One has led a successful non-violent revolution, the other is still trying.

In How To Accumulate (Non-Coercive) Power, Part I, I wrote about how individuals can become more powerful.  In this post I’ll write about how communities can become more powerful (including how communities can escape from the tyrannical, coercive control of oppressors).

A different kind of power grid.

When I write “accumulating power,” I’m referring to non-coercive, non-zero-sum power (which I explained in detail in my earlier post The Four Types of Power).  Non-coercive power allows us to do more; it increases our scope of action.  Coercive power, are on the other hand, is derived from controlling others, either through violence, the threat of violence, or withholding resources necessary for survival (like food or shelter).  I’m not interested in this kind of power — I don’t want to control others.  I would prefer to live in a world in which everyone who is capable of free choice can exercise it.

What does “non-zero-sum” mean?  In this context it means power created out of nothing. Non-zero-sum power can be gained without having to best a competitor. In the non-coercive realm, non-zero-sum power is derived from innovation, exploration, new knowledge and understanding, tweaking systems to make them more efficient, creating public infrastructure that benefits everyone, and so on.  This is the quadrant in which I would like to become more personally powerful (I would like to be smarter, more productive, more energetic, better educated, have access to better infrastructure, on so on).  I’ve dubbed this quadrant “progressive power.”  If civilizations can be said to progress (with quality of life continually improving for the majority of citizens), then this quadrant can be seen as the engine that drives progress.

I’ve discussed the other three quadrants in detail in The Four Types of Power.

Power and Violence

Hannah Arendt distinguished between violence and power.  In her book On Violence, she defines power as the ability not only to act, but to act in concert.  According to this definition, violence can destroy power, but can never create it.  She writes:

“To sum up: politically speaking, it is not sufficient to say that violence and power are not the same.  Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.  Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.”

Hannah Arendt

Arendt’s definition of “power” is narrower than any of mine, but I agree with her point.  If you accumulate and use coercive power, it subverts your own non-coercive power (power derived from persuasion, cooperation, negotiation, charisma, etc.).

Mark Brown, who forwarded me some excerpts from Arendt, has pointed out that various degrees of coercion (control via the threat of violence) are legitimate, such as in the case of police in a democratic state, or self-defense, or defense of state.

I agree with this, but I think that the accumulation and use of non-violent power is more ethical and ultimately, in most cases, more effective.  The key exception, of course, is when dealing with a well-armed sociopath who harbors violent intentions (Hitler, for example).  Historically, we see many cases where coercive power was countered with coercive power, and the world is probably better for it.

Noting this exception, there is a still a mental trap we should seek to avoid.  It’s the trap of thinking “that’s the only way it could have happened.”  The U.S. Civil War resulted in an end to legal slavery, therefore the Civil War was necessary to end legal slavery.  I prefer to believe that reality is non-deterministic, and that to some extent human beings possess a modicum of free will.  If that’s true — if we do make choices that influence reality — then we must conclude that history could have happened differently.


For example, many historians persuasively argue that WWII victory in the Pacific could have been achieved without the nuclear incineration of hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians.  There’s no way of knowing for sure, but ethically, we should at least consider the possibility.

Why is this idea important?  If we believe that the past could have played out differently, then we may be more willing to engage with the present to influence the future.  We’ll be more willing to entertain the idea that we can create power and real wealth for ourselves and for our communities without taking that wealth and power from others, and that we can resist oppression and defend ourselves without massive bloodshed.

Lakshmibai, a leader of the 1857 rebellion against the British.

There are many examples we can look to.  Mahatma Gandhi led the Indian independence movement via techniques of non-cooperation, civil disobedience, and nonviolent protest (in contrast to the first, incredibly bloody 1857 Indian revolt against British colonial rule).  Martin Luther King led the U.S. civil rights movement using techniques inspired by Gandhi.  Nelson Mandela shepherded in South Africa’s post-apartheid era in a largely peaceful manner, gaining international support to both shame (via the media) and financially pressure (via boycotts of corporations) the government.

Other communities and nations have risen to power using more brutal techniques.  While the United States has gained from innovation and democracy, our wealth and power also rides on the backs of Native Americans, African slaves, Asian factory workers, and immigrant labor.  England, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, France, and The Netherlands carved out vast colonial empires, stealing resources and labor from communities with less military might.

If your community lacks power, how do you become more powerful?  If you use violence to gain power, what are the long-term social, psychological, and economic effects of taking that path?  What are the alternatives to violent revolution and violent conquest?

Voting in Sudan.

These questions come into focus with the events of this week.  What will happen in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular uprising have already resulted in some degree of regime change?  What will happen in South Sudan, which has just overwhelming voted to secede?

