A new world of power: the source and scope of Civil Resistance


Find a person who believes that civil resistance is less legitimate than an edict or directive of the state, and you will probably have found someone who speaks for those who exercise power, not for those on whose consent the legitimacy of that power must rest. An introduction to a new partnership.

Jack DuVall
22 September 2013

Jack DuVall, writer and international civil society leader based in Washington, D.C., is now Senior Counselor and Founding Director of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, a private nonprofit educational foundation. He describes himself as a radical democrat opposed to all forms of human oppression. Launching this new partnership on Civil Resistance, he has chosen as this week’s editorial theme: "A World of Civil Resistance". Jack introduces his front pages as follows:

“Civil Resistance” is much more than protests, marches and civil disobedience. Those tactics are among hundreds that can form the repertoire of independent political strategies for the people of any nation to plan, so that together they can act to win their rights, obtain justice, stop corruption and other abuses of power, and establish or reform democracy. The failure of many governments to enforce basic rights and make good on the promises of power-holders has, right across the world, impelled people to seek another means by which they may not only demand but also instigate the changes they desire.

Welcome to the first online, living collection of articles and commentaries on civil resistance, available to people everywhere. My colleagues and I were asked by openDemocracy to create this section of their excellent web portal, as a forum for ideas, discussion and learning about civil resistance, and we were delighted to do so.  We believe that civil resistance is the clearest present evidence of an emergent new form of political and social agency that is beginning to take its place alongside the mechanics of state power - electoral politics, parliamentary deliberation and executive action – as a means by which the people can organize and compel the redress of their grievances and the achievement of the public well-being of their societies.

The periodic or continual failure of governments – whether or not they espouse worthy beliefs – to enforce basic rights and make good on the promises of power-holders has, right across the world, impelled people to seek another means by which they may not only demand but also instigate the changes they desire.

The theme of this inaugural week’s articles is the scope and variety of this world of civil resistance. We’d like to begin to pull back the curtain on a new reality: that there are hundreds of active nonviolent movements and campaigns for rights and reform, and against abuses and oppression, and they are gaining new traction and growing in number -- to the point that there appears now to be no society in which civil resistance is not being used on any given day.

This week on openDemocracy: a world of Civil Resistance

Direct evidence of the global  expansion of civil resistance is seen in the variety of nonviolent conflicts represented by articles in the first week of this new openDemocracy section: ongoing, phased struggles for freedom and true democracy in Syria and Egypt for almost three years; a major resistance struggle against hydraulic fracking in Canada; a struggle in Mexico by an indigenous people to protect their sacred land from transnational mining companies; burgeoning resistance to unfair labor practices and the denial of rights in China; and nascent civic action in South Africa objecting to that state’s use of military forces elsewhere in Africa.

In this space in the weeks and months ahead, you’ll see articles on the ongoing use of civil resistance in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Iran, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Tibet, West Papua, Western Sahara, and Zimbabwe. We’ll look at campaigns for systemic economic, political or environmental reform in established democratic states such as Brazil, Bulgaria, Greece, Nigeria, Russia, Spain, Turkey and the US.  Equally important are continuing campaigns for justice, minority rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and more than half the countries of Africa, and local campaigns for indigenous or sectional rights in Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, and the Philippines.

Many of these movements and campaigns share common dynamic features as a form of political struggle:

-       They summon and mobilize the participation of ordinary people by expressing their yearning for profound change, and they weld that popular resilience to specific strategies of action.

-       They create new kinds of political space in societies, by organizing resistance in the arts, education, business and even sports.

-       They challenge the legitimacy of governments, power-holders or institutions which pretend to hold sway for good purposes but instead betray the public’s trust.

-       They disrupt the operations of rulers and institutions that refuse to listen and respond to their views and that try to intimidate or hold them down.

-       They raise the cost of autocracy, corruption and incompetence by distributing resistance throughout a society, overstretching and dividing the loyalty of security and military forces, and by organizing boycotts and other sanctions that target abusive power-holders and institutions.

To those concerned that these strategic uses of civil resistance may lead to “unrest” (the word the media use to describe any commotion in public, nonviolent or otherwise)  or “instability” (the typical accusation of dictators against civil resistance), I pose this question: Why should the failure to honor and enforce people’s rights, stealing from the public treasury, arresting and torturing dissenters and journalists, or taking people’s land and property without due process, or any of the hundred other forms of aggression used by states and their clients to subdue citizens, be tolerated without response by those citizens? And when established forms of political contention, such as elections or petitioning office-holders, are hollow and ineffective, why are those engaged in such a charade entitled to a form of “stability” which serves only their personal hold on power?

Nonviolent action cannot, by definition, threaten or harm the lives of anyone. Nonviolent resistance is, by definition, civil because it is action in the public arena, which has been understood for over 2,500 years in most civilized societies as public property or as held in common by the people. Resistance is a form of public action that welcomes participation and is not privileged or exclusionary, much less belligerent. So civil resistance is as civil as the civil procedures of the law, civil unions between two people joined in matrimony, or any other function of civil society.

Find a speaker or writer who believes that civil resistance is less legitimate than an edict or directive of the state, and you will probably have found someone who speaks for those who exercise power, not for those on whose consent the legitimacy of that power must rest. Civil resistance withdraws that consent, which is an exercise of civil freedom where freedom may not fully exist – as the brutal response to nonviolent resistance often demonstrates. In that way, civil resistance can do the work of democracy before democracy is open for business.

This section of openDemocracy does not offer any partisan, proprietary or particular ideological view of civil resistance, nor would we define or limit the full scope of how it can be used. That’s up to the people who decide to learn, apply and study it. The work of this section will be to bring the best minds and writers, the best ideas and analysis, to the common table of thinking about this extraordinary new force in human affairs.

