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Civil Resistance Blooms

1 Feb

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Recent weeks have seen the publication of some sharp articles on (or about) civil resistance. Here’s a brief roll-up of ten recent reads on the topic:

Frances Fox Piven, “Throw Sand in the Gears of Everything,” The Nation, January 18, 2017.

George Lakey, “A 10-Point Plan to Stop Trump and Make Gains in Justice and Equality,” Waging Nonviolence, January 23, 2017.

Zeynep Tukefci, “Does a Protest’s Size Matter?” New York Times, January 27, 2017.

Maria Stephan, “An inside-Outside Strategy for Defending the US Republic,” OpenDemocracy, January 27, 2017.

author anonymous, “Trump Endgame,” Daily Kos, January 30, 2017.

Francine Prose, “Forget Protest. Trump’s Actions Warrant a General Strike,” The Guardian, January 31, 2017.

Tina Rosenberg, “From Protests Past, Lessons in What Works,” New York Times, January 31, 2017.

David Solnit and George Lakey, “How Do We Stop Trump and Win Gains in Justice and Equality?” Common Dreams, January 31, 2017.

Juliet Eilperin, Lisa Rein, and Marc Fisher, “Resistance from Within: Federal Workers Push Back Against Trump,” The Washington Post, January 31, 2017.

Erica Chenoweth, “Worried About American Democracy? Study These Activist Techniques,” The Guardian, February 1, 2017.

Add your reading recommendations in the comments section.

How Can We Know When Popular Movements Are Winning? Look to These Four Trends

16 Nov lyndon_johnson_meeting_with_civil_rights_leaders

In the past week, an awful lot of people have asked me how to gauge whether nonviolent popular movements are actually gaining traction. Generally speaking, a lot of folks have done work on this over the years (see these criteria drawn from Gene Sharp’s work, and Peter Ackerman and Hardy Merriman’s checklist approach). I have my own set of four criteria, which I’ve often cited when asked. It’s worth mentioning them again in one place.

  1. Size and diversity of participation. The success of mass movements is largely driven by their size. Because of this, an increase in the number and diversity of participants may be an indicator of a movement’s latent potential to succeed. This is particularly true if people who are not ordinarily “activists” begin to participate and if various classes, ethnicities, ages, genders, geographies, and other social distinctions are represented.
  1. Nonviolent discipline. Every movement that seriously challenges the status quo eventually experiences repression. How the movement responds to repression—whether it maintains its own discipline and order in spite of repression—is a key determinant of the movement’s staying power. Movements that respond to such repression with rioting or street-fighting tend to fizzle out. But movements that respond to such repression with unity, resolve, and discipline often succeed. Nonviolent discipline often requires advance coordination, training, preparation, and decentralization, which are desirable for lots of reasons regardless.
  1. Flexible & innovative techniques. Kurt Schock’s work tells us that movements need to consistently shift their techniques—particularly switching between concentrated methods like demonstrations and dispersed methods like strikes and stay-aways—in order to succeed. Movements that over-rely on single methods—like protests or rallies—are less likely to win in the end. What I tend to look for, then, is whether a movement seems to be using a variety of nonviolent techniques. In particular, I look to a movement’s ability to shift to lower-risk tactics, like stay-aways, when repression becomes intense.
  1. Loyalty shifts. If economic and business elites, civil servants, security forces, state media, and other elites continue to enthusiastically support the movement’s adversary, then the mass movement is not yet having profound and observable political effects. However, if erstwhile elite supporters begin to abandon the opponent, remain silent when they would typically defend him, refuse to follow orders to repress dissidents, or drag their feet in carrying out day-to-day orders, the incumbent is losing his grip. Although loyalty shifts from various sectors are important, defection, desertion, or noncooperation by security forces can be especially impactful.

Of course, these four trends are also instructive in terms of how movements prepare for and wage nonviolent struggle.

A few more fun facts from the historical record, drawn from recent work with Maria Stephan and Kurt Schock:

  1. The average nonviolent campaign takes about three years to run its course (that’s more than three times shorter than the average violent campaign, by the way). So these things do not unfold overnight.
  2. The average nonviolent campaign is about eleven times larger as a proportion of the overall population as the average violent campaign.
  3. Nonviolent resistance campaigns are ten times more likely to usher in democratic institutions than violent ones. And from 1900-2006, only 50% of democratic countries facing armed campaigns remained democratic in the aftermath. 90% of democratic countries facing nonviolent resistance campaigns remained democratic after the campaign ended.
  4. Mixing in a little bit of violence by the protestors does not help nonviolent campaigns succeed. Those campaigns that succeed with violent flanks tend to do so in spite of the violence rather than because of it.
  5. Countries that experience nonviolent resistance campaigns are about 15% less likely to experience a civil war in the aftermath than countries that experience armed resistance campaigns.

