PEACE, NON-VIOLENCE & CONFLICT RESOLUTION > ARTICLES > Non-violent Action : Some Dilemmas
Non-violent Action: Some Dilemmas
Looking at the future of nonviolent action at the turn of the present century, described as the bloodiest one in history, may rightfully generate feelings of pessimism. Yet this otherwise the bloodiest of all phases in human evolution has witnessed some of the major successes in nonviolent action entitling it to the status of a legitimate method of struggle against oppression and to bring about desirable social change. It is an empirical fact that the number of unarmed insurrections is increasing in incidence even as violence persists, and they often arise as improvised responses to oppression and grievances. A cursory look at the conflict map of the world reveals that nonviolence is still a far cry. The situation in places like Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Balkans, Kashmir, Liberia, Nagorno Karabak, Chechnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Northern Ireland, Sudan and Sri Lanka, to name a few, induce helplessness among advocates of nonviolence and doubt in its supposedly universal potential for application.
Gandhi is credited to have been the first person to show the efficacy of nonviolence in mass social and political action. He looked upon nonviolence as a moral philosophy, a way of life and a method of action. However, nonviolence is becoming attractive more as a method of action than as a principle or a way of life. Seen from a Gandhian angle such forms of nonviolence cannot be sustained. Gandhi also visualised nonviolence as a dynamic concept and called for perfecting of the art through practice and adherence to truth. Nonviolence is not a new idea although elitist Construction of history has silenced this aspect. This is said to be the reason for the predominant reliance on improvisation in nonviolent action. Even in those movements avowedly committed to violence, the sheer weariness of violence following protracted conflicts is leading the organisors to try civilian forms of unarmed resistance, often with spectacular successes. Nonviolence is becoming popular either by choice or by necessity, more often by the latter. The mode of nonviolent action that is practised in general differs from the extremely principled forms that Gandhi, Ghafffar Khan and King had envisaged. The secularised version sees nonviolence as method of action, instrumentally conceived, justifiable primarily on rational choice principles rather than on normative grounds and winning in the conflict finds a strong resonance. This does not mean that such practitioners are blind to the moral high ground of nonviolent action. Gene sharp is credited to have systematised nonviolence as a political strategy and is now the foremost theoretician of nonviolent action.
This paper has been drawn on the writings of Sharp to point out the limitations of his approach in containing forms of structural violence and suggest that infusion of structural consciousness is a sine qua non for nonviolent action that is truly liberatory. Endorsing the general approach of Sharp I propose to argue that commitment to high moral principles is often a fetter on action since such principles are often at adds with the lived lives of the people.
What is Nonviolent Action?
Nonviolent strategies are based on non cooperation, political jiu jitsu or love of one's enemy, as the case may be. The first is based on the withdrawal of consent, the source of power assuming that the willing cooperation of people as tax payers, soldiers etc., is necessary for retention of the power of the ruler, and once this is pulled back the system will collapse since it cannot exist in a vacuum. The second seeks to fight a ruler by using the unconventional method of nonviolence aimed at throwing the ruler off his balance. With increasing repression, the number of nonviolent actionists and the severity of defiance increase. This leads to sufficient internal opposition among the opponent's usual supporters so as to reduce his capacity to deal with the defiance. If the purpose of this defiance is to convert the opponent, it becomes a moral jiu jitsu. The instrumental use of this method in politics results in political jiu jitsu. Theoretically it is logical to argue that rulers depend on cooperation from the people and once that is refused they will come down like a pack of cards. Sharp says," If the withholding is undertaken by enough people for a long enough period of time, then the regime will have to come to terms or it will be collapsed. Nonviolent action seeks to bring about change in three ways. The first is conversion, which is the rarest. The second is accommodation, which is the most usual. The third is nonviolent coercion, which is the most extreme of all forms.
Sharp is at pains to divest nonviolent action of any semblance of passivity. He says: "Nonviolent action is a means of combat, as is war. It involves the matching of forces and the waging of "battles", requires wise strategy and tactics and demands of its "soldiers courage, discipline and Sacrifice'. Sharp also tries to make it different from anarchism. It is based on fear of sanctions as well as consent emanating extra constitutional tenor. He says that it is possible to integrate nonviolent action into a constitutional system of government. Here, Sharp at once defends the existence of the state, integrates nonviolent action as democratic and posits it as a perennial element in society capable of defending and sustaining human freedom. He detaches nonviolence from its normative life forms as Gandhi did in his critique of modem civilisation and incorporates it as a legitimate mode of action rooted in liberal democracy.
