Category Archives: politics

Assassination, Inc.


The US government uses drones to murder its opponents. Drones are an ideal tool to minimise public outrage from military operations.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, there is an ever-present danger of death from missiles in the sky. US military drones fly high over these countries, controlled from bunkers thousands of kilometres away. Some drones are for surveillance; some are for killing.

A new book, The Assassination Complex, documents the US drone warfare programme. A great deal of information about this programme became available via a major leak, and this has been supplemented by comments from former employees. Much of the information was published by The Intercept, an online magazine set up in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about US government surveillance. For those who like hard copy, The Assassination Complex provides a convenient package of material. The authors include Jeremy Scahill, author of books about the shady side of US military operations, Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who initially reported on Snowden’s material, and several staff members for The Intercept.


The drone warfare programme operates like this. Data is collected about possible targets: men considered dangerous enemies. Some information is gathered on the ground, but most is from electronic surveillance, for example metadata about phone calls. When a key figure is identified, drones track them continuously, often via sim cards in mobile phones. Authorisation for attack is obtained through a chain of command in the US, after which the CIA or military has 60 days to act. When a suitable occasion presents itself, attack drones launch missiles against the target.

Regular drone killings began after 9/11 under the presidency of George W. Bush and then greatly expanded under the Obama administration. Thousands of people have been killed by strikes.


Double standards

From the point of view of those behind the programme, it is an effective way of eliminating terrorists with minimal risk to US personnel. Proponents believe the drone attacks are surgical, namely highly selective, with only enemies killed. The authorisation protocol, combined with US laws, provides justification for the programme.

Critics offer a completely different picture. According to information in The Assassination Complex, the strikes are not nearly as surgical as claimed: as well as the target, many others are killed: non-combatants including women and children. Furthermore, potential targets are becoming sophisticated in evading attacks, especially in Yemen and Somalia. Knowing that their sim cards are used to track them, groups can mix up the cards. Someone may be killed, but not necessarily the primary target.

The drone strikes do not provide targets with an opportunity to defend themselves in court. Killing is carried out on the basis of suspicion. No charges are laid, no trial is held and no judge or jury is allowed to see the evidence against those killed.

Finally, when strikes kill non-combatants, as so often occurs, this alienates the population, generating greater opposition. Drone killings radicalise a fraction of the population; rather than repressing the insurgency, they add fuel to resistance. In this way, drone killings perpetuate the very thing they are supposed to stop. They are part of a cycle of mutual provocation that fosters perpetual war.


Imagine that a small group in one of the target countries, let’s say Pakistan, manages to obtain its own fleet of drones, or perhaps commandeers US drones through a sophisticated hacking operation. The group designates portions of US territory as a warzone and commences a surveillance and attack operation targeting leading US politicians and military figures, especially those who run the US drone programme. The operation is successful: strikes kill several US leaders, with some collateral damage (family members). Imagine the outrage in the US. “Murderous thugs! This is an outrage. This means war. We must strike back. They cannot be allowed to get away with this.”

Yet this scenario is an exact parallel of the US drone programme, except with the perpetrators and targets reversed. This example shows the incredible arrogance underlying the US programme, an assumption that “we” are righteous and can take action to kill “them” who are a dangerous threat (as judged by “us”). A reversal of “we” and “them” is unthinkable. Because it is unthinkable, the implicit double standard is invisible to US perpetrators.

Outrage management

Think of an injustice in which the perpetrator is more powerful than the target, for example torture, massacre of peaceful protesters, or genocide. Such injustices have the potential to generate outrage among those who witness or learn about it. Therefore, perpetrators regularly use five sorts of techniques to reduce public outrage: cover-up of the action, devaluation of the target, reinterpretation of the events (by lying, minimising consequences, blaming others or reframing), official channels that give an appearance of justice, and intimidation of people involved. Each of these techniques is readily apparent in the US drone programme.


Cover-up is a key feature of drone killings. The programme operates largely in secret, and little would be known about it except for leaks and exposes such as The Assassination Complex. Of course survivors of strikes know about them, as do family members, but the US population is left in the dark. Video footage of strikes is kept secret, as indeed are the names of most of the victims. The US government does everything possible to keep the programme secret. Indeed, the choice to use drones for military purposes may reflect the relative ease by which the human costs are hidden.

Devaluation is a powerful technique for reducing outrage: when victims are lower in status, there is less concern about what is done to them. The targets of drone strikes are labelled terrorists and portrayed as serious threats.

Reinterpretation means explaining what happens in a way that reduces outrage. It can involve several methods, including lying, minimising consequences, blaming others, and reframing. According to White House guidelines released in 2003, drone strikes are only undertaken when there is “near certainty” that the target is present and “near certainty” that no one else, namely non-combatants, will be injured or killed. However, the part about non-combatants is not applied in practice: strikes are regularly carried out without satisfying this criterion, which means the guidelines are a public lie.

The harmful consequences of drone strikes are routinely minimised. Anyone killed in addition to the target is labelled an “enemy killed in action.” This includes women and children. In this way civilian injuries and deaths are reframed, namely looked at from a different perspective. Another aspect of reframing is the designation of target areas as “warzones.” However, setting aside that the US Congress never declared war, this is a unilaterally declared war, with the so-called warzones being designated by the US government.

