Monday, March 26, 2012

On Gene Sharp and The Revolution This Time

The Revolution This Time: Oakland General Strike and Port Shut Down, November 2, 2011. Photo by Nathan Jongewaard via Flickr

Gene Sharp, author of "From Dictatorship to Democracy" and many other works on Revolutionary theory, has been both hailed and denounced as the godfather of the Color Revolutions that swept much of the world, as well as being a central thinker relied on by the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring and its current descendants. His works are considered by many to constitute the Rulebook for Modern Revolution.

I'm not much of a theoretician; I'm more inclined to study practice and results, and when Gene Sharp's name is raised in connection with the Occupy Movement, I tend to encourage people to really think about what kind of results have come from Gene Sharp-inspired revolutions and ask themselves whether that's really what they want from this revolution.

The first "color" revolution that I can recall was the People Power revolution in the Philippines against Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. It's color was yellow, and its symbol was a hand sign: index finger raised with thumb at a 90 degree angle in the form of the letter "L" (for "Laban.")

It was an astonishing event, and it helped trigger a cascade of revolutions against dictatorship throughout the rest of the 1980's and continuing to this day. These revolutions eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the stark hegemony of the United States and vulture capitalism.

In other words, things today are the way they are, socially, politically, and most especially economically, largely as a consequence of the numerous revolutions against dictatorship that have taken place under "colors" (all but red and black allowed, apparently!) and the theories of (sometimes the direct consultation with) Gene Sharp and his disciples.

But wait. Aren't we conducting something of a revolution against the way things are?


From the Sharp-ian point of view, then, isn't the Occupy Movement really a counter revolution?

This is where things can get very muddled indeed.

"The Politics of Nonviolent Action" (1973) was Gene Sharp's seminal nonviolent uprising study that became something of a manual for the People Power uprising against Marcos in 1986. Many of the forms of nonviolent resistance that Sharp advocates were codified in the Philippines: a distinctive color, a charismatic leader, mass rallies and marches, refusal to comply with the orders of the state, varied forms of nonviolent resistance and so on. Key to the Sharp version of nonviolent revolution is the Demand. The Demand was part of the initial call to Occupy Wall Street from AdBusters in the summer of 2011 when the poster announcing Occupy Wall Street carried the heading: "What is our one demand?"

That's straight out of the Gene Sharp recipe. The Revolution must have a demand or a series of demands.

The Revolution must have a leadership as well.

The Revolution must appeal to the masses.

The Revolution must have a Grand Strategy.

And in some of his works, Gene Sharp seems to be saying, "The Revolution must follow my recipe exactly -- or it will fail."

To date, there has been no set of demands from Occupy as a unit -- in part because it is not a unit -- nor has an identifiable leadership for the Movement emerged. There is no Ninoy or Cory Aquino. The Occupy Movement has a strong resonance with the People, but it is not, by any means, a mass movement, nor does it look much like it will become one. There is no identifiable Grand Strategy beyond slogans and ideals. "UnFuck the World" is about as close to a Grand Strategy as the Movement has come, and that came very early, and it's not really a strategy. It's also about as close to a unifying demand as Occupy seems able to get. And there are those who would dispute it's value because of "language."

Photo by Nathan Jongewaard via Flickr

To my way of looking at these things, that's quite all right, but it is deeply dissatisfying in the Sharp vision of Revolution.

Very little -- at times, nothing -- that Occupy is doing fits the Sharp model, and thus to many of Sharp's disciples and devotees, the Occupy Movement hasn't really started yet. It isn't a "movement." And it's not "revolutionary."

The Sharp recipe for revolution is very exact and exacting. Certain things must be done, or it is not a revolution. They must be done in a certain way, under certain authorities, or they will not succeed. The movement must develop in stages, generally over a long period of time, building into a mass movement, or it will fail.

The many failures of Sharp-style revolutions of late (as examples see: Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Greece, Spain, Portugal, etc.) are typically blamed on the revolutionaries for not following the recipe Sharp lays out with enough exactitude, and not having established the proper groundwork before rising up.

On the other hand, many of those who now live under regimes where the Sharp-style revolutions succeeded -- in the Philippines, throughout Eastern Europe and much of the former Soviet Union, as well as more recently Tunisia and Egypt -- are saying, "Wait just a minute here, this isn't quite what we bargained for at all..."

Yes, well. That's part of what I see as the chief problem with the Sharp recipe for revolution: it's not really a revolutionary recipe at all. It is a recipe for a marketing campaign that has certain aspects of a revolution. New bosses, but a similar -- and in some cases arguably a worse -- system.

It's a political and economic marketing campaign that aims to gain popular support to replace the present ("dictatorship") with a new product (an ersatz "democracy") that serves the interests of the oligarchs and plutocrats while giving the People the semblance of "liberty" which they are -- somehow, oh how can it be? -- unable to utilize successfully on their own behalf.

The thrill of revolutionary victory often leads to serious reassessment of what actually took place. It was not what many people thought it was or should be.

