Sojourner's Blog

January 31, 2010

Nonviolent Resistance & Political Power

[This article is written from the point of view of "Tactical" nonviolence See Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance for a comparison of "Tactical" and "Philosophical" nonviolence.]

During the Freedom Movement of the 1960s, we did not protest simply to vent to our anger and alienation. We took action to change society. Our sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and mass marches were grounded in an analysis of political reality that led to the strategy and tactics of Nonviolent Resistance as a means of winning actual changes. As the Freedom Movement evolved, so too did our analysis of political power — an analysis that is relevant to this day.

We understood that the injustices we opposed were deeper and more complex than just some bad people with racist ideas. Beneath the surface of segregation and denial of voting rights lay a “white power-structure” of wealthy individuals, powerful corporations, and influential politicians who derived significant economic and political benefits from systemic racism, and therefore they used their power to establish, extend, and maintain the Jim Crow system. Which meant that in order to change that system, we had to understand what political power is, where it comes from, how it is generated, and how it can be used to change society.

Political Power

In this context, “political power” is defined as the ability to change — or maintain — some aspect of society or government-policy.

Government exercises power through legislation, court rulings, regulations, police & military force, spending priorities, and so forth. But the actual content of government policy is largely influenced and directed by political forces from outside government. In other words, while government both generates and wields political power, it also responds to political power. By analogy, the engine makes a car move, but it’s the driver behind the wheel who decides where it goes. Sometimes government decides for itself where it goes, but most of the time it is steered by political pressure — political power — applied to it from the outside.

(Though government is closely associated with this definition of political power, it is not the only means by which political power affects society — culture and economics, for example, both respond to — and influence — political power.)

When we look at political power in the abstract, we see three sources, or kinds, of political power:

  • Money-power. The power to grant or withhold money, investments, or other economic rewards. To buy PR and advertising to influence public opinion or to exercise corporate control over communications media. To bribe politicians with campaign contributions or other enticements. To simply pay people to do X or not to do Y.The primary holders and wielders of money-power are wealthy individuals, large corporations, and in some contexts government itself. Money-power is the dominant force in most democracies — particularly the United States.
  • Violence-power. The essential nature of violence-power is: “Do what you’re told to do, and don’t do what is forbidden, or you will be jailed, harmed, or killed.” Police, prison, military action, “private security,” terrorism, and so on are all forms of violent political power used to control or influence society. Violence power can be either actual violence or simply the threat of violence.In a democracy, government is the primary holder and wielder of violence-power, though there are some non-governmental forms such as mob or terrorist violence (the KKK during the 1960s, for example).
  • People-power. The power to organize protests that affect public opinion and change the cultural context. To elect or recall politicians. To engage in boycotts and other forms of economic pressure such as strikes. To create and deploy our own “alternative” media to challenge the lies and present a different vision. To use cultural forms such as song, theatre — and in today’s world, video and the internet — to speak truth to power (in the Southern Freedom Movement, for example, our freedom songs were as powerful a force for change as were our protests and the two were inseparably linked).In a democracy, the primary wielders of people-power are membership organizations, mass movements, and unorganized individuals acting in concert. People-power is the only real power that those of us who are neither rich nor at the top of government have.

These three kinds of political power are neither separate nor distinct, they are closely related and mutually interactive:

  • Money can buy violence (government violence, private “security,” strikebreakers, etc)
  • Money can buy or elect political leaders, and manipulate popular consent
  • Violence (or the threat of violence) can be used to obtain money (taxes, for example)
  • Violence can be used to coerce popular consent
  • People can raise and withhold money (boycotts, forexample)
  • People can defend themselves against violence (either violently or nonviolently)

Money-Power

Money-power is constant and implacable but not omnipotent. Money-power never rests and never takes a day off, it exerts its political pressure 24/7. The politicians who set government policy do so primarily in response to money-power. As a general rule, it is money-power that sets their agenda and guides government actions.

This view of money-power may sound radical to some, and perhaps it is, but it is not a new concept. In 1787, John Adams one of America’s Founding Fathers, and the 2nd President of the United States wrote: In every society where property exists, there will ever be a struggle between rich and poor. Mixed in one assembly, equal laws can never be expected. In 1837, Abraham Lincoln wrote: These capitalists generally act harmoniously, and in concert, to fleece the people. And in 1911, Helen Keller, wrote: The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, for the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor.

Few of us have money-power in the political sense. We don’t have the kind of money it takes to buy Senators with campaign contributions, or threaten city councils with loss of jobs by closing plants or withholding investments. Nor can we finance radio talk shows or appoint retired government regulators who have served us well to cushy directorships. And we don’t own or control major media outlets.

Through advertising and rhetoric they want us to believe that by buying things we empower ourselves and achieve happiness. But most of us who drive a new car or live in our own home do so through debt, not wealth. Consumer debt isn’t money in the political sense, and consumer debt does not generate money-power — quite the opposite, it makes us vulnerable to the money-power of others.

