The revolution in Syria offers a good case study. First, it looks like it will be successful. Second, the regime to be overthrown is one of the worst ever. Third, it started non-violently on the citizens’ side. Fourth, violence initiated by the government led to armed response from the other side, and a civil war. Fifth, one could not have predicted the outcome of this conflict when it started.
If you have read Revolution in the Air, or a couple of related posts on Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, you know that I agree with Sharp’s ideas about how to resist dictatorships in order to replace them with democratic forms of governance. His ideas about political transformation are complex enough that I won’t summarize all of his arguments here, but I’ll mention three key points:
- Non-violent means of resistance work better than armed force to establish democracy firmly in place of a dictatorship.
- Successful practice of non-violent resistance requires sound strategy, discipline, and a well-led movement capable of carrying out plans that change over time.
- Dictatorships do not fold voluntarily. To defeat them, you must understand and exploit government’s weaknesses.
- Use of armed force plays to government’s primary strength, for in most polities, government has a monopoloy on the use of force.
After he elaborates these principles, Sharp lists many specific methods of resistance that citizens can employ against the institutions that crush them. Three things about the list impressed me:
- The amount of variety built into the list. It contains quite a range of tactics that aim to degrade the authority of dictatorial governments.
- The list feels out of date. It is geared toward democratic movements in places like Burma in the 1970s. That is not an accident: Sharp wrote the earliest versions of the book for precisely that audience. The book does not take into account the internet or social media.
- The list emphasizes traditional, public means of protest, which sometimes work over time but often times have not. A ruthless, determined government has quite a few techniques to counter public resistance.
Here are some responses to these three points:
Build the list of tactics. Use the internet to make the list as comprehensive and as specific as possible. One difficulty for this project is that posting on the internet is highly public, searchable and traceable. The FBI and other government agencies have shown impressive energy in tracking down people they regard as threats. Government is happy to praise posts about how to bring democracy to other countries. They are not interested in seeing posts about how to bring democracy to ours.
Update the list to take current technology into account. We need to find ways to take advantage of government’s weaknesses, especially weaknesses in the area of computer and communications technology. Anonymous has a good record of success, but it has not focused on government agencies, for good reason. No one wants to be the first to go to prison, or to take a stand without leadership and committed support.
Lastly, think imaginatively about how to resist government power without over reliance on traditional protests. The Boston Tea Party offers an interesting example in this respect. It was clever, it did real damage, it made its point, and it got the attention of the British. That it may have been the last straw before the onset of war may or may not count in its favor. After nearly ten years of civil resistance in the colonies, no one event could cause a war.
As I’ve written elsewhere, we have to act fast. Just yesterday, in the Wall Street Journal, our own president made a case for granting our government increased power to fight cyber-terrorism, as he called it. When the government asks for more power, stop and think! It has power enough. In fact, it has way too much power. When government appeals to fear to argue for more power, reject the argument out of hand.
Obama argued in a smooth, oblique way for collaboration between business and government to meet cyber-terrorist threats. Read a little more closely, and you see that the changes he advocates would not be collaboration at all. Businesses, as usual, would be compelled to comply with government orders. Observe the way government has acted in this area over the last ten years, and you can readily see that Obama’s argument for collaboration is a snake in the grass.
Each passing week brings more signs that our republic is rapidly becoming a place we would never want to live. As the Russian resistance has made so plain in its movement against Putin, we suffer under a government of thieves. Officials take our money and spend it on themselves and their friends. That’s the definition of crony capitalism. The only differences between crony capitalism and crony something else in Russia, Myanmar, Syria, or anyplace are the names of the political parties. When the Syrians overthrow Bashar Assad and his cronies, let’s hope the people in Washington DC wonder if they are next. They ought to be.
Note: First published five years ago, July 23, 2012