“How revolutions … actually occur. ” Adam Silverman

Grand_Ayatollah_Ali_Khamenei, One of the issues missing from the Iranian election coverage and analysis is the discussion of how revolutions and other forms of political violence actually occur. This is a significant issue that is not concentrated on enough. I have been thinking about the topic for the past five or six weeks as it came up at a workshop I attended back in April when one of the presenters started talking about the root causes of insurgency. The Army, based on doctrine, defines every form of political violence short of interstate war as insurgency.

This includes civil wars, revolutions, insurgencies, guerilla actions, and terrorism. After the speaker laid out all the reasons that people engage in revolutions or insurgencies, I made the point that the root causes he identified exist in most portions of the world at varying levels of strength and severity. As such the much more important question is not why do people engage in revolutions or insurgencies, essentially denying the legitimacy of the state and its governing institutions and seeking to remake them in some other format. Rather the really important question is why don't the majority of people that find themselves living in these conditions revolt or take up arms or even just demonstrate? This is not necessarily an original question – it is the first line of criticism against both Davis' J-Curve and Gurr's Why Men Rebel theories. Moreover, it is the answer to this question of what is preventing action that is likely much more illuminating to our understanding of when these things occur; especially if the root causes are constant and consistent across most states and regions. One possible answer has to do with structural effects on the behavioral process. While behavior is learned and subsequently reinforced through observation of rewards and punishments in a constantly updating feed back loop this social learning is not occurring in a vacuum. Rather there has to be an opportunity to act and in many places there is either no perception or reality of opportunities to make a change.

While many informed observers of Iran would say that to have a revolution there, based on events from the 20th Century, the Religious class, the Merchant/Business Class, and the Students/Intelligentsia have to come together. As the Religious Class is now in charge, with a chunk of what had been the Student Class and Intelligentsia of the 1970s and 1980s, revolution of any sort would appear to be unlikely.

That said it may be that what we're seeing is the result of the populace feeling pushed to make a stand. In reality the lack of opportunity may be curvilinear; preventing revolution or other forms of political violence from occurring, but only up to a point. Once that point is passed, there will be an attempt to force an opening.

If this is the case, then it may not matter who the leadership of the movement is or what societal element it comes from. Once the tipping point has been crossed the attempt to force an opening for change will self reinforce and continue until or unless it is stopped. If this is in fact that case then the focus should really be on what has changed between 2005 and 2009? What is it that made all of the overt and covert manipulation of what is largely a sham democracy by the Religious Authorities who actually run things tolerable then, but intolerable now?


Adam L. Silverman, PhD is the Social Science Advisor for Strategic Communications for the US Army's Human Terrain System. The views presented here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army Human Terrain System, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, or the US Army.

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28 Responses to “How revolutions … actually occur. ” Adam Silverman

  1. charlottemom says:

    As my father, an old Army Intelligence hand, says that while revolutions tend to “begin” in the middle class, their success or failure hinges on the military establishment.

  2. The forces of religion and the secular world have been in combat numerous times in the past of IRAN! seems an historic continuum to me but could be wrong. The real problem is that Hitler taught the whole world how to control a population through propaganda, secret police, and deprivation of the tools of combat for potential revolutionary forces. Stalin also helped perfect the system of neighbors spying on neighbors. China and Mao also. So isn’t the real issue not why revolutions occur but why they are usually stopped in their tracks? Arguendo–what American leaders have been revolutionaries?

  3. Abu Sinan says:

    “That said it may be that what we’re seeing is the result of the populace feeling pushed to make a stand.”
    This scholar, like many in the West, is confusing the liberal secular elite with “the populace”. It is part of the populace, sure, but a minority part of the same populace.
    The liberal secular elite in Iran is the minority. I hope our government doesnt go overboard in supporting what is entirely a minority movement. The support of this same group, historically, is what saw the Islamic Revolution into power.
    Let’s not make the same mistake again. Sure, here in the West we are more likely than not to sympathise with this group, but it is still a minority movement that cannot hope to come up with a majority in any sort of election if they do not have the support of the majority lower class religious groups.

