The Paradox of Collective Action

The preceding month has been marked by two distinct but highly significant events- the declaration of demonetization of Rs500 and Rs.1000 notes on the 8th of November and the death of J. Jayalalithaa, the iconic former chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Both events have generated highly charged political discourse and are evidence of the fact that the personal is in fact political. However, in terms of collective action (defined as riots and or/protests), the two events have resulted in responses lying on opposite ends of the spectrum. Demonetization, despite being a source of considerable personal distress, has not resulted in any form of collective action against the regulations. However, the death of J. Jayalalithaa has resulted in a spontaneous shut down of Tamil Nadu due to fear of riots.

This disparity in reactions can be explained through a very simple model of collective action. According to this model, if there are n people in a population every individual has a threshold for collective action. This threshold can be best expressed through the question “how many other people would have to join the movement in order for them to join the movement?” Hence, for instance, if an individual has a threshold of 0, then they will protest even without the support of even a single additional person. However, if your threshold is 50, an a priori requirement of at least 50 people protesting exists for you to join the protest. Thus, each individual has a different threshold for collective action. Thus, lower the threshold, higher the propensity for collective action. Furthermore, the greater the variation in thresholds in the population, the greater is the probability for collective action. Thus, collective action is a function of both the average level of discontent and the distribution of discontent.

Given the aforementioned model, now let us analyze the responses generated by demonetization and by J. Jayalalithaa’s death. With respect to demonetization, the average level of discontent among the population of India stands at 18% according to a survey conducted by Inshorts in collaboration with IPSOS. The results are not particularly surprising given that an inherent bias was built into the methodology of this survey -only 5 lakh people from 10 urban cities were surveyed. However, if a more representative sample is looked at, it becomes apparent that demonetization has the same effect as welfare shock on the poor.  The PR blitzkrieg surrounding demonetization is designed to produce the affect of terror, but a terror that the citizen must enjoy. Thus, personal suffering is made subordinate to “greater good of the nation” and the threshold for collective action is lowered. Furthermore, even though 33 deaths have been caused due to demonetization, this has not resulted in discontent as the victims are dispersed all over India. Thus, the scope for collective action is limited. However, Jayalalithaa’s death has lowered the threshold for collective action by personalizing the death of a political figure, given the cult surrounding her. Furthermore, given that the individuals experiencing grief are in very close proximity to each other (being largely concentrated in Tamil Nadu), the concentration of discontent is much greater than in the case of demonetization.  Thus, the likelihood of collective action in the form of riots and protests is higher in Tamil Nadu.

Collective action emerges when there are clusters of discontent. In the absence of such clusters, individuals with a moderately low threshold for collective action cannot form connections with each other, thus resulting in no action at all. Public policies which fragment the clusters of discontent can be implemented with greater efficacy. Given this reality, civil society (as a collective that has greater bargaining power than individuals) should strive toward increasing the threshold for collective action. The threat of collective action often acts as a deterrent to adoption of policies which are detrimental to the interests of the concerned electorates. 

Kriti Mahajan