Basak Taraktas
Aug 7, 2018 · 8 min read

Game theory & Revolutions

Economists tend to model revolutions as a game of conflicting interests. In one most famous model by Acemoglu & Robinson (2001), ruling elites have interest in remaining in power, excluding lower classes from the government, and keeping taxes high. Lower classes have interest in lower taxes and redistribution. Lower classes demand participation and threaten ruling elites by rebellion. Elites have two choices: They can repress lower classes — which, if unsuccessful, leads to their demise — or they can redistribute and include lower classes. Thus, regime stability depends on the relative cost of repression to the cost of inclusion. This model beautifully captures the mechanism of change and the conflict of interests among the rulers and the ruled. In this essay, I suggest that regime change and revolutions can also be modeled by coordination games. One main motivation for choosing coordination games to a two-player conflict of interest is to acknowledge that neither the rulers nor the ruled are homogeneous groups of actors. In reality, the ruled comprise political parties and different ethno-religious groups, all of which may pursue different interests. Similarly, the rulers can divide among themselves into different factions, such as hard-liners or soft-liners. Neither the ruled nor the rulers act in concert all the time. When they cannot coordinate, factions spring out. When more than one group represents the ruled or the ruler, a two-player model does not apply.

Coordination games are appropriate in the following ways: Coordination games feature three characteristics: First, actors are better off if they cooperate than if they do not. Nevertheless, cooperation fails due to disagreements on how they will cooperate. Second, coordination games have multiple Pareto-ranked solutions. That is, games have many outcomes (Nash equilibria), but some are better than others [1]. Third, trust and expectations allow for coordination on a mutually desirable solution [2]. In a more than two-player setting, coordination problems get amplified if challengers hold strong beliefs about aspects of the future regime given that strong beliefs narrow down the room for compromise, hence the set of possible solutions. Of the possible cooperative solutions, some satisfy challengers more than others. For instance, challengers benefit more from overthrowing the authoritarian government and implementing democratic reforms than agreeing to liberalization. Also, on some dimensions, no solution satisfies all challengers at the same time –a regime cannot be secular and theocratic at the same time. Overall, cooperation for regime change displays the characteristics of coordination games. The question is what type of a coordination game this is?

Coordination games take several forms. In battle of sexes, where the couple wants to go on vacation together but prefer different destinations –e.g., seaside vs. mountains, payoffs are symmetric. The game has no solution if played once. Yet, if played successively, players might equally benefit from cooperation. In this game, trust and conventions facilitate coordination by serving as focal points [3]. In matching pennies, coordination on a solution makes one player always better off and the other always worse off [4]. In such zero-sum games, parties might equalize gains only if they mix and randomize strategies over multiple sequences. Finally, stag hunt is a game of common interests, wherein players draw greater benefits from cooperation than from going alone. Although players prefer the better outcome from cooperation, incentives to free ride may hinder cooperation. Which game type should we use?

I argue that the type of grievances (as perceived by actors themselves) determines the type of game that challengers play. The nature of grievances varies across cases. For example, American colonies revolted against England because of their tax-related grievances. In contrast, India rebelled against the British for independence. Such differences in grievance types affect preference structure and payoffs. I will illustrate this idea through the examples of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the October Revolution.

In the case of the 1979 Revolution in Iran, Shah Pahlavi’s authoritarian regime alienated various segments of the society, including the clergy, merchants, workers, liberal intellectuals, students, and leftwing supporters. Bearing different grievances, these groups organized separate contentious activities until the late 1970s. The clergy disapproved of the Shah’s modernization project; liberals wanted a modern democratic regime, while workers had economic grievances [5]. Regardless, these previously disconnected groups collaborated in overthrowing the authoritarian regime under Khomeini’s leadership because they were mobilized by the same anti-imperialist cause.

It is important to realize that intellectuals’ aspirations for democracy or workers’ economic deprivations could all be boiled down to anti-imperialism because of the specific meaning that anti-imperialism had acquired in the course of Iran’s relations with Western powers since the late 19thcentury. Already in 1892, Iranian merchants, liberal intellectuals, the clergy, and officers were mobilized for an anti-imperialist cause at the Tobacco Riots, which contested the Shah’s granting the monopoly of the sale and export of tobacco to the British. These actors had interpreted this policy as a prelude to foreign rule. Concerns about concessions to foreign powers became more salient in the 20thcentury with the 1941 Anglo-Soviet invasion and the British and American sponsored coup in 1953 that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister and paved the way to Shah Pahlavi’s authoritarianism. Thus, Iranian society had a long-standing dislike of foreign intervention, which explains why liberals, who envisioned a secular democratic state, and workers, who pursued Marxist and socialist ideas, found the danger of foreign rule more alarming than the prospects of an Islamist regime and allied with the clergy. Workers and intellectuals played the battle of sexes game; they perceived the payoff from non-cooperation worse off than the payoff from cooperation (imperialism vs. an Islamist regime). It is worth noting that the proposition “overlapping interests lead to cooperation between actors” applies only to the clergy and merchants. The latter held close ideological positions and similar grievances and had a legacy of cooperation spanning from the Tobacco Riots to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, which facilitated launching another round of cooperation in 1979. Yet, this proposition falls short to explain why actors occupying different ideological positions cooperated within the Khomeini-led oppositional movement.

