FIS09: Introduction to Civil Resistance

My notes on the opening presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict 2009. You can also follow #FSI09 on Twitter.

Using the term “nonviolence” is often unhelpful and counterproductive. The term denotes an ethical stance that opens up all kinds of philosophical debates. Instead of using this adjective, we should use the verb “civil resistance” which denotes the use of highly disruptive actions by the many against the few.

Some quotes

“Power concedes nothing and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them,  and these will continue until they are resisted.” – Frederick Douglass

“Any people anywhere, being inclined and having hte power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” – Abrahm Lincon

Leo Tolstoy predicted that “public opinion” would change the “whole structure of life” making violence “superfluous”.

“England can hold India only by consent. We can’t rule it by the sword.” – Sir Charles Innes

“The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in  revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience-to laws, to rulers, to institutions – is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.” – Hannah Arendt

Gandhi was not shy about using direct analogies to violent conflict, he referred to “nonviolent weapons” such as active interference, protests and resignations. Gene Sharp added the following categories: Protest/Persuasion; Noncooperation; Intervention.

Depriving the oppressor of consent reduces his legitimacy. The refusal to cooperate increases the costs of holding control. The legitimacy of the system drops while costs of maintaining the status quo increases, which prompts enforcers of the system to doubt its endurance (and possibly switch sides).

Nonviolent force was a key factor in 50 of the 67 political transitions between 1970-2005. However, there have been failures in nonviolent action, the most spectacular of which was Tienanmen. Nonviolent action often fails when it has not been planned.

Emergent properties of civil resistance

The following are key emergent properties that each activist should understand and practice.

  • Consent
    • Confers legitimacy
    • Recasts the idea of power
    • Creates space to resist.
  • Reason
    • Respect the citizen’s mind
    • Stimulates creative thinking
    • Persuasion, not coercion
    • Signals honestly, credibility
    • Instills “reason to believe”.
  • Self-Rule
    • Swaraj (ruling yourself)
    • “Constructive work”
    • Self-organization
    • Planning
    • Nonviolent discipline.
  • Representation
    • Acertaining and presenting people’s grievances
    • Listening, delegating and inviting participation
    • Humility, not hierarchy
    • Solidarity of all, not heroism of the few.
  • Resilience
    • Tactical mobilization, strategic sustainability
    • Momentum-driving action
    • Existential stakes: identifying with the cause
    • Certitude of faith in eventual success.
  • Force
    • Strategic/tactical skills
    • Target foe’s capacities
    • Disperse initiative
    • Divide loyalty structure
  • Transformation
    • No monolithic enemies
    • From destruction to debate
    • Justice only by rule of law
    • Everyone as stakeholder
    • Ends reflected in means

There are still those who argue for political violence. These arguments boil down to two points:

  • Necessary as a means to an end. “Oppression cannot be demolished except in a hail of bullets.” Bin Laden
  • Virtuous, as redemption or apotheosis. “Death is truth.” Bin Laden

Proponents of violence always have to find ways to justify death. But death is simply not popular. Nevertheless, there is a market for terror. However, a new study of 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns, 1900 to 2006: violence campaigns succeeded in 26% of cases; Nonviolent campaigns succeeded in 53% of cases.

Questions & Answers

One participant from a repressive country emphasized how important it is to make friends with the security forces, they are not the real enemy, they are simply following orders. If you prevent them from following orders, they get into trouble. So let them know you understand that and simply ask that they do not hit, push, beat as hard as they can. On the contrary, ask them to beat lightly and even pretend.

Nonviolent tactics are also being adopted by groups that do not seek to advance democratic principles and human rights. Does this pose a problem for the future of nonviolent action if repressive regimes begin using nonviolent tactics to repress? Not necessarily since a  repressive regime would not be able to scale these tactics. For these tactics to have impact, they must be viewed by the majority as legitimate and necessary.

In a case like Gaza, how does one increase the appeal of nonviolent action when everyone is armed? The mainstream media and citizen journalists can change the frame of the “logic” of violence. In my opinion, we need more gendered analysis of armed violence. Clearly, the concepts of masculinity and violence are closely tied. Perhaps nonviolence is perceived as more feminine? How do we change this?

A participant emphasized the need to equate civil resistance as guerrilla warfare without the violence. In other words, military discipline is integral to the success of nonviolent action.

One participant countered the argument that violence is attractive. People often turn to violence because they’ve witnessed violence, because they are driven by vengeance. However, fear also drives fear and paralysis. I would add a cost-benefit angle to this. Some groups in the Sudan have turned to organized violence because their options vis-a-vis other livelihoods have virtually vanished, in part because of the ecological crisis.

Patrick Philippe Meier

3 responses to “FIS09: Introduction to Civil Resistance

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