Thursday, February 24, 2005

An interesting piece of news: Syria has announced it will "redeploy" some its troops in Lebanon, from the urban areas to the Bekaa Valley.

Back during my undergrad years, I sat in on a "history of revolutions" class. After a while, I got tired of going to class, my math assignments piled up, and not much was said in class that wasn't in the readings anyway. I stopped going - and did not, of course, get around to looking at the readings on my own.

One thing I do remember from those days, though, is that revolutions are often preceded, and indeed fueled by, mild reform from the ruling regime. Think late 1970s in Tehran: Iran's revolution was preceded by midly succesful pressure from Carter on the Shah to be more respectful of human rights. Or Russia in '91: the overthrow of Communism was preceded by partial reforms towards free speech, i.e. Gorbachev's perestroika and glastnost.

What is the explanation for this? Supposedly, reform by the regime only emboldens the revolutionaries because it demonstrates to them that their actions can have concrete effects. Success becomes less of a pipe dream and more of a reality. Each step that goes towards appeasing the revolution - thought to have a chance calming its anger, turning the people away from the streets - in fact only makes the situation worse for the regime. The best strategy for a despot, according to this theory, is not to make any concessions at all.

Indeed, one possible explanation why some countries have revolutions (Ukraine, Georgia) and others do not (Saddam's Iraq, North Korea) is that the populations of the latter tend to be pessimistic about the possibility of improving their lot. Steadily declining situations are good for tyrannical regimes because they depress the populations; periodic improvements, however, are dangerous because they might make the people see the possibility of living better.

It will be interesting to see if the theory holds up in this case and whether the latest partial concession by Syria emboldens the Lebanese opposition.


At 3:38 PM, Blogger angela said...

"revolutions are often preceded, and indeed fueled by, mild reform from the ruling regime"

but what about france and china?

At 11:09 PM, Blogger alex said...

When Louis XVI tried to prevent national assembly from meeting, they met in the tennis courts anyway and agreed to draft a constitution. Given support for their movie, Louis backed down.

When Louis dismissed ministers sympathetic to the third estate, the Bastille was stormed, and Louis backed down and reversed himself.

The national assembly then functioned for two years, passed a variety of laws, which Louis accepted, and finally made france into a constitutional monarchy where Louis would share power with a legislative assembly. Of course, Louis got killed soon thereafter. But the point is that he gave in to many demands of the revolutionaries, so it fits under this rubric.

I don't know enough about China to answer the second part.

But anyway, you are the last person I expected to insist that theories of this type fit all the data! The most we can observe is that giving in often strengthens the hand of the opposition, and that giving in of this sort accompanied many revolutions in the past. Its not an absolute statement.

At 11:29 PM, Blogger angela said...

i was asking a question, not making the case for a theda skocpol-esque study.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger alex said...

no, you were making the case for skocpol-esque study.

where is my typepad account.... bitch?


At 1:55 AM, Blogger angela said...

bitch, darling, you have to remind me of things. you know how i am... italian.

and i wasnt making the case for any of that positivist crap


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