Archive | January, 2017

Is Coordinated Action Possible?: The Women’s March and What Comes After

23 Jan

The experience of marching in Boston on Saturday was extraordinary. It was the most hopeful I’ve felt in months. Millions demonstrated across the country and historically, having one percent of a country’s population demonstrate is pretty rare. Despite packed venues and overwhelmed organizers, the attitude that I observed was both positive and defiant. On one’s own, recent events can make it easy to believe that Democracy is falling apart. When surrounded by more than 100,000 people protesting however, it’s more difficult. The question though is whether this was a one-off event that will ultimately fizzle or the start of something even bigger.

Both going into and coming out of the march, there are two main problems faced by those on the left. The first is who gets to participate and who gets to lead. Due to the value-laden notions of power and representation among leftists, achieving a balance between unity, which allows movements to achieve victory, and diversity, which allows movements to gain members, is the Fundamental Dilemma of the left. Now such a Dilemma provides both dangers and opportunities. As was evidenced by the array of signs yesterday, the number of issues taken up by leftists is dizzying. It is very difficult to adjudicate between competing demands, especially when many of demands are essentialized to a particular identity (whites want this, blacks want this, etc.). But there is, and I’m looking at you Donald, strength in diversity. It keeps disparate groups engaged and leads to knowledge sharing from different histories of struggle. For those who decry all forms of identity politics, remember that if they didn’t exist, social movements would have minuscule participation and be led by straight, rich white men.

How was this Dilemma handled on Saturday? One thing we saw is that feminism now serves as a rallying cry for a huge percentage of the left, only a little less than half of whom are not women. I’m not sure the same could’ve been said 20 years ago, and such progress should be applauded. However, one of the criticisms I’ve seen on social media is that the march was primarily an expression of white feminism and therefore not sufficiently intersectional. It’s probably true that the marches were disproportionately white. What is interesting here is that the fear before the march was that the highly intersectional platform would drive whites away, but it didn’t. Indeed, many of those present seemed to be first-time protesters (which logically makes sense given the turnout). It should therefore be encouraging that hundreds of thousands of whites without die-hard histories of activism weren’t turned off by intersectional demands.

What I think is concerning, however, is that such a platform failed to attract a large racial minority presence, just as Hillary Clinton failed to prompt sufficient minority turnout during the election. I have no definitive answer to what’s going on. Perhaps it was simply an issue of money; whites are wealthier and could therefore afford to travel to the protest. Perhaps ideology is not a major mobilizer but rather leadership, and the march was perceived as being led by white women. Perhaps the feminist label isn’t pushing the right buttons. Whatever the answer, I think it’s worth questioning the assumption that the more intersectional a political activity is meant to be, the more likely it is to achieve minority support.

Even though it will be hard to sustain the energy of the women’s march, there were plenty of positives from Saturday. Countless people became more comfortable participating in political activity and found out there were millions others like them. But to really capitalize, an emerging movement needs clear goals and ways to achieve them (this can take the form of a new movement that seeks to resist Trump or a strengthened coalition of feminist groups, Black Lives Matter, pro-immigration groups, and others that draws on newly-mobilized Americans). However, given the Fundamental Dilemma, it will be exceedingly difficult to generate such goals. It may take an unprecedented breach of normalcy by the Trump administration to do so, but post-hoc activism is inherently less effective.

However, there is still hope. I’m most excited by a new initiative created by Bernie Sanders-alums called Knock Every Door, which seeks to engage every American in a face-to-face conversation about politics. It’s not part of any particular campaign, but rather a more general attempt to re-energize left politics. Not only does this hold immense promise in terms of political engagement, but the political science literature strongly suggests such conversations are extremely effective in achieving turnout (good for Democrats), and perhaps also changing minds. Such a strategy can provide exactly what was missing from the Clinton campaign: deep grassroots. We’ll need them to defeat the Trumpist lawnmower.

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A Requiem for Those We’ll Lose

20 Jan

There is much we don’t know about the events of the next four years, but we do know many people will suffer, and indeed, many won’t make it. We’ll lose the black man just trying to get on with his day. We’ll lose the dehydrated immigrant running from border guards and drug cartels in Arizona’s desert. We’ll lose the former factory worker whose job is never coming back and decides life is no longer worth living. We’ll lose the refugee trying to make a better life for her children that drowns in the Mediterranean. We’ll lose the minority attacked on the street by newly-emboldened bigots. We’ll lose the old woman and the young child whose caregivers can no longer afford their medicine. We’ll lose the veteran whose PTSD is too much to handle and the Syrian whose house the veteran destroyed. We’ll lose brothers and sisters, parents and children, friends, lovers, and dreamers. May their memories be a blessing, and may we do our utmost to prevent further tragedy.

When War Does Not Make the State: the Case of the Central African Republic

11 Jan

I spent a large portion of this semester puzzling over the implications of Charles Tilly’s famous phrase, “war made states and states made war”. Tilly’s analysis of European state-building is obviously brilliant, but what of his claim in Coercion, Capital, and European States that the positive relationship between war and state capacity holds throughout much of human history? How might this apply to the Central African Republic, a country with a history of coups, and over the last 20 years, numerous rebellions, but where the state ranks among the world’s weakest?

To briefly recap the essence of Tilly’s theory, he’s trying to understand the formation of modern administrative states in Europe. He argues that rulers facing the prospect of increasingly destructive wars with rivals sought ways to pay for larger armies and protect their fiefdoms. A combination of borrowing and taxation occurred, and the by-product of the two (particularly the latter) was state bureaucracies, which eventually began to provide public goods. Tilly acknowledges that state-building processes look very different outside of Europe, but still that in general, war produces state capacity.

