Participation is everything — a conversation with Erica Chenoweth

14. juli 2012

Over the last year and a half, an historic wave of uprisings and revolutions has engulfed much of the world and done more to legitimize the power of nonviolence than anything since the fall of the Soviet Union. Just as Tunisians kicked off this global nonviolent upheaval, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan were putting the finishing touches on their recent book Why Civil Resistance Works, which is a must read for anyone interested in the dynamics behind these movements’ successes and failures.

Rather than relying solely on case studies and anecdotal evidence to make a case for the power and potential of nonviolent action, they systematically cataloged as many violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns since 1900 as they could — compiling a data-set of 323 cases in total — in an attempt to reach a greater understanding of the comparative effectiveness among these different methods of struggle. After painstakingly collecting all of this information and crunching the numbers, they discovered — to even their own surprise — that nonviolent campaigns were nearly twice as effective as armed campaigns over the past century.

Not only are Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings supported by extensive data, which are included in their book and a free online appendix, but the authors provide deeply nuanced analysis of why nonviolent struggle has proven to be so much more effective than violence. I recently caught up with Eric Chenoweth, who is an assistant professor at Wesleyan University and currently a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University, to get her thoughts on the nonviolent movements that have exploded since her book was published. In an email interview, she discussed some common mistakes made by activists, the ever-worsening crisis in Syria and tips that the Occupy movement might glean from the findings in her book.

What are the key factors to success for nonviolent campaigns, and why you think those factors are so influential?

The key factor to success is the power that mass, broad-based participation provides for a movement. It turns out that, on average, nonviolent campaigns tend to attract far more participants than their violent counterparts. This allows nonviolent campaigns to create or exploit cracks within the regime’s pillars of support (economic elites, business elites, security forces, state media and civilian bureaucrats). Such cracks are difficult to create without mass mobilization with unarmed civilians, who simultaneously demonstrate their commitment, their noncooperation with the exiting order and their disinterest in physically harming those whom they oppose. In addition to imposing serious economic, political and social costs on those who resist the movement’s demands, civil resistance is also a form of psychological warfare — and a rather effective one at that.

Are there any factors that you think activists often neglect that can damage or even doom their efforts?

Sometimes I think movements focus too much on doom and gloom — they spend too much time and energy reliving the injustices, the horrors, the pain they’ve endured. It gets heavy or serious. But doom and gloom doesn’t energize an otherwise frightened or apathetic audience. There is clearly a time and place to revisit the core concerns of the movement and the population. But because success is so highly dependent on power in numbers, I think many movements would benefit from trying to keeping the mood light, fun and humorous. It might pay to celebrate impending victory, rather than encouraging solemn or angry venting sessions.

The second thing I often notice is the sense that the movement will eventually win because it’s “right,” “just” or something like that. Unless campaigns find ways to mobilize mass participation, disrupt the normal order of things and deprive opponents of their means of maintaining the status quo, even the most righteous causes fall flat. Then people tend to get really bitter. But nonviolent resistance is about imposing costs, not just about the moral high ground.

Third, I think movements can over-rely on particular methods — like protests, rallies or occupations — that can exhaust participants or alienate the general population without effectively disrupting the opponent. At times, repeated protests make activists even more vulnerable to repression. Or mass demonstrations may disrupt the daily life of ordinary people far more than the opponent, thereby irritating potential supporters rather than truly imposing costs on the opponent. Either way, few generals win wars by using the same tactic at the same time of day every day. Movements that win generally mix up their tactics in some sort of sequence meant to maximize participation and disruption while minimizing exposure to repression and the collateral damage to ordinary folks.

Next, at every talk I give, there are always the skeptics who say that their situations are so different that nonviolent struggle cannot work. (Their unspoken implication is always one of two things: they need to use armed struggle or some mix of nonviolent and violent methods, or, more rarely, that the international community must act on their behalf to crush the opponent.) Now, it’s natural for people to look for differences. I have been skeptical about the power of civil resistance myself. But over the past few years, I have come to realize that most civilian-based struggles have far more in common than they differ. And I think that for movements, it’s a much more productive exercise to look for those similarities rather than differences, especially when it comes to strategy.

There are a number of key factors that are highly associated with the success of nonviolent campaigns, and Maria and I lay them out in our book. Most of them have less to do with what the opponent does, the kind of opponent or the kind of struggle, and have far more to do with the strategic choices the campaign makes. Although obviously context matters, most successful movements figure out ways to navigate local conditions in ways that allow them to challenge entrenched power regardless of its form.

In the book you document how nonviolent campaigns have been increasingly successful over the years while at the same time the effectiveness of violence has decreased. Were you able to discern any reasons for these trends?

