What nonviolence is, and is not

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The nonviolent People Power Revolution of 1986, Philippines

The events in Charlottesville have reignited a long-standing debate about the use of force to create social change. There is an immense amount of rage, and impatience. Violence is becoming more accepted as a legitimate way forward. I see it every day on my Facebook- that’s in fact why I wrote this post.

To begin with, I have no deep moral opposition to violence to achieve liberation. I acknowledge a diversity of tactics is useful and that people will disagree on the way forward. However, the advocates of armed resistance have been characterizing nonviolent resistance in an unfair, narrow manner that I’m sure would tick them off if it were applied to their ideas. So this post aims to call attention to the basics- what nonviolence is, what it is not, and to rescue the practice from the strawman heap and put it in its full complexity.

So here are six theses on nonviolence.

Nonviolence is not the same as pacifism. Pacifism is a very long and complex tradition, but in common parlance it has been equated with being peaceful above all else, and not resisting force. One can be a pacifist and practice nonviolent action, but many practitioners are not morally opposed to violence. Nonviolence can be a pragmatic choice, which it is for me.

Nonviolence is not passive. In October 2000, hundreds of thousands of people flooded Belgrade from all over Serbia, intent on overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic. Vastly outnumbered, security forces stepped aside and the people seized the federal parliament building. Paired with mass strikes and grassroots organizing, Milosevic stepped aside, doing what a brutal NATO bombing campaign had been unable to. The Bulldozer Revolution, named because activists brought heavy machinery to break up checkpoints and barricades, was nonviolent. Nobody would call the actions of the Serbian people passive. They took the initiative, dictated terms of surrender, and defeated a regime that had survived violent attacks from the world’s most advanced militaries. Most of them had no moral opposition to violence. They used nonviolence because it worked.

Nonviolence can be, and often is, radical. A misleading line has been drawn connecting nonviolence (a very large, complex idea) to current methods of achieving social change. Nonviolence equals the status quo, the status quo is no change, nonviolence doesn’t work, Q.E.D. But rallies and Change.org petitions are a very small subset of nonviolent action, and it disingenuous to narrow the definition that much.

Gene Sharp lists 198 methods of nonviolent action, in a flyer that is circulated at certain activist events. I first saw it in Occupy in 2011. Other lists exist, Sharp’s is unusually exhaustive. But we can see that symbolic actions like petitions are a small part of the overall range of activity. The strike is fundamentally a nonviolent action- while it may involve violence in some cases, it is about using economic rather than physical weapons to seize political and social power. The difference between a Charge.org petition and hartal, a type of total general strike used in South Asia, is vast.

As Mark Kurlansky points out in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Ideanonviolence is such a radical concept that there is no English word for it. We simply define it by what it is not rather than what it is. Mahatma Gandhi invented the term satyagraha in part because in order to advocate for nonviolence, one has to create a new mental framework.

Nonviolence is not just an appeal to an enemy’s conscience. This Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) quote has been circulating recently.

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You can here the excerpt of this speech in the Black Power Mixtape here (video).

The thing is, as intuitive as that sounds, appealing to the conscience of one’s opponents is a very small part of nonviolent action. Gene Sharp admits that this strategy usually does not work:

Nonviolent struggle produces change in four ways. The first mechanism is the least likely, though it has occurred. When members of the opponent group are emotionally moved by the suffering of repression imposed on courageous nonviolent resisters or are rationally persuaded that the resisters’ cause is just, they may come to accept the resisters’ aims. This mechanism is called conversion. Though cases of conversion in nonviolent action do sometimes happen, they are rare, and in most conflicts this does not occur at all or at least not on a significant scale. (From Dictatorship to Democracyp. 35) (emphasis mine)

Put simply, the fact that nonviolent action proponents admit this straight up indicates that nonviolence is not just about converting enemies. Because that doesn’t work.

Nonviolence is effective. In 2012, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan published a book, Why Civil Resistance Works, which is perhaps the most detailed study of both violent and nonviolent campaigns in the modern era. Their conclusions are clear:

For more than a century, from 1900 to 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. By attracting impressive support from citizens, whose activism takes the form of protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of nonviolent noncooperation, these efforts help separate regimes from their main sources of power and produce remarkable results, even in Iran, Burma, the Philippines, and the Palestinian Territories . . .

