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Guest Post: David Ronfeldt on Dignity and Democracy

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Blog-friend David Ronfeldt, until recently Senior Social Scientist with the RAND International Policy Dept., is author / co-author of such seminal works as Networks and Netwars; In Athena’s Camp; In Search of How Societies Work: Tribes — the First and Forever Form; and The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico. Today he offered a detailed comment on Zen‘s post, Skulls & Human Sacrifice — the central portion of which we felt deserved to stand as a post of its own, and attract its own body of discussion. We are accordingly delighted and honored to offer it here as David’s first guest-post on Zenpundit. –CC

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For months, many arab commentators have observed that the uprisings are mainly about “dignity”: e.g., identity and dignity, or dignity and freedom, or some other combination — but always dignity.

In contrast, American observers keep saying the uprisings are mainly about “democracy” — freedom and democracy in particular. some Arabs include a call for democracy with their call for dignity; but Americans only occasionally acknowledge their parallel pursuit of dignity. in fact, Americans rarely think about dignity; we’re raised to assume it. Language about dignity slides right through our modernized minds.

Yet, in many cultures, dignity is a more crucial concept than democracy. Dignity (along with its customary companions: respect, honor, pride) goes to the core of how people want to be treated. it’s an ancient tribal as well as personal principle. indeed, it’s central to the tribal form. tribal and clannish peoples think and talk about dignity far more than do americans and other westerners in advanced liberal democratic societies.

In the Arab spring, what many arabs seem concerned about is thus more primal than democracy. They’re fed up with the indignities inflicted by corrupt, rigged patronage systems, by rulers and functionaries who act in predatory contemptuous ways, by the endless abuse of personal rights and freedoms — in other words, by all the insults to their daily sense of dignity. Of course, many Arabs seek democracy too; and dignity and democracy (not to mention justice, equality, and other values) overlap and can reinforce each other. But dignity and democracy are not identical impulses, nor based on identical grievances. in some situations, the desire for dignity trumps the desire for democracy.

This interplay between “dignity” and “democracy” may have implications for US policy and strategy. I’m not exactly sure what they are, but it seems to me that we ought to be analyzing and operating as much in terms of dignity as democracy. I bring this up not only because americans tend to overlook the significance of the dignity principle, but also because I detect a dignity-democracy fault-line among the Arab-spring’s protagonists — a fault-line that may relate to whether the Arab spring ends up having democratic or re-authoritarian consequences.

My sense is that the younger modernizing protagonists of the Arab spring may well be pursuing democracy (along with dignity) as their strategic goal, but the older, more traditionalist elements operating alongside them are more interested in pursuing dignity, without necessarily favoring democracy. and the latter may be stronger than we have observed. if so, the quest for dignity may be satisfied by outcomes that have little to do with democracy: say, for example, a shift in tribal and clan balances, an enhanced appeal for islamic law (shariah), or a charismatic call for strong government devoid of foreign influence. It may be easier, and more popular, to gratify a quest for dignity than a quest for democracy.

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I’m led to these observations via the TIMN framework about the four major forms of organization that lie behind social evolution: tribes + hierarchical institutions + markets + info-age networks. the young modernizing protagonists of the arab spring express the nascent +N part of TIMN, while the older traditionalist elements remain steeped in the ancient pro-T part — and therein lies the fault-line I mentioned earlier.

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For further details of Dr. Ronfeldt’s published work, see his RAND portfolio.His current interests include in particular:

  • Development of a framework (TIMN) about the long-range evolution of societies, based on their capacity to use and combine four major forms of organization: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and networks
  • Development of a framework (STA) for analyzing people’s mind-sets and cultural cosmologies in terms of basic beliefs about the nature of social space, social time, and social action

He blogs recent thinking on both frameworks at Visions from Two Theories.

