Monday, March 30, 2009

Why Mexico may NOT fall apart — and a way to think about it

[UPDATE — July 8, 2014: While I ceased updating this post years ago, it still gets some traffic. So I thought I should mention a paper I just recently came across that provides additional discussion about the nature and role of the camarilla system in Mexico. It’s Joy Langston’s An Empirical View of the Political Groups in México: The Camarillas (CIDE, 1997). Yet, I do have questions about the paper’s analysis, and I’ll hope for clarification someday.
1. Re. historical background — My generation of American researchers acquired our first substantial knowledge of the camarilla system from Frank Brandenburg's classic book The Making of Modern Mexico (1964). It was oriented mainly to discussing the old Cardenista and Alemanista camarillas, but nobody offered a better analysis of the concept for decades (until Roderic Camp). While Langston’s paper does good work on 1980s-1990s trends, I was hoping for better historical background on the nature and evolution of the concept over those foundational decades.
2. Re. conceptualization — Langston’s paper starts on p. 1 by stating that “Camarillas are groups of public employees” — a definition to which the paper adheres. Yes, camarillas have long been mainly about public-sector elites. But my understanding has always been that camarillas often bridged into private-sector elites as well, sometimes via business favors and public-private deals. The pro-business Alemanista camarilla was like that; some later ones too. If that has changed, it would be a significant departure.
3. Re. recent trends — In the 1980s when I was still working on U.S.-Mexico relations, I’d hear that camarillas were declining as a political factor, partly (mainly?) because the old single-party was giving way to a multi-party system and few great political families were still operating. Accordingly, individual leaders, their equipos (teams), and institutions per se were becoming more important. Even so, it still remains my impression that camarilla-like dynamics (more distinctive, more clannish than abstract network-like dynamics) remain significant today.]

[UPDATE — September 15, 2010:  At the risk of further cluttering these updates to an old post, I want to note that Mexican specialists keep adding significant new analyses to the topic at hand.  Two that have shown up on blogs and that should not be missed are as follows:

Alfonso Reyes, “Plan Mexico? Towards an Integrated Approach in the War on Drugs,” posted at the Small Wars Journal blog, September 14, 2010.  His historical sections show that, even back in the 1920s, “[T]he illegal drug trade did not create corruption among Mexican authorities. On the contrary, the illegal drug trade was just one of the many illegal activities that corrupt officials were running in their states and which they were more or less permitted, even encouraged, to do given the political arrangements of the day.” (p. 8)  His sensible conclusion is that “Finally, the Mexican government should keep in mind that a strong state presence is not achieved just through law enforcement. . . . [T]he Mexican state has to improve its performance at all levels and in all areas of state responsibility: nothing short of a revitalization of the social contract is going to change the current situation. Failure to improve the effectiveness of the state and failure to build or rebuild the social contract will lead to power vacuums that will continue to be filled by new or revitalized criminal organizations.”  (p. 35)

Diego Valle-Jones, “Statistical Analysis and Visualization of the Drug War in Mexico,” posted at his Food and Fishing blog, June 15, 2010.  His analysis tends to indicate that one cartel in particular may have inside tracks.  Indeed, “Its not pretty when a state gives up its monopoly on the use of violence, and clearly there won't be peace until a new equilibrium between the cartels is reached or the Sinaloa Cartel becomes the only cartel operating in Mexico.”]

[UPDATE: May 26, 2010: I suspended updating this post months ago, but an article has recently appeared that is too relevant to leave out: a special NPR story on "Mexico Seems To Favor Sinaloa Cartel In Drug War," by John Burnett , Marisa Peñaloza, and Robert Benincasa. It speaks to a kind of networking that I had in mind as a possibiity when I wrote this post, even though I was not explicit about it.]

[UPDATE: August 26, 2009: See updates added today to prior post on Mexico’s potential being plagued by multiple netwars.]

[UPDATE — May 15, 2009: Expressing the view of a Mexican intellectual living in Mexico, a new article by Sergio Aguayo, “Mexico: living with insecurity,” posted at, provides a contrast (a corrective?) to the op-ed noted below by Enrique Krausze. Aguayo’s article shows how tentative is personal security for individuals and their families in Mexico City, and how some key elite networks remain preoccupied more with enhancing personal power and position than with improving public security and safety.]

[UPDATE — May 11, 2009: A new article by George Grayson, “Mexican Governors and Mayors Place Ex-Military in Public Safety Posts,” Hemisphere, May 11, 2009, provides excellent data and analysis about the increasing appointment of ex-military officers to sensitive posts at state and local levels. One reason is network-oriented in that “The former officers may be more adept at cooperating with their active duty counterparts against drug cartels.” At the same time, Grayson holds to the view that “Mexico is far from becoming a failed state as some Cassandras claim.” Also holding to this view is an excellent article in yesterday’s New York Times by Larry Rohter, “The Crisis Came. Mexico Didn’t Fail. Surprised? Meanwhile, RAND has issued a reprint of a balanced article by Brian Jenkins, "Could Mexico Fail?"]

[UPDATE — May 1, 2009: RAND has just issued a report on Security in Mexico: Implications for U.S. Policy Options, plus a summary research brief. As one option, the report calls for U.S. policy to: “Engage in a strategic partnership with Mexico that emphasizes reform and longer-term institution building.” I’ve also just found that the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute issued an impressive report a few months ago, The United States and Mexico: Towards a Strategic Partnership (January 2009), that provides many similar, wider-ranging, often more detailed recommendations, likewise focused on institution building. Yet, many points in both reports are implicitly about networks: e.g., bridging coordination gaps and building consultative partnerships across all levels of government, strengthening interagency cooperation and planning, and developing cross-border collaborations among state, market, and civil-society actors. Thus, while the two reports show that institution-building is currently the hot concept, my view remains that network-building may now be a more advisable, illuminatinig concept for analyzing and addressing some matters.]

[UPDATE — April 26, 2009: In a new overlap with my key points, John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Plazas for Profit: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, Small Wars Journal, April 26, 2009, conclude, among other recommendations, that “the US must engage both informal Mexican governing networks and help construct new cross-border partnerships that can act as policy shops for coordinating policy response and military/law enforcement cooperation against the cartels.”

[UPDATE — April 22, 2009: There's a good, balanced, earlier post on "Helping Mexico Help Itself," at Shannon O'Nell's LatinIntelligence blog, beginning February 24, 2009. However, her policy prescription is a standard one — "building institutions" — and networking barely gets noted.

[UPDATE — April 19, 2009: There have been interesting follow-up discussions about this post at two other blogs — in “Point–Counterpoint on Mexico,” at Mark Safranski’s ZenPundit, beginning March 31, and in “Building Networked Force Structure in Mexico,” at Adam Elkus’s Rethinking Security, beginning April 7. Now that I’m finally able to add comments at my own blog, I’ve quoted selected materials from these discussions in the comments section below this post.]

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I’ve never seen so many American analysts and journalists sounding alarms about Mexico — most for good reasons, others for their own agendas. And it’s true, parts of Mexico have turned awfully violent, barely governable. Government controls have weakened, and security trends are adverse. Domestic terrorism and insurgency are not presently the problem; it’s the extreme crime and corruption, driven by the drug cartels and other criminal gangs.