What else do you want to know? Write your questions in the comments section below.

[this post originally appeared at Political Violence @ a Glance]

The Origins of the NAVCO Data Project (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Take Nonviolent Conflict Seriously)

7 May
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“Big Data”. Source: betakit.com

In June 2006, I was a doctoral student at the University of Colorado-Boulder in the final stages of writing my dissertation on why terrorism occurs in democratic countries. I was spending my last summer teaching undergraduate courses in Boulder before heading off to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was due to take up a predoctoral fellowship at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in the fall.

Earlier that summer, I received an email from my colleague Victor Asal, forwarding an invitation he had received to a workshop called “People Power and Pedagogy.” “The other side of the coin – thought you might be interested,” Victor’s email said. Sponsored by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and hosted at Colorado College, this workshop was meant to introduce social scientists to the literature on nonviolent or “civil” resistance—a concept with which I was not familiar. In all of my time researching social movements, political power, and organized violence, I had never come across the work of ICNC’s co-founders, Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, nor had I heard of Gene Sharp or any other academic powerhouses whose work had established the field of civil resistance studies.

Skeptical but curious—and more than a little enticed by the free food and books—I applied to the workshop. Soon thereafter, I received an acceptance letter from ICNC followed by a FedEx package full of books and papers on civil resistance, its theoretical and strategic dimensions, and the ways people power movements had accomplished in many cases what violent rebellion could not. These works made the claim—sometimes implicit, other times explicit—that civil resistance was as effective or even more effective than armed struggle in achieving major political concessions. They based these claims on cases like Serbia, where the Otpor movement had initiated the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic; Poland, where the Solidarity movement had successfully challenged the entrenched Communist Party; the Philippines, where the People Power movement had removed Ferdinand Marcos from power; and the U.S. Civil Rights movement, where lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts, and marches had initiated the desegregation of many southern cities and created the base for a broader campaign.

I must say I attended the workshop as a cynic. Although I found the various cases of successful civil resistance interesting, I thought they were exceptional. For every case like Serbia, Poland, or the Philippines, I could recall a case like Tiananmen Square, Hungary 1956, or Burma 1988. After all, even Mahatma Gandhi’s dubious victory in expelling the British from India had ushered in a period of violent turmoil, punctuated by India’s bloody partition with Pakistan. Even more persistent was my suspicion that successful cases could be explained by other factors—weak states incapable of suppressing unarmed actors, international actors willing to patronize them, moderately democratic institutions that accommodated them, social, economic, or demographic characteristics that predisposed some populations to embrace nonviolent action where others would turn to violence, or plain old government incompetence.

I voiced these concerns repeatedly throughout the workshop and expressed my desire for more and better data on the phenomenon. Maria Stephan, then academic outreach coordinator for ICNC, was receptive to my concerns but was also eager to challenge me: “Well, how would we know if civil resistance was as effective as armed struggle? How would one develop a study that tested your hypotheses about structural factors explaining the outcomes?” Maria had just completed her own doctoral thesis on the topic of “extending the nonviolent battlefield,” or how nonviolent self-determination movements could solicit third-party support to increase their leverage.

In response, I developed what I thought would be a reasonable research design that might actually assess—systematically and empirically—both the relative rates of success of nonviolent and violent mass movements as well as the underlying causes for these successes. The study, I ventured, would have to be much broader in scope that the limited number of cases examined by much extant literature on nonviolent resistance. It would have to include all known cases—both successes and failures—rather than making inferences from a relatively small number of cases. It would have to have wide geographic and temporal scope so as to increase the number of observations in a way that would provide more statistical power to the study. With Maria’s recent fieldwork, familiarity with different cases, and vast knowledge of the canonical literature, we decided to put our heads and our skill sets together and conduct a study on whether it was indeed the case that nonviolent resistance was a relatively effective form of political struggle.

