Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship To Democracy Part 5


Exercising Power

In Chapter One we noted that military resistance against dictatorships does not strike them where they are weakest, but rather where they are strongest. By choosing to compete in the areas of military forces, supplies of ammunition, weapons technology, and the like, resistance movements tend to put themselves at a distinct disadvantage. Dictatorships will almost always be able to muster superior resources in these areas. The dangers of relying on foreign powers for salvation were also outlined. In Chapter Two we examined the problems of relying on negotiations as a means to remove dictator- ships.

What means are then available that will offer the democratic resistance distinct advantages and will tend to aggravate the iden- tified weaknesses of dictatorships? What technique of action will capitalize on the theory of political power discussed in Chapter Three? The alternative of choice is political defiance.

Political defiance has the following characteristics:

• It does not accept that the outcome will be decided by the means of fighting chosen by the dictatorship.

• It is difficult for the regime to combat.

• It can uniquely aggravate weaknesses of the dictatorship and can sever its sources of power.

• It can in action be widely dispersed but can also be concentrated on a specific objective.

• It leads to errors of judgment and action by the dictators.

• It can effectively utilize the population as a whole and the society’s groups and institutions in the struggle to end the brutal domination of the few.

• It helps to spread the distribution of effective power in the society, making the establishment and maintenance of a democratic society more possible.

The Workings of Nonviolent Struggle

Like military capabilities, political defiance can be employed for a variety of purposes, ranging from efforts to influence the opponents to take different actions, to create conditions for a peaceful resolution of conflict, or to disintegrate the opponents’ regime. However, political defiance operates in quite different ways from violence. Although both techniques are means to wage struggle, they do so with very different means and with different consequences. The ways and results of violent conflict are well known. Physical weap- ons are used to intimidate, injure, kill, and destroy.

Nonviolent struggle is a much more complex and varied means of struggle than is violence. Instead, the struggle is fought by psychological, social, economic, and political weapons applied by the population and the institutions of the society. These have been known under various names of protests, strikes, noncooperation, boycotts, disaffection, and people power. As noted earlier, all governments can rule only as long as they receive replenishment of the needed sources of their power from the cooperation, submission, and obedience of the population and the institutions of the society. Political defiance, unlike violence, is uniquely suited to severing those sources of power.

Nonviolent Weapons and Discipline

The common error of past improvised political defiance campaigns is the reliance on only one or two methods, such as strikes and mass demonstrations. In fact, a multitude of methods exist that allow resistance strategists to concentrate and disperse resistance as required.

About two hundred specific methods of nonviolent action have been identified, and there are certainly scores more. These methods are classified under three broad categories: protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and intervention. Methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion are largely symbolic demonstrations, including parades, marches, and vigils (54 methods). Noncooperation is divided into three sub-categories: (a) social noncooperation (16 methods), (b) economic noncooperation, including boycotts (26 methods) and strikes (23 methods), and (c) political noncooperation (38 methods). Nonviolent intervention, by psychological, physical, social, economic, or political means, such as the fast, nonviolent occupation, and parallel government (41 methods), is the final group. A list of 198 of these methods is included as the Appendix to this publication.

The use of a considerable number of these methods — carefully chosen, applied persistently and on a large scale, wielded in the context of a wise strategy and appropriate tactics, by trained civilians — is likely to cause any illegitimate regime severe problems. This applies to all dictatorships.

In contrast to military means, the methods of nonviolent strug- gle can be focused directly on the issues at stake. For example, since the issue of dictatorship is primarily political, then political forms of nonviolent struggle would be crucial. These would include denial of legitimacy to the dictators and noncooperation with their regime. Noncooperation would also be applied against specific policies. At times stalling and procrastination may be quietly and even secretly practiced, while at other times open disobedience and defiant public demonstrations and strikes may be visible to all.

On the other hand, if the dictatorship is vulnerable to economic pressures or if many of the popular grievances against it are economic, then economic action, such as boycotts or strikes, may be appropriate resistance methods. The dictators’ efforts to exploit the economic system might be met with limited general strikes, slow- downs, and refusal of assistance by (or disappearance of) indispensable experts. Selective use of various types of strikes may be conducted at key points in manufacturing, in transport, in the supply of raw materials, and in the distribution of products.

Some methods of nonviolent struggle require people to perform acts unrelated to their normal lives, such as distributing leaflets, operating an underground press, going on hunger strike, or sitting down in the streets. These methods may be difficult for some people to undertake except in very extreme situations.

