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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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1 Discussions of the problems in defining “peasants” may be found in Landsberger Henry A., “Peasant Unrest: Themes and Variations,” in Landsberger , ed., Rural Protest: Peasant Movements and Social Change (London: Macmillan, 1974), 618; and Shanin Teodor, “Introduction: Peasantry as a Concept,” in Shanin , ed., Peasants and Peasant Societies: Selected Readings, 2d ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 29.

2 These explanations are reviewed in many places. See Landsberger (fn. 1); Lewis John Wilson and Hartford Kathleen J., “Introduction,” in Lewis , ed., Peasant Rebellion and Communist Revolution in Asia (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974); Homer Richard K., “Agrarian Movements and Their Historical Conditions,” Peasant Studies 8 (Winter 1979); Cumings Bruce, “Interest and Ideology in the Study of Agrarian Politics,” Politics and Society 10, no. 4 (1981); Colburn Forrest D., “Current Studies of Peasants and Rural Development: Applications of the Political Economy Approach,” World Politics 34 (April 1982); Jenkins J. Craig, “Why Do Peasants Rebel? Structural and Historical Theories of Modern Peasant Rebellions,” American Journal of Sociology 88 (November 1982); Guggenheim Scott Evan and Weller Robert P., “Introduction: Moral Economy, Capitalism, and State Power in Rural Protest,” in Weller and Guggenheim , eds., Power and Protest in the Countryside: Studies of Political Unrest in Asia, Europe, and Latin America (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1982); Theda Skocpol, “What Makes Peasants Revolutionary?” in Weller and Guggenheim; Robert H. Bates, “Some Conventional Orthodoxies in the Study of Agrarian Change,” World Politics 36 (January 1984); idem, “Lessons from History, or the Perfidy of English Exceptionalism and the Significance of Historical France,” World Politics 40 (July 1988); Eckstein Susan, “Power and Popular Protest in Latin America,” in Eckstein , ed., Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Wickham-Crowley Timothy P., Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America: A Comparative Study of Insurgents and Regimes since 1956 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Desai Raj and Eckstein Harry, “Insurgency: The Transformation of Peasant Rebellion,” World Politics 42 (July 1990). The title of this article is a play on Skocpol (1982).

3 Scott James C., The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebelhon and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976).

4 Hobsbawm Eric J., Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York: W.W. Norton, 1959): Wolf Eric J., Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969); Migdal Joel S., Peasants, Politics, and Revolution: Pressures toward Political and Social Change in the Third World (Princeton: Princeton Univertsity Press, 1974); Chirot Daniel and Ragin Charles, “The Market, Tradition and Peasant Rebellion: The Case of Romania in 1907,” American Sociological Review 40 (August 1975).

5 Moore Barrington Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966); Skocpol Theda, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

6 Paige Jeffrey M., Agrarian Revolution: Social Movements and Export Agriculture in the Underdeveloped World (New York: Free Press, 1975).

7 Wolf (fn. 4); Migdal (fn. 4); Paige (fn. 6).

8 Moore (fn. 5).

9 Skocpol (fn. 5).

10 A counter-macroperspective—summarized by Bates (fn. 2, 1984, 1988) and Desai and Eckstein (fn. 2), 444–45—disputes even this claim.

11 Olson , The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979).

12 Popkin , The Rational Peasant (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

13 For a discussion of the related idea of selective disincentives, see Mark Irving Lichbach, The Rebel's Dilemma (forthcoming), sec. 6.5.4.

14 A market may exist in a more or less formal sense. The existence of a “selective incentives market” thus does not necessarily imply a formal market with distinct producers (such as rebel entrepreneurs or the state) who “offer” selective incentives to distinct consumers (that is, peasant followers). Moreover, market strategies always operate within the context of a set of structural factors that determine the underlying functions of supply and demand. As in any social-choice problem, opportunities/constraints plus strategies produce outcomes. These two clarifications can be best understood in the context of two forms of peasant struggles. In spontaneous peasant struggles a formal market will hardly exist. Under such circumstances, selective incentives are self-offered in that peasants take advantage of some situation, such as a peasant jacquerie, to rent seek. Structural factors, such as the nature of the state and the form of property and wealth, affect the demand and supply of selective incentives and hence drive peasant behavior. In organized peasant struggles a more formal market can be located. Under such circumstances, selective incentives are actually offered by rebel entrepreneurs to their peasant followers. Structural factors, however, still affect demand and supply considerations and hence drive market strategies and ultimately peasant behavior.

15 Lichbach (fn. 13).

16 Gordon Tullock, “Why So Much Stability?” Public Choke 37, no. 2 (1981).

17 Hirschman Albert O., “Rival Interpretations of Market Society: Civilizing, Destructive, or Feeble?” Journal of Economic Literature 20 (December 1982), 1482.