But money-power is not monolithic, and only rarely is it entirely united around any particular issue. During the Freedom Movement of the 1960s, money-power was split. The local/regional money-power in the South — plantation owners, corporations relying on cheap non-union labor, local financial institutions — was extremely hostile to the Freedom Movement. Acting through the White Citizens Council, local money-power waged economic terrorism against Blacks who challenged segregation and demanded the right to vote. But elements of national/international money-power saw economic opportunity for themselves in opening up the South to their investment which required (among other things) a stable rule-of-law and an end to racial “disturbances.” Some elements saw great advantage in breaking the “Dixiecrat” stranglehold on the region’s economy and politics. And other elements, such as chain stores like Woolworths, were pressured around segregation issues by people-power consumer boycotts organized by northern students.

Violence-Power

Government wields enormous violence-power at all levels — with its police and military and by the threat of violent repression and prison. Ruthless, sustained, violence-power backed by money-power can often suppress people-power movements. In the 1960s, government violence-power exercised through sheriffs, cops, and state troopers was a primary method of maintaining segregation and political control in both the North and the South. But at the national level during the early and mid-1960s, repressive violence was largely latent, and infrequently used for political purposes — at least overtly — except in cases where they could claim they were “defending” civil society from violent political “outlaws.” One of the reasons we used nonviolent tactics — and loudly proclaimed our nonviolence — was to minimize, and if possible prevent, governmental violence-power from being used in a sustained way to suppress us.

Back in the early and mid-’60s there were Movement organizations and individuals who on occasion used self-defense against racist attack. Some of us combined nonviolence and self-defense as the situation warranted to defend ourselves from KKK terror. But that limited self-defense was the extent of our violence-power.

Then in the late ’60s and early ’70s some leaders and organizations, primarily in the North, publicly turned away from nonviolence as the strategy of social change. They heaped scorn on Nonviolent Resistance, glorified guns, and urged “armed struggle” or other forms of offensive violence. In most cases, this was little more than posturing. Bombastic rhetoric aside, we had no real access to violence-power in the political sense, then or now. Neither then, nor now, could we successfully use violence to deter police oppression or ensure justice. We could not then, and cannot now, wage a successful violent revolution against either Wall Street or Washington. We cannot use a pistol to force a slumlord to turn on the heat, or put a corporate polluter in prison, or prevent a friend from being deported, or stop an illegal war for oil, or adequately fund a school system, or … you fill in the blank.

Those few who actually committed some small acts of political violence — or threatened to do so — failed to achieve any significant amount of violence-power. They succeeded only in isolating themselves from potential supporters, and gifting both local and national government with convenient political cover for ruthlessly suppressing them. This has been the political reality for a long time. As far back as 1900, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) had an adage: “Watch the man who advocates violence,” because he was either a nut who is dangerous — or a police agent.

While political violence in the U.S. is a form of political suicide, today’s music and entertainment glamorizes violence and gangster culture and encourages us to use violence against each other. But killing neighbors, abusing spouses, burning local stores, breaking windows, and waging turf-wars against other powerless people, only makes life in our communities that much worse — that much more unbearable. Not only does communal violence not generate any political power to improve our lives, it provides convenient pretexts for police suppression, isolates potential allies from each other, and divides us against ourselves in ways that block development of people-power.

People-Power

Our culture glorifies and exalts both violence-power and money-power while ignoring or discrediting people-power. Most people do not believe that ultimately government rests on consent of the governed and therefore they remain unaware of the potential power they hold. This idea was first articulated in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. … That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Every 4th of July the nation celebrates this Declaration with fireworks, flag waving, and patriotic speeches. But almost never do any of the orating politicians actually quote any portion of the Declaration to their audiences — or explain what it means. Yet, despite our rulers’ desire that we remain ignorant, docile, and obedient to their commands, throughout our history some individuals and organizations have successfully used strategies of Nonviolent Resistance to mobilize people-power around a wide variety of issues. The Freedom Movement being just one example.

People-power movements apply political power to directly influence government, pass legislation such as the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, affect spending and taxes, and so on. But people-power can also change the social/cultural context within which all political power is exercised. Prior to the Freedom Movement, for example, overt, explicit, racism was a common aspect of American society. “Nigger” jokes were on the radio and “Blackface” stereotypes on TV, derogatory racial images were an everyday part of commerce, and politicians used explicit racist appeals in campaigns and cited racist ideology in legislative debates. If you questioned or criticized such overt racism you were, at the very least, considered to be an un-American crank — and probably a Communist. The Freedom Movement fundamentally changed our cultural context so that what was normal in the 1950s is now utterly unacceptable. Disney, for example, made Song of the South (after Bambi and before Cinderella), an animated feature film filled with racial stereotypes that are so offensive today that the Disney Company has never re-released it nor made it available for home video. Other people-power movements have made similar profound changes in how our society views women and women’s roles and how we view the global environment. And today, ongoing people-power movements continue to struggle over issues as varied as immigration and sexuality in its many varied forms.

