Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On order, and why we shouldn't riot

I wrote recently about some calls in Ireland for an Egypt-style uprising. I disagreed, remarking that hundreds of people were killed in Egypt's unrest. Add to that the economic costs - US$310 million every day according to the Finance Ministry:

...and some private analysts have estimated that investors have been withdrawing funds at a rate of about $1 billion a day. Before the protests, Egypt was expected to have 5% annual economic growth; now the consensus is closer to 1%.

Other stories are trickling through about the damage done during the protests. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo was looted of "18 priceless artefacts", including ancient statues of King Tutankhamun. Lara Logan, a senior reporter with American TV network CBS suffered a "brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating" at the hands of a Cairo mob.

Disorder has high costs.

Catholic thinkers in the past listed six principles they believed must be satisfied by a conflict for it to be a "just war". These principles were:

1) A just cause: war could not be fought with loot or genocide in mind.

2) Declared by a legitimate authority (the government).

3) Fought with the "right intention".

4) The last resort after all other means have failed.

5) A reasonable chance of success.

6) Proportionality between the destruction caused by the war and the good it hopes to achieve.

Of these, at least two seem to favour the status quo. The second principle rendered illegitimate those wars waged by non-state actors, the fifth favoured the stronger military power. The Catholic Church was often criticised for its conservatism, its historical suspicion of the radical movements which eventually led to modern liberal democracy. Yet I can't fault their caution (in theory anyway, if not always in practice) towards the use of violence to achieve political goals, their desire to centralise that use of violence in the state.

This sounds rather like English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that a powerful central state was necessary to avoid the chaos of disorder - the "warre of all against all". Hobbes would see disorder on a grand scale in his time, during the English Civil War.
Renaissance thinker Niccolo Machiavelli said:

Wars begin where you will but they do not end when you please.

The consequences of war, and to a lesser extent of all social disorder, are unclear and potentially terrible.

For these reasons I argue that massive popular protest of the kind that inhibits the state's ability to police society must be the second-last resort of desperate people, with violent insurrection being the last. Stable democracies like Ireland offer peaceful, legal ways to acquire power and to change the course of the country's governance, so there is no excuse here for a deliberate assault on the political system from without. The consequences of disorder are too grave for us to seek it without considerable cause.


  1. It would be stupid to riot in Ireland. The democracy is better established over there. You can easily change the government with your votes. And the government must accept it. There is no reason to riot.

    But in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya how do you convince a leader to step down if you don't riot?

  2. Absolutely, Umut. Democracy is sometimes celebrated for its representative quality, but to me a greater quality is its ability to change the people in power without bloodshed. Since we already have it in Ireland, why on earth risk it with chaos on the streets?

  3. Check this out: violent protests in Athens where a police officer is struck with a petrol bomb.

    I saw some Irish people calling for Greece-style protests last year, perhaps oblivious or indifferent to the dangers of such disorder.

  4. I agree with you. Peaceful transition is the key in democracies. In the Middle East, the power rarely shifts no matter what the people think. That's why democracy is not functioning over there. In Europe and the USA, elections are respected and transitions occur without an issue. So democracy works.

    I think Greek people are doing an overkill. 10 general strikes in 1 year, riotings... What do they think to achieve with that? There is no logic in crippling the country while you can switch the government in the elections.

    The only reason I am cutting the Libyans some slack is because their situation is extraordinary. No way Gaddafi is leaving office without coercion. Even if he gets 1% from an election, he wouldn't do it. Then, fine.

    It's about using force WHEN NECESSARY.

  5. I don't know what should the Belgians do though... They are without government for how much time now? Over 250 days? It seems that democracy has a bug when people can't form a majority. :D

  6. Totally, and personally I hope Gaddafi is bid adieu very soon! It would be awesome to see the dictatorships of North Africa replaced by functional democracies so I wish them luck.

    (Incidentally, I read somewhere the remark that, had the US never invaded Iraq, perhaps we'd be seeing Iraqi people overthrow Saddam Hussein with no foreign intervention right now. Interesting thought!)

  7. True. It's very likely that the Iraqis would revolt against Saddam today if he was in power. But it's easy to guess things retroactively. I couldn't predict such uprisings in the Arab world last year, let alone in 2003. The Americans hoped the Iraqis would eventually overthrow Saddam as a result of the difficulties brought by UN sanctions. But that didn't happen between 1991 and 2003. So it was a hard thing to predict, considering everything these people obediently endured.

    Personally I wish the US had overthrown Saddam in the First Gulf War. They had the just cause [invasion of Kuwait], they had the legitimate authority [UN resolutions], they had the right intention [liberating Kuwait and possibly Iraq from Saddam's tyranny], it was the last resort [the UNSC declared many other resolutions urging Saddam to retreat but he ignored them all] and they had all the reasonable chance to succeed [the military of the US/UK and their allies + majority of Arab countries in the region against Iraq]. The conditions couldn't have been more appropriate!!!

    They missed their chance back then and decided to "correct" it a decade later based on a false information or lie, depending on how you interpret it, that Saddam had WMDs. But he didn't. This is what made Iraq War so repulsive and why it backfired so violently. The ground of that war was weak unlike the first one.

    I'm sorry, I kinda diverted the issue here :)

  8. Yes, it's impossible to predict the future. I have mentioned Nicholas Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan (unrelated to the film!) occasionally on this blog. Taleb points out that great world events like WWI or 9/11 were totally unpredicted until they happened, and then historians and journalists tried to explain them in retrospect, in a way that made them appear inevitable. Nothing is inevitable! We can't say how the world would be different had the invasion of Iraq not happened.

    But this uncertainty, this inability to predict the results of any action, makes me err on the side of peace in most situations. A war MIGHT have net positive effects, but might not. Since war is inherently destructive, however, we should avoid it unless the costs of peace become very great.

    (This is similar to the modern approach to criminal justice. Suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. This might end up with lots of guilty people walking free, but that is preferable to lots of innocent people being jailed.)

    Anyway, thanks for all the comments! :)


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