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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

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]

Five Lessons from “The Hunger Games”

11 Jun

So I recently read Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” series after being pleasantly surprised by the movie. I easily breezed through all three books on plane rides, on which I prefer reading fiction (yes, even teen fiction) rather than my typical literary fare.

Collins is no Steinbeck. Nonetheless, I (slightly hesitantly) confess that I was impressed with many of the underlying themes within the series—particularly with how well Collins seems to understand how people build and take power in oppressive systems. Besides the strong “shame on us for our oblivious, exploitative, violent consumerism…arise!” message of the series, here were my key takeaways from a conflict perspective. Spoiler alert, by the way.

1. All oppressive regimes end. Even totalitarian ones. In fact, the longer they endure, the more vulnerable they are to failure. Why? Because the more generations live under oppressive rule, the more likely they are to develop the skills they need to eventually undermine it. Katniss Everdeen develops survival skills—hunting to sell food on the black market, making tools out of basic objects, and knowing how to deprive the regime of what it really wants (her obedience)—that eventually help her to totally outsmart the Arena. The deprivations imposed on the districts of Panem turn out to give them the very tools that empower them to challenge the Capitol’s rule in the end.

2. Every oppressive regime has ambivalent insiders. All regimes are, in the end, totally dependent on the obedience of those who support it—economic, military, media, and civilian elites. When such insiders (Sinna, Plutarch, etc.) stop obeying the regime, and its pillars of support begin to crack, it’s the beginning of the end. Insiders, too, are often intimately familiar with the regime’s vulnerabilities and are therefore quite well-disposed to challenge it.

3. Power is essentially psychological. No regime can repress all of the people all of the time. So many regimes rely on terror to suppress dissent. And by and large, it works—until it doesn’t.

4. It’s all about exposing the lie. The psychological power of terror ends when people simply decide to stop being afraid. Then it’s all over. Like in the books when the Districts end up rebelling once they realize that 1) the Capitol is (and always has been) vulnerable to challenge; (2) all information coming out of the Capital is (and always was) lies; and (3) all they have to do (now and ever) is coordinate their uprisings. The people of the districts realized they had the power all the time. As soon as this “cognitive liberation” was achieved, it was all over for the Panem of the Hunger Games.

5. Girl power is real power. Of course a strong, smart, and independent female protagonist distinguishes the series from many others like it. This is a rather fantastical feature of the series—the apocalypse must have truly come and gone for such gender equity to be standard practice. In fact, many of the key political players in the story turn out to be female, with many of the male characters depicted as weak, passive, or possessing a level of self-doubt or naïve goodness that exasperates the heroine (um, role reversal!). Those female characters who are fairly weak and uninspired to action (e.g., Katniss’ widowed mother) are viewed with disdain by the stronger characters, but not because they are female–just because they are apathetic. But here’s the thing about girl power. I have a hunch (yet to be fully tested empirically) that in our contemporary, pre-apocalyptic earth times, when women are willing to mobilize against oppressive systems, their movements have far greater potential to win. Jay Ulfelder, Orion Lewis, and I recently looked at which factors are associated with the onset of major nonviolent popular uprisings and found that higher rates of female literacy (maybe a proxy for increased social engagement, economic influence, political power, or all of the above) are significantly associated with such onsets. When women join the fight, movements can become twice as large. Maybe women are more organized or more tactically disciplined (at least one colleague has mentioned this as a possibility). There are often taboos against public repression of women that can be used to the movement’s advantage. And women can deprive the regime of many things it wants—cultural, political, economic, and sexual obedience. In other words, I have a feeling that when men hit the streets, dictators shrug. But when women get fired up, dictators tremble.

–Reposted from The Duck of Minerva

The Myth of the Rational Insurgent

2 Feb

Lambert Strether over at Naked Capitalism reposted a presentation I delivered at Stanford last August, called “Confronting the Myth of the Rational Insurgent.” You can access his post and my presentation here.

