Max Weber, Bernie Sanders, and a difficult revolution

Why not have more sociological theory applied to the 2016 election? Here is one application of Weber’s ideas to Bernie Sander’s chances for starting a revolution:

Max Weber, the great sociologist best remembered for coining the phrase “Protestant work ethic,” would have loved Sunday’s Democratic debate. Leaving aside the sad and quixotic figure of Martin O’Malley, the two main contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders perfectly illustrated a distinction Weber made in his classic 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation.” In that essay, Weber distinguished between two different ethical approaches to politics, an “ethics of moral conviction” and an “ethics of responsibility.”

Sanders is promoting an “ethics of moral conviction” by calling for a “political revolution” seeking to overthrow the deeply corrupting influence of big money on politics by bringing into the system a counterforce of those previously alienated, including the poor and the young. Clinton embodies the “ethics of responsibility” by arguing that her presidency won’t be about remaking the world but trying to preserve and build on the achievements of previous Democrats, including Obama.

The great difficulty Sanders faces is that given the reality of the American political system (with its divided government that has many veto points) and also the particular realities of the current era (with an intensification of political polarization making it difficult to pass ambitious legislation through a hostile Congress and Senate), it is very hard to see how a “political revolution” could work.

Read Weber’s piece here and a summary here. As I skim through the original piece, it is a reminder of Weber’s broad insights as well as his occasional interest in addressing current conditions (political unrest in Germany). Wouldn’t Weber suggest that either Sanders needs (1) a ridiculous amount of charisma (which he has to some degree to come this far in politics) and/or (2) unusually large-scale support from the public in order to counter the power of  existing government? Reaching either objective this time around may prove too difficult…

American bars too loud, cafes too quiet for civil conversation and political dissent

A writer argues that civil conversation, let alone talk that might lead to political action and revolution, is not possible in American bars and cafes:

A noise gap has developed in American public life, and it’s a problem. The bars—at least those frequented by people under 40, who historically drive bottom-up political movements—have gotten louder. How loud? In 2012, the New York Times found that bars in that city regularly reached decibel levels so dangerously high that they violated federal workplace safety standards.

All that noise makes it hard to conduct a meaningful conversation, which is actually the idea. Bars have gotten louder at least in part in response to research showing that louder music encourages patrons to talk less and drink more. By rendering conversation obsolete, the loud atmosphere also nudges people towards imbibing past the point where intelligent conversation is possible. It’s not easy to find a large, crowded bar in an American city where conversation isn’t drowned out by music or a sports telecast. In fact, the Saloon, On U St. in Washington, D.C., has made its name by refusing to play loud music and forcing patrons to stay in their seats, making conversation possible.

The cafés, meanwhile, have gotten quieter. For centuries, coffee was used as a conversation stimulant. But in the present-day U.S., it functions primarily as productivity booster. Coffee long ago penetrated the workplace, and now cafés themselves have become workplaces—not just for eccentric writers and artists, but for knowledge workers of all stripes, who are often plugged into headphones that are plugged into laptops.

In 2011, a Gizmodo writer found it rude that people were talking near him at a café and tweeted, “Etiquette question: Now that coffee shops are basically office spaces, do you have to be quiet when you’re in them?” At the Bean in Manhattan’s East Village, as in several other other New York coffee houses, management has instituted a laptop-free zone. A few tables tucked in a corner of the shop, the Bean’s computer-free zone may as well be a memorial to the late, great café atmosphere.

This sounds like the sociological argument for better third places where average citizens can gather and converse. The primary argument there has been that there are not enough of these spaces. This new argument suggests having these third places isn’t enough; just their existence doesn’t guarantee public conversation but they need to meet certain conditions.

I suppose that could also fit a Marxist perspective: people use these spaces in such a way to follow their own interests (whether the customer wants to be left alone or the proprietor is pushing more product) and are blinded by the lack of civil discourse in which they are participating. In other words, the drinks, alcoholic, caffeinated, or sugary, and their intended uses, whether entertainment or work, are distracting people from the true issues at hand.

Does all this mean that we need a movement for better third places or public spaces (like public squares where some recent global revolutions have started or some argument that business owners who provide such private spaces will get more business) first before agitating against larger structures can begin?

