Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Evolution of Violent and Nonviolent Resistance to Tyranny: From Foraging Society to the Present

In John Locke's state of nature, all individuals are free and equal because they can punish anyone who tries to bully or tyrannize over them, which Locke calls the "executive power of the state of nature."  For the worst offenders--such as murderers--the natural punishment is death.

Although the threat of such punishment can enforce the social norms of cooperation that constitute the law of nature and that can make the state of nature a state of peace, this state of society without government tends to become a state of war, because, in the absence of formal institutions for establishing, judging, and enforcing laws, people lack any impartial system for the rule of law, and their natural propensity to partiality in judging their own cases leads to violent feuding.  To secure the peace of society, governments are established by the consent of individuals to provide known, settled laws established by formal lawmakers, interpreted by impartial judges, and executed by those entrusted with the natural executive power of the whole society. 

When these powers of government are abused, in being used by the rulers to exploit the ruled contrary to the common good of all, then the people, according to Locke, have the natural right to reclaim the natural executive power for punishing tyrants through overthrowing government and consenting to a new government that is more likely to secure their natural rights.  In their resistance to tyrannical government, people have a natural right to meet force with force, even to the point of killing their rulers.

There are two lines of historical evidence for judging whether Locke is correct about this.  The first is the evidence about the history of human foragers.  The second is the evidence of the history of resistance to tyrannical government.

As I have indicated in previous posts, anthropological studies of the foraging bands that are most likely to resemble our late Pleistocene ancestors indicate that Locke is largely correct in his account of the state of nature as a customary social order in which all individuals had the right to punish deviants.  Punishment included killing, although this was not common, and it was mostly directed against murderers.  The more common forms of punishment were gossip, ridicule, shunning, and physical forms of punishment short of lethal violence.  As Christopher Boehm has shown, foragers enforce their moral norms mostly through what Locke calls the "law of reputation," or what evolutionary theorists call "indirect reciprocity."

The history of political violence and rivalry over governmental rule also shows that people are inclined to exercise their natural right to punish rulers who abuse their powers in tyrannical ways.  In recent years, there have been some rigorously quantitative studies of this history that show a historical pattern of declining political violence and increasing nonviolent resistance to tyranny.

In the first systematic and quantitative study of regicide in Europe, Manuel Eisner (2011) has collected data on the frequency of violent death and regicide among 1,513 monarchs in Europe between AD 600 and 1800.  He has distinguished four categories of violent death: accident, battle death, murder, and legal execution.  He found that in the seventh century, the frequency of regicide was 2,500 murders per 100,000 years in office.  There was a long decline in regicide.  So that by the eighteenth century, the frequency of regicide was about 200 per 100,000 years in office.  By comparison, the homicide rate in Western Europe today is around 0.6-1.5 per 100,000 person-years.  Clearly, then, European kingship before the Industrial Revolution was one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, comparable to that of soldiers in combat.

Eisner found that for most of this history, regicide was carried out within the noble elite in the competition for political rule.  But, then, by the seventeenth century, regicide became increasingly a matter of legal execution--such as the execution of Charles I in 1751 and the execution of Louis XVI in 1793.  In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, James II was deposed without being executed.

The decline in regicide seems to be part of the general historical decline in homicide (Eisner 2003; Pinker 2011).  This general pattern of declining violence seems to be associated with a Hobbesian pacification process, in which the state claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, and with a Lockean liberal culture of bourgeois virtues that arise in modern commercial societies, in which people learn to control their violent impulses for the sake of peaceful economic and social exchange.

While a Hobbesian state can bring peace, it can also bring tyrannical coercion that provokes violent resistance.  And yet, there is some evidence that resistance to Hobbesian tyranny has become more nonviolent.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (2008, 2011) entered into a data base all forms of both violent and nonviolent revolutions and reforms since 1900.  Analyzing that data, they found that nonviolent resistance campaigns were more than twice as likely to succeed as violent resistance movements.  Violent resistance is largely limited to young, strong, and violent males.  But the methods of nonviolent resistance--such as strikes, boycotts, and symbolic protests--can recruit a broad array of people. 

And, indeed, as Locke indicated, successful revolutions depend on "people power."  Chenoweth and Stephan were even able to specify that every campaign that achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population was successful, and that many succeeded with even less participation.  Every campaign that did surpass the 3.5 percent threshold was nonviolent.

This provides quantitative evidence for Locke's account of government by consent of the governed.  Tyrants cannot rule by themselves.  They need supporters--or what Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith (2011) call a "minimum winning coalition."  Of course, in a dictatorship, that winning coalition can be a very small elite group of people who receive special benefits from the dictator's rule.  But as Chenoweth and Stephan show, that small group of people supporting the dictator can be persuaded by a small nonviolent resistance movement to turn against the dictator.  Dictators cannot rule without at least the passive acquiescence of the great body of the people, and thus they can be overthrown by the active resistance of 3.5 percent or less of the people, even when that resistance is nonviolent.

So while the exercise of the natural executive power to punish tyrants has often been violent, it can also succeed when it's nonviolent.


Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, and Alastair Smith. 2011. The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics. New York: Public Affairs.

Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria Stephan. 2008. "Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict." International Security 33: 7-44.

________. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Eisner, Manuel. 2003. "Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime." Crime and Justice 30: 83-142.

________. 2011. "Killing Kings: Patterns of Regicide in Europe, AD 600-1800." British Journal of Criminology 51: 556-577.

Pinker, Stephen. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  New York: Viking.

Chenoweth has summarized her research in a TED talk. and a lecture at Dartmouth College.


Anonymous said...

The lockean image of people wondering around in the state of nature and then deciding to form a state in order to avoid the inconveniences is seriously misleading. You can't separate it from the actual historical reasons why people formed states and that has to do with the advent of agriculture and settled societies rather than hunter-gatherers. The state is needed for settled societies, but hunter-gatherers get by in the state of nature just fine without it. So Locke is wrong about the state inevitably arising from a state of nature. It only makes things better where settled societies need common defense and rules for trade and property.

Larry Arnhart said...

Locke agrees with you. As I have indicated in many posts, Locke recognizes that foragers can live as stateless societies, and that formal government arises with settled societies and agriculture.