Official channels include courts, expert committees, grievance committees and any other agency or process that ostensibly provides fairness and justice. The problem is that when powerful groups like the government commit crimes, official channels may give only an illusion of justice. In the case of the US drone programme, the closest thing to an official channel is the policy guidelines released in 2003, already mentioned. These give the illusion of justice – only terrorists are supposed to be targeted – when in practice many civilians are killed.

Intimidation is the use of threats, reprisals and attacks to deter people from expressing outrage. Drone strikes themselves are a potent tool of intimidation. Indeed, they are a form of terrorism, terrorism by the US government. As well, whistleblowers and journalists are subject to intimidation. Those working in the US national security system who speak out about abuses are potentially subject to dismissal and prosecution, and some go to prison.


Although the drone programme is in many ways an ideal way to run a killing operation while minimizing the possibility of domestic protest, nevertheless there has been opposition. Each of the five techniques for reducing outrage can be countered.

Exposure of the programme is the counter to cover-up, and is crucial. This has been achieved through the combined efforts of insiders who speak out or leak information, investigative journalists who collect and analyse features of the programme, and editors who publish exposes. The Assassination Complex is a significant outcome of these efforts.


Validation of targets is the counter to devaluation. Validation can occur by showing that many targets are innocent victims and by giving them names, faces and life histories. When targets are seen as real people rather than nameless “terrorists,” assassination seems less justified. The following quote illustrates devaluation and lying by the US government, and validation of the target by providing his name and some personal details.

The third – and most controversial – killing of a U.S. citizen was that of Awlaki’s son, sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki. He was killed two weeks after his father, while having dinner with his cousin and some friends. Immediately after the strike anonymous U.S. officials asserted that the younger Awlaki was connected to al Qaeda and was in fact twenty-one. After the family produced his birth certificate, the United States changed its position, with an anonymous official calling the killing of the teenager an “outrageous mistake.” (p. 47)

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

Interpretation of the events as an injustice is the counter to the reinterpretation. Lies and minimising of consequences can be challenged with facts; reframing can be challenged by the frame of injustice. The labels “assassination,” “murder” and “killing” starkly articulate the realities of drone warfare.

Mobilisation of support is the counter to official channels. So far, there has been relatively little popular protest in the US against drone killings. Protest is the most potent challenge to the drone programme.


Finally, resistance is the counter to intimidation. Everyone involved in producing the Assassination Complex and related outputs has to stand up to the possibility of coming under surveillance, being put on watchlists and jeopardising their jobs.

On an optimistic note, the escalation of drone warfare by the US government might be considered a sign that it is more difficult today to muster support for open warfare, hence the need for killing to be covert. The drone programme has an added bonus for the military-security establishment: fostering the very problem it is supposed to solve, namely radicalisation of populations (though of course this is not how establishment figures think about the programme). How to undermine the drone programme and foster alternatives such as nonviolent action remains a major challenge.

Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, The Assassination Complex: Inside the US Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Programme (London: Serpent’s Tale, 2016)

Brian Martin

If not elections, what else?

“Our democracy is being wrecked by being limited to elections, even though elections weren’t invented as a democratic instrument.” — David Van Reybrouck

In Europe, voters are discontented. Some are deserting their party loyalties, erratically. Some are attracted to populists railing against the system but without an alternative to it. Unstable governments are becoming more common, and in Belgium the country went for over a year without a government. Then there are non-voters, those who have opted out of the electoral circus.


“Anyone who puts together low voter turnout, high voter turnover, declining party membership, governmental impotence, political paralysis, electoral fear of failure, lack of recruitment, compulsive self-promotion, chronic electoral fever, exhausting media stress, distrust, indifference and other persistent paroxysms see the outlines of a syndrome emerging. Democratic Fatigue Syndrome is a disorder that has not yet been fully described but from which countless Western societies are nonetheless unmistakably suffering.” (p. 16)

This is the diagnosis of David Van Reybrouck in his book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, just published in English. The title of the book is challenging: isn’t democracy all about having elections? What about all those people in countries without elections, or with massive voter fraud, agitating against dictatorial governments and demanding fair elections?

David Van Reybrouck

Sortition versus elections

Van Reybrouck, to present another view, goes back into the history of democracy, which etymologically means rule by the people, the demos. In ancient Athens, the members of most of the important decision-making bodies, such as the Council of 500, the People’s Court and the magistracies, were chosen randomly, a system called the lot or sortition.

The kleroterion, used in ancient Athens for randomly selecting public officials

Athenian citizens comprised only perhaps one-sixth of the adult population, the others being women, slaves and foreigners. Although it was a flawed form of democracy, it was an extraordinary innovation for its time, a dramatic departure from arbitrary rule.

Sortition is Van Reybrouck’s special interest. He traces its use from ancient Greece through the Middle Ages in Europe. In Florence, Venice and other cities in several parts of Europe, sortition was used in combination with elections in intricate ways to choose leaders. However, only aristocrats were involved, with no popular participation.

Through the 1700s, popular participation in decision-making was only an idea, not a practical reality. People were ruled by hereditary aristocracies. Then came the American and French revolutions, resisting and overthrowing monarchies. What system of decision-making should they use?

