AUTHORITARIANISM is on the march. The rise of right-wing populism in Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, and now the United States highlights the fragility of democracy. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has propagated anti-immigrant sentiment while cracking down on independent media. Poland’s nationalist party has challenged judicial independence while asserting state control over media. Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to strip civil liberties and employ violent vigilantism to address drug problems. In the U.S., Donald Trump mobilized a largely white base while railing against societal groups, including Muslims and immigrants, to win the election.
Authoritarian figures elected in democratic contexts often ignore constitutions, gut institutions, consolidate power, and snuff out domestic dissent. Dictators are often vindictive; they put themselves above the law and thrive on fear and popular apathy. Their toolkit includes ridiculing and delegitimizing protesters, pitting societal groups against each other, and coopting potential challengers.
But authoritarian figures have an Achilles’ heel. To stay in power, they depend on the obedience and cooperation of ordinary people. If and when large numbers of people from key sectors of society (workers, bureaucrats, students, business leaders, police) stop giving their skills and resources to the ruler, he or she can no longer rule.
Historically, the most powerful antidote to authoritarian figures has been strategic organizing and collective action. That includes civil resistance, employing tactics such as marches, consumer boycotts, labor strikes, go-slow tactics, and demonstrations. In democracies, civil resistance has often been used alongside institutional approaches (elections, legislation, court cases) to defend and advance political and economic rights.
Recent analyses of the Arab Spring have questioned the efficacy of nonviolent resistance compared to armed struggle in ousting authoritarian regimes. The relatively expeditious victories of the nonviolent uprisings (not "revolutions," as some suggest) in Tunisia and Egypt stand in stark contrast to Libya, where a disparate amalgam of armed groups, guided politically by the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) and backed militarily by NATO, are on the verge of removing Moammar Gadhafi from power. As someone who has written extensively about civil resistance, notably in the Middle East, while at the same time working on the Libya portfolio within the State Department, I've been grappling with the meaning and significance of the Libyan revolution and its possible impact on the region.
First of all, like most people, including my State Department colleagues, as well as democrats and freedom fighters around the world, I am delighted that an especially odious and delusional Libyan dictator is getting the boot. I applaud the bravery and determination of the Libyan people, who have endured four decades of a despicable dictatorship and have made great sacrifices to arrive at this point. I hail the extensive planning that my U.S. government colleagues have undertaken over the past five months, in concert with Libyan and international partners, to support a post-Gadhafi transition process.
The forthcoming dedication of the national memorial monument honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., affords an opening for considering the complexity and meaning of his leadership. He was not the tamed and desiccated civil hero as often portrayed in the United States around the time of his birthday, celebrated as a national holiday. He was until the moment of his death raising issues that challenged the conventional wisdom on poverty and racism, but also concerning war and peace.
King was in St. Joseph's Infirmary, Atlanta, for exhaustion and a viral infection when it was reported that he would receive the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. As Gary M. Pomerantz writes in Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, this was the apparent cost exacted by intelligence surveillance efforts and the pressures of learning that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had formally approved wiretaps by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His evolving strength as a leader is revealed in his remarks in Norway that December, which linked the nonviolent struggle of the U.S. civil rights movement to the entire planet's need for disarmament.
Could nonviolent resistance have succeeded in Libya? Here are four points worth considering:
1) The movement was fairly spontaneous, unlike the highly coordinated campaign in Egypt. As Peter Ackerman consistently points out, planning is an essential element to a successful nonviolent revolution. As with any battlefield, a nonviolent campaign requires extensive preparation. But reports seem to indicate that Libyans began protesting in earnest around Feburary 15th, likely inspired by events in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. Gadhafi seemed prepared for this and immediately cracked down using overwhelming violence. By February 19th, the movement had become violent in response to these crackdowns. Four days of civil resistance doesn't give it much time to work. Egyptian pro-democracy activists struggled for years before seeing Mubarak fall. Syrian oppositionists, thousands of whom have been killed by Bashar al-Assad's regime, have toiled along for the past six months. So, we can't really say whether or not nonviolence would have worked in Libya. It never had a chance to materialize in the first place.
photo © 2009 Amanda Slater | more info (via: Wylio)On the first day of this month, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, joined by inmates in other prisons around the state, began a hunger strike to protest "inhumane and torturous conditions" in the Security Housing Unit, which holds inmates in solitary confinement for decades at a time. They're still at it; the state has admitted that as many as 6,600 inmates around the state have participated in the strike. Last week, corrections officials offered the prisoners a proposed deal, which they unanimously rejected.
This comes after a Supreme Court decision in May that ordered California to reduce its prison population, as overcrowding was causing "needless suffering and death."
Part of what's making the standoff worse is the belief that the strike is, in essence, a form of gang activity. For one thing, as Colin Dayan noted in passing in a New York Times op-ed, "How they have managed to communicate with each other is anyone's guess." The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), though, isn't so stumped.
Erica Chenoweth directs Wesleyan University's program on terrorism and insurgency research, which she established in 2008. Her work will be featured in the upcoming May issue of Sojourners magazine. Erica is doing innovative research on the strategic effectiveness of civil resistance and nonviolent revolution. Recently, she wrote a post at Monkey Cage on why traditional "peace and security" academic programs should include nonviolence and civil resistance tactics as part of their programs. "It is time for security studies to take nonviolent conflict seriously," writes Chenoweth, "and to incorporate such episodes and their dynamics into the canonical literature."