Thursday, October 16, 2014
Howard Clark - Unarmed resistance, ‘people power’ and nonviolent struggle
This is the first of two extracts that openDemocracy is republishing from Howard Clark’s introduction to People Power: Unarmed Resistance and Global Solidarity, originally published in 2009. It summarises Clark’s distinctive perspectives on the field of civil resistance.
I hesitated about referring to ‘people power’ – a term introduced when mass people’s action brought down President Marcos in the Philippines in 1986. Subsequently ‘people power’ has often been used to talk about the downfall of governments and especially to protests against rigged elections. This is rather more limited than the frankly utopian concept ‘power of the people’ that I have often advocated, based on people taking control of their own lives. However, the term becomes more problematic in that ‘people power’ has frequently been used to described the mass mobilisation of one section of ‘the people’ against another: without going further back than 2008, we see examples of this in Kenya after the elections and in Thailand with the occupation of government house in Bangkok.[i] Ultimately I accepted the publisher’s suggestion to use ‘people power’ in the spirit of reclaiming it so that it includes struggles that do not stop short with changing who rules, but which aim to bring about more complete social transformations than we have yet seen.
I preferred ‘unarmed resistance’ in the current context for three reasons:
- It is more accurate in situations where there is a threat of violence, a measure of counter-violence (such as stone-throwing), or where a movement has an armed wing but adopts ‘unarmed’ methods in many circumstances as do the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, and the Palestinians.
- It is a descriptive term, free of other associations.
- It is more inclusive, indeed includes ‘nonviolent struggle’.
The term ‘nonviolence’ here is reserved specifically for movements that reject the use of violence and whose overall strategic framework is of ensuring that justice/ human rights/ democracy prevails rather than of destroying the antagonist.
‘Unarmed resistance’ encompasses a wide range of methods. Gene Sharp, who since the 1950s has dedicated himself to researching nonviolent action, has listed 198 nonviolent action methods, but suggests that there are ‘scores’ more (Sharp 1973). Almost every struggle invents – or perhaps thinks it has invented – new methods. Public methods range from quiet constructive action to direct confrontation, from spectacular stunts by small groups to massive popular demonstrations, from withdrawal of support through a boycott or strike or simply staying at home to occupying land or buildings. To these could be added a host of ‘unobtrusive’ actions that help maintain morale and construct the networks that underpin movements of resistance in repressive situations (Scott 1985, 1990; Johnston 2005).
The ‘power’ of nonviolent unarmed action is twofold:
First, the power of refusal. Many advocates of nonviolence argue that in the final analysis a regime cannot function without the cooperation – willing or constrained – of at least key sectors of the population. Therefore actual or threatened non-cooperation – by refusal to carry out orders, by strikes, etc. – is in many circumstances the most powerful weapon of resistance. Moreover, maintaining a stance of nonviolence can increase the effectiveness of this action by highlighting the violence – and therefore illegitimacy – of a regime or institution, thereby encouraging self-questioning among its support base or among ‘third parties’.
Secondly, the ‘empowerment’ of acting together. At a minimum ‘popular empowerment’ means strengthening people’s sense that they can make a difference, that there are alternatives to resigning themselves to the status quo. Particular elements of this power include:
- the power of communication in its many forms and in many directions, including counter-information;
- the power to organise, to reach out and link with people and other groups;
- the power to disrupt and defy; and
- the power simply to do things differently and show an alternative.
The term ‘resistance’ suggests disobedience, refusal and withdrawal, and non-institutional forms of struggle. This, as we shall see, is not the complete picture. Social movement scholars have suggested a distinction between ‘contained’ and ‘transgressive’ action (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001: 7). Forms of action that were once powerful and disruptive – such as strikes, civil disobedience, refusal to perform military service – in some societies have become ‘contained’, matters of routine. On the other hand, in the context of a closed society, a simple declaration – ‘saying the unsayable’ – can ‘transgress’ unwritten limits.
In their study of ‘courageous resistance’, Thalhammer et al. (2007) look at the internal and external factors conducive to ‘ordinary people’ making a courageous response to injustice.
They term the internal factors preconditions – the resister’s value system, previous experience and resources - while they group the external factors into networks and context, context being crucial to the success of any resistance campaign. Although Thalhammer et al. focus mainly on ‘other-oriented’ or ‘altruistic’ resisters, their observations are also relevant to ‘self-activity’ – such as when people struggle to defend their own rights and livelihoods... read more: