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Do Oligarchies Create Insurgencies?

“…. But when the sons of these men received the same position of authority from their fathers-having had no experience of misfortunes, and none at all of civil equality and freedom of speech, but having been bred up from the first under the shadow of their fathers’ authority and lofty position-some of them gave themselves up with passion to avarice and unscrupulous love of money, others to drinking and the boundless debaucheries which accompanies it, and others to the violation of women or the forcible appropriation of boys; and so they turned an aristocracy into an oligarchy. But it was not long before they roused in the minds of the people the same feelings as before; and their fall therefore was very like the disaster which befell the tyrants.”-Polybius

One of the tenets of pop-centric COIN is that better governance will deliver the loyalty of the people who are the center of gravity over whom the insurgent and state contest. This usually means cajoling the state to reform and remove the worst abuses that serve to politically fuel the insurgency. Occasionally this is successful (El Salvador), frequently it is not (South Vietnam, Afghanistan) and in other cases it may be irrelevant as the method is eschewed in favor of indiscriminate brute force and punitive expeditions (Sri Lanka, Soviet COIN) but it begs the question of:

“What kind of governance is most likely to create insurgencies in the first place?”

Of insurgencies that are wholly indigenous, what form of government spawns them most frequently? A chart of historically recent insurgencies is given below containing who fought and who won (“negotiated” indicates a political settlemt “tie” of sorts, with some political accomodation and not settlements that are trucial “exit agreements” for the defeated belligerent): 

Aden Colonial Insurgents
Afghanistan (1979-1989) Communist/Occupied Insurgents
Afghanistan (2001-2011) Republic/Occupied Ongoing
Algeria (1954-1962) Colonial Insurgents
Algeria (1991-2006) Dictatorship Government
Angola(1961-1975) Colonial Insurgents
Angola (1975-2002) Communist Negotiated
Bolivia Dictatorship Government
Britain (N. Ireland) Democracy Negotiated
Cambodia (1970-1975) Dictatorship Insurgents
Cambodia (!978-1991) Communist/Occupied Negotiated
Colombia Democracy Ongoing
Chechnya Republic Government
China (1911-1949) Dictatorship Insurgents
Cuba Dictatorship Insurgents
Cyprus Colonial Insurgents
El Salvador (1930’s) Dictatorship Government
El Salvador (1970’s-1980’s) Dictatorship/Democracy Government
Greece Monarchy Government
Guatemala Dictatorship Government
India Democracy Ongoing
Indonesia (1945-1949) Colonial Insurgents
Indonesia (1965) Dictatorship Government
Iraq Democracy/Occupied Government
Israel (1st Intifada) Democracy/Occupied Negotiated
Israel (2nd Intifada) Democracy/Occupied Government
Jordan (Black September) Monarchy Government
Libya Dictatorship Insurgents
Malaya Colonial/Republic Government
Mexico Democracy Ongoing
Mozambique Communist Negotiated
Nepal Monarchy Insurgents
Nigeria (Biafra) Dictatorship Government
Nigeria (Delta) Democracy Ongoing
Nicaragua (1979) Dictatorship Insurgents
Nicaragua (1980’s) Dictatorship Negotiated
Palestinian Mandate Colonial Insurgents
Philippines (1899-1902) Colonial Government
Philippines (Huk Rebellion) Republic Government
Philippines Dictatorship/Democracy Ongoing
Rhodesia Colonial/Apartheid Insurgents
Saudi Arabia (Ikhwan Revolt) Monarchy Government
South Africa (Boer war) Colonial/Occupational Government
South Africa Apartheid Insurgents
Soviet Union (Basmachi Revolt) Communist Government
Soviet Union ( partisans) Communist Government
Syria (Hama Revolt) Dictatorship Government
Syria Dictatorship Ongoing
Vietnam (1930’s) Colonial Government
Vietnam (French War) Colonial Insurgents
Vietnam (American War) Dictatorship Insurgents
Yemen Dictatorship Ongoing
Yugoslavia Occupied Insurgents

The chart is fairly comprehensive, but I have not accounted for all movements or conflicts that can loosely be grouped under the heading of “insurgency” in the previous century. There are more. Corrections and additions are welcomed in the comments section. I also recognize that such a broad historical comparison as this chart involves a fairly massive degree of simplification of diverse examples. To some extent, simplification is unavoidable if insurgency is to be studied as a phenomenon at all rather than as an event in the history of a particular state or people.


Insurgencies before 1900.  A blog post cannot aspire become the encyclopedia of insurgency. 

