by Phil WilmotNovember 18, 2021
This is the second post of a two-part series. You can read the first post here: "The Impact of Civil Resistance is Declining. What to Do?" by the same author.
In my (crudely reductionistic) survey of the past two and a half centuries of people power, a few observations are helpful for activists to reassess the methods and perhaps even the ideologies underlying their struggles.
First, while the historical political shifts that I explored all deserve appropriate credit for their revolutionary value, each stands upon the shoulders of giants. None emerged in a vacuum. The Jacobins, one of the groups that incited revolution against King Louis XVI of France, gleaned inspiration from other political changes taking place throughout western civilization. The rising political left then looked to the revolutionary struggles before them, and Gandhi and other pioneers of 20th century civil resistance had transcendentalist writers and peasant uprisings to inform their movement vision and goals.
By the time Gene Sharp came on the scene to harness and codify systematic methods of resistance, a few hundred years of asymmetrical struggle and modern political innovation from below were available for his perusal. We activists today would do well to look around us and identify the major political changes happening in our world, understand them within this historical trajectory of political struggle, and build upon them as previous generations did. We need to create the next “political jolt.”
A few key ingredients, which encompass both ideology and methods, are present in all of the aforementioned political jolts. Presumably, we will need these—and perhaps others—in creating the next jolt.
Big political change necessarily disrupts the story we have been writing about ourselves. Movement vision becomes grander and our political imaginary—the ideas, institutions, and other references that make up our social reality—thus becomes less policed. This lends itself not only to stronger resistance, but also to prefigurative struggle, which models our societal ideal.
I can think of one new-age ideology already: saving our planet. The climate justice movement is the biggest and most diverse movement in world history, with enough gravitas to become our new democracy. Our struggles for the climate must go beyond direct action and disruption—they must begin to engage in prefigurative politics. The Tibetan nonviolent struggle for freedom serves as a good example, as does India’s Ekta Parishad.
As our attention spans are on the decline, so is our political persistence. Nonviolent resistance must create enduring dual power situations, such as permanent land occupations, large-scale squatting, autonomous community zones, and self-governance. We must begin to run our own self-organized education, judicial, and legislative systems, such as Freetown Christiania’s nine rules that govern the community’s takeover of a Copenhagen naval base. Even alternative economies can be created, such as that based on Mombasa’s Bangla-Pesa, which helps the working class circumvent Kenya’s neoliberal economics and kleptocratic tax regime.
Tactical innovation in the 21st century should aim to tilt the balance of instrumental actions and expressive actions back toward the former. Chenoweth notes today’s overemphasis on street protests and other actions that are mostly symbolic. These attract large proportions of inexperienced and untrained activists—which is good, but should supplement rather than replace direct action and other instrumental tactics.
Further, while it is crucial to develop new forms of resistance that powerful enemies are unprepared to stomach, it is equally important to expand our understanding of movement innovation beyond “the offense.” A successful sports team has both offensive and defensive strategies. Innovation in movement defense strategies means prioritizing proactive planning to counter new digital surveillance threats and nascent threats to movement unity (i.e. the soft co-optation and infiltration of civil society by autocrats).
Are we already on our way to this next political jolt? Our movements are probably more populous and diverse than ever before. Movement leaders are increasingly deliberate to organize intersectionally and across decentralized structures. Creativity is now mainstreamed within activist culture and there is stronger cooperation across national borders and continents. To ensure that civil resistance remains a force more powerful, though, we're still going to need a better consolidated ideology, more enduring staying power, and exceptionally innovative tactical chops.
Phil Wilmot is a former ICNC Learning Initiatives Network Fellow, and co-founder and outgoing director of Solidarity Uganda. He reports extensively on resistance movements and is author of A Wolf Dressed in Sheepskin: A White Guy’s Dilemma in a Ugandan Jail Cell. Phil lives in Uganda and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Read More