18 Lichbach (fh. 13).

19 Popkin Samuel L., “Political Entrepreneurs and Peasant Movements in Vietnam,” in Taylor Michael, ed., Rationality and Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

20 Migdal (fn. 4), 205.

21 Michael Taylor, “Rationality and Revolutionary Collective Action,” in Taylor (fn. 19).

22 Brustein William and Levi Margaret, “The Geography of Rebellion: Rulers, Rebels, and Regions, 1500–1700,” Theory and Society 16 (July 1987).

23 Mason T. David, “Nonelite Response to State-Sanctioned Terror,” Western Political Quarterly 42 (December 1989); Mason T. David and Krane Dale A., “The Political Economy of Death Squads: Toward a Theory of State-Sanctioned Terror,” International Studies Quarterly 33 (June 1989).

24 James Tong, “Rational Outlaws: Rebels and Bandits in the Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644,” in Taylor (fn. 19).

25 In collective action parlance, collectively supplied benefits are referred to as “public goods,” which are characterized, as indicated above, by nonrivalness and nonexcludability. The term thus covers objectives that are both reformist (e.g., having the existing government supply a new road) and revolutionary (e.g., taking over the government and supplying your own road).

26 Edwards Lyford P., The Natural History of Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927), 7174.

27 There are other examples of this argument in addition to the ones cited below. See Pike Douglas, Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1966), 166; AlRoy Gil Carl, The Involvement of Peasants in Internal Wars, Research Monograph Series, no. 24 (Princeton: Center of International Studies, Princeton University, 1966), 27; Race Jeffrey, War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 183; and Roeder Philip G., “Rational Revolution: Extensions of the ‘By-Product’ Model of Revolutionary Involvement,” Western Political Quarterly 35 (March 1982), 6.

28 Tillock Harriet and Morrison Denton E., “Group Size and Contributions to Collective Action: An Examination of Olson's Theory Using Data from Zero Population Growth Inc.,” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change 2 (1979), 133.

29 Fireman and Gamson , “Utilitarian Logic in the Resource Mobilization Perspective,” in Zald Mayer N. and McCarthy John D., eds., The Dynamics of Social Movements: Resource Mobilization, Social Control, and Tactics (Cambridge, Mass.: Winthrop, 1979), 11.

30 Hechter Michael, Principles of Group Solidarity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 3536.

31 Elster Jon, The Cement of Society: A Study of Social Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 40.

32 Wagner Richard E., “Pressure Groups and Political Entrepreneurs: A Review Article,” Papers on Nonmarket Decision Making 1 (1966).

33 Blumel Wolfgang, Pethig Rudiger, and Hagen Oskar Von Dem, ‘The Theory of Public Goods: A Survey of Recent Issues,” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 142 (June 1986), 260.

34 Migdal (fn. 4), 233.

35 Fireman and Gamson (fn. 29), 12.

36 Holstrom Nancy, “Rationality and Revolution,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 13 (September 1983), 310.

37 Osanka Franklin Mark, “Social Dynamics of Revolutionary Guerrilla Warfare,” in Little Roger, ed., Handbook of Military Institutions (Beverly Hills, Calif: Sage, 1971), 411.

38 Blalock Hubert M. Jr., Power and Conflict: Toward a General Theory (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1989), 143.

39 Olsen Marvin et al., “Participation in Neighborhood Associations,” Sociological Focus 22 (February 1989), 3.

40 Besides these four logical gaps, several inherent limitations of using selective incentives to induce participation in collective dissent also exist. See Mark Irving Lichbach, The Cooperator's Dilemma (forthcoming), sec. 6.5.3.

41 Skocpol (fn. 2), 171.

42 Scott James C., Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

43 Colburn Forrest D., “Foot Dragging and Other Peasant Responses to the Nicaraguan Revolution,” in Colburn , ed., Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1989), 194.

44 Forrest D. Colburn, “Introduction,” in Colburn (fn. 43), x.

45 Colburn (fn. 43), 177.

46 Milton J. Esman, “Commentary,” in Colburn (fn. 43), 22.

47 Eggertsson Thrainn, Economic Behavior and Institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

48 Jacek Kochanowicz, “Between Submission and Violence: Peasant Resistance in the Polish Manorial Economy of the Eighteenth Century,” in Colburn (fn. 43), 46.

49 Nathan Brown, “The Conspiracy of Silence and the Atomistic Political Activity of the Egyptian Peasantry, 1882–1952,” in Colburn (fn. 43), 106.