According to Van Reybrouck, there were two options on the table, elections and sortition. The general view by key writers at the time was that elections were an aristocratic mechanism and sortition a democratic one. As we know, the revolutionaries adopted elections. According to their writings, they opposed democracy, being afraid of the lower classes having power. So they wrote constitutions that ensured continuing power for elites through elections, with only a limited number of landowners entitled to vote.


In the following decades, the franchise gradually expanded but the system worked largely the same way, ensuring that people were not directly involved in governance, having only the occasional and limited role of helping to choose their rulers. Along the way, the previous idea that elections were an aristocratic mechanism was reversed to the current belief that elections are democracy. This idea became so dominant that elections were written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Representative government is now called “democracy,” so other possibilities for citizen participation have to make do with adjectival forms such as “participatory democracy” or “direct democracy” or “deliberative democracy.”

“Electoral fundamentalists, we have for decades clung to the ballot box as if it were the Holy Grail of democracy, only to discover that we have been clinging not to a Holy Grail but to a poisoned chalice that was deliberately set up as an anti-democratic instrument.” (pp. 92-93)

The jury system

The best analogy to sortition is the jury system used in courts. Twelve or so citizens are selected at random to serve for a limited period, hearing from lawyers and witnesses and then reaching a verdict. Although jurors are far less experienced than judges, the jury system has several advantages. First, the jurors, because they are chosen by lot, are more representative of the citizenry in terms of age, occupation, education, gender and ethnicity. Second, the jurors have no stake in the outcome: because their time as jurors is limited, and they have no reputation to defend, they are less subject to influence or self-interest. Third, the jurors are able to deliberate, namely to discuss evidence and views with each other, each bringing to the discussion their own backgrounds and understanding. Fourth, serving on a jury provides a powerful education in citizen participation. Fifth, the jury system gives greater credibility to decisions: jury members are peers of the accused, not overseers.

Scene from 12 Angry Men, a classic film about a jury

Sortition involves random selection of citizens to serve limited terms in decision-making roles. The terms in office are limited because being chosen by lot provides no mandate. Those chosen are demographically representative of the community, and this representativeness can be enhanced by stratified sampling: for example, if women and men each constitute half the population, then half of the citizen jurors can be chosen from women and half from men, thus overcoming biases due to some of those selected declining or being unable to serve. Decision-makers serving for short periods are less susceptible to bribery and other influences from vested interests; furthermore, vested interests cannot groom individuals for office because there is no way to increase the odds of being selected.

Since the 1970s, there have been experiments with sortition, most commonly in what are called policy juries or citizens juries. Twelve to 25 or more citizens are chosen randomly from a specified population and brought together for several days to make a decision about a policy issue involving, for example, energy, genetic engineering or education. Neutral facilitators provide the jurors with written materials and arrange for experts, representing different positions, to give presentations and answer questions. The facilitators encourage a balanced and respectful discussion. The jury members then explore common ground and develop a set of mutually agreed recommendations, always allowing for a minority report. The experience from hundreds of such juries is that so-called ordinary citizens take the responsibility given to them very seriously, come up with sensible recommendations, and find the experience illuminating and empowering.

Van Reybrouck gives most attention to large-scale experiments: the Canadian and Dutch governments commissioned citizens panels to offer recommendations for electoral reform. Although none of their recommendations were implemented (being rejected by referendum or government decision), the experiments show the potential of sortition as an antidote for voter dissatisfaction and disengagement.


Van Reybrouck thinks the best hope for reform is to replace one of the two parliamentary houses – the house of representatives or the senate – with a chamber of randomly selected citizens. He provides tables showing the various options proposed by writers and political theorists, with special attention to a complex yet flexible model involving six different bodies, some randomly selected and some elected, each providing checks to the power of the others.

Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections is one of a growing number of treatments of sortition. It is undoubtedly one of the most engaging. Van Reybrouck musters facts and figures and historical examples in a style that makes for compelling reading. There are plenty of references; Van Reybrouck has an impressive grasp of the topic. In the English translation (Bodley Head edition), the physical book is attractive in layout, slim and elegant. It deserves to be widely read.


Sortition from the bottom up

In plumping for a randomly selected parliamentary chamber, Van Reybrouck endorses reform, but a particularly difficult type of reform, because it needs to be instituted from the top. Yet the obstacles to this sort of reform are enormous. In Against Elections, Van Reybrouck notes the hostility of both politicians and the mass media to the idea of sortition.

An alternative road to sortition is to begin at smaller scales, in organisations and local communities. Rather than choose citizens to make decisions for a country with a population of millions, random selection could be used for groups of hundreds to tens of thousands, much closer to the original Athenian model. The newDemocracy Foundation in Australia follows this sort of road.

There is another sense in which Van Reybrouck looks only to reform: he assumes the continuing existence of the state apparatus: all those government departments and parliamentary staffers who, arguably, make most of the real decisions. As he notes, elected politicians can’t actually learn all that much about all of the hundreds of topics on which they are asked to vote, so they rely on party positions or assistants.


Returning to court juries and citizens jury experiments, one key feature is that citizens are asked to address only a single issue: a single court case or a particular policy issue. There is an opportunity for learning quite a lot about specifics, of hearing from a range of experts and for engaging in lengthy deliberations. This would be hard to achieve in a large legislative chamber dealing with dozens of different policy issues.