  4. Abu Sinan says:

    Besides, we need to ask ourselves, just how this guy was when he previously ruled. A quick look at Iranian history will easily show you that life in iran under this guy’s rule was MORE opppresive than it is in Iran today.
    We can argue as to WHY that was, but it is fact. To think that somehow an electoral victory for this guy will suddenly benefit the people of Iran, or the interests of the West, is a stretch with nothing in his previous rule to support it.

  5. Patrick Lang says:

    It is interesting that now you think I am naive about the Middle East.
    I do not think and never did that the majority of Iranians are anything like liberal Europeans. I have never thought that Musavi was anything like a liberal. I remember him well from the time when he was “the man.” I am not advocating trying to “fix” Iran for the Iranians anymore than I have recently done that for any other country. I quit doing that about 40 years ago. For me Musavi’s only real virtue is that he is not Ahmadinajad and that there is some POSSIBILITY that he can be persuaded to do something serious in the way of negotiated agreements concerning Iran’s nuclear program, whatever it is.
    President Obama wants to negotiate seriously with Iran in order to reduce the probability of war between the US and Iran. Thus far, the Iranians have been unresponsive. Is that all Ahmadinajad’s doing? I know not, but I am quite sure that if the present Iranian policy continues then there will almost certainly be war.
    Some of you do not think the American people are gullible and naive enought to be programmed for war with Iran? You do not think that is ongoing? Well, you are mistaken and if the process continues in the absence of change in Iranian policy, then you will eventually see the result. Friedman’s analysis is merely true. pl

  6. JohnH says:

    I don’t know if you could call it revolution or not, but it often happens when one rich, powerful faction doesn’t like what another rich, powerful faction is doing. The outsider faction can either fight it out with their militia against the government’s militia. Or they can somehow enlist the support of the broader populace by enlisting their grievances.
    This is what seems to have happened in Iran. Two powerful factions seem to be knocking heads over control of the crown jewel of the Iranian economy. One is the Rafsanjani/Moussavi faction, the other the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad/Revolutionary Guard faction.
    Ahmadinejad spent a lot of his time trying to get support by disbursing government largess to attract support. Moussavi has tapped into a deeper well of discontent and seems to be the more successful at the moment.
    But ultimately, it seems that the people are just the pawns in the rivalry: “Unlike in the West, where governments are owned and run by the banking and financial system, in Iran it’s the Oil Ministry that controls the purse strings and calls the shots. The Khamenei faction has gradually been taking over key positions in the ministry and its myriad state corporations…
    Having finally wrested control after years of struggle of the oil revenues from the Rafsanjani faction, the Khamenei’ites are in no mood to give it up.”

  7. Jose says:

    “If this is in fact that case then the focus should really be on what has changed between 2005 and 2009?”
    Just a quick, argument that probably needs more analysis on my part, but the Internet has to be a major cause of the change:

  8. Emma says:

    I am surprised that you have swallowed this blatantly dishonest trumped-up line about the urgent need to do something about Iran’s “nuclear program.” What a waste of American political resources. It is not Iranian policy that will lead to a pointless war but American policy, and it is American policy that needs to change. Forgive me if that is your position too and I have misread your comment. But if Obama wants to avoid a criminal war with Iran, he should stop lying about Iran, explain to the gullible American people that Iran is not a threat to the U.S. (as even George Bush admitted), that Iran, which has agreed to use its nuclear power only for peaceful purposes, has not violated any laws or treaties, that there is no evidence Iran is developing nuclear weapons, and that even if it were, we have no right to say they can’t do that without saying the same thing about ourselves and our allies. Oh, and he could add that the Persian people haven’t attacked anyone in a couple of hundred years — in contrast to the U.S. and Israel, both of whom have been constantly attacking and invading somebody since they were founded.

  9. alnval says:

    Col. Lang:
    Silverman is raising the broader academic point of how revolutions actually occur and is suggesting that Iran is a highly visible contemporary case study that allows questions to be asked and models to be created in real time that may identify those variables most likely to explain how things like revolutions happen.
    His positing of the existence in Iran of a tipping point in 2009 that was not present in 2005 is intriguing as it suggests that even in Farsi “fed up” may be a legitimate concept with attributes similar to those found in English that describe the unwillingness of the citizens to put up with it any more.
    This strikes me as a potentially ‘universal’ variable that would be found in any revolution regardless of cultural or social mores. In the case of Iran, that it may only be found in an intellectual, secular, elite minority seems to me to be irrelevant if being “fed up” impels that minority to stir up enough trouble to cause the existing government to be overthrown.

