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What Makes Rational Peasants Revolutionary? Dilemma, Paradox, and Irony in Peasant Collective Action

  • Mark I. Lichbach (a1)

Peasant upheavals are studied from the perspective offered by the selective incentives solution to Olson's collective action problem. This article presents much evidence from three different forms of peasant struggles—everyday forms of peasant resistance, unorganized rural movements, and organized peasant rebellions—that demonstrates the widespread existence of selective incentives. Questions about the causes and consequences of selective incentives are then examined. First, what are the conditions under which peasant struggles emphasize material selective incentives rather than nonmaterial altruistic appeals? The level of selective incentives in any peasant upheaval is a function of demand and supply considerations. Peasants demand selective incentives. The suppliers include one or more dissident peasant organizations, the authorities, and the allies of both. A political struggle ensues as the suppliers compete and attempt to monopolize the market. Second, what are the conditions under which the pursuit of material self-interest hurts rather than helps the peasantry's collective cause? Selective incentives supplemented by ideology can be effective; selective incentives alone are counterproductive.

These questions and answers lead to the conclusion that the selective incentives solution reveals much more about peasant upheavals than simply that peasants will often be concerned with their own material self-interest. It is therefore important to study the following three aspects of peasant collective action: the dilemma peasants face, or how peasant resistance is in the interest of all peasants but in the self-interest of none; the paradox peasants face, or that rational peasants do solve their dilemma (for example, with selective incentives) and participate in collective action; and the irony peasants face, or that self-interest is both at the root of their dilemma and at the foundation of a solution to their paradox.

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World Politics
  • ISSN: 0043-8871
  • EISSN: 1086-3338
  • URL: /core/journals/world-politics
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