Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beyond Dominoes and Billiard Balls

Josiah Narog has been known to get me thinking. He asked what I thought about the Arab Spring. Remarkably, I had an opinion.

Dear Josiah,

Forget dominoes. It stinks of international relations theory. That sort of metaphor makes you try to conceive of the political as being akin to the physical. Instead assume that you are dealing with humans.

Maintaining a relationship of abusive domination requires the dominator to cultivate intense fear in the dominated. Typically the goal of this fear is to economize on the use of violence. Anyone who really understands politics understands that balances of power are not like a lever teetering on a fulcrum. Rather, it’s a great deal more like football. No matter how good one team and how bad the other, on any given Sunday you can win or lose. The trick of the dominator is to avoid losing by minimizing the number of games he or she has to play. Each game is a playoff game. If you lose once, you’re out of the game or will at least have to renegotiate the terms of domination. To stay in the game, the dominator has to win and preferably, win big. Abused people have to believe that they have no hope of resistance if they are to willingly bear the costs of abuse. Hope is the wellspring of the will to fight. Hope must be eliminated in the dominated if the dominator plans on making the abuse a foundation of his or her rule.

Demonstration effects are possible because the experience of seeing resistance work in a context that you see as much like your own is inspiring. It restores hope. Plus, there are young people. Young people differ from old people in that they have very limited experience of how difficult it can be to bear the costs of failure. Naturally the young will seize an opportunity when they are inspired. This is the essence of the demonstration effect. Most will lag behind to “see if it works.” If it looks like resistance is possible, more will join. Dennis Chong is right--it’s basically a tipping game. It needs inspiration (charisma), however to get it started. That said, losses dampen the will to fight. Recall that every charisma lives from success to success and with each passing hour grows nearer and nearer to its own death. Seeing resistance crushed is also psychologically powerful.

Bear in mind that age plays a role also for the dominator. Most people including a good many dictators, are not what I called psychopaths and what you called sociopaths: individuals who are incapable of feeling sympathy and, as a result, can objectify others with no psychological costs. Abuse has a psychological cost for the psychologically normal dominator, as does the will to savagery and cruelty. The dominator is not able to bear these psychological costs uniformly throughout his or her life. As one ages, one loses these capacities. Mubarak was a very old and feeble man in this round. He was leaning on JIMMY for Christ’s sake. What does that tell you about his sense of real politik?

This analysis, bear in mind, is very simplified. Recall that Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen are all facing remarkably different situations of domination and remarkably different domestic problems. But they weren’t dominoes. One falling over does not guarantee the next falling over. If I have tried to teach you anything at all, it’s been to stop thinking of states as a system. There are some loose regularities that characterize the states on this planet; this is true. But you’re never going to get more than loose regularities owing to the lack of uniformity in institutions and the personalities who run them. Billiard balls and dominoes are of no practical use to us here.

Merry Christmas, brother! Commend me to your wife. Let me know if you ever get the time to grab that beer.



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