October 4, 2018 Reading Time: 7 minutes

A recurring and tragic phenomenon is the collapse of civil order in once harmonious multi-ethnic or multi-cultural societies. There are several popular explanations for this, but none of these work on closer examination. A few moments thought shows that they are simply wrong.

However, there is a way of thinking about these events, derived from economics, that does explain them. It leads to some very interesting conclusions and further thoughts. In particular it explains how and why recent years have seen a collapse of civil debate in many western democracies – the process and dynamics in the two cases are very similar.

Historically multicultural and multi-ethnic polities are very common. The relatively homogeneous state with most of its population coming from a single ethnic, linguistic, or religious group is actually a predominantly modern phenomenon. In history, we can see many examples of different groups of these kinds living peacefully and in geographical terms mixed up together.

In these situations there will be trade and affable personal relations between people from the different groups, they may keep to themselves socially and culturally yet still mix in public places and on certain occasions. Sometimes there is extensive social mixing and close contact, even extensive intermarriage.

This can go on for a very long time, for decades or even sometimes hundreds of years. However there is another recurring phenomenon, the collapse of such social and political orders into often savage and bloody conflict. Typically this happens suddenly and abruptly, often without much warning.

One example of this was the way that Yugoslavia unraveled in the aftermath of Tito’s death and its slide into brutal war, most notably in Bosnia. Another was the breakdown of the constitutional settlement in Lebanon in 1975 and the eruption of a multi-sided civil war that would last until 1990. One of the largest in scale was the partition of India in 1947 where violence began in Bengal in 1946 but suddenly exploded in August of 1947, leading to the death of around a million people and the displacement of up to sixteen million.

Ancestral Hatred

When such events happen there are two popular explanations. One is that of ancestral hatreds. In this account, the populations that are living together have always resented and hated each other, and have harbored grudges cultivated and remembered for decades or centuries. Eventually these break out in the shape of mutual slaughter. Explanations of this kind typically point to earlier episodes of communal conflict in support of the claim of a persistent and tension.

The more sophisticated argument is that a regime with distinct and self-aware groups (ethnic, linguistic, cultural or religious) living together under a common government in the same territory is always unstable and can collapse at any moment. Sooner or later, goes the argument, this will happen.

Both of these explanations have problems. The first one, which was popular as an explanation of the outbreak of war in former Yugoslavia, has to discount and ignore all of the evidence of peaceful and amicable relations between the different groups before the collapse into violent conflict. It is hard to make a case that people are doing business and interacting socially with other people for years while secretly always hating them and wanting to kill them.

If there is great hostility and historical enmity between groups you would not expect widespread intermarriage (as happened in Bosnia for example). You don’t typically marry someone you hate. That comes afterwards. The problem with the second argument is that mixed (multi-ethnic or multi-confessional) societies can hold together for a very long time and this has to be given explanatory weight. If all mixed societies are inherently unstable then why are they historically so common and why do many keep going for hundreds of years in peace and rising prosperity?

False Inevitability

Both of these explanations show the same errors of historical method. The first error is that of post facto inevitability. Something happens and a historical narrative is constructed that shows that what did happen had to happen, it was the inevitable outcome. In this case, previous instances of group conflict or of individual hate crime are seized upon and emphasized as evidence for the continuing hostility between groups or the inherent instability of political orders based on a mixed population.

The past events, typically more numerous (the norm in fact), that show the opposite are ignored. The narrative makes everything that happened before part of a long story that leads up to the predestined denouement. The role of contingency and circumstance is ignored. The other flaw is that in both of these accounts it is groups that are the actors rather than individuals. Groups of all kinds are seen as homogeneous, with uniform attitudes and behavior.

There is still something that needs explaining. How and why does a stable social and political order sometimes suddenly collapse into mutual violence and atrocity? Simply saying this is just chance is also not adequate because it does not explain the mechanism or process involved.

The answer is found in the work of the economist Thomas Schelling, in particular “Micromotives and Macrobehaviour.” In that work, Schelling showed how actions taken by individuals in response to the incentives they faced could lead to sudden tipping point effects (a sharp shift from one macro state to another), even in cases where the motives and incentives of the individuals concerned were weak. This explanation focuses on two things: individual actors (rather than groups) and the system of rules and institutions within which they act.

How does this kind of explanation work? Take a society made up of several distinct and self-aware groups, geographically intermingled and interacting socially and economically as well as politically. The groups of people will contain many individuals with the full range of characters and attitudes.