  10. Patrick Lang says:

    Goodbye. Yo obviously can’t deal with this place and I am not interested in handing out “the poop” for simpletons.
    Do you have a reading problem or did you just show up to bitch about this article?
    I have clearly stated over and over again that I think the “case” against Iran is largely manufactured.
    The reality is that the “manufacturing process” has been largely successful and it shows every sign that it will continue to be successful. That process leads in the end to war between the US and Iran if it is not interrupted by change either on the US/Israeli side or that of the Iranians.
    I see no sign that Obama is the master of the situation here. Natanyahu is not going to change. What is left? The Iranians.
    Get it now? pl

  11. Charles I says:

    Fred Kaplan is over at Slate now, calling for disengagement, the hard line – the usual pariah regime legitimization techniques the flatheads trot out time and time again, rallying support for the beleaguered regime from reactive nationist support. Which of course entrenches said regime with the populace, whist pushing it into an economic, political and military corner.
    Just look at Gaza. You’ll get the picture of the only fruits such a process yields – rubble, unconquerable resistance, but, god bless the cellphone camera, increasing real time awareness that the targeters are lying about the targets.
    So the “process” continues unabated toward that universally prescribed flathead end.

  12. Ole Sanvig says:

    Colonel – the intertubes has to be a major part of the answer to the “what’s different?” question.
    Not the net in itself, it was of course already there 4 years ago, but the social network thingy gone mainstream. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, 3G phones with net access, YouTube – the whole shebang.
    Information really can’t be kept behind closed curtains anymore – there’ll always be another crack in the fabric no matter how fast the authorities try to stitch it together.

  13. LeaNder says:

    If one discusses this only from a poor versus elites, or corrupt leaders versus–I suspect–carefully crafted image–honest and humble man from the street (Amadinejad) perspective, I think one misses the central point that the Iranians have been hearing the war drums too, know the are the central part of the axis of evil. The elites surely are much more aware of this than the people in the countryside.
    Not long ago I discovered to my big surprise, that Phil Weiss’ blog/Mondoweiss has one third Iranian readers. It feels a tiny part of the bigger puzzle now.
    But obviously given the larger scenario, I am pretty sure I would be out in the street now.
    I was stunned by Amadinejad’s UN speech. Honest man or fool? Daniel Pipes couldn’t have scripted that speech any better with his conspiracy expertise/his conspiracy infected mind.

  14. N. M. Salamon says:

    With due respect to you in your posting to Emma: the unknown unknown is the key to future USA actions in ME land [not Israel or AIPAC], and the pertinent subject is the USA economy. No doubt you are aware that the Fed indicated that it will not keep buying Treasuries ad infinitum; further, you are aware that there is not sufficient free savings in the world to float 1.8+ billion in treasuries in the next few months,,, Interest rates started rising, commodity prices going up… What is the future of the fragile USD especially in view of BRIC measures to distance themselves from the $? How to wage war when so much necessary natural resource has to be imported, and the goverrnment is broke?

  15. kao_hsien_chih says:

    I don’t think Silverman’s question is necessarily useful for the narrow question–what about Iran these few days–but as a general question everyone interested in world events should think.
    A famous historian once said every automobile accident is caused by people’s desire to go from one place to another fast, but to chalk this down as the cause for automobile accidents–a particular accident or in general–would be silly. Yet, many people thinking they are offering a “profound” explanations for world events do exactly that.
    Whatever is “really” going on in Iran, it’s probably best to wait and see the details.