16 Responses to “Guest Post: David Ronfeldt on Dignity and Democracy”

  1. zen Says:

    Hi David,
    .
    Just FYI – Made some minor adjustments to text and added links to your TIMN paper and John Robb’s analysis of same. IMHO it is well worth the time of readers to go look at your original presentation of the structural argument.
    .
    You are also spot on about "dignity" not being on American radar. I recall a historian somewhere observing that Southern born military officers made good occupation officials in Germany and Japan because unlike Northerners, they knew what it was like to be a conquered people.
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    Hi Charles,
    .
    Thank you for doing the heavy lifting on re-formatting David’s essay. Much appreciated!

  2. andrewdb Says:

    How is this "Dignity" different than the Honor/Shame dynamic?

  3. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi David, I’m curious about the American attitude toward dignity. You may be correct in your assessment that Americans "assume" it. But, I wonder about the influence victim groups have on the notion of dignity—where just about every grievance possible is given time in media and our court rooms. I’m guessing this sublimation of the person to the larger group has some impact on our sense of dignity as people and has an eery collectivist quality which sets groups at odds at the price of the value of the individual. I grew up in the South where dignity was, as you suggest, assumed…and that has eroded to a degree in my estimation. Very good post!

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    I have a hefty book with the word "honor" in its title sitting on my desk right now: The Congressional Medal of Honor: the Names, the Deeds (Civil War through Somalia), 1185 pages.  I also have a quote from Pope John Paul II which I ran across yesterday:

    Democracy serves what is true and right when it safeguards the dignity of every human person

    It comes from his farewell address to the people of America at BWI on October 8, 1995.
    .
    What both these examples suggest to me is that there is a social paradigm where honor and shame are dominant throughout society, and another in which honor is upheld in certain aspects of life, but not in others — with some accompanying shift of psychological and social intensity around both terms, honor and shame. Dignity sppears to mean the same as honor under the first paradigm, and something closer to freedom of life-choice in the second.
    .
    We get advice about "freedom from shame" through prayer, and how hypnosis can "help you let go of shame" — there are certainly many things that our own civilization thought of as shameful not so long ago, that we now find perfectly acceptable and "nothing to be ashamed about" — but can you "let go of shame" altogether?
    .
    And then what happens to honor?  How much distance is there between "have you no honor?" on the one hand, and "have you no shame?" on the other?
    .
    I imagine such questions must arise your work on tribes, David…

  5. Lexington Green Says:

    Francis Fukuyama made the same link John Paul II made between democracy and dignity.  He talked about the Greek concept of Thoomos, which seems to be what Mr. Ronfeldt means by "dignity."  Democracy recognizes the autonomy and value of each person, satisfying the need for thoomos.  I will also note a third element of these uprisings: Food prices.  Spengler has been writing about this.  You can have neither democracy or dignity if your very small income is being consumed more and more by increasing food prices.  Writing from Chicago, where it was barely 50 degrees the last week of May, and where the Midwestern Spring has been so cold and wet the farmers cannot get the crops planted, I think we are in for an increasing and worsening food situation, with the reality of global cooling finally drowning the chorus of falsehood to the contrary.  Rising food prices are going to cause political explosions around the world in the months ahead, and much human suffering is on the way.  

  6. david ronfeldt Says:

