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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

Many fictional stories are built around rebellions against some sort of tyrannical overlord. Such stories provide readymade underdogs to root for and compelling conflict with high stakes; they also mesh well with American culture, and the cultural memory of any society that has ever broken free from external rule (which is most of them, these days).

But as I’ve noted before, these stories often have very little to do with how rebellions actually work. That’s not necessarily a problem, per se; good fiction does not require realism. But it does require a consistent internal logic, and some stories violate their own rules when discussing rebellions, simply because the author had a particular mental model for how rebellions are “supposed” to work that was a poor fit for the story.

Again, the purpose of studying real rebellion is to allow you to tell more stories, broadening your range. If it also dissuades you from writing wildly unrealistic rebellion stories, I’d take that as a win; but that’s because I’m a polisci nerd, so don’t worry about it overmuch.

First, let’s arbitrarily distinguish between four types of rebellions, each with very different goals. These are: violent contention, secession, government overthrow, and revolution.

In violent contention, as I’m using the term, the initial goal is not necessarily to overthrow the government, or to create your own country (although these things could become goals later). Instead, all the rebels want is to improve their own condition. It could be a peasant movement groaning under the tax burden, or agitating for a cancellation of debts, or simply desperate for food which the regime is keeping for itself; it could be a local militia that wants official recognition and a royal salary. It could be the local longshoreman’s union trying to get more sick days.

Such outbreaks of violence could be planned in advance; the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico would be a good example, or any number of large-scale mutinies in the Congo—led by generals who want a government ministry or a promotion. Or, the rebels could coalesce spontaneously, without prior planning or even intent; riots often start this way. The key point is that the initial goal is not to break free of the government or overthrow it, but simply to improve your own condition.

Think of it as a form of bargaining. If the regime or the local moneylenders are oppressing you and refuse to listen to your appeals, you might decide that violence is the only way to get their attention. By taking up arms, you give the regime the choice between meeting your demands, or incurring the costs necessary to put down the rebellion.

Consider the situation in the American Colonies before the Battle of Lexington. Most of the colonists did not want a full-blown war; the very idea was novel. For a colony to break free of its mother country entirely was almost unprecedented in history. (And when Carthage broke free from Tyre, it was because Alexander the Great had wiped Tyre out—not because the Carthaginians had rebelled.) But the colonies had over a hundred years of precedent for small-scale rebellions against the royal governors, launched by people suffering from mistreatment such as dispossessed farmers and slaves. (Few people are taught of these episodes, but you can find a good discussion of them in Murray Rothbard’s “Conceived in Liberty,” starting with Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676.)

So the colonists used violence to make their case. They had very specific grievances they wanted addressed by King George: taxation without representation, arbitrary rule by military officials, restraints on trade, et cetera. Had Britain developed some way to include the Americas in Parliament, it is possible that America would have remained part of the British Empire for centuries to come.

But Britain did not compromise, and instead declared the Colonies to be in rebellion, to be crushed by force. At this point, the rebels faced a decision: either they accept defeat, submit, and try to avoid punishment (the fate of many episodes of violent contention), they continue their relatively low-level campaign of violence and hope that Britain reconsiders, or they broaden their goals into a true rebellion. To take this last option, the rebels typically would need to be strong enough and well enough organized to have hope, however faint, for victory—which the Americans were.

Thus, we come to the second type of rebellion, secession. I call the American Revolution a secession because its goal was not to overthrow King George, or to conquer Britain itself, but merely to break free of it and form a new country. Secession is the kind of full-scale rebellion we see the most of in the real world, probably. And it is the one that best illustrates a key feature of rebellions: they often take the form of competitive state-formation.

What does this mean? In rebellions, each side is trying to project power over a given populace. Both sides want to collect taxes, to control behavior, to deny resources and free movement to the enemy, and to recruit soldiers and inspire loyalty. In short, rebellions feature all the usual problems of wielding political power, but magnified and sharpened because you are competing against an enemy that is trying to do the same thing, to the same populace. Battles and strategies are important, of course, but for a rebellion to even get that far, it must first have managed to build competing state institutions, with all that implies, to raise and support its army. That whole process is what usually gets called “insurgency.”

Secessions usually take place in a peripheral part of the state, where the regime’s control is weak; this gives the insurgents the opportunity to build institutions of their own. And the populace is faced with two would-be rulers, each of which wants to be obeyed; setting aside ideology or ethnic ties, individuals will tend to listen to whichever side offers the more compelling mix of threats and benefits. Assuming of course that the individuals don’t try to play one side off against the other for personal benefit!

Rebellion and Authority by Leites and Wolf is a fantastic, free examination of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, written by scholars at the RAND Corporation during the Vietnam War; they thus had strong incentives to get their analysis right, and the resulting study is fascinating. Authors will find it invaluable for the richness of detail it provides; definitely check it out.

Later, we will discuss government overthrows and revolutions.