A friend of mine said, “Be careful. You don’t want to be misunderstood.” My friend’s caution came from a concern that certain kinds of arguments about political change seem to imply violent action. Because violent action does not accomplish required political changes, however, current power holders have more reason to worry about people who advocate civil resistance instead.
I find myself avoiding the term non-violent action, because civil resistance can result in use of force. A turn toward force can occur in at least four ways:
- Resisters become undisciplined, and let their actions shade or tip over to violence. We saw this happen during resistance to the Vietnam war in the 1960s. When government responds with force, you see the 1968 Chicago police riot, or the killings at Kent State in 1970.
- Resisters become subject to attack by police and other public authorities. In this case resisters remain disciplined, but authorities attack them anyway. Examples are police response to civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, and police response to the Occupy movement in 2011 and 2012.
- Resisters become subject to attack by the government’s armed forces. Eventually, after thousands of deaths, an armed response develops. We saw this sequence lead to civil war recently in Syria.
- Resisters become subject to attack by the government’s armed forces, but the government stops short of provoking a civil war or maintaining a regime that is clearly criminal. The conflict between the British empire and Gandhi’s followers in India followed this pattern.
What we want are groups, or incipient groups that stand a good chance of success when they undertake plans for change based on civil resistance.
When we compare successful and unsuccessful cases of civil resistance, we can see what these cases have in common. For successful cases, resisters:
- Have a strategy or general plan that directs their actions.
- Act in concert to carry out their plan.
- Adapt their plan to changing conditions.
- Maintain the initiative with rapid resistance actions that confuse the opponent, gather intelligence, and sap the opponent’s will to respond.
- Respond effectively with further resistance when government authorities use force against them.
Not surprisingly, unsuccessful instances of civil resistance show the opposite qualities. In these cases, resisters:
- Have no clear or coherent direction. Their actions appear without plan because they are.
- Cannot unite or act together because they have weak leadership, or no leadership.
- Do not adapt to changing conditions.
- Find themselves responding to their opponents, rather than forcing their opponents to respond to them.
- Let themselves slip into violent tactics when government uses force against them.
Having considered all these points, we want to ask: what groups, or kinds of groups, have the best chance to mount civil resistance to the federal government in our current crisis? We know this kind of action will not come from either one of the political parties. They are part of the framework to be changed. Effective resistance must originate from groups that lie outside current frameworks of political action.
What we want are groups, or incipient groups that stand a good chance of success when they undertake plans for change based on civil resistance. These candidate groups illustrate possibilities and difficulties for this type of political action:
- Religious organizations, such as the Catholic church.
- State governments, in particular governors and legislatures.
- Veterans groups, starting with those that have formed as a result of our recent wars.
- Tea Parties and other political organizations that may act independently of either political party.
- Intellectuals, independents, and ingrates, not currently organized.
Each of these candidates deserves a post of its own. For now, let’s simply mention one or two possibilities for civil resistance:
- Religious organizations: resist compulsory funding of abortions and artificial birth control.
- State governments: resist implementation of the Affordable Care Act, turn away federal funds and authority in multiple areas, refuse to send national guard units overseas to fight in foreign wars.
- Veterans groups: back refusal to fight in criminal wars, back refusal to use government force of any kind against U. S. citizens who exercise their rights of assembly and free speech.
- Tea Parties and other political organizations: organize tax revolt, refuse to pay taxes, act to constrict government’s sources of income.
- Intellectuals, independents, and ingrates: get organized to form a true counterweight to the major political parties, write blogs like The Jeffersonian!
If you want to develop some of these ideas, please comment on this post!
As civil resisters try to achieve their ends without use of force, police try to control people who resist coercion, without killing them. Tasers show how dubious the distinction between violence and non-violence can be.
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