Civil resistance: a space oddity

Civil resisters open up and occupy political space - opportunities for persuasion and organization - on a scale their armed cousins cannot.

Howard Barrell
23 September 2013

A frequent achievement of attempts at armed revolution is to get otherwise intelligent people to believe remarkably foolish things.

One is that revolutionary armed struggle is more likely to deliver maximal political change than the nonviolent methods of civil resistance. It is a belief rubbished recently by two American scholars, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, in their book Why Civil Resistance Works.[1] They show that civil resistance tends to be twice as successful as armed struggle in delivering maximal outcomes - even in instances of acute repression. It is a point that was regrettably lost on those who led the Syrian opposition into armed struggle two years ago, though it has not been lost on others.

A Polish colleague, Maciej Bartkowski, and I have been trying to identify regularities in civil resistance struggles that might better explain their superior success rate. This has involved asking why and how the intensity of the challenges mounted by some civil resistance movements have, at points, grown very rapidly, overwhelming the regimes they oppose  - how these struggles have “snowballed”, to use Peter Ackerman’s and Christopher Kruegler’s word in their book Strategic Nonviolent Conflict.[2] Two such struggles would be Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

In the course of doing so, civil resistance has increasingly seemed to us to resemble a cunning strategy of encirclement. That is, a game plan whose secret is its ability to strangle a regime’s will or ability to resist demands for maximal change.

How civil resistance does so seems to rely on two factors. One is the unobtrusive ingenuity nonviolent activists can bring to their use of political space  - to opportunities for political organization. The other is how civil resisters’ use of any single method of resistance appears often to engender additional methods of struggle in a kind of force multiplier effect.

Our road to these findings emphasizes the choices that political actors make. It accords with a view of power prevalent among scholars of civil resistance: that a ruler retains power to the extent that those he rules consent to his rule.

This view of power suggests levels of participation need to be high for a nonviolent popular revolution to succeed. Chenoweth and Stephan make just this point. They show that the higher the proportion of a population actively participating in resistance, and the more diverse, the greater the prospect of success.

How high, then, is high participation?

Low, according to Mark Irving Lichbach, in The Rebel’s Dilemma. He reckons active participation by just 5% of a population is adequate for revolutionary success.[3]

So how do civil resistance movements manage, sometimes very rapidly, to breach the magic 5% mark?

Timur Kuran, a Turkish-American economist, offers an answer. He says oppressed people who come to dislike their government “are apt to hide their desire for change while the opposition seems weak”.[4]

But, he says, each individual has a tipping point at which his fear of the cost of opposing a government is trumped by his revulsion for it. He calls it an individual’s “revolutionary threshold”. It can be calculated as a percentage of the population that must be active in the opposition for that individual to feel she can safely participate in it. For example, Ms A may feel it is safe to participate when 2% of the population is involved. In reality, her judgment of whether the proportion participating meets her threshold is more likely to be made intuitively. But Kuran’s desire to put a figure to it is defensible.

Kuran applies this thinking to explain how rapid growth can occur in the numbers actively opposing a dictatorial government. He suggests many other people will have the same threshold as Ms A; they will also be drawn into active opposition when 2% of people are seen to be participating. The addition of Ms A and other two-percenters to the ranks of those actively opposing the government may, in turn, drive the proportion participating up to 3%. This then draws in those people whose threshold is 3%. This new group of participants may then drive the proportion involved in the opposition to 4%, drawing in yet another cohort, this time with a 4% revolutionary threshold. And so on, in exponential fashion. This process can be accelerated further by a lowering of people’s revolutionary thresholds because of, say, increased sympathy for the opposition or a decline in government efficiency.

Resultant growth in the numbers and diversity of participants creates pressure for expanded and new forms of struggle to accommodate them. We call this pressure the participation driver in the growth of a civil resistance movement’s challenge.

