Disaster theory works better than deprivation theory particularly for explaining terrorism of an apocalyptic, millenarian bent, as seen with groups like Al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo. Al Qaeda and its ilk want to inflict on Americans the experience of multiple disasters that they believe has been inflicted on the Arab Muslim world.
A common but flawed explanation: “relative deprivation”
It often makes sense to view social, economic, and political deprivation as a cause of unrest, even though not everyone who feels deprived becomes discontented enough to turn to violence. It also makes sense to think that deprivation may feel strongest when a period of rising expectations gives way to a period of dashed hopes. Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the first social theorists to note this. In our own times, James Davies turned it into a theoretical proposition, and Ted Robert Gurr developed it into a body of work known as relative deprivation theory. These systematic efforts by Davies, Gurr, and others occurred mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, when Americans were trying to understand the spread of violent, massive civil unrest at home and abroad.
Davies’ proposition, known as the J-curve theory, was fielded initially in 1962. It is essentially about a time orientation, and goes like this:
[R]evolution is most likely to take place when a prolonged period of rising expectations and rising gratifications is followed by a short period of sharp reversal, during which an intolerable gap develops between expectation and gratification. (Davies, 1967, p. 255)Gurr’s formulation combined this kind of time orientation with a capabilities (i.e., action) orientation:
My basic premise is that the necessary precondition for violent civil conflict is relative deprivation, defined as actors’ perception of discrepancy between their value expectations and their environment’s apparent value capabilities. (Gurr, 1968, p. 252-253, italics in original)In Gurr’s model, relative deprivation, and the likelihood of its leading to civil violence, depended on a broad range of instigating and mediating variables. During the 1970s and 1980s, he and other analysts made numerous efforts to refine and validate the theory. But ultimately it came to be regarded (including by Gurr) as a significant but incomplete, unproven theory (Tilly, 1984). Other theories of political struggle — notably, one that emphasized the capacity of opposition movements to mobilize resources, and another that viewed the resort to violence as a rational choice in some situations — gained favor. More recently, says one review (Brush, 1996, p. 539), “Psychologists and sociologists continue to disagree on whether relative deprivation is a major cause of discontent and social movements.”
In short, a major concept for understanding “why men rebel” (Gurr’s phrase, 1970) foundered on the rocks of scientific review and criticism. So why raise it here? Because at an everyday-language level, “deprivation” retains a strong hold on the public mind, including among policy analysts and practitioners, as a seemingly sensible way to understand why societies that produce suffering and frustration also produce political violence and sometimes terrorism. The concept was initially meant to explain large-scale civil unrest, not exotic small-group terrorism. Yet, today’s sprawling terrorist organizations in the Middle East and South Asia — e.g., Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Lashkar-e-Taiba — are so rooted in the societies there, that the notion has spread anew. Thus, if the peoples of the Middle East and South Asia felt less deprived — if they had “hope for a better, different future” — far fewer terrorists would be created there.
Terrible social, economic, and political deprivations are rife in those regions. But research has not shown a clear correlation between poverty and terrorism; nor has it shown that efforts to ease poverty and promote economic development has much effect on terrorism trends. Indeed, many individual terrorists in those regions have come from relatively well-off, well-educated backgrounds. Furthermore, “deprivation” — as an empirical condition of life, or as a perception in a terrorist’s mind — does not work well to explain the groups that have occasionally arisen in Europe, the United States, or Japan.
In short, “deprivation” is not a strong enough term to denote the nature of terrorists’ perceptions or the condition of societies that give rise to them. Other analysts have fielded other reasons, such as “righteous indignation” (Lupsha, 1971), “trauma” (Kellen, 1990), “legitimacy crises” (Sprinzak, 1990), “pneumopathology” (Cooper, 2002), “humiliation” (Stern, 2003), and “outrage” (Sageman, 2008). These are relevant too (not to mention other concepts I have temporarily misplaced). But for explaining terrorism of an apocalyptic, millenarian bent, writers on the history of European chiliasm provide a superior concept: “disaster.”
A far more illuminating explanation: “absolute disaster”
Modern terrorists who strive to create a new millennium through an apocalyptic destruction of the existing order resemble the violent fanatical chiliasts of medieval and post-Reformation Europe, as portrayed in Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (1936), Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1961/1970) and Michael Barkun’s Disaster and the Millennium (1974). The times are different, but the mindsets and behaviors are similar — and there is much to be learned from the comparison.
Instances of chiliasm arose at various times and places all across Europe during those long-ago centuries, notably on the margins of the People’s Crusades, the English Peasants’ Revolt, the German Peasants’ Revolt, and the Lutheran Reformation. The main exemplars include Joachim de Fiore, the flagellant movement, the Taborites, Thomas Müntzer, and the Anabaptists. At first glance, many of these classic millenarian movements may seem like anomalies — fleeting, episodic, exotic sideshows, out of touch with the mainstream of history and the way the world really works. Yet, on examination, they turn out to connect with epochal shifts in broader social processes and ideas. And despite failing to achieve their apocalyptic goals, they set into motion effects felt long after they disappeared, particularly for the evolution of the modern concept of “progress.”
