People power and the new global ferment

People power does not lend itself to the geo-strategic interests of empires or warlords, since it is based on collective action and civic unity, as well as the refusal to comply with existing power-holders. Any movement that opts for civil resistance has to encompass and attempt to represent diverse social groups.

Stellan Vinthagen
15 November 2010

Photo by marjoleincc

We live in a time of historic social change, a time of ‘people power’. As expected, conventional news media have not understood this. More surprisingly, most alternative media as well as authors and academics also don’t see it. Still, it is true. I say this for three reasons: First, the last decade has witnessed the biggest global cooperation between human liberation movements in world history. In this “movement of movements” all over the world, various kinds of struggles with different issues and themes have worked together to form global networks and act together. Second, these movements rely on strategies featuring  civil resistance. Third, these movements’ civil resistance has had an impact on the real world even though our understanding of how that has become possible is still limited.

What we do know is that mass action of ordinary citizens can produce change, that it can force regimes to negotiate and compromise, and even topple authoritarian rulers, e.g. Serbia, South Africa, Nepal or Bolivia. People have seen that the mobilization of ordinary citizens is what state actors are most afraid of, whether they preside in Iran, Venezuela, France, Iceland, Burma, Egypt or Israel/Palestine. Here is something that seems more powerful than the force that grows out of the barrel of a gun. The “revolution is not a dinner party”, as Mao said, but neither is it a civil war, as he and his followers mistakenly believed.  It is the prime fear of all authoritarian leaders: a united people that disobey and practice freedom without fear.

The global growth of civil resistance

The latest World Social Forum, in the Amazonas, gathered around 150,000 participants, all activists from various movements and countries, who during several days conducted hundreds of meetings to discuss how to resist ongoing militarization, neoliberal order, the exploitation of working people, infringement of indigenous rights, and injustice and oppression of all kinds. Moreover, the World Social Forum process is spreading. Every year, some 30+ forums gather oppositional groups and movements in heterogenous alliances, such as the European Social Forum, the African, Asian as well as the Latin American and US Social Forums, but also the World Education Forum and Right to Food and Food Sovereignty Forum. What is new is that these forums are made up of groups that have learned lessons from the ineffectiveness of earlier strategies, whether trusting in reform through parliamentary processes or revolution through armed rebellion.

The World Social Forum movement is based on a search for a new politics, a global unity rooted in heterogenous diversity and ‘nonviolent social resistance.’ And this ‘movement of movements’ continues to grow. Some examples: The biggest peace demonstration in the world, on 15 February 2003 against the planned Iraq war, with at least some 10 million participants in 600 cities in 60 countries, was a result of the European Social Forum 2002. The MST, the landless workers’ movement in Brazil, that is one of the driving forces behind the World Social Forum, has since the early 1980s conducted over 2000 land occupations and resolutely lived on the occupied land, growing food and constructing schools. They have maintained civil resistance despite being under heavy assault both from the police and landlords’ paramilitary units that on average kill one person a week. They are not unarmed because they are pacifists, but because they know they would be crushed if they took up arms, as earlier in their history they were crushed. Through steadfast civil resistance they have won political and legal battles for their right to the land, and actually liberated land, equal in size to the whole of Cuba, for hundreds of thousands of poor Brazilians.

This wave of movements is based on developments in mainly the ‘Third World’ since the 1980s, and the poor majorities’ disappointment in post-colonial regimes and the failures of ‘modern development’. We have seen that in rebellions against the structural adjustment programmes during the 1980s (the ‘IMF riots’), culminating in the 1994 campaign in India where, according to a research report from Delhi, one million people took part in civil disobedience. We have also seen it in the Ogoni people’s struggle against Shell Oil in the Niger Delta and the Zapatista indigenous’ rebellion in Chiapas.

The strategy of civil resistance, or ‘people power’, as it was dubbed in the revolution in the Phillipines in 1986 when Ferdinand Marcos was ousted from power, has brought amazing results. Research shows that the wave of democratization between 1970 and 2005 was mostly connected to this form of popular struggle, with 50 of 67 democratic transitions having been driven by nonviolent coalitional force of some kind (i.e. Freedom House study entitled How Freedom is Won, 2005). Depending on how we define a ‘nonviolent revolution’, there are between thirty and fifty major examples at the national level. Among them are cases in Uruguay 1983, South Korea 1986, Zambia 1989, Czechoslovakia 1989, Bangladesh 1989, Bolivia 1992, and Peru 1999.

This wave (especially the later transitions that have been referred to as ‘color revolutions’) is often attributed to the end of the Cold War, which is partly true. But it is vital to remember how that happened: through civil resistance by suppressed peoples in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland and East Germany. It was the civil resistance of broad alliances of ordinary citizens that forced their regimes to negotiate or precipitated their fall, that was the political mechanism for ending the Cold War.

