J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

How To Accumulate (Non-Coercive) Power, Part III

Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and civilly disobedient bus rider Rosa Parks.

This post is a continuation of How To Accumulate (Non-Coercive) Power, Part II, in which I started to chip away at the non-trivial problem of how disempowered communities can regain power.

Certainly this qualifies as An Extremely Difficult Problem … in this case I’m taking the empirical approach.  What has worked in the past?  We can look to the specifics of Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution, MLK’s civil rights movement strategies, Nelson Mandela’s leadership in the anti-apartheid movement, how Cesar Chavez organized U.S. farm workers, and other examples of communities regaining power without the use of violence or other coercive tactics.  Are there generalities that apply to all of these cases?

I think there are.  We can look at the process of a community taking back power in three stages:  Preparation, Action, and Regeneration.  I covered Preparation in How To Accumulate (Non-Coercive) Power, Part II.

Creating Non-Coercive Power — Action

Any direct action taken to gain power for a community will be more effective if the instigators have thoroughly prepared.  To quickly review, preparation can include:

  1. Learning the language, culture, and thinking style of the oppressor
  2. Developing secure communication channels
  3. Determining clear goals and strategies

So what strategies, exactly, have historically proven to be most effective, while spilling the least amount of blood?

Action I: Shame the Oppressor

Egyptian protester.

Taking to the streets works.  Personally, I think protesting feels awkward.  Walking around with a sign yelling slogans lacks nuance — I generally hate the crowd mentality.  But protests are most effective when nuance isn’t required. When protesters hold the moral high-ground, a simple message is conveyed to all those within earshot: this situation is unfair.

For example:

Egypt: Democracy is better than coercive rule by a corrupt dictator.

U.S. Civil Rights movement: All people should have equal rights under the law.

United Farm Workers: Farm workers should receive fair wages and reasonable working conditions.

The effectiveness of a protest is also directly correlated with its size, as well as with its peacefulness.  Violent protest allows the intellectually lazy onlooker to discount the validity of the message; obviously this protest is just a bunch of uneducated thugs who are rioting. Non-violent protest forces the onlooker to at least consider the message.  A very large protest will also disrupt the habitual thinking of the onlooker — a message can no longer be considered fringe if hundreds of thousands of people are physically and mentally behind it.

While the power elite may remain unmoved by the message and sentiment of the protesters, those that support the power elite will include at least some people of conscience.  In a functioning democracy, the sentiment of the voter matters a great deal to the power elite.  But even in a dictatorship, sentiment matters.  Soldiers and police may resist or disobey orders to attack protesters, thus neutering the power of an oppressive state.

Protest is essentially an appeal to conscience.  Most people will want to be on the right side of history.  The successful protest disrupts the status quo and forces each citizen to individually grapple with the moral question being presented by the protesters.  Extreme acts of protest, like self-immolation, can powerfully sway opinion and mobilize people to actively support a cause.

It doesn’t matter if those who hold the most coercive power are devoid of conscience.  Most of those who support the elite will still be affected by the message.

Injured protester in London.

Even if a demonstration is well-organized, police and military (who may fear for their livelihoods, and even their lives, if they disobey) may be ordered to quell the protest, and disperse it via coercive means.  Nonviolent protest doesn’t protect the protester against bloodshed.  And eventually, even if unimpeded, protesters will get tired and return to normal daily life.  Protests alone, even massive nonviolent ones, are rarely enough to effect permanent change. Edit: As of yesterday, Egypt excepted.

What else can be done?

Action II: Disrupt Revenue Streams

Nothing else will demand the immediate attention of an oppressive state or corporate entity faster than negative cash flow.  Public corporations are especially sensitive to even the smallest revenue disruptions; shareholders pay attention to little else.

The four options in this arena are strike, boycott, bad PR, and sabotage.

Sabotage is the most extreme method.  Sabotage that threatens life, like tree-spiking, is never justified (even though the actual number of injuries caused by tree-spiking is very low).  But sabotage isn’t always violent.  It can be as simple as workers dragging their heels if forced to work for low wages or under inhumane conditions.  During the French railroad strike of 1910, workers were forcibly drafted back to work.  Suddenly, perishable goods were sidetracked on slow trains, trains were sent in the wrong directions, and nobody could seem to do anything right.  (The word sabotage entered the English lexicon around the time of this strike, though its exact origin is debated.)

Sabotage can backfire.

