The Effervescence of Protest Power

As you probably know if you read this blog, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets in frustration over the past week after President Viktor Yanukovich reversed course and decided not to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Meanwhile, thousands of Thais ostensibly aggravated by an amnesty bill that might have opened the door to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s return have swarmed and occupied several government ministries and are now openly demanding that the army oust the current prime minister.

I’m not going to try to give accounts of these events, which are still growing and morphing, or their causes, which are multifaceted and inevitably ambiguous. Instead, I’d like to underscore what the protests in both countries show us again about how hard it is to convert popular action into political change.

Cheering on the rallies in Kiev earlier today, writer Anne Applebaum tweeted:

She’s right, of course. The problem for the tens of thousands in Ukraine’s and Thailand’s streets is that this is a very hard task. Political power is an amorphous thing, and inertia is its most prevalent form. “Levers of power” is just a metaphor, but that’s the point. The absence of something tangible for protesters to seize and push and wield makes it surprisingly difficult for them to convert their physical mass and emotional energy into the changes in rules and procedures and personnel they usually seek. Protesters can fill squares and topple statues and even swarm the buildings where laws are made, but the social practice of government does not allow them to pick up pen and paper and rewrite the rules while they’re there. When protesters try to do something like that, they are usually ignored or waited out or driven back with violence.

To convert their apparent power into significant political change, protesters usually have to find a way to convince some people on the inside to listen—to rewire the system on their behalf, or to invite their representatives into the control room. In Thailand, anti-government protesters are directing their appeals at military leaders, but so far those leaders aren’t heeding the call. In Ukraine, boxer-cum-presidential hopeful Vladimir Klitschko has called on President Yanukovich to resign, but so far Yanukovich isn’t budging.

Even when they seem to heed the crowd’s call, those insiders have an uncanny knack for bending the arc of politics back toward the status quo ante. In Egypt in 2011, protesters got the military to force Hosni Mubarak from office after decades in power, but the military-led transition that ensued has somehow landed that process not far from where it started.

I don’t mean to be a downer—to suggest that protesters are powerless, or that we can or should measure the value of activism solely by the change it immediately does or does not produce. In a way, you could read this reminder as a backhanded compliment to the activists who do manage to produce significant and durable change. As Frederick Douglass famously suggested, mass activism may not be sufficient to produce institutional change, but it is almost always necessary.

It’s also not clear that the effervescence of protest power is inherently a bad thing. In the case of Thailand, people who value democracy should probably be cheering the failure of a reactionary, elitist movement that’s trying to topple an elected and still reasonably popular government. While Yanukovich’s democratic credentials are shakier, I’m sure there are many Ukrainians who feel the same way about any effort to force their president from office before his term expires. Maybe this tendency toward inertia in politics is the inevitable output of the contraptions we build and task with reconciling our heterogeneous desires for progress and our shared fear of disorder.

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  1. Reblogged this on

  2. So what are the mechanisms by which such street energy gets translated into political change, particularly government change or resignation? That’s actually a pretty good social science question, I think. It seemed to work initially in Egypt; it also seemed to work in Eastern Europe 25 years ago. Is there something they did right which the Ukrainians could learn?

    • Robert, there are a few mechanisms. The most potent is by creating defections within the government, which reportedly is happening in both Thailand and Ukraine. According to a study that Maria Stephan and I did, defections among security forces in particular are associated with a 60% increase in the success of the campaign in forcing resignations at the highest levels and/or totally dissolving the government.

      • Sounds right. That’s why Assad hasn’t fallen, right? I’ve read that his government’s remained a lot more cohesive than anyone expected. So what drives defections? Moral disgust? Offers of positions in the next regime? Thanks.

      • It seems pretty varied. You’ll have some cases where people defect because they don’t think it’s in their interests to continue obeying once mass noncooperation and strikes begin (they doubt they’ll get paid next month). Others calculate that the regime will fall imminently and they want to be part of the new system. You’ll have others who defect because they recognize friends/family among the protestors. Some defect because there are divisions at home (e.g. wives, children, etc that are making things uncomfortable at home). And others are simply trying to seize a political opportunity to advance themselves. The main point is that loyalties are quite impermanent and subject to manipulation by a mass movement.

      • Grant

         /  December 2, 2013

        Government type/political norms seems a strong possibility. Looking at Thailand’s politics since World War II it seems clear to me that their elites were always divided at the highest levels, leading to a number of coups that were never very stable and presidents being pushed out by protests, only for the new leaders to be pushed out by supporters of the old.

        Ukraine hasn’t been independent for very long so we have limited data to work with, but it certainly seems to have the same divisions at the top as Thailand does.

        On the other hand the Syrian government does seem to have more unity at the top because of ethnic concerns, which seems to limit the impact and number of defections. True it’s been noted that urban Sunnis have remained neutral in all this and Allawites interviewed have expressed a dislike of their own government, but looking at the violence it seems very ethnic.

        So, even without access to good models (especially since I confess they often seem opaque to me) I’d say that it seems that protesters have a better chance in both Thailand and Ukraine of pushing out the current leaders than they would in other nations with more unity at the top, but sadly little guarantee that it won’t lead to the same situation ten years from now.

  3. Sociologist Edwin Amenta recently wrote a short piece/review for the Collective Behavior and Social Movements section newsletter about movement impact on political and social institutions:

  4. Great comments, guys, thank you.

  5. Coincidentally, Mobilizing Ideas has just posted a great collection of short essays on the failure of social movements. I thought the one by Kevan Harris was especially good, but all are very much worth reading.

  6. Another good recent-ish read on a related topic: Zeynep Tufekci asks and starts to answer, “Is there a social media-fueled protest style?”

  7. The NYT was suggesting that the protesters in Ukraine are trying to attract “people on the inside” — including Klitschko (as you mentioned) : “Even so, civic activists agreed on Saturday night to allow the three main opposition parties to take the lead in organizing the protests: Ms. Tymoshenko’s Fatherland coalition; the Udar party led by the boxing champion Vitali Klitschko; and the nationalist Svoboda party, led by Oleg Tyagnibok.”

  1. The Effervescence of Protest Power | Sosyal Par...
  2. Ukraine and Thailand: They Are the Real Deal | Political Violence @ a Glance
  3. Follow-Up on Bangladesh | Dart-Throwing Chimp
  4. Thoughts on the Power of Civil Resistance | Dart-Throwing Chimp
  5. The Political Power of Intertia | Dart-Throwing Chimp
  6. The Political Power of Inertia | Dart-Throwing Chimp

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