This mechanism is strikingly different from the armed rebellion and violent revolutionary strategy that dominated the early twentieth century. That wave of revolutions also brought results, mostly new dictatorships, as in Cuba, China and later Zimbabwe. It was a wave of regime changes that certainly did sweep away old oppressive systems, but that failed to produce much in the way of human liberation.

As for reform within the confines of existing systems, that inevitably plays by the rules of existing power-holders. Mass civil resistance, on the other hand, breaks the rules and make new space for social change, new openings for progress. Through the ongoing research of scholars such as Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, as shown in their article “Why Civil Resistance Works” (2008) which compares all nonviolent and violent campaigns for social change in the world, for which we have accessible data, in the last 106 years - we can see that nonviolent resistance has in fact been about twice as effective as violent resistance.

The spectacle of groups of ordinary persons resisting tyranny without military force is as old as the first Mesopotamian city-states. But the development of effective strategies for organized resistance is new. It might be argued that it started with Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Indian independence movement against British colonial rule, or earlier with Leo Tolstoy’s exhortations to refuse conscription in Russia, or with anti-slavery and anti-statist Christians on the US east coast in the early nineteenth century, with William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou.

But systematic academic interest can be traced to the now classic work by Gene Sharp in 1974, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. During the resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa, this methodology was called ‘defiance’, in Ghana ‘positive action’, and in various Latin American countries it has gone under the name of ‘insumision’ (non-submission) or ‘firmeza permamente’ with a similar meaning as the Arabic word ‘sumud’(steadfastness) used in Palestine.

It is harder to find examples of conservative, fundamentalist or even reactionary movements that have used this form of resistance, but they exist, like the Yellow Shirts in Thailand and the anti-abortion movement in the US. And we should not shy away from the fact that, like other techniques of political conflict, it can be used for many different purposes.  But to be effective, it requires broad popular participation and therefore cannot be equated with action by small groups to stage a coup.

No magic bullet

Civil resistance is not a silver bullet. Democratic change is not foreordained; human rights are not guaranteed; transparency is not automatic; and human liberation is not only a matter of tools and strategies. It is also about people, their politics, their culture, and the institutionalized political economy they act within.

There are several nonviolent political revolutions that have produced depressing results - most obviously that of Iran, which after the impressive civil resistance against the Shah by a broad-based coalition of social forces which ignited a revolution in 1979, entered an era of authoritarian religious and political oppression. We have seen that many of the democratic transitions since the 1980s which brought with them some new freedom and rights, also fostered or tolerated harsh neoliberal societies, reinforced by dependence on the IMF and the World Bank. These failed to mitigate unemployment and reduced, instead of enhancing, social protection. Thus, the state and the revolution might still, as earlier in history, betray the children of the revolution.

Although a proper study of this is yet to be done, it seems that in total the results of civil resistance are positive. Some improvements have stuck and made a difference in the level of freedom of many people. At least nonviolent political revolutions normally don’t devour their own children, like so many armed insurrections have. And meanwhile, they have inspired and taught activists in newer struggles, such as the movement for autonomy by Sahrawis in Western Sahara, the resistance to occupation by Palestinians, the struggle for Tibetan rights, and the resistance to dictatorship in Belarus, all of which are very much in evidence today.

In contrast to military power, people power does not lend itself easily to the geo-strategic interests of empires or warlords, since it is based on collective action and civic unity, as well as the refusal to comply with existing power-holders. That means that any movement that opts for civil resistance has to encompass and attempt to represent diverse social groups. And they have to mobilize people who have been subordinated or excluded. That is not easy. You don’t get people to take serious risks, to commit their lives, livelihood or social standing, if there is nothing really vital at stake. Mass participation and endurance are built on things like passion, conviction, strategy, organizing and feeling that you have a stake in society. What is needed in order to facilitate popular civil resistance over long periods of time and with no guarantee of victory, far exceeds promises of money or position from ‘foreign’ or ‘imperialist’ agencies.

Seven indicators of the new global ferment

There are seven significant indicators of this rise of global ferment manifested in civil resistance: First, as we have noted, the World Social Forum and its focus on ‘nonviolent social resistance’, creating a global network among movements, countries and social groups, and fostering cooperation around different issues and strategies.

Second, we see the amazing number of robust nonviolent action campaigns in the world. Third, there has been an astonishing number of successful regime changes or politically nonviolent revolutions in the last 30 years, dwarfing the violent examples.

Fourth, in the last 30 years, there is the less obvious, but not least important, development of research on civil resistance.

