Nonviolent Action in a Dangerous Age

Why should we in the Western liberal democracies be interested in nonviolent action?Sure, if you want to participate in anti-globalization protests, block pipeline construction, vent against the one percent, or support indigenous demonstrations or Black Lives Matter you’d be interested, But what about the rest of us? With Justin in Ottawa, what do we Canadians need to worry about? Maybe the Americans have to concern themselves with Trump’s authoritarian streak, and the French with Marine Le Pen. But those situations are under control, right?

No, they’re not. A study by Foa and Mounk – “The Democratic Disconnect” – in Journal of Democracy (July 2016) uses World Values Surveys (1995-2014) to show the growth of anti-democratic sentiment in North America and Western Europe. The findings are shocking.

Rise of Authoritarian Tendency

In short, the surveys reveal a major across-the-board decline in support for democratic institutions, especially among those under 35, those who are the wealthiest and those who live in the United States. Not only is there widespread discontent with democracy, but also growing numbers support an authoritarian alternative, whether military rule, a strong man unencumbered by checks and balances, or rule by technocrats. Just one statistic: the share of US citizens who prefer a “strong leader” who does not need to “bother with parliaments and elections” has risen from 24% in 1995 to 32% in 2011. In light of events since 2011, we can surmise that perhaps 35-36% of the electorate supports strong-man rule in 2017. That of course is the share of the US electorate that supports Trump, come what may. Many Trump supporters are presumable among those who share these anti-democratic beliefs. The craziness of the far right in their attacks on the Democratic Party and democratic institutions suggest Americans should not take the rise of authoritarian tendencies lightly.

It is natural for us to think of the future in terms of continuity. But that is a dangerous mindset, because history is strewn with major discontinuities. Empires and civilizations have suddenly collapsed and, in some cases, disappeared. We must think of the possibility of a new Dark Age, especially in the light of the tensions within and between nations instigated by climate change and shortages of basic ecological resources.

The Why and How of Nonviolent Action

So nonviolent resistance may become increasingly important in safeguarding a civilized and democratic life. Luckily, for those who are interested in learning about it, an exceptionally entertaining and knowledgeable book has been written by Srdja Popovic. It wins the prize for the longest title: Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Me, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.

Popovic, one of the university students who formed Otpor! (Resistance) to overthrow Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, was initially a typically apolitical student. He was mostly interested in “staying up late, drinking a lot, and trying to get a date” (p.5). But Milosevic’s xenophobia and dictatorial actions, especially his assertion of control over the universities in 1998, aroused Popovic and his friends to take action.

Otpor! was remarkably successful in provoking opposition to the dictator, who eventually fell and was replaced by a democratic regime. Popovic and several comrades then forged a systematic approach to nonviolence that they shared with nonviolent movements throughout the world. The book is a highly entertaining account of this approach.

But why nonviolence? The answer, based not only on Serbian experience but also substantial research, is that nonviolent resistance is much more effective than (and morally superior to) violent resistance. If you are not persuaded, read the evidence presented in the book.

One pertinent fact is that people are frightened by violence. Consequently, they tend to seek the protection of a strongman when they feel they and their families are threatened. Resisters must therefore portray themselves as non-threatening. One of the most effective ways of doing so is the use of humour and ridicule of the regime or opponent. The aim is to get people to laugh at the powerful, and then to be inspired to see your struggle as their struggle. But this approach places a burden on the nonviolent resisters: they have to constantly control the trouble-makers who are determined to resort to violent action.

The book presents a set of guidelines for effective nonviolent activism. I don’t intend to summarize them all , but I can’t resist mentioning one or two of the most memorable.

Be Funny! Avoid Abstractions!

My favourite is what Popovic refers to as “laughtivism.” Laughtivisnm has two objectives. The first is to show potential young recruits that opposition, far from being boring, can be fun and very cool. And the second is to undermine the fear that is the foundation of authoritarianism; you can’t feel fear when you are laughing hysterically at the ridiculous antics of the police in responding to pranks. So if you are funny and if you make your demos “the best party in town,” young people will join in droves and you are on your way to success.

Another important dictum: avoid abstractions! Assume that people are apathetic, unmotivated and even hostile. Yet you need the people on your side if you want to win. People will not take the risks of opposition unless they personally care. So forget about such abstractions as equality, liberty, socialization of the means of production, or even human rights. What is it that people actually cherish? Mundane things such as respect, dignity, security for their families, a job with reasonable pay. So build your vision of society around these issues. And aim for small victories at first, to build momentum.

The Importance of Civil Society

So let us steep ourselves in the techniques of nonviolent action as the antidote to political oppression, social injustice and ecologically abusive actions. Our future is only as strong as the number and commitment of our civil associations. We can’t rely on the market or the state to always steer society in the right direction. Sometimes we have to do it ourselves.

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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).

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