A debate is unfolding in the comments section of the post. I address many of the questions raised here in a paper I am writing for the ISA Annual Meetings in San Diego in April. Most of the critiques the NC readers are raising about the data, however, are addressed and dealt with in my book with Maria Stephan. For anyone interested, the data and appendix used for the book are available at my research page.

As Maria and I emphasize, our book is not meant to be the last word. Instead, we hope it will catalyze new and improved research on the topic of civil resistance–a field I’ve been encouraging security studies scholars to take seriously. One of the ways I’ve been hoping to attract greater attention to the topic of civil resistance has been to develop this “myths” talk, which I have tested out on a few different audiences. It’s supposed to be provocative, and it generally has elicited fairly strong reactions. The response over at NC is no exception.

My hope is not to provoke discussion for its own sake. Instead, my goals are twofold: 1) to encourage more systematic empirical research on the topic; and 2) to persuade people, on the basis of existing empirical research, that nonviolent resistance can often be a viable alternative for challenging entrenched power.

Countries Don’t “Slip” Into Sectarian War

9 Nov

A couple of weeks ago, Robert Fisk reported in the Independent that Syria is slipping into sectarian civil war.

I have no doubt that the accounts he gives are true. The news out of Syria is troubling indeed. Today the UN announced that 3,500 civilians are dead, with regime violence on the rise day by day. Most activists place the number much higher than 3,500. With this level of violence, it is not surprising that many analysts are cynical.

That said, there are a few things to keep in mind.

1). Countries don’t “slip” into civil war. Such wars arise because people make choices. In a place like Syria, civil war is neither accidental nor predetermined. Syrian activists can maintain nonviolent discipline if they choose to; they cannot be “forced” to choose violence as an offensive strategy. They can also choose to issue demands short of Assad’s immediate departure, such as his holding competitive elections with international observers. Assad can decide, if he wishes, to stop the killing by agreeing to leave. Or, he can decide to stop the killing but stay in power. I doubt he will choose either. This is because…

2). In a crisis, dictators will try to stay in power by dividing and ruling. This strategy is working pretty well for Assad. His brutality has convinced a number of Syrians to take up arms against him. And as Fisk mentions, stories about the counter-violence by these rebels has been just the propaganda boost that Assad needs to create sympathy from his own supporters in Damascus, as well as the pretext he needs to ramp up the killing with impunity. The Syrians involved in the uprising must not forget that…

3). They have choices, and their choices have consequences. It’s worth mentioning again, because if Syria blows up, it will be because Assad was better at divide-and-rule than the nonviolent campaign was. The more violent acts and rhetoric we see coming from the anti-Assad group, the more we will see the pro-Assad group cling together for dear life and retaliate in kind. In a rather intelligent Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing today, State Department official Jeffrey Feltman rightly concludes that using violence will strengthen Assad, not diminish him. Fortunately, there is a realistic alternative:

4). Nonviolent resistance is the best bet in Syria. Eric Stoner has a thorough piece today on the importance of maintaining nonviolent discipline in Syria. I wholeheartedly agree with his conclusions based on the strategic potential of civil resistance in this case, as well as the fact that violent civil conflict would be disastrous for Syria’s social, political, economic, and humanitarian well-being in the long run. If the core of the movement is unable to control its violent flank, then the movement must simply drown out the violence with more nonviolent acts. But it will take some time, and…

5). It’s understandable why people want to retaliate with violence. Assad has certainly crossed the lines of morality, at least 3,500 times over the past seven months. But leaving aside whether violent resistance is justified, the question becomes how to remove this murderous tyrant from power–and to replace him with the type of system that people would want their children to grow up in. Wouldn’t that be the best revenge? The odds that such an outcome could be achieved with violence are slim indeed.

Why Violence Has Declined

5 Nov

Check out Steven Pinker:

And check out his new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” Isn’t that a great title?

And why has violence declined? Maybe because it doesn’t really work.

Armed Wing in Syria: To What Effect?

10 Oct

Anthony Shadid writes in the New York Times:

The semblance of a civil war has erupted in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where armed protesters now call themselves revolutionaries, gun battles erupt as often as every few hours, security forces and opponents carry out assassinations, and rifles costing as much as $2,000 apiece flood the city from abroad, residents say.

