You Call This an Uprising?
by Ray Valentine on June 1, 2016
In early April, as a deadlocked Congress considered pressing business like not confirming a Supreme Court justice and Chuck Schumer’s bill to guarantee a minimum amount of space per-passenger on commercial flights (it didn’t pass), a crowd of demonstrators marched on Capitol Hill with a familiar slogan: money out of politics. Organizers of the Democracy Spring protests promised to “intervene in a way that no one can ignore” by launching a week of sit-ins and mass arrests on Capitol Hill demanding a massive package of electoral reforms, including the effective repeal of Citizens United. Quasi-official leader Kai Newkirk explained the strategy:
We want to create a moment of confrontation and crisis that dramatizes the issue and moves people to take a stand, and to feel an emotional allegiance to one side or another. We want to shift the political weather around this subject, and in our view nothing is as effective historically for doing so as mass nonviolent direct action on a significant scale, and in a sustained manor[sic].
Newkirk was quite clear that the strategy depended on attracting a “media spotlight.” And protesters were not shy about announcing that they were breaking the record for arrests at the Capitol, for filling the Capitol Police’s jail (never mind that the small holding center has maybe a dozen cells). But, far from being a pitched confrontation, protesters bragged of their friendly relations with the police and took selfies in which it was clear that they had not even been properly handcuffed.
When droves of media failed to arrive for another fairly placid demonstration on the hill, there was little protesters could do to get their message out other than complain about the mainstream media on Twitter. This wasn’t Newkirk’s first attempt to rally the public to “restore democracy” through propaganda of the deed on the Hill — two years ago he was arrested disrupting a session of the Supreme Court. That didn’t work either.
In their attempt to win public attention with a staged confrontation, Democracy Spring couldn’t disrupt much more than the Hill staffers tasked with administering legislative gridlock. They described their actions as a drama, but couldn’t find an audience. A few blocks away, DC residents carried on with their lives without noting any significant disruption. Now the protesters vow to continue to organize at a local level, to make the November election a referendum on money in politics. But since this style of activism doesn’t do much to make a material difference in anyone’s life, it seems unlikely that voters will decide that the cause of the Democracy Spring is a more pressing issue than the minimum wage or trans rights or deportations.
The strategic ideas guiding Democracy Spring didn’t come out of nowhere. The organizers declare their intellectual allegiance to the theories of brothers Mark (a journalist) and Paul (a professional organizer) Engler, and their “Momentum” school of thought, an approach to what the authors call nonviolent civil resistance. In addition to assembling an impressive team of immigrant youth organizers and Occupy veterans to develop a training program, the Englers have outlined their theories in a new book This Is an Uprising, which comes stamped with the approval of luminaries of the American left like Bill McKibben and Michelle Alexander.
The “momentum” theory has some momentum, and it’s worth taking a critical look at it, lest we repeat the mistakes of the people who have tried to practice it so far.
The Theory of Momentum
The Englers argue for a political strategy based on disruptive (but strictly nonviolent) protest action designed to trigger moments of mass revolt and strategic noncompliance with the ruling order. They cite familiar historical reference points like Indian independence and the movement against Jim Crow, as well as examples of “civil resistance” against dictatorships, like the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Only this strategy, they hold, can break from ordinary politics, “the art of the possible,” and put major social transformation on the table, to change the weather:
A transformative approach does not center on using institutional power to leverage what incremental gains might be possible on an issue at a given moment. Instead,this [the momentum theory] approach attempts to alter the climate of public debate to make much more far-reaching changes possible. (p. 96)
And then later on:
Because momentum-driven efforts are focused on changing broad public opinion rather than securing a series of incremental gains, their progress is mainly measurable through polls rather than a scorecard of more tangible wins…once the public has moved, and an adequate number of props have fatally weakened, an edifice that looked inert and immovable can suddenly collapse into rubble. (p. 103)
No radical would disagree with the necessity of disruption, confrontation, and popular mobilization to bring about social change. But what is the purpose of rebellion? Do the masses move in order to seize control of their daily lives and challenge the power of their immediate oppressors like bosses, police, landlords, and the like? Should movements seek to directly reorganize society, or impose reform by force? Not according to the Englers. For them direct actions like strikes, sit-ins, and land occupations are successful insofar as they send the right message to “the public.”
