Atrocities and Legitimacy

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

We like to believe that any government that uses force against its own citizens is so marred by the atrocity that it loses all legitimacy, Randall Collins says:

Yet the 1990s and the early 2000s were a time of increasing Chinese prestige. The market version of communist political control became a great economic success; international economic ties expanded and exacted no penalty for the deaths in June 1989; domestically Chinese poured their energies into economic opportunities. Protest movements revived within a decade, but the regime has been quick to clamp down on them. Even the new means of mobilization through the internet has proven to be vulnerable to a resolute authoritarian apparatus, which monitors activists to head off any possible Tiananmen-style assemblies before they start.

The failure of the Chinese democracy movement, both in 1989 and since, tells another sociological lesson. An authoritarian regime that is aware of the tipping point mechanism need not give in to it; it can keep momentum on its own side by making sure no bandwagon gets going among the opposition. Such a regime can be accused of moral violations and even atrocities, but moral condemnation without a successful mobilization is ineffective. It is when one’s movement is growing, seemingly expanding its collective consciousness to include virtually everyone and emotionally overwhelm their opponents, that righteous horror over atrocities is so arousing. Without this, protests remain sporadic, localized and ephemeral at best. The modest emotional energy of the protest movement is no rushing tide; and as this goes on for years, the emotional mood surrounding such a regime remains stable — the most important quality of “legitimacy”.

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