    gosh, i see intriguing comments awaiting reply.  but first, to phrase matters in abbreviated TIMN terms about the organizational evolution of societies — and with apologies to all who groan — i’d like to lay out the following remarks:
    .
    the “arab spring” represents an effort to go forward in the TIMN progression, in societies that have long been stuck with regimes that are deeply flawed from a TIMN perspective. 
    .
    the arab regimes at issue may purport to have been on the way to becoming modern triform T+I+M regimes, for they may claim to have vibrant national cultures (an aspect of the T form), strong state institutions (+I), and market-like economies (+M).  they may even have claimed to be adequately democratic by allowing political elections and legislative activities — meaning that +M dynamics spread to modify the +I realm in ways that TIMN says should occur as societies advance in the TIMN progression.
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    but in my view, these regimes have failed to get any of these forms right from an evolutionary standpoint.  aspects of the tribal form remain dominant and pervasive in ways that are dysfunctional for the proper professional realization of the other forms — an example being clannish nepotism that regularly serves a favored few in government and business circles.  also detrimental from a TIMN perspective is the excessive fusion among forms; there is too little separation and balance among their respective domains — esp. since the tribal form keeps infesting the other forms and their domains.  this shows up in how corporatist these regimes have been, and especially in how the armies get involved in business enterprises to the benefit of favored officers and their kith and kin, creating “monstrous hybrids” (term from jane jacobs) that later stymie reform. 
    .
    in TIMN terms, the vanguard forces behind the arab spring are the young modernizing individuals who represent emergent +N (network) forces.  they want to clean up and clarify other TIMN conditions as well, but they draw their strength from their +N nature attuned to the information age.  arrayed alongside them, but not in full agreement, are other, older, more clannish, traditional, even islamist forces that remain basically pro-T (tribal) in nature.  they too want to clean up and clarify other TIMN conditions, but in different ways. 
    .
    it’s unclear which of these two forces — the young modernizing +N forces, or the older traditionalist pro-T forces — is stronger or has better allies among forces representing the other two TIMN forms.  trends appear to be quite fluid, and many factors are involved.  yet, to reiterate what i said in the post above, whither the arab spring will revolve partly around the arab-spring language about dignity and democracy.  it engages the tensions between the more +N forces who talk primarily about democracy, and the more pro-T forces who emphasize dignity.  the interplay between dignity and democracy may affect which forces win and where.
    .
    this suggests being cautious about hopes for the arab spring.  in non- and quasi-democratic societies that revolve around the tribal (T) form more than the other TIMN forms, appeals to dignity may lead in directions other than liberal democracy, as noted in the post.  to add a little more substance, i’d point out, based on a quick google search (for just two words: dignity and sharia), that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in 1990 mentions the importance of dignity, favors sharia, and says nothing about democracy — thus providing a significant example of what i mean.  the young pro-N modernizers and their allies have a lot of difficult work ahead.
    .
    .
    i have some additional remarks apropos others’ comments above.  i’ll try to add them before long.  meanwhile, many thanks to charles and mark for taking an interest in this and offering it up as a guest post.  after all, it’s good for my personal sense of dignity and democracy….

  7. david ronfeldt Says:

    i’ll try to reply to comments bit by bit.  as to lex’s comment about dignity & thymos:  yes, i agree, the two concepts overlap.  and i see i wrote a little about this years ago, as follows:  
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    “Fukuyama’s (1992) study … contrasts thymos (a concept about having a sense of self-worth, and demanding that others recognize it) with what he terms megalothymia (an inflated desire to be recognized as superior) and isothymia (a fanatical desire to be recognized as equal).  …  Liberal democracy was designed in the 18th and 19th centuries in part to purge megalothymia from politics while leaving room for thymos.”  
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    in this view, thymos energizes people to get things done, but too much may lead  to vainglorious pursuits.  it’s an ancient greek concept that still has resonance today.  my particular interest back then was megalothymia’s overlap with narcissism and hubris.
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  8. Nimble Tweets for 2011-05-27 « Nimble Books LLC Says:

    […] @zenpundit: Guest Post by RAND scholar & netwar guru David Ronfeldt at ZP http://zenpundit.com/?p=4020 […]

  9. david ronfeldt Says:

    as to andrew’s and charles’s comments about dignity & honor:  i too see a large overlap — indeed, dignity, honor, pride, and respect all overlap.  yet, they are different too.  i have difficulty pinning down the differences, for they are subtle, but a few points come to mind:
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    honor seems a much touchier value than dignity.  many people talk about having a “code of honor” — and big trouble ensues if it’s violated.  i never hear about a “code of dignity” — but dignity is enshrined in codes about human rights. 
    .
    i recall reading james bowman’s book “honor: a history” (2006).  he too notes that americans rarely talk about honor, regards this as a lapse, and advocates that u.s. policy and strategy make honor more central, much like other nations and governments often do. 
    .
    as i’ve said hereabouts before, i think he is mistaken:  america’s exceptional rise as a world power, and the influence of u.s. policies and strategies, have stemmed in part from our not emphasizing honor.  dignity yes, but not honor.  we’ve relied on other concepts, like credibility and reliability as a partner, that presume honor without parading it.  actors that emphasize honor tend to get sensitive, clannish, and fightin’-mad when pressured (like turf gangs).  in some situations and for some groups, that can be ok, make sense at times, even be a big plus (e.g., in military).  but our positioning as a world power — american strategic culture, grand strategy, and diplomacy — have generally benefitted from not putting honor front and center, indeed from hardly ever mentioning it. 
    .
    dignity is another matter; i say promote it.  perhaps, and i’m not sure about this, but perhaps honor is a much more tribal value than dignity, which is important to tout all across the TIMN progression. .