In a previous post here, I showed that criminalization and a “stuck system” were likely for Mexico, and interlaced netwars remain a possibility. I have nothing new to add to the latest alarmist accounts; it looks as though all the dire trends and scenarios are being spotted. According to them, Mexico is headed for major instability, even collapse, with a failed or at least hollow state. (Recent analyses and round-ups in this vein include stimulating postings by John Robb at Global Guerrillas, John Sullivan and Adam Elkus at Red Team Journal, Jeff Vail at his blog, Stephen Meiners at STRATFOR, and Mark Safranski at ZenPundit.) [UPDATE — March 30, 2009: Also see the entries by Brian Jenkins and Samuel Logan in response to the question "Mexico: Failing State?" posed March 23 at the National Journal blog for its national security experts.]

Yet, I’m struck that long-time American experts who specialize on Mexico are not providing counter-arguments. A few Mexicans are, lately Enrique Krauze. But no Americans I know of (though I’ve not searched exhaustively).

Shouldn’t analysts and journalists who specialize on Mexico be doing a better job of wondering whether and why the growing alarmism may be wrong — again?

When I worked as a specialist on Mexico, I experienced three or four periods when Mexico seemed to be on the verge of instability, in particular:
  • In 1968, at the time of the student uprising and its military suppression (I was then a graduate student studying in Mexico City).
  • During 1984-8, when a few U.S. government analysts claimed that Mexico was about to collapse due to multiple economic, political, and other crises.
  • In 1994-5, when the Zapatista uprising raised new specters of widespread insurgency, if not terrorism.
Each time Mexico remained stable and recovered. And it did so mostly for reasons that American analysts had not understood or anticipated well at the time — including American experts on Mexico who did not buy into the alarmism.

In these three instances, the key stabilizing factor turned out to be some kind of social or organizational network that American analysts were barely aware of:
  • In 1968, it was intra-elite networking that revolved around the mysterious camarilla system (or so I think, though I was just a grad student then).
  • In the mid 1980s, it was familial and other social networks that cushioned the effects of unemployment and other economic displacements.
  • In 1994, it was the roles played by newly-formed networks of human-rights and other activist NGOs, first in calming the Zapatista scene, later in monitoring the 1994 presidential election campaign.
Conditions in Mexico look worse than ever this time around — much worse, not just along the U.S. border, but everywhere that the drug cartels are powerful. So I'm not suggesting optimism, but rather a search for additional factors that may moderate the equations of gloom.

What might keep Mexico from disintegrating this time? My guesstimate is that networks will be the decisive factor again. And the networks that will matter most this time will be:
  1. Informal intra-elite social networks that reflect what’s left of the old camarilla dynamic.
  2. Cross-border organizational networks for U.S.-Mexico security (military, police, intel) cooperation.
Regarding the second point, I have little to say today. I’ve (we’ve) already said a lot elsewhere in connection with the proposition that “it takes networks to fight networks.” Exactly how to apply that to U.S.-Mexico cooperation is going to be an increasingly important challenge. In my view, Secretary Hilary Clinton used exactly the right word: “co-responsibility.” It’s a crucial concept for this awful problem. And working it out may spell the difference between failure and success along the border. These kinds of networks matter a lot more now than they did in the other alarmist periods mentioned above.

Instead, I'm going to elaborate on my first point, about camarillas. The term usually means circle, clique, or even faction. But no single word reflects their nature. They are not interest groups the way Americans may think. A camarilla is more like a fluid, informal, political clan, clustered around an ambitious leader who is on the rise — a hierarchical, clannish, “big-man” network. Internal relationships tend to be patron-client and mentor-disciple, and to depend on mutual obligation. The goal is to pull each other up a system’s levels. It is like a sub rosa team on the hunt, constantly scheming and maneuvering, willing to share and trade information with anyone that offers advantages. And the ultimate spoils are positions — it’s a clannish system geared to near-term patronage, not long-term policymaking.

Ideally, the makeup of a camarilla is rarely consistent except for a commitment to the leader’s rise. Indeed, a camarilla should have members from diverse political, professional, ideological, and other backgrounds — even criminal, if that can help. Whereas Americans may tend to seek uniformity in building alliances and coalitions, Mexicans may prefer diversity. And that’s because a camarilla’s activities depend on being able to tap and trade information from all sectors of society. Camarillas often have loose boundaries that allow for myriad, multiplex connections elsewhere; an ambitious individual may even belong to more than one camarilla.

I am far from certain that camarillas are still a major factor — I just don’t know that much about Mexico anymore. The camarilla system had its heyday when Mexico was run by the PRI, essentially as a one-party system. Camarillas were then the informal, personalistic structures that made the formal institutions work — and not work. Today, now that Mexico has evolved to more like a three-party system (PAN, PRD, PRI) in which ideology matters more than before, these informal intra-elite structures surely operate quite differently and may be less significant. But I gather that camarilla dynamics still matter, and I think they're worth wondering about, especially if there is evidence of links between criminal gangs and officials or other elites who may play on those links for political gain. Camarilla dynamics can cut in favor of the alarmist scenarios, but they may also turn matters in positive, stabilizing directions too.

Those are my principal points for this post. I’d advise most readers (if there are any) to stop here. For those few who may want to know more, I’ve added three appendixes, two of which provide excerpts from some very old writings. I add them in order to emphasize that we are dealing with deep histories and deep logics that have to do with the enduring powerful nature of the T part of TIMN in some societies.

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Appendix A: The Camarilla System and Elite Cohesion [circa 1988]

To say more about the nature of intra-elite networking in Mexico, I’ve dredged up old material I wrote in a paper long ago for a book chapter somewhere — David Ronfeldt, Whither Elite Cohesion in Mexico: A Comment (1988). I know it’s old, but it’s about all I’ve got. For a recent analysis about the continuing relevance of the camarilla system, see Roderic Ai Camp’s book Politics in Mexico: The Democratic Consolidation (2006).

At least my old paper offers an illuminating comparison to the dowreh system in Iran. The subsection on it was based on writings by James Bill and Marvin Zonis. That this kind of analysis is still pertinent is evident in a recent article by Abbas William Samii, “The Iranian Nuclear Issue and Informal Networks,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2006.

Brazil is said to have a similar system called panhelinha (see writings by Howard Wiarda). News accounts I’ve seen lately about the nature of some powerful families/clans in Afghanistan and El Salvador indicate that this may be a common cultural phenomenon worldwide that Americans have not understood well. If so, it adds further light to the significance of the T part of my TIMN work. It also helps explain the roots of corruption — and why corruption, especially that which involves nepotism or smuggling, has such a natural fit in some societies.