In 1985, philosopher John Burnheim in his book Is Democracy Possible? proposed an alternative to representative government that he called demarchy. It relies on randomly selected groups of decision-makers – namely, sortition – with one additional and crucial feature. Each group addresses only a single function in a local community, for example education, land use or transport. Burnheim calls them functional groups.

Burnheim modelled his concept of demarchy on ancient Greek democracies, not even being aware that when he wrote, pioneering work using policy juries was underway in Germany and the US. Demarchy can be considered the natural extension of policy juries.

Random selection is definitely an idea on the rise, in a variety of contexts, for example admission to university. Yet most of this is happening under the radar, from a very low base. Politicians, as might be expected, are resistant to random selection, even those politicians such as The Greens that officially support participatory democracy. So there is a very long way to go before sortition starts being treated as a serious alternative, as a way of invigorating systems of rule. Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections is a valuable contribution to the journey.


Brian Martin

Thanks to Lyn Carson for valuable comments on a draft.

Was 9/11 really so special?

For many people, the attacks launched on 11 September 2001 were transformative, seen as an exceptional event in historical terms. Certainly they were seared on people’s consciousness through saturation media coverage and used as the rationale for invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this Friday, Oct. 16, 2015 photo, the charred remains of the Doctors Without Borders hospital is seen after being hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Christopher Stokes, general director of Doctors Without Borders, which is also known by its French abbreviation MSF, whose hospital in northern Afghanistan was destroyed in a U.S. airstrike, says the “extensive, quite precise destruction” of the bombing raid casts doubt on American military assertions that it was a mistake. (Najim Rahim via AP)Afghan hospital after US airstrike

But is it possible that 9/11 was not all that special, but actually reflected a long-running pattern? Mark Cronlund Anderson answers “yes” in his new book Holy War: Cowboys, Indians, and 9/11s. Anderson is an historian and he sees 9/11 as just one more example of a pattern in US history of self-righteous imperial aggression.

To make his argument, he draws on a number of historical events. One of them is the Mexican war of 1846–1848, in which the US military defeated Mexico and confiscated half of its territory. At the time, the US had a reputation, especially among its own population, as being anti-imperialistic. It had fought a war of independence against Great Britain, after all. But how could this image be squared with a land-grab against a weaker, disorganised neighbouring government?

Anderson explains the ideology of US aggression using several factors. A key factor was the belief in what was later called “manifest destiny,” namely that the US had a God-given expectation to fill the continent. James Polk, elected president in 1844, had run on a platform of expansionism, and he delivered.


            Another factor was racism. The Mexicans were seen as inferior, as “greasers” or “half-breeds.”

Prior to the Mexican war, there were prominent voices in US politics and the media condemning imperial adventures. Another source of resistance stemmed from the likelihood that Texas, then independent, would become a slave state, unsettling the balance between free and slave states.

To launch the war, what was needed was a pretext, and there was one at hand. Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande. It didn’t seem to matter that the US and Mexican governments had earlier agreed the border was the Nueces River. US leaders declared that the Mexican action was aggression and launched a war that won a huge swathe of North American territory.

S troops during the Mexican war

            The Mexican war was a fairly short episode compared to a slow-burning war that lasted for centuries: the war waged by white settlers in North America on the indigenous inhabitants. Today in the US they are referred to as Native Americans, but Anderson calls them Indians, as they were referred to in the US until a few decades ago.

As is well known to scholars of colonialism, white settlement was a disaster for indigenous people, causing disease, dispossession and cultural devastation. Anderson’s interest is in the symbolic dimensions of the war against the Indians, and for this he looks at General George Custer. For Custer and many others, the Indians were savages to be subordinated and exterminated. When Custer and his troops were wiped out in 1876, this was another trigger event for US imperialists: the Indians were to be conquered. It didn’t matter, apparently, that Custer was a ruthless killer, including of women and children.

George Armstrong Custer

            Anderson analyses several further imperialistic episodes in US history: interventions in the Mexican revolution (1916), Nicaragua (both the 1920s and 1980s) and Vietnam. Always there were pretexts for attack: the US government saw itself as the victim and hence fully justified in its aggression. The 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident, in which North Vietnamese PT boats supposedly fired on US vessels in international waters – though this probably never happened – was the pretext for a Congressional resolution allowing massive expansion of US military involvement in the Vietnam war (called in Vietnam the American war).

Anderson, in seeking to understand the mindset of US imperialism – an imperialism that cannot name itself – probes historical episodes less through recounting events and more through expressions of ideas through media and popular culture. Newspaper stories at the time of the Mexican war and the Mexican revolution provide ample evidence of racism and belief in manifest destiny. For the Vietnam war, Anderson examines the Rambo films for the same themes.

