Why Civil Resistance Works

Here are some working notes on Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2011)

This is their central finding: nonviolent campaigns are nearly twice as likely to win–meaning that they achieve their objectives–as violent campaigns are, and the gap is growing (citing the Kindle edition, locations 315, 337).

This pattern appears to be causal; staying nonviolent increases the odds of success when other factors are held constant. Moreover, countries that have experienced successful nonviolent campaigns are much more likely to achieve “durable and internally peaceful democracies” than those that have experienced violence (351, 1260).

Why would this be? Doesn’t violence help to win many struggles? Didn’t George Washington raise an army to get George III out of the colonies? Chenoweth and Stephan argue:

  1. Nonviolent campaigns are less costly and dangerous to join than violent struggles, so they draw many more people. Although a few participants typically take prominent and perilous roles in a nonviolent campaign, there is also plenty of room for modest acts of support that can preserve the participants’ anonymity and safety (839). Large campaigns sometimes achieve critical mass, when the sheer size of the protests makes it safe to join–and possibly dangerous not to (812). It’s a clear pattern that bigger movements are more likely to win (892). To be sure, some people are drawn by the political potential of violence, the romance of armed struggle, or the sense that being willing to fight confers solidarity and dignity (769, citing Frantz Fanon). But the people drawn to violence tend to be young and male, and a broader base is necessary for victory.
  2. Nonviolent campaigns draw “robust, diverse, and broad-based membership” (351). Diversity is an asset beyond sheer numbers.
    1. When protests are diverse, the authorities can’t “isolate the participants and adopt a repressive strategy short of maximal and indiscriminate repression” (892). In turn, cracking down violently on a broad segment of a population often backfires. Although violent crackdowns do reduce the chance of successful resistance, they also increase the gap in the success rate between nonviolent and violent campaigns (1098, 1421). In other words, if the state is going to attack its citizens, that’s bad news, but the citizens’ smartest move is to remain nonviolent.
    2. Diverse campaigns typically generate a whole range of messages, tactics, and strategies, and that “tactical diversity” allows some options to succeed even if others don’t. In contrast, violent campaigns tend to make irreversible strategic decisions that prove fatal if they fail.
    3. A movement with diverse members is more likely to include people who have personal ties to the security forces, the government, or the business class, so it is more likely to fracture the opposition. Sixty percent of the larger nonviolent campaigns achieve “security force defections (1040). “Fraternization” is an ingredient of many campaigns’ success (1995)
  3. Nonviolent campaigns are much more likely to draw international support (1129).
  4. Authorities have sincere reasons to fear giving up power. Many former rulers have ended their lives before firing squads. Campaigns that are able to maintain the discipline of nonviolence can credibly promise to honor agreements made at the negotiating table, and that increases incumbents’ willingness to yield or share power.

As a matter of definition, we are talking about durable campaigns that have names and goals, not just events, activities, or organizations (426). Nonviolent resistance campaigns employ extra-legal activity (387), not just regular elections or lawsuits. (But sometimes a stolen election is a catalyst for extra-legal protests). They are predominantly and distinctively nonviolent, even though some violence may occur around the margins.

Chenoweth and Stephan contribute to the perennial and basic debate about structure versus agency. A structural theory explains outcomes as a result of big, impersonal forces. For instance, American presidential candidates win if the economic conditions are favorable to them, and not otherwise. It hardly matters what they do or say. An agency theory suggests that it does matter how we choose to act. A structural theory of nonviolent campaigns would attribute their success to factors like fractures in the ruling regime. Chenoweth and Stephan instead “make the case that voluntaristic features of campaigns, notably those related to mechanisms put into place by resistors, are better predictors of success that structural determinants” (1347). As I argue in my Civic Studies video, there are several robust intellectual traditions that not only find agency important in history but also work to enhance agency. Nonviolent resistance is one of those traditions.

As shown on the graph above, many nonviolent resistance campaigns fail. Although they have a surprisingly high success rate, they can still end in tragedy. One challenge is combining unity with diversity. Incorporating many kinds of people in a movement is smart; it clearly increases the odds of success. Yet movements also need unity. It can be hard to convey a coherent message or to negotiate effectively if participants in a movement disagree among themselves.

It’s also easy to overlook–when reading detached cases from distant countries–the sheer emotional difficulty of struggling together within a diverse movement. It sounds like an obviously good thing for the hard-core radicals to join together with police officials who are feeling uneasy about the regime and business interests who see new opportunities. But that’s easier said than done. Even in the relatively tame circumstances of the US in 2018, one can sense deep tensions between people who have been confronting police brutality for decades and people who joined their first protest last January and want to go home safely after the march. Making a movement out of all of them is a spiritual as well as a practical challenge.

I’d interject my SPUD model here. Successful movements must combine unity with plurality, and size with depth, even though those are in tension.

