Posted by: hobbesonafob | June 4, 2009

Social Control and Insurgents

“Today, for those of us in the West, the state has been part of our natural landscape. Its presence, its authority, its place behind so many rules that fashion the minutiae of our lives, have all been so pervasive that it is difficult for us to imagine the situation being otherwise” (1).

– Joel S. Migdal, 1988

I think Migdal’s quote here contributes to the further idea that the state is a rarity. Following on the idea that the state is diaphanous, and can be usurped/destroyed/replaced by other social groups (particularly coercive and contentious non-state actors – CCNAs), I think that how CCNAs replace states should be examined. 

When states are unable or unwilling to honour their contracts, CCNAs are given a window of opportunity to capitalize on. Recruitment, tacit support from the population, empathy from the international community, and other advantages present themselves for CCNAs when social contracts between the state and its population are annulled. Perhaps, life in a given territory has become so bad that a Hobbesian state of nature/war exists in the state itself and the contract that is offered by a CCNA creates a new political entity. Robert D. Kaplan writes that, “a large number of people on this planet, to whom the comfort and stability of a middle-class life is utterly unknown, find war and a barracks existence a step up rather than a step down” (2). That is not to assert that motives for joining a CCNA are based purely on materialistic means; instead, it means that if individuals can align themselves with the state, they can also align themselves with a CCNA.

Nor should one assume that CCNAs only operate in developing countries. For example, western Canada is home to the highest per capita of organized crime syndicates in the entire world. Some CNAs and CCNAs have been empowered by the province’s marijuana trafficking operations; it has become a growing business since former president George W. Bush’s stance on the softwood lumber dispute. Despite the violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, the American lumber industry profits from the 27 percent tax on Canadian softwood sales into the United States. Misha Gleny describes how former loggers, now out of work, were able to use their transferable skills in marijuana grow operations in British Columbia’s interior:

Many of those who once worked in the traditional industries have moved into marijuana. The trade in weed has attracted large numbers of highly skilled workers who, as I discovered on a trip into the BC interior, have been quick to redeploy their skills into producing vast quantities of marijuana…The men look, smell and move like loggers, their senses finely attuned to the outback. As well as scanning for the telltale signs of grizzlies, they keep their ears open for the distant twittering of helicopter rotors — ‘Could be game wardens, could be RCMP, could be DEA,’ he mutters. They talk like loggers, too, which is almost never (3).

It should be noted that not all of those involved in marijuana grow operations in B.C. are involved with CCNAs. However, there are many CCNAs that are able to entice populations into breaking the law and use coercion. In these situations the individual is acting in the interest of the CCNA. The ability for a CCNA to provide new social contracts to a population and the consequences for the state is better understood when one studies how CCNAs are able to exercise social control.

The idea of individuals participating in CCNAs instead of the state have been commented on by various observers. John Robb has situated the association individuals feel for CCNAs as a type of loyalty:

A primary loyalty is a connection to a non-state group that is greater than loyalty to a state. These loyalties include those to clan, religion, tribe, neighborhood gang, etc.  These loyalties are reciprocated through the delivery of political goods…by the group that the state cannot or will not deliver (see here) (4).

As important as these “primary loyalties” are to a CCNA, they become even more beneficial for CCNAs when individuals act on the CCNAs’ behalf — what Migdal calls “social control.” The importance of being able to mobilize a population is shown in Migdal’s description of social control: “Social control is the currency over which organizations in an environment of conflict battle one another.” For him, social control is divided into three levels:

COMPLIANCE: “conformance to its demands by the population. Compliance often first comes with the use of the most basic of sanctions, force.”

PARTICIPATION: “to gain strength by organizing the population for specialized tasks in the institutional components of the state organizations.”

LEGITIMATION: the “acceptance, even approbation, of the state’s rules of the game, its social control, as true and right” (5).

The ability for a CCNA to exercise social control provides an incredible resource from which to draw. Social, mental, and even emotional capital can be drawn from those who change their primary loyalty from the state to a CCNA and begin to comply, participate, and accept the CCNA as a legitimate party.

 Works Cited

1. Joel S. Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), 15.

2. Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy (New York: Random House, 2000), 44.

3. Misha Gleny, McMafia, (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), 248-249.

4. John Robb, “Primary Loyalties,” January 5, 2005.

5. Migdal, 32-33.




  1. […] regions where nation-building is occurring in a conflict zone, the importance of Migdal’s notion that social control is a form of “currency” that organizations compete against one another for is prominent. […]

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