No, I’m not an expert on the subject, and I probably never will be. Right now, I feel like I was a TA again, barely a week ahead of the students. Still, it’s important to get this information out.
There are a lot of reasons to do so. If you’re anything like me, your notion of how non-violent conflict works is that it’s firmly in the Gandhi/Batman/Aikido/Star Trek phaser complex of things that would be nice to do, but which require such supernormal morality/skill/special conditions/technology that it won’t work for us mere mortals. If we want things to change, ultimately we might believe that change requires either huge amounts of wealth and/or violence, and we feel angry and powerless as a result. This view happens to be false. It’s probably a symptom of how our culture deals with violence, but it’s profoundly disempowering in that it stops us from realizing that there are other ways to achieve the same goals.
Again, there are a bunch of reasons why this matters, but I’ll start with the one that shocked me: so far as researchers can tell, since 1900, non-violent campaigns have been roughly twice as successful at achieving their goals (fall of the USSR, anyone?) as have violent campaigns (the sample size was over 100). This is even when people didn’t know what they were doing at first. Even back in 1973, there were almost 200 known and used “weapons” in the non-violent arsenal, and quite a few have been created since then. And some of them have been used against you. Recently. If you’re interested in learning more, read on.
The point here is to provide a basic understanding, so that if you want to get involved, you better understand what you are getting involved in, understand why some things are done the way they are done, and you can be effective. If you want to know more, get involved, get trained by some active group, and start reading from the Albert Einstein Institute.
To start with, I’ll swipe from Gene Sharp’s 1973 Power and Struggle: Part One of The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Sharp’s been called both the Clausewitz and the Machiavelli of nonviolence, and his The Politics of Nonviolent Action is considered the equivalent of The Prince or On War. Much of the free literature distributed by Sharp’s Einstein Institute repurposes The Politics of Nonviolent Action.
With that introduction, I think it’s useful to go over some things nonviolent action is not (per Sharp pp. 70-71) because it helps drastically clarify what it is.
- Nonviolent action is not passivity, submissiveness, or cowardice. As with violent action, these must be first overcome for nonviolent action to work.
- Nonviolent action is not purely verbal or psychological persuasion. “Nonviolent action, instead of words, is a sanction and a technique of struggle involving the use of social, economic, and political power, and the matching of forces in conflict.”
- Nonviolent action does not depend on the assumption that humans are inherently good. The potentiality for good and evil in all is recognized and dealt with.
- “People using nonviolent action do not have to be pacifists of saints; nonviolent action has been predominantly and successfully practiced by ‘ordinary’ people.”
- Successful nonviolent action does not require shared interests, shared principles, shared community, or shared worldviews, between the nonviolent force and its opposition. All of these help, but they aren’t necessary. You don’t have to think like a foreign billionaire to mount a successful strike against his factory.
- Nonviolent action is probably more Western than Eastern, although we tend to think of Gandhi as the exemplar of nonviolence.
- In nonviolent action there is no assumption that the opponent will refrain from using violence. Nonviolence has succeeded against violence. Repeatedly.
- Nonviolent actions can be used by every one, good, evil, or other.
- “Nonviolent action is not limited to domestic conflicts within a democratic system; it has been used widely against dictatorial regimes, foreign occupations, and even against totalitarian systems.”
I’d also add that it doesn’t always work (cf: Tiananmen Square). Conversely, violent action doesn’t always work either (cf any number of failed coups, rebellions, guerrilla wars, and so on). Still, when a violent action fails, the media cover it as a failure, while when a nonviolent action fails, it too-often gets covered as an example of how nonviolent action as a strategy does not work. There’s a strong bias towards violence in our civilization.
According to the data, nonviolent actions work far more often than do violent ones. According to Why Civil Resistance Works, there are multiple reasons for this. Nonviolent activists require less training than do warriors, and since they aren’t involved in hurting other people, the possible size of a nonviolent force can be considerably larger than a violent one, simply because most civilized people are encultured to be non-violent. Women, children, the elderly and disabled can all be effective nonviolent activists. Moreover, violence can boomerang. If a nonviolent force is violently attacked, a bit of political jujitsu can make the attackers look like monster, while the fallen become martyrs. The same can happen when a violent insurgency attacks too, which is why it can be strategically problematic for a nonviolent force to perform or condone violent acts or to ally itself with a violent group. Still, nonviolent action is politics by other means, just as violent action is. It’s a matching of force against force. It’s just that a nonviolent action can draw on far more people, and do so with far less training. As such, nonviolent forces can field a far bigger army than can violent forces.
As for tactics or “nonviolent weapons,” Sharp has a free list of 198 actions, ranging from protest letters to general strikes. He breaks them into three broad categories: methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion, methods of social noncooperation, methods of economic noncooperation (a plethora of boycotts and strikes), methods of political noncooperation, and methods of nonviolent intervention. This list of 198 actions was compiled in 1973. They’re all still valid methods, but we can add everything from denial-of-service attacks and doxxing to fake news, FUD campaigns, other forms of propaganda, and even cyberwar as new nonviolent methods. With Russia’s recent successes against the US in our influencing our politics, I suspect that nonviolent actions are innovating as rapidly as any other area of conflict.
There are a number of critical strategic points in nonviolent action, and for these, my favorite book is Robert Helvey’s 2004 On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals (pdf link). Helvey was a US Army Colonel, and he fused his training and experience in that force with the needs of a non-violent force to produce a very readable handbook. Here are some basics from Helvey, highly condensed.