Chenoweth and Stephan conclude that successful nonviolent resistance ushers in more durable and internally peaceful democracies, which are less likely to regress into civil war. Presenting a rich, evidentiary argument, they originally and systematically compare violent and nonviolent outcomes in different historical periods and geographical contexts, debunking the myth that violence occurs because of structural and environmental factors and that it is necessary to achieve certain political goals. Instead, the authors discover, violent insurgency is rarely justifiable on strategic grounds.

If nonviolence didn’t work, it would have died out a long time ago. Its continued presence is a testament to its ability to win victories for people, who may face enemies with significantly more guns and money.

Nonviolence sets a tactically superior battlefield. Nonviolence often uses similar language and concepts to violent action. In this case, a significant (and often unacknowledged) disadvantage that comes with violence is that it chooses a field of battle in which the enemy has every advantage. So you want to arm up and take on neo-Nazis? Then the police? The National Guard? Marines? Not only are all of these groups armed to the teeth, they all want to use violence. It’s what they’re good at. Choosing violence plays into their hands. You know what all these groups aren’t good at? Dealing with mass resistance. Strikes, boycotts, noncooperation. If they use violence in this context, it just creates more resistance. We already know this in practice- violence against communities in the War on Terror has created more opposition to U.S policy, not less.

Going forward, each activist has to make fundamental decisions. Part of making an educated decision is to see each option in its full depth. Advocates of armed struggle are tired of being mischaracterized and stereotyped, but can turn around and do the same things to advocates of civil resistance. This accomplishes nothing. And as both sides can agree, something must be accomplished, now and forever.

 

 

The most dangerous idea in the world: nonviolent resistance

It’s not violence, insurrection. It’s not guns and bombs and prison camps and purges. The conventional wisdom is wrong and ahistorical. There is only one defensible means of social change at the general level. That is the use of nonviolent resistance and noncooperation.

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For info about nonviolent resistance- the popular seizure of political power through mass democratic action- check out Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy (free PDF, just under 100  pages) and the superb new book by Srdja Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution. I read the latter over the weekend, it’s a quick, funnier, and less technical version of From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Plan. Execute. Win. Activism and net neutrality

Net neutrality carried the day at the FCC. The years-long fight between certain sectors of business and a coalition in favor of an egalitarian internet is not over by any means, but a decision to treat the internet like a public utility is a clear win for activists.

FCC commissioners hold hands during a hearing on net neutrality today. February 26, 2015. Mark Wilson/Getty

As Waging Nonviolence writes, the grassroots campaign for net neutrality stands as an example of how to structure activism:

Today’s net neutrality rules would not exist without the tireless work of activists both in the streets and behind screens. Last year, I interviewed activists about how they planned to win on net neutrality, something that seemed impossible at the time. But they achieved today’s improbable victory by following those plans to the letter: having a clear and concise demand from day one, creating synergy between online and offline organizing, and framing net neutrality as a social justice issue.

Gene Sharp, which the New Statesman once dubbed “the Machiavelli of Non-Violence”, emphasizes one thing above all in his work: if you want to win, you need a strong, resilient plan (much of his works are available online for free here). In reality, most social justice movements are not fully planned out before they happen, but figuring out what the central demand is, what tactics will be used, and what the contingencies if there is a setback or repression is key. The move for net neutrality was impressive in its breadth and organization, and the structural basis for its success is what can be exported to other struggles.

As an activist states, this is just one step, and the fight to cement the victory continues with a new standoff:

“Our next goal is to undermine the telecom industry,” said Zeese. “We want to make them politically toxic so that anyone who does their bidding is seen as someone who is corrupted by a monopoly system.”

There’s always a next goal. Mobilization is power.

Occupy Hong Kong, Gene Sharp, and nonviolent revolution

If there is one modern thinker that I think needs larger exposure, it is nonviolent struggle academic Gene Sharp. Now a frail old man in his mid-80s, Sharp has spent the last sixty years compiling countless case studies and composed rock-solid theories on nonviolent means of enacting political change, and added a list of 198 methods to achieve them.

