Flight and Fight

Nicholas Van Hear

fistEducated but largely jobless young(ish) people – including many with tertiary education – appear to be drivers of both recent worldwide protests and much global migration.  This seems to be the case in the so-called ‘global north’ as much as in the so-called ‘emerging’ political economies: twenty- and thirty-somethings in both of these worlds protest and move – and sometimes do both.  This somewhat obvious observation perhaps deserves closer attention than it has received to date: for what is the relationship – if any – between burgeoning international migration and the recent explosion of global protest/resistance movements – Occupy, anti-austerity protest in the global north and global south, the Arab spring, and the like?

The conventional way of presenting the alternatives to difficult conditions has been the exit/voice/loyalty triumvirate proposed way back by Hirschman (1970). Put more simply as ‘fight or flight’ in the vernacular, this amounts to the choice between protest and resistance on one hand and moving out and away on the other.  Loyalty or acquiescence is Hirschman’s third, more passive option.

According to Hirschman’s simple and therefore attractive idea, the pressure of discontentment leads to the two active options, leaving (exit) or articulating grievances in order to try to resolve them (voice).  In his original conception, the two had a pendulum-like or inverse relationship, so that as one increased the other decreased.  After the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he modified the basic idea, suggesting that exit and voice did not have to be an in an inverse relationship, but could work with each other to hasten the fall of oppressive regimes such as obtained in eastern Europe.

Figuring out the options
Taking this a bit further, Pedraza (2013) has suggested a useful framework in which she identifies four possible permutations of exit and voice (which I have modified here with due credit to her):

  • Exit impedes voice:  exit weakens civil society by depriving it of motivated and energetic people who can articulate grievances
  • Exit helps/augments voice:  those who leave strengthen civil society in the communities they leave behind by sending resources and ideas while away, or by bringing back resources,  ideas and organisational techniques on return
  • Exit becomes voice: those in exile or in diaspora articulate the grievances of those remaining at home who cannot express discontent because of repression and fear
  • Exit and voice grow together: exit and voice work in tandem, reinforcing one another.

We can see all of these permutations working in recent events.  But the much-vaunted growth of social media, as well as diaspora TV and radio (Kosnick 2008, Castells 2013, Mason 2013), have made much easier the fourth permutation of exit and voice working in tandem.

Assent and dissent
We can perhaps give this a further twist, for neither exit nor voice necessarily take a ‘progressive’ form — and yes, to declare an interest, I do prefer progressive voices over reactionary, atavistic ones.

With this in mind, there are at least two ‘exit’ manifestations:

  • exit to join a diaspora which maintains ethnic, nationalist or other sectional identities, and which might take a loyalist or oppositional stance towards the regime in the country of origin
  • exit to join a cosmopolitan, universalist-oriented  (middle) class,  which transcends sectional allegiances and articulates liberal or liberating ideas and values

Of course there are positions in between, or both positions could be held over time.

Likewise there are two or more ‘voice’ variants:

  • ‘progressive’ voices  – as articulated in anti-austerity protest in both the ‘global north’ and the ‘emerging’ world, Occupy, democracy movements like the Arab spring (the early, heady, optimistic version), and movements with mixed demands in places like Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere
  • ‘reactionary’, atavistic voices – variants of fundamentalism and authoritarianism, al Shabab, al Qaeda, military intervention, the Arab nightmare, and so on

Again these are of course ideal types, with grey areas in between.  Assent or loyalty to the regime one lives under could be thrown into the mix as well.

Private exit, public voice?
There is a further angle to all this, to which Hirschman also perceptively draws attention.  As he rightly observes, exit is often essentially a private activity – ‘a minimalist way of expressing dissent’, as he puts it (1993: 194).  Voice on the other hand is typically a public activity, thriving on action in concert with others.  This might be qualified to underline that, in the aggregate, exit can become a very public activity, with significant public or collective consequences.

Hirschman revisited his original idea in the light of the implosion of the Soviet bloc in the later 1980s and early 1990s.  He noted, ‘The real mystery of the 1989 events is the transformation of what started and was intended as a purely private activity – the effort of scattered individuals to move from East to West – into a broad movement of public protest’  (Hirschman 1993: 198). For him the explanation is that ‘exit… ignited voice’ (1993: 198).

Can the same be said of the recent wave of global protest and its counterpart in global mobility?  It looks that way, for the transnational dimensions of all this have been accentuated in the years since the end of the Soviet bloc: think of the different transnational combinations of exit and voice, in the Australian Egyptian who goes ‘home’ to protest in Tahrir Square, the Canadian Tamil who protests in Toronto at war crimes in Sri Lanka, the Turkish activist in Berlin organising demonstrations in support of compatriots in Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul….. or the British Somali who goes to fight with Al Shabab….

The reader may have sensed the exploratory nature of this piece. The author is developing research along these lines and would be interested to hear from those thinking in similar ways.


  • Castells, M. (2013) Networks of outrage and hope: social movements in the internet age Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Hirschman, A. (1970) Exit, Voice and Loyalty:Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Hirschman, A. (1993) ‘Exit, Voice, and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic: An Essay in Conceptual History’, World Politics, 45: 173-202.
  • Kosnick, K. (2008) Exit and voice revisited: the challenge of migrant media, Research Group Transnationalism working paper 9, Frankfurt am Main: Institute of Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology, Goethe University.
  • Mason, P. (2013) Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, Verso.
  • Pedraza, S. (2013) ‘Social protest and migration’ in The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, Wiley.