Protest, Revolution, Belarus

Photo (c) Aleksandr Miridonov

We should always retain the capacity to be surprised.

I am not an expert on Belarus. I have done precious little research there, have few contacts and no insider knowledge. I am, then, watching the scenes of protest very much like many others for whom the country has been on the periphery of our attention: with rapt bewilderment.

I’m here to tell you that bewilderment is a good thing. That’s not only because a good surprise now and again makes life more exciting. It’s also because if you want to study protest — which is what I like to think I do for a living — if you’re not surprised, you’re not paying attention. (This post is about to get kind of academic; don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Belarus is far from being the most researched country in the world, but that’s not to say we don’t know a fair amount about it. (If you’re interested in the background, please take a look at a virtual special issue pulled together by Communist and Post-Communist Studies.) Most of the research on protest and political contestation in Belarus, however, has focused on the lack(s) thereof, on the remarkable durability of Aleksandr Lukashenko and his regime, and on all of the reasons why challenges to his rule have generally failed.

Whether or not Lukashenko’s regime survives the current challenge, there is little doubt that we are now witnessing a revolutionary moment. Those closest to the events on the ground are almost uniformly reporting a palpable sense that something is shifting, that the situation is volatile, and that things have become deeply unpredictable.

For a robust social science analysis of where we are and how we got here, you can’t do better than Ola Onuch’s thread below:

The problem, Ola points out, isn’t that we weren’t paying attention. Analysts and observers were aware of the politics in the country, of the divisions and cleavages, of reasons why Lukashenko might face a challenge. We all saw the remarkable rallies that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya organized prior to the 9 August vote, how she came from nowhere to mount a campaign that no one in Belarus has ever managed before. We saw how Lukashenko’s own campaign paled in comparison. But we did not foresee this.

That is not, I would argue, a failure of analysis. Revolutionary moments such as the one we’re seeing now are almost never predictable, whether in their origins or their outcomes. Why? Because if they were predictable, they would never happen. Regimes that knew they could not beat the street would not try, just as protesters who knew they stood no chance of victory would never mobilize. Protest itself, then, is a manifestation of uncertainty.

The sociologists Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam describe modern society as being made up of interlocking and overlapping ‘strategic action fields‘ — arenas of social, political and economic interaction in which everyone is trying to achieve a goal. Each field, they write, has formal and informal rules and institutions that govern action, and is populated by incumbents (who are empowered by those rules and institutions) and challengers (who are subordinated). The challengers and incumbents may not agree about how the field should be governed, but they share an understanding of what the field is all about — making money, say, or policing the streets — and they share an implicit understanding of where the power lies.

Except when they don’t. If incumbents and challengers had a perfect understanding of the real distribution of power in a field, there would never be any conflict. It is only because there is uncertainty about the distribution of power that challengers are ever brave enough to try to unseat the incumbents, and that incumbents are ever reckless enough to provoke challengers into action.

In Power in Movement (the book that has done more than any other to shape my analytical perspective, and inspired the title of my first book), Sidney Tarrow reminds us to think of social movements (and mobilization more generally) not as a thing, but as a process — an iterative series of actions and reactions. Mobilization occurs because there is a provocation that creates a grievance among a constituency of challengers; the challengers acts to resolve the grievance; the incumbents respond; the challengers respond to the response. Again, were there perfect information, either the challengers or the incumbents would win the battle in the first round, or else would avoid the entanglement altogether.

For that reason, I like to think of mobilization as a learning process. From the first action through to the final reaction, everyone is learning. The challengers learn that they are a constituency, that they have agency and solidarity, that there are resources they can draw on and ground they can claim. The incumbents learn about how far their power really stretches, about the power that is held elsewhere in the field. Over time, that space of uncertainty between the incumbents and challengers gets smaller, as the two parties move ever closer to one another. By the time it’s all over, there are no illusions left: the challengers and incumbents alike have learned the true nature of power in the field. Sometimes they even switch places, and the challengers rewrite the rules of the field and capture the institutions of power. That’s what we call a revolution. By definition, we only know it’s happened when it’s over.

How, though, do we know that we’re in a revolutionary moment?

In the thread I posted above, Ola Onuch gives us one good way to answer that question. As her research in Ukraine, Argentina and elsewhere has shown, revolutions generally involve what she calls ‘cross-cleavage coalitions’. Transposed into the language I used above, that means that revolutionary movements are ones that bring together challengers from multiple strategic action fields.

How does that happen? There are, I suppose, numerous routes to revolution, but I would focus on two pathways.

One is through what Delia Baldassari and Mario Diani call ‘civic networks‘. In this model, social movement organizations representing challengers in different strategic action fields (my use of the term, not theirs) come together for transactional reasons, understanding that they can achieve more together than they can alone. Sometimes this can lead to a fusion of the groups into a single movement, but more commonly the alliance remains situational and individuals’ identities remain most closely tied to the smaller group rather than the larger network. This kind of ‘network of networks’ can allow social movements to overcome the ‘strength of weak ties‘ conundrum famously identified by Mark Granovetter: tightly knit groups may be good for creating solidarity, Granovetter wrote, but looser affiliations are better at ramping up mobilization.

The coalition of communities coming together to challenge Donald Trump is a good example of this kind of dynamic: Black Lives Matter, the LGBT+ movement, women’s movements, immigrants’ rights groups, progressive political groups and others have realized their common purpose, without abandoning their individual causes. The movement that brought down Pinochet can be described in similar terms. (And lest you think only good guys play this game, the coalition that brought about Brexit also fits the model.)

The second pathway is less deliberate and is, I think, what we’re seeing in Belarus. If it has a term, I haven’t found it yet, but it’s related to what David Snow and his colleagues first referred to as “frame alignment“. In this model, something happens that causes individuals to think about themselves and their relationship to power in a new way. That ‘something’ usually involves an egregious and highly visible abuse of power: a stolen election, wanton violence, the blatant subversion of constitutional order, or all of the above.

That shift effectively submerges the issues and cleavages that motivated them before — if, in fact, anything motivated them before, as such moments can often mobilize those who were previously inert — and subsumes them into a qualitatively new structure of identity, a new ‘us versus them’ paradigm that was not possible before the moment. Returning to the language of Fligstein and McAdam, such moments collapse several strategic action fields in on one another, making people suddenly aware of a commonality of social and political space to which they were previously blind.

In such instances, revolutionary action spreads not through organized hierarchy and deliberation, but virally and without coordination, as disparate people and groups are moved by an overriding urge to participate. Unlike in the first model, that impulse is emotional, rather than transactional. What emerges, then, is less a coalition of groups pursuing a common cause than a community — however temporary — of individuals for whom community itself is the common cause.

That is the dynamic I found when researching the 2011-12 ‘Bolotnaya’ protests in Russia (which, while not accomplishing a revolution, were nonetheless revolutionary). It is what I have read about on the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine and in the Arab Spring and in Hong Kong. And it appears to be what we are seeing in Belarus — mobilization spreading like wildfire, unbidden and unbounded, as complex and uncontrollable as a force of nature. A force of human nature.


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