Both Sharp and Helvey note that nonviolent action works on the basis of a particular theory of political power. Most people tend to assume that power comes either from within or from the divine (charisma, mana, the divine right of kings, etc.), and that leaders rule due to their possessing a quantum of inherent power that their subjects lack. Nonviolent action is predicated on the idea that power comes from below, from people supporting a ruler (government by consent of the governed), and that the subjects can effectively withdraw that power to influence their leaders. Helvey sees power as a metaphorical Greek temple, supported by a variety of pillars. Pull enough of the pillars down, and the power roof collapses. Before I go into what Helvey’s pillars are, I’d stress Helvey’s critical point: the pillars need to be pulled, not pushed. Pulling involves active, positive campaigning to pull the pillars onto your side, to stop supporting the regime which you oppose. Pushing these pillars away from you pushes them closer to the regime you’re trying to topple, even if they don’t want to be in that position. Because of this, negative campaigning can be self-defeating. It’s far better to be campaigning for something, rather than against them. This is why, for instance, Bernice King, MLK’s daughter, recently advised protestors to “[k]eep your message positive; they want the country to be angry and fearful because this is the soil from which their darkest policies will grow.”
Helvey’s pillars of support for a political regime include the police, the military, civil servants, the media, the business community, the youth, the religious community, and NGOs. The more of these a nonviolent movement can get to ally with them, the harder it is for a regime to stay in power. This is why things like El Cheeto Grande’s attacks on the media, the creation of the alt National Park Service, and successful boycotts against businesses carrying Trump family products are so important. Each of these tugs at a pillar supporting the current government.
The goal of a nonviolent struggle can be converting the opponent to your point of view (the hardest goal), coercing the opponent to accede to your demands, to accommodate the activists’ goals, or to shatter and fall from power. To do this, the nonviolent activists must have clear objectives, a strategy, supporting plans, and current, accurate information on the opponent. Helvey goes into quite a bit of detail on this, and you’ll have to read his book to get an overview of the methods.
Here, I’d rather go into why lacking clear objectives, strategies, plans, and information is so problematic. It is easy to be against El Cheeto Grande as US President, but if we just focus our efforts on toppling him, we leave in power an extraordinarily problematic right-wing regime, and things could definitely get worse under a more competent President Pence. We need to hear more positive objectives, like getting big money out of politics, restoring the voice of the people in a heavily gerrymandered system, and other goals shared by opposition forces across the political spectrum. In this situation, fighting climate change may be important, but it also may be too politically divisive to unite the disparate front needed for effective, positive change.
We also need to organize and be organized. This means becoming a functioning part of an organization, doing your share of the work. This is true even if you’re a leader organizing your own action, because you’ll need to ally with other groups to be effective. Still, understanding the strategic whys helps make it easier to be a useful part of the process. For instance, you currently may support the Antifa/Black bloc violent actions against property and haters. While watching the Black Bloc trash a bit of the UC Berkeley campus to stop Yiannopoulos from speaking may be emotionally satisfying, such incidents inevitably attract a big share of media, and paint all protestors as scofflaws. They also provide easy cover for provocateurs, who deliberately foment violence to discredit nonviolent protests.
Finally, we need to realize that nonviolent actions are being used against us, and have been used against us for the last year, as part of the US Presidential campaign, with the doxxing and continual propaganda. Indeed, I think we underestimate how much cyberwar is simply nonviolent action transformed for the internet. Anybody on the side of the current protests has to realize that right-wingers in the Koch network are gearing up to wage their own nonviolent campaign, and they’ve got a lot of money on their side, as well as a lot of practice in nonviolent astroturfing and FUD that they’re already deploying. This won’t be a short, sharp struggle, and if it is, we may well end up with a Washington regime that’s worse than we have now. Look at the results of the nonviolent Arab Spring, if you don’t believe me.
None of this should stop you from getting involved in nonviolent actions. While they require discipline and courage, the requirements for getting involved in a nonviolent action are far lower than they are for becoming a soldier. For me, the point of this quick education is to help you become more effectively engaged.
Now, if you’re sympathetic but can’t take it to the street, there are three other things you can do. One is to realize that nonviolent action is becoming ubiquitous, especially on the internet, and that state actors are using the techniques as well. While this kind of global war is good in that people and materiel are not being destroyed, the psychological burdens are substantial, as you undoubtedly know. You need to protect yourself against indiscriminate attacks, and take care of yourself, friends, and family. Stay engaged as much as you can, and tune out mindfully and strategically, to help yourself rather than because you’ve burned out.
Another thing to realize is that you can be a slacktivist, working across the internet, supporting an independent media, supporting independent science, and so forth. It’s important to help your allies, even if you can’t be part of the physical conflict. Even a newspaper subscription matters these days.
Last, there’s the old military idea of tooth-to-tail ratio. In nonviolent action, the distinction between the teeth (in the military, the combat soldiers) and the tail (logistics and support) gets blurred, but one of the paradoxes in the military is that the forces with the lower tooth-to-tail ratio tend to be the most resilient, because they have deeper benches and there is more support for the people on the bleeding edge. This last appears true for nonviolent actions as well, so helping allies with donations of money, time, and supplies is also important. Just make sure you know who you are donating to, as a bunch of me-too groups always pop up, all very happy to take your money, and the astroturf (fake grassroots groups) are already out there.
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