Zooming out, what can the Palestinians do about their situation?  They are oppressed by a group who has been hardened by brutal oppression, and near-genocide, within their own recent history.

Other groups possess partial rights (like gays in the U.S., who in most states can’t legally marry), or possess full rights but still fail to thrive (like young black males in the U.S. — more than 10% are currently in prison or jail).  What can these groups do to become more powerful?

I’m interested in how some communities have managed to either 1) escape or throw off oppressor, without the use of violence, or 2) bootstrap themselves from impoverishment and irrelevance into wealth and power, without the use of coercion.

The Ethics Approach

There are two ways of looking at the question “How do we help the powerless?”.

Firstly, we can take the ethics approach.  What is the right thing to do?  This approach is appropriate for groups that truly can’t fend for themselves.  We should treat the mentally disabled, the mentally ill, the infirm elderly, and children ethically.  We should tax ourselves so that they are protected and provided for, without exception.

Marvin Brown, author of Civlizing The Economy.

In Marvin Brown’s recent book, Civilizing the Economy, he outlines a new way of thinking about the economy; one based on provision.  How can we construct an economic system where the priority is providing for one another as opposed to resource exploitation and profit.

The alternative is a reality where the mentally ill become homeless, some elderly people need to choose between medication and food, and many children go to bed hungry.  Unfortunately this is reality in most of the world.

The exceptions are generally wealthy nations that have chosen social democracy as a method of governance.  These countries have somehow figured out that you don’t have to choose between a strong social safety net and a thriving economy that supports high standards of living.  While these countries pay high taxes and wield less military might, the end result seems to be high levels of happiness among their citizens.  Could this be related to the fact that all children in these countries are well nourished, and grandparents aren’t being tossed onto the street if they can’t pay the rent?

When we resort to ideas about “destiny” in our consideration of history (including but not limited to “Manifest Destiny“), we avoid the ethical.  Marvin Brown’s recent post 10 ways to avoid the ethical expands on this idea.

The Empowerment Approach

Sometimes, if you are a member of an oppressed group or community, it isn’t convenient or desirable to wait around for your oppressors to become enlightened (and act ethically).

Of course everyone should act ethically, but of course we don’t.  The reasons for this are:

One of history's many notable sociopathic tyrants.

1) Sociopaths (people with no conscience) do in fact exist.  They may act ethically anyway (out of a desire to conform or appear normal), but they won’t feel compelled by empathy to do so.

2) Otherwise good people rationalize ways to avoid ethical decisions (again see 10 ways to avoid the ethical).

3) Certain legal structures (like the legal requirement for U.S. corporations to put shareholder returns above all other concerns, including ethical ones) result in the normalization and social acceptability of oppression.

4) Oppressive, coercive actions taken by individuals and corporations are often successfully concealed from the general public, who are thus made complicit (like in the case of human rights abuses by oil companies).

5) Acting ethically is often inconvenient, more expensive, and requires extra energy.  It’s easier not to rock the boat and to accept the status quo.

6) Oppressive structures are sometimes complex and difficult to understand.  While legally every non-white citizen has the same rights as every white citizen, non-whites are still up against institutional racism.

The alternative for waiting around for everyone to treat you fairly is to create your own power. Sometimes this involves throwing off an oppressor, at other times it simply means creating new wealth and “bootstrapping” your community.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the former case.

So how does a group or community throw off its oppressor and become more powerful?

Creating Non-Coercive Power — Preparation

Protestors in Iran.

Sometimes revolution and resistance appear to be spontaneous, as is the case in Egypt right now.  When the oppressive regime is weak and corrupt, spontaneous uprising may be enough to overthrow those in power.  Mubarak appears not to have the support of his own military — his position is precarious.

Recent spontaneous uprisings in Iran, on the other hand, were met with swift and brutal military retaliation.  In most cases, a resistance movement needs to prepare carefully before taking action.  But how?

Preparation I: Learn the language, culture, and thinking habits of your oppressor.

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “The goal is not to defeat or humiliate the opponent but rather to win him or her over to understanding new ways to create cooperation and community.”

In order to do this, the oppressed must learn how to communicate and empathize with the oppressor.  This may seem unfair, and the task itself may be repugnant, but it’s necessary.

There will usually be individuals at the core of any repressive regime who are heartless, cruel, and lack empathy.  People like this are generally impossible to communicate with.  Not everyone is “reachable.”

Edit: Gandhi’s two letters to Hitler (addressing him as “my friend”) illustrate this point.  Gandhi’s olive branch seems naive and silly, in hindsight.  Hitler was a crazed sociopath and was in no way “reachable” through appeals to reason, compassion, or justice.  But Gandhi can be forgiven — we don’t get to know who is a sociopath ahead of time.

