Thoughts on the Power of Civil Resistance

“People power” is a blunt and in some ways soft instrument. Activists engaged in mass protest are usually seeking formal changes in the rules or leadership of organizations to which they do not belong or in which their votes are not counted. Unfortunately for them, there is no clear or direct mechanism for converting the energy of the street into the production of those changes.

Once nonviolent action begins, however, state repression becomes a blunt instrument, too. The varied and often discreet routines states use to prevent challenges from emerging become mostly irrelevant. Instead, states must switch to a repertoire of clumsier and less familiar actions with larger and more immediate consequences.

The awkwardness of this response turns out to be the mechanism that converts people power into change, or at least the possibility for it. States thrive on routines around which they can build bureaucracies and normalize public expectations. Activists who succeed at mobilizing and sustaining mass challenges force the state onto less familiar footing, where those bureaucracies’ routines don’t apply and public expectations are weakly formed. In so doing, activists instill uncertainty in the minds of officials who must respond and of the observers of these interactions.

Responses to that uncertainty don’t always break in favor of the challengers, but they can. Insiders who comfortably played supporting roles before must consider what will happen to them if the challenge succeeds and how they might shape that future in their own favor. Other observers, foreign and domestic, may become newly energized or at least sympathetic, and even small alterations in the behaviors of those individuals can accumulate into large changes in the behavior of the public writ large. Importantly, these responses are more likely to break in favor of the challengers when those challengers manage to sustain nonviolence, even in the face of state repression.

Activists cannot control the reactions catalyzed by this uncertainty, but neither can the state. The result is an opportunity, a roll of the dice that would not have happened in the absence of the public challenge. And, really, that’s the point. That opportunity is not a sufficient condition for deep change, but it is a necessary one, and it almost never arises without a provocation.

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