To ICNC’s credit, the organization’s leadership encouraged us to do this. I remember telling Maria that we might find out the opposite—that violence was actually more effective—and asking her whether Peter Ackerman understood that this was a real possibility. She assured me that if we discovered that civil resistance was ineffective, then he and everyone else at ICNC would accept this outcome. After all, Peter had a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School and fully understood and respected the scientific process. Looking back, I can see what a gamble this was for ICNC. But Maria and I agreed that if it turned out that civil resistance was not very effective, then we had better find that out sooner rather than later.

My own reservations about the effectiveness of nonviolent action directed me to take a particularly skeptical approach to the data collection and analysis, applying a “hard test” to nonviolent action wherever possible. This is reflected somewhat in the sample population itself. I decided we would only include cases where the insurgents were seeking the removal of the incumbent regime, territorial self-determination, or the expulsion of a foreign military occupation—I saw these as “maximalist” goals that fundamentally altered the shape of the state and would therefore be more difficult to achieve. Data coverage would be global and cover the time period 1900-2006. Whether it was nonviolent or violent, we would only code a case as “successful” if it achieved the full removal of the incumbent leader, de jure and de facto secession, or the expulsion of a foreign military. The campaign had to achieved this objective within a year of its peak, and it had to have had a discernable impact on this outcome. Moreover, we could collect data on a variety of features of the campaign’s structural environment—including features of the regime, socio-economic trends, ethno-linguistic characteristics of the population, international support for the campaign or the regime, region, and time period—and we would account for these factors when identifying the correlates of success.

To obtain the cases of violent insurgency, I started by looking at all of the cases of intrastate conflict from the Correlates of War dataset, which features cases of organized armed actors using violence against one another that results in at least 1,000 battle deaths. I then turned to collecting data on analogous nonviolent campaigns. Drawing on thousands of source materials—including encyclopedias, bibliographies, case studies, historical documents, news reports, and other scholars’ published lists of popular revolutions—I began to assemble a list of cases of nonviolent mass mobilization featuring at least 1,000 observed participants seeking maximalist goals from 1900-2006. My impending dissertation defense and fellowship obligations at Harvard introduced a variety of distractions at this point, so ICNC gave me a stipend to keep the data collection process on pace. By spring of 2007, I had a preliminary list of campaigns of nonviolent resistance, which I circulated to experts of nonviolent action—including some of ICNC’s staff and academic advisors, as well as subject experts like Doug Bond—to ask for any additions and to get their sense of whether we had properly characterized the outcomes of these campaigns (e.g. successes, partial successes, or failures). At the end of this often tedious process, we had produced the Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes (NAVCO) data set (version 1.0)—the first dataset of 323 maximalist campaigns over 106 years with global coverage.

Then I ran the numbers. I was shocked. More than 50% of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded whereas about 26% of the violent ones did. Moreover, when I ran a variety of regression models that included features of the regime as control variables, I could find no systematic statistical association between structural features of the country and the outcomes of the campaigns. Generally speaking, nonviolent campaigns were succeeding more often than violent campaigns despite a variety of structural factors that we typically associate with predetermining such outcomes. Other studies have since reached similar conclusions.

Maria and I wrote up these preliminary results and submitted them to International Security, which published the paper in its Summer 2008 issue. At the same time, we suggested to ICNC that we ought to write a book together on this topic. Given the striking nature of our findings and their potential impact, they agreed to provide me with a stipend to work on the book manuscript the following year while a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. In 2011, Columbia University Press published our book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. It hit the shelves during the height of the so-called Arab Spring, a series of upheavals that leant greater urgency to the need for even more systematic, empirical research on the topic.

ICNC has been ahead of the curve of this effort. In 2009, they gave me a five-year contract to further develop the NAVCO Data Project to provide greater detail on the characteristics and tactics of different campaigns. Thanks to this funding, in May 2013, Orion Lewis and I published a release of the NAVCO 2.0 data set, which contains annual data on a variety of organizational characteristics of 250 nonviolent and violent campaigns from 1946-2006. Additionally, ICNC’s support will allow me to release NAVCO 3.0, which contains data on the tactical sequences of nonviolent and violent campaigns in 30 countries from 1987-2012, in late 2015. At this point, the NAVCO data set is the signature resource on the comparative characteristics and outcomes of nonviolent and violent campaigns, and its release has catalyzed a number of new studies on civil resistance.

ICNC has also set aside funds to support anyone interested in adding to empirical understandings of civil resistance. They have developed a generous $10,000 stipend for PhD students writing promising dissertations on the topic. Their monograph award is meant to catalyze new research on this topic by established scholars, while their curriculum development award is meant to promote innovation among scholars wishing to apply their pedagogical insights to the field.

