30 December 2008

The Limits of Force: Why the coercion constraint matters

News junkies out there will notice the trend I am talking about, that conventional militaries have been less successful at solving problems lately. There is actually a very good and succint explanation for why this phenomenon exists and how it operates. Since I don't hear this discussed much I'm laying it out here, with a proper shout-out to my undergrad poli-sci professor, Victor Magagna, who explained this idea (and others) so well.

The coercion constraint is the concept that cost of coercion increases geometrically for the coercer with each additional increment of force used.  In other words, it becomes increasingly costly to make someone do something for you.  You have to expend more effort, provide more incentives, and so forth.  The end result is a lot like one of the things Sartre said, "we always have choices."  For the sake of simplicity imagine you want a specific person to eat an apple and assume that they would rather not.  You can bargain with them, you can provide incentives and inducements, but you actually cannot force them to do so.  If they absolutely refused you can threaten them with death, but if they still refuse and you carry out that threat, the apple is not eaten. On the other hand you can force-feed them the apple but then they still didn't do it, you fed it to them. If the point had been for the apple to be eaten, then it would have been significantly less costly for you to do it yourself. Now consumption of an apple is a minor issue and could probably be accomplished with basic incentives, but the point is that the only way to get there is a bargain with the other agent. The use of force is really a bargaining mechanism, whereby you increase the cost to someone else of not doing the thing you want them too.

The coercion constraint matters as a blunt point of reality, but it also carries important implications for conflict in the 21st century. Coercive threats mattered a lot more in pre-modern times because the ideologies that supported them were much stronger. The constable showing up with goons to take a percentage of your grain always sucked, but it was underlined by a whole range of assumptions (usually believed by the elite themselves too) such as the state's legitimacy being divine and hence the right of the nobility to take their share. Nowadays people find such justifications absurd. It's not that they believe less in God, it's rather that God has been recast in their image. Modernity required that sovereignty be popular for the state to function, and the axial view (and axial deity) came into to line with that. Now God supports popular sovereignty (read the preamble to the American constitution for an example of this formulation.

The result of the trend to popular sovereignty raised the costs of coercion dramatically. States couldn't make unjustified wars with obfuscation or treachery, but more importantly, short of killing everyone who disagreed with them (genocide), wars could no longer change people's minds. Consequently violence these days no longer has much truck with things like conquering territory, but it is rather and attempt (however unjustified or ineffective) to make other people agree. This is why Israel's operation in Gaza is doomed, there is no way it's going to make the people of Gaza agree with their aims. It is has also been at the heart of Western strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Militants in Afghanistan cannot be coerced to stop their insurgency and regular people cannot be coerced into not supporting them, they have to be convinced. So who has been successful in convincing? The two most successful military organisations of recent years are actually parastatal organisations with armed wings--yep, love 'em or hate 'em they are Hamas and Hizbullah. Along with their aid-related activities, their enemies have played a large role in convincing people to support them, by attacking them. Part of the Taliban's ongoing weakness has been its failure to provide real public goods.

The lesson of the increasing cost of coercion is that we can only accomplish our objectives when our strategies are within the bounds of reality. Coercion is no long a realistic means to produce desired outcomes and genocide (and other forms of collective punishment) are generally unacceptable. Organisations like the Taliban and Israel are engaged in a war against reality (wars against abstract nouns are bad, but that's another rant) and it truly is sad to watch bystanders get killed and hurt for such causes.

22 December 2008

The Israeli Political Elite Sputters

Yet again, it seems, Israeli candidates are making the rounds and promising the impossible, the toppling of the Hamas-run statelet in Gaza.  It's a really novel idea and only been tried before in 1982, 2000-02, and twice in 2006.  Given that this is mostly the same cast of characters seen over previous years, one has to wonder if they know they are full of shit and have just taken to smiling as the ship goes down.

In other news about Israel's slow collapse, I'm starting to wonder if the state could evacuate all the settlers if it wanted to.  Remember evacuation of all settlers is a minimum requirement for a two-state solution, which I've long argued is impractical and outside the realm of possibility.  During the eviction of settlers from one house in Hebron, the BBC noted that several soldiers were required to remove each settler and whatever the exact number, that's a lot of manpower.  There are 400,000+ settlers now living on the wrong side of the green line.  Let's say that half would go willingly, that still leaves 200,000 people who would need to be forcibly evicted.  The Israeli state might not have the ability, coercively or politically to do so.  (See my next post about the coercion constraint)  In fact the Israel situation with its settlers (more broadly, its religio-nationalist extremists) shares striking parallels with Pakistan's situation along its northwestern frontier, with the main difference being that in Israeli radicals form a larger share proportionally of the population.  In both cases the state's identity is deeply interwined with a less extreme version of the ideology's radical manifestation.  See how much easier it is to base your state on fulfilling its duties to its citizens rather than an ideology!