The Russian Civil War (1918-1921) and the Lebanese Civil War of the 1980’s on the basis that while these conflicts contained many aspects of irregular warfare, they were primarily civil wars with extensive foreign intervention. The Greek and Chinese civil wars, by contrast are included because, despite foreign intervention in each case, the character of one of the belligerents in each conflict remained authentically and continuously insurgent in nature. The Greek communist army supported by Tito had previously been an anti-Nazi partisan force while Mao ZeDong’s Red Army were in rebellion against the Nationalist government before, after and to some extent, during, the WWII Japanese invasion of China.

Unlike the Vietnam War, the Korean War was neither an insurgency, nor a civil war, the adjunctive use of guerrilla operations by the North Korean and Chinese armies and the pro-DPRK apologetics of historian Bruce Cumings notwithstanding. The Korean War is better understood with Clausewitz than Galula.

The Soviet Bloc cases of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956 were excluded primarily because the resistance to Soviet domination was led by, or at least included, the leadership of the local satellite Communist Parties and governments, making those examples partially state vs. state conflicts. Of the two, Hungary presents a better empirical case for inclusion but from my readings of Soviet history, Khrushchev’s concerns were rooted in what he saw as counterrevolutionary and anti-Soviet elements in the Hungarian Party, army and security agencies and the Soviet response was a conventional invasion. I could be persuaded otherwise, but for now I am excluding Hungary.

The Katangan Secession – the reason here is my own lack of familiarity with the subject, as well as Mobutu’s later fall from power. Readers are invited to weigh in here or on any point.

Inadvertantly awol but intended to be included was Sri Lanka which recently crushed the Tamil Tigers. My error and one not easily remedied at this point for technical reasons, having tweaked the chart with another software program.


Foreign Invasion 

First, if we wish to know what kind of governments most frequently suffer insurgencies, let us set aside insurgencies that derive primarily from resisting foreign invasion and occupation. While these conflicts are legitimately considered insurgencies, the cause of them is fundamentally external to the nature of the state. People have a natural, visceral and ingrained tendency to fight violent intruders and that reaction ought to be taken for granted and planned for accordingly. Even the much abused and absolutely impoverished peasantry of Russia rose up against Napoleonic armies and Nazi conquerors. So we would remove from consideration the cases of Afghanistan after the Soviet and American occupations, Yugoslavia, the Boer War, the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia and the American occupation of Iraq and the Philippines as being externally provoked.

Likewise, insurgencies that are predominantly the creation of foreign powers, which would eliminate the US supported Contras in the 1980’s and parts of the Taliban like the Haqqani Network or Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir (India however, has something like 17 ongoing insurgencies so it remains on the list). Also gone is Che Guevara’s quixotic and numerically insignificant expedition in Bolivia.

Totalitarian Dictatorships

To look at the chart, the type of government that seems to endure insurgency least often are, ironically, totalitarian governments. The USSR is listed with two revolts – the Basmachi in Central Asia in the 1920’sand the Banderists of Ukraine in the late 1940’s. The former began prior to the Revolution and Stalin’s absolute ascendancy and continued while Soviet governmental authority in Central Asia was still relatively weak. In the Ukraine, Bandera’s partisans only took root as a result of the chaos created by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, which demolished the democidal grasp of Stalin’s NKVD apparatus there while replacing it with that of the genocidal SS

Historically, governments that exercised analogous control via terror to Stalin’s USSR simply did not endure insurgencies except in foreign territories they invaded, like Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. North Korea today, despite inhuman cruelties has not provoked an insurgency, nor did Nazi rule in Germany, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or even minor regimes like Enver Hoxha’s Albania, where efforts by the CIA to spark a guerrilla movement failed miserably. There is simply very little social “space” in a society atomized by terror and continuous surveillance for an insurgency to get started except by a spontaneous riot.

It is important to note however, as Jeane Kirkatrick did long ago, that totalitarian rule is qualitatively distinct from authoritarian rule. The USSR before an after Stalin was a different regime, regardless of outward continuity – and the same can be said of Communist China under Mao.

Democratic States 

The type of government that is next least likely to be fighting an insurgency at home are democratic ones – though they are perhaps very likely or most likely to be the states fighting them abroad.  The democratic states listed include Britain, Colombia, Israel, India, Mexico and Nigeria while the Philippines and El Salvador transitioned to democracy while fighting insurgencies and Iraq emerged from American occupation while an insurgency raged.

Of the democratic governments that fought insurgencies at home, Nigeria and the Philippines inherited their conflicts from previous dictatorships and all of the states have significant to severe demographic divisions based on language, religion, caste, tribe, ethnicity or legal status that are reinforced by economic discrimination and (except for Britain) serious to severe levels of corruption.

The economies of Mexico, El Salvador, Philippines and Colombia are historically oligarchic with the economic status quo being reinforced by extralegal violence in the rare instances where the government did not formally side with elite interests (usually because of factional disputes among the elite). The social complexities of Nigeria or India are too great to be delved into here but traditional structures and social relations were neither free nor highly mobile and that these legacies negatively impact or undermine democratic governance.