  10. david ronfeldt Says:

    finally, as to j.scott’s point about dignity & grievance:  perhaps because i grew up as a southern californian in a sedate middle-class village-like college town, i rarely heard people talk about dignity and honor.  the occasional exception was at a prep school i attended, founded and headed by a southerner, which had an honor code that got preached to students — but frankly it didn’t register much with me as a teenager.  i didn’t begin noticing language about dignity, honor, respect, and pride until a decade later when i lived in mexico to do dissertation research.  wow, there’s a culture that revolves around that language.  curiously, i’d  note, if a senorita says she respects you, then you can hope for progress — in contrast to when a california girl says she respects you, and it means a gentle end to hope.  of course, i say that not to imply personal experience, but just to help convey the difference in how values like these may function elsewhere.  
    .
    today, as you point out, it’s not difficult to look around in america and find all sorts of groups (too numerous and various for me to want to detail here, and my list may differ from yours) with grievances and demands that harp on matters of identity and esteem, pride and respect — in a word, dignity.  all manner of media do indeed play upon this phenomenon, but i’d suppose its sources and spurs run deeper:  our society is becoming more tribalized in tone if not substance than i’ve ever seen.  it’s occurring all across the left-right political spectrum, and up and down our social structure.  the decline of a centrist middle class — the one i grew up in — is making matters worse.  maybe a dignity-democracy fault-line is emerging here too, more so than i’ve noticed.
    .

  11. J.ScottShipman Says:

    David, We’re on the same page; the fault-line could well be drawn among and from the groups. The issues today offer very little wiggle room, which is troubling on many fronts—one’s position either could build up one’s dignity, or in the eyes of another, diminish…a slippery slope, indeed.

  12. Charles Cameron Says:

    David:
    .
    First, a brief quote for you from Hisham al-Miraat, Showdown in Morocco:

    The makhzen refers to an ancient institution in Morocco — the extended power apparatus close to the Moroccan monarchy, made up of a network of power and privilege. It allows the King to act as an absolute monarch and the de facto head of the executive. Beneath the give and take of everyday politics, the makhzen has always been the ultimate guarantor of the status quo. For three months, the pro-democracy youth movement, known as "February 20," has been advocating against that status quo. Protests have not been targeting the monarchy directly, but instead have been urging for reform that would yield a system in which the King reigns but does not rule. [ … ] The middle class is joining the mass of demonstrators, moving the protests beyond the core of mobilized youth. Their target is the makhzen — which has become a code word for the monarchy’s abuses of power and monopoly over large sectors of the economy.

    Read it recently, and thought of your post at once.
    .
    And changing topic somewhat — do you have any thoughts about the (highly contentious) theories of honor/shame in the "Arab world" (quotes indicate sweeping generalization) as expounded by Raphael Patai in The Arab Mind and David Pryce-Jones in The Closed Circle?
    .
    And have you explored Don Beck‘s theory of Spiral Dynamics (based on the work of Clare Graves, pitched a bit glossily by Beck for the business world, and correlating fairly closely with Ken Wilber‘s developmental system, itself derived in part from comparative religious sources)?