His thesis: even for those with no moral opposition to violence, unarmed struggle is more likely to succeed, and much more likely to produce a better society than the one it overthrew. This idea over the past few decades has gained widespread currency, as a feature in the not-at-all pacifist Foreign Policy this summer supports, entitled “Drop Your Weapons”. 

The Albert Einstein Institution, which is primarily Sharp and Jamila Raqib, operates out of Sharp’s home in Boston. Much of his work is available for free on the organization’s website, most notably There Are Realistic Alternatives, the short pep talk for would-be revolutionaries, and the practical guide to creating a better world, From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Gandhi during the Salt March

I already wrote a piece last year extolling Sharp’s virtues; this is more of an update. Some may look at this scene and think Sharp and Raqib to be fringe academics, that nobody actually listens to. However, there is always the theme, across the world and over many years. Ask key organizers of movements, whether those in Serbia that overthrew Slobodan Milošević, someone even US air power couldn’t drive from power. Some of the students behind the initial revolution in Egypt sought Sharp’s advice, and Benny Tai, a key leader in the current Occupy Central campaign in Hong Kong openly admits the influence. From this Bloomberg article:

Occupy Central is inspired by a civil-disobedience playbook set out by Gene Sharp, a U.S. academic whose work has inspired non-violent uprisings from Egypt to Serbia, Tai said. Sharp, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, argues that once authorities use violence against unarmed protesters they lose the sympathy of the rest of the population, leading to a shift in public opinion to support the protesters.

Protestor in the midst of tear gas dual-wielding umbrellas. Hella badass.

Wherever you go, Sharp shows up somewhere. He may never be the primary influence, and certain local conditions create local strategy and leaders, but he is around. His work is disseminated organically- he or his supporters have never printed copies by the millions. Yet From Dictatorship to Democracy has ended up translated into Chinese, and Ukrainian, and five separate languages used in Burma. We all know that the real heroes are those on the ground, and Sharp is thankfully a humble personality, but the effectiveness and discipline of Occupy Hong Kong shows the power of resources for planning and executing nonviolent forms of struggle. Work by Sharp, Robert Helvey, and others help anyone interested in the work of 20th century nonviolent resisters accessible. Not everyone has the brilliance of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., but lessons learned from their work can be distilled and provided as a guide.

Gene Sharp was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, his fourth nomination. Two years ago he received the Right Livelihood Award, which is its closest equivalent. I would like him to receive the Peace Prize, but it has always been a bit faddish (Barack Obama the year of his election) or strange (the European Union as a whole). This year I’d put good money on Pope Francis winning, but there’s a reason betting sites always have Sharp in the top five.

Have a plan. Know the methods. Change the world.

 

Donate some money towards nonviolent struggle

So we’re at the end of 2013, and it’s that period where most people sort out their pledges and donations. Personally I don’t have a lot of money, but I try to support Doctors Without Borders and the American Friends Service Committee, as well as the local Unitarian Universalist congregation.

But I’d like to make a pitch for the Albert Einstein Institution , a tiny non-profit based in Boston that serves to create and publish works about nonviolent forms of struggle. Gene Sharp, the founder and main author, is best known for the pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy, written for Burmese rebels at their request. It’s been translated into at least 34 other languages and played a role in nonviolent revolutions in Serbia, the Ukraine, and Egypt. Much what has been published is available for free online.

Sharp has gained quite a bit of recognition since the Arab Spring, in both news outlets and from NGOs and other organizations. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, and last year won the Right Livelihood Award, an alternative to the Nobel. His work was the subject of a 2011 documentary, How to Start a Revolution (available online here).

Let’s get to the point. If you’re in the situation where you have moral or practical opposition to both pure pacifism and violent revolution, Gene Sharp is the most important person to examine and propose an alternative. As he says, nonviolent struggle is combat, just using weapons beyond guns and bombs. And it works.

The Albert Einstein Institution is run on a shoestring- it presently lists five employees and operates out of Sharp’s house. The time-intensive work they do is then published for free, and they do not collect royalties. But if there is hope for a world filled with democratic societies, in which the revolution does not in time become the dictatorship, then nonviolent struggle is the path that needs to be taken. And there needs to be a guide. The Albert Einstein Institution writes these guides, refines them, improves them. Give them some money.

