Beyond the Repression-Dissent Nexus: Putting Violence in Its Place

By Dana M. Moss

Studies of mobilization have long been preoccupied with understanding the effects of repression on protest. However, as Mark Lichbach remarks, the search for models—whether linear, U-shaped, S-shaped, or otherwise—leaves scholars “forever correlating the total aggregate level of one output (government repression) with the total aggregate level of the other output (opposition activity)” (1987: 288). Furthermore, conceptual and analytical inconsistencies persist; aggregated event counts and indicators denoting low, moderate, and high levels of repression vary based on what type of crackdowns “count” as severe and have been accounted for in the media or NGO reports (Davenport 2007).

Because the question “does repression increase or decrease protest?” has dominated the research agenda, I suggest that we revisit our orienting questions. For example, what kinds of repression do activists perceive as severe? Which governmental agents, entities, and affiliates do the repressing, and what does this mean for the short-term outcomes of movement-government standoffs? Which social movements are most at risk for violent repression?  And how does the character of a regime shape its propensity for violence?  In an effort to expand our conceptualization of the repression-dissent nexus in potentially fruitful and specific ways, I outline several suggestions below.

First, I propose that we refrain from singling out violence as the only or most important form of state repression. Our preoccupation with the human costs of state action is understandable, but violence does not occur independent of broader repertoires used to silence, undermine, and prevent opposition (Tilly 2006). Consider the litany of abuses suffered by an activist I interviewed in ‘Amman: “I was imprisoned seventeen times. Twice they tortured me. I was dismissed from my job and cannot obtain work. They have slandered me officially, accusing me of working against state unity. I have been forbidden to write in the newspapers, and they listen to my phone calls.” Experiential accounts describing a range of repressive tactics are common, and are not adequately represented by body counts or Freedom House scores. As I show in a forthcoming article in Mobilization, violence by the Jordanian regime—conceptualized as bodily harm or physical confinement—was just one of the six forms that activists perceived as warranting an escalation in protest. By placing violence within a broader repertoire of state repression, we can better understand the multiple types of repression that are likely to create backlash. After all, any state action can mobilize social movements when activists and bystanders perceive this action to be unjust relative to expectations about how authorities should act (Almeida 2003; Loveman 1998).

Second, we should disaggregate who represses. As Hank Johnston writes in his compelling featured essay, “the state” or “the regime” is comprised of multiple (and often competing) institutions with varying degrees of authority, repressive capacity, and normative relations with activists. We must therefore consider which institutions and elites instigate violence in order to understand how activists and other powerholders respond. As exemplified by events such as the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, whose side the military comes down on during government-protester standoffs largely determines whether or not activists win or lose, at least in the short term.

Of course, it is sometimes difficult to discern who did what and ultimately, who is responsible, which leads me to my next point: governments also repress indirectly by using third parties. My interviewees in Jordan frequently highlighted the government’s use of violent repression through the incitement of what they called “thug groups.” These forces may include police or other security personnel who shed their uniforms and hide behind the relative anonymity of street clothes to intimidate or assault protesters. Such agent provocateurs were used to assault peaceful occupiers in the infamous “camel attack” on Tahrir Square and during the Jumʻat al-Karamah massacre in San’a, Yemen, on March 18, 2011. (This dynamic is depicted in the must-see Oscar-nominated short documentary, Karamah Has No Walls.)

These “thug” attacks may also include civilians who have been incited or allowed by authorities to repress activists, such as the gangs of young white men who beat peaceful civil rights activists at the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville and during the Freedom Rides. Because governments—including authoritarian ones—are typically concerned with maintaining at least some veneer of legitimacy, anonymous attacks by these third-party groups allow regime elites to 1) refute responsibility for such attacks, and 2) accuse peaceful protesters of inciting chaos. As authoritarian regimes seek a means to instigate repressive crackdowns—and then justify further violence as a means to restore law and order—such regimes are increasingly likely to rely on third-party thug violence. Analyses of state repression should attend to these “gray zones” (Auyero 2007).

Third, I suggest that we examine which groups are more likely to be violently repressed among the fuller range of state challengers. This perspective acknowledges that even in illiberal states, regimes repress some movements more harshly than others (see Cunningham 2004 and Davenport 2005 for examples in the U.S.). I find in my study on repression in Jordan that government officials and Intelligence agents are hesitant to repress activists with ties to international human rights organizations for fear of being “named and shamed” (Hafner-Burton and Tsutsui 2007). Of course, activists with ties to international NGOs are not universally protected. As I discuss below, variation may be explained, at least in part, by regime type.