Though not properly terrorists, these chiliasts — or to use modern phrasing, revolutionary millenarians — typically amounted to small bands of religious fanatics, headed by a self-proclaimed prophet, who viewed themselves as a righteous, chosen vanguard that was justified in using extreme violence for a divine purpose, in order to move history in a preordained or prophesied direction. As Barkun (1974, p. 18) defines them,
[M]illenarian or chiliastic movements are social movements which expect immediate, collective, total, this-worldly salvation. They anticipate the complete destruction of the existing social, political and economic order, which is to be superseded by a new and perfect society. They frequently couple this anticipation with an active desire to speed the inevitable result, often through violent, revolutionary means. The old must be totally destroyed before a new and perfect society can be established in its place. This type of utopianism implies the potential for violent confrontation, with room for neither bargaining nor compromise.These groups required intense personal commitment. In turn, they rendered a new sense of identity, security, and meaning to individuals who joined them. Many groups were characterized by emotional expressiveness, a withdrawal from normal social commitments, a shielding of adherents from competing views, a nervous anticipation of future salvation, a willingness to take high risks, paranoia about outside forces, and sweeping, esoteric claims about how change would take place. What drove them was not so much a paranoid prediction of doom, as a salvationist prediction of purification and renewal — a promise of participating in God’s punishment and judgment, in order to rectify man’s condition on earth. Their tactics included kidnappings, murders, the burning of monasteries and businesses, and efforts to seize entire towns, as well as face-to-face showdowns with military and police forces who came to halt them. At all times, their leaders were bent on proclaiming, preaching, and proselytizing.
The leaders were often frustrated “intellectuals or half-intellectuals,” such as ex-priests and university students, who could not find jobs but did feel inspiration to set themselves up as divinely appointed prophets (Cohn, 1970, p. 284) . Many were poor. The followers generally came from the “unorganized, atomized population” living on the margins of society — individuals who could find no sure place in society, who lacked the emotional support provided by kinship and other traditional groups, and who had no regular institutionalized methods of voicing their grievances. Cohn is explicit about this — and while militant chiliasts are defined as having an apocalyptic time orientation, his work shows they were reacting largely to their sense of space and their displaced situation in it:
In the Middle Ages, the people for whom it [revolutionary millenarianism] had most appeal were neither peasants firmly integrated in the life of village and manor nor artisans firmly integrated in their guilds. The lot of such people might at times be one of poverty and oppression, and at other times be one of relative prosperity and independence; they might revolt or they might accept their situation; but they were not, on the whole, prone to follow some inspired propheta in a hectic pursuit of the Millennium. These prophetae found their following, rather, where there existed an unorganized, atomized population, rural or urban or both. . . . Revolutionary millenarianism drew its strength from a population living on the margin of society — peasants without land or with too little land even for subsistence; journeymen and unskilled workers living under the continuous threat of unemployment; beggars and vagabonds — in fact from the amorphous mass of people who were not simply poor but who could find no assured and recognized place in society at all. These people lacked the material and emotional support afforded by traditional social groups; their kinship-groups had disintegrated and they were not effectively organized in village communities or in guilds; for them there existed no regular, institutionalized methods of voicing their grievances or pressing their claims. Instead, they waited for a propheta to bind them together in a group of their own. (Cohn, 1970, 281-282)Building on this, Barkun clarifies that converts to millenarianism were likely to arise not in the most isolated regions but rather in regions that were just beginning to be exposed to outside forces and ways of doing things:
Just as the poorest and most oppressed segments of a population rarely become revolutionaries, so the most cutoff and parochial regions do not seem to favor millenarian activity. Rather, millenarianism appears in regions which are still organized along traditional lines but which perceive threatening forces outside. . . . they are often bastions of traditionalism upon which the modern, nontraditional world has begun to impinge. (1974, p. 96)An occurrence, or sense, of absolute disaster, not relative deprivation, accounts for the emergence of these violent millenarian groups. The disasters might be natural (such as plagues and earthquakes) or man-made (as from colonialism, influxes of new people, culture clash, economic depression, and war). Cohn (1970) led in pointing this out:
Because these people found themselves in such an exposed and defenceless position they were liable to react very sharply to any disruption of the normal, familiar pattern of life. Again and again one finds that a particular outbreak of revolutionary millenarianism took place against a background of disaster: . . . (p. 282)Barkun (1974) elaborates further, clarifying that relative deprivation may be “a necessary but not a sufficient condition” (p. 37). The key driver is the experience of multiple disasters that disorient peoples’ lives. “Millenarian movements emerge as the artifacts of disaster situations” (p. 52) that induce a resynthesis of peoples’ mindsets.