Another challenge is keeping authoritarians from dominating a plural movement. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 began as truly diverse, encompassing religious revolutionaries, secular Marxists, merchants hoping for economic liberalization, civil libertarians, and even a Hippie drug counterculture (2084-2111). To achieve Unity along with all that Pluralism, the movement settled on the Ayatollah Khomeini as a leader, not because they all agreed with his positions but because he seemed uniquely viable (2111). In fact, there wasn’t much discussion in the revolution itself about what Iran should look like after the Shah (2196).  This weakness became critical once the Shah was deposed, the Ayatollah gained power, and he and his allies ruthlessly destroyed all the internal opposition. The question is whether nonviolent social movements can be streams that carry authoritarians into power, and if so, what to do about it.

See also: a sketch of a theory of social movementswhat is a social movement?the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; and self-limiting popular politics.

how to tell if you’re doing good

If you have the capacity to affect other people, there seem to be three basic ways to decide what to do–and then to assess how much good you’ve done once you’ve acted.

  1. You can talk to the people affected. You can consult your fellow citizens or even convene them to deliberate and decide together. The advantages include sensitivity to a wide range of perspectives and considerations, from justice to practicality; nuance and complexity; and the chance for people to learn and enrich their individual views. Asking people to assess and influence the policy also honors their dignity and agency. On the other hand, actually asking very large numbers of people to deliberate and decide everything is prohibitively difficult and expensive. Consulting samples of people fails to enhance the agency of everyone else. Further, discussions are subject to serious and pervasive flaws, such as cognitive biases, inequalities of power and influence, tyranny of the majority, and vulnerability to manipulation and strategic action.
  2. You can predict and empirically assess the impact of what you do. You can use scientific methods to make predictions and test causal hypotheses. Science incorporates safeguards against biases, such as random sampling and blind review. It’s much more likely than deliberation to predict accurately what will happen if you do something. But it cannot determine whether your methods or your goals are good ones. And it confers power on experts (or employers of expertise) in ways that can be problematic.
  3. You can observe price signals. If milk is selling for more than the price of producing it, then people must want milk, and providing it meets a need. The feedback from prices is immediate; it reflects many people’s knowledge, choices, and agency; it’s hard to manipulate; and it allows comparisons. Since you are responsible for allocating finite resources among all possible purposes, prices give you a common metric. One evident drawback  is inequality. For example, market prices would suggest that there’s weak demand for clean water, even though 2.1 billion people lack access to it. They have too little money to affect prices. However, if you are concerned with justice, you can adjust price signals for equity. For instance, you can give poor people money and let them decide how to spend it, instead of dictating their choices. The other major problem with price signals is that they fail to make moral distinctions. Methamphetamine and antibiotics both have prices. It takes a combination of science (to assess affects) and deliberation (to discuss values) to determine that antibiotics are good while meth is bad.

All sectors of a modern society use all three methods. But I would argue that democratic governments are particularly obliged and well-suited to use deliberation. The fact that every citizen has a vote reflects: 1) the equal right of each person to affect outcomes, and 2) the obligation of every citizen to learn and discuss before making choices. For that reason, governments have formed parliamentary bodies and courts that are supposed to deliberate, they have safeguarded free speech, and they have built ways of consulting publics. Unlike a discretionary decision by a private entity, a government program must be subject to public deliberation because it is the people’s government.

Nonprofit associations and philanthropies use discussion and price-signals. But they are particularly well suited to use “science” (in its broadest form, including ad hoc experimentation and program evaluation). The fact that there are large numbers of modest-sized nonprofits and donors means that each one can try different things and observe the effects without accumulating dangerous amounts of power and influence. When their experiments work, others can pick them up. And unlike for-profit firms, they can ignore price signals in order to pursue goals that they believe in for moral reasons. This is why program evaluation is so common in the non-profit sector, whereas major governmental decisions–even massive tax cuts or wars–are hardly ever subject to formal evaluation.

Companies, obviously, use price-signals. If Toyota can’t sell enough Corollas at a profit, it will realize it must change its business. If it observes that Subaru is more profitable, it will consider copying Subaru. However, it’s worth noting that prices offer insufficient guidance even for profit-maximizing firms. Again, assume that Toyota suddenly cannot sell enough Corollas. It must find out why not, and that will probably require some combination of asking people what they value and studying causes and effects–the same techniques used by democratic governments and philanthropies.

Among people committed to democracy and/or philanthropy, prices provoke unease. When something previously offered free is charged for, critics will complain of “neoliberalism” and “marketization” or “commodification.” But if that good was scarce and provided to some group without a charge, then someone must have decided to allocate resources for that purpose and to that group (instead of to something and someone else). Those who make such decisions are morally responsible for exercising their power well. They should strive to determine whether their choices benefit the world. Consultation and science are two means for that purpose, but both have limitations. Prices are also very useful for determining demand and for making comparisons. Not only should responsible people notice prices, but they should worry about whether their actions (through governments and philanthropies) are distorting price signals in ways the deprive them of useful information about other people’s needs. For instance, if you offer free tuition, you can no longer tell whether schooling is what people want.

On the other hand, prices certainly do not offer all the necessary and relevant information, even for people and firms that want to make a profit–and still less for people who pursue justice.

why study social justice?

I just finished teaching a philosophy course in which the primary question was “How should I live?” We spent some time reading and thinking about personal and internal questions, such as what constitutes happiness and truthfulness and whether those are possible and desirable states. We also talked about political justice, reading a fairly standard canon of Mill, Rawls, Nozick, and Scanlon, plus Bayard Rustin, Kwasi Wiredu, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Steve Biko, Audre Lorde, and Susan Bickford. The premise of those readings was that it might be important to know what justice is when choosing how to live a good life.