Of democracies that have not or have never needed to fight an insurgency, the supposition would be that liberal democracy represents the best vehicle for satisfying popular demands and defusing grievances. Further, there is an implicit assumption that democracies are functionally better at solving social and political problems and are less aggressive than dictatorships or traditional regimes. Therefore, a a key tenet of pop-centric COIN theory, the need for good governance, tends in practice to become conflated with implementing democratic and liberal reforms of regressive and repressive states, as was successfully done in El Salvador, to win over the loyalty of the population for the state.

I would like to believe that this theory is correct for intuitive and anecdotal reasons – it seems like common sense because our experience is that citizens of liberal democracies lead more prosperous, freer and more peaceful lives and are therefore unlikely to pick up arms against their government. Unfortunately, this reasonable assumption may be shakier than it appears and have little relation to success or failure of a COIN campaign.

The first problem with this line of COIN thinking is first, it mirrors the flaw in Democratic Peace theory – most democracies are of such new vintage historically that we are not assessing risks and probabilities from an adequate data set. Democracies have been, until the last twenty years, rare historical outliers. Of those democracies that have been around for the longest period of time – the European great powers, the United States and Japan – these nations have a formidibly warlike track record of military intervention or establishing the colonial empires that created the conditions for insurgency in most of the world’s hotspots. This alone should give us pause about the pacifistic nature of democracies if we have failed to learn this lesson from Thucydides.

The second problem is that good democratic governance does not equate with or guarantee military effectiveness of the counterinsurgent forces in the field. The shooting part of COIN wars matter and the “good guys” can lose when out-thought and out-fought; “bad guys” can be courageous, adaptive, highly motivated and militarily skillful adversaries. Nor does democratic governance ensure that wars of choice are fought for sound strategic reasons to accomplish affordable goals. The tendency toward idealism in democratic politics, making a war of choice attractive to an electorate can mitigate against maintaining a strategic perspective and tilt toward pursuing open-ended and ill-defined goals.

 The third problem is that the population is not always the “center of gravity” in 4GW or other non-maoist model insurgencies that have as a strategic objective something other than a takeover of the state. The population itself may in addition, be fundamentally illiberal in their orientation and inclined toward customs that are incompatible with Western notions of democracy or “good governance”.

Overseas, democracies are also historically active in fighting foreign insurgencies or aiding states to do so. Many of these examples are derived from the age of imperialism and the aftermath of decolonization that, as in the Malayan Emergency, became amalgamated with Cold War conflict between the West and Communism. It is also important to note, that liberal democracies are not strictly counterinsurgent/counterrevolutionary powers. Democratic states are also known to frequently aid or sponsor foreign insurgencies for ideological reasons, as under the Reagan Doctrine or the recent R2P intervention by NATO to aid rebels against Libyan dictator Col. Gaddafi.

Colonial regimes:

Colonial regimes along with authoritarian dictatorships most frequently faced insurgencies and generated many of the insurgent movements that lingered on into independence, fighting successor governments (Vietnam, Angola, Rhodesia etc.). While not the sole source of inspiration and historical experience, colonialism was the cradle of COIN theory with such luminaries as Callwell, Templer, Galula, Thompson and Fall as patron saints and the “red team” of Mao, Giap, Che, and Fanon on the other side.

Anti-colonial insurgencies are not considered to be in the same category here as insurgencies fighting foreign invasion because of the duration of colonial rule, decades or even centuries in length, mean that there are always other proximate causes for an insurgency than just the violent intrusion by foreign conquerors, though that grievance will always be present even if the memory of the event is purely historical. No power maintains itself for long periods of time without securing at least grudging political acceptance from a plurality of the population over which it rules and developing enough economic growth to make the imperial enterprise at least self-sustaining.

That said, despite their variable political nature of imperial powers, colonial administrations are almost always engaged in upholding unequal de jure privileges, even when the colonial territory is to be politically integrated into the mother country (ex. Algeria as a French department) or the imperial authorities are more liberal and solicitous of the indigenous population than are the colonial settlers ( ex. British Cape Colony). These unequal colonial priviliges typically relate to economic concessions that range from relatively normal productive capital investments (ex. British railroads in India) to rapacious looting and imposition of slave labor on a vast scale (ex. the Congo Free State under Leopold).

Colonial states are almost always minority governments of a settler/creole population and allied indigenous subgroup dominating a resentful majority excluded from the lion’s share of any economic benefits the regime is capable of generating. In the meantime, while badly outnumbered , colonial regimes tend to lack the overwhelming internal security capacity of the totalitarian police states, making control relatively fragile and dependent in part upon “divide and rule” political tactics. Markets do not operate freely but are arranged under  mercantilist restrictions designed for an export-driven economy based extraction of raw materials and commercial agriculture, a system that directly benefits only a narrow elite even within the privileged settler population. The mercantilist colonial economic structure is so durable that it is seldom dislodged even by independence, as the history of Latin America testifies, with a political elite assuming the privileged role once played by the imperial authorities and settler population.