Shadid’s headline overstates the degree to which Syria’s unarmed revolution is “spiraling” into civil war. The armed “wing” of the uprising is largely comprised of military defectors in Homs, who took their guns with them as they sought haven in civilian homes. In my estimation, Syria will not “spiral” into violence, as most people on the ground have little opportunity to take up arms against Assad’s regime; neither are they interested in taking up arms against Assad’s regime. I base this impression on discussions with some Syrian activists on the ground, as well as reports that nonviolent mass mobilization continues in many cities with no hint of civilian-initiated violence on the horizon—all this despite continual massacres by the regime against unarmed civilians.

However, it is important to know how the armed wing may affect the strategic dynamics between the popular, civilian-led nonviolent movement and the regime. Kurt Schock and I have done some research on how violent radical flanks have influenced the outcomes of primarily nonviolent campaigns. Using a data set of 108 nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, we looked at how many of these campaigns were accompanied by contemporaneous violent movements, and whether the presence of these violent movements affected the success and failure rates of nonviolent campaigns.

The following figure is a bivariate cross-tabulation of the relationship between nonviolent campaign outcomes and the presence or absence of a violent radical flank.

What is evident here is that having an armed wing has a slight negative effect on the probability of success. However, this effect is not statistically significant—a finding that is confirmed in other statistical tests. There is definitely no evidence to support the notion that armed groups will help a nonviolent campaign. The bottom line: there is a slight tendency for armed wings to reduce the success rates of nonviolent campaigns, but this reduction is not common enough for there to be a real pattern from which to draw inferences.

Of course the most troubling possibility is that the armed wing will reduce the movement’s chances of success. Why might an armed wing reduce the probability of success for an unarmed movement? There are a few reasons. First, and most important, is that the emergence of an armed wing can reduce popular participation in a nonviolent campaign. See the following figure:

This figure shows that nonviolent movements without armed or “radical” flanks are much more likely to boast large numbers of members than campaigns with radical flanks. And as Maria Stephan and I show in our book Why Civil Resistance Works, participation is absolutely critical in the success of nonviolent campaigns.

Second, developing an armed wing can give the regime the pretext it needs to escalate widespread repression against all opponents—nonviolent and violent. Part of Assad’s propaganda has focused on how the uprising is comprised of armed gangs seeking to disrupt public order and destroy Syrian society. Such propaganda has heretofore seemed totally ridiculous, even among many security forces who have chosen to defect to the movement’s side. For a regime where loyalty within the security forces is crumbling, adopting armed struggle or an armed defense wing can actually reverse these trends in shifting loyalties. Security forces generally don’t surrender themselves to armed “traitors,” and Assad’s rhetoric may seem less crazy to the security forces when they suddenly find themselves under attack by their former comrades.

B. H. Liddel-Hart, who interviewed Nazi generals responsible for the German occupations throughout Eastern and Western Europe, observed the following:

[The Nazis] were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them—and all the more in proportion as the methods were subtle and concealed. It was a relief to them when resistance became violent and when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic repressive action against both at the same time. [1]

The armed wing in Syria will probably not be the deciding factor in whether the revolution succeeds or fails. If Assad falls, it will be because hundreds of thousands of unarmed protestors have withdrawn their cooperation from the regime; because security forces refuse to obey orders to crack down on unarmed protesters; and because business elites within the country will pressure Assad to abandon his post. It would help if a prominent member of the Alawite community would come forward and denounce the violence that Assad has perpetrated against peaceful demonstrators. It might also help if the international community figured out a way to give Assad a golden parachute out of the situation.

In sum, having an armed wing is risky, but not necessarily decisive. The armed wing won’t help the nonviolent movement in Syria. However, as long as the movement remains mainly nonviolent in nature, the campaign may succeed regardless.

—–

[1] B. H. Liddel-Hart, “Lessons from Resistance Movements: Guerrilla and Nonviolent,” in Adam Roberts, ed., Civilian Resistance as a National Defence (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1968), p. 205.