The debate as to whether nonviolence should be embraced for its intrinsic worth or as a strategy to be evaluated on the criterion of efficacy amounts to raking up an old controversy. But the controversy or confusion still remains to haunt several nonviolent actionists, especially those who emphasise the moral superiority of nonviolence. While Gandhi could equally justify the superiority of his methods on the basis of cost-effectiveness, he envisaged it as an incidental rather than a primary reason for nonviolence. This moral stance also finds reflection in the work and thinking of Ghaffar Khan and Martin Luther King. Khan unconventionally located the source of nonviolence in Islam, in the teachings of the prophet. King was influenced by Christianity and Gandhi's ideas were interpreted by him in this light. This reliance on a deep spiritual consciousness is still persuasive in the nonviolent tradition. A.T. Ariyaratne says: "Under today's circumstances, the votaries of nonviolence and social justice have to depend almost exclusively on the spiritual Consciousness they can awaken within themselves. They have aggregated these energies into a critical mass capable of affecting the mass psyche of general population. The external manifestations of such a course of spiritual action that is directed to bringing about a change will manifest itself in the form of fearlessness and sacrifice". In line with the spiritualist tradition, the Dalai Lama envisages compassion informed by love as the basis of nonviolent action. Although principled nonviolence as a life style continues to persist in a number of circles, it is probably the secularised version that is most widely practised. However, this is not to say that they always exist independently or neat categorisations are possible.
The role of organised religion in nonviolent action cannot be discounted at this stage in spite of its frequent association with conservative forces. For example the Catholic Church did play an important role in Philippines as well as in East Timor by providing support to the civilian population engaged in opposition to repression. In the latter case Timorese quest for national self-determination came to be intimately linked with the Catholic church. The Anglican church in South Africa allowed the use of church premises by squatters and supported tax resistance and conscientious objection in the struggle against apartheid.
The Base of Nonviolent Action: The Adequacy of Power and Consent
Sharp agrees with the advocates of violence about the importance of power, that one should wield power in order to control one's adversaries. Sharp says that the view of political power held by the advocates of violence is a top-down one, that is "people depend on governments, that political power is monolithic, that it can really come from a few men and that it is durable and self-perpetuating". In contrast, nonviolent power is bottom-up. That is "government depends on people, that power is pluralistic, and that political power is fragile because it depends on many groups for reinforcement of its power sources". He says: "the exercise of power depends on the consent of the ruled who, by withdrawing that consent, can even control and destroy the power of their opponent". In sharp's classification all instances such as the American colonists struggle against Britain, or the 1905 Russian revolution are instances of employment of nonviolent pressure tactics. Nonviolent action may be used for larger or limited goals. The power of rulers is not intrinsic to them but is external to them, derived from the society they govern. Political power is not a' one-sided affair but one requiring consent for its constant replenishment. This notion of power as based on consent is not anything new, but Lockean in form, although the institutionalised operation of political power had undermined its consent dimension. Sharp is known for transforming the Gandhi-King-Khan tradition of sacrifice and suffering informed by an internal spiritual resolve into a method of action that meets the dominant Western criteria of technical rationality. Sharp frequently uses strategic parlance to buttress his argument and sell his idea to the strategists and policy makers.
Women, particularly those radically oriented often question the tendency to idealise nonviolence. Feminists like Adler and Ling say that, "The violence against women eludes the techno-rational problem-solving to nonviolence and remains lost to discovery, understanding, and most importantly, resolution".
Brian Martin tells us that Sharp's simple presentation of patriarchy as one concerning ruler and ruled does not capture the complex processes of upbringing, expectations of characteristic behaviour, the gender division of labour, harassment, rape and similar types which are linked to other systems of exploitation or structures like military and the state which are of high priority for Sharp. How can love for the enemy stop rape; how can non cooperation tackle linguistic violence and the low self-esteem of women. Taking a structural view feminists contend that violence is extracted as a purely external physical act and in this way excludes from consideration "the multi-layered institutional origins of violence", which is what affects women most. Further "systems of oppression contain within them forms of power embedded in the structures that creates those systems". Further "the experiences of the oppressed must be seen to constitute different world views rather than represent the margins of some dominant perspective"?