Here is the except from what I wrote in 1988. Remember that this is from an era when Mexico had essentially a single-party political system (the PRI), and was still a decade away from evolving into a three-party system (PRI, PAN, PRD).
For decades [the 1920s-1980s], Mexico has had a phenomenally cohesive ruling elite known as the “revolutionary family”. Its outstanding feature used to be its ability to encompass a wide range of personalities, interests, sectors, and ideological tendencies. The diversity of the family's membership sometimes gave way to serious infighting, but a broadly shared commitment to principles of balance, equilibrium, and mutual accommodation generally worked to preserve elite cohesion. The durability of the family was even thought to involve a “pendulum” whereby different political “wings” would take turns alternating in power across presidential terms. In its classic period during the 1940s-1960s, the family was renowned for its most prominent wings, the Cardenista and Alemanista wings — the former being more identified with left of center, statist, centralist, populist, and nationalist positions, the latter more with right of center, conservative, federalist, and pro-private sector positions.

The result was a uniquely Mexican system that could occupy and control all relevant political space. To use a common spatial metaphor, the system was pyramidal. It was highly centralized. But it was also broad-based; it cut across diverse regions, classes, sectors, institutions, and ideologies. Both the centralizing and the cross-cutting capabilities of the system were important for elite cohesion.

The system not only dominated political space; it co-opted all relevant dimensions of political time. Individuals of leftist as well as rightist aspirations could easily coexist within the revolutionary family — not just because the system rewarded them for doing so, but more to the point, because each could persist in believing, regardless of circumstances at any given moment, that the long-range future of the system was wide open and could ultimately evolve in accord with his preferences, be those of the left or the right. So long as all future options seemed open, the system could retain the allegiance of all sorts of elites.

The term “revolutionary family” is still used to refer to Mexico's political elite. But so many changes have occurred that this family no longer exists in its classic form. The political elite is in the throes of a dramatic transformation. Elite cohesion, far from being assured, has become a major uncertainty. . . .

Analysts may often talk as though the Mexican political system is well organized into formal structures, like the Ministry of Interior, the PRI, and the labor sector. We may then talk as though political consensus and conflict occur in terms of such formal structures. Yet we know full well that what happens in Mexican politics often depends on underlying, informal, fluid interactions among the elite. It is easy to overlook this because it is difficult to do research in this area and know more than incidental anecdotes and gossip. Yet any effort to analyze the evolution of the elite and the prospects for continued cohesion must attend to the formation and interaction of informal groups like camarillas and equipos.

The camarilla system

In a word, camarillas may be defined as cliques. They typically consist of a key leader and the individuals who get grouped around that leader, usually with the objective of getting the leader and other members of the camarilla into higher positions of influence. The formation and cohesion of the group depend on personal ties and loyalties, as well as on mutual interests in acquiring and exercising political power and enhancing career mobility. The cohesion and effectiveness of the group also depend on the ability of the members to provide information and access that is useful to the group and its leader(s), and on the ability of the leader to provide rewards to the other members as he gains higher positions.

The group may have an ideological complexion. But ideology is not what holds it together, and too clear a definition may not be to the group's advantage. The group may also be identified with a particular institution. But again, institutional connections are not what hold such a group together, and too strong an institutional identification may not be to its advantage. The literature on Mexico is not as clear on this point as it should be — one reason for introducing the discussion about Iran in the next section. The more diverse the membership — that is, the more it cuts across personal, institutional, sectoral, ideological, and other lines, and the more it links varied interests together — the better the prospects for a camarilla.

As leaders compete with other leaders for power and other rewards, so do camarillas compete with other camarillas. In the Mexican system, no leader can advance without building his own grupito, along with connections to other important camarillas. Thus they, and not the individual leaders per se, have been called the “most basic membership units of power.” (Johnson) Accordingly, “Power struggles between various individuals within the official party are often conflicts between competing camarillas, rather than true ideological debates between the left and the right.” (Camp)

The camarilla system writ large resembles a vast web. An individual may belong (or at least have connections) to more than one camarilla. Each camarilla may seek links to other camarillas. Membership in any one camarilla may be fluid and shifting. The interconnections may thus result in “extended alliance networks” (Grindle) that suggest “wheels within wheels” (Padgett) or pyramids within pyramids (Camp).

By comparison, the equipo is a somewhat different phenomenon. In a word, it means “team” and refers to those trusted, confidential persons, usually employees, who work as staff for a particular leader, usually a high-ranking office-holder who needs able advisers and aides. A high-ranking leader must have a good equipo, but members of the equipo may or may not belong to the leader's camarilla.

Camarillas and equipos are thus crucial mechanisms for building vertical and horizontal alliances in Mexico. They are “of fundamental importance in ensuring and maintaining elite cohesion in Mexico.” (Grindle) Functioning properly, they embody the principles of accommodation and equilibrium that have long held the political system together. Policymaking processes within the government and the PRI, the ability of one leader to influence another, and ultimately Mexico's political stability, may depend more on the workings of these informal elite structures than on the formal institutions per se. . . .

Similarity to the dowreh system in Iran

Mexico is not the only country where elite politics revolve around informal groups that take shape around around key individuals and connect together into vast web-like networks. Elsewhere in Latin America, Colombia and Brazil reportedly have informal, group-based systems similar to Mexico's. However, the system to which I will call attention lies farther afield. The literature on the dowreh (or dawrah) system in Iran in the early 1970s often sounds like it could be describing Mexico's camarilla system. Moreover, that literature makes points about the dowreh system that seem useful for better understanding the camarilla system.

In a word, dowreh means clique — more literally, circle, ring, or cycle — and refers to a “small group of people...who organize about some common purpose and meet on a regular basis.” (Zonis) Dowrehs are designed to build and reinforce personal ties. In politics, their purpose is to further the members' careers in a system where traditions are strong, channels to power are personal and informal, institutions are weak, and overt political activity is impossible or risky.

The dowreh system helps advance and protect personal interests by plugging individuals (and their groups) into diverse communications channels and information networks — the more the better. Ideally, an individual should hold several positions and jobs at the same time. He should then belong to, or be in contact with, several dowrehs at the same time. For its part, a dowreh should have a member located in each key ministry or other sector, encompass all shades of opinion, and be represented in all camps. Important families should act like dowrehs. In this way, the dowreh can help its members to move up if a break comes, to survive if things change to their detriment.

To Western eyes, dowrehs may seem composed of strange, unlikely, and even contradictory assortments of individuals: perhaps old-style politicians as well as young technocrats, merchants as well as bureaucrats, leftists as well as rightists, and individuals from disparate regions and classes. But that is precisely a strength in this highly personalistic system. The deliberate diversity of membership helps position the dowreh and its members to collect information from all directions and take advantage of contacts and opportunities wherever they may arise. It is natural in Iran for an individual to cultivate multiple loyalties and keep shifting position, and for dowrehs to be elastic and constantly in flux. Indeed, there may be no clear distinction, for either individuals or dowrehs, between who are the moderates and pragmatists,and who are the radicals and ideologues — a dowreh may need both, and an individual may shift from one stance to the other depending on the circumstances.

Personalism may be the most important cultural or psychological factor that explains the tenacity of the traditional dowreh system — but it is not the only such factor. Bill and Zonis found that the system results from, and compensates for, the constant climate of tension, insecurity, uncertainty, cynicism, distrust, dissimulation, intrigue, exploitation, and avoidance of responsibility in which the elites work. The sense of uncertainty and insecurity was most evident among the younger generation of elites in the early 1970s, with the alienation from traditional personalistic politics being most evident among new technocrats (who would compensate by looking outside the system — abroad — for support and allies).

