Resilience and Social Unrest: Tentative hypotheses for forecasting movements that manifest violent social unrest.
I expect than most readers will already have a social unrest plan as part of their duty of care to their staff. This plan will vary massively in scope, detail and threat depending on where their staff are in the world. For those of you who have not personally been caught up in violent social unrest it can be a deeply troubling episode especially if you are unable to anticipate the level of this threat. The speed at which the threat of violent unrest can manifest itself is stunning and the cause can be wholly unpredictable.
Academics at University College London have anticipated a ‘cascading effect ‘of social unrest post Covid and many other studies endorse the growth in social unrest. Although trying to distil a predictive model for potential violent unrest is plagued with notable exceptions, variables, and valid counter arguments, nevertheless, some attempt at logic and some perhaps intemperate generalisations can form hypotheses for a more sophisticated model in due course.
This brief article examines some limited factors which promote violent social unrest and offers some tentative hypotheses which could be considered in response planning.
What are we looking for?
The current literature considers many aspects of social unrest ranging from causality to prediction . Historical analysis of social unrest, such as Archer’s , has focused on the root causes with corollary consideration of subsequent effects. The specific issue of the potential for violence is less considered. I am not going to debate causes or flashpoints or the impact of social media worthy though these debates are. The article focuses on just three issues (amongst many others) that help to predict a social movement’s propensity for violent unrest.
• The legitimacy of the cause.
• The leadership or otherwise of the movement.
• The maturity of the movement.
Legitimacy is important as it gives any movement credibility which in turn generates intellectual and political (with a small or large P) debate and/or traction for the movement. Legitimacy has several subsets, three of them are, realistic aims and objectives, a structured opposition to their aims and a moral foundation,
Realistic clear aims and objectives
If success is to be considered, then the movement has to have, or have had a realistic clear strategic or tactical intent in the first place. For example, the poll tax ‘rioters’ (1989-90) , the UK suffragette movement , had relatively clear aims and they can easily be distinguished from other episodes such as the bizarre St Scholastica Day riots in Oxford in 1354, which lacked any intent for national social change (it began as an argument over the quality of wine in a tavern but nevertheless cost 90 lives) . This need for stated aims seems critical in the first place, albeit aims can be clarified and refined as the movement gains momentum. For example, in terms of gay rights timelines , the UK Wolfenden Report in 1954, recommending the decriminalisation of homosexuality, could scarcely have envisaged the far-reaching developments that have occurred since. Nevertheless, a movement with wholly unrealistic, or ill-defined ambitions are far less likely to achieve any success. For example, the student riots in France (and elsewhere) in 1968 are widely regarded as almost spontaneous, ‘These rebellions were not planned in advance, nor did the rebels share an ideology or goal’ (nor did they have any single charismatic leader). They originated in demands for sexual liberalism in halls of residence, morphed into demands for educational reform and ended in the proposition of a socialist revolution The result was, the re-election of the incumbent President de Gaulle’s party with a larger majority.
The presence of realistic bounded aims and objectives whilst not vouchsafing peaceful protest does at least indicate a focus to them and limited realistic ambitions which can be taken seriously.
Opposition; the sincerest form of flattery?
Paradoxically in the case of the UK Suffragette movement, a powerful voice against their cause was from a well organised and an intellectually credible women’s anti suffrage campaign. However, the further paradox is that the formation of a coherent group in opposition meant that the proponents’ arguments for suffrage were actually worthy of opposition and inherently had some merit.
The proselyting force with which the proponents make their arguments is also a distinguishing feature of a credible movement. (Please note, this is not the same as endlessly iterating a baseless allegation so that it eventually gains traction with the gullible). The sheer passion with which suffragettes held their opinions was commented on by Bush.
‘Anti-suffragists could not match the fervour of their opponents, but they were clearly a force to be reckoned with rather than merely a target for suffragist ridicule’.
Thus, coherent opposition to a cause is not merely flattering, it conveys intellectual credibility to the proponents of the movement.
A moral foundation
The successful movement (and potentially increasingly less violent) also appears to have a more readily recognisable moral basis which is begrudgingly appreciated even by non-sympathisers. This is very difficult to define as even terrorist organisations claim a moral high ground. Nonetheless, movements closely allied to seeking equality, freedom, justice, or some redress of legitimate grievances appear to have more chance of success unless confronted with a resolutely totalitarian or highly effective government backed opposition.