Meanwhile, my students were introspecting about the principles that guide their lives and how those principles are organized into networks of moral ideas.

The students, as they recognize, emphasize attitudes toward concrete other people in their lives plus values related to learning: empathy, openness, and hard work. The kinds of ideals that figure in political theory–liberty, equality, welfare, and democracy–are mostly absent or marginal from their maps of their own animating ideals.

They offered several explanations for this gap between what I’d assigned and what they perceived when they looked inward. Some thought it was evidence of their own privilege: they don’t have to think about freedom because they take it for granted. (For the same reason, they don’t list “having enough to eat” as a guiding principle.) Others thought their introspective maps were developmentally appropriate: their job right now is to learn and revise their views, not to hold onto principles. Some were skeptical about the validity of any abstract principles of justice. And some thought that their own views reflected political discouragement or disenfranchisement at a hard time in our history. They don’t strive directly for democracy because they don’t believe that they can.

The question arises, Why should we study and conduct research on justice? Why should justice be part of any curriculum, and specifically a curriculum whose leading question is about the good life for the individual students?

I think my colleagues in academia (writ large) would divide on that question.

For some academics, justice seems irrelevant to their professional work or is a mere matter of opinion. “Who decides what’s good or bad?” is a frequent question. It suggests that we scholars and students shouldn’t try to define justice and defend our stances in academic contexts, publications and classrooms. The most we should do is to study and explain why various populations define justice in various ways.

For some academics, commitment to justice is measured by the degree of one’s distaste for the prevailing political and economic system. The way to assess whether a colleague is oriented to justice is to see how strongly she or he opposes the status quo. One way to demonstrate such opposition is to study various concrete forms of injustice. Thus justice-oriented scholars are those who investigate and teach situations that should be abhorred.

By this standard, my curriculum would be deficient, since we did not go deeply into the empirical facts about poverty, racism, or tyranny. Moreover, we read authors chosen for their divergent views. By the time you see that Hayek and Nozick would like less government than we have, and Rawls and Scanlon would like more, you could perhaps conclude that we have about the right amount of government. I’m not saying that splitting the difference would be valid logic, but the question is whether ideological diversity might have the psychological effect of making students confused or complacent.

I belong to a third category of academics, for whom being seriously concerned with justice means asking what it is and what we can do to promote it. Both parts of that question are topics for research. One can study what justice is by critically investigating the available theories and their relationship to concrete facts. One can also study strategies and tactics for promoting justice. Those two topics intersect, because a goal without any plausible strategy is not much of a goal; and a strategy without a defensible account of its purpose is not worth undertaking. I criticize what’s called “ideal theory” in political philosophy because its focus on end states–without serious consideration of strategy–yields misleading results.

Speaking of privilege, I am privileged to move across communities with quite different ideological centers. One day recently, I was at a conference where libertarian economists were well represented and may have predominated. A speaker showed a photo of FDR and said something like, “Since we’re all classical liberals, I can count on you to hate this guy.” I suspect the speaker overestimated the ideological uniformity of his audience; I may have had some company in deeply admiring Franklin D. Roosevelt. But it was certainly a different context from the Tufts classroom where, on the very next day, we discussed this fascinating exchange between Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter activist Julius Jones about how to diagnose and address racial injustice in America. The center of gravity in that room lay somewhere between Clinton and Jones, with only one student openly asking whether the assumption that those two people share–that America is deeply racist–is a given.

The disadvantage of posing the question “what is justice?” in a truly open way is that one can discourage action. For instance, I think that the pending tax bill is awful, but I also have questions about some arguments against it. There’s a strong equity-based argument for curtailing the charitable tax deduction, and there’s even a case that the Republicans have generated new federal revenues while passing a deeply unpopular tax cut for the upper stratum, which is likely to be repealed. The net result, as early as 2019, may be a larger stream of revenue than would have had been possible without this bill. But making such critical points (if anyone paid attention) could dampen enthusiasm for the opposition, and there’s a plausible case that the tax bill is on its way to passage because of relatively weak popular opposition. I wouldn’t want to undermine anyone’s motivation to protest by posing awkward questions.

The advantage, of course, is learning. I feel challenged and enriched by the conference at which libertarians were well represented. I think I understand better the relative advantages and disadvantages of three ways of understanding what works in the real world: talking with people, conducting scientific research on impact, and observing price signals. The last category is valuable for reasons that you won’t notice if you hang around all the time with lefties.

In the end, we need both commitment and critical analysis, both true openness to alternative views and effective, coordinated action. We need utopian vistas and hard-nosed tactics. The balance is very hard, but there must be at least a place for abstract and dispassionate inquiry into the nature of justice.

[See also: social justice should not be a clichéwe are for social justice, but what is it?a method of mapping moral commitments as networks.]

