Archive | March, 2014

Complexity and Proaction: A sincere hope for the (perhaps distant) future

27 Mar

What do civilians do to survive conflict?  This sounds like a fairly straightforward question, but it’s not.  Until very recently, scholars of violence and practitioners of  violence prevention saw civilians as entirely reactive parties that did little to shape the course of conflict.  While there have been some major steps in recent years in understanding what decisions civilians make to survive and their role in influencing the course of conflicts, the field is still taking its first steps (if you’re interested in further reading let me know).  The burgeoning consensus is that civilians are major players in shaping conflict, though academics and practitioners are only beginning to imagine the limits of civilian agency.  If there is indeed significant work to be done, what might the future of civilian self-protection look like?

To be blunt, we’re pretty clueless about civilian self-protection.  Few empirical accounts exist, and no work that I’ve come across directly ties empirical findings to broader theories of how civilians survive multiple types of conflict.  Because of this major theoretical gap, Casey Barrs, the most prolific author on the idea of civilian self-protection, argues for a limited survival-approach that ignores the rights-based programs that characterize many NGOs’ work.  For Barrs, whatever works, be it bribing combatants or fleeing at the first hint of conflict, should be encouraged and aided.  Civilians are more likely to understand this and therefore react to conflict better.  NGO’s should allow them to become ‘owners’ of their own survival.  In sum, we don’t know enough to prescribe strategies to civilians facing the prospect of mass atrocities.  Trying for anything more than bare survival is not only presumptuous on our part, but also dangerous.

Lamentably, Barrs is right for the moment.  If analysts do not really understand how civilians influence conflict, let alone how their actions during conflict determines both their lives and the condition of society post-conflict,  average civilians are unlikely to think about these issues.  Civilians are not expected to act with the broader conflict in mind, but there’s some potential that scholarship could permeate aid practices, which could perhaps diffuse a norm that sees civilian agency in conflict as extending beyond individual survival.

Could this imagined future become a reality?  It is possible that we’ll reach a point where we have a strong understanding of conflict dynamics, have strong norms of civilian protection, and have institutions in place able to react quickly and decisively to conflict that it will be possible to imagine a wider conception of civilian self-protection?  Could future civilian self-protection strategies be not only proactive but even emancipatory? And for me, perhaps the most exciting question is could civilian protection strategies be designed not only to save the civilians enacting them but to positively mitigate violence in the broader conflict system?

For now, these questions sound like overly ambitious and hard to even conceptualize.  For example, will civilians ever really feel secure enough to think beyond their immediate survival to their role in the broader conflict?  There are some reasons to be hopeful.  Complexity theory for one offers a medium through which we may be able to understand how conflict functions, and more specifically, civilians’ roles in it.  Complexity theory imagines conflict as a complex system in which agents interact with many other agents in multiple ways, which are ultimately too complex for humans to understand.  Randomness is inherent in the system.  So complexity theory helps explain why conflicts develop in surprising ways, often beyond the comprehension of analysts.  To read complexity theory as a accepting defeat in our attempt to understand conflict would be a mistake, however.  Rather, while creating a framework for dealing with complexity, it also accepts that some developments in conflict are indeed beyond our ability to predict or explain.  Some analysts are beginning to see conflict through a complexity-inspired lens.

Early warning technology is another reason to be optimistic.  While the idea of early warning has existed for a long time, practitioners and scholars are starting to imagine how these systems can serve local communities rather than analysts far removed from the conflict.  At the same time, many regional governmental organizations are in the process of implementing conflict early warning systems.  This marriage of theory and institutionalization could one day provide many civilians with the ability to learn of conflict before it physically confronts them, and develop more proactive strategies.

I would like to be hopeful that this is all possible, but there are also some harsh realities that can’t be ignored.  While I am very hopeful that complexity theory will offer a new and improved method for imagining the complexity of conflict, we can’t forget that complexity theory was designed to help us understand why we can’t understand certain systems.  Yes, complexity theory is probably a step up, but there’s a limit to our analytic ability.

Another problem is how civilians will actually understand their role in determining conflict, and in turn, be able to make constructive changes to their behavior.  It’s possible, but by no means for sure, that academic knowledge on how civilians act during conflict will imbue at-risk communities.  However, civilians would then have to not only accept that validity of this theory, but also be in a place in which they could enact it.  While it is simply difficult to imagine the confluence of developments in early warning technology, norms of civilian agency, and the dynamics of mass atrocities in the future, but it is also difficult to imagine with all these mitigating factors, civilians will act considerably differently in the future than they do now.  This speaks to broader questions to how civilians have reacted to conflict over the course of history, but to my knowledge, civilians dealt with the Peloponnesian War in a similar way as Syrians do today.  My vision puts significant stock in the power of globalized humanitarian discourse.