The dowreh system, difficult as it may be for Americans to understand, is inherently designed to provide balance and equilibrium and facilitate control and co-optation among competing elites. When working properly, it serves to distribute power — it inhibits excessive concentration and splinters heavy opposition. By keeping politics hidden, it serves to avoid open conflict and confrontation. And because no demands are ever totally rejected or refused, it promises that individuals or groups may eventually have a new opportunity to recover, advance, and circulate.

A few implications of the comparison

To be sure, Mexico is not Iran; any similarity of their elite systems does not necessarily imply an Iranian-like future for Mexico. There are big differences between the two countries. For example, traditional cultural and religious forces are stronger in Iran, whereas formal institutions and political parties are stronger in Mexico. Personalism — a key factor behind both the dowreh and the camarilla systems — takes different forms in each country; patron-client attachments are more important and durable in Mexico. The two countries' political cultures reflect differences in their Islamic and Catholic backgrounds. . . .

The similarity of the Mexican to the Iranian elite system also helps call attention to some interactions between elite change and institutional change. Traditional systems like the camarilla and the dowreh appear to work best when formal political institutions are relatively weak and far from modern. Institutional modernization, by compartmentalizing elites and requiring them to define themselves more precisely, can interfere with the fluidity and flexibility required by the traditional elite systems. Where modernization is occurring and formal institutions are gaining strength, then such elite systems seem best suited to corporatism as a way to build a broad-based (and purportedly democratic) but nonetheless highly centralized (and therefore authoritarian) system. If the formal structures of power weaken drastically, then power struggles, policy outcomes, and political stability may depend largely on who can make best use of the traditional informal mechanisms of elite interaction until institutional power is restored. But if at the same time the traditional mechanisms of elite interaction and cohesion have lost their flexiblity and vitality, and/or if extreme fragmentation and polarization have taken hold, then it will be very difficult to restore the established institutions as the decisive actors.

The similarities between the dowreh and camarilla systems show that elite cohesion may depend on the ability of leaders to form highly diversified alliances that may seem contradictory and incompatible at first sight, but where the contradictions are really quite compatible and to mutual advantage. The analyses of the dowreh system illuminate that where personal loyalties can be counted on, such alliances enhance a group's prospects by plugging it into a broad range of communication networks, information sources, and rival decision centers. As noted earlier, Mexico's classic revolutionary family, and the camarillas comprising it, long embodied such alliances. The family had strong centralizing and cross-cutting abilities that enabled it to occupy all relevant political space. And it could incorporate elites who had different ideological (i.e., time) orientations, partly because of widespread beliefs that the future possibilities and policy options of the system remained open regardless of present circumstances.

This is not the case with today's elite in Mexico. The principles that guided the classic camarilla (and dowreh) system do not appear to be working very well anymore. However this should be explained — whether it owes to shifts within the elite or broader forces of social change — the centralizing tendencies within the elite and the key institutions have become excessive, and some groups comprising and competing within the elite seem to have lost the ability and the interest to cut across diverse personal, ideological, sectoral, and other lines. In addition, a sense seems to have spread, both in ideological and personal terms, that the system's long-range future options are not so open anymore. Members of the elite have begun operating according to much narrower spatial and temporal horizons.
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Appendix B: The Growth of Organized Smuggling [circa 1992]

What follows is an excerpt from an analysis we did long ago about the rise of organized smuggling networks. Though dated, the analysis shows that these networks tend to be deeply embedded in Mexico, partly because of the nature of camarillas and other kin-like systems. The analysis also shows that the history of relationships between criminal organizations and government personnel runs a lot deeper than today’s write-ups reveal when they keep focusing on the Zetas. (But, for a good recent analysis of them, see Samuel Logan, “Los Zetas: Evolution of a Criminal Organization,” International Relations and Security Network, posted March 11, 2009.)

Here’s my excerpt from Peter H. Reuter and David Ronfeldt, Quest for Integrity: The Mexican-U.S. Drug Issue in the 1980s (1992, pp. 12-14):
Within the limits, it appears that smuggling was not regarded in Mexico as being inherently criminal or “outside” the system. Indeed, major smuggling operations often became embedded in that system. In the mid-1970s, tens of thousands of peasants participated in marijuana and poppy cultivation and trafficking, particularly in Sinaloa. In the late 1980s, the “traffickers [were] increasingly viewed in the countryside as modem Robin Hoods, who finance hospitals, schools, and churches in a time of crisis, and who defy an unpopular US-made ‘law and order’ that protects rich American consumers and producers, and punishes underprivileged Mexican peasants.”

Smuggling enterprises, like many Mexican business enterprises, tend to be family- and region-based. Extended family ties, along with equally extended political and social kinship (compadrazgo) ties, assure that no major enterprise can operate in isolation from society and politics. Any enterprise that needs respect and protection can probably obtain it. A leader can eventually make contact, directly or indirectly, with almost anybody he wants. Once an operation gets well established, elite political cirdes or cliques (camarillas) at the local and national levels may begin including individuals who have contacts with the smugglers, if not the smugglers themselves.

Elite coalitions in Mexico normally include what, to American eyes, are incredibly diverse, contradictory tendencies. In the United States, it is normal for like-minded individuals to band together. But in Mexico, the camarilla system works best when the individuals in a clique cut across diverse ideological, institutional, professional, and other lines. This permits the coalition to tap into as many sources of information, power, and wealth as possible. Major smuggling enterprises cannot be ignored in such a system. Moreover, from a traditional Mexican nationalist perspective, a smuggler who sells to Americans but is anti-American and keeps his money in Mexico may be more respectable, and less suspect in terms of nationalist credentials, than a businessman who admires and works for Americans in Mexico….

The proposition is sometimes voiced, particularly in Mexico, that the narcotics boom since the mid 1980s resulted largely from the oil bust in the early 1980s. According to this line of argument, the oil boom in the late 1970s spread funds throughout the government-PRI apparatus, increased the incomes of the middle and upper classes, and whetted the appetite for corruption at high levels. When the economy plunged, some individuals and offices turned to exploiting the drug business and allowed it to expand as a major new source of wealth at the time.

But this is too facile an explanation. It appears that Mexico's major smuggling enterprises — for narcotics and illegal aliens going North, and for automobiles and other items going South — were largely organized in the mid- and late 1970s. The oil boom and bust may have facilitated their expansion, but they were already on their way to consolidation. Narcotics production and trafficking in Mexico were not spurred by the decline in the oil-driven economy, but by the continued demand in the U.S. drug market, along with Mexico's natural advantages. Even if the oil boom and strong economic progress had continued, Mexico would probably still be a major supplier of narcotics to the U.S. market. Besides, the regions in which marijuana and poppy cultivation occur were relatively untouched by the oil boom.

Another proposition argues that narcotics production and smuggling develop as a result of poverty and underdevelopment. To some extent, this assessment is true, but again it is an oversimplification that misses important points. Most of the major smuggling enterprises are technologically and organizationally sophisticated. They may be filled with crude characters, but their operations rest on the latest advances in air and ground transportation, information and communication systems, financial operations, and, in the case of narcotics, weaponry. Such organizations exhibit functional specializations and complex networks that are not “underdeveloped.”

