Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the Meaning of Political Support

In the closing pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt notoriously claimed that “politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same” (p. 279). Her point was that whatever Eichmann’s motivations or beliefs might have been ultimately, he had made himself a “willing instrument in the organization of mass murder;” and ethically and legally speaking, that fact was all that mattered. To support a regime (especially a murderous one) could be nothing more and nothing less than to act in whatever way the regime asks you to.

There is something harsh and uncompromising about this view. We often seem to want to distinguish between support and obedience, or at least to excuse some forms of obedience on the grounds that such obedience was not granted willingly or not grounded in genuine support. We might speak of “preference falsification” and attempt to separate overt obedience, given out of fear or lack of options or greed, from the “real” or “baseline” support that would have been given in the absence of ignorance, coercion, peer pressure or other incentives. (I have often written in this way, and find it a useful shorthand for thinking about things like cults of personality). And when we think about questions of responsibility in coercive regimes we sometimes engage in a complicated moral calculus that balances the inculpatory force of actual obedience against the exculpatory force of morally objectionable incentives (partially) underlying that obedience. Here I take it that our usual intuitions indicate that negative incentives for obedience (like threats of violence) are more exculpatory than positive incentives (like jobs or money), and positive incentives are more exculpatory than “intrinsic” preferences. The man who falsely denounces his neighbour on pain of seeing his son put in prison and tortured may do a wrong, but the wrong is partly excused by the threat of violence (perhaps he does the lesser of two evils), whereas the man who denounces his neighbour in exchange for money behaves less excusably (even if he really needs the money), and the man who denounces his neighbour for fun is a simply a monster. (And what about the man who supports a coercive system because he thinks it is the right system? Here our intuitions seem inconsistent, or perhaps depend on what we think about the source of the belief). In other words, we typically believe that obedience gained at gunpoint expresses less “genuine” support than obedience gained by an appeal to material interest, and that the most genuine support is manifested in purely “disinterested” obedience or collaboration.

I want to put aside for a moment the moral questions about responsibility and exculpation, and just focus on whether we can speak about “support” independently of obedience, i.e., about some “real” level of support underlying a person’s obedience to or collaboration with authority. And here I think Arendt was on to something: to ask about “real” motivations in politics is often fruitless, and sometimes positively perverse. The only way to demonstrate support in politics is by obeying, collaborating, or otherwise doing what the group one supports expects of you; the demand for additional proofs of support can only result in socially destructive (if sometimes individually advantageous) signalling games (see here, here, and here for some examples in this blog; Arendt’s favourite example was the destructive politics of purity during the terror in the French revolution). And the inner world of motivation and belief is too obscure (even to the agent) and fragile to survive the light of publicity, as Arendt repeatedly stressed.

More precisely, I am not sure that it makes sense to speak of political support independently of the institutions that condition obedience and collaboration. For purposes of analysis, we can (sometimes) separate out various “inputs” of what we might call the obedience-production function – coercion, monetary incentives, peer pressure and so on – and call the residual “real or genuine support,” a pure preference for collaboration with or obedience to a group or leader. This is basically what you get in Kuran’s classic analysis of preference falsification and its consequences, which I quite like (in fact, I use it constantly); but it is at best a simplification of the complex phenomenology of belief and motivation, especially when coercion and other external “incentives” dominate over whatever “intrinsic” preferences one may care to postulate. For one thing, in environments where coercion and other incentives are large enough, this residual preference is itself likely to be at least partially produced by all the other forces at work and is likely to be quite small in magnitude; and perhaps more importantly, it won’t always make sense to speak of this residual as a “preference” for the leader or the regime (or as a belief in its legitimacy, for that matter).