  16. curious says:

    “If this is in fact that case then the focus should really be on what has changed between 2005 and 2009?”
    Two things stand out in 2009.
    1) the first fully televised election in Iran. (debate, reporting, and tally count) It causes massive spike of interest.
    2. Iran hit the “rapid growth” of internet use in 2008 as measured by wikipedia activity.
    Tho’ this isn’t precise indicator, wikipedia is a good proxy of overall sophistication within a language.
    Ranking comparison to other languages. Persian users are in 10K category (rank 35 biggest wiki). Persian wiki users are painfully shy group and very meticulous linker (unusual for wiki its size). Their wiki come in relatively late for its language size, but climbing at good clip.
    I can’t read persian, so I don’t know how deep overall group analytical capability, interest and completeness. But glancing at their 2009 election protest entry, clearly they have great interest in current event politics, en par with 100K class wiki. Looking around at links on various internet messaging entries, clearly 2008-2009 is the time that persian users find each others and start chatting. This usually correlate to exponential expansion in world view.
    It could be that 2009 election is simply a trigger event that release the pent up demand for concrete political change by way of internet (similar to 2005-2006 in US) . Had it not for 2009 election, probably some other event. Had 2009 election happened in 2011-2012, Persian language users probably would have been much more resistance to echo chamber effect, has deeper information source and different net habit. Twitter/facebook/email combo wouldn’t play such pivotal role.
    Interestingly it could be argued that 2009 also marks the first time regime change operation fails due to global communication.

  17. Fred says:

    Very interesting post. I wonder if Dr. Silverman takes into account Iranian casualties in the Iran-Iraq war? Also, I believe the current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ali Khamenei, was President of Iran during that time. I believe his take on war is certainly different than that of the right wing couch commandoes and neo-cons who are beating the war drums, which, unfortunately, includes Senator McCain and too many other elected officials who should be able to reach better decisions with the information they have access too.
    WRC, here’s a few: Francis Marion, (quite different from Francis Wilkinson Pickens , also of South Carolina),Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Pendleton Murrah (Texas). Of course Francis Marion was successful, the others not – though America’s ‘most hollowed ground’, Arlington National Cemetery, is the former home of the one man who came closest to helping the Confederacy succeed in splitting the Union, Robert E. Lee.

  18. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    What is different in 2009 than in 2005? Interesting question.
    I read only ‘tea leaves’ so have only idiosyncratic bits to cull together, but I’d start with:
    1. Demographics. If it is true that almost half of Iran’s population is under the age of 30, that’s a lot of people wanting careers, independence, and their own living spaces. They would have been in their teens or very early 20s in 2005, and would have no memory of the 1979 revolution.
    2. Of that 50% of the under-30 population, I’d want to know the literacy rates, and I’d want to compare them with 2005, and also with 2000, and with 1990, and with 1980. Why? People who read a lot ‘think different’ from those who don’t. (For more on how and why, I recommend “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”. Reading changes the brain in very specific ways, and these are related to the types of information that people seek, synthesize, and acquire.
    3. If it is true that 2/3 of the students in universities are female, then this is also the first time that young women have had any reason to believe that anyone actually understood issues that are important to them. (I simplify to make my point; Mr. Ahmadinijad may have a PhD in Traffic Engr., but I have seen no evidence that he communicates effectively to young, well educated professional women who need to help support their families.) Zahra R. (Mousavi’s wife) appears to be the first appearance in the modern period of anyone that might offer females some hope that their hopes for better lives might be integrated into government policies. (This extends beyond feminism to fathers, husbands, and sons.) It is also noteworthy that young women have for the first time seen in Mr. Mousavi a man who treats his wife with what appears to be genuine respect and affection; this has obviously had a rather ‘revolutionary’ effect on their view of what is possible.
    4. It appears from news reports that $1bn may be missing from the Iranian coffers, and that inflation is at a level that many ‘normal’ people of all social backgrounds and employment sectors would feel. I don’t believe inflation was raging in 2005.
    5. It appears that Mr Ahmadinijad — if English language reports are to be believed — has conducted the election in a fashion that made many Iranians feel ashamed, in the sense that he insulted Mousavi’s wife. Again, this would not move the majority of people to actually vote, but it may move 15%, and that is the core of activity that then expands to others in the population.
    6. I almost cringe to type it, but I have wondered whether the images and news of the Nov. 2008 election in America, where voters like myself (who’d refused to vote in several previous elections, out of sheer despair and disgust) finally believed that there was someone who — while not perfect — was worth voting for; did the vision of America’s deep desire for ‘change’ inspire Iranian youth? I’d love to get a good answer someday.
    7. The rise of blogging culture; look at the very high proportion of blogs in Iran, and as someone earlier pointed out, the phenomenal Wikipedia stats. Blogging requires the ability to read AND also to w-r-i-t-e. That experience of self expression seems to be altering people’s self-image, which in turn appears to be producing other shifts in attitudes and skills (although I’m still ferreting this out, and can’t point to any reliable data on this point).
    8. To return to my earlier point about reading, but to make a second emphasis: there is ‘reading’, and then there is ‘reading. If you look at the statistics of Iranian web searches (shown on Google’s public policy blog some days ago) you will see clusters of search topics: poetry (presumably Persian), religion, and other topics. You can click over to the Harvard division that assembled the stats and drill down to see how the clusters overlap — or don’t. Reading poetry takes a lot of linguistic ability; this is deeply emotionally engaging content, and suggests that the topics have tremendous meaning for the readers. In other words, people have been deeply engaged — emotionally engaged — and that suggests they’re not going to twiddle their thumbs, sit back, and yawn about how terrible their lives are — they’re in their 20s, and probably not willing to stomach a hopeless future — which means, they want change NOW.
    9. Social media.
    10. A ‘leader’ or ‘focus’ of their desires who is asking them to act honorably; Mousavi has repeatedly emphasized non-violence, while also encouraging participation.
    I don’t know how many of my hunches are accurate, but personally I wouldn’t care to be among the hardliners.
    What has also been eye-opening has been to observe the near-panic among US neocons who seem afraid their big, bad demon in Iran will be somehow shown to be a kid wearing a green t-shirt and holding up his hands in ‘V’ during some silent march.
    Rather than fuss and fizzle about whether the Iranian election was stolen, or which political party is ascendent, surely they’d be smarter to pay a bit more attention to the fundamental economic, demographic, and media statistics.