Civic Studies video introduction

This is a 16-minute talk in which I offer my own summary of “Civic Studies,” the nascent field that emerged with “The New Civic Politics: Civic Theory and Practice for the Future,” a 2007 manifesto, and has since developed during 20 Summer Institutes of Civic Studies at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life and in Eastern Europe, other conferences and meetings, and writing by a range of scholars and activists.

why the deliberative democracy framework doesn’t quite work for me

In some ways, I came of age in the field of deliberative democracy. I had an internship at the Kettering Foundation when I was a college sophomore (when the foundation defined itself more purely in deliberative terms than it does today). By that time, I had already taken a philosophy seminar on the great deliberative theorist Jürgen Habermas. In the three decades since then, I’ve served on the boards of Kettering, Everyday Democracy, and AmericaSPEAKS. I wrote a book with “deliberative democracy” in its subtitle and co-edited The Deliberative Democracy Handbook with John Gastil. I was one of many co-founders of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and have served on its steering committee since the last century.

None of these groups is committed to deliberation in a narrow sense (although opinions differ within the field). For me, these are the main limitations of focusing on deliberation as the central topic or unit of analysis:

Deliberative values are worthy ones, but they are not the only worthy ones. My own values would also include personal liberties and nonnegotiable rights, concerns for nature, and virtues of the inner life, such as equanimity and personal development. Stating my values doesn’t substitute for an argument, but it may suffice to make the point that deliberation is not the only good thing, and it’s in tension with other goods. A deliberative democrat will reply that I should discuss my values with other people. And so I should–but that doesn’t mean that the norms intrinsic to deliberation trump all other norms. Nor are fellow citizens the only sources of guidance; introspecting, reading ancient texts, consulting legal precedents, and conducting scientific experiments are helpful, too.

By the same token, deliberative virtues are not the only civic virtues. Deliberation is about discourse–talking and listening–so its virtues are discursive ones: humility and openness, empathy, sincerity, and perhaps eloquence. (The list is contested.) But a good citizen may be hard-working, physically courageous, or aesthetically creative instead of especially good at deliberating. The people who physically built the Athenian agora were as important as the people who exchanged ideas in it.

Deliberation depends on social organization. In order for people to have something that’s worth discussing, they must already make, control, or influence things of value together. That requires social organization, whether in the form of a market, a commons, a voluntary association, a functional network, or a political institution. Discussion rarely precedes these forms, because people can’t and won’t come together in completely amorphous groupings. Discussion is more typically a moment in an ongoing process of governance. Often a small group of founders chooses the rules-in-use that create a group in which deliberation can occur.

Thus we should ask about leadership and rules, not just about deliberation. Another way to put that point is that deliberation is often a good rule for a group to follow, but it is only one of the rules that they need. Indeed, some functional groups wisely choose rules that limit deliberation or that keep excessively divisive topics off the agenda.

A good argument for deliberation is that people gain practical wisdom and make better judgments by exchanging ideas and information. I see enough potential in that process to disagree with Austrian School economists who think that there is no way to make informed decisions without the data provided by prices in an unregulated market. But the ideas that arise in a deliberation (just like the prices that emerge in a market) are highly fallible. We ought to consider as much information as we can, including market signals and scientific findings as well as other people’s ideas and values. This is an argument for deliberation, but only as one source of guidance. In an ideal deliberative democracy, where “the people” governed through discourse alone, there would be no price signals, and so groups would make poor decisions.

The logic of deliberative democracy suggests that every institution should be a mini-public in which equal members exchange reasons. Moreover, there should be no rigid barriers among institutions: One Big Deliberation is the implicit goal. That goal has been challenged by “difference democrats” like Nancy Fraser, who writes, “public life in egalitarian, multicultural societies cannot consist exclusively in a single, comprehensive public sphere.” Fraser favors “a multiplicity of publics” over a “single public”; and she particularly celebrates “subaltern counterpublics,” meaning “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (“Rethinking the Public Sphere,” 1994). I’m for that, but I would go further. We need not only “subaltern counterpublics” in which minority groups hold their own deliberative conversations. We also need non-deliberative institutions: hierarchical churches, efficient markets, massive social networks, and laboratories. That is because a plurality of power-centers–polycentricity—is essential to maintain liberty. 

Finally, deliberation by itself has limited power, and especially limited power to challenge dedicated opponents, such as authoritarian states and metastasizing markets. Authoritarian states can be persuaded to organize deliberative fora: see Baogan He & Mark E. Warren, “Authoritarian Deliberation in China,” Deadalus (summer 2017). Deliberative processes help the Party manage complex problems that would undermine its authority if left unaddressed. But deliberative fora don’t challenge illiberal regimes or powerful companies unless they are “free spaces” (Evans and Boyte) within social movements that can deploy power.

Because deliberative values are genuine values, it is absolutely worth giving them attention–in both theory and practice. But because deliberation depends upon so many other values, virtues, institutional forms, and political configurations, it is best not analyzed or pursued on its own.

The truth in Hayek

(Washington, DC) You are reading English; I am writing it. English has elaborate rules and conventions. You can break the rules, but that has consequences beyond your control. Mess up your grammar in a job interview and you may not get the position. On the other hand, talk very formally in a dorm hallway and you may come across as a geek.

