Anger or Ability: Arguing the Causes of Rebellion

By: Victor Asal & Steve Sin

History books are so filled with stories of rebellion that it would seem that rebellion is a common thing. If we look at history as the flow of days and events, for most of those days for the vast majority of humans, rebellion has been a very rare thing. This is despite the fact that life for the vast majority of people for much of the last 2,000 years was one of unfairness, hardship, and repression. According to data from the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg, in a sample of countries from 1976 to 2004, the percentage in which political murder, police brutality, and unlimited detentions were common was at least 49% of the total sample in any given year, and often was much higher than that.1 Nevertheless, in the same sample of countries during those years, rebellions or civil wars never occurred more than 10% of the time. In other words, many governments treat their people very badly, but only on rare occasions do enough people rise up to start a full-scale civil war or rebellion.

On the one hand, this just doesn't make sense. When my students, most of whom are 18 or 19 years old, hear these statistics, they invariably ask me why more people don't revolt against these perpetrators of injustice. Why would so many people be willing to be treated like garbage every day and simply take it? I remember when I was 14 years of age, reading a horrific story about a massacre by government officials in a faraway country. I protested to my father that everyone should grab whatever weapon they could and march on the capital to overthrow the government. My father, who had grown up in a country with a history of dictatorship and occupation, only smiled a little sadly and told me I simply did not understand the costs of rebellion. Convinced of my moral rectitude, I proudly responded that I did understand the costs and knew I might die, but insisted I would never stand for such treatment without fighting back. My father smiled again and said, "Yes, I agree, I am with you. I too would be willing to die for freedom. But I am not willing to let you, your brother, your sister, or your mother die for freedom. That is the leverage the dictators have over the people."

It is no surprise that the vast majority of rebels are young people. From the perspective of a parent, the idea of rebellion sounds like a very bad one. As one war survivor put it, "However bad [the government] may be, as long as you are alive you have a chance, and if you pick up a gun, then you are very likely to get dead." This question of why people sometimes do rebel, the realistic opposite of my childish demand to know why people would not, has perplexed historians, social scientists, and philosophers over the centuries. What would make someone risk it all for a cause that is most likely to fail, and is unlikely to bring that person much benefit, even with success? Taking up arms is certainly less likely to be beneficial than if he or she simply let someone else bear the risk of rebellion, and then shared in the rewards if victory should be won. Mark Lichbach refers to this as the "Rebel's Dilemma," and suggests that the real challenge of rebellion is for the rebel leaders to figure out how to get people to do something that on its face makes no rational sense.2 Indeed, it makes a heck of a lot more sense to stay as far away as possible.

One major explanation, developed by Ted Robert Gurr, for why some people do eventually rebel is called "grievance theory."3 This theory holds that if people are mistreated long enough and badly enough, they will eventually, given the chance, take up arms against their oppressors. This argument is illustrated in the most painful way possible by a quote from an interview with a Chechen teacher after the second Chechen war:

Standing outside her closed school—by order of the Russian command— she points at the bullet holes that scar the building. "At last count, I lost 100 of my children," she says, adding that during the first war, when the Russians entered Samashki during "cleansing operations," they would walk by groups of children and shoot at them. "We don't teach children history," she continues. "The children teach us. I sleep in the same bed with my ten-year-old. He says, ‘When I am 13 or 14, just let me go and kill one Russian.' "4

However powerful the grievance argument might be, there are many who dismiss it by pointing out that everyone has some kind of grievance, and therefore it cannot be the key explanatory factor for why some groups rebel and others do not.5 Proponents of grievance theory answer simply that the type of grievance matters.6 Not all grievances warrant an uprising. One may resent the extravagant privileges of an elite ruling class, but resentment is not the same kind of motivation as seeing one's family slaughtered in an armed conflict, or watching one's children starve because the landowner takes the harvest for himself. The Chechen child described above, who is waiting for the moment he can pick up a gun to kill his tormentors, does not seem motivated by anything else.

