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Kurzman, Iran, and Individual Strategic Choice

Having spent a previous entry extolling simple explanations, I will now indulge hypocritically (and gleefully) in a somewhat complex idea–rooted in on one of my favorite books. Charles Kurzman wrote Unthinkable Revolution in Iran to explain a basic incongruity: why did the Shah look so strong to observers when the fundamentals of his regime appeared–in retrospect–to be so weak? One could observe the same of Egypt, which–while burdened by numerous political and economic issues–did not appear to be on the verge of imminent collapse. Such events inevitably blindside governments–and by no fault of their own.
      To hastily summarize a wide body of political science and policy literature, there are many nations in the world with severe structural problems that will eventually lead to disintegration and the overthrow of a dictator or a governing clique. But dictators still manage–by deception, manipulation, and provision of overwhelming force–to coerce the populace into submission. As Kurzman notes, most politically conscious (and since involvement ‘politics’ in such a state is inescapable due to the state’s domination of everyday life) individuals in such a volatile situation continuously assess the relative strength of the state apparatus as well as the actions of their neighbors to gain a sense of what they should do.
      In a true revolutionary situation, the normal social structure set by regime domination is upset. New modes of behavior, expression, and action manifest themselves. Factions compete and cooperate in mobilization efforts. Crowd dynamics analyzed by Elias Cannetti and others quickly snowball. And as more and more individuals rapidly re-assess the basic validity of their actions in reference to their peers and the changing power of the state apparatus, behavior can rapidly shift. In Iran, Kurzman argues that revolution was an essentially nonlinear process that once begun had a self-evolving logic. As regime control slackened and public protest spiraled, the regime passed a point of “relative advantage.” Of course, a bloody crackdown can reverse the perception of weakness created by popular mobilization, but such a step carries its own risks–especially if the troops involved are not politically reliable.
      This has several implications for policy. First, indications and warning for revolutionary events is likely to be an hit and miss affair. Second, regime collapse is by no means inevitable in the near-term. A sclerotic state apparatus that is incapable of self-strengthening reforms can struggle on for many years before finally collapsing under its own weight. Kurzman is not well-known in the policy community, but he should be.