I think several processes are at work here. The decline in the effectiveness of violence is easily explained by the decline of state sponsorship for violent insurgencies, which is largely a function of the end of the Cold War. The U.S. and USSR used to sponsor, arm or finance rebel groups in various regions as a way to project power in their respective spheres of influence. There is no longer the same degree of enthusiasm for this sort of thing.

With regard to the rise of the effectiveness of nonviolent conflict, I’d point out a couple of processes. First is the explosion of knowledge available to activists around the world. Skills matter in nonviolent conflict, and over the last several decades, hundreds of global NGOs have developed to assist with skill development, strategy and legal assistance for people on the ground waging nonviolent struggles around the world. I think this has had a positive impact on the outcomes of nonviolent campaigns.

Second is the increased attention that international media pay to nonviolent struggles, and the impact communication technologies have had on the ability to suppress information about unarmed struggles. Although the mainstream media are still unforgivably obsessed with violence, censorship can no longer fully eliminate coverage of nonviolent actions, even when authoritarian regimes attempt media blackouts. Now, the international community is slow to react and remains quite distracted when it comes to nonviolent campaigns, which are rarely on the radar until well into the mobilization process — think Tunisia in 2010. But from talking to many activists, I get the sense that knowing the world is watching makes them feel less alone. It emboldens participation, gives a feeling of solidarity and a sense that those struggling for greater freedoms and peace have many attentive allies. This is definitely a participation-enhancer, since some of the greatest obstacles to participation are apathy, fear and a sense of isolation. Communication technologies are helping to evaporate this sense of isolation in particular.

Your study compares the effectiveness of nonviolent versus violent struggles for certain objectives (anti-regime, anti-occupation and succession). One of my big concerns lately relates to economic justice. It seems that often nonviolent movements succeed at ushering in more democratic governments, but fail to alter the balance of economic power in their countries. I’m thinking about India, the Philippines, South Africa and even the U.S., where the wealth and income gap between whites and blacks has barely budged since the civil rights movement. Do you have any idea from your data about how effective nonviolent methods are when the goal relates to economic justice, or why progress on this front has apparently been so difficult?

I haven’t studied the effects of nonviolent action on economic issues, such as inequality or other indicators. Part of the issue is data availability. Believe it or not, most governments don’t keep very rigorous and reliable data on economic inequality! I plan to study this more in the future. However, there are many examples of national and international struggles that have brought local, national or international attention to issues of economic injustice — and many of them have even made progress. One can think of labor struggles such as the California Farm Workers Union led by Cesar Chavez, wage and labor struggles in Europe and Latin America, anti-corruption initiatives in Kenya, anti-free trade actions in Seattle in 1999 (and at subsequent meetings of the WTO), and anti-corporate actions in West Papua and the Niger Delta. I think Occupy has succeeded in bringing issues of economic inequality in the U.S. to the forefront of mainstream American politics — that’s quite a feat in itself. And although total victory has not yet materialized, many small victories have certainly advanced these causes. One should not expect complete and immediate displacement of these systems, but should instead recognize when people have made real progress in areas that seemed hopeless and in situations in which they felt powerless.

What does the fact that dictatorships or authoritarian regimes have in many cases been replaced by more democratic governments that still face serious problems with inequality and poverty say about nonviolent struggle? And what can activists engaged in these campaigns do to make sure that the change that is brought about isn’t merely superficial, but meaningful and durable?

Don’t expect too much too fast. The kinds of changes we’re talking about here require really long-term commitment, perhaps over generations. My colleague Stephen Zunes often says that liberal democracy is a necessary but insufficient prerequisite for addressing issues of inequality. I tend to agree with him. But even when an unarmed struggle is unable to achieve total victory, there are often major shifts that we shouldn’t ignore, even though they fall short of some sort of utopian vision of the future.

Take Egypt as an example. There is a lot of bad news coming out of Egypt these days. What was at first a breathtaking victory quickly turned dire. But I remain hopeful for one major reason: Today, Egyptians speak freely about their views, their grievances and their remaining conflicts. They steadfastly continue to unearth abuses and demand just resolutions. In a place where only a decade ago, one could not speak openly against Mubarak’s regime, even to friends, people have decided to not be afraid anymore. Whether or not they have the system of representation they want, or whether they have the just economy so many crave, Egyptians have broken the barrier of fear that kept them silent about their grievances for so many years. And that gives me hope.

It’s sometimes argued that the only reason nonviolent campaigns are effective is because the opponent actually fears what would happen if the movement turned violent (or because of a violent fringe that makes the nonviolent movement look more moderate). How do you respond when you hear arguments like this?