n contrast, some scholars point to "greed" as the prime motivator, saying that people need an incentive such as the promise of reward before they rebel. In this view, greed is used as shorthand for all forms of motivations and incentives, from the simple desire of people to better their situation all the way to gaining material wealth and/or position.7 The material aspect of the greed argument is based on the logic that rebellions are more likely to happen in areas where the rebels will have access to "lootable" resources (e.g., diamonds, oil, drugs) by holding and controlling territory. In other words, people will participate in a rebellion if they think it can make them rich.8 So, for example, one rebel told an interviewer,

My salary … before entering [the guerilla force] was 8,000 pesos a day, and the guerrilla promised me that I would earn between 300,000 and 400,000 pesos a month … In fact, that is why I joined.9

Other scholars reject both the grievance and greed theories, in favor of an argument based on resources and opportunity. This is generally known as the "opportunity structure" argument.10 We can agree that everyone has a grievance, and perhaps even the motives and incentives to rebel, but only those who have a reasonable shot at success are actually going to launch a rebellion. Thus, countries in which there are mountains or inaccessible forests where rebels can hold out are much more likely to see people take up arms against the government, because these rebels have a place to retreat to, to rest and regroup and plan further operations.11 The opportunity structure argument actually dovetails very well with the greed argument. For example, areas that can easily be defended from government attacks, and that also offer access to resources such as diamonds or drug smuggling, are invitations to people to band together and challenge government authority.

What do these three theories—grievance, greed, and opportunity structure— mean for those who have the responsibility to make policy and avoid rebellion? Policy makers must not only understand the core grievances of the rebels; their motivations (including material incentives); and the political and geographical opportunities available to them. Authorities must also be able to weigh accurately the relative priorities of these categories for the rebels. This means that each situation warrants a careful and rigorous examination to define the key factor(s) driving anger and unrest.

Whenever grievances or greed, or some combination of the two, pushes people over the edge, it seems clear that those with the resources and the opportunity to rebel are also more likely to do so.12 Treating a group badly is a risky move; doing so when they can go up to the mountains or retreat to the forest or across the border may be more than risky—it is likely to be foolish.

About the Author(s): Victor Asal is director of the Center for Policy Research and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, University at Albany (SUNY). Steve Sin is a Ph.D. student at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany (SUNY).


1. Jan Teorell, Marcus Samanni, Soren Holmberg, and Bo Rothstein, "The Quality of Government Dataset," The Quality of Government Institute, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, 2011.

2. Mark I. Lichbach, The Rebel's Dilemma (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998).

3. Ted R. Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).

4. Janine di Giovanni, "Evil Things Happened Here," Times of London, February 2000:; accessed September 18, 2012.

5. See for example, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, "Greed and Grievance in Civil War," World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, The World Bank Development Research Group, November 1999; and, Arvind Ganesan and Alex Vines, "Engine of War: Resources, Greed, and the Predatory State," in World Report 2004: Human Rights Watch, 2004, for explanations of how variables such as greed and governmental mismanagement of resources can be powerful explanatory variables that provide alternate explanations to the grievance argument.

6. For a look at the role social media can play in framing grievances, see Rob Schroeder, Sean Everton, and Russell Shepherd, "Mining Twitter Data from the Arab Spring," Combating Terrorism Exchange, vol. 2, no. 4 (November 2012): 56–64.

7. Collier and Hoeffler, "Greed and Grievance;" as well as Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, "Greed and Grievance in Civil War," Oxford Economic Papers, vol. 56 (2004): 563–95, for a detailed discussion of the greed argument.

8. Collier and Hoeffler, "Greed and Grievance," (2004).

9. Francisco Gutierrez Sanin, "Organizing Minors: The Case of Colombia," in Child Soldiers in the Age of Fractured States, Scott Gates and Simon Reich, eds. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), 137.

10. For an excellent discussion of political opportunity structure, see Douglas McAdam, "Conceptual Origins, Current Problems, Future Direction," in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements, Douglas McAdam, John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 23–40 (especially 27).

11. James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, "Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War," American Political Science Review, vol. 97, no. 1 (2003): 75.

12. Ibid.; and Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, and Dominic Rohner, "Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War," Oxford Economic Papers, vol. 61, no. 1 (2009):1–27.

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