guest post by Ross Raffin
In order to lead a successful movement, it is not sufficient to simply state “I don’t believe in violence.” Activists must be able to explain to their most extreme colleagues why nonviolence will succeed where violence will fail. And make no mistake, violence will fail.
But will nonviolence succeed?
SUCCESSES IN NONVIOLENT STRUGGLE
In just the past twenty years, repressive, violent dictatorships were overthrown by nonviolent conflict in the Philippines (1986), Czechoslovakia (1989), Bulgaria (1989), Mongolia (1990), Latvia (1991), Thailand (1992), East Germany (1993), Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), Nepal (2006), Tunisia (2010), Egypt (2011), and Ukraine again (2013). The Global Nonviolent Action Database has recorded nearly 70 successful, nonviolent regime changes in the past 100 years. The same techniques used by Martin Luther King Jr., Gandi, and Harvey Milk lead to the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic (killed major political opponents), Victor Yanukovych (imprisoned one opposition candidate and poisoned another), and Ben Ali (top world contender for freedom of press violations in 2000).
As is evident from above, sympathetic state leaders are not necessary for success. Initial approval from the masses is not necessary either. Under Milosevic, many citizens feared that protests would lead to worse conditions. Because they did not believe they were capable of resisting the state, they tried to stop a nascent group of young Serbians called “Otpor.”
This is a commonly ignored part of nonviolent struggle: empowering the masses to resist on their own terms. Otpor’s strategic use of nonviolence chipped away at the myth of Milosevic’s omnipotence and showed the people how they could resist tyranny. By the time they launched the final round of protests, hundreds of thousands of Serbians participated. However, had they acted violently they would never have attained participation from the masses. This makes more sense when considering the motivation behind violence by the state against activists.
VIOLENT REVOLUTION IS INHERENTLY FLAWED
The goal of government repression is to silence and discredit current and potential activists in order to maintain their power. This means state violence not only aims to inhibit activists, it also aims to PROVOKE activists into behaviors which can be used to inhibit their recruitment of potential activists. This is the entire reason for “agent provocateurs.” It is ironic that some activists, then, are preaching the violent doctrine that the repressive state most desires.
Those who see benefits in revolutionary violence do not understand its natural consequences. Violent revolutions depend on secrecy and concentration of power within a core of people with access to weapons and the perceived authority to direct violence. After this new government of killers takes control, the people will remain unempowered against this violent core unless they wish to engage in their own counter-violent revolution.
On its most basic level, violence simply isn’t as effective. A study of conflicts between states and non-state actors found that between 1990 and 2006 violent revolution succeeded only 26% of the time. Nonviolent resistance succeeded 53% of the time. Controlling for level of repression does not change the trend.
The proponents of violent activism also tend to have a tenuous grasp of history. For instance, the American revolution would have been crushed by England’s naval superiority and economic blockades without France’s navy on their side. During the Chinese Revolution, the Nationalists were fighting an invasion by Japan while looting and raping the countryside. Even then, the result was a concentration of power at the expense of the masses. This out-of-touch clique was single-handedly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of the very people they claimed to represent. The French revolution resulted in the Reign of Terror and Napoleon. The Haitian Revolution was against a distant colonial government; they fought mostly well-armed slave owners who were outnumbered 10:1. France eventually sent in an extra 6,000 soldiers, but Spain invaded mid-way through the revolution and fought alongside Toussaint Louverture. At both stages of the revolution, the rebels firepower matched their opponents.
Considering the on-the-ground experience of most activists, it is entirely understandable that they have bought into the myth of violent revolution. The difference between their experiences and the above campaigns, however, are rooted in differences in how they view a dictator’s power in relation to his subjects.
GOALS OF NONVIOLENT STRUGGLE
A campaign of nonviolent struggle aims to produce certain behaviors from opponents (for instance, congress passing a Civil Rights bill or a dictator fleeing the country). These behaviors come about from one of four end results:
1. Conversion – The opponent accepts the views of activists due to rational argumentation or emotional appeals. For a variety of reasons, this is unlikely to work, namely that conversion of the opponent doesn’t happen without changing their worldview and core beliefs. Among hundreds of recorded cases of nonviolent struggle, only a handful of conversions of opponents have ever achieved anything of value.
2. Accommodation – Opponents do not change their beliefs but give in to activist’s demands because it is calculated to be in the opponent’s best interest. Continual nonviolent conflict creates a spectrum of problems for opponents (internal dissent, hurt profits, hurt reputation, etc) which may not be worth the trouble of fighting.
3. Nonviolent coercion – Widespread noncooperation and other methods paralyzes the opponents ability to stop activists from achieving their goals. A dictator faced with a civilian protest may call for his army to open fire, only to find that they refuse to shoot their own people. A trucking company with unethical practices might find itself economically crippled by mass strikes and cross-industry union support.
4. Disintegration – The destruction of the opponent’s entire system to the point where no organization remains even to accept defeat. While this may make sense when dealing with dictatorships and even managed democracies, there has yet to be a good case for disintegrating a constitutional democracy. Any constitutional amendment imaginable can result from conversion, accommodation, and nonviolent coercion.
These four goals can each be achieved through the same set of nonviolent methods. But to understand why these methods lead to the above goals, it is necessary to talk about the relationship between a dictator and his subjects.
WHY NONVIOLENCE WORKS
A dictator’s ability to suppress dissent depends on maintaining the following myth: “Rulers hold and exercise power, using it to coerce others. The dictator will suppress any who challenge him, and his overwhelming firepower guarantee victory. “
The truth is that no leader, including the most brutal dictator, can rule without the consent of their subjects. That obedience is what gives the dictator power, so power is sapped from a dictator by convincing people to withdraw that consent. The dictator can respond by calling for the army to gun down these activists… except the army happens to be full of “people” as well. The dictator can buy mercenaries… except no tax revenue is coming in because the people refuse to pay, workers are on strike, and bureaucrats refuse to help process existing returns.