Multiple disaster experiences subject individuals to high levels of stress — to both sensory deprivation and overstimulation — such that their normal ways of perceiving and explaining the world become ineffective, even meaningless. The individual enters a state of anxiety, dread, and suggestibility, making him (or her) ripe for conversion to a salvationist doctrine if a prophet is available to make the conversion. The resynthesis is deep:
Millenarian beliefs are a form of explanation: they tell us why we are in the dreadful circumstances of the present. They also respond to the failure of a disintegrating society: they tell us that problems that appeared insoluble will be dealt with totally, favorably, and summarily, “in the twinkling of an eye.” (Barkun, 1974, p.56)These millenarian groups were reacting, observes Cohn (1970), not only to natural and man-made calamities, but also to a gradual, long-term disruption in the medieval framework of authority (p. 315). Many groups arose on the fringes of a greater revolt, revolution, or nationalist surge that was directed at limited, even realistic reforms. For example, Thomas Müntzer’s militant, bloodthirsty, chiliastic following tried to rival Martin Luther’s movement as Luther worked to create the Reformation in Germany. In a climate of mass insurrection, these fringe groups become “intent on turning this one particular upheaval into the apocalyptic battle, the final purification of the world” (p. 284).
And what emerged then was a new group — a restlessly dynamic and utterly ruthless group which, obsessed by the apocalyptic phantasy and filled with the conviction of its own infallibility, set itself infinitely above the rest of humanity and recognized no claims save that of its own supposed mission. (p. 285)Because the classic movements were so rural in their origins and spread, scholars initially thought millenarianism would diminish as urbanization and industrialization deepened. But this has not happened. Cohn concluded, and Barkun reiterates, that many tendencies in historical millenarianism passed into later nationalist movements, and then into the 20th century’s Nazi and Communist totalitarian movements.
Looking ahead, Barkun, writing in 1974, sagely anticipated that millenarianism could continue to surface in urban societies because modern communications media, especially television, can disseminate and magnify disaster experiences to far-away audiences, vicariously disorienting normal expectations to an extent that some individuals become ripe for conversion to millenarian beliefs. Indeed, the whole growth of global interdependence, as it exposes isolated regions to global market forces and new cultures, may help foster new outbreaks of millenarianism. In Barkun’s words (1974, p. 204), “Modern disaster is an artifact of interdependence.” Cohn and Barkun (citing work by Robert Lifton) propose that the modern era makes it easier for disaster mentalities to be induced — an early example being the Red Guards in Maoist China.
Resulting reconfigurations of space-time-action orientations
In the disaster model, the process of conversion to millenarian beliefs reconfigures a subject’s sense of social space, time, and action.
Spatially, the victims of disaster come to feel that their identity has lost meaning and purpose; they feel displaced and isolated, with “no assured and recognized place in society” (Cohn, 1970, p. 282). Their lives are shattered. They feel that the established authorities and institutions are inadequate to deal with the disaster, and that the system’s disarray is threatening. Anxiety propels them to withdraw from normal social ties, and connect to a new identity by banding with others under the leadership of a charismatic prophet who offers to restructure existence by reconnecting heaven and earth.
As for time orientations, the individual may go from sensing that his normal expectations are disrupted but still valid, then pass through a dread of impending doom, to convert to a totally new vision of past, present and future. In Barkun’s (1974, p. 84) words, “Millenarian movements do not attempt to reconstruct a disaster-ridden society. Instead, they turn their backs upon it, condemn it as evil and irredeemable, and concentrate on the development of an alternative.” The time orientation that prevails in a culture may affect the proclivity for millenarian beliefs. Where a linear view is strongly subordinated to a cyclical view, millenarianism is less likely; in contrast, ordinary beliefs in linear progress, once disrupted by disaster, may increase the susceptibility to conversion (Barkun, 1974, p. 66). What many chiliasts long for, however, is less an entirely new future than a revival of “a lost golden age” (p. 85). (Anthony F. C. Wallace’s 1956 work on “revitalization movements” bears on these points as well.)
These reconfigurations of space and time orientations are accompanied by, or fused with, a further reconceptualization of what kinds of actions are meaningful and effective. In one pattern, the convert starts from a sense that standard institutional practices have become worthless, passes through a period of anxious passivity and fatalism, and then turns to thinking that extraordinary measures by a chosen elite are essential. Whether this results in political violence or something else, perhaps ecstatic dancing, depends on the particulars of the case (Barkun, 1974). In any case, there is a fracturing of normal ends-means and cause-effect relationships, to a degree that the millenarian mind regards revolutionary upheaval, even an apocalypse, not so much as a means to an end, but rather as an end in itself — an upheaval from which an entirely new set of ends-means and cause-effect relationships may emerge. As Karl Mannheim (1936) put it,
Chiliasm sees the revolution as a value in itself, not as an unavoidable means to a rationally set end, but as the only creative principle of the immediate present, as the longed-for realization of its aspirations in this world. (p. 217)
TO BE CONTINUED . . .