Authoritarian dictatorships:

This category contains a highly diverse set of regimes, including the absolute monarchies on the list, with widely differing attitudes on political economy, foreign policy and social control. An authoritarian state may be a generally despised government controlled by a minority group (Baathist Syria, Rhodesia under Ian Smith) or it may enjoy nationalist legitimacy (Tito’s Yugoslavia, Egypt under Nasser) or even international respect (Singapore). They may also be bizarrely personalist tyrannies, like that of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the cannibal emperor of the Central African Republic, or the aforementioned Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. Finally, most Communist states eventually mellowed from totalitarian dictatorships with supreme leaders to collective leadership based party oligarchies, China being the most successful example of such transitions.

In terms of insurgency, it is more difficult to generalize among authoritarian dictatorships than totalitatian ones, or even democracies. Repression alone is not the crucial variable as not all authoritarian states face an insurgent challenge at home and almost no totalitarian states do despite being several orders of magnitude more oppressive. It would be useful to draw distinctions between authoritarian states that faced insurgencies and those that did not.

Looking at authoritarian regimes that are or were free of insurgency – say for example, Nasser’s Egypt, Pinochet’s Chile, Tito’s Yugoslavia or Singapore and China today we notice that they share some nominally positive traits – competent leadership, nationalist or populist appeal, pro-active security policies, provision of public goods and/or effective economic policies – that reinforce or maintain the regime’s political legitimacy. Repression, even brutality, is more easily swallowed when the state is delivering a rising standard of living and is seen by the public as an effective guardian of communal values and reliable protector against threats. Even a certain amount of corruption is tolerable, from the perspective of the average citizen, if the elite polices its members to remediate gross abuses of power. Some minor corruption (baksheesh, na levo) humanizes a rigid system on the margins for people without access to powerful patrons and relieves frustration.

Authoritarian or autocratic states that faced serious insurgencies lack these qualities – South Vietnam, Afghanistan under Karzai, Nigeria, Batista’s Cuba, Nationalist China, the Philippines under Marcos – coupled repression with incompetence, alienation from the public, massively dysfunctional levels of corruption and economic stagnation that magnifies and focuses popular resentment against the regime and provide fertile soil for insurgency and revolution. Contrary to Machiavelli’s famous advice, the rulers of these states made themselves more hated  than feared – and usually were also helping themselves to the “patrimony” of their citizens along the way via looting on a scale that exceeded even that of the European colonial powers. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia where hatred for the family of the wife of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as a bloodsucking mafia burst like a flood and most recently toppled the mad Colonel Gaddafi, who is now estimated to have stolen $ 200 billion dollars from the Libyan people over the course of his 41 year regime.


  • Insurgencies do not appear everywhere and where they appear they do not all enjoy similar success. Some are crushed virtually before they begin; others take over the state only to face new insurgencies against their own brand of government. Local conditions matter a great deal in determining whether an insurgency will appear at all, with some of the most monstrous governments in human history reigning unchallenged while relatively mild tyrannies are ignominiously toppled. A sufficiently omnipresent security regime, while economically wasteful, can make an insurgency’s emergence virtually impossible.
  • Oligarchical policies seem to increase the likelihood of rebellion by being repressive, economically exploitative, politically unrepresentative and also incompetent, governing in opposition to the interests of a majority of the population. Most of the states comprising historical cases on the insurgency table, though not all, were oligarchical to a significant degree, including the democratic states. However we can qualify this by recognizing that some states that are politically organized as oligarchies, one-party dictatorships such as China, are also capable of moderation and pursuing a version of enlightened authoritarianism and competent governance that secures a degree of genuine popular support. At least for a time.
  • Democracies are janus-faced in terms of insurgency. On the one hand, excepting the French Fourth Republic, advanced liberal democracies in the last century have rarely faced a serious rebellion at home (the 1970’s wave of upper-class Marxist terrorism never exceeded a handful of terrorists). On the other hand, these same democracies have an extensive historical record of provoking insurrection in overseas colonial possessions, fighting insurgencies on behalf of client states or even sponsoring insurgents as proxies against unfriendly states. This uneasily complicated relationship between democratic governance qand insurgency mitigates any unstated assumptions regarding promotion of democracy as a natural adjunct of COIN; democracy can be highly subversive of traditional mores or it can manifest itself as intolerant and illiberal majoritarianism.
  • Pop-centric COIN is a paradigm for fighting insurgency that is more suitable for some scenarios than others. As such, it would an error to keep it as official doctrine but it would likewise be an error to get rid of it entirely. An array of different COIN approaches of which pop-centric COIN is only one, would be a more realistic replacement; with the caveat, stated many times by many experts, that local conditions should determine and shape a COIN campaign rather than resorting to an established template.

