Preference Cascades

Apropos of Jonathan's post below on punctuated equilibrium and political change, Instapundit links back to an article he wrote about 'preference cascades', the mechanism by which totalitarian governments fall when there is a catastrophic failure of legitimacy:

This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly. (Click here for a more complex analysis of this and related issues). Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don't realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it - but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.

This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers - or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they're also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference.

One interesting question is whether a lot of the hardline Arab states are like this. Places like Iraq, Syria, or Saudi Arabia spend a lot of time telling their citizens that everyone feels a particular way, and punishing those who dare to differ, which has the effect of encouraging people to falsify their preferences. But who knows? Given the right trigger, those brittle authoritarian regimes might collapse overnight, with most of the population swearing - with all apparent sincerity - that it had never supported them, or their anti-Western policies, at all.

(whole quote shamelessly lifted from Insty quoting himself)

Witnessing the overnight & groundswelling nature of the pro-liberty movements in Georgia and Ukraine, and now in Lebanon, this appears to be the case in rigid societies that have a catalyst of sorts for revealing the broad anti-status-quo consensus.

I wonder how long such a stealth consensus takes to develop, and what critical mass is needed to spark a widespread 'change of state' (no pun intended) amongst this consensus?

What it does suggest, though, that in such societies there is the "power of small numbers", in that if you get a sufficiently dedicated and determined band of individuals, social change can be initiated via cascade vs. slow conversion. And if the principle is generalizable to all societies, it is an encouraging thought indeed.

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I wonder how long such a

I wonder how long such a stealth consensus takes to develop, and what critical mass is needed

I wonder what metrics there are to indicate the pressure for change. Maybe the per-capita amount of propaganda generated by a government would indicate how much was being done to over-ride independent personal opinions.

Have any of you ever read

Have any of you ever read Gramsci? He has a lot to say on the subject of a society's acceptance or compliance with dictatorial regimes. :juggle:

Gary, I haven't read


I haven't read Gramsci. Any recommendations?

Brian W. Doss, Well you are

Brian W. Doss,

Well you are likely aware that he was an Italian Marxist. You are also likely aware of the tragic way his life ended at the hands of Mussolini. The ladies also like him because he was a good lookin' intellectual (not a common trait I must say). I'd say that he was a decent fellow who believed in Marxism and was not a monster; indeed, he sent a letter (shortly before his arrest in 1926) to Stalin protesting Stalin's early purges within the Bolshevik party that if it had not been intercepted by a friend would have lead to his assasination in all probability. I suppose you can call him a useful fool, but in the political atmosphere of Italy at the time I think it would have been hard for him to chart a way between fascism and marxism.

I'm not (obviously) advocating his version of Marxism (which is somewhat unique and interesting to learn about from an academic perspective), but I do think he has some important stuff to say about how a state can get and keep legitimacy.

Anyway, while Gramsci was a voluminous writer before he was arrested in 1926 (largely in newspaper articles and the like), but he's best known for his "Prison Notebooks" (he was in prison from the day of his entry in 1926 until shortly before he died in 1937). The basic takeaway message from his writing for me is his thoughts on what he termed "cutlural hegemony."

Gramsci argued (as a means to explain the success of capitalism) that capitalist societies were more held in place by more than what your doctrinaire Marxist would argue: violence, etc. He argued that part of the mix was a "hegemonic culture" which created a "consensus" that the entire population could understand and accept (it was their acccpetance that was key - no nation existed without some level of consent from his perspective).

Now obviously I don't agree with his characertization of capitalist societies, but I think he is saying something that can be applied to any society where you have an authoritarian regime, dictatorship, etc. In such a regime people, or a large portion of them, have been co-opted into the designed "hegemonic culture," and in that way they can be controlled. I think you can clearly see that in the example of the cult surrounding "Dear Leader" in North Korea. Kind of ironic using a Marxist thinker against a Communist regime. :)

How does that sound so far?

Anyway, there are some good readers on Gramsci's work if you are interested. He scribbled in over 30 notebooks while he was in prison, and I have no idea if that entire collection has ever been translated into English.

Sounds like a "Tipping

Sounds like a "Tipping Point" phenomenon, if true.

On that 'change of state'

On that 'change of state' you mentioned...

I wonder if/when enough of the hamsters will wake up
and decide to just leave that cage behind.

Such a waste, jumping into a new cage, ain't it.