Mass Mobilisation as an Instrument of Political Coercion

Mass mobilisation refers to mobilisation of civilian population as part of contentious politics. Contentious politics is the use of disruptive techniques to make a political point, or to change government policy. Examples of such techniques are actions that disturb the normal activities of society such as demonstrations, general strike action, riot, terrorism, civil disobedience, and even revolution or insurrection. Social movements often engage in contentious politics.

Mass mobilisation is often used by grassroots-based social movements, including revolutionary movements, but can also become a tool of elites and the state itself — as seen during the corona “crisis” by the heavy concerted use of mass media by some governments (and vice versa — today’s forms of political engineering in Western civilisation).

Media coverage of coronavirus disease: Abysmal journalism (image source: ? wallpaperhd.wiki)

Media tend to link mass mobilisation and democracy. However, it risks obscuring the character of mass mobilisation, the (most likely diverse) goals of the population and the potential impact of contentious politics on future power dynamics and democratic processes. Journalism would serve the population better by separating the analysis of mass mobilisation from democratisation, and by not engaging in contentious politics through their biased reporting. Howard and Walters (2015) wrote about overcoming key misconceptions and about how the two phenomena of mass mobilisation from democratisation are supposedly linked:

  1. “Mass mobilisation leads to democracy”
    Historically, democracy has been a rare outcome of mass mobilisation. Mass mobilisation often supports anti-democratic regimes.
  2. “Mobilisation is an expression of democratic norms”
    This kind of media narrative has more to do with the hopes and normative commitments of the writers than the character of the movements themselves. Media frame the study of mass movements more in terms of their own hopes and normative visions than empirical realities (—> see last post about framing).
  3. “Mass movements are democratic by definition”
    Journalists often assume that in order to successfully mobilise, masses must be unified around a pro-democratic ideology articulated by prominent intellectuals (the “democratizing bias”). However, prominent intellectuals have historically supported various forms of governance ranging from communism to liberal democracy to fascism. While some intellectuals have played a key role in supporting democratisation (for example, Vaclav Havel in post-communist Czechoslovakia), others have embraced non-democratic regimes (for example, Carl Schmitt in Nazi Germany). In short, intellectuals are not inherently democratic, and neither are protesters.
  4. The concept of “pro-democratic” movements
    This ignores the inherent complexity of mass movements and the latent tensions that often arise in their wake. It also tends to ignore the role of non-participants, who are generally the overwhelming majority. Mobilisation does not naturally lead to — and often works against — democratisation.

Mass media have long been recognised as powerful forces shaping how we experience the world and ourselves. Media coverage and political instrumentalisation in the wake of the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has not only supported mismanagement of the issue, but also created an economic downturn and loss of democracy (dedemocratisation) not seen for decades.? The instrumentalisation of the media for political purposes and the unholy alliance between media and governments for mass manipulation continues, and this becomes increasingly evident in Western civilisation in the case of public service broadcasters (e.g. Switzerland, Germany, Austria).

Further Reading:

  • Hobbes, T. (2016) Leviathan: Or, The Matter, Forme and Power of Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill. Longman Library of Primary Sources in Philosophy. Routledge
  • Tilly, Ch. (2004) Social Movements, 1768—2004. Paradigm Publishers
  • Tarrow, S. (2015) War, states, and contention: A comparative historical study. Cornell University Press
  • Howard, M. M., & Walters, M. R. (2015) Mass mobilization and the democracy bias. Middle East Policy, 22(2), 145-155
  • Ilpyong, K. J. (1996) Mass Mobilization Politics and Techniques Developed in the Period of the Chinese Soviet Republic. University of Washington

Climate Change

In the last half century, some sociologists (e.g. Giddens, 1990; Beck, 1992) have suggested that our concerns with risk have shifted largely from what nature does to us to what we do to nature. Rather than being concerned with natural risks, we are increasingly concerned with manufactured risks.

Unlike natural risks, the risks that we manufacture are affected by how we perceive them. For example, consider the following apparent paradox. Road traffic increased thirtyfold in the last century, and common perceptions of the dangers of roads changed from roads as relatively safe places to roads as dangerous places. Yet the road-death figure per motor vehicle fell by about 100% (Adams 1995, p. 11, and statistics below).

The ‘objective’ measure of road safety is in contrast to perceptions of roads as unsafe. As social perceptions of road risk have changed, so too has our behaviour. Parents no longer allow their children to play in the road and they teach them to exercise greater vigilance when crossing the road. The risks we construct as a society are changed by our beliefs about them.

Stomach cancer causes more deaths than motor accidents by a ratio of more than two to one. Yet most people believe motor accidents cause more deaths. The news media are more likely to carry vivid accounts of motor accidents. Hence, we tend to overweight the incidence of motor accidents.