Between 1970 and 2005, a total of 67 states became democratic, and in 50 of them, the primary political force driving transitions was a nonviolent movement or coalition using the tactics of civil resistance as explained in this study. This is history that has already been logged. What lies ahead is a forest of struggles and a geography of civil resistance that is changing the face of the world. Please explore it with us.

We began our launch week of the Civil Resistance section on openDemocracy with the first part of a two-part article that analyses the two distinct phases of the Syrian resistance struggle. Written by Maciej Bartkowski and Mohja Kahf, a Syrian educator and activist, Part I focuses on the almost year-long nonviolent resistance to the Assad regime in 2011-2012, springing from ordinary Syrians in manifold places throughout the country. The beginnings of a people’s democratic movement was displaced by an armed rebellion aided by external governments and eventually foreign jihadist fighters from the region and elsewhere. This was facilitated by a series of mistaken beliefs about violent resistance, which the authors explored in Part II of the article.

Also appearing on the first day was a ground-breaking new article by Howard Barrell of Cardiff University entitled “Civil Resistance: A Space Oddity,” which examines a vital dimension of all nonviolent movements: how activists have ingeniously exploited the political space they create, which in turn can foster yet new latitude for resistance, “in a kind of force multiplier effect”. A nonviolent conflict is fully understandable only from a strategic perspective, and this article takes you into the boiler room of that kind of analysis.

Then Michael Caster provided the best single overview that I have seen, describing the scope and types of nonviolent action on behalf of citizen grievances occurring in China. Except for persistent and unbowed political dissidents whose cases manage to achieve national attention, and who are generally dealt with harshly, most actions that might otherwise be classifiable as civil resistance stem from anger about unfair labor and housing practices or suppression of free speech. But its potential impact has to be respected, or the Chinese state wouldn't be spending the equivalent of $124 billion a year on internal security.

The second of the two-part series on the Syrian resistance, by Maciej Bartkowski and Mohja Kahf examined the false beliefs that typically prod impatient, combative opponents of a regime to take up arms - if they don't understand the comparative effectiveness of nonviolent struggle. The last two and one-half years of the conflict in Syria are, tragically, an example of what can happen when these beliefs become the default basis of revolution. As Maciej and Mohja say, this wasn't inevitable. The choice of how to fight in great people's causes in the twentieth century was too often made without knowledge of how civil resistance works. One purpose of this section of openDemocracy is to help correct that.

The third day of our inaugural week for the new Civil Resistance section of openDemocracy took us to the continent of Africa, where two societies are undergoing significant historical challenges: Egypt and South Africa. The choices that the Egyptian and South African people make – through their civic action and civil resistance, or their acquiescence to today’s power-holders – will determine whether sustainable democracy materializes in Egypt and whether South Africa can become a truly post-violent and just society.

In Egypt, revolutionary activist and political thinker Sherif Joseph Rizk relives the past two years of tumultuous events, sorting out the combustion on the streets from its political meaning and the enduring popular demand for fundamental change. Civil resistance has provided the political force for two inflection points in this process, in 2011 and 2013, but the present reconsolidation of control by the army does not preclude further change driven by the people.

On South Africa, longtime scholar and activist Matt Meyer surveys today’s campaigns for justice and peace in the society, notes the ongoing involvement of veterans from the anti-apartheid struggle, and examines the possibility for a peace movement that can deal with "South Africa’s new military establishment" whose activities appear to exceed the security needs of South Africans. He forecasts “great protests” alongside conventional politics.

On Thursday, the two new articles we featured are from North America. They offered a tactile and strategic look at struggles opposing external corporate development of local resources, assisted by government but opposed by a substantial part of the local population. First, Lilian Palma tells the story of the Wixáritari, an indigenous people who are nonviolently defending their sacred land from the plan of the Mexican government and a Canadian mining company to develop mines within 70 percent of this hallowed ground. Reminiscent of Gandhi’s approach to self-organization, the resistance of the Wixáritari has aroused public support in Mexico. “Wirikuta is not for sale,” their signs say at protests, in reference to their land. Legal action has been successful so far in blocking actual mining, but the struggle continues.

Second, activist and trainer Philippe Duhamel provides a comprehensive look in two parts at a recent successful campaign in Canada in which he was involved, to block the drilling of 20,000 shale gas wells along the St. Lawrence River, between Montreal and Quebec City. With classic use of nonviolent action aimed at raising the economic and political cost of this project, the campaign staged a 700-kilometer long march to arouse local concern about the fracking, and successfully pressured the government to declare a moratorium on further steps to develop the wells. It may indeed be a model for action against fracking elsewhere, and its strategic and tactical lessons deserve a close look.

On Friday, our attention focused on Syria and Mexico, both involving women engaging in nonviolent action on behalf of their own rights or the rights of those with whom they work. First, Bahraini journalist Nada Alwadi reviews the stories of several Syrian women involved in civil resistance since 2011. Many societies are still surprised when movements for rights and democracy arise from women self-organizing and engaging in creative resistance: that can make their participation even more effective.  One Syrian activist said that “in the beginning of the uprising, I used to drive through the police checkpoints with my western outfit and short skirt and they never suspected me. They were under the impression that the only supporters for this movement were the Islamists.” 

In the second article, Alice Driver explains the motivation of Mexican teachers in organizing a series of massive demonstrations and encampments in Mexico City in August and September of this year, to challenge the plans of the country’s president to impose sweeping, controversial reforms on the educational system. Civil resistance is increasingly being deployed in the mature democracies, when governments act arbitrarily or without listening to communities and sections of the country affected by such policies – and this article offers a case in point. One participant said they wanted to “defend public education, and not only for our rights as teachers, but also to defend the children of this country”."


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