
The power to trigger sequences of collective action is not the same as the power to control or sustain them. This dilemma has both an internal and an external dimension. Internally, a good part of the power of movements comes from the fact that they activate people over whom they have no control. This power is a virtue because it allows movements to mount collective actions without possessing the resources that would be necessary to internalize a support base. But the autonomy of their supporters also disperses the movement’s power, encourages factionalism and leaves it open to defection, competition and repression.
The similarity between that description and the evolution of the unrest in Hong Kong implies that we can sketch the causal terrain with some confidence, even if we can’t reliably predict exactly how social forces will flow through it each time.
Naturally, though, we still wonder: how will it turn out? Historical base rates imply that the factions advocating more aggressive tactics probably won’t tip the larger crowd toward escalation, and even if they do, that crowd will probably fail to achieve its objectives, at least in the short term. If I had to make a prediction, I would bet that this particular episode of unrest will conclude without having achieved any of its major demands. Still, base rates aren’t destiny, and if we already knew how this was going to turn out, it probably wouldn’t be happening in the first place.