The board of directors isn't hard to manipulate.

However, power is always distributed.  A corporation’s power is distributed among its executive officers and its board of directors, but also among every single employee, every single shareholder, and every single customer. A government’s power is distributed among every office and cabinet holder, every state employee, and every single military officer and soldier.  If the government is a functioning democracy, every single voter and taxpayer also has significant power.  These people generally will be reachable, and can be recruited to support the cause of the oppressed.

Imagine you are a member of a village in Ecuador, Nigeria, or another oil-rich country.  A foreign oil company has secured rights to extract oil from land near your village, and ponds of toxic sludge are making your family sick.

Can the first step in empowering your community really be to learn how the oil company thinks?

Some non-hypothetical toxic oil sludge in Ecuador, courtesy of Chevron.

It is.  To understand the decision-making calculus of the corporation responsible for the environmental holocaust is an essential part of the battle.  In short, if it become more expensive for the corporation to operate irresponsibly, it will clean up its act.  Public corporations “think” only in money.  They are essentially weak-willed entities, with no moral framework whatsoever.  While many public corporations are enormously rich and powerful, they are also easy to manipulate.  Anything that threatens their revenue stream can be used as leverage.  Corporations fear government regulation, the press, public outrage, being sued, and all manner of things that might effect the health of the bottom line.

Not every oppressor can be so easily deciphered and manipulated.  Gandhi was up against a tougher opponent when he sought independence for India from the British Crown.  The British Empire believed itself to have the moral high ground. The Dalai Lama is up against a similar problem as he seeks independence for Tibet from China.  In cases like these, understanding the psychology of the oppressor is even more important.

Preparation II: Develop Secure Communication Channels

The ability to maintain the privacy of communications with other members of your community is just as important in cases of nonviolent resistance is it is during war.  U.S. slaves used songs to communicate secretly while organizing the Underground Railroad.  Modern human rights groups frequently encrypt communications to protect against government and police surveillance.

An early anti-encryption device, the US Navy's "Cryptanalytic Bombe" (used to decipher the rotor settings of the German ENIGMA machine)

For a community to resist an oppressor, it must be able to communicate secretly.  Deception, in this case, becomes the righteous prerogative of the oppressed.  While truth-telling is an appropriate moral standard for interpersonal relationships based on trust, the opposite is true for a disempowered community living under coercive rule.  When organizing resistance to tyrannical rule, secrecy and deception are not unethical.

This is not to say that a resistance movement couldn’t be effective using radical transparency.  This term is usually reserved for business management, but it could also be applied to a resistance movement that chose to operate without any secrecy whatsoever.  However not even the Dalai Lama is willing to go this route; in March of last year he hired a Canadian firm to search for and remove malware from his office’s computer systems.  They uncovered Chinese spyware — the Chinese government had been reading His Holiness’s emails for months.

Preparation III: Select Clear Goals and Determine Strategy

The present uprising in Egypt has a clear goal; persuade Mubarak to step down and leave Egypt.

From the outside, it’s unclear if there is a coherent strategy being executed by the leaders of the revolutionary movement.  The situation is opaque. 

Mubarak, on the other hand, clearly does have a counter-revolutionary strategy.  He has assembled a paid force of “pro-Mubarak demonstrators” to infuriate the protesters and draw them into violent conflict.  The media reports “violent clashes” and the revolution loses its moral high-ground and non-violent mandate.

This is clever on the part of Mubarak, and points to a lack of planning and preparation on the part of the protesters.  A strategy of strict non-engagement would have served the revolutionary movement much better.  Many international onlookers may take the “clashes” as evidence that the Egyptian public is split in its support of Mubarak, when in fact the vast majority is in favor of Mubarak stepping down.

We’ll see what happens.  Hopefully the peaceful protests will continue, and Mubarak will succumb to pressure.

Edit 2-4-11: A strategy of strict non-engagement seems to have emerged (or it may have been there all the time).  Go Egypt.

Gandhi’s noncooperation strategy proved to be brilliant.  As this essay postulates, Gandhi invented a “third alternative” in the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma game-theory problem.

The sentiment, but what is the strategy?

MLK’s strategy of encouraging segregated lunch counter “sit-ins” was ingenious.  It highlighted the distinction between legality and morality (it was moral, but not legal, for the protesters to ignore segregation rules).

To take to the streets without a clear strategy is a risky proposition.  Venting anger is not a strategy.

In Part III of this post:

  • Creating (Non-Coercive) Power — Taking Action
  • Creating (Non-Coercive) Power — Reconstruction
  • The Special Case of Julian Assange