28 Responses to “Do Oligarchies Create Insurgencies?”

  1. Zenpundit: Do Oligarchies Create Insurgencies? « The Image Says:

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  2. Ski Says:


    The economic exploitation is usually the straw that breaks the camels back, lack of social mobility also plays a large role. If people cannot improve their lives, and they see a "special class" that benefits from policies that make them richer and more powerful, then there is going to be a good chance of violence emerging in some shape or form.

    In fact, this is why I believe Mexico is going to be the next battleground for the US. The narcotics cartels are driven by profit, they have a huge population base to recruit from, wealth is highly concentrated in Mexico (the 100 families), and the major source of federal income, oil, is going to dry up over this decade as the Cantarell field becomes less and then completely unprofitable.

    As for COIN, the FM3-24 version was a propaganda ploy to influence the US population…it’s very narrow in its approach to conducting insurgency and heavily biased towards Iraq. The historical narratives it derives from are also heavily biased and narrow.

    Good thread.

  3. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Don’t know if you’d call the actions against Nazi occupations in WWII insurgencies or resistances. That would be mainly France, but other occupied countries as well.
    After WWII, some of the Soviet-occupied countries (mainly the Baltic states and Ukraine) had insurgencies; the Forest Brothers in Estonia, for example. Again, these may shade into resistances.
    Also, I’m not sure that Polybius’s use of the word oligarchy is the commonly-understood one. I just take it to be rule of a few, the literal meaning. Polybius (and you) seem to add in the sense of corruption and incompetence. We do think of the "oligarchs" in Russia in this way.
    And then there is the 1% or 0.1% in the US….

  4. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Polybius’ use of oligarchy is the crucial one for American understanding. Polybius, echoing past Greek thinkers and the experience of past Greek poleis, described the political lifecycle of political communities as a sequence of 1. monarchy (lawful government by one will) 2. tyranny (unlawful government by one will) 3. aristocracy (lawful government by the best few wills ) 4. oligarchy (unlawful government by the worst few wills ) 5. democracy (lawful government by many wills) 6. ochlocracy (unlawful government by many wills). 

    Polybius argued that the Roman Republic c. 200 B.C. overcame this lifecycle by combining the best features of "monarchy" (the consulate), aristocracy (the Senate), and democracy (the comitia centuriatacomitia tributa, and concilium plebis in a single form of government. Polybius’ ideas were passed down directly by later writers like Cicero and indirectly through the survival of Roman practice in the workings of institutions the Roman Catholic Church and the estates of pre-absolutist Europe. This idea came down to the Founding Fathers as the notion of a "mixed constitution" as written up by Machiavelli and (especially) Montesquieu and practiced in Great Britain as King, Lords, and Commons and in their colonial governments with a governor, upper house, and lower house. The design of this nation’s constitutions (federal and state) cannot be comprehended by Americans without some understanding this crucial thread in its ideological underpinnings. It was the descent of the presidency from monarchy into tyranny, the senate from aristocracy to oligarchy, and the house of representatives from democracy to ochlocracy that they most feared, that they most tried to prevent, and that most figured would destroy this free government just as all such governments have failed in the past.

  5. zen Says:

    "Also, I’m not sure that Polybius’s use of the word oligarchy is the commonly-understood one. I just take it to be rule of a few, the literal meaning. Polybius (and you) seem to add in the sense of corruption and incompetence. We do think of the "oligarchs" in Russia in this way."
    "Polybius’ use of oligarchy is the crucial one for American understanding…….Polybius’ ideas were passed down directly by later writers like Cicero and indirectly through the survival of Roman practice in the workings of institutions the Roman Catholic Church and the estates of pre-absolutist Europe. This idea came down to the Founding Fathers as the notion of a "mixed constitution" as written up by Machiavelli and (especially) Montesquieu"

    Ah, my hidden lesson was not very well hidden. I need to become much craftier 🙂

    Polybius’ cycle of constitutional revolutions is an important concept. My understanding is that James Madison read Polybius in the original Greek and John Adams was at least familiar with Polybius secondhand (incidentally, Ibn Khaldun also gets at the same principle of cyclical political decay from corruption in The Muqaddimah). I think that lesson can be applied to analyzing our current political problems as well as why – Ski saw it clearly – one reason so many ppl pick up arms and become insurgents

  6. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    Great post!
    I’ve read all four volumes of Adam’s diary/autobio—I just checked the index; Polybius isn’t mentioned. What you say about Madison rings true. If my memory serves, he and Jefferson were two who really read and understood Greek.
    Adams’ diary reflects that he read Virgil and Greek during the same period–making no distinction. He also read and was a fan of Justinian. He said in volume 1, page 44-45: "Let me therefore distinguish my self from them by the Study of the Civil Law, in its native languages, those of Greece and Rome." Adams knew enough Greek to teach the language to his son JQA, and to complain when copies of old law books had printed indecipherable Greek passages (at least that was in the footnotes). 

