Friday, February 3, 2012

The Lessons of Nonviolent Resistance and Who They Benefit

"Not Nonviolence?" Our rulers have learned and internalized the lessons of successful nonviolent resistance campaigns; many of us have yet to learn them at all... (image: Anarchosyndicalist flag, Wikimedia Commons)

Given the fact that campaigns led by Mahatma Gandhi to liberate India from Britain and Martin Luther King to expand the liberty of basic civil rights to all Americans were successful enough to be taken as models, and both relied on the weapon of nonviolent resistance, what were the lessons of these campaigns, and perhaps as important, who learned them? Who benefits from those lessons?

Pious frauds and useful fictions abound when exploring those questions, primarily the frauds and fictions intended to control, discourage, disable, or dispute the merit of resistance campaigns that don't "look like" King's or Gandhi's.

Much of the Overclass learned plenty of lessons from the experience of being bested by a rag-clad Indian and a well-spoken preacher of the African American church. Their primary lesson learned is how to effectively thwart such campaigns by using the tools, tactics and language of nonviolence and nonviolent resistance against those who would engage in those tactics to gain advantage in the economic and political realms. In the social realm, enh, the Overclass doesn't really care so much, or at least hasn't interfered quite as much as it has in campaigns for economic justice and real political change.

And the first lesson learned by the Overclass is it is sometimes possible to thwart the objectives of nonviolent resistance campaigns by teaching nonviolence. It's a wonderful thing.

Nonviolent resistance is a complex and interwoven set of tactics that when used to advance a strategic objective (under the right circumstances) can be very effective. As pointed out in the previous installment of this series, nonviolent resistance tactics are weapons that work very well against brittle, and inherently weak authoritarian regimes that rely on violence or the constant threat of violence to maintain their power and authority.

One way to mitigate the effectiveness of a nonviolent resistance campaign against such authority is to be the teacher who determines the definitions of "violence" and "nonviolence," and who instructs in the proper forms of nonviolent resistance.

What happens, for example, when teaching the topic of nonviolent resistance campaigns is limited to "what King did" or "what Gandhi did," and is focused primarily on what those campaigns looked like? Ie: Tightly controlled marches and rallies fronted by charismatic leaders who spoke in homilies. Those who opposed those campaigns are characterized as well by what they looked like: Big Bellied Sheriffs with their dogs and their fire hoses, British Imperial functionaries with their languid disinterest in anything beyond a game of polo and holding court over the seething masses.

When it's all about appearances and hardly anything at all about the substance of nonviolent resistance tactics and campaigns the lessons learned by those are being taught about King and Gandhi are incomplete, to say the least.

It's been my experience that most people are eager to learn what nonviolent resistance really is -- for they would often love to be able to use it themselves or be part of a campaign that uses nonviolent tactics -- but they don't know squat about it and all they've been taught are pious frauds and useful fictions about marches and rallies and charismatic leaders.

Appearances, in other words.

Thus when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the fall of 2002 to march and carry signs and attend rallies against the looming tragedy of the Iraq War, and then millions took to the streets in February of 2003 for the same cause and in the same manner, they "looked right" (well, except for the tie-dye and the giant puppets, according to the wags and purists) but they got nowhere at all. They were quite ostentatiously ignored. These hundreds of thousands and then millions of people in the streets marching and rallying against looming catastrophe simply did not matter at all to the Powers That Be.

Media ignored or mocked them, and the Regime -- which was then actually quite weak -- dismissed them with an airy wave.

Note: there was no violence against these huge marches and rallies, the state did not come down on them with full force or even minor force; the marches and rallies were huge, completely peaceful, earnest, and utterly ineffective. The total indifference of Power to the outcry of the People was stunning.

How could this be when so many people were doing exactly what they had been taught was what King and Gandhi did? How could doing the same things in essentially the same manner but now involving millions and millions of people around the country and the world be so completely ineffective?

And what were the lessons the People learned from this experience?

There would be many more similar experiences when people by the hundreds of thousands would gather in protest of something -- broadly speaking "The Regime" -- but would find themselves corralled or dismissed or ignored, or in a few cases (such as the rallies and marches that weren't allowed to march in New York during the Republican Convention in 2004) faced arbitrary arrest and a certain level of random brutality from the police.

These experiences showed that the Overclass had learned their lessons well on how to deal with nonviolent protest; meet fire with fire in a manner of speaking. Be even more "nonviolent" than the protesters. Ignore them utterly, or if attention must be paid, have the media mock them and the police corral them. It worked like a charm.

Not only was the Iraq invasion pursued with great relish, it took place without any opposition The Regime believed it had to pay attention to at all; all authoritative voices raised against it were silenced or ignored, and the People's voice mattered not at all because there was literally nothing they could do about it.