So the story of the NAVCO Data Project is one of skepticism, hypothesis-testing, and discovery—basic principles of the scientific method. I am grateful to ICNC for providing me with the intellectual provocation to begin this research as well as the support to carry it out. In this case, as it turned out, the intuitions of many advocates of nonviolent resistance were correct, and the assumptions of many cynics—including myself—were dead wrong.

—-This post has been updated to reflect the role of lunch counter sit-ins in the broader U.S. civil rights movement, rather than in desegregating Nashville alone.

My Talk at TEDxBoulder: Civil Resistance and the “3.5% Rule”

4 Nov

I gave a talk at TEDxBoulder on September 21st. It was a great event, and I shared the stage with over a dozen terrific speakers and a number of talented musicians. We shared our ideas with a sold-out audience of about 2,200 people, and I’ve never been more nervous giving a talk!

Here’s the video:

I anticipated that people might have questions about some of the claims I make in this talk, as well as some of the specific references I make. As you can imagine, when you have 12 minutes to tell a story, present some counterintuitive information, and try to make it engaging, there’s no time to fully reference your points. So I decided to post the script and expand it with a variety of links to sources, references, and resources for those interested in pursuing the topic further. There may be a few deviations/word changes here and there because, well, I didn’t deliver the script verbatim. But you’ll get the gist.

Feel free to leave your remaining questions in the comments section. I will collect them and answer them in a follow-up post.

I’d like to ask you to imagine that you live in a very repressive country—there are elections but they are fake. The leader wins 100% of the vote each time. Security forces beat up opposition leaders with impunity, and they harass everyone else. This is a country where being in this room right now would get you on a list. Now let’s say you’ve had enough, and so have many other people that you talk to in low whispers. I’m not talking about the Hunger Games although that would be awesome. Unfortunately I’m talking about real world conditions that many people find themselves in right now.

Assuming you’ve decided to act, what would be the best way for you to challenge the system and create major change?

My own answer to this question has changed over the past five years. In 2006 I was a PhD student in political science here at CU-Boulder, and I was finishing my dissertation about how and why people use violence to seek political goals. As for the scenario I just described? Well, back then I bought into the idea that “power flows from the barrel of a gun.” I would have said that although it was tragic, it was logical in such cases for people to use violence to bring about change.

But that June, I was invited to an academic workshop put on by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. They were giving a week-long primer on nonviolent resistance to encourage people like me to teach about it in our courses. Now, my view of all this stuff was that it was well-intentioned, but dangerously naïve. The readings they sent me[1] argued that the best way for people to achieve political change was through nonviolent or civil resistance. The authors described civil resistance as an active form of conflict where unarmed civilians used tactics like protests, demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and many other forms of mass noncooperation to confront oppression. They brought up cases like Serbia, where a nonviolent revolution toppled Slobodan Milosevic—the butcher of the Balkans—in October of 2000, or the Philippines where the People Power movement ousted Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

At the workshop, I said things like, “Well, for every successful case you guys mention, I can think of a failed case like Tiananmen Square. I can also think of plenty of cases where violence worked pretty well, like the Algerian, French, and Russian revolutions. Maybe nonviolent resistance works if you’re seeking labor rights, gender rights, or environmental reform, but it generally can’t work if you’re trying to overthrow a dictator or become a new country. Serbia and the Philippines–they were probably exceptions. And there’s no way nonviolent resistance can work against a ruthless opponent.”

By the end of the week, as you can imagine, I wasn’t too popular.

My soon-to-be co-authorMaria Stephan–came up to me and said something like, “If you’re right, prove it. Are you curious enough to study these questions empirically?”

Believe it or not, no one had systematically done this before.[2] Although I was still skeptical, I was curious. If they were right and I was wrong, I figured somebody had better find out. So for the next two years, I collected data on all major nonviolent and violent campaigns for the overthrow of a government or territorial liberation since 1900. The data cover the entire world and include every known campaign that consists of at least a thousand observed participants, which constitutes hundreds of cases.[3]

Then I analyzed the data, and the results blew me away. From 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies. And there’s more. This trend has been increasing over time—in the last fifty years civil resistance has become increasingly frequent and effective, whereas violent insurgencies have become increasingly rare and unsuccessful. This is true even in extremely repressive, authoritarian conditions where we might expect nonviolent resistance to fail.[4]

So why is civil resistance so much more effective than armed struggle? The answer lies in people power itself.