Women already love their enemies in view of the system of submission and the internalisation of the same through years of struggle. Is it possible to employ a strategy of non-cooperation against patriarchy asks Adler and Ling. Nonviolence is already practiced by women with no effect on their predicament. Hence the new nonviolent discourse tends to reinforce the extant forms of patriarchal oppression rather than address them. Political jiu jitsu required shared cultural beliefs and norms in order to affect the opponent. However, citing the effort in Greenham Common, they, say that women, were represented negatively due to a "dissensus about appropriate female behaviour" suggesting that political 'jiu jitsu compels women to conform to the very societal conventions that they seek to challenge" Hence the existence of consensus within society is necessarily absent - undermining the effectiveness of nonviolence. In effect what the "love the enemy" idea removes is the element of anger. Instead of serving as a tool for change, this anger or discontent is only reinforced in nonviolence. "In doing so nonviolence negates any socially redeeming values for violence and its associates like anger. Women need to recognise and accept this anger to end violence against them. If not, they implicitly uphold the legitimacy of their oppression. Patriarchies historically sublimate and alienate women's anger with the myth of the spiritually superior female... Any woman who rejects this moral standard somehow becomes inherently sub-female". That anger is a source of power is often not recognised by the adherents of nonviolence. Marcos Bisticas-Cocoves, a peace activist says, "I still believe in nonviolent direct action as a tactic; but I have come to have grave misgivings about the political viability of a philosophy that extols love and denigrates anger ..... a philosophy that demands the renunciation of anger as a precondition for action". Anger is the source of power and anger is to be channelised into a pressure to effect those in power, not to convert, according to him.
There are also problems with this notion of monolithic power. There are many states which thrive through networks of patron-client relationships. Often the state may be based on a coalition of groups or some degree of diffusion of power. Diffused power that is systemically oppressive creates problems for nonviolent action particularly when it is difficult to persuade a sizeable section of society to withdraw consent. It is the mixed nature of the state that makes action difficult on many occasions. Just as the state oppresses, it tends to help certain sections with special privileges and subsidies. The problem becomes increasingly complex in ethnically divided societies in which the state structure and one or more of ethnic groups may be simultaneously identified as the problem. It is assumed that the nonviolent magic of transforming or coercing the enemy will work regardless of culture, time and gender. Gene Sharp universalises nonviolent action and says that failures are often due to the "weakness in a group employing the technique or in the strategy and tactics used". Consider for example the case of Burma. Despite popular support for Aung Sang, the junta continues well-esconsed in power. This may be because of the strategies of the regime which blacks out information flow to the public as well as outside and reduce reliance on the outside world which makes it impervious to global public opinion. Further modern technologies of mass control often prevent the people from understanding the nature of the crime committed by the regime in power. New instruments of police control "provide a flexible but not always less than lethal coercive response to combat nonviolent action. A design criteria has been to mask the real impact of their effects so that the media do not get an accurate picture of the level of coercion being deployed.
We do not have enough empirical evidence to come to the conclusion that all changes brought about through nonviolent action will be long-lasting as Sharp claims. Consider the communal riots which followed Indian independence and the spectre of conflicts that plague our social structure even today in spite of the Gandhian heritage. Is this because of nonviolent action unaccompanied by structural analysis? Structural analyses produce excellent material satisfying the needs of academia but are insufficient for action, a point on which Sharp scores hands down over Galtung, a well known Peace Researcher inclined to a structural approach. To link one with the other is perhaps the greatest challenge facing nonviolent action today.
Underlying forms of oppression
There is a belief that what takes place in individual relations can be transformed into group ones since nonviolent action is an extension of nonviolence based on the autonomy, moral or otherwise, of the individual. Instances of structural violence like imperialism patriarchy and racism are embedded in the structure. Advocates of nonviolence seemingly claim that individually based non cooperation can surmount structural problems. For example, capitalism is a system whose resilience and potential has often been not fully grasped by the nonviolent activists. Interestingly many of the Third World civilian movements against oppression have been accompanied by the emergence of capitalism. The results of nonviolent action are circumscribed by the embeddedness of the structures. The system of capitalism exists as a hegemony, reflected in educational structures, mass media, family, popular culture and the day to day styles of living and doing. In India, for example, when people protested against the detonation of nuclear weapons, they are condemned as anti-patriotic and subversive. These kind of structured elements in the consciousness of people should be addressed and addressing of this can really work only if structural analysis. Nonviolent activism has generated an interest in conflict resolution programmes. The fear is that these conflict resolution programmes will deprive nonviolent activism of its political content and become more akin to technical problem-solving. Sam Diener says "As conflict resolution programmes enter the mainstream, we face the threat that peace making skills and nonviolent training may be stripped of political content, implemented without an awareness of the impact of power differentials between disputants and used to address forms of oppression as problems to be solved merely between individuals. At worst mediation programmes can be oriented toward conflict management, giving another tool of control to administrators and politicians working to defend the status quo". One may ask whether nonviolence is employable in extreme forms of oppression. We also should admit that even oppressive governments do not exist purely on oppression. They would be providing some service or the other to the public to legitimate their rule. Further, such systems are based on patron-client networks which often confuse the ruler-subject division.