Other methods of nonviolent struggle instead require people to continue approximately their normal lives, though in somewhat different ways. For example, people may report for work, instead of striking, but then deliberately work more slowly or inefficiently than usual. “Mistakes” may be consciously made more frequently. One may become “sick” and “unable” to work at certain times. Or, one may simply refuse to work. One might go to religious services when the act expresses not only religious but also political convictions. One may act to protect children from the attackers’ propaganda by education at home or in illegal classes. One might refuse to join certain “recommended” or required organizations that one would not have joined freely in earlier times. The similarity of such types of action to people’s usual activities and the limited degree of departure from their normal lives may make participation in the national liberation struggle much easier for many people.

Since nonviolent struggle and violence operate in fundamentally different ways, even limited resistance violence during a political defiance campaign will be counterproductive, for it will shift the struggle to one in which the dictators have an overwhelming advantage (military warfare). Nonviolent discipline is a key to success and must be maintained despite provocations and brutalities by the dictators and their agents.

The maintenance of nonviolent discipline against violent opponents facilitates the workings of the four mechanisms of change in nonviolent struggle (discussed below). Nonviolent discipline is also extremely important in the process of political jiu-jitsu. In this process the stark brutality of the regime against the clearly nonviolent actionists politically rebounds against the dictators’ position, causing dissention in their own ranks as well as fomenting support for the resisters among the general population, the regime’s usual supporters, and third parties.

In some cases, however, limited violence against the dictatorship may be inevitable. Frustration and hatred of the regime may explode into violence. Or, certain groups may be unwilling to abandon violent means even though they recognize the important role of nonviolent struggle. In these cases, political defiance does not need to be abandoned. However, it will be necessary to separate the violent action as far as possible from the nonviolent action. This should be done in terms of geography, population groups, timing, and issues. Otherwise the violence could have a disastrous effect on the potentially much more powerful and successful use of political defiance.

The historical record indicates that while casualties in dead and wounded must be expected in political defiance, they will be far fewer than the casualties in military warfare. Furthermore, this type of struggle does not contribute to the endless cycle of killing and brutality.

Nonviolent struggle both requires and tends to produce a loss (or greater control) of fear of the government and its violent repression. That abandonment or control of fear is a key element in destroying the power of the dictators over the general population.

Openness, Secrecy, and High Standards

Secrecy, deception, and underground conspiracy pose very difficult problems for a movement using nonviolent action. It is often impossible to keep the political police and intelligence agents from learning about intentions and plans. From the perspective of the movement, secrecy is not only rooted in fear but contributes to fear, which dampens the spirit of resistance and reduces the number of people who can participate in a given action. It also can contribute to suspicions and accusations, often unjustified, within the move- ment, concerning who is an informer or agent for the opponents. Secrecy may also affect the ability of a movement to remain nonviolent. In contrast, openness regarding intentions and plans will not only have the opposite effects, but will contribute to an image that the resistance movement is in fact extremely powerful. The problem is of course more complex than this suggests, and there are signifi- cant aspects of resistance activities that may require secrecy. A well-informed assessment will be required by those knowledgeable about both the dynamics of nonviolent struggle and also the dictatorship’s means of surveillance in the specific situation.

The editing, printing, and distribution of underground publications, the use of illegal radio broadcasts from within the country, and the gathering of intelligence about the operations of the dictatorship are among the special limited types of activities where a high degree of secrecy will be required.

The maintenance of high standards of behavior in nonviolent action is necessary at all stages of the conflict. Such factors as fearlessness and maintaining nonviolent discipline are always required. It is important to remember that large numbers of people may frequently be necessary to effect particular changes. However, such numbers can be obtained as reliable participants only by maintaining the high standards of the movement.

Shifting Power Relationships

Strategists need to remember that the conflict in which political defiance is applied is a constantly changing field of struggle with continuing interplay of moves and countermoves. Nothing is static. Power relationships, both absolute and relative, are subject to constant and rapid changes. This is made possible by the resisters continuing their nonviolent persistence despite repression.

The variations in the respective power of the contending sides in this type of conflict situation are likely to be more extreme than in violent conflicts, to take place more quickly, and to have more diverse and politically significant consequences. Due to these variations, specific actions by the resisters are likely to have consequences far beyond the particular time and place in which they occur. These effects will rebound to strengthen or weaken one group or another.

In addition, the nonviolent group may, by its actions exert influence over the increase or decrease in the relative strength of the opponent group to a great extent. For example, disciplined courageous nonviolent resistance in face of the dictators’ brutalities may induce unease, disaffection, unreliability, and in extreme situations even mutiny among the dictators’ own soldiers and population. This resistance may also result in increased international condemnation of the dictatorship. In addition, skillful, disciplined, and persistent use of political defiance may result in more and more participation in the resistance by people who normally would give their tacit support to the dictators or generally remain neutral in the conflict.

Four Mechanisms of Change

Nonviolent struggle produces change in four ways. The first mechanism is the least likely, though it has occurred. When members of the opponent group are emotionally moved by the suffering of repression imposed on courageous nonviolent resisters or are rationally persuaded that the resisters’ cause is just, they may come to accept the resisters’ aims. This mechanism is called conversion. Though cases of conversion in nonviolent action do sometimes happen, they are rare, and in most conflicts this does not occur at all or at least not on a significant scale.