After the termination of the U.S. bracero program in 1965, smuggling of aliens into the United States was conducted by adventurous loners who had little concern for security and by small family-based operations. But the growth of and competition for new business, the increasing importance of operational skill and security, and the shift from agricultural areas to cities as the destination of many aliens created a need for larger, better organized operations. Thus organized smuggling developed in the 1970s, and today it includes multimillion-dollar businesses, many of which are still based on families, each with its own turf. But they are functionally specialized operations, with different people serving as recruiters, organizers, guides, and credit collectors, and with staff on both sides of the border. Much of the smuggling is now done on credit, a phenomenon that emerged in the late 1970s.

Organized drug smuggling developed in a somewhat parallel manner, but with a particularly pernicious manifestation of institutional corruption and complicity. During the 1970s, the police forces under the Office of the Attorney General (PGR), which had overall charge of the anti-drug campaign, remained quite professional. But a powerful office in the Government Ministry, the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), along with its police forces, fell into league with major drug traffickers. One interviewee suggested that the DFS's involvement with drugs may have grown out of “dirty war” operations that the DFS conducted against guerrillas and terrorists —e.g., the guerrilla groups led by Genaro Vazquez Rojas and Lucio Cabañas, the urban terrorist group known as the 23rd of September Communist League — in the early and mid-1970s in the states of Guerrero, Jalisco, and Sinaloa. According to this speculation, the DFS resorted to using local drug producers and traffickers as operatives, exchanging tolerance of their criminal activities for assistance with paramilitary operations. After the armed leftist groups were wiped out in the late 1970s, the DFS personnel went into business with the drug traffickers. Whatever the explanation, it became evident by 1985, following the kidnap-murder of Enrique Camarena, that the DFS had been in league with the traffickers; largely as a result of U.S. pressures, the agency was disbanded.
* * * * *

Appendix C: Mexican Periodicals and Blogs on the Internet

I have no desire to become an expert or specialist on Mexico again. But out of curiousity, I browsed to see what Mexican periodicals and blogs are now on the Internet.

Leading daily newspapers: Lots are online. One of particular note is Reforma, at

Key weekly and monthly journals:
  • Este País, at
  • Letras Libres, at
  • Metapolítica, at
  • Milenio, at
  • Nexos, at
  • Proceso, at
Blogs: I’ve found only one active blog in/on Mexico that relates to this post: Medios México. A blog that had dealt with security and military matters has evidently gone away.

If anyone has suggestions to add, please leave a comment.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Millenarian terrorism — an STA perspective (3 of 4): modern parallels to chiliasm, importance of spatial orientations

[UPDATE — August 30, 2009: See a very interesting post titled “Apocalyptic Vision: Guest Post by Charles Cameron” at Mark Safranski’s ZenPundit blog, August 27, 2009. The post, the first I’ve seen anywhere on this important topic for many months, focuses on the rise of Mahdism and other millenarian expectations, in the Middle East and around the world. A comment by Charles also points to some informative new writings. I thank Charles and Mark for their recognition of my own post’s efforts to contribute from here. And I note that I still intend to do Part 4, eventually, partly along the lines of the comment I left at the Zenpundit post.]

Prior posts laid out why, at least in European history, some fringe groups turned to violent, fanatical kinds of religious chiliasm or revolutionary millenarianism. These groups arose from a sense that absolute disaster had befallen people’s lives — that life had gone far more awry than frustration-aggression and relative-deprivation models capture.

Why is this interesting to revisit? Because some of the most dangerous terrorist groups of our times — such as Al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo, not to mention extreme right-wing American Christian patriot elements — resemble the millenarians of old.

For years I have occasionally tried to urge, in minor ways, that analysts and strategists inquire into the parallels between those old Christian and Jewish chiliasts and today’s Islamic jihadi radicals. At first, I was told that Islam had not generated true counterparts. But more recently, I have heard that some scholars do find parallels. The scholars I've learned of include R. Scott Appleby, David Cook, Hakim Hazim (with Robert Bunker), Richard Landes, Laurent Murawiec, James Rinehart, and Catherine Wessinger. I’ve scanned some writings that are easily accessible online, but only heard a bit about other writings. Rinehart’s book Apocalyptic Faith and Political Violence: Prophets of Terror (2006) is, I’m told, a particularly relevant read. [I thank Spencer Skaggs of New World Global Outlook for pointing Rinehart out.]

This is apparently a knotty, controversial, inconclusive area for scholars and other analysts. There are problems of comparing earlier situations and religions to contemporary Islam, and then within Islam, of separating Sunni and Shia strains. There are also problems of interpreting particular texts. And then there are further problems of determining where terms like jihadi, millenarian, and apocalyptic do and do not apply; for there are situations where one term may apply but not the other(s) — there are jihadis who are not truly millenarians or apocalyptics, and vice-versa.

Even so, I’m sticking with my presumption that not enough is being done in this vein.

One of my original inspirations, Barkun, wrote follow-up papers (1977, 1999, 2002) to deepen analysts’ understanding of disaster models, the overlaps between millenarian and terrorist mentalities, and some implications for policy and strategy. For example, he would point out that:
[T]argets that make sense to a millennialist may not make sense to someone else. The reverse is also true: what you or I might think would be a “natural” target might seem irrelevant to someone operating from within a millenarian belief system. . . . We need to be careful as well about making hard-and-fast distinctions between symbolic targets and infrastructural targets, since what may appear symbolic to one party may be part of the infrastructure to another. (Barkun, 1999)

The thinking I have just described recapitulates a process common among extremist and millenarian groups. The group develops a detailed picture of future developments, particularly those associated with the behavior of evil forces. The government, ignorant of these expectations, acts in ways that resemble what the group anticipates. The coincidence of behavior and ideology has two effects: First, it legitimizes the ideology by validating the predictions. Second, the group, now convinced that movement towards a final battle has accelerated, adopts what it considers essential defensive measures. If the cycle is not broken, the result will be a spiral of provocative action and violent response. (Barkun, 2002)
That’s insightful — and could be helpful for understanding Islamic millenarians. But Barkun would shift to focus on right-wing and other kinds of extremists here in America, notably in Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement (1997).

Meanwhile, the scholar who gained the lead in writing about religious terrorism — Mark Juergensmeyer, in Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (2000) — was articulate about terrorists thinking they were engaged in a “cosmic battle.” But he seemed to be unaware of the disaster model, and to prefer frustration-aggression and deprivation explanations. Elsewhere, a scholar-strategist who offered valuable insights about jihadi mindsets — Michael Vlahos, notably in a study about Terror’s Mask: Insurgency Within Islam (2002) — turned to claim it is U.S. policy that has been so messianic, millenarian, and apocalyptic.

Since my knowledge about religious terrorism remains spotty, my presumption may be flawed that the Cohn-Barkun view deserves renewed, expanded attention. Nonetheless, I proceed here as though my thinking is on track. The earlier posts benefited from the fact I drafted most of the text years ago, based on a deliberate reading-and-writing effort. But I never did more then than make notes about contemporary parallels and their implications. So, what I’m posting now is sketchy by comparison — less finished, informed, and thorough. But hey, this is a blog.