Researchers used to say that no government could survive if five percent of its population mobilized against it. But our data reveal that the threshold is probably lower. In fact, no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population—and lots of them succeeded with far less than that [5]. Now, 3.5% is nothing to sneeze at. In the U.S. today, this means almost 11 million people.

But get this: Every single campaign that did surpass that 3.5% threshold was a nonviolent one. In fact, campaigns that relied solely on nonviolent methods were on average four times larger than the average violent campaign. And they were often much more representative in terms of gender, age, race, political party, class, and urban-rural distinctions.

Civil resistance allows people of all different levels of physical ability to participate—including the elderly, people with disabilities, women, children, and virtually anyone else who wants to. If you think about it, everyone is born with an equal physical ability to resist nonviolently. Anyone who has kids knows how hard it is to pick up a child who simply doesn’t want to move, or to feed a child who simply doesn’t want to eat.

But for lots of people, violent resistance is much more physically demanding. You have to train to be good at it. When I was in college, I took military science classes because I wanted to go through the ROTC program and become an army officer. I liked the rappelling, the uniforms, map-reading, and shooting at the range. But I wasn’t stoked about getting up in the wee hours of the morning to run until I vomited. I quit–and chose the far less strenuous career of professor.

Not everyone wants to take the same chances in life, and many people won’t turn up unless they expect safety in numbers. The visibility of many civil resistance tactics, like protests, helps to draw these risk-averse people into the fray. Put yourself back in that repressive country for a minute. Say your neighbor comes to you and says, “We’re going to have a demonstration in the main square down the street at 8pm tonight. I hope you can make it.” Now, I don’t know about you all, but I’m not the person who is going to show up at 7:55 to see what’s up. I’m going to wait until about 8:30 or so, check out my window, and see what’s going on. If I see only 6 people assembling in the square, I’m probably going to sit this one out. But if I see 6,000 and more coming down the alleyway, I might join them.

The point here is that nonviolent campaigns can solicit more diverse and active participation from ambivalent people. And once those people get involved, it’s almost guaranteed that the movement will then have some links to security forces, the state media, business or educational elites, religious authorities, and civilian bureaucrats who start to question their allegiances. No regime loyalists in any country live entirely isolated from the population itself. They have friends, they have family, and they have existing relationships that they have to live with in the long term, regardless of whether the leader stays or goes. In the Serbian case, once it became clear that hundreds of thousands of Serbs were descending on Belgrade to demand that Milosevic leave office, policemen ignored the order to shoot on demonstrators. When asked why he did so, one of them said: “I knew my kids were in the crowd.”

I’ll bet some of you are thinking, “Is she insane? I watch the news, and I see protestors getting shot at in the streets all the time!” Sometimes crackdowns do happen. But even in these cases, nonviolent campaigns outperformed violent ones by two-to-one. When security forces beat up, arrest, or even shoot unarmed activists, there is, indeed, safety in numbers. Large and well-coordinated campaigns can switch from concentrated methods (like protests) to dispersed methods, where people stay away from places they were expected to go. They do strikes, they do stay-at-home demonstrations, they bang on pots and pans, they shut off the electricity at a coordinated time of day — these tactics are much less risky. They’re very hard or at least very costly to suppress, while the movement stays just as disruptive.

What happens in these countries once the dust settles? It turns out, the way you resist matters in the long run too. Most strikingly, nonviolent campaigns were far more likely to usher in democratic institutions than violent insurgencies. And countries where people waged nonviolent struggle were 15% less likely to relapse into civil war.

The data are clear: When people rely on civil resistance, their size grows. And when large numbers of people withdraw their cooperation from an oppressive system, the odds are ever in their favor.

So. Many people in my field[6] had largely ignored the millions of people worldwide who were skillfully using civil resistance in favor of studying things that blow up. I had a few questions about the way I used to think. Why was it so easy and comfortable for me to believe that violence works? And why did I find it acceptable to simply assume that violence happens—almost automatically—because of circumstances, or by necessity—that it’s the only way out of some situations? In a society that celebrates battlefield heroes on national holidays, I guess it was natural to grow up believing that violence and courage are one and the same—and that true victories can’t come without bloodshed on both sides.