  19. Fred! Intersting comment and thanks. Personally I have always believed Lincoln more of a revolutionary than DAVIS!
    Lincoln did have a secret police force–i.e. Pinkerton and despite what many think suspended Habeous Corpus throughout the northern states during the war, not just in Baltimore and Maryland early on. And that suspension is Constitutionaly based despite what some may believe. Just finished an interesting book on relationships between Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney.

  20. curious says:

    More data.
    This could be the one most telling. starting around 2001, Iran actually experience GDP growth, increasingly faster up until now. (people has more money? and demand better condition? Can afford better communication devices and service? etc. That could explain the demographic of mausavvi supporter.)

    on internet, communication channel, street protesting.
    In term of big picture, this type of revolution clearly will happen one way or another. The time has come.
    “If this is the case, then it may not matter who the leadership of the movement is or what societal element it comes from. Once the tipping point has been crossed the attempt to force an opening for change will self reinforce and continue until or unless it is stopped.”
    Leadership matter in a revolution. A leader is the focal point of a revolution. otherwise the mass will quickly dissipate into undirected chaos after trigger event. Few things can only be done by actual person: Who to talk to, symbolism, provide general narrative, the person who say “go”.
    right now mausavvi direct challenge would be how to sustain the crowd, specially if the “my election was stolen” reasoning collapse. International media will move on in 2-3 days.
    After that mousavvi really has to go on with his supporter and his people on the ground. Communication channel, reality of daily life and logistic, public weariness, and fracture of internet channel will start to take a bite.
    The government, and everybody who want to use his movement will start degrading the effectiveness of his communication channels. Creating “mental map” of communication channel for huge crowd is very difficult. An average person can only learn new communication trick so fast. with that, the revolution will turn into “local event” and fizzle away.
    He probably has to do something drastic. Summer will not last forever, public interest certainly doesn’t last that long. The classic move is to take over a “national landmark with historical value. (legislative building, public square, mouseleum, etc) and camp there. And turn the whole thing into battle of will between few thousand people (easily managed) with huge TV/international media exposure. (tianamen square, lincoln memorial, Wenceslas Monument, etc)
    This is assuming there is no major violence.