Instructive parallels between old and new manifestations

The parallels, though imprecise, are impressive. In keeping with the classic model of millenarianism, Al Qaedans believe that the world — the world of Islam, the Middle East in particular — is in a state of disaster, owing largely to the overweening power and presence of the infidel United States. Al Q and its ilk hold to a vision of achieving an apocalyptic (or nearly so) upheaval through devastating deeds. They wish to inflict on America the experience of multiple disasters that they believe has been inflicted on the Arab Muslim world. The end goals include the creation of a new caliphate and ultimately the welcoming of the Mahdi — a breakthrough to a new era of salvation, purification, and righteous domination.

Al Qaeda does not quite promise what chiliasm promised: “imminent, this-worldly, collective transformation” (Barkun, 1974, p. 181). And its leaders do not constantly harp in millenarian tones. But its eschatological imagery is similar, and its vision of martyrdom — that an Islamic paradise awaits the sacrificed warrior — amounts to an apt other-worldly substitution, in that it fuses an apocalyptic into a utopian moment, modulated by an insistence that “this world” and the “other world” are not all that separate anyway.

The parallels extend to the nature of leaders and followers. Al Qaeda’s leaders correspond to chiliasm’s self-appointed, itinerant prophetae who aimed to be profound but proved to be lesser intellectuals. And AQ’s jihadi followers exhibit many of the socio-economic, cultural, and psychological traits that Cohn and Barkun stressed: they feel beset, blocked, displaced, estranged, aggrieved, humiliated — they are wandering in search of new meaning and connection, looking for a way to be angry and righteous. They feel worse than deprived; they’re lives — and the milieus connected to them — are disasters awaiting redemption. I would not be surprised if many of today’s recruits are more millenarian than the leaders.

And once these leaders and followers join together, a charismatic relationship binds them all. Al Qaeda and its affiliates have shown they can organize and execute tactical operations in a methodical manner that may look more corporate and managerial than charismatic and chiliastic. But the driving vision is indeed millenarian: to commit deeds that rend the evil world asunder, striking down unbelievers and breaching the way to a salvationist new world order.

Further in keeping with Mannheim’s, Cohn’s, and Barkun’s analyses, this rise in millenarian terrorism is occurring not in isolation but as part of a culture in deep ferment — this time, the Arab Islamic culture — whose people are under great stress, having difficulty with ideas of modernity and progress, and groping for conceptual reformations of their own making. Al Qaeda and its like are not the fleeting, anomalous products of particular episodes of paranoid delusion and narcissistic rage among folks who fall under the spell of charismatic leaders. AQ and its affiliates have arisen as expressions of a sense of disaster, on the fringes of larger yearnings for change.

Role of space-time-action orientations — space in particular

Again, my main interest is STA analysis. I see a lot of material here for advancing it. But since I’ve already gone on and on about that, I’m going to focus here on three specific points.

My first point is that many analyses of terrorism — millenarian terrorism included — tend to emphasize just one of the three STA dimensions. But the more an analyst elaborates, the more it becomes clear that all three STA dimensions are embedded in his or her analysis.

Often the initial emphasis is on time perceptions— e.g., loss of hope, a new vision of the future. But it could be on space or action perceptions. Here, for example, a scholar emphasizes an action orientation — the loss of power:
It is this sense of a personal loss of power in the face of chaotic political and religious authorities that is common, and I believe critical, to Abouhalima’s al Gamaa-i Islamiya, Timonthy McVeigh’s circle of militia activists, and most other movements for Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, and Hindu nationalism around the world. The syndrome begins with the perception that the public world has gone awry, and the suspicion that behind this social confusion lies a great spiritual and moral conflict, a cosmic battle between the forces of order and chaos, good and evil. Such a conflict is understandably violent, and this violence is often felt by the victimized activist as powerlessness, either individually or in association with others of his gender, race, or ethnicity. The government — already delegitimized — is perceived to be in league with the forces of chaos and evil. (Juergensmeyer, 2000, p. 224)
But look at the details. There is chaos, a separation of good and evil, an association of one kind, a league of another kind — all spatial factors. Moreover, the world is awry, heading into a cosmic battle — time notions (and if not quite, there are temporal criteria elsewhere in the book, as I recall). In short, one STA dimension is stressed, but all three show up, in a rather jumbled fashion.

Which leads to my second point: All three STA dimensions are important. Scholars and other analysts could do a better job of analyzing mindsets if they attended to all three in a systematic manner, so as to dissect — deconstruct, disassemble, reverse engineer — them in detail. This could also help clarify what other kinds of models work best, including the relative-deprivation and absolute-disaster models discussed in my initial post on this topic.

And that brings us to my third point: While all three STA orientations are significant, the space orientation — the orientation that often gets the least attention — may be key to understanding the appeal of terrorism. This may be particularly so for disaster-driven millenarian terrorism, even though it is defined by/as a time orientation.

Consider this: People who have made statements about becoming a terrorist refer to having lacked an identity, feeling small and humiliated, facing obstacles and barriers, and feeling lost after moving abroad. Then they gain a new sense of worth from finding new connections. They see better how the world is split between good and evil — in a duality that must be overcome. They view an outside power’s presence as an invasion that must be expelled. They want to regain what was lost or stolen. They want to extend the borders of Islam — as God’s soldiers, not an organization’s. They want the sacred to rule over the secular — indeed, to deny any such dichotomy. And whereas they used to feel marginal, now they are part of something that has cosmic importance.

These are all spatial referents. I could list time and action referents as well. But my point is that the number and variety of spatial referents is really quite large — larger than I have seen analysts notice. Thus, spatial orientations may deserve a lot more attention than they have received. The keys to understanding terrorism’s attraction to some mindsets may lie more in their space than in their time or action orientations. (This may also apply more broadly to the tribal mindset, which is so emphatic about upholding solidarity, respect, pride, honor, and dignity — all spatial values.)

[I have altered the titles of the preceding posts on this theme, so that it is more evident they all fit together. I have one post to go — on implications for policy and strategy. I do not regard these posts as written in stone; if I see a need to edit, I will do so even after the post is up. But I will add a notice if I make a major edit.]


Monday, March 16, 2009

Baseball trilogy (1st of 3): tribalism — “A Fan for All Reasons”

[UPDATE — October 12, 2009: I have finally finished and posted the third in my trilogy on baseball. The first is right here, the second over here, and the third over here. Go Angels! Go Dodgers!]

- - -

Baseball season is starting up. And as I noted in a prior post, I’ve been wanting to do a piece that will riff on a friend’s saying — “God invented baseball” — because it relates to STA. But while wondering about this, I realized I had two other pieces already written about baseball, one that relates to tribalism (thus TIMN) and another that is about strategy. So I’ve decided to post them as a trilogy, one part per week or two.

My apologies to readers who expect something more serious. But these three pieces do relate loosely to STA and TIMN. And I'll intersperse them amid more serious posts I'm still drafting.