50 Hirschman Albert O., Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970).

51 Tilly Charles, The Vendee (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), vii.

52 Scott (fn. 42), 342–45.

53 Ibid., 295.

54 Colburn (fn. 43), 192.

55 Landsberger Betty H. and Landsberger Henry A., “The English Peasant Revolt of 1381,” in Landsberger Henry A, ed., Rural Protest: Peasant Movements and Social Change (London: Macmillan, 1974), 120. Destruction of documents, of course, has a public good component to it: it is not possible to exclude a taxpayer from the benefits of a fire. Selective incentives thinking would thus have us expect more looting and fewer fires, and fires that are preceded by looting.

56 Pettee George Sawyer, The Process of Revolution (New York: Howard Fertig, 1971), 62.

57 Lefebvre Georges, The Coming of the French Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), 147.

58 Rude George, The Crowd in the French Revolution (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 23.

59 Mousnier Roland E., Peasant Uprisings in Seventeenth-Century France, Russia, and China (New YorkHarper and Row, 1970), 43.

60 Hobsbawm (fn. 4), chap 2.

61 Mousnier (fn. 59), 283.

62 Ibid., 179.

63 Tilly Charles, The Contentious French (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1986), 30.

64 Rude George, The Crowd in History, 1730–1848 (New York: John Wiley, 1964), 253.

65 Ibid., 227.

66 Prison break-ins also have a strong public good component. See fn. 55.

67 Ireland Thomas, “The Rationale of Revolt,” Papers on Nonmarket Decision Making 3 (1967).

68 Rude (fn. 64), 227.

69 Ibid., 217.

70 Thompson E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 7576.

71 Ibid., 113.

72 Rude (fn. 64), 162, 227.

73 Thompson (fn. 70), 574.

74 Rude (fn. 64), 574.

75 Brown (fn. 49), 101.

76 Walton John, Reluctant Rebels: Comparative Studies of Revolution and Underdevelopment (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 48.

77 Tong (fn. 24), 141.

78 Skocpol (fn. 5), 237.

79 Mousnier (fn. 59), 189.

80 Avrich Paul, Russian Rebels, 1600–1800 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), 156.

81 Ibid., 232.

82 Ibid., 89.

83 Ibid., 87.

84 Ibid., 70.

85 Goodwin Jeff and Skocpol Theda, “Explaining Revolutions in the Contemporary Third World,” Politics and Society 17 (December 1989), 494.

86 Migdal (fn. 4), 233.

87 Ibid., chap 9.

88 Popkin (fn. 12), 255.

89 Ibid., 240.

90 Wolf (fn. 4) stresses the vulnerability of middle peasants to market fluctuations. Such peasants often rebel to protect their economic positions.

91 Two related observations follow. First, middle and poorer peasants are also likely to demand material selective incentives in exchange for their support of conventional political parties. Hence, there is a parallel here to the “neoclassical theory of patronage” that appears in the political parties literature. Martin Shefter summarizes the argument that immigrants, the poor, and displaced peasants are especially likely to demand patronage in exchange for their votes; see Shefter , “Party and Patronage: Germany, England, and Italy,” Politics and Society 7, no. 4 (1977), 405. Second, material selective incentives are likely to be more prominent in poor people's movements than in rich people's movements. This is one reason why discussions of material selective incentives appear more often in accounts of peasant movements than in accounts of the New Social Movements; see Lichbach (fn. 13), sec.

92 Colburn (fn. 43), 192.

93 Hagopian Mark N., The Phenomenon of Revolution (New YorkDodd, Mead, 1974), 306.

94 Brown (fn. 49), 115.

95 Ramachandra Guha, “Saboteurs in the Forest: Colonialism and the Peasant Resistance in the Indian Himalaya,” in Colburn (fn. 43), 82.

96 Cited in Brown (fn. 49).

97 Brown (fn. 49), 109.

98 Ibid., 117.

99 James C. Scott, “Everyday Forms of Resistance,” in Colburn (fn. 43), 247.

100 Lichbach (fn. 13), sec. 4.1.2.

101 Mousnier (fn. 59), 45.

102 Lichbach (fn. 13), sec. 5.1.

103 Hannigan John A., “Alaine Touraine, Manuel Castells and Social Movement Theory: A Critical Appraisal,” Sociological Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1985), 441.

104 Fireman and Gamson (fn. 29), 18.

105 Avrich (fn. 80), 30.

106 Popkin (fn. 12), 225.

107 Ibid., 240.

108 McClintock Cynthia, “Why Peasants Rebel: The Case of Peru's Sendero Luminoso,” World Politics 371 (October 1984), 81.

109 Ibid.

110 Popkin (fn. 12).

111 Ibid., 238; Lichbach (fn. 13), sec.

112 Bates Robert H., “Macropolitical Economy in the Field of Development,” in Alt James A. and Shepsle Kenneth A., eds., Perspectives on Positive Political Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge Universit Press, 1990), 43.

113 Wilson James Q., Political Organizations (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 37.

114 Marwell Gerald and Oliver Pamela, “Collective Action Theory and Social Movements Research,” Research in Social Movements, Conflict, and Change 7 (1984), 15.