Anderson seems to find the evidence he exhumes at times excruciating in its self-righteousness. US imperialists have believed that God is on their side, that their enemies are lesser humans and that the United States is a special nation bringing enlightenment to the world. Anderson summarises his argument:

First, there exists the never-ending pattern of war since 1776, suggesting a deep psychological need to fight. Second, the patterning — portraying battles as defensive maneuvers against the savage Other, as noted — repeats itself without reference to temporal concerns, and the gambit is always some variety of how the savage Other attacked without provocation. Myth is eternal: it seduces and elides linear time. One result is that the Alamo or Pearl Harbor or 9/11 maintains cultural currency and emotional resonance, just so long as we choose to remember. Third, I have borrowed and applied two ideas from psychohistory: nation-states have explicable psychological makeups, and trauma demands repetition. We tend to know this anecdotally, that abused children are more likely to abuse others. Or that a nation born in violence becomes imprinted with a need to relive the trauma, which, for America, has been life-affirming. (pp. 202-3)

Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson

Other commonalities

Anderson sees 9/11 as being in a long tradition of episodes in US history in which the characteristic features of US imperialistic psychology are manifest. Taking a cue from Anderson, it is worth thinking of other ways in which 9/11 is not as special as it is often seen.

In the context of terrorism, 9/11 was dramatic but hardly unusual. Since the 1980s, thousands of people have been killed every year in non-state terrorist attacks. What is special about 9/11 is how much attention it garnered. Deaths of civilians in terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka or Nigeria gain little attention by comparison. Similarly, most of the world’s deadliest wars since 1990 have received little Western media attention.

9/11 is typical in that nearly all attention is focused on attacks by non-government groups. A different brand of terrorism is called state terrorism. This is when governments use their militaries to assault populations. The US-government-led invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 killed far more civilians than 9/11 but are not usually called terrorism, though the terror for those targeted is just as great. State terrorism is usually invisible so far as the media and home population are concerned. Anderson does not refer to the scholarship on state terrorism, but his analysis is quite relevant.

Augusto Sandino:
seen as a dangerous threat to the US occupation of Nicaragua

            9/11 illustrates how valuable it is for aggressors to see themselves as victims. After 9/11, there was a massive expansion in the military-security complex in the US and elsewhere. During the cold war, the Soviet Union was the enemy and the justification for militarisation. After the cold war, the peace dividend — the anticipated winding back of military establishments — did not occur. Leaders of the military-industrial complex searched for a pretext to justify their existence, and anti-terrorism has served this function well, although non-state terrorism is not a serious threat to states and in human lives is far less devastating than nuclear war.

Anderson’s book Holy War is a valuable reminder of the commonalities in history and the importance of belief systems. Rather than reacting to the latest events in lock-step with the agenda of governments, it is worthwhile stepping back and seeing continuities, and noticing how often the same patterns keep recurring.

Holy Wars

Brian Martin

Are you lucky?

Luck plays a greater role in success than usually recognised.


I’ve been lucky in my life. I was lucky to be born in an affluent society of loving and supportive parents. They were well off yet thrifty, and encouraged me in valuable habits. They started me on the clarinet, drove me to weekly private lessons and pushed me to practise daily for several years until I learned to love playing and was self-motivated. They encouraged me in reading and learning, but did not push me to get good grades in school.

I was even lucky when I was called up for military service and decided to leave the US for Australia. It was disruptive at the time, but caused me to rethink my views and led me to a lifetime of activism and research.

draft lottery

In my career I was lucky in getting some jobs and not getting others. Just after finishing my PhD, I applied for a lectureship at a new university and just missed out on what I thought would be an exciting opportunity. Decades later, I happened to talk to the physicist who got the job. He told me, “Brian, you’re so lucky you didn’t end up here!”

Most people’s lives are affected by chance events in many ways, large and small. Yet seldom is this factored into thinking about success and failure because, in meritocratic societies, the assumption is that success is due to talent and hard work and therefore justified.

These thoughts are stimulated by a new book by Robert H. Frank, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Frank is a prominent economist who has studied the implications of psychology for economics. His earlier books, such as Luxury Fever and The Winner-Take-All Society, are readable and insightful analyses of economic inefficiency caused by wasteful competition.

Success and Luck is part analysis and part personal testament. Frank describes playing tennis and experiencing an episode of sudden cardiac death, which has a 2% survival rate. Frank fully recovered, very much against the odds, because an ambulance happened to be nearby. That he was alive to write his latest book might be said to be a miracle, except that for a mathematically minded economist it was like winning a lottery in survival.

Robert H Frank

The role of luck in success

Many successful people would rather not acknowledge the role of luck in what they have achieved in life. If what they have and do is due to their talent, drive and hard work, they can feel assured they deserve everything they have. If chance events were important, then perhaps other people, just as talented and hard working but less fortunate, deserve as much.

In academia, luck is involved in obtaining research grants. Much depends on the choice of assessors and on the individuals sitting on granting boards. When success rates are low, there are many good applications near the cut-off: those above the cut-off receive grants and those below do not.


            However, as a recipient of a major grant, it is natural to feel the grant is deserved – after all, a lot of work went into the application as well as into all the prior research – and to discount the role of luck. Losers might complain but winners are more likely to feel their award was justified. A grant success then leads to more opportunities to do research, and grants are treated by granting bodies as evidence of high performance, so a single award can lead to a cascade of further grants and research outcomes. Just a tiny bit of luck can make the difference between a stellar research trajectory and a solid but much lower profile career, or even a failure to make the grade as an academic. I’ve known quite a few brilliant scholars who, due to hostile supervisors, biased appointment committees or unsympathetic editors, never had a break and languished their entire careers without even obtaining a permanent position.