* * * * * *

I’m a latecomer to being a baseball fan. Sometimes I wonder what took me so long, but mostly I wonder what makes a fan tick. Best I can tell, there are three major motivations: sporting a tribal identity, admiring athletic performance, and appreciating strategy. Each has a bright and a dark side. And they all show up when I root for my favorite teams: the Angels and the Dodgers.

First of all, a fan loves to identify personally with his or her team. He or she belongs to that tribe. It’s rarely a rational choice, but one determined by geography. And it shows in the fun of rooting heartily, displaying emblazoned clothes and body paints, and waving banners (or “rally monkeys” for the Angels), and sharing high-fives even with strangers. Indeed, this is one of the few areas left where Americans can espouse a nearly tribal kinship. A live-and-die-with-the-home-team creed can carry a fan through winning and losing seasons, as well as through disturbing trades and injuries. In this era of constant personnel turnovers, a fine broadcast announcer, whether he seems balanced (Vin Scully for the Dodgers) or biased (Rex Hudler for the Angels), helps sustains a fan’s identity.

But tribalism in sports — as in politics, war, and religion — often comes with a dark side. A hard-core fan can name a team he hates, in addition to one he loves. It’s a mark of the warrior spirit; and derisive booing is part of the fun. But some fans get so on edge (and drunk) that, in a moment of predatory vainglory or wounded pride, they tip from a mild tribalism into a readiness to wage clan warfare. They yell abuse, hurl objects, pick fights, and run amok. Dodgers-Giants rivalries of yore exhibited this. Fortunately, this face of fandom has not been on display lately for either the Dodgers or the Angels — but the potential is always there.

Second, fans are attracted to athletic performance — both team and individual. Prowess and finesse are admired; so is mental toughness. Games with masterful pitching, home runs, skillful double plays, or a decisive suicide squeeze may lead to days of exultant chatter. Stars gain the most attention — like Vladimir Guerrero for the Angels, and now Manny Ramirez with the Dodgers. But there’s also a healthy admiration of unheralded players who are steadfast gamers. And both teams presently have plenty. Meanwhile, the performance-oriented fan takes delight in discussing the myriad statistics that are so unique to baseball.

But this second face of fandom darkens when there’s an eagerness for utter domination and doing-in. Quarterback sacks in football and wrecks in car races are typical lures for schadenfreude fans who relish the spectacle of others’ misfortunes. Baseball doesn’t offer much hard playing for fans attracted to macho mayhem, but it can occur — as when a pitcher aims a fastball at a batter’s body, a runner slides in with spikes up, or players (or managers) disrespect the other side. And if dark-side fans feel “betrayed” by lackluster performance, they may turn their fury on their own team, often its manager. Or they may seek lurid glee in catastrophes that befall celebrity players on rival teams. And meanwhile, they may tolerate juicing on steroids, just to see more home runs or fiercer fastballs. The Angels and the Dodgers do not currently arouse this kind of fandom, but it may still lurk in isolated spots.

The third key motivation is strategy. Sports fans with a deep knowledge of strategy are not the norm. How many really understand the Lakers’ “triangle offense” or complex car-drafting maneuvers in NASCAR races at Daytona? Most fans thrive just on the prior motivations: tribal identity and athletic performance. Yet, many baseball fans can explain why they prefer National or American League play in strategic terms. They can spell out their favorite tactical situations (mine is men on first and third, with one or two outs). And they know why one team’s strategy may differ from another’s. In our area, the Angels are renowned for “small ball” (moving men piece-meal around the bases), while the Dodgers often stake more on “long ball” (going for big hits) — though these differences are not as stark as a few years ago. Fans who focus on strategy appreciate managers, and we have two masters: Mike Sciosa and Joe Torre.

As for the dark side of strategy, baseball has few equivalents to the NBA’s old “Hack-a-Shaq” or NASCAR’s “bump-and-run.” Baseball’s players are too spread out, managers too professional, and umpires too alert for much mean-spirited or dirty contact to occur. The game is deliberately civilized — hubristic displays of any sort are not tolerated. About the most a fan can expect is an episodic spate of bullying “chin music” (high, inside fastballs) by an aggressive pitcher; hard, spikes-up sliding by a cranky base-runner; excessive base stealing to pile up a humiliating score late in a game; belligerent behavior by a manager, usually against an umpire; or an instance of open hostility between opposing team players. But all this is rare. Fans attracted to rough-and-tumble strategies are better off with other sports, or with clannish spin-offs like soccer hooliganism.

To fans steeped in all three motives, a game is thus more than just a game. It reflects their ties to their family traditions, companions, and community, perhaps also their ethnicity, and even their nation. It engages their standards about personal behavior and performance. It reveals their capacity for strategic and tactical thinking. And it pulls at the tensions — the ebbs and flows, checks and balances — between bright- and dark-side urges. No wonder baseball is such a storied and civilized sport, and that being a sports fan can be important.

[Adapted from various 2002 and 2007-8 drafts. Many thanks to sports fans and friends — John Arquilla in 2002, and Bob Bridges and Kevin McCarthy in 2007-8 — for their review comments. I tried to get op-ed versions published, to no avail.]

UPDATE — March 21, 2009: For a kindred view, read David P. Barash, "The Roar of the Crowd: Sports Fans' Primal Behavior," The Chronicle Review, posted March 20, 2009, including where he states:
By we, the fan means the whole deliciously desirable, immensely seductive group. He means that he is no longer just little old himself, but something larger, grander, more impressive, more important, and thus, more appealing. Sports fans, in this view, are nationalists writ small.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Notice about blogosophy and current operations here

Blog visits happening

I’ve learned that this blog now has a few readers and other visitors. Wow! A week or two ago, I installed Google Analytics to find my blog had about 5 visitors that day — quite enough to make me happy. But the following day, to my surprise, a well-known blog posted about my TIMN work, and visits here soared to 222 that day. After that, visits moved into the 40-50 a day range, and now, perhaps because I’ve not posted anything lately, more like 15.

All these visit ranges sound like good attention to me. I’m not looking for a limelight (I even gave the blog as boring and unattractive, though accurate, a name as I could think of). But the attention is an interesting development, and gives me pause to clarify a few things.

Near- and long-term objectives

As I noted in my very first post, my immediate goal for this blog is to enable me to post materials that have been sitting on my computer here at home for years about STA and TIMN matters. Posting gives me a sensation of quasi-publication — of being productive, making progress, remaining on track, still in the mix a bit. This means I do not initially care whether the blog is seen much.

But I also have a long-term goal for the blog: a gradual accumulation over several years of what I know about the STA and TIMN frameworks. If this is accompanied by my achieving formal publications elsewhere, all the better. If not, at least I will have stored enough here to help others circulate and continue thinking about STA and TIMN. Maybe they (you?) can do a better job eventually. I remain convinced of the theoretical and practical potentials of these two sets of ideas. And this means I will increasingly care that the blog is read.

Comments appreciated, but with a caveat (and a glitch)

Right now, here’s an important operational point: I welcome and appreciate comments on the posts. And the more this blog goes on, the more I am likely to do so. But I remain unlikely to engage in replying here — partly because I’m a fairly quiet guy, but mainly because I can’t figure out how to insert a comment in the comments area here at my own blog. I’ve tried and been rejected several times, even after changing settings and browsers. I’m regarding it as an omen to continue refraining from replying directly here.