Well, although it’s an interesting theory, it has no systematic empirical support. Kurt Schock and I are doing a study that shows that so-called “radical flanks,” when they are adopted or attach themselves to a nonviolent campaign, do not improve the campaigns’ odds of success at all. In fact, such violent wings could hurt nonviolent campaigns because they tend to lower participation. Once participants see violent actions initiated by (or on behalf of) the movement, many of them stop participating.

Furthermore, as a general statement, I think that many states would prefer, strategically, to face armed movements rather than unarmed ones. Violent flanks allow the government to justify using repression — against unarmed protesters as well as armed ones. And in general, governments are going to win at that game, particularly if the repression drives even more participants away.

Some argue that nonviolence can only work against soft dictators, but not against truly brutal regimes that will stop at nothing to protect their power, like North Korea or Burma. Others say that it only works, or at least works best, when the struggle is against a government that the U.S. has some leverage over, like the Philippines or Egypt. What did you find in your study regarding these common critiques?

I agree that nonviolent resistance may not work against some truly totalitarian regimes. But I would suggest that violent insurgency does not fare any better than unarmed campaigns against these types of regimes.

It is clear that the withdrawal of support from a powerful ally can have an impact. But such allies rarely withdraw support without unarmed pressure from below. Moreover, campaigns often have to figure out ways to win without the patron state withdrawing support. This has certainly been done in places like Iran, where the Shah fell in 1979 despite having the United States as an unconditionally loyal ally. And the U.S. decided to withdraw support from Marcos in the Philippines, Mubarak in Egypt and Saleh in Yemen only after it was clear that their regimes were doomed. So this is certainly not a necessary condition for success, although it usually can’t hurt.

Did you come across any particular conditions under which nonviolent action simply cannot work?

The odds of success in secessionist campaigns are pretty low. Same with armed secessionist campaigns. It’s well-established in the literature that such campaigns are particularly difficult to win. Typically the international community must get involved. And clearly a truly genocidal regime will be difficult to confront with nonviolent resistance (or violent resistance for that matter). Even in such cases, though, it is possible to deny the opponent of the means to carry out the genocide, since it requires willing agents to carry it out. Otherwise, it’s difficult to identify any systematic patterns where nonviolent resistance is impossible.

Calls for military intervention or the arming and training of the opposition in Syria have been increasing lately as the conflict drags on and the casualties mount. What are your thoughts on the conflict in Syria, and what advice would you recommend to the nonviolent resistance in this case?

I honestly don’t know if military intervention will be required to dislodge Assad’s hold on power. I would advise against looking to Libya as a model. A quick look at recent news on the country should provide sufficient explanation as to why that’s the case. But my guess is that a military intervention would push Assad over the edge, and then we would begin to see repression of genocidal proportions (which, despite the awful figures we see on civilian fatalities, has not yet happened). And who, exactly, would the intervention be empowering if it succeeded? It’s hard to imagine ordinary civilians coming out on top under those circumstances.

I do think, however, that foreign activists could do more to show solidarity with the Syrian people. Activists inside the country need witnesses and confidence that the world is watching. They are painstakingly documenting the conflict using homemade videos placed on YouTube, social media sites and other outlets. Syrians living in exile are also doing their part to raise awareness and lobby for various policy initiatives. It might increase morale somewhat if they received some positive encouragement back every once in a while.

What do you make of the role of the Free Syrian Army?

The FSA and other armed elements appear here to stay, so they can’t really be ignored per se. It’s hard to fault them for electing to use armed struggle against Assad, but I do think their offensive operations have given Assad the pretext to “take off the gloves,” so to speak, with indiscriminate repression. The violence against unarmed activists has been absolutely appalling, but it has been much worse since the FSA came on the scene. Moreover, providing arms to the first group in Syria to abandon nonviolent resistance in favor of armed struggle hardly seems wise.

Regardless, my research with Kurt shows that the Syrian opposition still has a fairly good chance of success in the long term if it is able to maintain active participation in civil resistance actions. This is really the key: how to keep people participating regardless of the escalating causalities. Based on previous conflicts, one way to protect civilians in this environment is to shift from methods of concentration (demonstrations) to methods of dispersion and noncooperation (strikes, boycotts, etc.). Activists might also look to the Colombian case, where civilians created “peace zones” in the midst of a nasty civil war involving the government, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels, the FARC and other militia groups by using civil disobedience against all of these elements.

The Syrian conflict is just over a year old. The average nonviolent campaign takes three years to run its course. (The average violent campaign takes nine years, by the way.) The best case scenario is that ordinary civilians will not yield their struggle to competing armed groups alone. So far, they seem to be unwilling to do so, and that gives me hope for Syria too.