Frank’s previous studies of winner-take-all markets are relevant here. In the men’s 100-meter final in the 2016 Olympics, the difference between the first and the fourth-place finishers was  0.12 seconds, yet the rewards for the gold medallist, in terms of recognition and endorsements, are far greater than for finishers without medals. You could be fourth best in the world yet receive only a small fraction of the rewards for the first place finisher. Furthermore, you might have had a slower-than-usual start, and the gold-medallist a faster-than-usual start, that made all the difference. That is the potential role of luck.

Olympics 100m final 2016

            It used to be that most competitions for career success were localised. If you’re the best lawyer in town, you’ll get many more of the most lucrative cases. However, cheaper travel and communication mean you may now lose out to even better lawyers across the country. The market has expanded: you’re competing against a bigger field, and even a slight advantage can make a huge difference in outcomes.

Let’s say you’re a specialist in corporate mergers. A company worth billions of dollars wants to have the very best lawyers. Because of the huge sums at stake, even a slight advantage is worth paying for. So the salaries of the very best corporate-merger lawyers shoot through the roof.


            This winner-take-all process, resulting from the breakdown of previous market barriers, is a prime driver of economic inequality. Frank has written previously of how this happens, and has recommended ways to counter it. In Success and Luck, he draws on this research to make the point that the larger the number of competitors, the more likely it is that luck will play a significant role in determining the winners.

To be clear: every one of the winners in these markets is talented and hard-working. The point is that others are just as talented and hard-working and only lose out due to bad luck. Frank provides tables showing that if outcomes are determined mainly by talent and hard work, with luck contributing only 2%, then when there are many competitors it becomes almost certain that the winner is very lucky and that there are others who are more talented and hard working but less lucky.

Motivation and luck

Frank points out that there can be advantages in discounting the role of luck: it can cause you to try harder. If you believe outcomes are due to hard work, you might be more willing to keep putting in the effort. On the other hand, if hard work isn’t enough and good luck is needed too, is it really worthwhile working quite as hard?


            A more important point made by Frank is that if the role of luck is recognised, it becomes more difficult to justify huge differentials in outcomes. If becoming a CEO is partly due to luck – in having the right parents, upbringing, education and opportunities – then why should a CEO have a salary dozens or hundreds of times greater than workers? Some rank-and-file workers, with the same opportunities, might have had what it takes to become a CEO.

Frank thinks that greater awareness of the role of luck may have a beneficial effect in moderating inequality. But there’s a problem. Winners benefit from the belief that their success is due to being superior and so will use their power and influence to help maintain this belief. I would like to believe in Frank’s view but I will wait to hear any leaders give a proper recognition of the role of luck and then try to justify huge levels of inequality.

Frank writes mainly of the US, where economic inequality is extreme, social mobility is limited and yet the belief that commitment and hard work can triumph over adversity remains almost sacred. In many other countries, for example in Western Europe, more generous welfare systems might be seen as recognition that those who are less well off deserve support.

It seems to me there is something different or deeper in the way US policies for disadvantaged people are so much harsher than in most other rich countries, something beyond a lack of recognition of the role of luck. Consider for example someone born with a serious intellectual disability. No one could imagine that such a person’s failure to advance in the meritocracy is anything other than bad luck. So how can a successful entrepreneur justify receiving more than the person with a disability? How does a belief in meritocracy address the issue of people with profound disabilities? This should be the source of cognitive dissonance, so the issue is hardly ever addressed.


            Furthermore, anyone could, on any day, become seriously brain-damaged through an accident or stroke, largely as a matter of bad luck. This should be the basis for compassion and support for others, because it could just as easily be yourself.

Frank is tackling the issue of luck at the other end of the spectrum of capabilities, among those who are high achieving. But given that the impact of genetic luck is not seen as an issue for those with serious disabilities, Frank’s hope for change might seem forlorn. However, he found that after conversations about the role of luck, both liberals and conservatives could change their minds. Would they have changed their minds just as readily by raising the issue of serious disabilities?

The progressive consumption tax

In Success and Luck, Frank makes the case for a progressive consumption tax, an alternative to the usual income, goods and other taxes. He and others have been advocating this tax for years. Frank argues that it can painlessly provide the government with revenue to restore US infrastructure and enable people to have the resources to pursue their dreams.

Without going into the details of the tax, suffice to say that its apparent magic is based on addressing status races. As Frank explains, if every rich person has a car, house and wedding worth half as much, they will be just as happy because, in comparison to others, they are just as far ahead. Furthermore, for those who are well off, research shows that extra possessions give little or no extra happiness.


            Frank repeatedly uses a revealing example. Which would you rather have: a $150,000 Porsche 911 Turbo and well maintained roads to drive it on, or a $333,000 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta to be driven on roads with potholes? The point is that when public expenditure – on roads, education, health and much else – declines, private wealth cannot compensate.


