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.
Thanks to all who have read some part of this blog in 2014. Though this isn’t a blockbuster website, traffic did quadruple from 2013, which itself quadrupled from 2012. There is now a fairly active Twitter account tied to the blog (@MackayUnspoken), and almost 300 people subscribe through WordPress.
More content in 2015. There’s still chaos in central Africa, eastern Ukraine, and the Rohingya areas of Myanmar. Mass protests have stalled in Hong Kong, while radical left-wing party are on the brink of seizing power in Greece and Spain. We still live in an age of austerity, growing inequity, and environmental disaster. There is so much more to write about, because so much lies beyond the scope of cable news and social media. Immense problems need radical solutions.
Take care, looking forward to all this.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 8,100 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.
Oh they are, to be sure. Just that the United States government hasn’t been eager to admit that it wasn’t United States humanitarian intervention that saved these people hidden in those Iraqi mountains. It was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, best known by their acronym, PKK.
The PKK has a history of violent conflict with Turkey, which earned it a spot on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list. The past few years have seen one of the most radical political transformations in modern history. Led by their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK has ended their armed conflict and replaced that struggle with another. Something special is happening in parts of Kurdistan- the most daring democratic experiment of the 21st century.
But what has happened in Rojava, where the Syrian revolution gave Kurdish radicals the chance to carry out such experiments in a large, contiguous territory, suggests this is anything but window dressing. Councils, assemblies and popular militias have been formed, regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the extreme rightwing forces of Isis. The results meet any definition of a social revolution.
These assemblies start at the lowest level, electing higher levels. Diversity is mandated, including women in positions of authority. Radical literature is discussed frequently in meetings. In some places, the non-state assembly structure is more powerful than the regular government. In some sense, the PKK is replacing the independent country they cannot have with a new sort of free society- one that comes from direct democracy and an end to oppressive institutions.
As Reflections on a Revolution (ROAR) published earlier this year, the PKK has gone through a earnest transformation thanks in part to the honesty of its leader:
Öcalan embarked, in his prison writings, on a thorough re-examination and self-criticism of the terrible violence, dogmatism, personality cult and authoritarianism he had fostered: “It has become clear that our theory, programme and praxis of the 1970s produced nothing but futile separatism and violence and, even worse, that the nationalism we should have opposed infested all of us. Even though we opposed it in principle and rhetoric, we nonetheless accepted it as inevitable.” Once the unquestioned leader, Öcalan now reasoned that “dogmatism is nurtured by abstract truths which become habitual ways of thinking. As soon as you put such general truths into words you feel like a high priest in the service of his god. That was the mistake I made.”
So many hardline Marxist-Leninist militias are unable to break out of their dogma, and they either forsake socialism altogether, or ossify into obscurity. Perhaps there is another way to move forward, to transform from a failed revolution to a thriving one.
Everything that is reprehensible about ISIS is countered by the Kurdish revolutionaries. Clearly they are not terrorists of the same ilk.
Thankfully the past day has seen CNBC post a short editorial with a simple title- “Why the US should take PKK off the terror list“. Put simply, the United States has gotten its ass saved by the PKK showing up to save Yazidi- especially after the US-trained peshmerga forces ran away after a brief fight with ISIS. For Western powers, the story of PKK should be positive- an enemy has become a friend. Not due to shifting alliances (the old Cold War mentality), but the transformation of a strong, dedicated group of people.
ROAR ends their feature with a call to action:
those of us who value the idea of civilization owe our gratitude to the Kurds, who are fighting the jihadists of Islamist fascism day and night on the frontlines in Syria and Iraq, defending radical democratic values with their lives.
The Kurds, in particular the PKK and the PYD, should be the talk of the radical left, and any that oppose what ISIS is doing to Iraq and Syria. But the Kurds are often ignored, and even moreso the democratic revolution that is going on in some areas. Let that not be the case. The Kurds are a stateless people, their history is one of cultural loss, genocide, and struggle- armed and unarmed. They have a story to tell us all, we only need listen.
This is the lesson of 21st century Western-backed regime change in the Middle East. When a dictator is toppled, so goes the one institution that can use sanction and force to establish order. One may remember the order in 2003 that dissolved Iraq’s Republican Guard and other police and military forces as a more formal way to create a situation like 2014 Libya. True, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were using their armed forces for terrible things – both warfare against their own people and bloody wars like Hussein’s slugfest with Iran in the 1980’s. When they are gone, however, it becomes a free-for-all, and any democratic successor relies on the military foundation to enact political policy. If the rebel victory in Libya could be considered a potential revolution, though if it is it’s a complicated one, the reaction is when civil conflict attacks the ideals of the original movement.
In Iraq, looking solely at the development of democratic institution, the new regime had the assistance of a large Coalition force that, struggles with insurgents notwithstanding, had a lot of firepower to back a new government. Libya has none of that. It’s the remnants of Gaddafi’s power bloc and the shattered pieces of the rebels, plus any foreign Islamist force that wishes to creep in from neighboring countries. The country becomes a set of fiefdoms, just how the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds had their own districts in Iraq. It shouldn’t be some great surprise when this is where the Libyan Civil War ends up. Military intervention only becomes justifiable if it’s a benefit in both the short and long-term. Personally, I opposed any kind of bombing campaign against Syria, as proponents (who had the burden of proof) couldn’t show how it would save lives and improve a future resolution of the conflict. You don’t throw missiles into a situation without a clear of idea of why their damage is important. Or to be more realistic, you shouldn’t.