But the evidence I’ve presented here today suggests that for people serious about seeking change, there are realistic alternatives. Imagine now what our world would look like if we allowed ourselves to develop faith in them. What if our history courses emphasized the decade of mass civil disobedience that came before the Declaration of Independence, rather than the war that came after? What if Gandhi and King were the basis of the first chapter of our social studies textbooks, rather than an afterthought? What if every child left elementary school knowing more about the Suffragist movement than they did about the Battle of Bunker Hill? And what if it became common knowledge that when protests become too dangerous, there are many nonviolent techniques of dispersion that might keep participants safe and keep movements resilient?

So here we are in 2013 in Boulder, Colorado. Maybe some of you are thinking, “OK, I get that civil resistance is the best bet, but what can I do?”

Encourage your children to learn about the nonviolent legacies of the past two hundred years and explore the potential of people power. Tell your elected representatives to stop perpetuating the misguided view that violence pays by supporting the first groups in a civil uprising to take up arms. Although nonviolent campaigns can’t be exported or imported, it’s time for our officials to embrace a different way of thinking—that in the short and long term, civil resistance tends to leave behind societies in which people are able to live more freely and more peaceably together.

Now that we know what we know about the power of nonviolent conflict, I see it as our shared responsibility to spread the word so that future generations don’t fall for the myth that violence is their only way out.

Thank you.


[1] These readings included Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy; Kurt Schock’s Unarmed Insurrections; Zunes, Asher, and Kurtz’s Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective; Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s A Force More Powerful; and Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler’s Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, and a handful of article-length readings. Resources like this can be found here.

[2] As note 1 suggests, many people had theorized about civil resistance and developed case studies analyzing its effectiveness, but no one had systematically compared how well it worked compared with armed struggle over time and space.

[3] Many of these are discussed in detail at the Swarthmore Global Nonviolent Action Database.

[4] For answers to questions about how we counted the campaigns, coded success and failures, etc., see here, here, and here.

[5] This figure is based on the highest number of observed participants directly confronting the opponent during the campaign. It does therefore not represent an aggregate number of participants, but rather that the maximum number of people the campaign involved in peak events.

[6] There are exceptions. See note 1.

New Data on Bandhs in Nepal

2 Nov

Bandhs are politically-motivated strikes, ranging from the closing of stores to nationwide strikes. Today Kristine Eck sent me this link to an extremely detailed and comprehensive online database of bandhs in Nepal. Worth checking out for those interested in data or strikes as a tactic.

Red Team, Blue Team: Simulating a Successful Nonviolent Resistance

12 Sep

If you are an activist in an authoritarian regime today, you need a plan–and a good one. With regimes threatening to drive pro-democracy resistance movements underground, it would be useful for opposition leaders to know their options, the different risk profiles of those options, and the variety of potentially effective methods they could use to avoid repression while keeping the momentum of the movement going.

Back in the days when I worked in emergency medical services (a long time ago), I participated in mass casualty-incident scenarios to learn how to effectively deploy our resources, anticipate and deal with curveballs (since nothing ever goes according to plan), and figure out how to save the most lives when real incidents occurred. Although simulations almost never go the way you plan, they give you opportunities to respond to unplanned events, which turns out to be as important as having a good plan in the first place. Moreover, lots of creative thinking can emerge out of these types of sessions. Well-designed red team/blue team exercises can help people to experience and prepare for a number of different scenarios without having to experience any of the adverse consequences of making mistakes in real life.

Military, marketing, and IT personnel often spend considerable time and energy on red team/blue team “games,” or “battlefield scenarios” that they use to map out strategy and to anticipate and respond to unforeseen events in constructive ways. The “red team” is often the one hatching up a plot to engage the opponent (e.g., a terrorist attack against a the US), and the “blue team” is given limited information with which to stop the red team within a given time frame (e.g., a way to thwart the attack). Red team/blue team exercises allow officers and strategists to develop a skill that is crucial for a successful nonviolent resistance: the ability to outmaneuver the opponent under adverse conditions.

Militaries and corporations often have massive resources and personnel to devote to simulations. They sometimes fly in “subject experts” to help design and implement the scenarios. Now, most civilians in most countries don’t have backgrounds in conducting red team/blue team exercises, nor are they in a position to “practice” nonviolent resistance in the streets or to fly in experienced activists to help them develop these skills. But when the stakes are high, as they are in Syria and many other places today, a few big strategic mistakes could end the movement.

How can nonviolent resistance movements strategize without subjecting themselves to detection or repression?