Rudolf Hausner, 1976, Adam objektiv, Novopanplatte mit Papier beklebt, Acryl, Harz?lfarben

For much of our evolution we have developed a range of cognitive mechanisms to cope with adverse environments in which resources are scarce. These include a range of simplifying and confidence-sustaining mental short cuts (heuristics) that help us to make quick decisions when pausing to undertake a full analysis would be unwise (Gigerenzer et al., 1999). However, these evolved modes of thinking also create some major traps:

  • Framing the problem
    • Medical decisions can be affected by whether outcomes are framed as likelihood of deaths or of saving patients.
  • Using information
    • First, we pay more attention to information that is easily available (availability heuristic).
    • Second, we overweight memories which are more easily retrievable – usually because they are emotionally vivid or have personal relevance (retrievability heuristic).
  • Problems of judgement
    • From birth, we start learning to filter information out and to prioritise, label and classify the phenomena we observe. This is a vital process. Without it we literally could not function in our day-to-day lives.
    • Many decisions need revisiting and updating as new information becomes available. However, most of us make insufficient anchoring adjustment: this is the tendency to fail to update one’s targets as the environment changes (Rutledge, 1993).
  • Post-decision evaluation
    • A common way in which we distort our understanding of events is to assume we have greater control of events than we really do. When we suffer from this illusion of control, we are likely to underestimate the risks of our actions and decisions and have problems in learning from experience as we discount information that suggests we are not in control (Fenton-O’Creevy et al., 2003).

While some risks can be quantified, many are unknown. In the face of such uncertainty our approach to risk depends on fundamental assumptions about the way the world works. Different social groups have different approaches to uncertainty. Schwarz and Thompson (1990) characterise these in terms of what they describe as four myths of nature. Adams (1995) has conceptualised them in terms of a ball on a surface. Imagine a ball on a surface. A small push on the ball has different effects depending on the shape of the surface.

Myths of nature (adapted from Adams, 1995, p. 34)

Those subscribing to the myth of nature as capricious see the world as essentially unpredictable. A small action could have entirely unpredictable consequences of unknown scale. Those who see nature as benign believe strongly in equilibrium. However strong the disturbance to the world, the status quo tends to be restored. Those who subscribe to the perverse/tolerant myth believe that, within limits, the world is predictable and tolerant of shocks to the system. However, pushing beyond those limits risks catastrophe. Those who see nature as ephemeral take a profoundly pessimistic view. Even small disturbances can lead to profound and potentially catastrophic changes. The world is fragile and precarious, and equilibrium can be overturned by even small actions.

For example, the different stances taken by different groups over climate change can be understood in these terms. Combined with some of the traps mentioned above, we can imagine why the topic is so hotly debated and with so little intelligence. Instead of taking heuristic shortcusts like the media, we should allow ourselves to consider more creative and effective soloutions, like birth control or new approaches to carbon-?neutral fuels. Actions against climate change need to be enforceable by reason and law – there is little point in blaming each other.

Swiss Law instead of Foreign Judiciary?

Is Swiss sovereignty being eroded by foreign judges? The promoters of the “Self-Determination Initiative” argue that Switzerland’s constitution and its laws should take precedence over international treaties. The People’s Party targets the bilateral treaties with the EU and the European Court of Justice in particular, according to political experts. Opponents of the initiative say the rightwing proposal would undermine Switzerland’s international reputation and its role as a reliable trading partner, as well as deal a blow to human rights.

The question of primacy between national and international law has been simmering for years in Switzerland and elsewhere. Human rights are of course international. We use the terminology that they are universal. This is obviously somewhat inconvenient for the government of nation-states, who have traditionally claimed absolute power over their citizens. The extent to which we have international human rights, or a court of international human rights, is necessarily going to interfere with the kind of claims that a national government can make. Additionally, these rights may be inconvenient in relation to what a nation state might intend to do. These rules and standards bestow upon the nation-state — one of the major violators of human rights — the responsibility of protecting human rights. It is called the “paradox of human rights”. International human rights rely on the nation-states to put rights into effect. And yet nation-states are often reluctant to countenance human rights because those human rights will necessarily put a limitation to the kind of power they have as national governments; their state sovereignty. These themes run through all human rights law. They run through the European Convention on Human Rights as much as through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, or any other body of human rights.

It is worth stressing that with the European Convention on Human Rights we are looking at a system where individual petitions can be submitted to a court. As a citizen, I can take a case to the European Court of Human Rights, and the court may award remedies. Hoffman and Rowe (2010) argue that the Convention was an extremely radical innovation. Never before has there been a system of international law which holds states accountable to some superior court in respect of actions against their own citizens. Previous international courts and tribunals were constituted solely to settle disputes between states, or in the case of the Nuremberg tribunal, to try individuals for their own criminal responsibility. Coming back to the so-called Swiss “Self-Determination Initiative”: if my government violates my human rights and has no more obligation to protect them, where can I go?

Image credits: Stan Wayman, extracted from IPTC Photo

[Hoffman, D., & Rowe, J. J. (2010) Human Rights in the UK: An Introduction to the Human Rights Act 1998, Pearson Education]

Switzerland: Folk Economics bottled into “Sovereign Money Initiative”

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
(Friedrich von Hayek, 1988)

Irrespective of the quote above, there is a further difference between what economists know and what non-economists know. This can be summarised under the heading “folk economics”. There is an interesting observation here: If you (as a non-physicist) were engaged in a conversation with a physicist who tells you about string theory, you are unlikely to interrupt him and disagree with what he was telling you. An economist engaged in a discussion about the economics of obesity, for example, with a non-economist would be far more likely to be questioned about the views being put forward. If the economist told the non-economist that obesity was caused by the rise in poverty levels in countries, it is likely that there would be some disagreement with this view.