Can you share what you discovered about the likelihood of a democratic government emerging or civil war breaking out following nonviolent or violent movements?

We find that countries that experience nonviolent resistance campaigns are more likely to be democracies five years after the conflict ends (over a 40 percent chance, even when taking into account the level of democracy prior to the conflict), compared with countries faced with armed insurgencies (less than a 5 percent chance). We also found that countries facing nonviolent campaigns are about 28 percent likely to experience a civil war relapse within 10 years, compared with 43 percent for countries facing armed insurgencies. Although there are exceptions, the findings suggest that countries facing nonviolent campaigns are more likely to emerge from the conflict more peaceful and democratic, and countries facing violent insurgencies are likelier to be more unstable autocracies. (Notably, having an armed wing as part of a nonviolent campaign reduces these positive effects.)

How do your finding relate to Occupy Wall Street?

Although we don’t include campaigns like Occupy in our dataset, there is no reason to think that the same principles don’t apply. Other scholars have written extensively about ways to deny corrupt corporate interests the means to continue exploiting others. The primary challenge is to identify the pillars of support that the oppressive system requires for its functioning, and to apply sufficient pressure to those pillars to shift the status quo.

More specifically, what do you make of the anarchist, leaderless, affinity-group model?

I think many movements over-estimate the value of so-called “leaderless resistance,” which is hazardous to a movement’s survival. Although this model may satisfy ideological impulses for people who are averse to authority, leaderless resistance has far more strategic disadvantages than it’s worth. It is an ineffective structure for developing and implementing strategy and encouraging discipline among members. This doesn’t mean that all campaigns need single charismatic leaders. But they definitely require some sort of leadership to be effective.

And what are your thoughts about black bloc tactics and the openness of some in the movement to property destruction and confronting police?

Strategically, I think the black bloc actions have been highly problematic for Occupy (and I am most familiar with the Oakland case). First, black bloc actions alienated a large proportion of potential participants, notably the elderly or those with physical challenges, who sympathize a great deal with the movement but steer clear of street fighting or property destruction. As Stephen Zunes has said, diversity of participation is far more important than diversity of tactics when a movement is trying to build a committed membership. Second, the appearance of the black bloc unleashed a largely aimless (and yet unresolved) internal discussion that focused on whether such actions were justified or allowable, hairsplitting about whether black bloc actions could be considered violent or nonviolent, and largely ideological debates about whether violence and property destruction was necessary to achieve Occupy’s ultimate aims. In fact, I think the debate itself alienated a great deal of Occupy’s otherwise enthusiastic membership, who grew exhausted of what they saw as endless, circuitous and righteous arguments on all sides.

All of this missed what I think is the most important point: Do the tactics being used increase or decrease participation? The question of whether black bloc actions are necessary or justified can be answered very easily: It depends on whether they increase participation. Since they have seemed to drive participants away, from a strategic perspective, I would say that they are neither necessary nor effective. Notice that this formulation sidesteps the question of whether black bloc actions are violent or nonviolent, which, as I’ve said, is largely academic and peripheral to the major issue at play. It doesn’t matter what the movement thinks is nonviolent or violent. All that matters is what ordinary people perceive as worth their time to participate in. Incidentally, in the U.S. at the current time, most people see property destruction as violence. Whether it is violent or isn’t violent matters not at all. Importantly, really poorly planned, strictly nonviolent actions could be just as likely to drive down participation. All a movement needs to do is take a look at whether its numbers are growing or dwindling to find out whether the actions should be embraced or renounced.

It just so happens that more people tend to participate when there are really smart nonviolent actions than when there are really smart violent actions. There is considerable empirical support for that.

What’s next for you? What do you think is the most exciting or promising area or research right now for the field of nonviolent struggle?

I am in the middle of some massive data collection projects on civil resistance. I am updating and expanding the information available about each case, and collecting data on tactical sequencing. I hope to analyze these data in coming years. I also have a growing interest in nonviolent campaigns that take place in armed conflict zones, like in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon, as well as campaigns against governments and criminal syndicates like the peace villages in Colombia and the anti-drug war Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity in Mexico. It turns out that people continue to innovate ways to fight back against violence and terror, even when the state is not the sole offender, although this is a particularly challenging type of conflict. But more than anything, I wish to inspire others to study nonviolent resistance so that an even more robust body of work can develop on the subject. From what I’ve seen, such studies would be well worth it. There is so much work to be done on this increasingly potent form of struggle, which I believe will define conflict in our age.

Participation is everything — a conversation with Erica Chenoweth / Waging Nonviolence – People-Powered News and Analysis.

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