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Citizens In Want of Stamina

Sina Odugbemi's picture

This is the age of hopeful citizens where in almost every part of the globe citizens are mobilizing, marching and, often successfully, pushing for change. But this is also the age of increasingly frustrated citizens. In some cases, the frustration is occasioned by the failure to achieve changes in regimes even after an astonishing sequence of heroic efforts and sacrifices by citizens. In other cases, the efforts originally appeared successful. Long-entrenched dictators fell and citizens were ecstatic, believing glorious days were imminent. Yet, in many of these cases, one disappointment is jumping on top of another. Change is proving far more difficult to achieve; it is even proving elusive.

Citizens are discovering with brutal sharpness the real meaning of the Iron Law of Oligarchy, that is the idea, broadly, that governing elites form no matter how much you try to democratize. As explained by the political economist, Daron Acemoglu (2011), even after apparently successful revolutions, there are three particularly powerful aspects of the Law that continue to apply:

  • Persistence of power and elites: institutions may change but powerful groups maintain command;
  • Persistence of bad rulers: new rulers may promise change but often turn out to be as bad as old rulers;
  • Persistence of bad rules: institutions change but often regenerate the same political and economic equilibrium.

Acemoglu’s research relies on an abundance of historical evidence that we can’t go into here, but it is fair to say that contemporary experiences support his analysis. Somehow, bad elites, bad rulers and bad rules tend to persist far beyond the heady days of citizen movements pushing for change with apparent success.

What is to be done? The glib answer is: Citizen Movements also have to persist. But as citizens around the world are finding out today, stamina is not an easy thing for citizen movements to find. It is all too easy for bad elites to outlast citizen movements. Bad elites are highly motivated, highly organized and well-resourced. Nonetheless, there is evidence that citizens can find the stamina to achieve genuine change…if certain conditions are met and certain techniques are deployed.  Here are two sets of insights from Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action (Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee, Editors, The World Bank, 2011).

First, Marshall Ganz teaches us  that leaders of citizen movements have to deploy the emotional power of public narrative in such a way as to ensure that ‘action motivators’ are stimulated to overcome ‘action inhibitors’. His essay, ‘Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power’ is worth reading in full. Three examples should suffice.  You power up urgency in order to overcome inertia. You fire up hope in order to overcome fear. You build solidarity in order to overcome a sense of isolation, and so on.  The point is that without tapping into wellsprings of action in the hearts of citizens public action will not be initiated or sustained. Bad elites will win hands down.

Second, in the essay, ‘Collective Movements, Activated Opinion, and the Politics of the Extraordinary' Taeku Lee draws lessons from research on social movements. He explains that what the research is showing is that to be successful citizen movements need three things:

  • They need organizational resources: a broad range of material and non-material goods that help the movement to stay afloat;
  • They need a structure of political opportunities:  vulnerabilities in the existing power configuration that can be exploited to advance the interests of citizens; and
  • They need cognitive liberation:  citizens must believe that change is both necessary and possible. (The focus of the work of Marshall Ganz discussed above).

Again, Lee’s essay is worth reading in full.

Still, none of this is easy. But it is also clear, I hope, that despair has to be avoided at all costs. Stamina is possible and citizen movements can find it, build it, and, somehow, keep insisting on accountable governance.


Picture credit: flickr user Enough Project

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Submitted by Duncan on
I think it's a mistake to expect (or event want) citizens' movements to endure. The historical research by Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, among others points to the contrast between periodic upsurges and then declines of mass social movements, and the steady grind of the state. The granularity of social movements is such that they are made up of an agglomeration of more long-lasting institutions (churches, trade unions, peasant organizations, football club supporters or whatever), but they tend to come together at particular movements to form more ephemeral mass movements.

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