The last problem is that by the time techniques that expand upon current civilian protection practices are developed and implemented, it may be too late.  As Jay Ulfelder writes, it looks as if global patterns of unrest will cause a short-term spike in mass atrocities, even if broader trends point to a slow reduction in the amount of worldwide conflict.  If he’s right, then civilian protection infrastructure will likely appear only after the period in which it is most needed.

Predicting mass atrocities is hard enough, and so I realize that predicting civilian response in the distant future, which we in fact barely understand at the present, is pretty much impossible.  However, the prospect for an expanded view of civilian self-protection can at least function as something to strive for.  I do think there’s hope because just in the last few years we’ve seen changes in how NGO’s think about with self-protection.  Both Casey Barrs and L2GP have written about the need for NGO’s to help civilians protect livelihoods (thus shaping the post-conflict environment), and in the relatively small prevention practitioner community, their words will soon have an impact.  From where I stand, the future is exciting.

Irregular Conflict and Cartel Dynamics in The Wire

5 Mar

The Wire, praised as the best TV series of all time, has inspired its fair share of academic analysis.  Multiple universities have devoted entire classes to exploring themes such as poverty and drug policy through the medium of David Simon’s creation.  The journal darkmatter even published an entire issue devoted to analysis of The Wire.  Recently, Joseph Young rightly nominated The Wire as one of the three best TV series in its portrayal of political violence.  However, I have not come across any blog posts or articles that analyze the show’s depiction of the dynamics of violence.  The show is chalk-full of useful examples, but because a complete study of violence in the Wire would require an entire book, I’ll limit myself to four examples that speak to broader themes of irregular conflict and cartel dynamics.

The first example comes from Season 3.  Stringer Bell, the archetypal illicit businessman, realizes that competition for corners among various gangs is driving down drug quality and decreasing overall income.  He proposes a drug co-op, with the goal of providing access to the best quality drugs for multiple gangs.[1]  Income levels are then high enough that gangs no longer need to fight over corners, and disputes are encouraged to be aired before the groups, lest violence ruin the money-making enterprise.  Mexican drug cartels often  pursue a similar strategy.  Especially when it’s unclear who would win a violent encounter, it makes perfect business sense to work together.  The need to resolve disputes peacefully and internally occurs in other contexts.  For civilians living through insurgencies, if they are to escape large-scale violence, they must prevent internal disputes from leading to a divided community siding with different armed actors.  For Kaplan, dispute resolution leads to civilian protection.  For Stringer, it’s all about business.

The problem for Stringer is that the motives of others, and mostly importantly his boss Avon Barksdale, do not correspond simply to business.[2]  In a revealing exchange, Avon says to Stringer, “I ain’t no suit-man business-man like you.  You know I’m just a gangster, I suppose.  And I want my corners.”  Barksdale is less driven by a desire to simply make money than a personal code that dictates how the leader of a drug organization should act.  A co-op might make economic sense, but for Barksdale, it’s uncharted territory he doesn’t fully understand.  Cartels often face this dilemma.  While they are ostensibly business entities, they recruit individuals for their violent ability.  These individuals often choose to pursue violence for its own sake rather than using violence to achieve specific economic objectives.  Secondly, the co-op causes its own problem.  Stringer does his best to create a veneer of legitimacy through money laundering, real estate development, and political connections, but this forces him into conflict with a whole new set of characters.  When corrupt State Senator Clay Davis fails to come through for Stringer, Stringer orders Slim Charles to kill him.  Slim Charles and Avon Barksdale successfully object because of the chaos killing a senator would cause, leading to serious friction within the gang.  Bell describes himself as a businessman, but he fails to recognize the potential consequences of his actions when his ambitions are stymied.

One of the series’ most terrifying characters is Snoop, a young hitwoman for the Stanfield organization (which largely replaces the Barksdale organization as the dominant drug-dealing force at the end of the third season).  Her proclivity for violence is sometimes as asset for Stanfield’s crew, but it also occasionally gets her into trouble.[3]  Following the demise of the Barksdale organization, some drug dealers from New York move down the coast and take up residence in Baltimore.  Snoop, and her partner in crime Chris, are directed to violently eliminate the New York dealers, partly out of an economic logic and partly because of a “tribal” desire to keep outsiders from making money in Baltimore.  However, because Snoop and Chris do not personally know every street-level dealer they devise a strategy to tell Baltimore and New York corner boys apart.  Chris proposes they ask unknown dealers questions about Baltimore-specific music to figure out their origin.  They first time they try this tactic, the dealer in question answers Snoop’s query about a particular DJ, but doesn’t give the answer Chris had earlier stated.  Snoop quickly puts the gun to his head and is about to pull the trigger when Chris stops her.  The named DJ is another Baltimore DJ that Snoop herself had never heard of.