The importance of public squares for recent revolutionary activity

Public squares have played prominent roles in recent revolutionary efforts across the world, including in Kiev:

Not all revolutions have been centered in public squares, but many recent ones have, including several in former Soviet states. Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze from Tbilisi’s Freedom Square. Kyrgyz protesters seized Ala-Too Square from police in 2005, then promptly stormed the nearby presidential palace and ousted long-time President Askar Akayev. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 took place in the same Independence Square where protesters have now engaged in bloody clashes with government forces, wringing promises from President Viktor Yanukovych for early elections and a return to the 2004 constitution…

Cairo’s layout also made Tahrir Square the perfect place to launch a revolution. Centrally located in Egypt’s largest city, Tahrir sits near the Egyptian parliament, Mubarak’s political party headquarters, the presidential palace, numerous foreign embassies, and hotels filled with international journalists to broadcast footage of the protests for audiences around the world. After Mubarak stepped down, large public squares in other Arab capitals became revolutionary battlegrounds as well.

For Libya, Tripoli’s main public square has come to symbolize the success of the country’s 2011 revolution. Originally named Piazza Italia under Italian colonial rule (Western European-inspired central squares are a common theme in this part of the world) and then Independence Square by the Libyan monarchy, it had been renamed “Green Square” after Muammar Qaddafi’s political ideology. Libya’s transitional government promptly renamed it Martyrs’ Square after those who died fighting Qaddafi’s regime in Libya’s civil war.

But these public spaces don’t always survive the revolutionary moments that make them famous. Bahrain’s most prominent public square (or circle) met the same fate as the uprising that once filled it. After demonstrators marched to Manana’s Pearl Roundabout in March 2011, the Bahraini government retook the circle in a bloody crackdown, then tore up the grass with backhoes and demolished the central Pearl Monument to reassert control.

The article then goes on to discuss how several totalitarian countries have moved their capitals in recent years which cuts down on the ability of the masses in more populous cities to effectively gather and demonstrate.

This idea also seems to be behind the logic of those – including numerous sociologists – who call for more public space in the United States. Without such spaces near centers of power, average people don’t have the ability to gather in large numbers and utilize their numeric force that can provide a counter to elite political and economic influence. The Occupy movement tried to utilize such spaces for this very purpose: bring their protests to the heart of big cities and business districts in such a way that those they wanted to reach would be forced to respond. But, when more spaces are privatized or off-limits to protesting (like public spaces around political conventions), people have less ability to demonstrate.

Just how much did Facebook and Twitter contribute to changes in Egypt?

With the resignation of Hosni Mubarek, there is more talk about how the Internet, specifically social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, helped bring down a dictator in Egypt:

Dictators are toppled by people, not by media platforms. But Egyptian activists, especially the young, clearly harnessed the power and potential of social media, leading to the mass mobilizations in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt. The Mubarak regime recognized early on that social media could loosen its grip on power. The government began disrupting Facebook and Twitter as protesters hit the streets on Jan. 25 before shutting down the Internet two days later.

In addition to organizing, Egyptian activists used Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to share information and videos. Many of these digital offerings made the rounds online but were later amplified by Al Jazeera and news outlets around the world. “This revolution started online,” Ghonim told Blitzer. “This revolution started on Facebook.”

Egypt’s uprising followed on the heels of Tunisia’s. In each case, protestors employed social media to help oust an authoritarian government–a role some Western commentators expected Twitter to play in Iran during the election protests of 2009.

This article, and others, seem to want it both ways. On one hand, it seems like social media played a role. But when considering whether they were the main factor, the articles back away. Here is how this same article concludes:

It’s true that tweeting alone–especially from safe environs in the West–will not cause a revolution in the Middle East. But as Egypt and Tunisia have proven, social media tools can play a significant role as as activists battle authoritarian regimes, particularly given the tight control dictators typically wield over the official media. Tomorrow’s revolution, as Ghonim would likely attest, may be taking shape on Facebook today.

Or it may not. Ultimately, we need more data. For example, we could match Facebook or Twitter activity regarding Egypt with the level of protests on specific days – did more online traffic or activity lead to bigger protests? This would at least establish a correlation. Why can’t we match GPS information from people using Facebook or Twitter while they were protesting on the streets? This would require more private data, primarily from cell phone companies, but it would be fascinating to look for patterns in this data. And how exactly do these cases from Egypt and Tunisia help us understand what didn’t happen in Iran?

These questions about the role of social media need some answers and perhaps some innovative insights into data collection. And a thought from another commentator are helpful to keep in mind:

Evgeny Morozov writes in his new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” that only a small minority of Iranians were actually Twitter users. Presumably, many tweeting about revolution were doing so far from the streets of Tehran.

“Iran’s Twitter Revolution revealed the intense Western longing for a world where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor,” Morozov wrote, according to a recent Slate review. In his book, Morozov writes how authoritarian regimes can use the Internet and social media to oppress people rather than such platforms only working the other way around.