Boycott is most effective when fighting a corporate foe that is dependent on retail sales (it is less effective when trying to gain concessions from a materials supplier, like a mining company).  It can also be used against a government, as in the case of the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Black bus riders put such incredible financial pressure on the Montgomery city budget.  Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Rosa Parks, and bus systems were forced to desegregate.

The 1965 California grape boycott successfully pressured the DiGiorgio Corporation into allowing workers to freely unionize.

The Indian Swadeshi (self-sufficiency) movement included a broad boycott of British goods, and was an important part of Gandhi’s strategy to throw out the Brits.

Publishing this kind of crap hurt car sales.

U.S. Jews boycotted Ford motorcars in response to Henry Ford Sr.’s racist, anti-Semitic smear campaign regarding a “Jewish Conspiracy” to take over the world (Ford was responsible for the U.S. publication of the fictional/forged The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).  Ford was forced to apologize in 1927.

In the mid-to-late 1980’s, the South Africa divestment campaign reached critical mass in the U.S. and other nations.  This put a tremendous amount of financial pressure on the South African government (and people).  There were many factors that led to the end of apartheid, including the savvy leadership of Nelson Mandela, but this was a big one.  International divestment crushed the previously exuberant growth of the South African economy.

How else can revenue be disrupted?  Worker strikes can be effective, but they punish the worker just as they punish the oppressive employer.  Some strikes, like railroad strikes, also punish innocents like commuters and businesses that receive supplies via transit.  This has the effect of immediately getting everyone’s attention; in these cases the striking worker had better have a good reason for striking, or the public may side against them.

Take that, labor movement!

A strike makes workers vulnerable for a number of reasons, as was demonstrated in 1981 during the air traffic controller’s strike.  President Reagan played hardball and fired over 11,000 government workers, as well as banning them from federal service for life (Clinton rescinded the ban in 1993).

A sophisticated, well-orchestrated negative public relations campaign is an effective way to disrupt revenue (or, even more effectively, generate fear of disrupted revenue).  Michael Moore is a master of this technique, and has used it to fight unfair practices used by U.S. health insurance companies.  It’s amazing how quickly some companies will change their practices when they get a little bad press.

Not every PR attack on a corporation is a righteous crusade for justice on behalf of the oppressed.  Some are just harassment, as in the recent case of the attacks on Taco Bell.  Yes, the “meat” is gross, but nobody is forcing anybody to eat at Taco Bell.

Moore takes on healthcare industry profiteers in Sicko.

Unlike fast-food consumers, U.S. citizens who have to buy their own health insurance from an anti-competitive industry really are an oppressed group.  We pay outrageous premiums to for-profit companies, and receive the minimum possible care at the maximum possible price.  I call this kind of coverage “fake insurance” because you think you’re insured until you actually have a claim.  Thanks both to Michael Moore and President Obama, things are looking up a bit in this area.  Bad PR led to real legislation.

Action III: Sue

Some corporations operate irresponsibly, raping the environment, abusing workers, and deceiving consumers.  The site Public Eye has a good list going — nominees for bad corporate behavior include BP, Neste Oil, AngloGold, Foxconn, and Philip Morris.  These companies happily put profit above public health, environmental stewardship, worker safety, and everything else.  And they’re brutal about it.

Some of these companies don’t give a shit what the public thinks — it doesn’t affect their profits.  If their workers complain or strike, they’ll just hire new ones from a cheap, desperate labor pool.  They protect against sabotage with spies, paid informants, ironclad security protocols, and guns.

The same thing goes for many governments, including the U.S. government in some cases.  Just one example is the way the U.S. Army treats vets with PTSD (they are often shamed and dishonorably discharged).

How do you fight such a powerful, brutal, seemingly invulnerable oppressor?

You take them to court.

Oppressive states don’t always have corrupt legal systems.  For the most part, the separation of powers system works brilliantly.  Oppressed groups can use this feature of non-dictatorial governments to their advantage.

When individuals without conscience are directing the actions of a corporation or government, or when individuals with conscience collectively fail to act ethically (either due to a contaminated culture, or inertia, or communication breakdowns, or other factors), then they are bound to violate both the letter and the spirit of many laws, either intentionally (as a profit-making strategy) or due to incompetence.

BP oil burn-off in the Gulf of Mexico.