  7. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    In the process of reading Civilization: The West and the Rest, Niell Ferguson. in the midst of reading description of how autocratic had some initial surges … but the west with personal freedom eventually overtook. Went through Ottoman empire stagnating (in part being because religious “law” started to inhibit scientific progress) and overtaken by Europe (even though at one time the Ottoman empire was far ahead); contrasts Frederick of Prussia with Machiavelli. Also (autocratic) colonial empires in central & south america were far ahead of north america (including enormous wealth from gold and other resources) … but eventually overtaken by north america. The premise was that in north america, even indentured servants could look forward to having a 100 acres of their own and leading better life.

    Fiske history lectures from 1880s (set of books awarded by my wife’s dad at west point) had US constitution & democracy due to the Scots in the mid-atlantic states … otherwise the English in states further north would have won out with a monarchy & aristocracy much more like England.

  8. seydlitz89 Says:

    Been thinking about the questions you’ve brought up for the last couple of days.  Instead of a lot of small points, why not one big one?  
    Is it so much a question of "oligarchies creating insurgencies", as more "hegemonies in various states of development or decay"?  Recall that that original Greek concept drew on  "chieftain" which is decidedly local or internal politics.  This influencing the course of a war; from a Clausewitzian perspective, one could look at it quite differently.   

  9. MikeF Says:

    Zen, I’ve been bouncing the question around too.  I’ve seen others run the metrics at RAND and NPS.  I wonder if it’s not so much causality, but, rather, the government is a symptom of the greater discontent inside the borders of x nation-state.  If we look at each case existentially (or holistically), perhaps it’s a heal the soul, heal the, mind, and heal the body situation.  All three have to be done simultaneously, otherwise the disease still spreads.

  10. zen Says:

    Comment threads like this justify the effort that went into the post 🙂
    Scott – much thanks! That sounds like Adams. His marginalia in his personal papers supposedly has been a wealth of finds for scholars.
    Lynn – the West also was fortunate that every attempt at centralizing power in Europe after Rome fell, benign or malign, failed. The Carolignans, Catholic Christendom, Spanish Hapsburg then French Bourbon universal monarchy, Sulemain the magnificent not stabling his horse at St. Peter’s, Napoleon, the Kaiser, the Fuhrer and the Soviets. all failed. Left room for variation, experimentation, migration.
    Seydlitz –  "Is it so much a question of "oligarchies creating insurgencies", as more "hegemonies in various states of development or decay"?  
    That’s very much in the spirit of Polybius. Brooks Adams and Carroll Quigqley too. Hegemony is an interesting way to posit the question because then the question is not just rise and decline but the rise and decline of the linchpins or pivots of an entire international system ( whether that of the whole Earth or the world of Classical antiquity. Influence war as well as things like demographics, cultural complexity, wealth accumulation – even the terrain in some instances.
    MikeF – " wonder if it’s not so much causality, but, rather, the government is a symptom of the greater discontent inside the borders of x nation-state"
    Very good point. There can be bottom-up cultural as well as top-down political trends. Or both at the same time. In the antebellum period after circa 1820, reform movements and religious revivals attempted ( with some success) to make American culture better and more refined even as political elite behavior became progressively worse because of sectionalism

  11. MikeF Says:

    Zen, I want to rephrase this one.  We’ve studied how and why men rebel.  Perhaps it is time to better understand the nature of insurgency- not simply the root causes, but the environment surrounding the conditions.  This may require relaxing some of our existing boundaries and definitions, but as you know, I’m already doing this as I’m looking at the civil rights movement as an insurgency :).  Keep up the good work.  I’m letting your thoughts bounce inside my head as I explore the other stuff. 

  12. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    "An array of different COIN approaches of which pop-centric COIN is only one, would be a more realistic replacement; with the caveat, stated many times by many experts, that local conditions should determine and shape a COIN campaign rather than resorting to an established template.".Indeed.  If only pop-centric COIN had been left in FM 3-24 and in Iraq, OEF might have been more sagaciously fought.

  13. Pundita Says:

    Mark –  Wow! Your post is a tour de force! I’ve had so many thoughts in response that I am debating with myself about whether to enter them here or take to them to my own blog.  I will want to study the writing over the weekend before trying to rise to the occasion but off the top of my head, my first response was that the way you’ve organized your argument is a wonderful model for communicating complex foreign relations/defense concepts in a forum for the general public.