21 December 2008

Chickens and Modernity

The root of the conflict in Afghanistan stems from the clash of agrarian and modern lifeways.  To be more precise, agrarian societies that have come into the modern world (and all have) redefine customs in a way that distorts them because their original context is now missing.  In parts of the world that were not in the vanguard of modernity (where modernity has been less jarring because it has been felt to be an indigenous process) and hence have the short end of the global political stick (everywhere that the West colonised basically), defence of these pre-modern moral and social systems becomes defensive if not also violent (anti-modernity is often misread, by supporters and opponents alike, as anti-Westernism).

The classic example is fornication.  In agrarian societies sex outside the rules was dangerous and threatened the societies with collapse.  In agrarian Europe, for example, power and authority were bound up in heredity which in turn was a foil for legitimacy, all backed by the divine authority of an axial god (popular legitimacy did not exist because mass society did not exist and was not technically feasible).  Like everything else in agrarian society, this was fudgeable; new dynasties took control, but when they did so the assumption was that the losing party lost the favour of god and the underlying basis of the system was not felt to be challenged.  In the modern context that entire web of assumptions disappeared as societies adapted to new technical and material possibilities.  The significance was that when a society that had developed more aspects of modernity encountered one with its roots still firmly in the agrarian age, the moderns they seemed permissive and immoral.  Because the more agrarian society is also modernising and forming its own mass society and national identity, it latches onto the most salient differences between it and the moderns to define itself.  These differences are not those that existed from one agrarian culture to another or even from one modern one to another but rather they encapsulated diachronic change as synchronic juxtaposition.  "What people did" in agragrian societies came to be redefined as a cultural artefact and emblem of distinction, and, unlike in the past, intended to be followed to the absolute fullest.  Coming back to my example, restrictions of fornication were a common area in which later-modernising societies have come to define themselves as different.  The results are harmful to the society in question because it is embracing activities which are at odds with the modern social relationship which is emergency.  Invariably people start forming modern kinds of relationships (dating, love marriage) while the social elite is backing the reactionary morals (in this case a modern more which is based on a reinterpretation of a perceived agrarian norm).  Not only are the new elite-back morals contradictory and harmful to individuals in the society, they're harm is increased but they are, with the resources of modern society, being implemented much more thoroughly than they ever could have been in agrarian society.  This process is exemplified by the Taliban regime and the numerous abuses that occurred as they tried to pound a square peg into a round hole.

Modernity has altered ethics and morality in human life without altering the human, and one of my goals is finding away that explains these underlying shifts to people in an intelligible way.  A lot of moderns reject ethics and morality because for them they are tied to the old way of doing things, whereas I think that these things are not only still important but in fact more important.  What we have to do is realise that we are developing a new morality for our new world.

One concept I've long entertained is a collection of fables, echoing what Aesop and Gilgamesh when societies had to explain to each other how things would be done in the new agrarian world in which they then lived.  Events do not occur in clean narratives, but consicousness seems to string them together as such.  And let's face it, some people are just not entertained by social philosophy.

The linked story (from the Chicago public radio show This American Life) could be one example of such a fable.  It is a very vivid illustration of how pre-modern social ways cannot hold their own in a modern world (spoiler alert).  The story involves a youth in Balochistan and his father, who's a pretty high on the social ladder.  The father wants to break an old friend out of jail, so he plans to stage a raid on the prison.  To ensure his friend isn't his with any stray bullets, he buys a tawiz which is meant to protect him against such things.  To make sure the tawiz works, they buy a chicken and try shooting at it.  The father and his friends touch the chicken no matter how many times they try.  The youth, in the meantime is insisting that these are a new kind of gun has to be held and aimed a different way, which makes him the subject of ridicule.  After the old guys finally give up the kid takes a shot and, aiming properly, gets the chicken the first time.  It later emerges that over US$1k was spent on the tawiz.  The story demonstrates (and the reporter himself goes on to comment) how this event reflects the power shifts brought on by the modern revolution and also on how emasculating it must feel to be on the wrong end of the transformation.