English also has many limitations. There are things for which we lack words. There are words without rhymes. There are words that sound awkward together. Using the language can be a struggle for people at any level of proficiency. It was a struggle for Shakespeare, as you can sense when you see him trying to convey ideas that had never been said before in his language.

Yet hardly anyone experiences the rules and limitations of English as an infringement on liberty. Why not?

  1. No individual or committee designed the language. Its limitations, therefore, are not the result of anyone’s will. Not being able to express something in English is like not being able to run at 60 miles/hour: a constraint, but not an example of coercion, because no one is coercing you.
  2. No one can change the language wholesale. We can work to change it, one piece at a time. In my lifetime, “man” has ceased to mean “human being.” That change is a result of deliberate argument and advocacy. But it’s a change of one word, and it required lots of voluntary agreement to become a new norm.
  3. Language is predicable. Within any linguistic context, the rules-in-use (not necessarily the official rules written down in grammar books) are quite stable. Change is gradual. Therefore, we can usually predict how a listener will understand a given phrase. Its predictability makes language a tool for intentional agents, something that we can plan to use for our own ends.

Friedrich von Hayek admires emergent systems. They are “complex and orderly and, in a very definite sense, purposive institutions [that] owe very little to design” (Constitution of Liberty, p. 58). Each system is a “self -maintaining whole which is kept going by forces which we cannot replace.” (p. 70). It is “not invented but arose from the actions of many men who did not know what they are doing.” (pp. 58-9). It demonstrates “organic, slow, half-conscious growth” versus “intelligent men coming together for deliberation about how to make the world anew” (pp. 56-7).

Hayek sees an intrinsic link between emergent systems and liberty, for the three reasons numbered above. Another advantage of emergent systems is that they avoid human cognitive limitations. They create complexity without relying on anyone’s brainpower to design the whole system well.

Hayek thinks of markets as emergent systems, and that is why he is associated with the political right. He opposes the idea of “social justice” (p. 65), arguing that to assess a complex system according to your own idea of justice is actually antisocial. You are substituting your opinion for what a whole society has created through emergent processes, such as market exchange.

I disagree with this important strand in Hayek. I view markets as substantially the products of political power and intentional design, in the form of laws that create and structure economic activity. I also view modern markets as the domain of large corporations that are run by (more or less) “intelligent men coming together for deliberation.” For instance, the online marketplace is not just an emergent system but an archipelago of designed islands (Amazon, Google, Facebook, the App Store). Finally, I don’t think that liberty, in Hayek’s sense, is the only important good. So even when markets do meet Hayek’s criteria of emergence and thus generate liberty (in his sense), I’m not satisfied if they are also deeply unequal, destructive, or inhumane. Note that Hayek may agree on this point (p. 18).

Having noted my disagreement with Hayek on the question of markets, I would like to underline the value of his overall view. Even with respect to economics, it is important to recognize the link between markets and liberty in the specifically Hayekian sense. His argument is not that markets offer negative liberty (freedom to do what you want), nor that they guarantee happiness or prosperity. His argument is that markets allow you to form and implement your own plans, which is a form of liberty. There is considerable truth to this position.

Besides, markets are not the only examples of emergent systems, and not the purest or best ones. Consider indigenous human cultures that are deeply embedded in natural ecosystems. The people who admire such examples and want to conserve them against the imperialistic forces of science and the state are typically on the left. Here I am not only talking about hunter-gatherer societies in distant rainforests. Plenty of leftish Americans will regard an elaborate but fragile community, like Boston’s Chinatown, as a valuable emergent system and will strongly oppose planning that disrupts it. So you can be a left-Hayekian.

Another example is the Internet. Today it is dominated by such large designed platforms as Amazon. But I remember when it emerged with very simple, very stable protocols that allowed maximum scope for creativity. The result was beautifully Hayekian, in contrast to the planned network of the telephone company. The fact that it has evolved to be dominated by multi-billion-dollar companies with centrally planned algorithms is an argument against Hayek’s pro-market complacency. The market has undermined Hayekian values. Still, the best response is to make the Internet more of an emergent system through rules like net-neutrality—not to try to design the content of the World Wide Web.

Finally, I tend to agree with Hayek’s view of ethics. Moral rules are, “next to language … the most important instance of an undesigned growth.” We observe them because of their consequences even though we do not know what their consequences will be (p. 67). That makes sense given human fallibility. Hayek rejects the Socratic ideal of questioning everything. “This givenness of the value framework implies that, although we must always strive to improve our institutions, we can never aim to remake them as a whole and that, in our efforts to improve them, we must take for granted much that we do not understand” (p. 63). Habermas uses the word “givenness” in exactly the same way when he also argues for criticizing values one at a time, never wholesale. Here the Austrian School and the Frankfurt School coincide.

[See also:  Lifeworld and System: a primerit’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedFoucault and neoliberalism]

new research on “civic deserts”

(Washington, DC) My colleagues Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Felicia Sullivan coined the phrase “civic deserts” to name places where there are few or no opportunities to be active and constructive participants in civic life. The analogy is to “food deserts”–geographical communities where there is little or no nutritious food for sale. You can still be an active citizen in a civic desert, just as you can grow vegetables in your back yard; it’s just that the whole burden falls on you.