Far more often, nonviolent struggle operates by changing the conflict situation and the society so that the opponents simply cannot do as they like. It is this change that produces the other three mechanisms: accommodation, nonviolent coercion, and disintegration. Which of these occurs depends on the degree to which the relative and absolute power relations are shifted in favor of the democrats.

If the issues are not fundamental ones, the demands of the op- position in a limited campaign are not considered threatening, and the contest of forces has altered the power relationships to some degree, the immediate conflict may be ended by reaching an agreement, a splitting of differences or compromise. This mechanism is called accommodation. Many strikes are settled in this manner, for example, with both sides attaining some of their objectives but nei- ther achieving all it wanted. A government may perceive such a settlement to have some positive benefits, such as defusing tension, creating an impression of “fairness,” or polishing the international image of the regime. It is important, therefore, that great care be exercised in selecting the issues on which a settlement by accom- modation is acceptable. A struggle to bring down a dictatorship is not one of these.

Nonviolent struggle can be much more powerful than indicated by the mechanisms of conversion or accommodation. Mass noncooperation and defiance can so change social and political situations, especially power relationships, that the dictators’ ability to control the economic, social, and political processes of government and the society is in fact taken away. The opponents’ military forces may become so unreliable that they no longer simply obey orders to repress resisters. Although the opponents’ leaders remain in their positions, and adhere to their original goals, their ability to act effectively has been taken away from them. That is called nonviolent coercion.

In some extreme situations, the conditions producing nonviolent coercion are carried still further. The opponents’ leadership in fact loses all ability to act and their own structure of power collapses. The resisters’ self-direction, noncooperation, and defiance become so complete that the opponents now lack even a semblance of control over them. The opponents’ bureaucracy refuses to obey its own leadership. The opponents’ troops and police mutiny. The opponents’ usual supporters or population repudiate their former leadership, denying that they have any right to rule at all. Hence, their former assistance and obedience falls away. The fourth mechanism of change, disintegration of the opponents’ system, is so complete that they do not even have sufficient power to surrender. The regime simply falls to pieces.

In planning liberation strategies, these four mechanisms should be kept in mind. They sometimes operate essentially by chance. However, the selection of one or more of these as the intended mechanism of change in a conflict will make it possible to formulate specific and mutually reinforcing strategies. Which mechanism (or mechanisms) to select will depend on numerous factors, including the absolute and relative power of the contending groups and the attitudes and objectives of the nonviolent struggle group.

Democratizing Effects of Political Defiance

In contrast to the centralizing effects of violent sanctions, use of the technique of nonviolent struggle contributes to democratizing the political society in several ways.

One part of the democratizing effect is negative. That is, in contrast to military means, this technique does not provide a means of repression under command of a ruling elite which can be turned against the population to establish or maintain a dictatorship. Leaders of a political defiance movement can exert influence and apply pressures on their followers, but they cannot imprison or execute them when they dissent or choose other leaders.

Another part of the democratizing effect is positive. That is, nonviolent struggle provides the population with means of resistance that can be used to achieve and defend their liberties against existing or would-be dictators. Below are several of the positive democratizing effects nonviolent struggle may have:

• Experience in applying nonviolent struggle may result in the population being more self-confident in challenging the regime’s threats and capacity for violent repression.

• Nonviolent struggle provides the means of noncooperation and defiance by which the population can resist undemocratic controls over them by any dictatorial group.

• Nonviolent struggle can be used to assert the practice of democratic freedoms, such as free speech, free press, inde- pendent organizations, and free assembly, in face of repressive controls.

• Nonviolent struggle contributes strongly to the survival, re-birth, and strengthening of the independent groups and institutions of the society, as previously discussed. These are important for democracy because of their capacity to mobi- lize the power capacity of the population and to impose lim- its on the effective power of any would-be dictators.

• Nonviolent struggle provides means by which the population can wield power against repressive police and military action by a dictatorial government.

• Nonviolent struggle provides methods by which the population and the independent institutions can in the interests of democracy restrict or sever the sources of power for the ruling elite, thereby threatening its capacity to continue its domination.

Complexity of Nonviolent Struggle

As we have seen from this discussion, nonviolent struggle is a complex technique of social action, involving a multitude of methods, a range of mechanisms of change, and specific behavioral requirements. To be effective, especially against a dictatorship, political defiance requires careful planning and preparation. Prospective participants will need to understand what is required of them. Resources will need to have been made available. And strategists will need to have analyzed how nonviolent struggle can be most effectively applied. We now turn our attention to this latter crucial element: the need for strategic planning.

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