            Frank’s arguments are very good. The question is whether good arguments are enough to bring about a policy change, no matter how rational and socially beneficial for everyone. Frank says that public opinion can shift rapidly, as it has for example on same-sex marriage. As much as I would like to see a policy change that reverses the trend towards greater economic inequality, it seems to me that good ideas need to be taken up by social movements. At the moment the movements for equality need all the help they can get. So if you’ve had a fair bit of success in your life and are willing to accept that you had lucky breaks along the way, then perhaps one way of saying thanks is to join campaigns for greater equality.

A more radical position is the socialist principle of “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” Given that research on altruism shows that helping others can bring great personal satisfaction, often far more than personal achievement, it is possible to develop a rational argument for applying this principle. Wouldn’t the world be different if rational argument – and compassion – were the primary factors in decision-making?


Brian Martin

The well-dressed anarchist

How does an anarchist dress? One image is the hippy, with long hair, sandals and sloppy, colourful, unkempt clothes. Another image is the punk, with nose rings and pink hair. Yet another image is the subversive, wearing all black.

And what is this mythical anarchist doing? A common idea is shouting and making threatening gestures, perhaps throwing bricks or maybe even a bomb.

Portrait of a young attractive business woman.An anarchist?

Is it possible for an anarchist to be well dressed in a conventional sense? Imagine an anarchist wearing a fashionable dress, or suit and tie, in smart casual clothes with a stylish haircut, almost indistinguishable from an advertisement for trendy garments.

Could an anarchist talk politely, be friendly and always avoid the slightest hint of violence? If so, how can anyone tell whether a person walking down the street is an anarchist? Maybe anarchists are in disguise, looking just like other people!

Anarchism as a political philosophy has been seriously misunderstood for most of its existence. In the media, “anarchy” is treated as a synonym for “chaos.” The word is used to suggest that order has broken down, and people are doing all sorts of things — violence and mayhem, perhaps — that are normally forbidden. This meaning leads to images of anarchists being strange and threatening in appearance and behaviour.


But what is anarchism really? Just looking at dictionary definitions gives a different picture. For example, the online Oxford Dictionary gives this definition: “belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion.”

Among anarchist groups, especially those familiar with anarchist writings and theory, anarchism has several dimensions. One is opposition to all forms of rule or domination. Anarchists historically have opposed the state, namely systems of government with rulers at the top, whether popularly elected or dictators. Anarchists are opposed to government as a system. But they oppose more than just government; they reject other forms of domination, including capitalism, state socialism, patriarchy, organised religion, bureaucracy, heterosexism and human chauvinism (domination of nature and non-human animals).

If this is what anarchists are against, what are they for? The short answer is “self-management,” which means people organising their own lives through cooperative processes. Self-management occurs when members of a string quartet decide for themselves what music to play. It occurs when students help decide what and how they will learn. It occurs when workers collectively make decisions about what to produce and how to do the job. Self-management can also be called participatory democracy, a type of democracy not requiring elections of officials, but instead using methods involving everyone’s participation to reach agreements.

LON08 - 19990618 - LONDON, ENGLAND; UNITED KINGDOM : A rioter shows hist fist in the City of London after a march to "reclaim the streets" turned violent, Friday 18 June 1999. The protest, which was called to mark the opening of the G8 sumit in Cologne, turned violent having seen a carnival-like morning with protesters involved in running street battles with riot police. AFP PHOTO EPA PHOTO AFP/SINEAD LYNCH
An anarchist?

So, anarchists are against domination and instead want people to cooperate to make decisions about social arrangements. This sort of participatory decision-making is found within many families, groups of friends, some clubs and some workplaces. But it is not common within governments, large corporations or militaries.

Anarchism or anarchy, as properly understood, is not chaos at all. It is not the absence of order, but rather is a different sort of order. Rather than a social order involving hierarchy and authority, it is a social order involving respect, cooperation, and struggle over priorities that tries to avoid creating new forms of domination.

The popular image of anarchism is thus almost the opposite of what it should be. It is easy to see the source of the image. Anarchists are opposed to domination, which means they are a threat to powerful groups. Government leaders do not like anarchism, because it means the loss of their power and status. For them, anarchism is a threat to order, namely the traditional order of hierarchy and authority. It is a short step from thinking that anarchism threatens the system of government to thinking that it causes chaos — because, for those who think government is order, any different sort of order is almost impossible to imagine.


Corporate leaders also do not like anarchism. If workers can run workplaces themselves, in a cooperative fashion, then owners and managers are not needed. This is the reason why, when workers try to take control, they are so fiercely opposed by owners and their government allies. For capitalists, workers’ self-management feels like chaos, because the familiar order of managerial control is lost. A different type of order, organised by workers, is almost impossible to imagine.

Many socialists and Marxists do not like anarchism. In socialism, the government has more power. It is said to be exercised in the name of the workers and the people, but it is still government, and government leaders often have great privilege and power. For many socialists and Marxists, anarchism seems like chaos, because their idea of social organisation is undermined. A different sort of order, without parties and party leaders, is almost impossible to imagine.

Anarchism has been caught in a pincer movement, attacked by the traditional authorities in the state and corporations and attacked by socialists. Karl Marx was just as opposed to anarchists as were factory owners. So perhaps it is not surprising that anarchists have been so misrepresented.