Today at the National Conference on Citizenship, we are releasing Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenge by Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland, and me. It’s a 36-page report that documents the declining opportunities for civic engagement in America. John Bridgeland and Robert Putnam also write about it today in a PBS opinion piece.

This is an example of a table from the report:

Thanks to friends at USC’s Center for Economic and Social Research, we were able to ask a  large, representative sample of Americans whether they belonged to various kinds of groups; if so, whether they participated actively in any of them; and if so, whether they thought that the group’s leaders (a) usually did what they promised and (b) usually tried to serve and include all the members. It turns out that only 28% of adult Americans actively belong to groups whose leaders are accountable and inclusive. That statistic does not tell us how much geographical space is taken up by civic deserts, but it suggests that they are common. And the historical data implies that civic engagement used to be much more widespread.

I separately formed a hypothesis that lacking direct, personal experience with good leadership would make a person more tolerant of the leadership style of Donald J. Trump, controlling for one’s political ideology. In other words, given two people who agree with Trump on issues, the one without experience of good local leadership would be more supportive of Trump as a leader. This was testable with the USC data, which includes a whole battery of questions about ideology, issues, and Trump. My hypothesis turned out not to be true: partisanship and media choice seem to explain opinions of the current president almost completely, and experience in groups adds no explanatory power. Still, I think there may be a more circuitous story about civic deserts as a cause of Trump’s victory: the decline of civic associations increases the power of partisan heuristics and ideological media. Even if that hypothesis is also false, civic deserts are still a problem, because civic engagement benefits health, economic development, safety, education, and good government.

See also: The Hollowing Out of US Democracy (my blog post for USC); Mitigating the Negative Consequences of Living in Civic Deserts – What Digital Media Can (and have yet to) Do (a new CIRCLE article); America needs big ideas to heal our divides. Here are three by Bridgeland and Putnam; and the power of the NRA in an age of civic deserts.

the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School

Many years ago, I met Vincent and Elinor Ostrom in the seminar room of what is now the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University in Bloomington. I then had several personal interactions with Lin Ostrom, and I’ve been back a few times to Bloomington. (I even wrote a poem about a B&B there once.) I have taught and studied her work and am writing a book in which the tradition that she and Vincent founded–the Bloomington School–is one of three essential components of a theory of citizenship. (The other two are the post-War Frankfurt School and the tradition of political nonviolence: Gandhi/King.) She is, for me, the model scholar.

Today, I was able to speak about Lin Ostrom’s legacy in that same seminar room. I tried to place the Bloomington School in the context of major currents of political theory and civic renewal. A video of my talk is already up on the Workshop’s website. The title is “Elinor Ostrom and the Citizen’s Basic Question: What Should We Do?”

See also: Elinor Ostrom wins the Nobel!Elinor Ostrom speaking at TuftsElinor Ostrom, 1933-2012Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need, and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II),

against state-centric political theory

What do all these statements have in common?

  1. “Republicanism is a consequentialist doctrine which assigns to government, in particular to governmental authorities, the task of promoting freedom as n0n-domination.” — Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government
  2. “Of course governments may delegate … to private entities, but in the end it is government, meaning the society’s basic political structure, that bears the ultimate responsibilities for securing capabilities …. . The Capabilities Approach … insists that all entitlements involve an affirmative task for government: it must actively support people’s capabilities, not just fail to set up obstacles. … Fundamental rights are only words unless and until they are made real by government action.” — Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach
  3. “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.” — John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
  4. “The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country. He will ask rather ‘What can I and my compatriots do through government’ to help us discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all, to protect our freedom? And he will accompany this question with another: How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?” — Milton Friedman, Capitalism as Freedom

These authors disagree about what the government should do and what powers it should have. Friedman wants as little government as necessary to protect a certain kind of freedom. Nussbaum and Rawls would assign the state the powers it needs to guarantee a range of social outcomes. Pettit starts with a particular conception of freedom and concludes with an argument for an assertive state.

But all agree that justice means getting the role of the government right.

One objection to this shared premise is that no government alone can determine whether people experience justice or injustice. Amartya Sen begins his book The Idea of Justice with a quote from Great Expectations (“In the little world in which children have their existence, nothing is so finely felt and perceived as injustice”) to support the point that non-state actors–in Pip’s case, an older sister–can be just or unjust in ways that no state would be able to determine.

I agree, but my objection is different and (I think) more radical. All the books quoted above are about justice, but their authors and readers are not governments. Instead, these books are written by people for people. People can adopt views of what governments should do, and sometimes people influence governments. But individual people–even dictators–cannot directly make governments either just or unjust. The question for these authors and their readers should be: What must we do?

From that perspective, governments do enter the picture, as do families, markets, customs, religions, ecosystems, laws of nature, and many other tools and constraints. The question for us is not how each of these things should ideally work (if so, I’d favor laws of nature that guarantee us all perfect happiness forever), but rather how we should deal with the constraints and opportunities that confront us.

In particular, the governments that we deal with differ greatly. Some of us live in Denmark; others in North Korea or Bukina Faso. All the authors cited above would agree that Denmark’s government is better than North Korea’s, but that conclusion has limited value for residents of either country. Further, citizens of Denmark can fine-tune the justice of their government’s policies by supporting the political parties that best reflect their views. In North Korea (because of tyranny) and in Burkina Faso (because of poverty), that approach to improving the world isn’t really available.