But since the ’60s, efforts to mobilize people-power have been only partially effective in some areas — women, environment, and gay issues, for example — and largely ineffective in other areas — foreign policy, war, economic justice, covert racism, etc. In part, this is because money-power is constantly active in influencing government, while people-power is intermittent and most of the time largely latent. And in part it is because people-power today has become weak and divided. One reason for that weakness is our failure to fully use the power of Nonviolent Resistance.

Both wealth and government do everything they can to maintain their power by making us feel helpless and confused. One way is by telling us that in a democracy it is only through elections that we the people wield power. But for the most part, candidates are chosen, and issues framed, by money-power. Political parties and candidates for office are influenced by money when they are running for office and after they are elected. Few of the many volunteers who actively work in electoral politics have any actual voice in selecting the candidates, crafting their positions, or shaping the subsequent legislation. The only real role most of us have is voting on election day. The result is that today we have two “money parties” that both represent the interests of the giant corporations and the wealthy few — one of those parties supports “liberal” social policy such as a woman’s right to have an abortion, and the other opposes those rights. But no party represents our interests against those of the wealthy.

Yet, people-power can be exercised through elections — at times people-power has been powerful at the ballot box — but only when there are organizations and movements that educate and mobilize people around their interests OUTSIDE of the electoral process.

People-Power and Nonviolent Resistance

Which brings us to direct action and Nonviolent Resistance. By and large, the strategies of the Freedom Movement — and the strategies of most successful reform movements — were the strategies of Nonviolent Resistance.

In modern times there have been instances where Nonviolent Resistance was used to overthrow authoritarian governments, but Nonviolent Resistance is more commonly used to reform some aspect of government or society — the U.S. Civil Rights Movement being a case in point. Whether the goal is revolution or reform, the purpose of nonviolent tactics and strategies is to create a political dynamic that organizes and mobilizes people-power while at the same time limiting and restricting the ability of opponents to suppress the movement with violence and money-power.

The weakness of money-power is the illegitimacy of actions and policies designed to benefit the wealthy and powerful few at the expense of the many. The strength of nonviolent people-power is inherent in the word “NO.” “No” is the most powerful word in the English language:

No, we won’t accept segregation
No, we won’t silently stand by in the face of injustice
No, we won’t believe the lies of President Bush
No, we won’t submit to corporate domination our lives

By mobilizing nonviolent popular action, we use our strength against their weakness.

Violence, on the other hand, pits their strength against our weakness. In modern society, both money-power and the state are well prepared for political violence with police, courts, jails, military, intelligence agencies, private security and so forth. Violence plays on their field, on their terms, under their rules. Time and again, small violent groups have been ineffective at generating political power and proved to be counter-productive in advancing their cause. Not because they were small — small nonviolent groups have sometimes achieved great success, the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides being two examples — but because they tried to rely on violence-power rather than people-power.

To be politically effective using people-power, you have to build mass popular support. But in our society, building popular support based on violence won’t work for two reasons:

  1. Repression. The state is well-organized and over-equipped for suppressing violence. Those in power would prefer that there be no resistance or opposition to their rule. But if there is going to be resistance, they prefer that it be violent because they can quickly destroy violent opposition. Yet few police forces are equipped or trained to effectively contain Nonviolent Resistance, and often times it confuses and confounds them because it is so at odds with what they expect and are prepared for. Yes, they can beat and arrest nonviolent protesters, but that does not necessarily suppress a nonviolent movement or the ideas behind it. Which is why undercover cops & FBI COINTELPRO agents who infiltrated Movement organizations always advocated the most violent acts, and were the most vehement in disparaging Nonviolent Resistance.
  2. People fear and oppose violence. Most people will defend themselves if attacked, but unless driven to utter desperation they won’t commit offensive violence, and they don’t want their children doing it either. Obviously, you can train and discipline people to do violence — that’s why militaries and police have elaborate training camps and academies — but it’s not easy. Official, state violence may be “As American as cherry pie,” but despite the media’s gangster glorification, civil disorder and citizen violence are broadly rejected by all levels of society, and only a tiny fraction of the population will engage in it. But if properly organized and led, people will exercise their rights as citizens to advocate a cause they believe in — whether that be boycotting buses in Montgomery or facing down the Klan, posse, and state troopers in Selma for the right to vote.

So there is this contradiction: Our mass culture tells us that to take effective action you have to be violent, but in our society today social change through violence does not work. Nonviolent Resistance breaks this contradiction by providing a method of mobilizing people-power to create social change.

— Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2008

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