What nonviolence is, and is not

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.


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 Status Quo Time Loop

The one unifying characteristic of both Donald Trump’s campaign and those who have mobilized to stop him is the concept of change. This is not piercing insight. Trump promises to remake how America relates to both itself and the rest of the world. Most of “the resistance” talks about unprecedented organization, a new type of activism. This rhetoric remains the same, whether the speaker is a loyal Democrat or an ardent revolutionary.

But one must always be wary of false promises. The opposition linked to the Democratic Party may march alongside radicals, but at the end of the day their participation is linked to getting people and money to win the 2018 midterms. Policy is not a major part of the pitch. Stop Trump, priorities #1, #2, and #3.

This focus on becoming the opposition to a person, rather than an ideology, is dangerous. Fortunately, we have lessons from history. In David Broder’s piece in Jacobin, “Being Anti-Trump Isn’t Enough”, he takes the example of Italy, whose politics have been dominated for over twenty years by Trump-esque populist Silvio Berlusconi. In a short time, the former Communist Party had shifted so far to the right that they mirrored the Democrats, both in their party name and outlook. They upheld neoliberalism and austerity, and focused on Berlusconi’s scandals and outrageous statements, attempting to win disaffected conservatives. The Left atrophied, no longer being seen as a way to power. And all this concerted campaign against one man did was reinforce the status quo and produce weak, unstable governments.

The election of Tom Perez as DNC chair, along with subsequent events, shows that the Democratic establishment wants to roll into 2018 with the same outlook and message that lost them the 2016 election (well, and the 2010, 2012, and 2014 ones too, minus Obama’s re-election). The energy created by Trump’s election among progressives is fuel for an attempt to reintroduce the status quo. And if the Democratic Party gets its wish, the time loop restarts- the status quo doesn’t work for many people, right-wing populist seizes on this disaffection, gains power, creates opposition, opposition funneled to Democratic Party.

Whatever your opinion on Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign, he was offering a possible way out of this time loop. Fixing the major social and economic problems in the country, or at least trying to, helps prevent another Trump down the line. With the current strategy, the Democrats aim to fight the same divisive election every two years, with climate change and a hundred other serious problems charging through unfixed.

The centre cannot hold: Yeats and 2017 disintegration

William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” the year after World War I. It’s better known for the line “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” which definitely captures 20th century war and progress. I was re-reading it, and felt that parts of it, in particular the first stanza, hit way too close to home in 2017.

Here is the full poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


Glimpse of a Mad King

Even if the present downward spiral persists all the way to November 8th, the 2016 presidential election will not be a historic blowout. Since 1960 a half dozen elections have been lopsided, including two where the winner came close to carrying all fifty states. Yet, despite this historical perspective, 2016 may feel like those elections. Because qualitatively, the Trump campaign seems like a disaster.

It is clear that despite statements to the contrary, campaign workers and the GOP establishment have lost control of their candidate. Now that the conventions are done, Trump and Clinton will receive classified briefings. Within 24 hours, there was already concern that Trump may have described a top secret video. He did not, but few think he is incapable of such things. Many Americans simply have zero faith in Trump to do the right thing, for that is often the selfless thing. And not only is Khizr Khan right that Trump has never known sacrifice, he has no ability to do so.

What I think is interesting right now is that with the Republican Party, we see a glimpse of what an authoritarian America would look like. While the US is an oligarchy in practice, there is a political culture that curtails what leaders can do. Right now in the GOP, there is no one higher than Trump, and if he chooses to self-destruct nobody can stop him. Conservatives are getting a taste of the old days of European royalty, where insane monarchs ruled for years because they were, on paper, the leader.

This all remains in large part a vanity campaign. But in the service of ego stroking, the consequences may not be as trivial as the candidate.

Ten million reasons to vote for Jill Stein, M.D.

The Democratic National Convention has catalyzed a new, much stronger debate about voting Democrat or opting to support the Green presidential nominee, Jill Stein. Dan Savage produced perhaps the “To Be or Not to Be” of misguided anti-Stein arguments a few days ago. The response by Green national co-chair Andrea Mérida Cuéllar was a comprehensive defense of the Green Party ideology and strategy, also highlighting how Savage is against bullying unless the victim is a third-party politician:

We Greens are also well acquainted with Savage’s rhetoric of entitlement regarding Democratic candidacies—for example his violent remarks aimed at Green Pennsylvania congressional candidate Carl Romanelli in 2006, who was challenging Rick Santorum and Bob Casey.  At that time, Savage said about Romanelli, “The idiot Green? . . . Carl Romanelli should be dragged behind a pickup truck until there’s nothing left but the rope.”