For the Englers the currency of politics is “attention,” especially that of the news media, which allows activists to reach their audience. They constantly use the language of spectacle, speaking of how activists can dramatize or expose some unjust aspect of the social order, and use getting in the mass media as a forum to reach this public audience. They do not raise the question of who exactly needs to have oppression “exposed” to them through a news account of a spectacular demonstration.
Who is this public that activists must move if they want to win? The implicit answer is a middle class media-consumer, people that are moved to support a movement because they see it in the news, not because that movement promises to win them a wage increase or stop their neighbor from being evicted or decontaminate the water supply. When discussing the phenomenon of violent repression inspiring more people to join a social movement, the Englers say people are inspired by empathy instead of solidarity (p. 206).
What’s missing here is any theory of class, or really of any other kind of structural system of power reproduced in everyday social relations. The Englers see civil society as a public debate about collective values, not as a sphere of class struggle where ruling groups materially dominate and organize social life. This means that for them, an uprising is a spectacle, a method to change hearts and minds, not a society-wide struggle to overturn deeply material structures of repression and exploitation. In this vision, people are recruited to movements on the basis of their values, not the ability of the movement to deliver concrete gains.
The Englers refer to various historical movements to support their analysis, but their engagement with history is usually simplistic and shallow. Their version of the US Civil Rights Movement, and especially Martin Luther King’s campaign in Birmingham, is ripped from the schoolbooks: disruptive protests grabbed the attention of the world through the media, and the moral power of the images of nonviolent demonstrators being attacked by Bull Connor and the Klan created impetus for federal civil rights legislation. The protest campaigns were “symbolic victories” that affected a change in “the national consciousness” (p. 131).
But there’s a problem here: the protests were very unpopular. King’s personal approval ratings plummeted in the years after Birmingham, polls found that a plurality of Americans believed that the demonstrators had been infiltrated by communists. Deep into the 1960s, majorities continued to tell pollsters that civil rights protesters were hurting their own cause and that they should stop immediately.
Rather than winning the sympathy of White liberals, civil rights activists developed the tools to defeat the forces of Jim Crow in an out-and-out confrontation in the streets. Beginning with the sit-in wave of 1960, Black Americans and their allies developed strategies for confrontational direct action that did real economic damage and terrified the defenders of the segregation. High profile showdowns like Birmingham weren’t significant because they got on TV: they showed organizers across the country an arsenal of tactics they could use to challenge the social order. Civil rights legislation was not a moral imperative but a reactive attempt to restore social peace. These victories were far from symbolic.
The Englers quote Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s description of movements from below in Poor People’s Movements without understanding the crucial ingredient:
Factories are shut down when workers walk out or sit down; welfare bureaucracies are thrown into chaos when crowds demand relief; landlords may be bankrupted when tenants refuse to pay rent. People cease to conform to accustomed institutional roles; they withhold their accustomed cooperation, and in doing so cause institutional disruption. (p. 145)
The most politically successful disruption is a disruption to the relations of dominance and privilege that are essential to the preservation of a stratified society, like obedience to bosses, fear of the police, deference to a dominant race or ethnic group, respect for property. When social movements succeed, it is not because they are especially persuasive, but because they discover strategies that allow people to break from these ordinary scripts of social life and transform their immediate conditions by force. If successful movements grab some “spotlight” or enter some “conversation,” it is because they promise to upset the order of things.