    The public has gotten to the point where it senses that ‘expert opinion’ is nothing more than an agenda wrapped around a few data points. Facing an ever-growing plethora of competing agendas only the most determined readers of the ‘big’ press outlets have attempted to plumb the arguments that result in U.S. foreign policy decisions.


    Thus, the model you devised to communicate your argument, which revolves around the chart you devised, transcends any disputes one might have with individual points you make.   It is the way forward, as far as I’m concerned. 


    My only real dispute with your presentation is that if you were writing it for a press outlet, I think you’d want to start off with a reasonably precise definition of an oligarchy instead of the quote from Polybius.  
    I think Cheryl Rofer’s idea of the meaning of an oligarchy is the one most widely understood by the public
    so I think you’d want to make sure that there are no misunderstandings about how you’re using the term.


    If you were to expand your discussion into another (or several) blog posts or a book/paper, I also think you’d want to mention at least in passing a modern definition of an oligarchy that is tied to economics and specifically the privatization of state-run enterprises that previously had always been run by a government.  


    The privatization of Russia’s Commanding Heights businesses created the small cadre of businessmen that the Russians dubbed Oligarchs, then the same meaning of the term was applied to other socialist economies, including Mexico and Egypt, that saw widescale privatization.


    Of course these oligarchs came to be seen by their fellow citizens in just the light that Polybius considered oligarchs; i.e., as an evil force: rapacious, uncaring about the plight of masses. But I think that if you’re tagging a discussion of COIN to oligarchies, it’s important to distinguish between oligarchs that evolved as basically an economic phenomenon and the more general idea of an elite that develops because of financial privilege, or as a holdover from ruling families during monarchism, or a class that is outgrowth of a ruling political class, as in academic institutions that become allied with a particular political/business faction.


    The singular unpleasant truth behind what could be called the ‘Economic Oligarchs,’ what greatly distinguishes them from other types of oligarchs, is simply great intelligence and vast and pertinent business expertise including financial expertise.  This was certainly so in post-Soviet Russia, Mexico and Egypt and other countries that tried privatization in the past few decades.


    The businessmen who bought up Commanding Heights businesses were able to do so not because of privilege but because of brains and business expertise — in countries where precious few among the populace had the ability to successfully run a large, complex industrial business in the cutthroat era of 24/7 globalized trade.   


    Indeed the paucity of “modern” business experience is a ‘hidden’ obstacle to the on-paper dreams of capitalists who know that socialism doesn’t work but who don’t have enough of the right kind of manpower to make capitalism work — or at least work fast enough to stave off a revolution by millions who made do with a Commanding Heights economy then were suddenly thrown into the brave new world of capitalism.  Just two examples of this problem are Haiti and Afghanistan.  In Haiti there simply aren’t enough literate people to even hold the kind of assembly line jobs that would pay a decent wage.


    This brings me to the most powerful and certainly most influential oligarchical class in modern history, which is the one represented by the IMF and World Bank in combination.  Of course the IMF/Bank are not seen as oligarchies even by their detractors, who tend to label them imperialist, because they are transnational entities. But they have definitely been in the role of an oligarchy in country after country in the ‘developing’ world.  Indeed, you could have fun with putting together a chart that asked the question, “Which countries saw insurgencies that started out as IMF Food Riots?” as Joe Stiglitz termed the phenomenon that arose from tough economic prescriptions that the IMF wrote for governments that couldn’t survive without IMF-Bank loans. 


    The government would have no choice but to impose the prescription, but this would touch off a falling-domino effect: masses of people would suddenly be out of work without government safety nets such as food stamps and facing a spike in fuel and transport costs (generally part of the IMF prescription), so then they’d riot — or ‘protest,’ as they did in Burma a few years ago.


    (Or, as in the case of post-Saddam Iraq when Paul Bremer thought it would be a great idea to privatize Iraq’s Commanding Heights companies, go to work for al Qaeda setting IEDs at $50 a pop just so they could feed their families.)  


    To summarize, the concept of an oligarchy has been greatly complicated by the modern era, so to nail down the role of oligarchies in fostering insurgencies I think would require tightening up on the definition of oligarchy or perhaps even substituting or creating another term. 


    Another suggestion would be to put an asterisk next to countries on the chart where it was unlikely an insurgency could have succeeded or even gotten off the ground without external help. Although South Sudan is not on your chart, the Christian Sudanese protests against Khartoum that eventually brought forth a new nation were in my book a long-running insurgency — but one that reportedly was supported by British, U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies and several Christian organizations in the West.


    The Maoist insurgency in Nepal is one where it’s doubtful it could have succeeded without China finally providing massive financial and tactical help and weapons.  Those poor people were staging a Maoist rebellion 30 years ago when I was there and getting nowhere despite the most horrific poverty one could imagine.