However, I read all comments. I have the blog set to inform me when a comment is left, and I usually do reply via email. Please be sure to offer me some way to locate you if you leave a comment (NB: there’s an email address in the “About Me” area). Moreover, I do engage in commenting at other blogs — and have had no technical problems doing so — if materials from here come under discussion there, as has happened a couple of times.

[UPDATE: As a result of another effort to fix the blog's settings, I'm able to post comments here. The glitch I note above no longer exists.]


And now I better get back to trying to finish the next post about millenarian terrorism from an STA perspective. It's not been easy going. Then I want to get back to some TIMN matters.

But since baseball season is about to start, perhaps I will post something about a friend’s saying that “God invented baseball.” I think it can be given an STA analysis, hopefully without getting me in trouble with any millenarian fundamentalists.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Millenarian terrorism — an STA perspective (2 of 4): progress as secularized chiliasm

The preceding post showed that chiliasm — an old European kind of revolutionary millenarianism that resembles apocalyptic terrorism — can’t be explained well by “relative deprivation” (or “frustration-aggression”) models. Instead, the chiliastic mindset and small-group behavior evolved out of people’s experiences of “absolute disaster” — and that provides a far better, very different model.

Scholars, analysts, and strategists should be looking into this better than they have for understanding Al Qaeda and its ilk, and for anticipating some possible effects of the current worldwide economic downturn. But before turning to that in a future post, I want to briefly make another interesting point about chiliasm: It was not just an idea about destruction; it was also an idea about “progress.”

Perhaps I should have tacked this point onto the end of the preceding post. But here it is, on its own, instead. Once again, I’m drawing on draft writings that have been sitting on my computer for too many years — which means I’m pleased to put them somewhere new, but also that my readings and other knowledge may be a bit dated by now.

* * * * * *

The modern idea of progress as secularized chiliasm

The space-time-action reorientations that molded the chiliastic mindset were not simply psychological or pathological in nature. They reflected broader social and cultural changes then taking place in Europe in people’s understanding of how the world worked and should work.

In particular, the wild, violent spasms of chiliasm that afflicted medieval and post-Reformation Europe emerged just prior to the liberal idea of “progress.” And while the Enlightenment of the 18th century is usually credited as the source of this modern idea, it can also be seen as the tamed secular counterpart of chiliasm. Both concepts — chiliasm and progress — stemmed from the fact that people were forming fundamentally new ways of thinking about social space, time, and action at that stage of European civilization. [In addition to Barkun, Cohn, and Mannheim, I’ve looked at J. B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress (1932), Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1965), Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints (1965), Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress (1994) and Arthur Herman’s The Idea of Decline in Western History (1997).]

In spatial terms, this long-ago phase in European civilization was characterized by a new attribution of value to the earthly secular order (apart from the sacred order of divine providence), by the expansion of the sociopolitical field to include masses as well as elites, by an increasing belief in the importance and equality of individuals, and by an increasing freedom of movement. These developments reshaped people’s perceptions of where they belonged and what they could do. Chiliasm helped put these ideas into motion by bringing millennialism down to earth and identifying it with the demands of the oppressed, poor strata of society. Other-worldly objectives were given a mundane complexion, and said to be realizable in the here and now, if only the holy band succeeded in exploding its identity throughout the larger political space.

The classical notion of time — that an eternally recurrent cycle ruled human affairs — gave way to the Christian conception of time, as expounded by St. Augustine. He broke with the closed-circle idea to propose that time consisted of unrepeated moments that extended along a line allowing for progressive development. In the Augustinian view, past, present, and future became different realms, and man's view of his condition could vary and change. This reconception meant that man was not locked into an eternal natural distinction between rich and poor, and that the future could be a realm of hope, opportunity, and innovation where an individual might overcome his past to create a new history.

The chiliasts deepened the break with cyclical time conceptions — and added a millennialist thrust. They envisioned that a golden millennium was at hand. As exemplified by Joachim de Fiore’s thinking in particular, its realization required only the apocalyptic destruction of the present order. Though destructive, this notion of a bright new future contrasted with a more prevalent, older notion that the passage of time led inevitably to decay. As Mannheim (1936) points out,
The only true, perhaps the only direct, identifying characteristic of the Chiliastic experience is absolute presentness. We always occupy some here now on the temporal stage but, from the point of view of the real Chiliast, the present becomes the breach through which what was previously inward bursts out suddenly, takes hold of the world and transforms it. (p. 215)
These reconceptions of political time and space combined with a new action orientation: a new belief that people could master their own affairs and shape their own destiny. The classical idea was relinquished that man must submit to a fate preordained by heavenly powers. The chiliasts’ version of this idea was that man could realize the millennium through special, violent deeds. For them, the critical agent was the small band of holy fanatics led by a chosen prophet — a contrast to the emphasis on masses, organizations, and institutions that dominated subsequent mainstream theories of progress and revolution.

Without these conceptual shifts in space-time-action orientations, my readings tell me that modern Western ideas of politics, progress, and revolution would be inconceivable. Medieval chiliasm may, at first glance, seem at variance with modern ideas. But as Mannheim shows, the chiliasm of the Anabaptists, the Hussites, Thomas Müntzer, and others represented an early form of the modern utopian mentality. The chiliastsspiritualization of politics pioneered a breakthrough; at last, spiritual ideals were fused with mundane demands of the lower social strata and said to be realizable in the here and now:
It is at this point that politics in the modern sense of the term begins, if we here understand by politics a more or less conscious participation of all strata of society in the achievement of some mundane purpose, as contrasted with the fatalistic acceptance of events as they are, or of control from 'above’. (Mannheim, 1936, p. 212)
Jewish and Christian millennialism was thus tamed, secularized, and transmuted into the modern liberal concept of progress, with its faith in the advance of knowledge, science and technology. England’s Puritan Revolution provided a key turning point. As Robert Nisbet elaborates in his History of the Idea of Progress (1994),
there is the very closest of intellectual relationships between Puritan millenarianism in the seventeenth century and the efflorescence in the next century of the “Modern” secular idea of progress. (p. 126)
For some Puritans, notably the Fifth Monarchy sect, violent unrest was required to achieve society’s final stages — along the lines of a Joachimite prophecy of apocalypse. But for most Puritan scientists and theologians, progress to the new millennium could be accomplished through evolution, not revolution. Later, the American and French Revolutions would assure the triumph of the liberal idea of progress — but of course its absorption of millennialism’s visionary tenets has not brought an end to outbreaks of radical, apocalyptic millenarianism.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Millenarian terrorism — an STA perspective (1 of 4): relative-deprivation vs. absolute-disaster models

That people turn to terrorism has little to do with impoverishment, underdevelopment, and deprivation. It has much to do with a sense of feeling displaced by social disaster. Terrorists do not fight because they and their societies suffer simply from deprivation; their language says they fight because life is in a state of utter disaster. This conviction reflects a severe reconfiguration of space-time-action orientations that makes some individuals prone to becoming terrorists.

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)