This is the case with the recent BP oil spill.  Activists, municipalities, and all manner of injured citizens are now suing British Petroleum for violations of safety regulations.  It’s too soon to say in this case if the lawsuits will lead to any real reform in BP’s corporate culture, but they will certainly sting financially.  If they sting enough, BP execs will reallocate funds dedicated to dealing with lawsuits to budget line items that actually improve safety.  It will be a dispassionate, bottom-line driven decision, but it will result in better worker safety and better environmental conditions.

There is a “fast and loose” aspect to many corporate cultures, driven by arrogance, high profits, and often drugs and alcohol.  This was recently demonstrated by the creative approach used by oil companies to manipulate decisions made by the U.S. government Denver Minerals Management Service (responsible for selling mineral acquisition rights).  How did oil companies get their way?  Sex and cocaine.

Big corporations often consider themselves above the law.  They’ll skirt inconvenient laws and regulations with loopholes when possible, and just break them if not.  Courts don’t always appreciate this attitude, and a persistent, well-organized group of activists can sometimes take down a Goliath with a series of well-placed lawsuits.

Lawsuits can take a decade or more and end in failure, as was the case with this suit against Chevron filed by a group of Nigerians.  Protesters were murdered and villages were attacked by para-military thugs allegedly hired by Chevron, but Chevron was cleared of all charges.  On the other hand, Chevron was dinged for a quarter billion in 2003 for violating the U.S. Clean Air Act.  Your case has a better chance if it has a powerful entity (like the U.S. government) behind it.

The Special Case of Julian Assange

Nonviolent action does not equal lack of force.  Nonviolent revolution is not the same as asking nicely.  Extreme persuasion in necessary.  An oppressor will likely cling to power until their fingers are pried off, one by one.

Julian Assange at a press conference.

Let’s consider Julian Assange, and his organization Wikileaks.  I don’t consider Assange to a be a saint.  In fact, he may be an egomaniacal info-opportunist with a penchant for sneakily slipping it in without a rubber while his lovers sleep.  But if we zoom out from these possible personal failures, Assange and Wikileaks are fighting the good fight, empowering the underdog and the average citizen at the expense of governments and corporations who are breaking laws, using coercive control methods, murdering civilians, and generally acting rotten.

Do corporations and governments have a right to protect their own privacy?  Of course they do.  But if they fail at protecting their own privacy (letting their employees wander off with loaded USB drives, using “password” as their password, transmitting unencrypted data over public wireless networks, etc.), then journalists also have a (First Amendment) right to report that information.

The fact is, if your organization does heinous things, it will be harder to keep those actions secret.  People of conscience will want to report you.  Hello Abu Ghraib.

On the other hand, if all the employees of a company have an ownership share, and protecting company secrets will make them richer, that business will have an easier time maintaining data-privacy.

Assange and Wikileaks provide a service to citizens and activists.  They help level the playing field.  I support Assange, and I’m guessing the shaky Swedish rape charges against him would not exist were it not for his notoriety in other areas.

Edit 2017: I no longer feel anything but loathing for Assange after he aligned himself with Russia against the United States, and to some extent with the Alt-Right hate movement within the U.S.

Messy, Slow, and Uncertain

Throwing off an oppressor is a slow, difficult, painful process, and it’s only the beginning, for a community, of regaining power.  Real power and real wealth come from organization, cooperation, infrastructure, and innovation.  Rebelling against an oppressor doesn’t create those things, it merely allows for the possibility of gaining wealth and power in the future.

Rebellion will invariably result in temporary disorganization (which may or may not manifest as chaos and strife).  An autocratic state may be replaced by a lawless state dominated by feuding warlords (as in Somalia), or interminable military rule (Libya, North Korea).  There is no guarantee that throwing out the oppressor will benefit the majority of the people.  Zimbabwe, for example, has really botched things up — by seizing farms from white farmers (who may have unfairly inherited the land from their colonial ancestors, but nonetheless knew how to get food out of the land) the Zimbabwean government has destroyed its own food supply.

How does a community successfully rebuild, and create real wealth and fair governance, after throwing off an oppressor?  How does a community own its power and construct a new self-identity (one that is no longer based on a victim mentality)?  In Part IV of this post I’ll discuss my ideas about Regeneration — how an oppressed group or community can reconstruct identity and economic viability after concessions are gained.

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  1. They did it!

    I wonder if this would have happened in Iraq if we hadn’t invaded?

  2. I did not know about Gene Sharp until today. I came up with three forms of nonviolent action. He came up with 198.


  3. Where is the regeneration part? I am interested.

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