The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy

The Failure of Nonviolence
28 February, 2014 – open salon – Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall

The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy
By Peter Gelderloos (2013 Left Bank Books)

Book Review

You occasionally read a totally mind bending book that opens up a whole new world for you. The Failure of Nonviolence by Peter Gelderloos is one of them, owing to its unique evidence-based perspective on both “nonviolent” and “violent” resistance. It differs from Gelderloos’s 2007 How Nonviolence Protects the State in its heavy emphasis on indigenous, minority, and working class resistance. A major feature of the new book is an extensive catalog of “combative” rebellions that the corporate elite has whitewashed out of history.

Owing to wide disagreement as to its meaning, Gelderloos discards the term “violent” in describing actions that involve rioting, sabotage, property damage or self-defense against armed police or military. In comparing and contrasting a list of recent protest actions, he makes a convincing case that combative tactics are far more effective in achieving concrete gains that improve ordinary peoples’ lives. He also explodes the myth that “violent” resistance discourages oppressed people from participating in protest activity. He gives numerous examples showing that working people are far more likely to be drawn into combative actions – mainly because of their effectiveness. The only people alienated by combative tactics are educated liberals, many of whom are “career” activists working for foundation-funded nonprofits.

Gelderloos also highlights countries (e.g., Greece and Spain) which have significantly slowed the advance of neoliberal capitalism via combative resistance. In his view, this explains the negative fiscal position of the Greek and Spanish capitalist class in addressing the global debt crisis. Strong worker resistance to punitive labor reforms and austerity cuts has significantly slowed the transfer of wealth to their corporate elite, as well as the roll-out of fascist security measures.

The Gene Sharp Brand of Nonviolence

Gelderloos begins by defining the term “nonviolent” as the formulaic approach laid out by nonviolent guru Gene Sharp in his 1994 From Dictatorship to Democracy and used extensively in the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. This approach focuses exclusively on political, usually electoral, reform. Gelderloos distinguishes between political revolution, which merely overturns the current political infrastructure and replaces it with a new one – and social revolution, which overturns hierarchical political infrastructure and replaces it with a system in which people self-organize and govern themselves.

The nonviolent approach Sharp and his followers prescribe relies heavily on a corporate media strategy to promote their protest activity to large numbers of people. This obviously requires some elite support, as the corporate media consistently ignores genuine anti-corporate protests. As an example, all the nonviolent color revolutions in Eastern Europe enjoyed major support from the State Department, billionaire George Soros and CIA-funded foundations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the National Republican Institute.

Is Nonviolence Effective?

Gelderloos sets out four criteria to assess the effectiveness of a protest action:

– It must seize space for activists to self-organize essential aspects of their lives.
– It must spread new ideas that inspire others to resist state power and control.
– It must operate independently of elite support.
– It must make concrete improvements to the lives of ordinary people.

As examples of strictly nonviolent protest movements, Gelderloos offers the “color” revolutions (see 1 below), the millions-strong global anti-Iraq war protest on February 15, 2003 and 2011 Occupy protests, which were almost exclusively nonviolent (Occupy Oakland being a notable exception).

In all the color revolutions Gelderloos describes, the goal has been strictly limited to replacing dictatorship with democracy and free elections. None attempted to increase economic democracy nor to reduce oppressive work and living conditions. In fact, most of the color revolutions forced their populations to give up important protections to integrate more thoroughly into the cutthroat capitalist economy.

So-called “democracies” such as the US are just as capable as dictatorships of engaging in extrajudicial assassination, torture, and suspension of habeas corpus and other legal protections. However US corporations generally find “democracies” more investment-friendly. Owing to greater transparency, they are less likely to nationalize private industries or arbitrarily change the rules for doing business.

Besides failing to meet any of his criteria, the 2003 anti-Iraq war movement failed to stop the US invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Occupy protests failed to achieve a single lasting gain.

Successful “Combative” Protests

He contrasts these strictly nonviolent protests with nearly 20 popular uprisings (see 2 below) and two (successful) US prison riots that have incorporated “combative” tactics along with other organizing strategies. Most have been totally censored from the corporate media and history books or whitewashed as so-called “nonviolent” actions (e.g., the corporate media misportrayed both the 1989 Tiananmen Square rebellion and the 2011 Egyptian revolution as nonviolent protests).

The US, more than any other country, uses prison to suppress working class dissent. Most prison struggles employ a diversity of tactics combining work stoppages and legal appeals with property damage, riots and attacks on guards. Nonviolent protest tends to be particularly ineffective in the prison setting. A nonviolent hunger strike usually reflects a situation in which prisoners have so little personal control that the only way to resist is to refuse to eat.

Gelderloos also analyzes a number of historical combative uprisings, pointing out their relative strengths and weaknesses. He devotes particular attention to the Spanish Civil War (a failed working class revolution), the anti-Nazi partisan movements during World War II, combative Indigenous peoples resistance to European colonizers and autonomous liberated zones created in Ukraine, Kronstadt, and Siberia following the Bolshevik Revolution and in the Skinmin Province of Manchuria in pre-World War II China.

Who Are the Pacifists?

He devotes an entire chapter to the major funders and luminaries of the nonviolent movement. Predictably most of the funding comes from George Soros, the Pentagon, the State Department and CIA-funded foundations such as USAID, NED, and NIR. Among other examples, Gelderloos describes the Pentagon running a multi-million dollar campaign to plant stories in Iraqi newspapers to promote “nonviolent” resistance to US occupation. …more

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