My objection is not that governments should play a more limited role than they play today or than some theorists recommend. As an individual voter, it happens that I would support more assertive government. My objection is to treating the question, “What is a good government?” as an answer to the existential question, “What should I do as a citizen?” Apart from voting for the party that recommends my favorite size and type of government, what am I to do?

I’d venture an analogy to a family of theological views. For many theists, God is the Unmoved Mover, ultimately responsible for everything but not subject to being changed. Our stance toward God should involve such virtues as hope and faith. We can pray for certain outcomes, and we can be confident that divine choices will be just. We can ask what God is likely to do, given that God is just. We cannot, however, choose how God will act.

Likewise, in all the political philosophies cited above, the state is the unmoved mover of a system of justice. Unlike God, a state can either be good or bad; it can merit admiration or criticism. And we can debate whether the state should be more or less powerful (in contrast to God, Who is all-powerful). But these theories all suppose that the question of justice is: What is the ideal state? This question resembles the theological question, What are the attributes of God? It is a matter for analysis and inquiry, but not a choice.

Of course, everyone realizes that people make and change governments. The modern Danish state didn’t arise spontaneously; Danes made it and sustain it. They have also made the Danish language and economy and the physical layout of Danish towns and the countryside. But the strategies and ethics of citizens’ action are sidelined in all these political philosophies–even in Friedman’s libertarianism. He wants the state to do little, and private actors to do what they want; but that’s still not a theory of how we can accomplish justice. Again, if we are Danes who agree with Friedman, we can vote for classical-liberal candidates; but if we are North Koreans, Friedman’s ideals are empty.

How did a strategy for influencing the world become available in Denmark that is absent in North Korea? Because of the past behavior of people, both inside these countries and beyond.

Perhaps political philosophers focus on the state because they believe that blueprints of just political orders influence history. Without Locke, no American Revolution; without Rousseau, no French Revolution; without Marx, no Russian Revolution. The social impact of abstract philosophy is a large question on which I claim no special expertise. However, my general premise is that the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk and doesn’t see all that well. Locke writes after the actual English Revolution of 1688 and tries to make theoretical sense of it. He has some influence on the American framers, but they have many other influences as well, including their hands-on experiences in colonial government. Likewise, Robespierre may have carried his copy of Rousseau around with him–and Lenin, his Marx–but the actual revolutions that they led didn’t resemble these blueprints all that well. Not to mention that most sustainable change doesn’t occur during revolutions at all. It reflects slow, cumulative, experimental adjustments that are theorized after the fact.

Another reason that most political philosophers focus on the state rather than people may be that the actions of citizens appear to be theoretically uninteresting. Action is a matter of praxis, and the only question is empirical: Given the actual circumstances, what will work to move the society toward justice? That’s a question for strategists and empirical students of activism, lobbying, elections, social movements, revolutions, and so on, but not for political philosophers.

This is where I dissent. When we set out to change the world, we must decide what is right for us to do under the circumstances. The main way to test our answers to that question is to discuss them with other people. We must also coordinate our actions to increase our odds of changing the world. Unless we have already coordinated with some other people, we probably lack a venue in which to deliberate, because a deliberation is itself a shared activity, and it almost always takes place within an organization of some kind that we must sustain.

Deliberating and coordinating action generate relatively consistent classes of problems. They are hard problems, yet some groups of people have solved them. These problems are just as conceptually and ethically complex as the problem of designing a good state. But they are more pressing for us, because we can deliberate and coordinate, but we cannot implement our ideas of a good state. The only way that states will get better is if people (including those who work in and for states) deliberate and coordinate better. And–while we are at it–we can also change cultures, markets, religions, and even ecosystems. Theorizing that work is the task of Civic Studies.

See also: Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need; Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II)new book–Civic Studies: Approaches to the Emerging Field; and The Good Society symposium on Civic Studies

Lifeworld and System: a primer

The great social theorist Jürgen Habermas has drawn attention–for more than half a century–to the problem that he calls the “colonization of the Lifeworld by System.” Here is my explanation, based mainly on a rare concrete example from his Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2. 

The Lifeworld, for Habermas, is the background of ordinary life: mainly private, somewhat naive and biased, but also authentic and essential to our satisfaction as human beings. It is a “reservoir of taken-for-granteds, of unshaken convictions that participants in communication draw upon in cooperative processes of interpretation.” In the Lifeworld, we mostly communicate with people we know and who share our daily experience, so our communications tend to be opaque to outsiders and certainly not persuasive to people unlike us. But Habermas argues that we are incapable of thinking about everything at once. In order to reason and communicate, we must take most points as givens. Only then can “single elements, specific taken-for-granteds” be brought up for conversation and critical analysis.

Meanwhile, the “System” is composed of formal organizations, such as governments, corporations, parties, unions, and courts. People in a System have official roles and must pursue pre-defined goals (albeit sometimes with ethical constraints). For example, defense lawyers are required to defend their clients, corporate CEOs are supposed to maximize profit, and comptrollers are supposed to reduce waste in their own organizations. In the current period, there are fundamentally two Systems: markets (in which instrumental action leads to profit) and governments (in which instrumental action demonstrates power). Although the people who work in markets and governments are complex individuals with other commitments, their official work responsibilities are to maximize money or to administer power.