Sovereign Money Communism

The Swiss popular initiative ‘For crisis-resistant money: end fractional-reserve banking’ (Vollgeld-Initiative) will be put to a vote in a national referendum on the 10 June 2018. The initiative calls for the introduction of a sovereign money system in Switzerland. However, a sovereign money system could not prevent credit cycles and asset bubbles in real estate and financial investments. While lending may reinforce such asset bubbles, it does not cause them. Asset bubbles and credit cycles are primarily caused by exaggerated price expectations and a propensity to underestimate risks. The principal causes of the recent financial crisis could not have been circumvented under a sovereign money system. Chief among these are:

  • the belief that asset prices can go on rising indefinitely;
  • complex financial instruments with opaque risk liability (e.g. CDOs);
  • the accumulation of excessive amounts of short-term debt via the money and interbank markets;
  • and instability at investment banks with no deposit business.

Omitting a variable in a theory can lead to deceptive conclusions. When a theory is being used to support an argument about cause and effect, it is important to ask whether the movement of an omitted variable could explain the result. A second problem is what economists call reverse causality – we might decide that A causes B when in fact B causes A. The omitted variable and reverse causality traps require caution when drawing conclusions about causes and effects. It might seem that an easy way to determine the direction of causality is to examine the which variable moves first. If we see crime increase and then the police force expand, we reach one conclusion. If we see the police force expand and then crime increase, we reach another. Yet there is a flaw with this approach: people change their behaviour also in response to a change in their expectations of future conditions. A city that expects a major crime wave in the future might as well hire more police now. Or people make demands on credits in expectation of low interest rates.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that no ought claim could be correctly inferred from a set of purely factual premises. This result is sometimes referred to as Hume’s Law, or the Is – Ought Problem. Hume found that there seems to be a significant difference between positive statements and prescriptive or normative statements, and that it is not obvious how one can coherently move from descriptive statements to prescriptive ones. You can only derive should claims from premises that include should claims. Yet the initiative backers’ arguments are exactly drawn this way.

Without flexible money expansion and contraction, such a centralised system strongly resembles the communist idea of a command economy. For understandable reasons the initiative’s backers hold a distaste for banks creating money, but a much more democratic and disruptive concept is about to change the world:

Swiss Legislation: The Breakdown of the Social Contract Between the Generations

When the legislator seeks to overrule a previous law or decision, it can adopt one of three different approaches (Holland and Webb, 2013):

  1. Approach 1: say that the law becomes [x] and, if that differs substantially from what the understanding of law was until now, then hard luck – it was always [y] but it becomes [x] now. Here, any decision which changes the law from what it was previously used to be operates retrospectively as well as prospectively. It is retrospective in that the parties to the case are caught by the ruling and so are all those who have created leases or contracts on the basis of what used to be the law. Of course this can produce disturbance.
    For example, this year Romania’s President signed into law a bill that enables property buyers to walk away from overpriced mortgages, setting it on a potential collision course with commercial banks, the central bank and the European Commission. What the news conceal, however, is that the banks in Romania (about 90.2% of bank assets are held by institutions with foreign [read: EU] capital) transferred full currency risk to the borrowers, imposing credits in Swiss francs (CHF) instead of Romanian lei (RON). Since the Swiss unpegged the franc from the euro (€), those credits have become a borrower’s trauma.
  2. Approach 2: say that the new law is [x] but, because everyone has organised their affairs until now on the basis that the law was [y], the new view of the law only affects events occuring after the decision. So only contracts or leases formed after the date of legislation would be affected by the new law [x]. Contracts and leases, etc. formed before the ruling would continue to fall under the old law [y]. This is the ‘purest’ form of prospective overruling.
  3. Approach 3: it is possible to come up with other variations (mixtures). For instance, the decision might be held to be prospective as regards everyone not involved in the case but retrospective in its effect as between the parties to the case in which the ruling is given.

This month, the Swiss people will get the final say on reforms to the pension system in a referendum. Instead of a real reform with a flexible retirement age, the set of reforms would see the retirement age for women raised to 65 – it is currently 64 – bringing it in line with men. Secondly, pension payments will decrease from 6.8% of the capital per year to 6%, although salary deductions will go up slightly. That will be compensated with a ridiculous monthly 70 franc bonus in AVS/AHV (state pension) payments for everyone (Giesskannenprinzip). On top of that, the reforms will be financed by a 0.6% increase in VAT, a change to the constitution that will be put to the people – and especially to the young. The whole package is another symptom of the breakdown of the social contract between the generations.

How can politicians make a mark? By creating new laws and regulations. Preferably, these laws carry their names and have such fancy designations as the ‘Dodd-Frank Act’. As Niall Ferguson (2013) puts it: “Among the most deadly enemies of the rule of law is bad law.”