This power of a moral foundation was commented upon (in a US context) by Jasper (1997)
‘Moral protests spans not only state lines but class boundaries… What moral visons inspire outrage about often distant practices and institutions.’
It appears that this moral basis is a unifying feature that allows shared values to generate global empathy with just causes.
A movement demonstrating legitimacy through these three elements will tend to be, focused, taken seriously and less willing to compromise its legitimacy by violence which risks robbing it of its moral position.
A charismatic leader
Despite the success of some ‘cellular’ movements which act as a loose federation, notably the anti ‘Poll Tax Movement’ in the UK and the disparate aims of the ‘Gillet Jaune’ in France many movements coalesce behind a single charismatic figure . This is especially the case of political movements such as Indian Independence, Gandhi, South African Apartheid, Mandela, and more recently the Ugandan opposition leader and former singer Bobi Wine. Generally, this leadership makes the movement less prone to violent protest; many effective leaders actively discourage violence especially if their cause is ‘externally’ and/or ‘globally’ perceived to be legitimate. For example, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the arguably disenfranchised candidate pitted against the long-time incumbent Alexander Lukashenko in the Belarus elections, once deported to Lithuania called specifically for peaceful protests . In most of these cases any violence resulting from initially peaceful protests is generally directed at government and state institutions. However, a movement with a leader with a less moral credibility can be prone to incite followers to forms of insurrection and unilateral action by factions is possibly more likely as evidenced by the unfortunate events in the USA recently.
In many ways the USA violence was curious hybrid between a led movement, the Republican Party, and a leaderless faction with a supposed ‘shadowy’ virtual leader ‘Q’, part of the Q Anon movement. The cellular and in today’s terms ‘virtual’ leaderless version of a movement is probably the least predictable. The implicit autonomy granted to local or regional organisers is by implication almost unbounded. Without denigrating in any way, the aims of Black Lives Matter, (BLM) it currently has no leader akin to the earlier US Civil Rights Movement where leadership could be seen to vest in Martin Luther King or depending on persuasions, even Malcom X . Consequently, the demonstrations of support for BLM ranged wildly from Formula 1 drivers ‘taking the knee’ before the race to, in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, widespread opportunistic arson and looting with little or no relationship to the cause of BLM as well as more minor sympathetic disturbances outside the US.
Thus, an assessment of the leader, their control, their degree of legitimacy, and naturally their direction to followers is critical to forecasting the potential for violent protest.
Maturity of the social movement
As social movements mature and their aims and objectives are either taken seriously or achieved to a limited extent they often shift from any violent conflict to a more persuasive conventional position. As noted by Blumer (1995).
‘As a social movement develops, it takes on the character of a society. It acquires organization and form, a body of customs and traditions, established leadership, an enduring division of labour, social rules and social values.’
The argument is that mature movements pose less threat of violence than their less predictable embryonic siblings for whom violent protest seems the only thing that attracts attention their cause. Interestingly, in the UK the Black Lives Matter movement has already rebranded to become the ‘Black Liberation Movement’. thereby gaining legal status, allowing donations and memberships. Arguably the movement is becoming a more mature and controlled conventional movement where non-adherents to direction can be excluded from membership.
One hesitates to summarise these propositions but as a rough guide on which one might base security decisions, I offer the following ‘rules of thumb’, or more precisely hypotheses, which I encourage you to debate at your leisure.
• Embryonic movements tend to use violent protest to attract attention to their cause.
• Any organisation with a ‘Youth Wing’ will almost certainly be prone to violent protest.
• Any movement without clear aims and objectives and/or a moral foundation might be more prone to compensatory violent protests.
• Any serious repression of almost any legitimate social movement with a reasonable moral foundation will tend to lend it legitimacy and globalise it.
• Charismatic leaders of morally credible movements tend to discourage violent protest.
• Cellular, dispersed, factional protest organisations without a strong leader are less predictable and prone to violent protest.
by Dr Chris Needham-Bennett, MD Needhams 1834 Ltd