  21. Emma says:

    Col. Lang,
    Thank you for the clarification. As I am an admirer and a loyal reader, I was surprised by your position, which apparently I misunderstod. I agree that the process of manufacturing charges against Iran is quite successful and likely inexorable, as the very point is to create no way out for the Iranians — just as there was no way for Saddam to satisfy the Americans with their similarly trumped-up charges of WMD. The process is meant to lead to war, unless Obama decides otherwise, which in your view, he is unable to do. I respectfully disagree. I think he can and should drop the whole wasteful and distracting and likely murderous charade, fold up all the tents, and focus on the real and truly devastating issues we have here at home, some of which we share with the rest of the world. I do not think that the burden is on the Iranians to be more “responsive.”

  22. Fred says:

    WRC, which book?(My reading list keeps growing – good for me I just cancelled my cable!)I think Lincoln grew into the role. Amongst many things to admire I’ve alwayst liked the twist he put on England’s tail over the Trent Affair. As to the suspension of Habeous Corpus being constitutional,is the detail in the book?

  23. LeaNder says:

    curious, I am starting to get curious were you come from: locally, politically, mentally, and last but not least educationally. You mentioned the graduates of elite universities as future leaders compared to the B and C school rabble-rouser.
    Your mails are filled with images of the leader versus the mass. What do you think defines a leader, what abilities does he need? Is a political leader connected with the desire of the masses whom he represents, or would you say they ultimately do not matter, they can and should be controlled?
    Asking the leader: Could you give us your short-in-a-nutshell-view that condenses your view on what is happening now in Iran and what needs to be done, ideally with not more than two sentences?
    Finally the events seem to arouse you enormously, if you didn’t touch on that in connection with my initial questions, what exactly triggers this state of exitement?

  24. Artvilm says:

    It is unlikely the current events in Iran will “grow” to the revolution.First of Iran passed that “historical momentum”.Second, all state institutions in Iran are fully functional.For the revolution to occur first and may be the most important attribute is that the state (government,governing establishment)is degrading.With another word that is “the government is unable anymore and the masses are not willing anymore…” doesn’t persist in Iran today.

  25. curious says:

    the events seem to arouse you enormously,
    Posted by: LeaNder | 18 June 2009 at 09:59 AM
    amateurish rage/excitement (I can’t believe things like this is happening again. This is obvious, stupid and doesn’t work. A lot of people will die needlessly. been there done that.)
    “in-a-nutshell-view that condenses your view on what is happening now in Iran and what needs to be done”
    Somebody is screwing your country and everybody is only partially correct. Pull together, fix the mess, stop pitting your people against one another, and get back to growth/reform.
    gotta figure out the rest yourself. I feel like doing somebody’s homework or something.

  26. LeaNder says:

    Thanks for your answer curious.
    happening again Again? Why again?
    been there done that Feeding the rage as a leader? Or following leaders?
    What would be your future scenario concerning the conflict between Iran and the US? What would be the best solution and what will probably happen.

  27. LeaNder says:

    This is obvious, stupid and doesn’t work.
    You mean American covert interference and funding? No other e.g. purely Iranian interests? Or a combination of both?
    So you think that all allegations about a rigged election are faked. Everything was fine?
    What do you think about Ahmadinejad?
    Did you hear or read his UN speech?

  28. amberglow says:

    great post — thanks!
    i think one big difference — and something that Mousavi openly attacked as the “charity economy” — is that even tho Khatami was slightly less harsh rights-wise, he still ensured that government worked for and primarily enriched the rich.
    I can no longer count the editorials and articles by Iranians in our media that all call the current govt’s social spending “reckless” and “irresponsible”, and that all say the economy is horrible. Iran’s economy is growing and has been doing so for years. The difference is that it’s not going to the already-wealthy (and corrupt too), as it did under all previous leaders — incl the Shah.
    I see it as very similar to the anti-Chavez and anti-Morales protestors and groups — and also a little similar to how our own DC Village treated Clinton (“it’s not his place” and he’s “not one of us”). Class, money, power, influence, who counts and who doesn’t, etc.
    And i don’t believe that most Mousavi voters truly see their system or overall form of govt as “intolerable” — most of them stayed home in 05 rather than participate in this sham, and they’re all obediently following Mousavi’s lead (and he’s no reformer in any sense of the word).

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