I would argue that the Sharp recipe for revolution works poorly against dictatorships these days, and it doesn't work at all against what I call "civil democracies," which is to say the kinds of governments that are now the norm. They are not real democracies, but they have the appearance of civil democratic procedures.

Which is not to say that there is no value in studying Sharp; there is value, plenty of it. He's thought long and hard and has written extensively about how the People (or more precisely, an activist faction thereof) can effectively change the conditions under which they live, and change the governments by which they are ruled, through a multipronged program of strategic nonviolent resistance.

That's why I say that those who wish to follow the Sharp model really should give it a go. Try it. I have never seen it successfully deployed in a civil democracy, but there is no reason it couldn't be. Or is there? Others have pointed out that the Sharp model of revolution can only be employed overseas. It could never be done in the United States, and it's not meant to be utilized here. After all, the Neo-Libs and Neo-Cons are already in power and they are the ones we are struggling against...

(h/t to Cuchulain in comments for spurring me to actually write something about this topic...)


  1. Thanks for writing this. I've been waiting to hear what your take is on Gene Sharp's ideas as they relate to Occupy. Your essential argument is that the revolutionary forces he advocates for are already in charge here? Interesting. I don't know if his ideas would change anything here either but we certainly can't continue with what we have. We seem to be farther and farther down the rabbit hole in this surreal nightmare we call America. I certainly hope their is an "awakening" on the part of the American people and soon.
    As a side note, I was in the Philippines two weeks after Marcos was overthrown. I wasn't in Manila so it seemed pretty much business as usual.

  2. Pathman,

    Interesting that you were in the Philippines so soon after Marcos fled. No, the revolution didn't change things for many Filipinos, but there was some rearrangement of the power players.

    I'm more ambivalent about Sharp's revolutionary theories than it may seem. They did work rather spectacularly, for a while, but they don't seem to be as effective any more. And of course they almost always led to the installation of some neo-liberal/Chicago Boys type looting regime that worsened the condition of the masses while enhancing the position and well-being of a tiny cadre of domestic plutocrats and an array of foreign financial interests. Funny how that works.

    That's what's happening in Egypt and Tunisia, and it's no wonder the People are saying WTF? Libya was a stark horror, requiring international intervention on behalf of the rebels, and the fallout is spreading through Africa. There is no discernible benefit to the Libyan people, but once again a small cadre of Libyan would-be plutocrats and foreign financial interests are making out like the bandits they are.

    Syria appears to be going down the same horrible path. The failures elsewhere should be just as mortifying. But to Sharp they are "to be expected." I'm just not that cold-blooded I guess.

    Sharp has lots of good insight into the nature of power and the weaknesses of the systems by which we are ruled. There was a time when I think his revolutionary theories could have been effectively employed in this country -- between December 2000 and September 2001 -- for the Bush Regime was incredibly weak at that time, and the People were pissed. But it was like Americans had been put under a trance and nothing happened.

    Now I think it is way too late for Sharp-style movements/revolution in this country. Something else is necessary, some other approach that isn't so linear. Occupy? Hmmm. Could be!

    But I think there is room for a Sharp-style approach, especially in some of the cities with highly authoritarian and rigid administrations -- I can think of a few off the top of my head, New York and Chicago come to mind.

  3. Thanks for the follow up comment. I do see your points in regard to how these countries eventually ended up essentially being oligarchies. Have there been any countries that transitioned to more socialist types of governments? I guess some of the South American countries would better fit that bill.
    I guess the thing that scares me is how much the US govt seems to be preparing for a people's uprising. See for example: surveillance, laws criminalizing protest and militarization of police forces. I guess I just don't believe all those things happening are coincidence. Also, I fully support the Occupy movement. They are the only ones putting their asses on the line to show the emperor has no clothes.

  4. If capitalism is all about hierarchy and dominance in the pursuit of power, the sensible course of action to me seems to be embrace the principles of non-hierarchy and non-dominance. I don't see how it is possible to fight dominance and hierarchy by becoming dominant and hierarchical. I think a lot of people involved in the Occupy movement know this and that is why we don't see a Demand.

    I think permaculture is anarchism in action.

    Good post, Che, thanks!

  5. Thanks, Ché,

    That was helpful.

    We obviously don't want one plutocracy replaced by another. We want true egalitarian democracy to replace plutocracy.

    However . . . and again, hierarchies of dominance have massive advantages over non-hierarchical movements which eschew dominance. They play by different rules.

    Whether we like it or not, to overthrow the dominant system, another must dominate, somehow, someway. If the previous dominant, hierarchical system refuses to abdicate, it takes a greater force to defeat it.

    Not only is that just physics, history shows us that as well.

    The impossible conundrum, tragedy, obstacle is that most revolutions either fail or fail to improve the lot of the people when they "win". The very force they need to overcome oppression almost always seems to propel them into an equally oppressive force -- sooner or later.

