Guest Post: David Ronfeldt on Dignity and Democracy


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


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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