The political economy of social protest

19 de Septiembre de 2016 a las 18:59

Angel Alvarez

By: Ángel E. Álvarez, PhD

For some radical people, the equation is incredibly simple: if citizens are dissatisfied and convinced that they have to change a corrupt and illegal government with a better one, the logical thing to do will be protesting vigorously. Only the complicity of equally corrupt opposition politicians or people’s negligence will explain the inexistence of incessant, vigorous, vibrant protests. Nevertheless, nothing could be farther from reality. 

In the ordinary political rhetoric of some politicians, everyday people, and some political analysts, socio-political protest is a matter of courage, dignity, pride and willingness to fight for justice. All these motives and feelings can be important in politics; yet, usually political events are far less complicated than the affairs of patriotism, adrenaline, and the hypothalamus.

To be clear, nobody embarks on a ship, knowing beforehand that it will not arrive at its destination. Mass political participation is the result of the difference between the utility of the expected goal, and the eventual costs of repression and further political persecution of protesters. Both have to be multiplied by the probability that the involvement of that particular person makes any difference in achieving the desired result.

Protesters seek a change of a government policy or, in extreme cases, the replacement of the government or even the transformation of the political regime. All of these are public goods and therefore indivisible. Anyone who suffers from the unbearable situation, undesirable state or unfair system, will benefit equally from the political change, whether or not they participate in the protests. Also, each has an insignificant weight in the sum of thousands or millions of people whose participation is required to bring about the change. The key question then is: why do people still get involved in protests?

It is clear that the response is not as related to the importance of the expected, heroic outcome as it is to the cost of political participation.  It is clear that peaceful protests are more useful than the intentionally violent ones. Similarly, the effectiveness of the protests is greater if the government cannot violently suppress protests. Obviously, weak, divided and limited governments tend to be much less oppressive than stable, violent and undisguised tyrannies. 

We must consider not only direct costs, but also of the opportunity costs. It is not only important to discount fears of being repressed, arrested, physically tortured or psychologically abused, and even perhaps killed during the protest or in prison. It is imperative to consider the costs of not doing other valuable things. If protesters have to stop doing other useful things in spaces away from their personal safety zone, the success of sustained protest over time may be significantly lower. Therefore, an oppressive government not only suppresses protests, but prevents them by threatening political and social activists, by limiting zones allowed for demonstrations, and by keeping people busy in other indispensable activities—in such a way, they will have no spare time to protest.

Paradoxically, then, whenever and wherever there are significant reasons to demonstrate, protesters tend to be less efficient and much weaker than where their motives are less urgent. In highly oppressive political and economic regimes, —with severe shortages of food and medicine, high inflation and unemployment—people have moral reasons to protest. But often, mass demonstrations are less significant and sustained over time than in other regimes with some political guarantees and economic welfare.

Thus, it is not a matter of courage, but of economic calculation. Peruvians massively and successfully protested against Alberto Fujimori in 2000. The regime was oppressive, and protesting was risky, but not enough to go without food or being massacred. For the same reason, Venezuelans do not protest today against Nicolas Maduro with the frequency and force they used against Hugo Chavez from 2000 to 2003. Venezuelans have not become hardened by a sort of learned helplessness. Maduro's government has been not only much more repressive than Chavez’s, but it also happens to be that, in their desperate search for the extremely scarce food and medicine left in the country, Venezuelans have no time for anything but surviving. In their personal balance sheet, there is much more utility in staying alive than in protesting.