While Chris’ and Snoop’s tactic is certainly fraught with problems, it also demonstrates the identification problem perfectly, the central dilemma for insurgents and counterinsurgents.  Soldiers fighting irregular wars face a chronic lack of information, and are therefore usually unable to figure out with certainty who is collaborating with whom.  Combatants rarely even have the ability to tell if the denunciations they receive are truthful.  Kalyvas writes that the majority of collaborators during civil wars escape denunciation, while the majority of those punished for collaboration are innocent.  Even though Snoop and Chris are able to tell drug-dealers (combatants) and non-drug-dealers (noncombatants) apart, they are nonetheless unable to correctly evaluate intelligence (see footnoote three) or differentiate between allies and enemies.

In “Unconfirmed Reports”, the second episode of the fifth season, Snoop and the young hitman Michael have one of the most interesting exchanges in the series.  They are on a mission to kill June Bug, who has been spreading rumors about Marlo Stanfield being a homosexual.[4]  Michael, who has a gentle side, questions Snoop over why the killing is necessary if Marlo is not in fact gay.  Snoop replies that it’s not about whether Stanfield is actually gay, but whether people think he’s gay.  On one hand, Snoop grasps that need for reputational violence.  If Marlo Stanfield is perceived as weak, then rivals are more likely to cooperate to target him.  On the other hand, Snoop’s comment demonstrates the extremely violent and paranoid nature of the Stanfield organization.  Any backtalk or perceived disloyalty is lethally punished.  Stringer, for example, was more willing to tolerate small deviations from the Barksdale line if it didn’t result in a loss of revenue.  For the Stanfield organization, loyalty is a black and white issue, but ultimately this harms its business interests.  Some of its best dealers, like Bodie, are killed for (incorrectly) perceived collaboration with the police, while the co-op starts to fall apart because of Marlo’s inability to share power.

Eventually, the Stanfield organization falls apart as a direct consequence of its extremely violent nature.  Unlike Mexico’s Los Zetas, which have the ability to publicly demonstrate their brutality, the Stanfield organization is unable to successfully execute the same tactic.  Los Zetas’ tactical superiority over the Mexican armed forces and their extensive corruption network provide them protection not afforded to Marlo Stanfield.  Ultimately, brutal violence attracts the attention of law enforcement, and they don’t have the ability to fend off the police.

The last episode of the series centers around the demise of the Stanfield organization.  Marlo’s fall, however, opens up opportunities for personal promotion through violence.  We see Michael, now freed from his organizational shackles, violently rob another drug dealer, while Slim Charles murders Cheese Wagstaff as Baltimore’s drug dealers try to re-institute the co-op.  This is no accident.  Cartel fragmentation is a major cause of drug violence in Mexico, and the writers of The Wire get the dynamics of gang breakup spot-on.  Every viewer of the series was rooting for Detectives McNulty and Freamon in their seemingly impossible battle against the Stanfield organization, but ultimately, as the series unflinchingly shows, their efforts are entirely in vain.  Other dealers and organizations pop up to take their place, and significant violence occurs during the transition.  McNulty and Freamon, despite their heroic qualities, are agents of a counterproductive drug policy.  The irony of this is certainly not lost on David Simon.

The genius of the Wire is that it is able to compellingly demonstrate the corrosive organizational effects of violence and the many drivers of human behaviors.  No individual is completely free from cultural, normative, and institutional effects or is singularly good or evil.  The result is a cast of complex characters grappling with their often incredibly challenging circumstances.  Its portrayal of violence is an extension of its nuanced characters, and few TV shows or movies can plausibly claim to come close to its excellence.[5]  The dynamics of violence for the drug gangs is fascinating, but it would certainly take at least another 1700-word blog post to sufficiently examine the dynamics and politics of police action in the series.  For example, the portrayal of Colvin’s attempt to end the War on Drugs is brutally crushed by city politics which is unable to tolerate a sensible drug policy.[6]  Wish I had time to write that piece as well.


[1] It’s fascinating that the co-op always meets in a fancy hotel’s conference room.  Though Stringer Bell angrily tears up meeting minutes taken by a younger drug dealer, they never seem to have serious security concerns.  In fact, they are probably more secure meeting outside of the neighborhoods they deal in because rivals will be less comfortable attacking them there (think Omar robbing Marlo Stanfield at a back-room poker game) and police can less feasibly arrest them on dubious charges.

[2] Much later in the series, a new incarnation of the co-op is imperiled when Slim Charles murders Cheese Wagstaff.   Again, a co-op makes economic sense, but a desire for revenge supersedes greed.

[3] It also gets her killed.  She and Chris assume that it must be Michael snitching on them, even though in reality information was obtained through a semi-legal wiretap.  Perhaps it was a reasonable assumption with imperfect information, but it also fits into a general pattern in which Snoop shot first and asked questions later.

[4] The politics of gender here are also really interesting, because while calling Marlo gay is a slur, Snoop is a lesbian.

[5] Personally, I’m undecided on whether The Wire or Friday Night Lights is better.

[6] Ellis Carver says of the War on Drugs, “You can’t even call this shit a war.  Wars end.”