The state can often create groups of militiamen who terrorise unarmed groups of people as is happening in East Timor with the connivance of the Indonesian army. The death squads and terrorists of such groups terrorise the people into submission. At the same time the Indonesian state denies responsibility for this. Stephen Zunes calls this "privatisation of the repressive apparatus". Such situations obfuscate the tagets of nonviolent direct action. In real life we can see many such situations in which the opponent does not feel obliged to respond. Even on simple issues people express highly divergent opinions convinced by the fact that what they believe in is right. People are also individually opportunistic and only when the movement reaches a threshold level that enlisting their support becomes possible.
Infusing Constructive Elements
Andrew Rigby says that the Gandhian approach of juxtaposing the opposition to evil with positive strategies like the constructive programme targeted at the immediate needs of the people while at the same time being futuristic in orientation, should be taken seriously. Based on his study of non-violent interventions during the Intifada he says: "It seems that the most successful kinds of intervention are those which share something of the Gandhian approach to constructive work: intervening to assist those in the conflict zone who are engaged in peace-making activities, intervening to help relieve the suffering of the victims, offering one's services to facilitate dialogue and related processes of reconciliation between enemies. Such constructive modes of intervention are not only oriented to helping meet the expressed needs of the direct parties to the conflict, they also embody a commitment to the creation of a more cooperative and peaceful future. They lack the drama and the publicity potential of some of the protest-oriented interventions, but their impact on the conflict situation is invariably more substantial". In fact this aspect as well as the Gandhian plea for the creation of more peaceful socio-political structures, which he identifies with non-industrial forms of organisation has not found any echo in the rest of the world. The nonviolent movement is largely operating on the assumption that capitalism is an unproblematic system.
The future of nonviolence lies in its creative use rather than emphasising too much on the purity of its application which excludes the possibility of millions of ordinary men and women from partaking in it. The burden of identifying what constitutes a nonviolent act in a particular instance should rest with the people practising it rather than onlookers from outside. It is not right to insist as to what is right and what is not right on the basis of norms evolved in contexts different from the one where the real action takes place. This does not mean that a nonviolent movement should divest itself of all purer elements. We should lay emphasis on means as tantamount to the use of the method of nonviolence. The adversary does not often distinguish between one nonviolent action and the other on the basis of intentions which are intrinsic to the actionists. As far as the rulers are concerned nonviolent action of any kind, be it the principled kind or the strategic kind is problematic. Nonviolent action is actor-centred rather than system centred, Hence the systemic nature of many forms of oppression cannot be accommodated. Its beliefs in universality, consensus within society and failure to recognise the subtleness of forms of oppression irreducible to subject-ruler categories deprives it of its attractiveness to many self-conscious oppressed groups, such as women. It may be necessary to utilise anger as a strategy of mobilisation. We should not be wary of striking alliances with movements of similar kind due to excessive concerns with purism and independence.
Nonviolence should not be seen as a panacea. Certain conflicts by their very nature are resistant to resolution either nonviolently or violently. Force may be necessary on some occasions to protect the civilian population as in East Timor where the UN is providing security to the people against attacks by the Indonesian sponsored civilian militia. Interpositionary efforts have not yielded the expected results either. The role of nonviolence in ethnic conflicts needs to be assessed afresh given their increasing recalcitrance to nonviolent resolution. Nonviolence cannot serve as a functional alternative to violence at this moment of our social evolution and vice versa. Nonviolence preceded by a high degree of structural consciousness and awareness of the interconnections among systems of exploitation is necessary to gain control over the post-change situation, This remains one of the most important challenges facing nonviolent action.
[Source: International Workshop on NONVIOLENT STRUGGLES IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AND THEIR LESSONS FOR THE TWENTY FIRST, October 5-12, 1999, New Delhi]