As people develop the capacity to struggle and affect changes in their own lives, the beliefs they report to pollsters become increasingly irrelevant. An individual’s opinions as a passive media consumer do not necessarily correspond to what that person will do in a moment of confrontation. The longtime rank-and-file autoworker militant and Marxist writer Marty Glaberman never tired of noting that during the Second World War, a sizable majority of members of the United Auto Workers voted in favor of a no-strike pledge, but that during the course of the war most auto workers also participated in illegal wildcat strikes. Workers were not striking because they were persuaded it was moral to do so, but because self-organized direct action was the only way they could carve out a measure of control in the hostile environment of the plant.
Such self-assertion by the oppressed and exploited are the heart of virtually all social movements, but it is almost entirely absent from the Englers’ worldview. For them, mass politics consists of professional activists making statements and winning supporters, not of the people taking power.
The Englers are so determined to make public opinion the yardstick for all political action that they appeal to it to resolve one of the most tired debates on the left: the question of violence. They make a strategic rather than a moral case for nonviolence, arguing that political violence gets in the mass of attracting mass participation. They even look to the public to get around the well worn question of how one should even define violence:
For activists using strategic nonviolence, these exchanges [over the definition of nonviolence] are beside the point. The relevant question is: What tactics work best in growing a movement and winning popular support. Here, the philosophical definition of what constitutes violence is largely irrelevant. What matters is the response of the public at large — whether a wider society in which a social movement exists judges an action to be violent, and how it reacts as a result.” (p. 236)
Now it is true, that “the public at large” may be alienated by smashing windows and clashes with the police, but it is also likely to be alienated by strikes and sit-ins. “The public at large” in the United States has typically felt more threatened by nonviolent civil rights demonstrations than by race riots by white supremacists.
But never mind these philosophical speculations! The Englers say they have data that will demonstrate that nonviolence simply works at swaying the masses. They cite the research of Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist who has constructed a dataset of anti-government movements throughout the 20th and found that campaigns of civil resistance have been significantly more successful than violent struggles. The mystique of quantitative social science is strong enough in American society that simply declaring that data has spoken may silence many critics (this is the strategy of neoliberal school reformers), but it is worth examining Chenoweth’s data more carefully to determine whether it actually supports a nonviolent strategy.
The crux of Chenoweth’s analysis is a regression showing that primarily nonviolent movements have tended to be more successful. But before she could run this regression, she had to do the work of representing historical movements as a series of variables in a row of data; movements are coded according to where they took place, whether that country had an authoritarian or democratic form of government, whether they were violent, whether they were successful. But of course, this is difficult to do without imputing some historical analysis, which is inevitably attached to a political perspective.
Even the choice of which campaigns are included in the data set is important to consider. Consider that the Indian independence movement is considered as a single campaign stretching from 1919 to 1945. Which may seem “primarily nonviolent” at a distance, but only by ignoring the activities of the Indian National Army, which does not appear in Chenoweth’s data. Two separate periods of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle are included: 1952-1961 and 1984-1994, so the Soweto uprising and much of the activity of the African National Congress’s armed wing does not appear in the account. Such glosses and omissions are unfortunately common in the capsule historical narratives Chenoweth supplies.
Classifying movements according to whether they are primarily nonviolent or violent is a curious thing, and many mass civilian movements are only nonviolent if we squint. Most civilians movements are surely “primarily” nonviolent most of the time, but they frequently contain moments of intensified militancy. Protesters in Tahrir Square fought pitched street battles with the security forces and burned down government and ruling-party offices. New historical research is revealing that despite the rhetoric of its leaders, rank-and-file participants in the US civil rights movement were armed to defend themselves from White terror. Striking workers in the Great Depression defended themselves when police and scabs tried to break their pickets. The contemporary movement against militarized policing and mass incarceration included riots in Ferguson, Baltimore, Anaheim, and Brooklyn. All of these actions would violate the Engler’s guidelines for strict, disciplined nonviolence, and none of them got in the way of mass participation.
Given the gaps in Chenoweth’s data, and the failure of historical movements to conform to the a strict definition of nonviolence, the Englers’ claim that nonviolence just simply works is hard to sustain. This is not to romanticize or advocate for violence, but merely to note that some violence is a normal characteristic of political confrontation. Policing the limits of acceptable tactics is usually counterproductive, and denouncing anything that might be construed as violent — especially in the name of appealing to a hypothetical, implicitly middle-class “public opinion” — largely serves to split movements and legitimize repression.
