Civil wars are, I think I can safely say, generally not very nice. This post will not be directed at the central question of how to stop them happening. Rather, it will be directed at a related question: how to make them less confusing.
One of the reasons why civil wars can be confusing is that so often it is either hard or impossible to identify one side as ‘legitimate’ and the other as ‘illegitimate’. The government claims that the rebels are unelected usurpers, trying to bring down the people’s representatives! The rebels claim that the government are corrupt and have forfeited the people’s trust! The rebels moreover claim that the government is oppressing Ethnic Minority X! The government claims that if the rebels take control over X-land, then the majority citizens there will become a minority and will be hideously oppressed! It’s all rather baffling sometimes.
Obviously not all bafflement can be removed from life, but I believe there is a structural factor which makes extreme bafflement almost inevitable. That factor is the separation of the institutions of legitimacy from the institutions of efficacy.
What I mean by that is fairly simple. The institutions of legitimacy in the modern world are those institutions which make elections happen: voter registers, polling booths, etc. – in short, the machinery of elections.
The institutions of efficacy are those institutions which make everything else happen – those by which the government (and, on a separate issue, the dominant economic class) make decisions and put those decisions into effect. The government, its ministries, the civil service, the army, the police, etc.
In almost all societies nowadays these two sets of institutions are largely distinct. The process of legitimising authority is divorced from the day-to-day doings of authority. So both governments and rebel groups can go ahead with their efficacy, their doing things (like shooting guns and lobbing bombs and other such constructive investments) without any legitimacy, and then claim, fairly enough, that they can’t get any legitimacy, because come on, you can’t stop fighting and run an election during a civil war, can you?
What might help would be a political structure in which the institutions of legitimacy and the institutions of efficacy co-incide: i.e. at least a substantial part of the key decision-making and decision-implementing is done by institutions whose democratic mandate is intrinsic to them. People who have read some of my earlier posts may already have guessed what I’m going to suggest as an example: direct democracy, i.e. rule by a network of popular assemblies and the higher-level assemblies they send delegates to. After all, a popular assembly is about as democratic as you can get.
Think about how this would impact on, say, a secessionist ethnic-complexity type situation. At the highest-level assembly, those delegates who represent regions populated mainly by minority X say ‘we are no longer the same country as the rest of you lot’. If independence is supported by the people of those regions, they go ahead; if it isn’t, then some number of these delegates suddenly get replaced by people who say ‘sorry about that, no idea what that guy was on about’. If some of the people want independence and some don’t, then some of the secessionist delegates remain in place, and a somewhat smaller section of the country seccedes. If half the people want to seccede only on condition that enough other regions are – you get the idea.This happens over a matter of days, rather than the years it would otherwise take.
So let’s suppose some seccessionating happens. The majority government now has unambiguouse evidence that the people of the now-separate region do not recognise its authority or want it to rule them. There’s really nothing to differentiate any attempt to quash the seccession from a simple invasion of a small neighbouring country. They may still do it, of course.
The separatists don’t need to construct a whole new administrative system for their new little country, because they can just take the administrative system that had previously organised those regions as part of the larger country, and adjust it slightly – after all, the same people are still involved, the same delegates and assemblies and so forth, so the re-shuffling of things is likely to be largely a sort of glorified desk-moving and sign-re-writing.
And what if, as often happens, the majority government justifies its actions by claiming that majority citizens in the break-away regions (Georgians in South Ossetia, Serbs in Kosovo, etc.) will now become a new minority and be oppressed by the ‘vicious racial separatists’? Well, if that’s true, then they can seccede and re-affiliate themselves with the majority government just as easily – their plight is based on the fact that re-drawing state boundaries is such a hugely difficult task and isn’t going to happen for a bunch of yokels in some backwater town.
Admittedly, direct democracy might produce some rather patchwork-y maps, but only in situations where the alternative is nice clean lines drawn with bayonets and machetes. If the demographic and cultural reality of people’s wishes is patchy, then the political structure should reflect that.
Of course, ideally the whole idea of separate countries and such like would be dispensed with, but I feel that things are usually clearer when you focus on one radical change in isolation.
So in conclusion, structures which divorce the institutions of legitimacy from the institutions of efficacy will make conflicts very baffling, because they basically necessitate that legitimacy not intrude into the day-to-day activities of political forces. Direct democracy, on the other hand, helps to make the legitimacy or illegitimacy of different forces much clearer.