Anarchists do not seek to take power and to impose their own views on others — that would be a perversion of the idea of self-management. This has meant that anarchists have never had the resources or desire to mount propaganda on their behalf, and therefore have been at the mercy of misleading descriptions from corporate and government leaders, whether neoliberal or socialist, and mass media serving government and corporate agendas.

The result is that anarchism is more misunderstood than just about any other major political philosophy or body of theory. The basic ideas of socialism, atheism, racial equality and feminism are widely understood, even if in a distorted sense. For example, many people do not like feminism, for example, and may misunderstand it, but they generally know it has something to do with women’s equality. Feminists have been more effective in spreading their ideas than anarchists — or perhaps anti-feminists have been less successful than anti-anarchists.

An anarchist?

So to return to the vision of a well-dressed anarchist: there is nothing inherent in anarchist theory to say that an anarchist has to dress a particular way. Some do decide to dress alternatively, as hippies, punks or members of the black bloc. But others may use other dress codes, including conventional ones.

Some types of clothes involve exploitation or other undesirable consequences. Perhaps shoes are produced in sweatshops. Leather products may involve harm to animals. Maybe clothes manufacture causes environmental damage. Very expensive clothing might involve diverting resources away from human needs into fashion houses and advertising. Choosing clothing does have political implications. A sensitive dresser pays attention not only to personal appearance but to human and environmental impacts.

Still, it is possible to dress in an attractive fashion without spending huge amounts of money. Attention to colour and style can compensate for high prices. Second-hand clothes sometimes look as good as those for sale in regular shops.

The issue of clothes is not really all that important, but it points to a deeper question concerning anarchism: can a person be an anarchist and work or live in a hierarchical institution, for example in a corporation or government? Somehow it is assumed that being against domination means being outside the systems of domination — so an anarchist has to be out in the streets, not in the boardroom.

An anarchist?

But this isn’t the way other liberation theories are treated. Feminists can join male-dominated workplaces. Some try to rise in governments and corporations. Marxists get jobs in factories or join social democratic political parties. They try to take their views into the system and to bring about change. There is no requirement that someone who wants the world to be better has to avoid interacting or participating in systems that need to be changed or abolished.

It is good that some people try to live a pure and principled life, but others make compromises in order to help create their ideal. That means that you might find an anarchist — or a person with anarchist sentiments, though unfamiliar with anarchist theory — just about anywhere. Maybe in an army or a small business or a government bureaucracy.

Can an anarchist be well behaved? A common image of anarchists is of throwing bricks through shop windows and forcibly clashing with police, like some members of the black bloc at alter-globalisation demonstrations. The stereotype of the violent anarchist has some historical basis: some anarchists supported assassination of rulers, and in the 1930s anarchists fought for the revolution in Spain against fascists.

But there has always been another side to anarchism, a side based on refusal to use violence. It includes resistance to conscription. It also includes commitment to nonviolent methods of struggle, using strikes, boycotts, rallies, sit-ins and a host of other methods that do not involve physical violence against opponents. Gandhi, the pioneer leader of nonviolent struggle, can be considered an anarchist: he opposed all forms of domination and advocated a type of village democracy that fits the model of self-management.


A classic anarchist principle is that the means should embody the ends or, in other words, the methods used should be compatible with the goal sought. Anarchists reject the Marxist-Leninist approach of destroying the capitalist state and creating a socialist state as a step on the road to a truly communist society (without a state), because the means, a socialist state, is not compatible with the goal of a society in which the state has withered away. Likewise, if the goal is a society without organised violence, then the most suitable means will not involve violence.

The stereotype of the anarchist as violent is hard to break. When there is a vigil, strike, boycott or occupation, not many viewers think, “Ah, a nonviolent protest — anarchists must be involved.” Not only is it possible to be an anarchist and reject violence, but many anarchists fit this picture.

What about an anarchist working in an organisation, maybe in an office? A common image might be of a person shouting at a meeting and rudely challenging the boss. This stereotype reflects an assumption that opposing domination means breaking the rules — in this case, the rules of polite behaviour. But it is quite possible to be a well-behaved anarchist.

What does an anarchist do inside an organisation? Promote self-management, of course! This can be in small ways, hardly noticed, such as helping less confident workers to assert themselves, resisting managerial impositions, advocating greater participation in decision-making and supporting organisational responsibility to the wider community. Lots of workers do these sorts of things, helping to make organisations more socially responsible and more tolerable to work in. Few of these workers would think of themselves as anarchists, but some of their commitments and efforts are compatible with anarchist principles.

smiling people

So it is possible for anarchists to be well-dressed, well behaved and committed to nonviolence. In fact, there are quite possibly more anarchists like this than the number who fit the dishevelled, shouting, brick-throwing stereotype. Perhaps the respectable anarchists are just as effective too, or more so, by achieving change without drawing much attention to themselves. Maybe some of them are modest too.

Brian Martin

Further reading

London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, In and Against the State (London: Pluto, 1980).

Pierre Guillet de Monthoux, Action and Existence: Anarchism for Business Administration (Chichester: Wiley, 1983).

Geoffrey Ostergaard and Melville Currell, The Gentle Anarchists: A Study of the Leaders of the Sarvodaya Movement for Non-Violent Revolution in India (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

Acknowledgement Jørgen Johansen provided valuable comments on a draft.