It was clear that a massive humanitarian response was both urgently needed and ultimately defensible. Libya is much the same- if not now then soon.
The ledger of the Arab Spring, about three and a half years later, is complex and still shifting. As Jeffrey Laurenti writes that elections “have been unfolding this spring in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as well as Egypt. Not all of them are a sham. But even the genuinely free elections are often associated with dysfunctional governments and deeply divided societies.” Egypt is going back to a military autocrat, with much of the electorate happy with the change, even among widespread violence against the Muslim Brotherhood. One may think of this as mere window dressing. Was Egypt really anything but a military junta going through a bit of an experiment? Laurenti points out that even Lebanon, which scores the highest in terms of political freedom in Middle East states if you disqualify Israel, is charitably a complete mess – though some of this is a war in Syria that they cannot separate themselves from.
This is the 21st century. Movements can be worldwide, countries influence each other on so many levels. And political revolution and crisis are harder and harder to ignore. From this comes the question – what can I do to make other societies fairer, safer, more egalitarian? What can my country do? Everyone is finding their limits. Clearly Western powers often get involved in cultural and societal conflicts that they don’t understand. But then other times they sit by and do nothing – as I write this, two decades ago Hutu extremists were massacring Tutsis in the streets with machetes. The balance of doing something and letting things play out on their own is always there, and everyone has their own take on where their country and the world should stand.
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.
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.
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.
I’m currently reading Sam Dolgoff’s sizable Bakunin on Anarchism, a collection of Michael Bakunin’s writings from his entire career. It’s organized chronologically, and designed to show how Bakunin came upon the idea of anarchism and what he called “the Social Revolution.” If you just want his most famous essays, I’d advise a smaller collection. But in terms of a complete portrait, I’m finding it very satisfying.
The title is from an article he wrote in the spring of 1869. In it he ponders the political questions that still exists today- can you change the system from within? During the political movements of the 19th century, certain parts of the bourgeoisie tried to convince the working class that voting and parliaments were the best path to political and economic equality. Accepting or rejecting the political process is a choice all groups must make. In America there are elements that criticize a path of assimilation- a documentary called Lifting the Veil, released a couple years ago, discusses the Democratic Party as “the graveyard of social movements.”
Bakunin was emphatically against using the existing political apparatus, created by the bourgeoise for their benefit. The whole culture and background of these institutions sustains the culture of inequality and exploitation. Even if a working class activists were elected to office, they would quickly cease to be part of the working class. One cannot go through the process of nomination, campaigning, election, and service unchanged. The specific nature of the office and its power moulds the individual more than the peculiarities of the individual mould the office. In short, positions make men.
There is a belief among liberal Democrats and some independents that getting good, progressive, people into office can change Congress and the Presidency. Elizabeth Warren was the head of this most recent vanguard of this hope, four years before that it was Barack Obama. Yet Obama seems to be more like his predecessor as time goes on- is he shaping the Presidency as much as it is shaping him?
If economic and political equality is desired, it should be said that the existing process are poisoned tools. Election law, legislative regulation, methods for amendment and change- they were created by groups that saw the existing power dynamics as good and wished to keep them that way. Bakunin said it was time to create change directly through the power of those that are oppressed- revolution.
Direct action, nonviolent struggle, economic boycotts work outside the system because no good general fights on ground specially chosen by the opponent. The ultimate goal of them is a system shaped by real people, not people shaped by an old system.
People do not need positions. They are their own power.
The revolutionaries who ousted long-time President Hosni Mubarak demanded bread and social justice, but after two-and-a-half years of military and Muslim Brotherhood rule, the government has made little progress towards those goals.
Al Jazeera English has a comprehensive feature on the economic problems that Egypt has faced in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. The issues are myriad, mostly rooted in bad debt and low international confidence in the Egyptian pound or their ability to pay back loans. It does raise the question of how a political revolution can keep itself intact, given that some economic hardship is guaranteed.
Economist Ahmed Ghoneim sums up the issues when he says “[Morsi’s administration] was only thinking of politics, not the economy.” While the Muslim Brotherhood had persisted as a political entity for over eighty years, they were unable to address fundamental problems and have ministers that were both loyal to the Brotherhood and skilled at their job. Ultimately that political support begins to dry up, as the unemployment rate, GDP per capita growth rate, and currency value begin to worsen.
Revolutions like those in Egypt also suffer from what could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The chaos and danger of large-scale protests, police and military action, and political upheaval can be deadly to tourism and foreign financing. The feature describes the shop owners, travel agents, and museum guides without clients, and large loans from the IMF and other Islamic countries being difficult to secure due to risk and a lack of backing from large banks. If there are economic roots in the 2011 upheaval, they are difficult to solve in the aftermath. Cutting corruption and getting new diplomatic ties can help, but it may not be enough.
I think of how many Latin American and African revolutions have been reversed when economic progress was promised, then not delivered. While a lack of democracy and civil rights are a key reason that revolutions happen, demand for bread and jobs are just as powerful reasons- if often implicit.
The lack of focus and direction in Egypt’s post-revolution economy was where Morsi’s political skills withered. The kind of things a good economic minister does are not politically popular. They are not the things you win elections running on- tax increases, harsh adjustments to please foreign lenders- but they are how you solve systemic problems. Hopefully a new administration will understand that.
There is a quote attributed to various great leaders, that a society is three missed meals away from anarchy. Ultimately it comes down the basics. If it gets bad, it doesn’t matter who’s in power, or what they believe or promise.