  13. david ronfeldt Says:

    hey charles — while mexico has no monarchy, that moroccan makhzen reminds me of what was once termed the “revolutionary family” in mexico.  essentially, an oligarchy with clan-like extensions that ruled for decades (1930s-1990s?) through patronage and privilege atop a single-party (the pri) system, with left and right wings that more or less alternated in power.  
    .
    a double-eged rationale was used to resist reforming:  if times seemed unstable (as during the 1968 student rebellion), it was not the right time to risk reform.  then if times seemed peaceful, why opt for reform; the effort might create volatility.  a dual defense for a persistent dilemma.  eventually, the system did schism, but did not collapse.  priista president salinas opened up to market reforms, heading mexico deeper into the +m piece of TIMN.  then, the pan party outdid the pri several elections later.  a lot of reforms since then, but qualified ones at that.  some in mexico now wish for a return of the pri to power, even a reinstitution of a makhzen-like system, or so  i gather.  
    .
    as for honor/shame (or honor-shame) theories, in which the two dynamics are fused, i repeatedly mix them up with theories about guilt versus shame societies, in which the two dynamics are separate, more or less.  i always have to go re-clarify my understanding anew.  
    .
    i like the points made by honor/shame theorizers.  patai (whom i’ve not read) and pryce-jones (whose book i have, but have barely browsed) are key examples, esp for the arab world.  i’m passingly aware that they have been sharply criticisized by some specialists, e.g. for being too negative and deterministic about arab culture.  but from a TIMN viewpoint, their emphasis on the persistence of tribal and clan dynamics is reasonable and illuminating.  (moreover, pryce-jones’s “the closed circle” has a lot to say about time and space orientations that may be useful for my STA theory interests.)
    .
    these honor-shame dynamics may well bear on the arab spring.  but i’ve yet to see or hear the word “honor” crop up, in contrast to repeated instances of “dignity”.  actually, i’ve not seen or heard the latter used much for the past few weeks either.  i wonder whether that means something.
    .
    beck’s and wilber’s writings relate to TIMN, and i expect to have to deal with them someday.  particularly beck’s, since he charts social evolution across a stretch that runs from survival clans to what he calls holonic democracy, acc to online summary paper i keep in my files for future reading at:
    .
    http://spiraldynamics.net/DrDonBeck/essays/stages_of_social_development.htm
    .
    but i’ve barely read either, and frankly both guys are too new-agey, and too presumptuously spiritual, for my tastes.  they do come up for sympathetic discussion now and then at a blog i follow at the P2P foundation.  but over time, the comments have turned critical. 
    .
    btw, i like the p2p blog, though its orientation is to the left of me, because the theoretical orientations of its main writer, michel bauwens, overlap with TIMN more than i find at other blogs i follow.  his writings are more germane than beck’s or wilber’s.  and when i get back to my own blog, one of my objectives is a comparison of TIMN with P2P theory, as found mainly at: 
    .
    http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/
    .
    all honor and dignity to memorial day.  — onward, david
    .

  14. david ronfeldt Says:

    there’s an on-target passage in thomas friedman’s op-ed column in sunday’s new york times.  after remarking about the significance of innovative media and connectivity for the arab spring, he observes (and i quote):
    .
    “But this is not about technology alone. As the Russian historian Leon Aron has noted, the Arab uprisings closely resemble the Russian democratic revolution of 1991 in one key respect: They were both not so much about freedom or food as about “dignity.” They each grew out of a deep desire by people to run their own lives and to be treated as “citizens” — with both obligations and rights that the state cannot just give and take by whim.
    .
    “If you want to know what brings about revolutions, it is not G.D.P. rising or falling, says Aron, “it is the quest for dignity.” We always exaggerate people’s quest for G.D.P. and undervalue their quest for ideals. “Dignity before bread” was the slogan of the Tunisian revolution. “The spark that lights the fuse is always the quest for dignity,” said Aron. “Today’s technology just makes the fire much more difficult to put out.” ”
    .
    source:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/opinion/05friedman.html

  15. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, David:
    .
    I’m hoping someone can comment on the nuances available in Arabic that wld correspond to honor / dignity / pride / respect etc in English…

  16. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi David, I’m reading John Armstrong’s In Search of Civilization. From what you’ve posted here, I’m guessing you would enjoy this short book. I plan to review it at some point, but thought you might like to give it a look. Cordially


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