Perhaps not the greatest imagery given the murder of James Byrd Jr.

Bernie campaign people are evaluating what to do next, with many not wanting to play the spoiler.

But here’s a secret that isn’t mentioned in many of your friends’s Facebook monologues about unity and the lesser evil: most American voters can’t play the spoiler. The US doesn’t use a national popular vote like many other countries. Only four states in 2012 were within five percentage points. In my home state of California, being the 3,000,000th insurance vote for Clinton isn’t terribly useful.

People like Savage, who profess interest in real opposition to the two major parties, know nothing of how the presidential race can create opportunities for change. Ballot access is essential for providing real choice. And Stein doesn’t need to win to move the cause forward. I don’t mean this in the abstract “changing the conversation” sense. Getting 5% of the national vote gives a party access to funding for the next presidential cycle. This means over $10 million in cold, hard cash in 2020:

5% of the vote nationally is another important threshold. If the Stein campaign reached it, the Green Party would qualify for general election public funding in 2020 that will be worth over $10 million. The public funding for minor parties that qualify (5% to 25% in the previous election) is based on the ratio of the percentage received by the minor party to the average percentage received by the major parties.

Since the Greens contest offices at all levels, a few thousand dollars scattered around here and there could mean Green city council members, mayors, and even state representatives. For Sanders supporters looking to continue his “political revolution”, a vote for Stein is a meaningful step in the right direction.

The pre-democratic American Constitution



Discussions about the American political system often seem too…exact. The foundation of law and source of political norms in the United States is portrayed as entrenched, and the Constitution set up as laying out the politics of today in detail.

For instance, the statement “America is a two-party system”. Most facts about the modern American political system are codification through improvisation. It’s because the United States has a pre-modern, pre-democratic Constitution.

Sitting at the core of American law is an archaic foundation, that we spend a lot of time pretending isn’t a dead albatross that we have to drag around. One school of legal thought is that because the Constitution is so short and vague, it can evolve with the times. Whether this is because it is a living document, or that the wisdom of the Framers is seen as a matter of political opinion. Yet the Constitution has not aged well. Modern America is held together with legal gaffer tape.

So, what is the Constitution not equipped to handle? Competitive elections (so, democracy as we know it today). Political parties. Interest groups. Money in politics. A society in which people other than white landowners had value. The welfare state. Modern monetary policy. Economic integration. Cultural shifts on civil rights based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choice. The Industrial Revolution. Multilateral treaties and international cooperation.

The vagueness has often not been a benefit at all. There is nothing in the text that says women are allowed to vote, but it took a constitutional amendment to specifically make that a right. The Constitution is not adaptable if its general principles must be updated by legally binding alteration.

In practice, the Constitution is dragged into each new era by common law. But this means that the decisions of a small, homogeneous judicial clique decides what are new rights. And there’s nothing to have reversals that go in the opposite direction of progress. Judges essentially create a substantial portion of the law from whole cloth- given the vague nature of their source material, rather than giving a yes/no decision, they have to create new standards.

Now a constitution need not be updated every year, but basically no other constitution in the world predates the basic norms of how democracies govern.

This is hardly an original view. There has been one substantial effort to reconcile the 18th century worldview with principles recognizable in 2016. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights was proposed as a way to deal with one of the most fundamental shifts in American society- that is, economic rights that aren’t directly related to property. The proposal was nothing left than a complete revolution in the role of government. Most of the ideas in the Second Bill of Rights have never been implemented and may never will.

Besides economic rights, no procedures are supplied for how American democracy should work. The Framers willfully refused to regulate party politics, so when partisanship erupted, the rules were improvised. But the well is even drier here, because instead of vague principles, there’s just…nothing. America is a two-party state in practice, but it’s a zero party state in fundamental law.

It is frustrating that many all but worship the Constitution, while ignoring the problems caused by its continued existence. It feels like we’re playing blackjack, but using rules from a book about bridge.

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.


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.