You can through PayPal on the front page of their website.

Dismantling dictatorships, creating civilian power

The principle is simple. Dictators require the assistance of the people they rule, without which they cannot secure and maintain their sources of political power.

All of these sources, however, depend on the acceptance of the regime, on the submission and obedience of the population, and on the cooperation of innumerable people and the many institutions of the society. These are not guaranteed.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, p. 18-19

Such is the thesis of Gene Sharp, the preeminent scholar of non-violent forms of struggle. While he’s created several exhaustive volumes analyzing case studies and going into the theory of violence versus non-violence in creating social and political change, his most well-known work is a 93-page pamphlet. From Dictatorship to Democracy was published in 1993 on the request of Karen rebels in Burma. When Sharp visited them, he saw a group  who had tried violence to liberate their people, but had failed. They wanted to try new tactics, but did not have a guide to doing so.

The work is a generic strategy to overthrowing dictatorships, and includes a list of 198 forms of non-violent action. In the twenty years since, it has been translated into 31 additional languages, and has seen use by activists on every continent except Antarctica.

Sharp’s guidebook to non-violent revolution

This post is not here to glamorize Sharp- who this year, for the third time, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But rather, it’s to delve a bit into what his statement means. About the nature of power.

There is an idea of fighting strength with strength- if you want to defeat a dictatorial regime, you need as many people, dollars, soldiers. Sharp is emphasizing that there is within a state only one source of power and strength. It flows between people, civil society, governments, and the military. But power is not an island, and authority depends on people accepting its legitimacy.

Even in the face of a terrible regime like the SED in East Germany, governments cannot intimidate a group of people who united and decide to put their fear aside. The feeling of fear is a source of control by authoritarian groups- and when fear fails to keep people in line the regime is thrown into crisis. The Peaceful Revolution, a movement that is virtually ignored in American history courses, is an example. The sheer volume of people in open defiance paralyzed the regime, and led to police and the army not using force against the protestors (who peaked at 500,000 in East Berlin alone). The dreaded Stasi  attempted to provoke a violent activist response, but were unsuccessful. A commitment to non-violent ideals kept the Peaceful Revolution from being a violent massacre. While the Eastern Bloc was crumbling, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not spontaneously happen. It was created by a population that had castrated the Communist leadership. And they had done so without guns. It was psychological and social. Fear flowed from people back to the government.

When you look at revolutions that have produced long-lasting democratic states, straight-up violent takeover is not a common feature. The changes in Poland were preceded by years of action by Solidarity. The Gdańsk strikes led to a legal, independent trade union, that at its peak included 1/3 of the working population (for reference, that would be a union with 80,000,000 members in the US, about seven times that of the AFL-CIO). Non-violent action had created civil society where none had existed before. And over time, it led to a democratic Poland. Violent opposition legitimates violence. It splits social and political groups, and clouds the situation for outside groups who don’t want to support what is simply a different evil.

Watching the stalemate and bloodshed in Syria, and the second, worrying military coup play out in Egypt (and the deeply fragmented post-Gaddafi Libya) the need for strong non-violent tactics and the creation of a civilian and democratic power base becomes clear. It’s not easy, and it certainly isn’t always intuitive, but the more you study the issue the more benefits pop up.

Leave your fear behind

A way forward, past fear and intimidation

 

A few days ago, I got a package in the mail. It contained a pamphlet, one that is not famous like Common Sense by Thomas Paine, but in the modern world is deeply relevant and useful. It is, simply, a road to revolution.

From Dictatorship to Democracy is the distilled wisdom of Gene Sharp, an 84-year old academic who lives in East Boston. His life has been quiet- he has written no best-selling books, held no prestigious professorships. However, he is the world’s leading expert on nonviolent struggle. He believes that ideas and willpower are more powerful than guns. Through case studies, one learns that even in the face of the worst evil, nonviolence had been used and been used effectively. Fear is what keeps people in line, supporting their autocrats. But if you remove your support, your obedience, then dictatorships crumble before your eyes. Nonviolent struggle is a way to empower people, and give them a way forward, past fear.

Continue reading “Leave your fear behind”