Non-violence and the political marketplace


Women protesting against the government in Khartoum in 2013 (NBC News)

Alex de Waal has an excellent recent post at Reinventing Peace on non-violence and the political marketplace in weak states.  It fits very well with North, Wallis & Weingast’s statebuilding framework in Violence and Social Orders, which I’ve previously written about here.  The major point is that violence in weak states is not an anomaly but an important type of “currency” in the marketplace for political power, which makes non-violent political change rather difficult.  Some key quotes:

First let me define a political marketplace. It is a system of governance that is driven by personal transactions of loyalty for reward. All political systems have this element: what characterizes a political marketplace is that all institutions, rules and laws are subordinate to this kind of bargaining…

[In a political marketplace,] politics are driven by the three principles of political budget (cash for renting loyalties), the political market (the prevailing price of loyalties) and skill in political business management. Skilled political managers are entirely instrumental and deal with individuals in an opportunistic manner: there are no permanent friends or enemies, only peers, rivals, clients and contractors. Ethnic and sectarian loyalties are mobilized on an instrumental basis. These political systems are typically highly turbulent, unpredictable from week to week, but maintaining recognizable patterns over a long period of time.

Violence is a standard tool within a political market. It is a signal of presence in the market; it is a means of bargaining and especially a signifier of determination in pursuing the best price (highest for the claimant, lowest for the ruler). It can also be a means of reducing or eliminating a rival’s constituency, by killing, raping, robbing and destroying. Excessive violence is a risky strategy as it disturbs any near-equilibrium in the market and risks inviting in new players.

On peacebuilding:

What is peace under these circumstances? Most peace agreements are bargains struck among players in the marketplace, to share resources and reconfigure alliances. They divide the cake and construct a new configuration according to which they share out the rents. A peace agreement is as good as the market conditions in which it is made. It also typically involves the parties to the agreement organizing violence against those who have not joined. Often, such peace agreements actually see an upsurge in violence, as the signatories enforce their deal on those they describe as ‘spoilers’. A ‘successful’ peace deal in a political market is not an end to violence: rather it means that violence no longer matters (specifically, it is no longer a problem to those in power)…

Non-violent political mobilization can take several forms.  First is for an individual to act out of personal integrity to uphold justice and non-violence. An individual judge, chief, administrator, journalist, teacher, religious leader, etc., can uphold non-violence in a limited sphere. There are cases of principled individuals defying the pressure of political leaders and resisting financial inducements. An example is the decision by high court judges in South Sudan to throw out treason charges against political opponents of the government. In order to do this, the individual concerned needs many of the same qualities and capacities as an effective political entrepreneur: a wide network, skills in judging character and circumstance, and resources. Those individuals are also typically selective in applying their principles: they do enough to generate a reputation and a following, which protects them, but they cannot uphold principle on every occasion…

A second approach is to make a political market more efficient. In principle, a well-run political market could be made to function with reduced violence, if the functions of signaling entrance into the political market and bargaining could be carried out by other means, for example through elections or non-violent demonstrations, violence would be reduced. As countries urbanize, and as communication improves, this may indeed be a long-term trend. Some initiatives have enhanced this feature, for example the use of the internet and social media by Ushahidi in Kenya. Communication among elites increases the possibility that they will conduct their business with limited violence. Another approach to this is to enhance the coordination of political finance: if those who provide the funds for political entrepreneurs to operate coordinate to insist that politics is conducted with less violence, then politicians will comply.

The entire piece is essential reading.