The triumph was complete when the anti-war movement essentially dissolved in despair. People gave up for they were getting nowhere at all with their protests and marches and rallies. That was the point.

Teach them the lesson that "nobody (who matters) cares what you think."

How do you nonviolently resist THAT?

In the short term, you don't. You've been checkmated.

You clear the board and you try something else.

Some of the people who were better informed about the complex nature of nonviolent resistance and who understood that rallies and marches by themselves are insufficient to force a serious change in the direction of a Regime, understood well enough how it was that these enormous events failed so utterly to move the Powers That Be.

"Looking right" isn't enough -- it isn't even necessary. But that's really all these marches and rallies had: the appearance of resistance without the substance.

Nor was there the appearance of any serious -- let alone violent -- opposition to these events. The initial anti-Iraq War marches and rallies seemed to take place in a complete vacuum.

Oh but there are more lessons learned.

One of the chief lessons the Overclass has learned is how to use nonviolent communications as a weapon -- often a very effective one -- against would-be popular opposition. They've learned to talk in airy terms of concern and consideration for the plaints of the People, and they've learned how to couch their own needs and demands in nonviolent language, to the point where outrageous actions are presented and often enough accepted as "reasonable." They've learned this lesson so well that when an official slips up and uses harsh language in dealing with opposition, they look crude and socially maladroit and are even sometimes brought up short by their own peers for being so outré.

This has become particularly true during this Endless Recession in conjunction with the imposition of more an more destructive and apparently mindless Austerity measures. Every official action which harms and impoverishes the People is couched in the language of concern and consideration, and even Scott Walker -- as stumble bum as he is -- has been able to use the language of nonviolent communication to effectively thwart the outcries of the People against his Regime. It is a wonder to behold.

Rightists became so dominant in American life in part because they were able to adopt the principles of nonviolence and the language of nonviolence to advance their own reactionary ends. The use of nonviolence tactics and language by those in power can be very disorienting and disabling to those who seek to change the exercise of power through nonviolent resistance tactics of their own.

It's difficult to know how to respond effectively. Working on it!

Meanwhile, the official response to the Occupy Movement has become more and more overtly violent in rather stark contrast to the overall nonviolence of the movement itself. More and more officials are re-defining violence and nonviolence in such a way that almost any action by Occupy is "violence" by definition. The police actions in Oakland in response to J28 may be a template for what is to come. Some of this redefinition of terms has been adopted by factions within the Movement itself in an effort to purify the Occupy Movement of any hint of "violence." Thus, for example, the constant demands from some factions within the Movement to denounce and expel "the anarchists," who are defined as "violent" due to existence of the Black Bloc.

As I've said many times, there wouldn't be an Occupy Movement at all without "the anarchists." But then, maybe that's the point of all these calls to denounce and expel them...

Next: Nonviolence in Today's Struggle


  1. I've just come across your site and I'm fascinated! I haven't had a chance to read many of your previous posts but I wonder if you could do a piece on Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy" as it relates to occupy and the current struggle. Great stuff here. Thank you.

  2. Mind saying how you found the site? I'm always curious how people stumble onto this distant corner of Blogtopia.

    I've been holding off discussing Gene Sharp's program for revolutionary change. Obviously the program he sets forth works under some circumstances. But it's not entirely clear just what happens... well, I'll get into it eventually.

    If you hadn't said anything, I probably wouldn't have thought about it for a while though, so thanks!


  3. I found it through your post at Correntewire. Did you happen to post comments over at Greewald's place under the ChePasa handle? Thanks for the update on future discussion of Gene Sharp's work. It seems like an important piece of work. I only wonder how to modify the ideas for our current state. Thanks again.

  4. Ah, Correntewire. Welcome.

    I haven't posted at Greenwald's for over a year; after David Talbot returned, I rarely even visit Salon anymore (one day, I may write about it all, but not for now... )

    Thanks to your prodding, I'm looking over "From Dictatorship to Democracy" again. Surprising how superficial it seems in light of more recent events.

    His premise is mostly still valid, though. The problem for us is that we don't actually live in a totalitarian system or under dictatorship. We're in a neither/nor zone.

    Instead we have a heavily managed Imperial system with some rather arthritic or nonfunctional aspects of its former republican representative government still in place.

    I've long compared it to something like Rome under Octavian/Augustus. Republican forms are still in place and often seem vital and animated, but they don't really work anymore.

    I'm not sure it's something people really want to overthrow or replace. Nor am I convinced that very many people would want to revive the now expired republic.

    We're in a kind of political limbo.

    That's one reason why I think it is so important for Occupy activists to concentrate on developing demonstrations of functional alternatives.

    Much to ponder...

  5. Very interesting take. I guess I'm so desperate for people to wake up to the reality in this country I'll use anything that might work. Even if it makes some difference on the margins it would be helpful in my opinion. I look forward to your later posts on the topic. Thanks.