On the other hand, regimes are far more likely to violently repress certain populations who are popularly understood and slandered by regimes as enemies of the state, outside agitators, and/or extremists. These labels are strategically deployed against movements defined in part by their religious and/or ethnic affiliations in order to justify tactics ranging from legal persecution to violent massacres. For example, the recent murders of Mohamed Morsi supporters and the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization have been foreshadowed by broader pre-Arab Spring conflicts, including the decades-old suppression of Islamists and the ongoing War on Terror. And while illiberal regimes use at least some violent repression everywhere, they are more likely to level a disproportionate degree of violence against ethnic “others” (Mann 2005), as with Russian state repression in Chechnya and Chinese state repression in Tibet. How violent repression is applied differently across groups by the same regime is an important dynamic warranting further study.

Fourth, we need to characterize regimes beyond their ideal types. For though the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere exemplify cases of authoritarian regimes using violent repression against protesters, lumping these states together neglects crucial differences in how governments respond to dissent. As I argued in an earlier post, “the philosophy of Cold War-style authoritarian regimes like those of Gaddafi and Assad is to retain power at all costs.” But more commonly, authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states do not fit the ideal-type conceptualization of trigger-happy totalitarianism. As recent observations and interview-based studies of protest in China by Su and He (2010), Chen (2012), and Lee and Zhang (2013) demonstrate, officials have become highly averse to exacerbating street-level disruptions in the post-Tiananmen Square period. This often compels regime officials to bargain with protesters for the sake of keeping their jobs, which are contingent on their ability to restore peace on the streets once grievances surface. In light of these protester-state relations in what I call “liberalized” authoritarian states, analyses of the repression-dissent nexus should attend to important variations in state propensities for violence.

In sum, I suggest that future studies unpack the repressive repertoire and specify who represses, who gets repressed, and by what kind of regime. In this way, we can work toward a more grounded understanding of what repression is and what it means for activists, more appropriately-matched case comparisons, and more robust explanations about the consequence of repression for mobilization.


Works Cited

Auyero, Javier. 2007. Routine Politics and Violence in Argentina: The Gray Zone of State Power. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Almeida, Paul D. 2003. “Opportunity Organizations and Threat-Induced Contention: Protest Waves in Authoritarian Settings.” American Journal of Sociology 109(2): 345-400.

Chen, Xi. 2012. Social Protest and Contentious Authoritarianism in China. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cunningham, David. 2004. There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Davenport, Christian . 2005. “Understanding Covert Repressive Action: The Case of the U.S. Government against the Republic of New Africa.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 49(1): 120-40.

Davenport, Christian. 2007. “State Repression and Political Order.” Annual Review of Political Science 10: 1-23.

Hafner-Burton, Emilie and Kiyoteru Tsutsui. 2007. “Justice Lost! The Failure of International Human Rights Law to Matter Where Needed Most.” Journal of Peace Research 44(4): 407-25.

Johnston, Hank. 2006. “ ‘Let’s Get Small’: The Dynamics of (Small) Contention in Repressive States.” Mobilization: An International Journal 11(2): 195-212.

Lee, Ching Kwan and Yonghong Zhang. 2013. “The Power of Instability: Unraveling the Microfoundations of Bargained Authoritarianism in China.” American Journal of Sociology 118(6): 1475-1508.

Loveman, Mara.1998. “High-Risk Collective Action: Defending Human Rights in Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina.” American Journal of Sociology 104(2): 477-525.

Lichbach, Mark Irving. 1987. “Deterrence or Escalation?: The Puzzle of Aggregate Studies of Repression and Dissent.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 31(2): 266-97.

Mann, Michael. 2005. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moss, Dana M. 2014. “Repression, Response, and Contained Escalation under ‘Liberalized’ Authoritarianism in Jordan.” Mobilization: An International Journal, forthcoming.

Su, Yang and Xin He. 2010. “Street as Courtroom: State Accommodation of Labor Protest in South China.” Law & Society Review 44(1): 157-84.

Tilly, Charles. 2006. Regimes and Repertoires. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Violent State Repression

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