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Melt the Guns

news2Study reveals the growing success of nonviolent techniques for political change

When it comes to making positive social change, nonviolence works better than violence—particularly when the objective is to overthrow a regime or liberate a territory. That’s a finding revealed by Dr. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan in their book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. It comes from a scientific study that looked at 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, with at least 1,000 people participating.

“It turns out that the nonviolent campaigns were twice as likely to succeed, and that the effectiveness gap was growing over time so that nonviolent campaigns are actually becoming more effective, and violent insurgencies are becoming less effective,” explains Chenoweth, who will be the featured speaker at this year’s annual dinner for the Resource Center for Nonviolence on Friday, Oct. 24 at Peace United Church on High Street. The evening begins at 5 p.m. with a silent auction and includes a gourmet vegetarian dinner at 6 p.m.  A presentation by Dr. Chenoweth titled “Nonviolence is Participatory” begins at 7 p.m. Reservations for the dinner/program ($40-$100 sliding) and program only ($8-$25) can be made at 423-1626 or [email protected]

Stephen Zunes, Santa Cruz resident and author of numerous books and articles on nonviolence, told GT, “Erica Chenoweth was skeptical of those of us who argued that nonviolent resistance was more effective than armed struggle. So she set out to test it. What she learned surprised her. As a result, she has given nonviolent action unprecedented attention and credibility in the academic community and beyond.” GT spoke with Dr. Chenoweth about her findings.

The opening quote in your book is from Malcolm X: “Nonviolence is fine as long as it works.” What are the main factors that contribute to a nonviolent campaign being successful?

Erica Chenoweth: The most important aspect is the size of participation. A very large group of people can cause real economic disruption by shutting down urban areas. Diversity of participants provides crucial avenues to influence the opponent’s pillars of support. “Pillars of support” refers to institutions, or people within them, that power holders rely upon to maintain order. These are security forces, civilian bureaucrats, media, business and economic elites and religious or cultural authorities.

Loyalty shifts are also important. A great example is found in the Serbian revolution that overthrew Milosevic in 2000. There was a crucial turning point where hundreds of thousands of people were descending on Belgrade to protest voter fraud, and there was an order given to the police to shoot live ammunition into the crowd. They disobeyed the order. When police were asked why they didn’t shoot one of them answered, “I thought my kids would be in the crowd.”

You write that, “Violent insurgencies did succeed about 25 percent of the time, but that is a much lower rate than the nonviolent conflicts.” What was the success rate for nonviolent movements?

About 52 percent. That’s conditioned on the campaign already having developed a base of participation of at least 1,000.

A common belief is that nonviolence is chosen by wealthy people in democracies, whereas those living in poverty in repressive societies choose armed resistance, often as a last resort.

Poverty is definitely correlated with the onset of violent campaigns. But we found that there is not a significant relationship between the wealth of a country, or inequality within a country, and the onset of a nonviolent campaign. Nonviolence seems to be a near-universal technique of making political change. There is no systematic pattern that would support the claim that nonviolence is only chosen by privileged people around the world.

Less than 2 percent of the violent insurgencies during that time period (1900–2006) used civil resistance in a coordinated way for longer than a year before they turned to violence. That’s important because the average civil resistance campaign takes about three years to generate the power shift that’s required. Most violent movements jump the gun; they don’t do civil resistance long enough to see the political effects.

Your study shows that nonviolence is more successful in authoritarian regimes than democratic societies. Why?

This is because protest is the number one tactic that movements use, but protest is so normal in democracies that it barely gets noticed. The second thing is that in democracies a lot of energy gets funneled into electoral politics. In a way it’s faith in our institutions that can be difficult for movements to overcome. Also, in democracies people generally side with the polic,e whereas in authoritarian regimes everyone hates the police. In the United States, mistrust of the police is a reality for a very good proportion, but it’s not yet for the majority, so it’s difficult to capitalize on moments where, in an authoritarian regime, it would be obvious that everybody was on the same page about mistrusting the police.

What might Palestinians glean from your study?

The closest analog to the Palestinian case is East Timor. They’re trying to become an independent country under conditions of military occupation and isolation from the international community. The movement (in the ’80s and ’90s in East Timor) realized that they were not going to have leverage over the Indonesian occupation. So they sought out human rights allies in Indonesian universities and developed a huge student network that resulted in a transnational network that lobbied the U.S. Congress and others to stop supporting the Indonesian occupation. They were very successful.


John Malkin is a local writer and artist. Hear the full interview with Dr. Erica Chenoweth at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 15, on Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.3 FM, and freakradio.org. PHOTO: Dr. Erica Chenoweth will speak about nonviolence resistance at the annual dinner for the Resource Center for Nonviolence, on Friday, Oct. 24, at Peace United Church.

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