Fifth, even states are now recognizing its importance. The US State Department, through the U.S. Agency for International Development, has provided assistance to local civic NGO's, pro-democratic groups and even digital resisters (when they suit its agenda and interests).  The EU has recently looked into how civil resistance could be used in interventions in violent conflicts and the European Parliament commissioned a study of civil resistance. And of course, there are governments that see conspiracies against them everywhere and that are anxious to reframe domestic dissent as foreign interference.

Sixth, advocates of armed rebellion have seen that civil resistance is something new that they need to understand. There have been signals of interests from the left-wing Farc in Colombia, as well as the Palestinian organization Hamas, and the nationalist Tamil Tigers (after their military defeat in Sri Lanka). Whether this augurs the beginning of a general shift from violent to nonviolent strategies, it is too early to say, but the interest in itself is promising.

And a final sign of the growing impact of civil resistance are radical activists, be they left-wing, right-wing, or anarchist, who rage against “the new imperialist” tool of nonviolence (writers such as Stephen Gowans and Eva Golinger). They reduce people power to a conspiracy organized by the almighty USA and (naive or reactionary) parts of local civil society that lend themselves to the overthrow of (progressive) foreign governments. Conspiracies against such governments may exist, but indigenous people power could not grow if it were, ‘made in USA’. Some of the very same radicals who identified in the past with ideologies embracing violent rebellion, who have ridiculed and attacked fellow oppositionists advocating nonviolent resistance, claiming nonviolence was “ineffective” and “reformist”, now see the method as some kind of dangerous tool. What has not changed is that they are against nonviolence. Thus, we also see the effects of this new global ferment in the reaction against it from affected regimes and their sympathizers.

These are are all clear signs of the growing globalization of civil resistance, and the popular use of it, under different names, and in different shapes, for different causes, and with different results. This is the globalization of human liberation, whose effects are very clear in the former ‘second’ and ‘third’ worlds.  But what about the ‘first’, the so-called ‘developed’ world? It is not enough to have resistance movements challenging global injustices on the periphery of the world system. We also need to find out how to challenge the global injustice from within the established world powers.

Improving the strategy

We need to scrutinise more systematically new cases of civil resistance as they develop, taking in both the movements’ weaknesses, and their creativity - finding out why and when and how nonviolent struggle is actually able to develop and apply power, to democratize nations, and to liberate human beings with all their inherent genius.

How could people power contribute more to human development and human security? How is it going to be able to deal with non-state terror (e.g. Al Qaida, KKK or the Lord Resistance Army) and state terror (as with the stoning of women in Iran, and torture in prisons maintained by Burma or the CIA)? In regard to the latter, we know that the Center for Victims of Torture has in recent years vastly expanded its emphasis on nonviolent tactics of organizing and resistance through its New Tactics in Human Rights project.

We need to build a tradition of autonomous movement evaluation that enters into dialogue with academic research, to build an open access knowledge bank that can help new movements, making it easier to apply the methods by standing on the shoulders of earlier civil resisters. Today we have an opportunity to build alliances that are truly heterogeneous, that target all forms of suppression of rights, from the excesses of ‘neoliberalism’ to ‘authoritarianism’ or ‘religious fundamentalism’ - a new global network and consciousness of social power that can create real alternatives to the depressing visions of ‘Jihad vs. McWorld’ that mesmerize policy elites.

Civil resistance is a strategy and a form of struggle, a struggle against oppression without the use of violence, a non-military and popular struggle. But it is not a ‘non-struggle’, content with refuting the illusion of liberation from the machine gun. It is a struggle that builds on the supreme value of saving, protecting and improving human life. It builds on the idea of civil relations and on the strength of a united people. When that path is chosen, the struggle is very unlikely to produce a society based on armaments and hatred against certain segments of the population. People power is not an ideal weapon of choice for a fascist, misogynist or fundamentalist struggle; it is not the tool you prefer if you want to do ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Radical movements of different sorts have long suffered from the contradiction between talking about human liberation while practising the killing of humans. But now the global public’s revulsion against political killing coincides with the arrival of a new methodology of liberation. To make this change, political ideas, values and words will not suffice. The prospect is more realistic when the struggle itself, the means of liberation, is guided by these ideas and values put into practise through civil resistance - the rights to life and liberty and the respect of diversity that are the fruit of people power.


Further reading:

Freedom House report: http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/special_report/29.pdf

Article by Chenoweth and Stephan: http://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/images/stories/pdfs/stephan_chenoweth.pdf

The Charter of Principles (COP) of the World Social Forum:

The Civil Resistance resource site The International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC): http://www.nonviolent-conflict.org

The movement of landless workers (MST) in Brazil:

The Resistance Studies Network

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