Contrast the Iranian case to another case of regime change, the October Revolution in Russia. As in Iran, the Russian Empire faced foreign threat. Yet, unlike in Iran, it was a particular challenger group, the Bolshevik Party, that carried out transition, while a heterogeneous oppositional movement (aka the White Army), which included other leftwing parties, opposed the Bolsheviks. In Russia, the history of interactions between ideologically close groups within the Russian left is characterized by sporadic and temporary cooperation and splits. For example, the Bolsheviks did not cooperate with the other opposition groups in the Revolution of 1905, but the Mensheviks did. However, cooperation between the Mensheviks and others did not outlive the revolution either. These patterns go against bargaining models’ expectations that shared material interests propel cooperation. Within the Russian left, social democrats had divided into the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks already in 1903, while social revolutionaries had emerged as a distinct movement in 1902. This fracture followed from the discord over the best strategies for transitioning Russia from authoritarianism. Social revolutionaries employed terrorist tactics; the Bolsheviks insisted on building a tight organization of professional revolutionaries, whereas the Mensheviks preferred a broader and looser association in order to engage more societal groups. For these groups, these strategic differences constituted an irreconcilable difference, which made it impossible to sustain cooperation. Why should strategies generate irreconcilable differences?

Remember that game theory assumes strategies to be flexible. Profit maximizing actors adopt their best strategies (to the extent that they are able to perceive them) in response to others’ moves in strategic situations. The case of the Russian left challenges this assumption. Contra the game theoretical assumption, strategic preferences may be as inflexible as ideological preferences in real life. Actors attach normative values to possible outcomes of using a particular strategy. In the Russian case, the Mensheviks believed in transition in the long run–that is, revolution should happen after the proletariat would have gained consciousness, whereas the Bolsheviks believed that they could not afford to wait until Russia would have finalized the bourgeois revolution and proceeded to the proletarian revolution. None of these groups were any less concerned about the Empire’s integrity than the other. Yet, they disagreed, because employing the Menshevik strategy meant to accept a democratic government as a transitional stage. To the Bolsheviks, this was simply unacceptable. Thus, it is through the meanings attributed to outcomes of strategies that strategic disagreements cause irreconcilable differences between groups pursuing similar ideological beliefs and common interests. Thus, the context determines what grievances will be prioritized and how flexible actors will be on strategies and ideologies.

Remember that Iranian challengers played the battle of sexes. Interactions within the Russian left resembles matching pennies, where whichever solution is chosen, at least one player loses. As Colomer notes, the structure of the game is consequential in predicting outcomes [6]. Why did challengers play the battle of sexes in some context and matching pennies in another?

Cooperation between Iranian leftwing and rightwing can be explained by the former’s flexibility on ideologies. Note that, in Iran, the threat of foreign rule seemed so imminent that challengers found it acceptable to concede their ideological beliefs for a strategic alliance with the rightwing. Had the leftwing not prioritized regime change over its ideology it would never have allied with the Khomeini-led movement. In contrast, the lack of cooperation among Russian leftwing parties is a function of actors’ inflexibility on strategies. Challengers disagreed on the opportunity costs of waiting for Russia to reach the proletarian revolution stage. If they had not prioritized this strategic divide over the objective of regime change, the Russian left would have cooperated long ago for a communist revolution instead of fighting each other. Thus, flexibility on both strategies and ideologies plays a causal role, which determines the structure of the game.

In sum, using game theoretical models simplify and therefore helps understand complex processes such as revolutions. However, each revolution is different. Coordination games are better suited for incorporating these differences.

Colomer, Josep M. Game Theory and the Transition to Democracy: The Spanish Model. Edward Elgar Publishing, Incorporated, 1995.

Cooper, Russel W. Coordination Games: Complementarities and Macroeconomics. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Easley, David, and Jon Kleinberg. Networks, Crowds, and Markets Reasoning about a Highly Connected World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Parsa, Misagh. States, Ideologies, and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of Iran, Nicaragua, and the Philippines. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Schelling, Thomas C. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.


[1]David Easley and Jon Kleinberg, Networks, Crowds, and Markets Reasoning about a Highly Connected World(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 168–69.

[2]Russel W. Cooper, Coordination Games: Complementarities and Macroeconomics(Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), ix–x.

[3]Thomas C Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).

[4]Easley and Kleinberg, Networks, Crowds, and Markets Reasoning about a Highly Connected World, 174.

[5]Misagh Parsa, States, Ideologies, and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of Iran, Nicaragua, and the Philippines(Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 170–73.

[6]Josep M. Colomer, Game Theory and the Transition to Democracy: The Spanish Model(Edward Elgar Publishing, Incorporated, 1995).

Basak Taraktas

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Computational social scientist, artist (I draw!), and a math and philosophy lover