Nonviolence as an ideology
As the Englers say, little in politics happens spontaneously. A school of thought does not simply appear out of the ether; it has to be built. The loose assortment of tactics that have come to be labeled forms of nonviolence had to be assembled into a strategic doctrine that could be distilled into trainings and manuals before it was employed by groups like Otpor!, the Serbian anti-Milosevic dissident group. The institutions that shaped and spread the doctrine of nonviolence resistance are closely linked to pillars of the capitalist global order like Wall Street and the State Department, and this may help to account for some of the limitations of the philosophy
Gene Sharp, one of the most influential writers on the doctrine of non-violence of the Englers’ intellectual godparents, was cited by Foreign Policy and the New York Times as an inspiration for the “Arab Spring” (though some Egyptian critics noted that the Palestinians’ long struggle against the occupation, and the attendant international solidarity movement, was a much more salient reference point). His writings on the strategic use of nonviolence were widely cited during the “Green Revolution” in Iran and the various other “Color Revolutions” that swept the former Soviet republics of central asia and eastern europe in the early 2000s.
Sharp’s teachings became prominent in these movements because they had powerful institutional backers. One of the most significant transmission belts for the style of activism favored by the Englers is the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, a non-profit founded by a billionaire investment banker and former graduate student of Gene Sharp, Peter Ackerman. The ICNC’s trainings featured prominently in accounts of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak that focused on Sharp’s influence. Ackerman’s other major political intervention was an attempt to woo Michael Bloomberg or some similar public figure to run as an independent pro-austerity candidate in the 2012 presidential election. Ackerman’s methods have caught the attention of the agents of US foreign policy: a 2006 New Republic profile of Ackerman noted that “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand,” and pointed out that the ICNC might provide a blueprint for regime change more palatable to the public than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is not the only instance of the US government’s interest in “nonviolent civil resistance.” Erica Chenoweth, the scholar whose research is used to demonstrate of the effectiveness of nonviolence, is affiliated with a center at the University of Denver that is funded by the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Canadian government, and the CIA. Her co-author Maria Stephan is a former state department official who was responsible for liaising with the Syrian opposition in the early stages of the civil war. Federally-funded NGOs like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are widely understood as organs of American soft power, train activists and “civil society” leaders around the world. These NGOs have supported some of the highest profile activists to employ the theory of nonviolence, like Otpor! In Serbia. Outside the immediate orbit of US foreign policy, elite foundations like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (named for one of history’s most violent strikebreakers) are vocal advocates for nonviolent struggle.
These connections have not gone unnoticed on the left, leading some on the global left to instinctively view outbreaks of mass protest against governments hostile to the US as imperialist plots. The Englers meet these accusations with ridicule — their only reference to this line of criticism is to cite Thierry Messeyn, a French author who argues that Gene Sharp is a CIA agent and that 9/11 was an inside job. But it is not necessary to construct a conspiracy theory casting the CIA as the motive force in all modern history to note the affinities between a particular tradition of nonviolent activism and US imperialism.
We give US intelligence services entirely too much credit if we imagine they can coax workers to down tools, students to occupy public squares, and vast sectors of society to risk life and limb to defy their rulers. But if it is unreasonable to argue that the CIA can initiate artificial uprisings as a weapon against uncooperative governments, it is totally naive to assume that the US state and the agents of international capital take no interest in trying to steer the course of revolutionary moments.
In fact, most of the campaigns to remove dictators that have used the playbook of civil resistance, whether in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, or Egypt have ended the same way: the consolidation of a new authoritarian neoliberal regime dedicated to security cooperation with Washington and IMF-backed structural adjustment. The social demands for bread, for work, for effective public services, even for an end to police repression, that drove people into the streets have gone unanswered. Middle class student activists who took a leading role organizing disruptive protests and the square occupations that captured international attention proved unable to forge durable organizational links with the working class that provided the “mass” in the anti-dictatorship mass movements. Techniques of nonviolent civil resistance that proved effective at destabilizing regime have not helped radicals organize a new society. The period after the fall of an authoritarian regime have proved to be fertile ground for ambitious oligarchs and generals.