    As for Egypt’s insurgency, I pegged it as a soft military coup against Gamal Mubarak and the Gamalists that was disguised as a people’s revolt but whether or not you’d agree, there are other insurgencies on your chart that arguably couldn’t have succeeded without considerable help.  Consider the insurgency against South Africa’s apartheid regime, doubtful it could have succeeded without massive extermal pressure including international economic sanctions that were strangling the regime.


    That observation brings to me to what was for me a mind-blowing point you made in your Conclusions, which is the strange, Janus-faced aspect of democracies; it caused me to recall that even the democratic society of ancient Athens turned out to be quite the bully of other Greek nation-states, which eventually touched off the Forty Years’ War.  


    The ingrained habit of ‘peaceful’ democracies instigating insurgencies and all kinds of mayhem outside their borders is one of those points that had escaped my notice and I’d say the notice of Washington wonks (or been swept under the carpet), perhaps because any such discussion has been lumped in with the concept of imperialism and/or anti-Americanism.  Yet as you bring out, it’s crucial to take the unpleasant habit of democracies into account when arguing for POPCOIN.  By doing so and in such precise fashion, i think you’ve kicked the struts out from the most popular argument for POPCOIN, which it seems has not been adequately challenged before.


    So my biggest takeaway from your essay (at least at this early stage in my cogitations) is that POPCOIN advocates need to start from scratch to build up a truly empirical rationale for POPCOIN.  Given the huge investment of blood and treasure that POPCOIN entails, the US defense community cannot ever again try to wing it, as they did in Afghanistan.  Any doubts I might have had on that score were settled by your arguments.


    Bravo, Mark!

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  17. zen Says:

    Hi Miss P.
    Thank you very much! Something like this would never be considered fo a MSM publication, it would require a severe rewrite not just for length but structure. News is purposefully framed to eliminate analytical depth and multiple-causation and to be pigeonholed in specific narrative “slots”. Without blogs and social media, public discourse would resemble 1998 again where the NYT set the message on important stories and all other media outlets followed suit except Fox and WSJ which would promote the counter-narrative.
    Regarding Oligarchy:
    You are right, I would have to carefully define both oligarchy and insurgency in a different format – “insurgency” BTW is even harder to reach a consensus on than is “oligarchy”. I opted to leave the terms fuzzy, especially insurgency because a large part of the COIN debate involves trying to selectively define insurgency in order to control or influence the use of policy in situations involving irregular fighters. The label invoked (“terrorists”, “guerrillas”, “freedom fighters”, “illegal combatants”, “belligerents”) carries real legal power; it can partially force a policy response by activating statutes and treaty obligations. By not defining these terms, some people read further than they would have if they realized I was trampling upon their cherished paradigm. I heard from some of them offline when they caught on.
    As was mentioned upthread, I am partial to Polybius’ use of th term where oligarchy is a corrupted, intentionally self-dealing and degenerated form of government derived from Aristocracy (“rule of the best”). It was an important twist on the understanding at the time because Oligarchy, unlike Tyranny, had been regarded by the Greeks as a lawful kind of polis, with Sparta as the champion of that form of government. Poybius goes on to describe Sparta as having a “mixed constitution” which while true, is misleading, Sparta was a militaristic oligarchy and a highly effective one for centuries. Something Polybius knew very well, writing only two centuries + after the demise of the thirty tyants regime in Athens. In that way, Polybius kept his theory neat without having to distinguish between good and bad oligarchies in his effort to explain political revolution. Polybius was successful and his concept of oligarchy stuck until modern times where it became entwined in the public mind with the idea of extreme wealth. Acquiring riches, even vast riches, wasn’t what  Polybius was objecting to but rather being corrupted by wealth while in power instead of being a steward for the common/national interest
    Your points on the russian oligarchs and the oligarchical behavior/function of the IMF/World Bank are well taken. The latter reminds me somewhat not just of Stiglitz but of Jude Wanniski’s complaints against IMF policies back in the early 90″s. I think you are correct. Regarding the Russians, I don’t think a high IQ is incompatible with oligarchical behavior though the proto-oligarchs in the US financial sector seem to be more reckless and irresponsible, as if they believe their capture of Treasury and DOJ makes the system uncrashable.
    Thank you on the chart – as long as it is, there are a lot more insurgencies to cover. Proxy wars are an important subject in themselves.
    Thank you also on the democratic aspect. If these ppl in government making policy actually read serious books when they social networked & BS’d through elite schools, then they might be able to get past the story-book idea about democracy and realize wise restraint is not a natural characteristic of democracies. Neither is stability. These qualities have to be emgineered or blended in or the democracy is unlikely to last long.

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