115 Osanka (fn. 37), 411.

116 Tullock Gordon, “The Economics of Revolution,” in Johnson H. J., Leach J. J., and Muehlmann R. G., eds., Revolution, Systems, and Theories (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1979), 53.

117 Alinsky Saul D., Reveille for Radicals (New York: Vintage Books, 1946).

118 This idea is, of course, consistent with Olson's federal group solution; see Lichbach (fn. 13), sec. 6.3.3

119 Skocpol (fn. 5), 114.

120 Wesson Robert G., The Imperial Order (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 202.

121 Popkin (fn. 12), 262.

122 Thompson (fn. 70).

123 Rude (fn. 58).

124 Scott (fn. 42), 317–18.

125 Kahn Si, Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 68.

126 Ibid., 70.

127 Tarrow Sidney, Democracy and Disorder: Protest and Politics in Italy, 1965–1975 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 230.

128 Hagopian (fn. 93), 230.

129 Ibid.

130 McCarthy John D. and Zald Mayer N., The Trend of Social Movements in America: Professionalization and Resource Mobilization (Morristown, N.J.: General Learning Press, 1973).

131 Kahn (fn. 125), 9.

132 Mousnier (fn. 59), 43.

133 Lee D. R. and Sandier T., “On the Optimal Retaliation against Terrorists: The Paid-Rider Option,” Public Choice 61, no. 2 (1989).

134 Mousnier (fn. 59), 66.

135 Scott (fn. 42), 11–12.

136 Eggertsson (fn. 47).

137 Becker Gary S., “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach” Journal of Political Economy 76 (March-April 1968).

138 Kling Merle, “Towards a Theory of Power and Political Instability in Latin America,” Western Political Quarterly 9 (March 1956).

139 McKown Roberta E., “Domestic Correlates of Military Intervention in African Politics,” Journal of Political and Military Sociology 3 (Fall 1975), 193.

140 Peasants who are bullied and brutalized into joining dissident movements have, of course, relatively little “choice.” The market metaphor is not meant to demean the experiences of the millions of peasants who have been maimed and murdered in the name of revolution. See (fn. 14).

141 Popkin (fn. 19).

142 Lichbach (fn. 13); Rogowski Ronald, “Causes and Varieties of Nationalism: A Rationalist Account,” in Tiryakian Edward and Rogowski Ronald, eds., New Nationalisms of the Developed West: Toward Explanation (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1985), 89.

143 Lichbach (fn. 13), sec. 6.4.3.

144 For a parallel argument about political parties in the American South, see Key V. O., Southern Politics (New York: Knopf, 1950). For one about Kenyan political parties, see Bates Robert H., Beyond the Miracle of the Market: The Political Economy of Agrarian Development in Kenya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 9192.

145 There is again a parallel in the political parties literature; see Shefter (fn. 91), 417. Internally organized parties (e.g., those that are formed by dissident government elites) are more likely than are externally organized parties (e.g., those that are formed by counterelites) to use patronage. The great ideologies that often emerge in externally organized parties are thus a substitute for government-offered patronage.

146 Colburn (fn. 43), 195. Or, to quote a line from a Woody Guthrie song, “Some rob you with a sixgun, some with a fountain pen.”

147 In short, no collective goal, no collectivity, no collectivity, no selective incentives. The collective action model thus fits Thompson's (fn. 70) notion of class = class consciousness. Other theories of class argue differently. Marx's notion was that class = means of production. Anderson Perry, Arguments with- in English Marxism (London: New Left Books, 1980), 43, defends this later position: “Social classes may not become conscious of themselves, may fail to act or behave in common, but they still remain—materially, historically—classes.” Collective action theories, therefore, take a particular point of view on the issue of group formation. However, a collectivity in which virtually no one realizes that there is a collectivity might, quite literally, have the biggest collective action problem of all.

148 Scott (fn. 3).

149 Brown (fn. 49), 107.

150 Ibid., 108.

151 Scott (fn. 99), 22.

152 White James W., “Rational Rioters: Leaders, Followers, and Popular Protest in Early Modern Japan,” Politics and Society 16 (March 1988), 49.

153 Ethics of the Fathers 1:14.

154 But not all, for then there would be no collective action problem.

155 Desai and Eckstein (fn. 2) reach a similar conclusion by a different route. They argue that peasant insurgency combines the millenarian “spirit” of traditional peasant rebellion with the “rational” ideologies, organizations, and tactics of the modern era.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Symposium on the Dimensions of Peasant Power, sponsored by the Committee on Ethnographic Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, April 28, 1992. I wish to thank the conference organizer, Leslie Anderson, and the conference participants, Forrest Colburn, Ron Herring, Bill Kelly, James Scott, and Teodor Shanin, for their comments.

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