History Shows a Path

My writings have done their best to show that the existing political dictatorships in the largest nations of Asia by territory and population, and far too many other global nations, are the main obstacle to a happy and progressive future for any of the world’s billions of people. The problem of dictatorship is intimately linked with the two other huge global problems of climate change and income inequality, yet because of the resources available for the dictatorships to force their will on their own subjects and the international sphere, the dictatorships are arguably the hardest obstacle in the great work we will have to be doing over the next twenty years to bring about a world that is worth living in.

So I am very pleased to be able to bring the news that patient historical research has been able to identify paths of ‘nonviolent mass action” that have proved, in general, to be more effective than strategies of violent revolution in gaining increased citizen rights in the face of governments that are determined to repress those rights.

This will be a relatively short article, sourced from one magazine article (behind a paywall, sorry), “The Anti-Coup” by Andrew Marantz in The New Yorker, Nov. 23, 2020 (article title may vary between print and online editions), which relates the story of an emerging group of historians, of whom the most prominent currently is Erica Chenoweth, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. All material here in quotes is from Marantz’s article, all other material here I am summarizing greatly to respect “fair use” of copyright.

Building on the work of historians and activists going back to the 1950’s, and particularly a 1973 book “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” by political scientist Gene Sharp, they start from a rejection of the traditional political science perspective that power is a top-down phenomema. Instead, they hold that political power comes from the ability to bring about the voluntary obedience of others – which is of course backed by the police and military hardware of the state in most cases, yet still relies on the voluntary obedience of all the government underlings and economic actors and media and ultimately all the janitors and nurses and food-servers as well. (My own historical writings have come to the same conclusion, and I stress how every one of us in the world is making political choices in our every thought and action.) Those investigating this history make it clear that “nonviolent conflict” is very different from any kind of acquiescence or surrender to government power, but instead stress how protesters initiating violence often lose sympathy and legitimacy from the general public, while the government’s initiation of violence against protesters tend to bring public sympathy.

To summarize greatly, Sharp, working from historical examples, identified 198 “methods of nonviolent action,” such as vigils, strikes, boycotts, “slow-working” labor actions, mock funerals, and so on. He further noted whether these tactics were “methods of concentration” (bringing people together in large groups), or methods of dispersal and non-cooperation. Building on this Chenoweth and colleagues have built a database that attempts to account for every significant revolutionary-type political rising with over 1000 participants since 1900; their total is over 320 such movements.

A 2011 book by Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” presents detailed narrative case studies of some of these movements, closely studying why one was more successful than another. Even using fairly restrictive definitions of ‘success” for these movements, they found that over half of the movements in their database were successes, and that nonviolent civil resistance movements were twice as successful as armed movements. In the words of Tom Hastings, identified as “a longtime activist and scholar of nonviolence,” “I’ve been at this since the sixties … For a long time there have been those of us who had a philosophical commitment to nonviolence, or an intuition that nonviolence puts you at a strategic advantage. Erica and Maria took that intuition and empirically proved it.”

In conversations with activists this fall, Chenoweth identified Thailand in 1992 and Serbia in 2000 as examples of popular movements that were able to overcome post-election power grabs by authorities, and attributed their successes to four general characteristics: being able to mobilize mass popular participation, encouraging defections by people with various different types of authority, not relying only on mass demonstrations but also using “methods of dispersal and noncooperation, like boycotts and strikes,” and finally to be able stay “disciplined, even when repression escalated.”

That finishes my summary of this important and inspiring article, which should give hope to all of us who hope that repression and authoritarianism can someday be banished from all human societies. Again, I am the historical writer who tries to emphasize how we are indeed creating our futures with our every action, our every thought, we are constantly making choices of what persons and which behaviors we wish to honor and respect in our societies – even when we may think we’re not making any conscious choices at all. The work of Chenoweth and many others in showing how nonviolent conflict can overcome unjust power gives us a model to guide our choices, and I do believe we need to follow that model of possible choices as often as possible.

Of course, just knowing that a path may be possible is very far from doing the work necessary to make a successful journey towards greater freedom, and knowing that thousands may be able to use nonviolent conflict to secure social and political gains does not change the situation of any individual who is experiencing repression today. Nevertheless, having any idea of a possible path that citizens can strive for towards overcoming dictatorship, has got to be a better situation than feeling totally hopeless, better than seeing one’s self completely under the power of selfish and brutal autocrats. The world we are creating for our children and grandchildren needs to be better than that feeling of repression and hopelessness.

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