Thursday, April 28, 2016
The power of nonviolence by Karuna Mantena
Nonviolent politics have unique power to change the world, but they require strategic suffering and ascetic self-mastery
No political action seems to enjoy greater moral authority than the nonviolent methods Mahatma Gandhi inaugurated more than a century ago. Gandhi’s neologism for nonviolent direct action wassatyagraha, which roughly translates to ‘holding fast to truth’. While this term itself never caught on, in principle or form, nonviolent models of organising protest did. For decades, pro-democracy movements in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe have conspicuously embraced nonviolent politics to express mass dissent and topple authoritarian governments.
Time and again, activists around the world have turned to mass boycotts, strikes and collective vigils, techniques Gandhi pioneered and practised on the world stage with historic results. More recently, protestors in the Occupy movements and the Arab Spring successfully put to use nonviolent tactics of disruption. Similarly, activists for issues including the environment, corruption, refugee and immigrant rights, racial exclusion and violence are taking up and adapting nonviolent protest to meet new challenges. This Is an Uprising (2016) by the political analysts Mark and Paul Engler promises to show how nonviolent politics can force political change on the most intractable issues of the day, from climate change to rising inequality.
Nonviolence’s evident authority, however, belies a more chequered history. Over the course of the last century, the popularity and attraction of nonviolent politics has waxed and waned. Its long-term resilience requires explanation and can provide clues to nonviolence’s purpose and power. Plenty of activists and observers have doubted the effectiveness of nonviolent politics. Suspicions of naiveté and weakness, in particular, have shadowed the history of nonviolence from its very inception. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr, the leading figures of nonviolent politics, both faced criticism along these lines. Skeptics viewed nonviolent methods as timid and sluggish, at best, capable of winning only small reforms. Gandhi and King’s moral commitment to nonviolence was seen to hinder the hard choices necessary for radical change.
The moral superiority of nonviolence is often evoked to condemn violent resistance and discredit unruly activists. States regularly conscript the language of nonviolence in this way, adding to worries that nonviolence carries risks of cooption and compromise. The wars and occupations of the past two decades seem unlikely portents of a new era of nonviolence. The enthrallment of force and violence seem as overwhelming as ever. And yet the encircling violence – from state violence and increasingly deadly military technology, to global terrorism and asymmetrical warfare – seems to be self-defeating at best, nihilistic at worst. That is, there is little prospect that all this violence has or will achieve its purported ends. This fact – and reckoning with it – holds out the promise of nonviolence.
For both Gandhi and King, transformative politics was a difficult road – full of disappointments and reversals. Lasting change required patience and determination, and nonviolence was the most potent and reliable means for achieving it. Far from signalling acquiescence, nonviolence was a resolutely active politics. It required the cultivation of disciplined fearlessness and moral courage to face the demands of political action...
Gandhi and King’s nonviolence required the repression of resentment and anger to garner the right political effect. Neither of them denied anger was a justified response to the experience of oppression, but they saw that it would not be, in Niebuhr’s terms, ‘morally and politically wise’ to make resentment the face of political action. Resentment, anger and indignation arouse opponents’ egoism and hostility, and tend to alienate bystanders. This was why, for Niebuhr, ‘the more the egoistic element can be purged from resentment, the purer a vehicle of justice it becomes’.
The history of nonviolent politics has revealed and confirmed the transformative power of coordinated mass action. It has also shown that force alone can neither induce popular consent nor reliably secure political victory. In line with these findings, the political scientists Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth in their award-winning book Why Civil Resistance Works (2011) show nonviolent collective action to be especially effective against authoritarian governments, overturning a longstanding assumption that nonviolence can be viable only in and against liberal regimes.
These findings might also point to qualifications of nonviolence as collective power. While such protest can topple governments, it is less clear how it can sustain a new democracy. The superiority of numbers that so potently expressed mass dissent risks turning into majoritarian displays of power. Ironically, nonviolent politics can actually face more hurdles in democracies. Authoritarian legitimacy has proved to be a brittle façade, easily exposed as such by nonviolent tactics of disruption and provocation. Democratic publics, however, are surprisingly hostile to these same kinds of tactics. Democracy by definition provides institutional channels to express dissent and effect political change. When these channels and institutions are seen to be legitimate, insurgent politics are readily branded as extreme and tend to elicit polarising and passionate responses... Read the whole article: