by Phil WilmotNovember 17, 2021
This is the first post of a two-part series. You can read the second post here: "Expanding Our Movement Vision and Odds of Success" by the same author.
When I first read A Force More Powerful by Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, which outlines many victorious protracted nonviolent struggles of the 20th century, I was convinced mass civil resistance was an effective method for ordinary people to achieve their rights. At university, I gobbled up any movement theory I could find. Gene Sharp outlined the mechanics. Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth offered solid quantitative research that people power can give leverage to the oppressed.
But in recent years, those of us who have been training and organizing grassroots resistance have been working with old data. Just a year ago, Chenoweth expanded her earlier research with updated information indicating that the efficacy of nonviolent resistance is on the decline. The new data are depressing, with mass nonviolent resistance success rates dropping from 52 percent to 34 percent. At the same time however, violent resistance success rates dropped to their lowest point in the past century, at 8 percent.
We live in a fundamentally different time than we did 10 years ago, and as Chenoweth points out, this isn't solely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Right-wing authoritarians—and perhaps more importantly, private companies headed by the wealthiest individuals in the world—have concentrated their rule and influence. Our adversaries are learning from each other (and probably from us too), and their friends in the private sector are also becoming more sly.
In her Journal of Democracy article a year ago, Chenoweth asks why, and what next? I want to ask, additionally, what to do? To answer this question, I propose to first take a step back and put the evolution of asymmetrical political conflict into perspective, considering developments in both ideology and in practice. This will help us as activists better harness our collective power in the new global context—the focus of my follow-up post.
Many drastic and sudden changes have caused "productively disruptive" systematic shifts, with big implications for political conflict—and our political imaginary (or social reality)—over the last several centuries.
The French Revolution, a violent episode of history, is the most apt example, its imaginative political value transcending the mere overthrow of a millennium-old monarchy to catalyze the Haitian Revolution and other abolitionist struggles and anti-colonial movements, among many others. Not only was popular revolt becoming increasingly embraced at a national scale, it was also accompanied by new ideological paradigms that helped those weary of war develop modern democracy and new understandings of equality and rights many of us take for granted today.
A century later, not all, of course, had been rectified by the important historical moment that was the French Revolution. As feudal mercantilism evolved into powerful forms of capitalism, new systematic political ideologies emerged, such as Marxism and anarchism. These gave rise to new ways of organizing resistance at scale—trade unions, associations, communes—and new tactics for oppressed groups. The First International and the Second International, which were incendiary convergences of the late 19th century, gathered participation from five continents—all of this before the airplane! New strategies for struggle, which were evolving alongside these ideological developments, were piloted in the early 20th century.
With these major societal transformations behind us, the 20th century offered political scientists ample episodes of civil resistance and nonviolent uprising to study—involving not only local political conflicts but also national, international, and transnational conflicts. By the end of the 20th century, most people around the world had directly benefited from or participated in large-scale nonviolent movements, the most celebrated ones achieving a whole host of democratic ideals (Indian independence from Great Britain, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and so on). The language around nonviolence, much of which is often attributed precisely to Gandhi, seeped beyond the scope of public struggle into our very understanding of our humanity, informing generations of movements to come.
Every political era needs a jolt. While the "era" of civil resistance made political struggle globally accessible and indisputably changed the world, the efficacy of civil resistance is on the decline even as its appeal is on the rise. What to do? I will address this in my follow-up post.
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