These ideas came to mind when reading Robert F. Worth’s superb and disturbing NY Times piece on the last days of the Qaddafi regime:

Unlike Benghazi, the old opposition stronghold in eastern Libya where the rebellion began in February, Tripoli had been a relative bastion of support for Qaddafi. Even the bravest dissidents, who risked their lives for years, often posed as smiling backers of Qaddafi and his men. Now the masks were off, but another game of deception was under way. At all the military bases I visited, I found soldiers’ uniforms and boots, torn off in the moments before they had, presumably, slipped on sandals and djellabas and run back home. Even the prisoners I spoke with in makeshift rebel jails had shed their old identities or modified them. “I never fired my gun,” they would say. “I only did it for the money.” “I joined because they lied to me.”

Everyone in Tripoli, it seemed, had been with Qaddafi, at least for show; and now everyone was against him. But where did their loyalty end and their rebellion begin? Sometimes I wondered if the speakers themselves knew. Collectively, they offered an appealing narrative: the city had been liberated from within, not just by NATO’s relentless bombing campaign. For months, Qaddafi’s own officers and henchmen had quietly undermined his war, and ordinary citizens had slowly mustered recruits and weapons for the final battle. In some cases, with a few witnesses and a document or two, their version seemed solid enough. Others, like Mustafa Atiri, had gruesome proof of what they lived through. But many of the people I spoke with lacked those things. They were left with a story; and they were telling it in a giddy new world in which the old rules — the necessary lies, the enforced shell of deference to Qaddafi’s Mad Hatter philosophy — were suddenly gone. It was enough to make anyone feel a little drunk, a little uncertain about who they were and how they got there.

Were these people deceiving themselves or others? Did the soldiers really support Gaddafi in the past but now do not? Do some of these people support Gaddafi still? The question makes less sense to me than it once did. It is clear that they once obeyed Gaddafi and now do not; and that the change from obedience to non-obedience must be explained as a result of a changing configuration of “inputs” to the obedience-production function, so to speak (changing configurations of coercion, monetary incentives, peer pressure, views of the rebels, etc.); but to attempt to determine if, in their heart of hearts, these people supported Gaddafi then (net of all of these forces) and now do not seems slightly absurd. Their obedience and disobedience, support and lack of support are nothing but the vector product of all the forces (threats of coercion, positive incentives, beliefs about Gaddafi, idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, moral convictions, obscure and half-formed ideas about the future, etc.) operating through them. It may make sense to attempt to disentangle these forces if we are interested in legal or moral responsibility, or in the private tragedies of everyday life in Libya, but it does not make sense to me to attempt to figure out if Gaddafi enjoyed some “genuine” level of support (independent of coercion, money, etc.) as a separate explanatory factor.

But didn’t some people love Gaddafi? And doesn’t such love make a difference? (This is basically the old “fear and love” problem). I do not think it makes the explanatory difference it is sometimes thought to make: those with more “love” for Gaddafi were not necessarily those more committed to the defence of his regime, for example. Here is another passage that jumped out at me in the piece (but really, read it all, though some of the stories are quite disturbing):

Of all the former Qaddafi loyalists I spoke with, only one offered a rationale that went beyond money or compulsion. His name was Idris, and he was a handsome 21-year-old medical student with a downy wisp of beard, a pink T-shirt and jeans. Idris (he asked me not to use his full name) talked about Qaddafi’s loss in a baffled, crestfallen way. We drove to a cafe not far from Algeria Square — since renamed Qatar Square by the rebels, in deference to Qatar’s support for the Libyan revolt — and got a table. I was amazed to see that Idris still had an image of Qaddafi on the screen of his cellphone. “I’ve been passionate for Qaddafi ever since I was born,” he said. His parents felt the same way, though he insisted they had not held any position or drawn any special benefits. “Libya is just a bunch of tribes, and there are blood feuds,” Idris said, when I asked him why. “We see Qaddafi as the only wise man with the power to stop the feuds. If he fails, there will be no one to mediate.” I asked what he thought of Qaddafi’s apparent support for terrorists and his reputation as a maniac in the West. “We see him as a brave man who speaks out against American bullying, as other Arab leaders do not,” Idris said. “So they accuse him of these things.” Idris conceded that Qaddafi made the mistake of surrounding himself with bloodthirsty people like Abdullah Senussi, his security chief and brother-in-law. He also said, like many loyalists, that he was misled about the rebels by Libyan state television, which portrayed them as terrorists. Yet he gave no ground in his love for Qaddafi. When I asked how he felt about Tripoli’s fall, he said: “Devastated. It’s like someone you love, and they’re gone.”