This growth is something civil resistance movements are potentially well-equipped to exploit. They have developed more than 200 forms of nonviolent tactics over the past century which impose a range of costs on opposing regimes. They include marches, occupations, proselytization among security forces, media campaigns, diplomacy, boycotts, satire and teach-ins.[5] All generate political, economic, diplomatic or moral - as opposed to military - force.

Choice and timing in the use of methods are no less important in the effects that methods have on levels of participation. Some methods strike potential participants as more or less risky than others. And levels of risk affect people’s willingness to participate. If a resistance movement accurately assesses its constituency’s appetite for risk, its choice of methods can drive up participation.

Deployment of any one method can also - and often does - engender engagement in other methods. Egypt in January 2011 provides a simple example: opposition supporters marched on the capital’s main square demanding the president’s resignation; faced with his refusal, the march became an occupation of the square; fearing their vulnerability to attack by security forces on the square, they proselytized among security forces, undermining a key instrument of presidential power; and local and foreign media reporting on the peaceful occupation to which security forces appeared sympathetic shook the president’s domestic political and international diplomatic support. At each point in such a sequence of methods, popular participation increases. This is what we call the method driver in civil resistance: the process by which one method tends to induce resort to others, so also driving up participation.

When the method and participation drivers combine, the result is a quite dramatic force multiplier effect: a civil resistance movement’s leverage on its opponent regime is suddenly greatly increased.

How skillfully nonviolent resisters apply the political force at their disposal is important to outcomes. They face a challenge similar to their armed counterparts’: they must increase their own strength and the costs they impose on their opponent, while weakening and isolating him.

In doing so, they have an important advantage over their armed cousins. Chiefly, it is the political character of their weaponry. One, politics mobilizes more people more unobtrusively than bombings. Two, nonviolent resisters avoid taking on a dictatorial regime where it is invariably strongest: the battlefield. And, three, a civil resistance movement is more likely to offer a dictator’s allies an accommodation than their execution. In sum, civil resisters open up and occupy political space - opportunities for persuasion and organization - on a scale their armed cousins cannot.

Some strategies of revolutionary armed struggle have paid close attention to space - political and geographical - none more assiduously than Mao Zedong’s. Mao’s is a focus brilliantly captured by Yale’s Scott Boorman using the metaphor of wei-ch’i, an East Asian board game that involves two players trying to capture each other’s territory.[6] The metaphor does not fit civil resistance. But there is a rule of both the board game and Maoist strategy that is particularly relevant to civil resistance. It is that encircling an opponent involves not only surrounding him from without; it involves also penetrating and undermining him from within. This need to encircle from within is particularly well catered for by civil resistance’s stress on political engagement with an opponent, his allies and the instruments of his power.

[1] Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works. The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

[2] Ackerman, Peter, and Christopher Kruegler. 1994. Strategic nonviolent conflict: The dynamics of people power in the Twentieth Century. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.

[3] Mark Irving Lichbach. 1998. The Rebel’s Dilemma. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. See pp. 11-13, 16-19.

[4] Kuran, Timur. 1989. ‘Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Revolution’. Public Choice, Vol. 61, No. 1. See also: Kuran, Timur. 1991. ‘Now out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989’. World Politics. Vol. 44, No. 1.

[5] Ackerman, Peter, and Christopher Kruegler. 1994. See also: Helvey, Robert. 2004, On strategic nonviolent conflict: Thinking about the fundamentals. Boston: Albert Einstein Institute; Schock, Kurt. 2005. Unarmed insurrections: People power movements in Nondemocracies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Sharp, Gene. 1973b. The politics of nonviolent action, Part Two: The methods of nonviolent action. Boston: Extending Horizons Books; and Sharp, Gene. 2005. Waging nonviolent struggle: 20th century practice and 21st century potential. Boston: Extending Horizons Books.

[6] Boorman, Scott A. 1969. The Protracted Game. A Wei-ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy. New York: Oxford University Press.


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