Humans understand and explain through stories, and the stories we in the US tell about why people rebel against their governments usually revolve around deprivation and injustice. In the prevailing narratives, rebellion occurs when states either actively make people suffer or passively fail to alleviate their suffering. Rebels in the American colonies made this connection explicit in the Declaration of Independence. This is also how we remember and understand lots of other rebellions we “like” and the figures who led them, from Moses to Robin Hood to Nelson Mandela.
As predictors of revolution, though, deprivation and injustice don’t fare so well. A chart in a recent Bloomberg Business piece on “the 15 most miserable economies in the world” got me thinking about this again. The chart shows the countries that score highest on a crude metric that sums a country’s unemployment rate and annual change in its consumer price index. Here are the results for 2015:
Of the 15 countries on that list, only two—Ukraine and Colombia—have ongoing civil wars, and it’s pretty hard to construe current unemployment or inflation as relevant causes in either case. Colombia’s civil war has run for decades. Ukraine’s war isn’t so civil (<cough> Russia <cough>), and this year’s spike in unemployment and inflation are probably more consequences than causes of that fighting. Frankly, I’m surprised that Venezuela hasn’t seen a sustained, large-scale challenge to its government since Hugo Chavez’s death and wonder if this year will prove different. But, so far, it hasn’t. Ditto for South Africa, where labor actions have at least hinted the potential for wider rebellion.
That chart, in turn, reminded me of a 2011 New York Times column by Charles Blow called “The Kindling of Change,” on the causes of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. Blow wrote, “It is impossible to know exactly which embers spark a revolution, but it’s not so hard to measure the conditions that make a country prime for one.” As evidence, he offered the following table comparing countries in the region on several “conditions”:
The chart, and the language that precede it, seem to imply that these factors are ones that obviously “prime” countries for revolution. If that’s true, though, then why didn’t we see revolutions in the past few years in Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Jordan, and Iran? Morocco and Sudan saw smaller protest waves that failed to produce revolutions, but so did Kuwait and Bahrain. And why did Syria unravel while those others didn’t? It’s true that poorer countries are more susceptible to rebellions than richer ones, but it’s also true that poor countries are historically common and rebellions are not.
All of which makes me wonder how much our theories of rebellion are really theories at all, and not more awkward blends of selective observation and ideology. Maybe we believe that injustice explains rebellion because we want to live in a universe in which justice triumphs and injustice gets punished. When violent or nonviolent rebellions erupt, we often watch and listen to the participants enumerate grievances about poverty and indignity and take those claims as evidence of underlying causes. We do this even though we know that humans are unreliable archivists and interpreters of their own behavior and motivations, and that we could elicit similar tales of poverty and indignity from many, many more people who are not rebelling in those societies and others. If a recent study generalizes, then we in the US and other rich democracies are also consuming news that systematically casts rebels in a more favorable light than governments during episodes of protest and civil conflict abroad.
Meanwhile, when rebel groups don’t fit our profile as agents of justice, we rarely expand our theories of revolution to account for these deviant cases. Instead, we classify the organizations as “terrorists”, “radicals”, or “criminals” and explain their behavior in some other way, usually one that emphasizes flaws in the character or beliefs of the participants or manipulations of them by other nefarious agents. Boko Haram and the Islamic State are rebel groups in any basic sense of that term, but our explanations of their emergence often emphasize indoctrination instead of injustice. Why?
I don’t mean to suggest that misery, dignity, and rebellion are entirely uncoupled. Socioeconomic and emotional misery may and probably do contribute in some ways to the emergence of rebellion, even if they aren’t even close to sufficient causes of it. (For some deeper thinking on the causal significance of social structure, see this recent post by Daniel Little.)
Instead, I think I mean this post to serve as plea to avoid the simple versions of those stories, at least when we’re trying to function as explainers and not activists or rebels ourselves. In light of what we think we know about confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, the fact that a particular explanation harmonizes with our values and makes us feel good should not be mistaken for evidence of its truth. If anything, it should motivate us to try harder to break it.