One way do so is by playing People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance. Developed by York Zimmerman and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, this game allows people to develop a scenario where their opponent in the game approximates their opponent in real life. The site says:

People Power is about politics, about strategy and about social change. As a leader of a popular movement you fight against tough adversaries who control the police, the army and bureaucracy, even the media. The only weapon in your hand is your strategic skill and ingenuity.

The game can be used by activists to develop strategic skills and experience in facing a militarily superior adversary. Part of the idea is to allow people to get used to making strategic mistakes (like choosing the same, predictable method over and over again, or failing to communicate the campaign’s message to a wider audience) against brutal opponents without winding up in prison.

It’s $10, but they will make exceptions.

Now, importantly, I wouldn’t suggest that playing a video game (if they could even access it in the first place) is going to improve oppositions’ chances against brutal dictators. That would be an especially arrogant and irritating claim.

But in the long term, I do think that strategic planning (and strategic thinking) is a crucial element to a successful nonviolent resistance. If activists today can improve those skills by playing a game, they should. If they don’t find a tool like this useful, they should invest some time in figuring out another way to do it. As Winston Churchill said, “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even though they rarely stick to their plan.” He would know.

Must-Reads for Rational Insurgents

27 Aug

In my various travels, people have asked me outright how they can overthrow their respective governments (I’m not naming names). My answer is always the same: I have no idea how they might go about this, and I have some pretty strong ethical reasons for not wanting to make suggestions either. However, I’d be happy to recommend some readings.

Here is my current top-ten list of must-reads for those wanting to become rational insurgents:

On War, Carl von Clausewitz.

The quintessential guide to strategy, and origin of the famed dictum: “War is politics by other means.” Nonviolent resistance is politics by other means too, and, although Clausewitz doesn’t really go there, lots of the same principles apply.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp.

This is the handbook for how to proceed with a nonviolent campaign. Sharp explains the fundamentals of power, strategy, and tactical choice; details the hundreds of methods of nonviolent action available to ordinary civilians; and describes lessons learned from previous conflicts.

A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall.

The authors explore how twelve historical campaigns  — from Nashville to the Ruhr Valley to Burma — have employed nonviolent methods to separate regimes from their main sources of power. Easy-to-read, and full of useful details, this book’s descriptions of the various conflicts are highly instructive. For those tired of reading, there is also a documentary film. See also Bringing Down a Dictator and Orange Revolution.

Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies, Kurt Schock.

An accessible primer on why some nonviolent uprisings succeed whereas others fail. Schock finds that successful campaigns are more resilient and tactically innovative, and he describes various case studies of how campaigns that shifted between concentrated and dispersed methods were able to avoid regime repression.

The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Clifford Bob.

While not exactly a handbook for insurgents, this book explains the reasons by some rebels get international support while others don’t. Bottom line: framing and marketing are key.

The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov.

A sobering account of the ways that authoritarian regimes can exploit the internet to crack down on pro-democracy uprisings. A must-read, given how generally optimistic people are about the potential for social media to be a “game-changer.”

Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire, Brian Martin.

Martin looks at why government repression sometimes backfires and other times doesn’t. Very instructive.

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Resistance, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.

I don’t care if it’s tacky to list my own book. Sometimes nonviolent campaigns need a little encouragement — and a good reason to avoid using violence. This book will give hope (and ammunition) to people relying on civil resistance to get what they want. We find that compelling evidence that while nonviolent resistance doesn’t always succeed, it has a much better chance at succeeding than violence.

“Spoiling Inside and Out: Internal Political Contestation and the Middle East Peace Process,” Wendy Pearlman.

In this article, Pearlman details one of the major shortcomings of many resistance campaigns: the failure to achieve unity. The article contains lessons from the Palestinian conflict on why social movement organizations should avoid fragmentation.

Why Terrorism Does Not Work, Max Abrahms.

A cautionary tale for why adopting terrorism as a strategy will be counterproductive. The main point: people misinterpret the violence. Instead of hearing you say “I want political change,” they hear “I want to kill you.” Not the best way to convince people you have an attractive vision for their future.

What are your favorite readings on strategy? Feel free to post below.

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For more information, see Carter, Clark, and Randle’s online bibliography of nonviolent conflict. See also the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s website and the the online video game People Power, which helps activists plan, implement, and reflect on their strategic choices against hypothetical dictators. You know these sites are worth checking out, because they are blocked in China.