    Basically, OWS -- or some truly egalitarian, emancipatory, non-hierarchical movement -- is what we want as a non-system system. But its very form, ideology, perhaps even its basic "goodness" all but prevents it from ever knocking off the current reigning bully/thug/champ.

    IOW (to radically simplify), how can "the good" go toe to toe with "the bad" and win, when "the bad" will go places its opponents simply will not go? Can "the good" overthrow "the bad" without becoming what it abhors?

    . . . .

    I fear the only way around this is overwhelming numbers. A velvet revolution with overwhelming numbers. But, then, in a nation so polarized, so beaten down, no propagandized, how do we bring enough people on board . . . ?

  6. "so propagandized," rather.

  7. Cu-hool,

    how can "the good" go toe to toe with "the bad" and win

    That's a conundrum. The answer, as far as I can tell, is that it doesn't go toe to toe.

    The "good" goes around, it goes through, it burrows, it stands outside, it becomes the alternative... Graeber and Sharp share some insights about this, in that both see success by hollowing out the "bad," if you will, and collapsing it. Or enabling its collapse on its own. Actually, Graeber goes so far as to suggest that the present regime or system doesn't even have to collapse. It simply becomes irrelevant. That seems to be his ultimate and completely nonviolent revolution.

    They differ on what they see as an ideal to replace the "bad," but they are not that far apart on the hows and the mechanisms.

    As for hierarchies...

    There are informal hierarchies in Occupy that come and go; and there have always been dominant personalities and particularly energetic people who more or less run things day to day -- and this seems to be true everywhere, not just in New York. But OWS in New York does not run the Occupy Movement. It is one of many Occupys in New York City. And its influence on the rest of the movement is, IMHO, diminishing.

    The structure, to the extent there is an identifiable Occupy structure, is more like the Zapatistas -- only without Subcomandante Marcos and global. In fact, I thought that by now, someone like Subcomandante Marcos would emerge, but the closest Occupy seems to have come to that character is Jesse LaGreca. Many people ignore him or aren't even conscious of his presence.

    If only Jesse were a poet!

    I've said many times that there is no sign at all of an armed insurrection within or growing out of the Occupy movement, but there is lots of militance. "Fighting back" against oppression/repression is part of the framework of Occupy -- and that has led to a good deal of animosity between those who engage in "fighting back" and those who are absolute pacifists.

    I put "fighting back" in quotes, because much of it is symbolic and highly ritualized struggle. Like tearing down the barricades and mounting the Bull on Wall Street the other night. Or the use of shields against police projectiles.

    I saw livestream of a march in Portland OR yesterday; the front line was carrying... paintings on stretched canvas as shields. Some were art, some were slogans, some were hybrids, but none were functional as shields. They were symbolic.

    I'm torn about the necessity for masses of people. I'm not opposed but neither do I think it is a panacea. I'll try to expand on that notion in another post.

  8. I can kind of see the idea of making the dominant system "irrelevant." But it's a hell of a lot more difficult in the modern age when that system has nukes, predator drones, SWAT teams, etc. etc.

    The other problem is that another force is making the political elite largely "irrelevant" already -- in another sense. Since the plutocrats now (post-Citizens United) don't even have to pretend they don't pull the strings, politicians -- their bought and paid for pawns -- are interchangeable and dispensable. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, etc. etc. And since the right has been so incredibly successful at turning the people against even the idea of government, all too few people really care about that interchangeability. Left, right and center, people are truly pissed off and turned off by the entire system. If the Masters manage to privatize the whole works, I don't think enough people will raise a stink until the next depression hits, and by then it will be too late. They'll be so beaten down, they'll gladly go for the likely fascist coup/military junta, etc.

    IOW, I think we're in an age of oversimplication, dueling dualities, polarities and white hot emotions. I fear the long slog needed to "make the existing power structure "irrelevant" (from the left, from our POV, for our reasons and goals) is, in a way, too subtle, too nuanced, too intellectually clever to work in our current dark ages ethos.

    . . . .

    Just hashing some things out. The above isn't set in stone, by any means.

    Looking forward to more of your essays . . .

  9. Cu-hool,

    I appreciate your perspective on all of this. I realize you're trying to figure things out on behalf of the struggle as a whole. I see that as a good thing!

    We're all looking for what will work. I'm reading some material on Otpor in Serbia -- I believe they were a Sharp-advised and modeled movement -- that brought an end the Milosevic reign. One thing that stands out to me is that they had to try all sorts of tactics and strategies before they hit on the most effective ones, and they had to stay flexible. And their goal was simplicity itself: the end of the Milosevic regime. They weren't trying to UnFuck the World. They were trying to get rid of Milosevic. Eventually, they succeeded.

    And one thing they were very conscious of was that they were engaged in a marketing campaign, not so much in revolution.

  10. Alcuin,

    Re: permaculture.


    Whether it can become the base for an alternate socio/economic system remains to be seen. It has the potential, and it's already being implemented more widely than practically any other (secular) alternate.