Learning from social movement failure

I think we see four different pathways to failure in the Arab uprisings which are well worth examining… From the Squares and Beyond partnership.

Thomas Davies
29 July 2015
beyond squares

Rosemary Bechler (RB): Would you tell us a little more about your book on social movement failure?

Thomas Davies (Thomas): My first book was a historical study of transnational activism, and of a fairly clear example of campaign failure in transnational mobilisation. I was looking at the peace movement mobilisation for the objective of disarmament preceding the Second World War.

Under the League of Nations there was quite a strong international legal mandate for the disarmament of all states subsequent to the Paris peace settlement, and substantial grounds for believing that there was a reasonable possibility that peace movement mobilisation for governments to meet their disarmament commitments made after World War I might actually lead somewhere.

So millions of people were mobilised around that in multiple countries and one petition for example circulated by women in the late 1920’s, early 1930’s acquired twelve million signatures. States gathered at the World Disarmament Conference partly in response to this, which also mobilised feminist groups, labour and civil society organisations, [and] religious institutions. It was arguably one of the biggest transnational mobilisations in history.

But I argue that it failed not so much because the political opportunities weren’t there. I’d argue that they were, with the League of Nations facilitating this. But it was in large part because the campaign miscalculated its propaganda. In order to mobilise this mass support in different countries, different things were said in different national contexts. When the governments responded it was to mixed messages in terms of demands, and when they came together to discuss the matter, they found that there wasn’t a common set of objectives that they could agree upon: the French commitment to disarm was tied to further mutual, collective security type commitments, while those in the Anglo-Saxon context were not. I would argue that this differential propaganda was in part the activists’ fault, and [in part] responsible for what went so badly wrong.

Tahrir Square during February 2011. Mona/wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

Tahrir Square during February 2011. Mona/wikicommons. Some rights reserved.RB: It sounds as if lessons from this might well have been rather cynically learnt in our time, prompting attempts to divide the peace movement, for example, between unilateral and multilateral calls for disarmament. Looking at the set of social movements that began to spread in 2011, that we are discussing today at the LSE, you say that these activists too could learn more from their failures?

Thomas: I think we see four different pathways to failure in the Arab uprisings which are well worth examining. This presents us with a variety of mobilisations that have many of the features of successful non-violent uprisings against authoritarian regimes.  But take the Egyptian case. You have superficial concessions made on the part of the military, leading to the deposing of an existing leader. But the [military] establishment maintains its overriding influence in national political affairs, so that they have a very brief experiment with more democratic institutions, subsequently replaced by another military regime. This was in part facilitated by the techniques adopted by the activists – for example, their slogan, “The army and the people are one” arguably helped to legitimate the preeminent authority of the armed forces within that country. A tactic made to divide Mubarak from the armed forces may in the longer term have delivered a strategic failure.

RB: But you take this argument further don’t you, by saying that in this case non-violence proved to be not the way forward?

Thomas: In other examples of non-violent resistance succeeding, it has very commonly been stated that it is through convincing the armed forces to draw a division between them and the regime that you can bring about a regime change. But in this case it was a catastrophic strategy, so one might argue that in this case it would have been preferable to have gone for a slower strategy, advocating reforms, rather than this more dramatic mobilisation for a ‘sympathetic coup’.

Thomas Davies, 2015.A second path to failure has to be seen in the case of Bahrain where nonviolent resistance is crushed fairly rapidly through the mobilisation of the national armed forces. What the government was able to exploit was both that it could rely on considerable support from neighbours in the Gulf region concerned about Iran, and able to exploit social divisions.  A considerable component part of the mobilisation was Shia, and perceived rightly or wrongly to be pro-Iran. So it was possible to exploit divisions. Again, one might argue that a slower strategy pushing for reform may have been more successful.

RB: Do you think Bahrain is interested in reform?

Thomas: You might argue that , “It may be better to fight and lose than not to fight at all.“ But in both the cases of Egypt and Bahrain, the governments have gained a degree of legitimacy for not negotiating at all, as a result of these failures. Had a more informed calculation of their context taken place, these movements might have been able to avoid being crushed in this way.

Three and four are the Libyan and Syrian cases.  In the Libya case, you arguably see the supplanting of a non-violent uprising by the use of international armed conflict. The use of nonviolent methods was part of the international justification for the use of violence against Gaddafi. The documentation that legitimated the intervention in Libya on the part of NATO explicitly made reference to the fact that it was a nonviolent, peaceful uprising that was being crushed violently by the Libyan Government. So one might argue that ironically, nonviolence helped to contribute to causing violence in the long run. Lastly, fourthly, something similar is happening in Syria where some of the armed forces are converted to the same cause as the peaceful mobilisation, but only some of them. So you end up with an internal armed conflict.

The traditional logic of nonviolent action is the idea that through commitment to nonviolent methods, one shows a clear contrast between the violence of the regime and the pacific nature of the movements, which helps to convert third parties, whether those are international or domestic. But in the Libyan case the converted third parties were [external] violent ones, and in that of Syria – these are internal and violent and so you end up with a violent civil war. You can see the logic of nonviolence here collapsing in four different ways across these four cases, and I’m arguing here that one should pay more attention to all of these instances of failure in order to avoid repeating these disastrous circumstances.

RB: Do you think that ISIS might point to such cases as sufficient justification for abandoning nonviolence?

Thomas: I have not studied their debates around strategy, but you can imagine that such conclusions about nonviolence might be at the back of their minds.

RB: In Syria it seemed from some of the commentary that we received that the Government was particularly exercised in flushing out and eradicating the nonviolent activists… This democratic impulse often seems to be the ultimate threat in the Middle East.

Thomas: I am recommending that failures are studied so that they may be avoided in the future. I don’t make specific recommendations as to how success might be achieved.

RB: So what is your assessment of today’s discussion – do you think this kind of transnational conversation is valuable?

Thomas: I’m very interested in continuing the dialogue of today in any way that may be productive, and taking part in every activity of this kind where my voice may be of some use.

On failed transnational activism, please see Thomas Davies' book, 'The Possibilities of Transnational Activism: The Campaign for Disarmament between the Two World Wars':

On the failures of non-violent strategy in the 2011 uprisings, see Thomas Davies' article, 'The failure of strategic nonviolent action in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Syria: "political ju-jitsu" in reverse'.

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