Our conversation began to draw interest from two men sitting at a nearby table, and Idris was getting nervous. We got back into the car and drove to his neighborhood, Abu Selim, a stronghold of support for Qaddafi. The neighborhood is known for criminals and immigrants — a ready base of support for the regime — but Idris’s area was more middle-class. As we drove down his own street, he pointed derisively to the new rebel flags hanging outside the houses. “This was all green flags until last week,” he said. “They love Qaddafi. They haven’t opened their shops, everything is still closed. They are afraid.” Later, he added: “Honestly, before February there was no such thing as pro- or anti-Qaddafi. Only those people who were directly affected, the prisoners or the very religious men, had any view.” We drove past the stalls of a local market, blackened by fire in the final days of fighting. Idris gazed out sadly. “Change is not worth this kind of destruction,” he said. On one wall, I saw the words “Who are you?” It was a satire, like so much of the graffiti, aimed at one of Qaddafi’s recent speeches, in which he repeatedly asked the rebels who they were. But in this neighborhood, full of silent and resentful young men like Idris, the words took on a very different meaning.

I think Idris inadvertently hits on a couple of important points. First, it is interesting to note that when one strips away all the other “inputs” to the production of support – money, coercion, peer pressure, etc. – we are forced to speak of things like “love” (for Qaddafi!). But this love is hardly comprehensible as a preference for Qaddafi over the alternatives, or even as a belief in the “legitimacy” of Qaddafi’s regime; it is obscurely wrapped up with a person’s identity and understanding of the world, and its political consequences appear not to have been significant. (Idris does not appear to have fought for Qaddafi when things got tough, despite his love for him, unlike many other people who were loyal to Qaddafi out of a variety of pragmatic considerations of interest and fear). As a side note, I suspect that one cannot normally speak of beliefs in legitimacy except in the Hobbesian sense of beliefs that converge on particular rules or persons as sovereign. To believe in the legitimacy of a regime is simply to expect that other people will obey its rules and officials and collaborate with its authority; when that expectation disappears, so does the regime, but this is obviously very different from something that can be measured by means of opinion polls, and it seems to have very little to do with the personal feeling that someone like Idris might have had for Qaddafi.

Second, Idris is right to note that before people were forced to take sides, “there was no such thing as pro- or anti-Qaddafi. Only those people who were directly affected, the prisoners or the very religious men, had any view.” The public act of taking a position obviates any question of “inner” support, since the public act is a clear signal of support. And without that public act, there is really no such thing as pro- or anti- Qaddafi “support” other than the ordinary collaboration of everyday life. It is only when people are called upon to do something one way or the other – to shoot prisoners, as some of the people whose stories are told in the piece were called upon to do, or spy on their neighbours, or anything that actually puts them at risk – that we can speak of support (or lack of support) in politically significant ways. And here Arendt is obviously right: obedience and support then are the same; to support the regime was to fight for it, whatever complex motivations one might have had for doing so. It is worth understanding the complexity and tragedy of these motivations (the story of Furjani, in the article, gives a glimpse of the tragic situation in which some people are placed when coercion is the dominant input the obedience-production technology), but from the point of view of explaining the maintenance and fall of the regime these will add very little beyond the obvious facts that most people supported the regime because they thought it was in their interest to do so or were afraid to do otherwise. 


  1. That's very convincing. I've long thought that identity is one of the best ways of thinking about motivations and incentives, but this really makes me question that belief. I'm off to read all those other posts that you link to...

  2. Glad you found it convincing Tom. I enjoy your blog very much!