The limitations of the the doctrine of civil resistance take on a new significance when we understand the class background of its exponents. Presumably the failure of nonviolent activists to bring the working class to power and consolidate social revolution is a feature rather than a bug from the perspectives of Peter Ackerman and the International Republican Institute. The sponsors of the doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance would obviously prefer that revolutions stop at the establishment of a liberal state. They are uninterested in arming revolutionaries with techniques of confront the social basis of the dominant classes’ domination, since those would be liable to get out of the lab and end in the redistribution of the land, expropriation of the assets of multinationals, and the establishment of worker control of industry.
There is no reason to believe that the Englers are the agents of the state, that this is all one big psyop. The issue is simpler: they look at the history of revolutionary events and emphasize the efficacy of tactics that tugged at the heartstrings of sympathetic observers but proved largely nonthreatening to the real enemies of the revolution.
Activists should of course focus on strategies to disrupt the social order. But not all disruption is created equal. Winning attention is not the same thing as winning and media spectacle does not make movements. “Changing the conversation,” absent some wider change in the balance of forces in civil society is a sterile accomplishment. It seems appropriate that the Englers include an entire chapter on how activists can claim victory when they don’t achieve their stated goals.
In a recent interview, Mark Engler argued that socialist thought is totally academic and of little value for guiding contemporary activists. This is a curious comment: socialists created industrial unions, trained Martin Luther King, led the African National Congress, organized the anti-dictator campaigns of Latin America in the 1980s, and stood at the forefront of the Arab Spring. This should not be so surprising, since a serious analysis to the social and economic foundations of the power of the ruling class is a powerful tool for radicals.
Even without the benefit of historical hindsight, the classics of Marxism remain intensely relevant to contemporary movements. In her classic 1906 essay The Mass Strike, Rosa Luxemburg raised similar questions to This is an Uprising: how do apparently spontaneously mass popular uprisings occur and how can activists intervene in them? Like the Englers she noted that bureaucratic parties and unions could neither initiate or control revolutionary moments like workers’ uprising that imposed a constitution on the Russian empire in 1905-06. She understood these movements were not truly spontaneous, but that they had their own particular form of organization.
To Luxemburg, the essential precondition for revolution was the development of workers’ capacity to struggle, their self organization and class consciousness. Over the course of economic struggles, workers learned to organize themselves and take over the workplace and other productive territories of capitalist society, to recognize their enemies, and to use the strike weapon. By winning immediate improvements in their conditions of life, they learned the value of collective action. And when they were strong enough, the workers could shake the foundations of the state, and carry revolutionary energy back to their workplaces and communities to secure the political and social rights they won.
Much of what the Englers and their philosophical predecessors identify as nonviolent civil resistances could more accurately be described as instances of the mass strike. Striking workers powered the movements against military dictatorships in Brazil and South Korea, against Stalinist bureaucracy in Poland and Hungary, against Apartheid in South Africa, and more. The killing blow to the Milosevic regime was delivered not by the student activists whose organization the Englers study in detail, but by a miners’ strike. Tahrir Square was preceded by a three-year wave of wildcats, and the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the of the groups that called the demonstrations, was named in commemoration of a 2008 general strike in the state-run textile industry.
Of course there is more to politics than the labor movement, and there are lots of people other than industrial workers who can productively self-organize to confront their oppressors. But the lessons of the revolutionary socialist tradition about the importance of popular self-organization and disruption aimed at challenging on relations of domination in everyday life are widely applicable. The Englers’ understanding of mass movements has no space in it for the creative power of the masses of humanity to directly organize society — is is any wonder their tradition has proved so nonthreatening to the global ruling class?