Thursday, August 2, 2012

Nonviolence and Democracy

Apparently, nonviolence and democracy are strongly connected. In fact, nonviolent resistance campaigns are much more likely than violent ones to pave the way for “democratic regimes” (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 10). Even failed nonviolent campaigns are more likely than successful violent revolutions to establish something democratic (ibid, p. 202). Nonviolent campaigns are often successful because they elicit diverse mass participation (ibid, pp. 30, 61), an obvious condition for democratic governance. This is certainly evident in the Muslim Pashtun movement and nonviolent army (Raqib, 2009, pp. 109, 113), popular committees during the first Palestinian intifada (Stephan, 2009, p. 315), Golani Druze resistance against Israeli identity cards (Kennedy, 1990, p. 197), and Norwegian teachers and churches, as well as Dutch railway workers, against the Nazis (Schwarcz, 1990, pp. 185, 187).

But what in the world is democracy? The term resides in a restless spectrum, so perhaps the adjective democratic should be employed more than the noun. Even so, most conversations about democracy decline to define it. At the end of their book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan eventually explain democracy as a national institution in which leaders are voted for through competitive elections, citizens have enforceable civil liberties, and government is divided into checks and balances (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 203). This emphasis on checks, balances, and competitive elections might suggest why capitalism has followed democracy everywhere like Mary’s little lamb.

And this emphasis is one of the West’s greatest assembly-lined exports. Anthropologist David Graeber quips that the West certainly didn’t invent democracy, but they did spend “several hundred years invading and spreading democracy to people who were practicing democracy for thousands of years and were told to cut it out” (Graeber, 2004, p. 93). Because of this, defining democracy in many places leads to enraged debates because the word is associated with imperial models and with economic liberalization (VeneKlassen & Miller, 2007, p. 27).

Chenoweth and Stephan recognize that their definition falls under the category of liberal democracy (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 203), which is only one among many forms (VeneKlassen & Miller, 2007, p. 29). They further note that modernization theory assumes that democracy is only possible within liberal political societies (ibid, p. 203). Defining democracy this way smells suspiciously like Eurocentrism, especially because equating democracy with voting is a recent historical classification. Consensus decision-making was the necessary norm in many societies without an apparatus to enforce majoritarian decisions, but indigenous village councils aren’t often considered democratic because they don’t vote (Graeber, 2004, p. 88). The nonviolent egalitarian society of the Buid (Braun, 1990, pp. 182-184) and the consensus decision-making of the Druze (Kennedy, 1990, p. 201) trouble the notion that democracy, and nonviolence, is only found within modern liberalism.

Even so, liberal state democracy is usually presented as a social contract that prevents widespread violence. However, many historians now claim that state-making originated, not to protect people from violence, but to organize for the purpose of war (Cavanaugh, 2004, p. 250). European peasants staged major popular rebellions, causing some of the most tumultuous periods in European history, during the infancy of the nation-state when royal leaders consolidated power through uniform language, currency, and taxes over huge territories (ibid, pp. 248-249). State-making is historically a form of violence.

The transition method often predicts the outcome of the new state regime (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 204), but even democratic regimes are hard for “we the people” to handle, as is currently obvious in the United States. Chenoweth and Stephan argue that citizens’ circumventing normal political avenues highlights democratic weakness (ibid, p. 211), but it might instead expose some level of incompatibility between nonviolence and nation-states. The two don’t seem to go together easily. After all, a strong connection exists in resistance movements between hierarchy and violence (ibid, p. 35), which are the structure and function of the modern nation-state. Surely a representative democracy is theoretically better than a totalitarian dictatorship, or even a liberal democracy over an illiberal one. And perhaps a regime could be democratic, but is that the best we can imagine, or even witness, in the world?

The emphasis on liberalism and voting highlights a discrepancy between Chenoweth and Stephan’s definition and many movements that become democracies. Active participation in social movements increases the post-transition prospects for engaged citizenry, but interestingly popular disillusionment with government often follows nonviolent transitions (ibid, p. 207). This could be because the road to accountable governments is long (VeneKlassen & Miller, 2007, p. 25), but it could also be the inevitable result of replacing horizontal participatory movements with procedural systems of checks and balances, especially when the former seem marked by creativity and the latter by constraint. So why move from decentralized networks of direct democratic engagement to institutionalized modes of hierarchical democracies? Unfortunately, people often treat the former as an interim phase until the latter is achieved, but then after the new regime takes the reigns they longingly remember the good days of resistance. Quality of engagement is just as important as quantity (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, pp. 30, 39), but after the quality dilutes, the quantity dwindles.

Gene Sharp acknowledges that while nonviolent action is usually extra-constitutional because it doesn’t rely on established institutional procedures, he believes it could be incorporated into statist systems (Sharp, 1990, p. 149). Therefore, he argues, nonviolent action shouldn’t be confused with anarchism (which is indirectly what we’ve been discussing) because the latter hasn’t adequately thought about practically achieving their envisioned society, much less realistic means for social struggle that are substantially different from the state (ibid, p. 149). In a recent interview, Erica Chenoweth seems to agree with Sharp when she critiques nonviolent action’s over-reliance on inefficient leaderless movements. Both fine scholars do not appear to have encountered much of the long history of anarchist praxis and seem unaware of extensive anthropological research on anarchistic societies (Graeber, 2004, pp. 13, 39). And both, at least Chenoweth, make a mistake in equating leadership with hierarchy. Leadership could be hetrarchical, which implies distinction without rank, evident in Palestinian popular committees or Druze consensus processes.

Interestingly, despite Sharp’s and Chenoweth’s concerns, nonviolent social movements emphasize “civic organization and decentralized power,” which are the “bedrock of democratic development” (Stephan, 2009, pp. 314-315). So why not continue the popular committees? Local Palestinian communities organized village-level popular committees all across the West Bank (ibid, p. 315). From neighborhoods to regions, committees formed around education, medical-relief, agriculture, business, and social reform (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 124). These autonomous structures overcame social divisions by encouraging deep participation (ibid, p. 138). All of this sharply contrasts with the Palestinian Authority that followed the partially successful movement (Stephan, 2009, p. 315). In Pakistan, the Khudai Khidmatgar strove to reform not only political life but also social and economic life (Raqib, 2009, p. 109). Members cooperatively shared work to realize the goal of the country’s economic self-sufficiency from colonial power (ibid, p. 110).
Of course, alternative institutions should not be content to only carve out enclaves within the current order, but should also challenge it, as Palestinians and Pashtuns did, because the top-level Metonyms don’t voluntarily modify. Instead, the point of anarchism is direct democracy by building a new society in the shell of the old. Perhaps nonviolent social movements should view themselves as the harbinger of the impossible becoming possible.


Braun, S. (1990). Jungle nonviolence. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 181-184). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Cavanaugh, W. (2004). Killing for the telephone company: Why the nation-state is not the keeper of the common good. Modern Theology, 20, 243-274.

Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Kennedy, R. S. (1990). The Druze of the Golan: A case of nonviolent resistance. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 193-203). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Raqib, M. (2009). The Muslim Pashtun movement of the north-west frontier of India, 1930-1934. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 107-118). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schwarcz, E. (1990). Nonviolent resistance against the Nazis in Norway and Holland during World War II. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 184-187). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Stephan, M. J. (2009). Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

VeneKlassen, L. & Miller, V. (2007). A new weave of power, people, and politics: The action guide for advocacy and citizen participation. Bourton on Dunsmore: Practical Action Publishing.

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