To illustrate the Lifeworld, Habermas invites us to envision an “older construction worker who sends a younger and newly arrived co-worker to fetch some beer, telling him to hurry up and be back in a few minutes.” The senior worker assumes that a whole set of beliefs and values are shared on the team: German construction workers enjoy and expect to drink beer at breaks during the workday, beer is for sale in the vicinity, the younger and/or most recently hired person is the one who does unpaid chores for the group, and so on. Each of these assumptions could be brought into doubt and subjected to debate. For instance, as Habermas suggests, the younger worker might say, “But I don’t have a car,” or “I’m not thirsty.” Other “elements of the situation” might generally pass unnoticed yet become relevant as circumstances change. If the younger worker is an immigrant without health coverage and he falls off the ladder as he goes to buy the beer, several relevant laws and controversies may suddenly occur to the workers, moving from their background knowledge to topics of explicit discussion. But at any given moment, simply by virtue of being human, the workers must assume most features of the situation as a shared and implicit background, a “vast and incalculable web of presuppositions.” This is their Lifeworld.

In order for the workers (or any other group of people) to be free and self-governing, they must be able to render any aspect of the Lifeworld problematic. It is a definitive feature of modernity that no assumptions are considered immune to critique; and it is a condition of democracy that no critique is blocked by law or other force. When the younger construction worker notes that no beer is available within walking distance and he doesn’t have a car, he is giving a reason for someone else to go. This turns his work group into a small Public Sphere. To the extent it is democratic and deliberative, his reasons will require responses.

Imagine (to go beyond Habermas’ presentation of this example) that the radio is playing as these men work. A news program includes an interview with a feminist activist who criticizes the construction industry for hiring very few women, followed by an immigrant leader who notes that alcohol is forbidden to Muslims (thus the assumption that everyone wants to drink beer is exclusionary), followed by a health expert who attributes disease to excessive daytime beer consumption. These people are making arguments that compel critical attention to specific aspects of the workers’ Lifeworld. They represent the larger Public Sphere of the Federal Republic or the European Union. It doesn’t matter whether the interviewees have self-interested motivations, such as selling copies of their books, or whether the radio station is a for-profit company trying to attract listeners. The format of any reasonably well-run news program will compel the speakers to give reasons that can be checked and assessed by reporters and listeners. This is a case of a democratic Public Sphere challenging citizens to reflect about aspects of their Lifeworld.

But although every particular point should be subject to discussion, the whole Lifeworld must be protected. One reason is that we need the Lifeworld to think at all, for we are capable of testing a specific assumption only while holding our other assumptions for granted. A second reason is that our Lifeworld is ours, a condition of living authentically. Any political program that tries to strip a group of people of their accumulated assumptions all at once would be totalitarian. A radio program that brings separate issues to the workers’ attention expands their thinking; but if a revolutionary government seizes all the radio stations and begins broadcasting propaganda against contemporary German working-class culture as a whole, that is a threat to their Lifeworld.

Meanwhile, the Lifeworld is vulnerable to manipulation by interested parties who act instrumentally. For example, suppose that on the radio, the workers hear men with similar accents to their own praising a particular brand of beer. Maybe women are also heard, enjoying these men’s company and appreciating their good taste. It sounds as if friends have entered the real Lifeworld of the construction site, but these supposed friends are really actors who are are paid to sell beer. Of course, the workers will understand the purpose of an advertisement, yet by skillfully imitating their authentic Lifeworld, the ad can affect their behavior. No reasons need be given; no rebuttal is invited. In this case, Habermas would say that the Lifeworld of the workers has been colonized by the System of markets. The System of government might similarly colonize their Lifeworld if a candidate for public office started talking on the radio as if he were their friend who shared their values and experiences.

In discussions of Systems colonizing Lifeworlds, common examples include commercial advertisements that masquerade as authentic communications. These are cases of “commodification”: firms mining the Lifeworld for economic advantage. Habermas also emphasizes the tendency of welfare state bureaucracies to “juridify” or “judicialize” the Lifeworld. For instance, when well-intentioned states seek to protect pupils and parents against unfairness in testing and discipline, fairness “is gained at the cost of a judicialization and bureaucratization that penetrates deep into the teaching and learning process,” depersonalizing the school, inhibiting innovation, and undermining relationships.

A neo-Marxist line of criticism faults Habermas for equating juridification with commodification and the state with the market. This critique hold that the underlying process is capitalist exploitation, and the welfare-state is only a threat to the Lifeworld because it is a tool of capital. Habermas disagrees. For him the underlying process is growing specialization, a feature of modernity. He insists that in socialist societies, the state colonizes the Lifeworld in a parallel way to the market’s colonization in capitalist societies; and in welfare states, both threats operate at once.

[It turns out that I have posted 58 times before on Habermas, collected here. My broadest posts are probably Habermas and critical theory (a primer)saving Habermas from the deliberative democrats; and Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.]