Perhaps we only want it to be true that social media use can lead to revolution. If there are enough articles written suggesting that social media helped in Egypt and Tunisia, does it make it likely that in the future social media will play a pivotal and even decisive role in social movements? Morozov seems to suggest this is a Western idea, probably rooted in Enlightenment ideals where information can (and should?) disrupt tradition and authoritarianism.

Why some protesters set themselves on fire

There are a number of ways an individual can try to rally people to a particular cause. The New York Times suggests that one recent technique, seen most recently in Tunisia, is to set oneself on fire. But why people do this or how they get to this point is unclear:

It is often impossible to be sure what really motivates those who burn themselves to death. There is debate, for instance, about how Thich Quang Duc viewed his self-immolation in 1963, a protest that was related to the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhist monks and may have been at least partly religious in nature. In other cases, politics may be a cover for personal despair or rage against a loved one.

Whatever the motive, suicide sometimes spreads like a disease, especially when heavily covered in the media. David P. Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at of San Diego, published a 1974 study documenting spikes in the number of suicides after well-publicized cases. He called it “the Werther effect,” after the rash of suicides that followed the 1774 publication of “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe whose romantic hero kills himself.

“One thing is strongly suggested by the academic studies: People are more likely to copy suicides if they see that they have results, or get wide attention,” Dr. Phillips said.

Tunisia has provided grim evidence for that. And Mr. Bouazizi may yet provoke more fiery deaths across the Middle East if the revolution he helped spark is seen as successful.

Someone must have some data across countries and/or over time that might shed some light on patterns among cases of self-immolation.

I noticed that the examples in this article are primarily from non-Western nations. Is there a history of this in the West? How would society respond if someone in Western Europe or the United States did this?

Does social media, like Facebook and Twitter, lead to revolutions (like recent events in Tunisia)?

Early news reports about the recent uprising in Tunisia have suggested that social media played a role as participants used such technology and organize and coordinate activities. (See this AP story with the headline of “Jobless youths in Tunisia riot using Facebook.”) In the midst of a lively debate over whether social media actually can lead to revolution (see the earlier post on Malcolm Gladwell’s recent thoughts on this), a sociologist provides a short overview of how he thinks sociology has addressed (or has not addressed) this question:

When the debate does pick up again, though, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few new wrinkles added into the mix. What all of the above writers share, I would argue, is, first, a notion of collective action overly-indebted to definitions of action and coordination provided by economics, and (second) a somewhat a-historical focus in digital technology. One of the problems with the debate as it is currently structured is that other academic disciplines, particularly sociology, have largely stopped asking questions about the relationship between the media and social movements. Indeed, sociology has largely stopped asking questions about the media at all. (I’m generalizing wildly here, of course, but as evidence I would point you toward the cogently argued and well-titled article by Jefferson Pooley and Elihu Katz, “Why American Sociology Abandoned Mass Communication Research.”) A second problem with the current debate lies in the fact that more complex theorizing about the nature of technological artifacts has yet to penetrate the mainstream debates over the roles played by technology in political protest.

There are, of course, exceptions. When it comes to deep and important thinking about media and social movements from a sociological perspective I’d point you toward work by Francesca Polletta and Edwin Amenta at UC Irvine, W. Lance Bennett’s work on political communication and protest, and especially research by Andrew Chadwick, and John Downing. In his discussion of “organizational repertoires” and their relationship to media, just as one example, Chadwick draws on a lengthy tradition of thought in classic social movement research aimed at understanding the role “repertoires play in sustaining collective identity. They are not simply neutral tools to be adopted at will, but come to shape what it means to be a participant in a political organization. Values shape repertoires of collective action, which in turn shape the kind adoption of organizational forms.”

In short, a primary advantage provided by a core sociological perspective on social movements is that they bring values and culture back into our conversation, problematizing notions of what collective action even means in the first place.

I would be interested to hear how other sociologists would respond to this, particularly those who study and write about social movements. Just being part of a Facebook or Twitter conversation or group doesn’t not necessarily lead to collective action. So when does organizing through social media turn from just an online activity to rioting in the streets?

Here is a bit of the AP story talking about how Facebook was used in a country where some Internet uses, such as YouTube, are regulated, but Facebook is not:

Video-sharing sites like YouTube and Daily Motion are banned in Tunisia, where newspapers are tightly censured, but Facebook abounds and videos posted there are quickly spread around.

One in 10 Tunisians has a Facebook account, according to Ben Hassen, whose movement is also on Facebook.

“It’s a form of civil resistance,” he said.

How exactly did this happen? And with a limited number of people in the country on Facebook, how did this become something larger? Sounds like a start to a research paper…