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Confronting the Myth of the Rational Insurgent (6 mistaken conventional beliefs)

affinis's picture
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Slides from an interesting presentation by Erica Chenoweth - six mistaken conventional beliefs about violent insurgency.
(A note to avoid confusion - "radical flank" in slide 10 actually means violent flank; all campaigns examined were maximalist/radical in seeking overthrow of the existing government).

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Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

From a paper [PDF] by Stephan and Cheonoweth:

Our findings show that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns. There are two reasons for this success. First, a campaign’s commitment to nonviolent methods enhances its domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance, which translates into increased pressure being brought to bear on the target. Recognition of the challenge group’s grievances can translate into greater internal and external support for that group and alienation of the target regime, undermining the regime’s main sources of political, economic, and even military power.

Second, whereas governments easily justify violent counterattacks against armed insurgents, regime violence against nonviolent movements is more likely to backfire against the regime. Potentially sympathetic publics perceive violent militants as having maximalist or extremist goals beyond accommodation, but they perceive nonviolent resistance groups as less extreme, thereby enhancing their appeal and facilitating the extraction of concessions through bargaining.

Our findings challenge the conventional wisdom that violent resistance against conventionally superior adversaries is the most effective way for resistance groups to achieve policy goals. Instead, we assert that nonviolent resistance is a forceful alternative to political violence that can pose effective challenges to democratic and nondemocratic opponents, and at times can do so more effectively than violent resistance.

Our case studies also suggest that violent and nonviolent campaigns that fail to achieve widespread, cross-cutting, and decentralized mobilization are unlikely to compel defection [from the regime or from security forces] or evoke international sanctions in the first place. Broad-based campaigns are more likely to call into question the legitimacy of the opponent. The political costs of repressing one or two dozen activists, easily labeled “extremists,” are much lower than repressing hundreds or thousands of activists who represent the entire population.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

The straw man:

The people who piss me the off are the folks who insist that non-violence works everywhere and at all times and that violence never works. This is not supported by the record.

I’m not sure who those “folks” are or if such people even exist. Chenoweth and Stefan say that nonviolent methods work twice as often as violent ones (53 percent versus 26 percent), not that “non-violence works everywhere and at all times and that violence never works.”

Ian seems to be conflating nonviolent resistance and pacifism, for one thing. Here's Chenoweth (from that Foreign Policy article that Alcuin cites):

“Nonviolent Resistance and Pacifism Are the Same Thing.”

Not at all. When people hear the word "nonviolent," they often think of "peaceful" or "passive" resistance. For some, the word brings to mind pacifist groups or individuals, like Buddhist monks in Burma, who may prefer death to using violence to defend themselves against injustice. As such, they conflate "nonviolent" or "civil resistance" with the doctrine of "nonviolence" or "pacifism," which is a philosophical position that rejects the use of violence on moral grounds. But in civil resistance campaigns like those occurring in the Arab Spring, very few participants are pacifists. Rather, they are ordinary civilians confronting intolerable circumstances by refusing to obey -- a method available to anyone, pacifist or not. Even Mahatma Gandhi, the iconic pacifist, was a highly strategic thinker, recognizing that nonviolence would work not because it seized the moral high ground, but because massive noncooperation would ultimately make the British quit India: "We should meet abuse by forbearance," he said. "Human nature is so constituted that if we take absolutely no notice of anger or abuse, the person indulging in it will soon weary of it and stop."

[Emphasis added in parts.]

Meanwhile Ian writes:

Non-violence works when you are dealing with people who give a fuck what you think. When you’re a bunch of dirt-poor peasants whose only value is the land you’re living on, you have no leverage. None. There is nothing you can do that outweighs the money that is to be made by moving you out of the way, and if moving you means getting you dead, that works too.

This lesson, of the sharp limits of non-violence, is one the world’s effete leftists are going to have learn, and learn the hard way. At the very least you have to be willing to make life unpleasant for your enemies, to get in their face, to shut down their hotels, their factories, their airports, their refineries, their businesses. That is at the least.

[Emphasis added.]

But making life unpleasant for your enemies, getting in their face, shutting down their hotels, their factories, their airports, their refineries, their businesses—showing up and shutting things down—is the kind of civil resistance, i.e., “widespread noncooperation and defiance”—that Chenoweth is talking about and that she (and Gandhi for that matter) would agree with.

Ian might also conflating “non-violence” with “showing up and playing nice (aka demonstrations).” (I think that might be his main beef.) We can all agree that “showing up and playing nice” may not be effective—vigils and marches might just be “feel good nonsense.” But, again, some of the tactics that Ian is recommending—showing up and shutting down, shaming and shunning—are the same nonviolent forms of civil resistance that Chenoweth says are effective.

Ian acts as if the mechanism of nonviolent civil resistance is one of persuasion and he says, in essence, the élites don’t care what you think. But his premise is wrong: nonviolent civil resistance, Chenoweth says, “succeeds when the regime's major sources of power—such as civilian bureaucrats, economic elites, and above all the security forces—stop obeying regime orders.” That is to say, they don‘t care what you think but they stop obeying the regime, anyway.

Why do those sources of power stop obeying? It seems to have to do with the fact that the use of violence against non-violence seems disproportionate and the willingness to use it delegitimates the perpetrators—that is to say, backfire [PDF]. You might or might not think UC Davis students are noble or high-minded but you definitely think that Lieutenant John Pike is an indefensible jerk, if not worse. (And it’s telling that. over 20 years after the event of June 4, 1989, the Chinese government, even as it justifies its actions, clamps down with intense security and meticulous surveillance and any mention of the event is taboo—the government still fears the backfire of the violence against nonviolent protesters; its own justification, whether true or not, isn’t enough.)

That gets at your point of nonviolence being a strategic asset, lambert. Nonviolence is a strategic asset but not because it puts “‘good will’ on the table”—although that helps—but because it more effectively produces backfire and because nonviolent resistance campaigns appear to be more open to negotiation and bargaining.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

Well, I’m just giving the argument presented in Stephan and Chenoweth’s paper here [PDF] (beginning with “We argue that nonviolent resistance may have a strategic advantage over violent
resistance for two reasons”). I’m definitely not an expert on these matters.

Let me think about it and maybe I’ll give it a shot.

jumpjet's picture
Submitted by jumpjet on

to the cause, until their ranks reach critical mass and they're capable of crippling or dismantling entire states, industries, and countries- like the Egyptians did and continue to do, when they couple their protests in major cities like Cairo with labor action in the manufacturing sector.

The goal is to cause total system failure for the elites.

Submitted by Alcuin on

Erica Chenoweth hosts the Rational Insurgent blog and she has written two books. She also appeared in the journal Foreign Policy (!!) last August. Thanks for the link, affinis - I learn so much here at Corrente!