In States and Power in Africa, Jeffrey Herbst constructs a Tilly-inspired theory of state-building for Africa. Herbst argues that Tilly’s central premise applies, but that low population densities across Africa made territorial competition largely unnecessary. Post-independence, a strong norm against altering colonial borders furthered this dynamic. Because Africa didn’t have the same threat environment as Europe, states were not built to the same extent.

Neither of these theories hold up in the Central African Republic. Since independence, there have been three coups and two insurgencies that resulted in the toppling of governments, outnumbering peaceful transitions of power. More often than not, external actors sponsored the ascendant opposition. Even though CAR’s borders haven’t changed, there’s still the puzzle: why do leaders facing violent overthrow not build up a violent capacity capable of protecting their throne? Why have they largely avoided taxing their citizens in a standardized manner to fund the armed forces?

My answer to these questions is that the relative dominance of international actors in the CAR means that Central African leaders can never expect to maintain power through force alone. Instead of investing in strengthening state violent capacity, it makes more sense to build alliances with external powers. These alliances are what give Central African leaders the financial and military means to stay in power. In short, if enough foreign powers no longer support a Central African President, they will likely be overthrown sooner or later.

(If you’d like an explanation of how I evaluated my hypothesis and why I believe certain counterarguments are insufficient, please see the paragraphs below the page break)

I am not implying that we should, in the words of Edward Luttwak, “give war a chance” (which Herbst would probably agree with). Foreign powers will not cease their involvement in Central African politics anytime soon, and even if they did, it’s unlikely a well-functioning state would suddenly appear. Even if it were not the dominance of foreign powers that prevented war from building the state, some other dynamic might. Therefore, I am much more convinced by theories such as Miguel Centeno, in which violence can lead to state-building, but only in the presence of certain scope conditions, which have not been present in many times and places. For this reason, I don’t believe the CAR to be unique in terms of the lack of relationship between violence and state-building. Finally, I think it’s also worth considering whether there is something unique about the history of African governance or central African governance that breaks the link between violence and state-building, but that’s beyond the scope of this project for now.



For my hypothesis to be correct, three things have to be true: that foreign powers are dominant in the CAR’s politics, that Central African leaders rely on external military force, and that Central African leaders do not invest in strengthening violent capacity because they are unable to compete militarily with international actors. The first claim is not so hard to prove. The CAR has had perhaps the most peacekeeping missions of any country in the world, and is therefore, as Louisa Lombard titles one of her chapters, the “world champion of peacekeeping”. Major decisions for the country are made by foreigners outside the country’s borders (nice example via Wikileaks), and without the involvement of international institutions, the Central African state would cease to exist in its current incarnation.

The second claim, that Central African leaders rely on external military actors, is also fairly obvious. For the first 35 years post-independence, the French were ever-present, playing a decisive role in three of the five changes of power during this time and an important role in a fourth. Libya also played a large if intermittent role since the 1970’s, sending both troops and desperately needed funds to prop up embattled Presidents. In the last two decades, Chad, often in conjunction with other regional powers, has played a large role in country’s politics. Chadian President Deby has both sent troops to support Central African leaders and contributed directly to their downfall.

The final claim, that Central African leaders do not seek to invest in domestic armed capacity because they can’t expect to maintain power through force alone is slightly more difficult to demonstrate because there is not, as far as my research has found, a smoking gun. However, a quick review of the travails of past Presidents would seem to confirm the claim. David Dacko twice came to power with French support, and the second time he was flown into the country by French paratroopers. Much-maligned President Jean-Bedel Bokassa came to power without much foreign help, and attempted to state-build. Even after 13 years in power, during which he proclaimed the Central African Empire with a lavish coronation ceremony, he was overthrown easily by the French. Andre Kolingba, who came to power following Dacko’s resignation, was forced into holding free elections in 1993 by France even though he knew he’d lose. Ange-Felix Patasse won the election, and attempted to diversify his international supporters, getting close to Qaddafi and Congolese rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba. However, his allies slowly deserted him, and he is eventually forced to beg France for support, but it never comes. A largely Chadian force led by Francois Bozize overthrew him. Ten years later, history repeats itself, and Seleka overthrows Bozize, leading to an internationally-managed transition. Due to the frequency with which foreign powers assisted in overthrowing Central African leaders (despite attempts to state-build or diversify military backers), it would follow that Central African leaders realize the futility of investing in violent capacity.

There are a few alternative explanations that could explain the puzzle presented in my research question. It could be that the existence of strong international norms of sovereignty in Africa and the decline in inter-state competition resulting in territorial conquest decreases incentives for leaders to build states, as argued by Herbst and Tilly. However, this does not fully make sense, because even if other countries are unlikely to gobble up portions of the CAR’s territory, the frequency with which leaders are overthrown violently provides significant incentives to invest in violent capacity. Another potential explanation is that leaders fail to strengthen the armed forces because of the threat of coups. However, other leaders before have faced the same risk and still managed to build states. And again, in the context of violent threats to leaders’ rule, failure to build armed forces due to coup fears will only happen if the leader can count on external forces to protect them from rebellions.

A third potential alternative explanation comes from Miguel Centeno, who argues that wars only build states if there is a certain existing level of organizational capacity that can capitalize on warfare. This view is strengthened by the fact that the CAR had very few citizens with educational degrees in 1960. However, there were French advisers in every ministry at independence, and many have remained. There are about 20,000 civil servants as well as 10,000 individuals employed by the security sector, which does not speak to an overall lack of potential capacity.