All groups will have within them some people whom we may describe as bigoted idiots. I am sure that we are all familiar with people of this kind, hostile to people different to themselves and ready and eager to employ violence against them. Normally, these people are checked: there are mechanisms that control them and prevent them from following their instincts and inclinations. In particular, the legal system imposes severe and exemplary penalties against them if they should do this. This leaves the rest of the populations who range from feeling mild dislike to positively friendly sentiments towards individuals from other groups to do what they want.

Sometimes however, for various reasons, this breaks down. The most important thing is when the overarching authority stops punishing bigoted idiots who commit violent acts. (The punishment does not have to be severe, the main point is that it is certain).  At this point, things rapidly go to hell in a handcart. The bigoted idiots on all sides act according to their inclinations and commit various atrocities. The sensible, moderate majority find it hard to cooperate together because they are numerous, dispersed, and varied, and face very high coordination costs.

By contrast, the smaller numbers of bigoted idiots know each other and find it much easier and less costly to cooperate. Very quickly it happens that all of the moderate majority find that the only people who will and can protect them from the bigoted idiots on the other side are the bigoted idiots on their own side. What they cannot do is remain neutral – they have to decide which of the two bigoted sides they will adhere to.

That is a tipping point. Very quickly the society polarises between extremes, each dominated by the small but organized and motivated minority of bigoted idiots. One of the tactics the latter employ is to force moderate people to prove their identity by committing atrocities against their former friends and neighbors. The result is a sudden collapse of peaceful relations and large-scale slaughter and mayhem. The outcome depends upon who has the most guns at their disposal.

Legal Vacuum

This is a grim story, often repeated. One lesson is that you do not want the kind of sudden vacuum of legal order that happened when, for example, the British announced that they were soon going to leave India and would not maintain the public peace. Even worse is when the public authority takes sides and actively supports one lot of bigoted idiots, as happened in Yugoslavia. Once this kind of collapse has happened it is very difficult to put things back together and get back to the status quo ante. This leaves something like partition and population transfer as the only realistic solution, which for all sorts of reasons is often a tragedy.

This model also helps us to understand other things, which show the same pattern and dynamic. One of them is the collapse of civilized political discourse that we can observe in many contemporary developed democracies. Normally political conversation and discussion, however passionate, is governed by various rules. Certain kinds of speech, such as personal abuse or threats, are simply out of bounds. This can be enforced legally but is usually enforced by informal social mechanisms such as shunning or boycotting. Vociferous bigoted idiots are ignored or thrown out of fora and discussions. They may be heard but they are typically ignored or dismissed.

Recently this social ecology has broken down and a tipping point effect similar to the one described earlier has taken hold. Social media means that because of the anonymity enjoyed by participants the system of informal sanctions no longer works. Bigoted or mischievous idiots (trolls as they are known) now have free rein. People who put forward moderate or nuanced views find that they are attacked and denigrated by vitriolic idiots from one of the extreme positions.

The only people who will support you in that situation are a different group of vitriolic idiots. This leads to a conversational polarisation, similar to the kind of physical polarisation that happens in mixed societies that experience this dynamic. Suddenly there are only two (or three at most) acceptable positions and the two extreme groups informally (and often unintentionally) cooperate to enforce this polarisation on an ‘either you are with us totally or you are 100% against us like the scum over there” basis.

The most alarming aspect of this is that formerly moderate or nuanced individuals come to identify with an extreme position and believe it, in the same way that the dynamics of this collapse into conflict leads people to kill people who had once been their friends and neighbors. They react against the extremism and bigotry of one position by aligning with the bigotry of a rival one.

The Breakdown

What should we learn from this analysis? The first thing is that a stable and successful order can break down very swiftly and suddenly. The second is that the crucial thing is the overall institutional environment. If this no longer penalizes bigoted idiots (or trolls) then a very destructive dynamic can arise. Because this leads to a tipping point effect you can rapidly move from a stable and peaceful condition to one of conflict, with only a small minority actually wanting that outcome.

The main lesson otherwise is this. The great majority must hold fast to a humane position, in personal relations or speech, and organizing among themselves, to counteract the rise of politicized bigotry in all its forms. This is not easy but the cost of not doing it can be very high.

Stephen Davies


Dr Steve Davies, a Senior Fellow at AIER,  is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).

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