Nonviolent struggle, then, aims to sap or sever the sources of the dictator’s power as well as increase the power of the grievance group (those directly effected by the dictator’s oppression) until one of the above four goals is achieved.
THE ORIGIN OF POLITICAL POWER
Power comes from six main sources. Authority or perceived legitimacy leads people to accept the right of a person or group to lead and be obeyed voluntarily. Even with authority, the ruler cannot turn his desires into a reality without human resources (specialists, labor force, bureaucrats), some of whom must possess the necessary skills and knowledge to keep the country’s infrastructure, equipment, and economy running smoothly. Psychological and ideological factors like habit, feelings of moral obligation, self-interest, cultural attitudes towards obedience and submission, presence of a common faith ideology, and other intangible measures contribute to a ruler’s power. The degree to which the ruler controls a country’s material resources (property, natural resources, financial resources, communication and transportation, etc.) also impacts his power. Perhaps the most important resource available to a dictator is is sanctions, the enforcement of obedience. Sanctions can be violent (stopping a protest with deadly force) or nonviolent (seizure of property for those who do not obey).
In order to increase these sources of power, the dictator must rely on a set of institutions and people such as the army, police, business community, religious leaders, working class laborers, and other pillars of support. If the opponent is a business, pillars of support might be their consumers, their suppliers, regulatory agencies, and legislators. Withdrawal of support from enough pillars will diminish the opponent’s power until they must accept the activist’s demands or risk disintegration.
The purpose of nonviolent methods is to withdraw the consent of an opponent’s pillars of support, weakening the opponent’s relative power until they agree to the activist’s terms. This is not done by alienating or trying to destroy pillars of support. Instead, this is done by eroding the loyalty of those institutions until they withdraw their support from the opponent. This is how Slobodan Milosevic, a genocidal maniac who killed anyone who challenged him, was overthrown nonviolently by a student group call “Otpor.”
HOW TO ERODE A DICTATOR’S POWER
When activists are properly disciplined and trained, then any ensuing state repression will drastically erode a dictator’s pillars of support. While Gene Sharp listed nearly 200 different nonviolent methods to erode the opponent’s pillars of support and increase relative power, he grouped these into three overarching categories.
1. Nonviolent Protest and Persuasion – This is what most people think of when they hear “nonviolent activism:” Public speeches, rallies, marches, petitions, symbolic displays, street theater, walk outs, and teach-ins. These are intended to send messages to the opponent as well as shape the perceptions of people the opponent depends on. In democracies, this usually means shaping the perceptions of the voting public.
At the same time, this method aims to empower the grievance group (those most directly oppressed the opponent) to join activists in their efforts. Unfortunately, modern activists have focused almost exclusively on this category. As Gandi learned when fighting for human rights in Africa, the opponent group (oppressors and their core supporters) rarely undergoes conversion. However, if the opponent has vulnerable pillars of support (in the case of the British government, their businesses and the popular support), then protest and persuasion can decrease the opponent’s relative power by eroding the loyalty of those pillars.
2. Noncooperation – This involves people withdrawing consent by choosing not to participate in certain public actions. The most common manifestations are strikes, boycotts, withdrawal of bank deposits, refusal to acknowledge government institutions, nonobedience in absence of supervision, even simple bureacratic footdragging. This is a safer option when struggling against the most repressive dictatorships. Eroding one pillar of support can indirectly erode others. If noncooperation erodes a dictator’s ability to gain tax revenue, he cannot pay his military. The military pillar of support then depends entirely on loyalty to the dictator which depends on the pillar related to perceived legitimacy.
3. Nonviolent Intervention – these methods actively disrupt the normal operations of policies or systems psychologically, physically, socially, economically, or politically. This involves sit-ins, fasts, nonviolent obstruction, guerilla theater, alternative social institutions, overloading facilities and administrative systems, among other active measures. However, they are also the riskiest for whoever is participating.
The risk involved for any given nonviolent method depends on the country’s responses to actions outside their particular range of normal political action. In a constitutional democracy writing letters to politicians, voting, and public campaigning constitute normal political action and will not be repressed. As long as it is not considered a serious “public disturbance” or sense of challenge to authority, many democracies will even permit nonviolent methods technically deemed illegal (majority of 2003 Iraq war protests without permits or in violation of municipal laws.) Those same actions in a ruthless dictatorship could lead to extra-judicial executions.
While no one should seek out high risk situations, violent repression can drastically increase the ACTIVIST’S power. But this only happens if they can manage how they are perceived by constituents of the relevant pillars of support. A single rock thrown through a window can turn a perceived “peaceful march” into an “anarchic riot.” Opponents, especially those with influence over the media, will use any excuse possible to prove that the activists are so dangerous that violent repression is justified. Appealing to the public’s perception is especially important in democracies where the politicians must justify their repression to potential voters. The same applies if a business’ consumers are the average citizen as well as if the business’ suppliers primarily depend on average citizens as a consumer base. For more repressive regimes, perception by the entire country’s populace may less important than the perception of those in charge of economic and military pillars of support. If activists can maintain nonviolence, they have access to one of the most powerful weapons in their arsenal: political jui-jitsu (covered in the next article).
Whether by conversion, accommodation, nonviolent coercion, or disintegration, nonviolent struggle has accomplished incredible things over the centuries. But this will be impossible if all activists not only practice nonviolence but understand why nonviolence is superior. It isn’t a matter of morality of religion; it’s a matter of history, strategy, and power.
Next week, we’ll look at the most powerful weapon in an activist’s arsenal: political jiu-jitsu.