Strategic nonviolent conflict

by Wade Rathke

November 29, 2020

Pearl River   I really, really want to like Erica Chenoweth and her work as a researcher and advocate of “strategic nonviolent conflict,” but I keep having trouble getting all the way there. Chenoweth is most popular for her conclusions, with co-authors, that civil-resistance movements are almost two times more successful at creating large scale political changes than armed resistance. She also maintains from her databases of historic social movements that anytime about 3.5% of a nation’s population is engaged, the movements will tend to be successful. I’ve read her book pretty closely. I’m all about doing research on social movements and running the numbers, but I can’t escape feeling uncomfortable with something that almost seems prescriptive and formulaic.

In a recent New Yorker fan letter, she said some things that were right on target. She noted that the success of civil-resistance campaigns is dropping in recent years and she puts the blames the internet. She argues that the internet “is good at ‘getting people to the streets quickly in large numbers,’[but] its costs to movements may outweigh its benefits. Also momentum can be difficult to sustain without the more painstaking work of person-to-person organizing.” Big amen, sister, to that! The internet and social media are unparalleled communication tools, but they are supplements, not substitutes, for direct organizing.

Elsewhere in the article, examining how others had confronted post-election power grabs, she listed four factors:

They mobilized mass popular participation. They encouraged defection by people in positions of authority, like economic and business élites, security forces, even members of the opposition party. They tended not to rely solely on mass demonstrations but instead used methods of dispersal and noncoöperation, like boycotts and strikes. And, finally, they stayed disciplined, even when repression escalated.

Interesting, certainly, but these are not mass movement strategies, but elite strategies that require people to hit the streets to prove support and legitimacy, but depend for success on elite networks and persuasion: defection, noncooperation, people in position to call strikes and boycotts, and so forth. These are not strategies of the powerless, but of those with some influence, if not actual pre-existing power.

The very definition she and her associates give to power is troubling, arguing for an alternative theory “in which ‘political power comes from the ability to elicit others’ voluntary obedience.” The examples given, perhaps by the reporter, rather than Chenoweth, underline the role of “pillars of support” that provide the tacit consent to authoritarian regimes, but once again, we are talking about the role of elites not people bearing the brunt of the oppression or the struggle.

The problem may be the article as much as the theory and Chenoweth’s positions, because it requires the reader to bring to the subject some belief that it was possible for Trump and his team to mount a de facto coup and attempt to stay in power. To bring credence to such a proposition requires a left readership as committed to conspiracies as the QAnon’s on the right and the hardcore Trumpsters felt, both of which are preposterous. Yet, the reporter seems to find Chenoweth biting her nails, so to speak, even as the election was basically over, which demonstrates a disturbing level of contemporary naivete about the United States, that I worry bleeds over to current events around the world.

Gene Sharp, the giant of nonviolent theory, is often referenced as the gold standard, as he rightfully should be. Sharp was a star of one of our Organizer Forum domestic dialogues years ago, and graciously sent me a shelf of his books, which I have also read. He had a record of sorts to go with his scholarship. The role of elites was not central in his work.

In some ways the other thing that discomforts me is the one-size-fits-all notion of social movements and change. The counterpoint to strategic nonviolent conflict is what Chenoweth sees as “the standard top-down theory of power, which ‘focuses on the near-invincibility of entrenched power and implies that only militant and violent action can challenge the system.” Really? Certainly, the level of state power is impressive, especially in developed countries, but in such countries advocates of violent action to “challenge the system” are isolated and miniscule. This argument seems to rely on a strawman. The implication seems farfetched.

Undoubtedly, Chenoweth brings value to the thinking and discussion involving organizing and social change. That’s a good thing. She claims that she has nothing to say to people trying to make change, being an academic and a researcher. Yet, salted throughout the story are examples of her seeming to do just that in different Zoom calls with activists and others. I’m troubled by that. I would like to get there, but I just can’t seem to find a way to do so. Too many contradictions, assumptions, and generalizations, it seems to me, and in these days and times a theory of change that depends on elite action seems as likely to be successful as chasing rainbows.

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