Back to Todd May’s Nonviolent Resistance (Polity, 2015) after a long hiatus.  And when he gets to a discussion of how nonviolent movements can succeed, I find a good way of thinking about my earlier expression of skepticism about the usefulness of mass marches in DC or elsewhere.

Basically, a social movement’s success (May is drawing on the work of Gene Sharp here; another source identifies Sharp as the leading proponent of the “pragmatic” as opposed to “moral” school of non-violence advocates) depends on its understanding power in its given society.  “Leverage refers to the ability of contentious actors to mobilize the withdrawal of support from opponents or invoke pressure against them through the networks upon which opponents depend for their power” (This is Sharp, not May, but taken from page 93 of May’s book).

The premise is that power is something given to certain people or certain institutions by voluntary obedience, by consent. Power, therefore, is dependent on the cooperation of those who we normally think of as subject to power.  At least in theory, a government cannot sustain itself in the absence of such consent.  Laws against drinking alcohol or having homosexual sex prove unenforceable in the absence of voluntary obedience.  (It’s an empirical question as to what the “tipping point” is.)

The non-violent movement, then, is working to promote wide-spread disobedience.  It must represent certain laws—or the government tout court—as morally reprehensible, illegitimate, or unacceptably oppressive.  It will succeed when it makes a specific policy—or, again, a whole government—unsustainable.

Two things follow from understanding the ultimate goal of the movement this way.  Again, quoting Sharp:  “Two basic conditions must be met for a challenge to contribute to political transformations: 1) the challenge must be able to withstand repression and 2) the challenge must undermine state power” (92 in May).

How can the movement “sustain itself during the inevitable repression that will result from a challenge to state power” (92)?  Sharp’s answer is that the movement’s resilience is tied to “decentralized yet coordinated organizational networks, the ability to implement multiple actions [in multiple modes from persuasion, to noncooperation, to intervention] and the ability to implement methods of dispersion as well as concentration, and tactical innovation” (92).  Sharp has a wonderful list of 98 types of non-violent action.  Multiple forms of action greatly increases the opportunities for participation by people of varying degrees of commitment (from general sympathy to obsessive commitment).  Plus those multiple modes of action keep people involved over time, instead of just getting them into the street for one-off demonstrations.  And having acted multiple times increases people’s commitment, so they won’t wilt away at the first sign of push-back from the opponents.

What Sharp and May don’t take up is that protest is not cost-free.  It is getting a critical mass of people to the point where they put something real on the line that’s the hard part.  Demonstrations are cost free—as, for the most part, is getting arrested one time.  But the movement is going to collapse in the face of repression unless a significant number of people are going to accept fairly serious trouble.  It’s been a fairly long time (really since the early 1970s) since we have witnessed that kind of commitment on the American scene.

On to point two: leverage.  In theory, the contest is played out in the court of public opinion.  In a democracy, ideally, you are working to convince a majority that your view, not the opponents’, is the right one.  You are soliciting their vote (minimally), but, more substantially, their withdrawal of consent from the policy or practice that is being protested against.

And that is still somewhat the case.  But the leverage points in American politics are way more complex than that—and not a reason for optimism.  For starters, politicians are very insulated from the popular vote.  (I won’t get into this is worse now than it was fifty or a hundred years ago).  But between the first need to raise huge amounts of money to run on to the dynamics of primaries and of gerrymandering, it is quite obvious that our elected officials are much more beholden to and frightened of certain power brokers than they are to the public at large.  The spectacle of a Republican party nearly passing a health law supported by 20% of the population is just one proof of that point.  Our absurd gun laws is another.

So a successful protest movement today has to develop a realistic appraisal of where power resides in our plutocracy and a strategy for leveraging that power.  Demonstrations are not going to do the trick.  Boycotts seem to me much more likely to be effective—both because they hit power where it hurts and because they are sustained over time (or need to be in order to work).  One instance is the fact that corporate pressure and high-profile actions like moving the Super Bowl from one state to another have been much more effective in blocking certain kinds of discriminatory statutes than citizen protests.  That’s a lamentable fact, but it’s a fact.  So perhaps our protest movements should aim more at corporate power centers than at political ones—and then try to move those corporations to bring pressure to bear on the politicians.

The general point, I assume, is clear.  Moving public opinion is a good thing (although I see little evidence that demonstrations do that very often).  Building up your fellow travelers is also a good thing—and demonstrations may help with that.  But applying pressure at the right places is really, really crucial.  And, for now, I don’t see the left as having a good game plan in that regard.  Like it or not, our opponents are not going to do the right thing because we convince them that we occupy the moral high ground.  Things are only going to change when they are made to pay a price they find unacceptable for keeping things the way they are.  Leverage is about finding the ways to make them pay such a price.  In the meantime, pushing to get to that point requires our side having a sufficient number of people willing to pay a price for initiating and sustaining a protest against the way things are.

More to say about this in subsequent posts, specifically about counting on the courts for help and about constitutional crises.



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