Nonviolence or Diversity of Tactics: Confronting the Myth of the Rational Insurgent

It’s by now an open secret that nationally Occupy is facing issues about committing to nonviolence or allowing or encouraging ‘diversity of tactics’.  It’s a loaded issue, from finding agreement on the definitions of ‘violence’ and ‘nonviolence’, to strong beliefs and assertions which strategies or tactics ‘work’ or…cannot work, either in the short or long term.  Since I’ve been peering into the issue, it’s clear that even the ‘goals’ of different activist sub-groups have histories that inform their visions of the democracy movement/nascent revolution seem to be at odds with most Occupies across the country.  If I’m overstating that majority opinion, I’m sure you’ll let me know.  ;o)

YOU ARE WELCOME TO SKIP the comments I clipped from the NC thread and posted below the row of stars, of course, but I’d like to at least direct your attention to the posts below the dotted line toward the end.   It concerns the subject of anarchist/black bloc or ‘anarchist’ involvement and influence on different Occupies.   It’s a subject that needs a closer look, IMO, especially the oft’ heard presentation that ‘violence’ or property destruction is being carried out by police provacateurs.

The failed ‘Move-in’ action in Oakland on Jan. 28 and the associated march later that night that led to over 400 arrests seems to have focused many minds on this issue, and reports of concerns are beginning to bubble up to the surface in the blogosphere; it seems the concerns aren’t limited to Oaktown, but to Seattle, NYC and LA.  I’ll link to some here, here, here; the issue has begun to be addressed on an as yet small scale at InterOccupy, , as yet in its infancy.

Recently Correntewire’s Lambert Strether showcased the work that Erica Chenowith will present to the International Studies Association annual meeting in April at Naked Capitalism on Jan. 2.  The 212 comments represented many sorts of thought and beliefs, to say the least.

Chenowith makes her motivation for the study clear here:

“My hope is not to provoke discussion for its own sake. Instead, my goals are twofold: 1) to encourage more systematic empirical research on the topic; and 2) to persuade people, on the basis of existing empirical research, that nonviolent resistance can often be a viable alternative for challenging entrenched power.”

She links to her research and methodology (pdf) here, and says that the terms she uses are also explained in her book co-written with Maria Stephan (Why Civil Resistance Works), which leaves us a little in the dark unless we’ve read the book or studied the pdf  (I haven’t).  The failure to know her definition of the terms led to some conflict in the comment stream, but did serve to allow commenters to focus and tighten up their own beliefs, principles and vision.

An overview of their book’s conclusions are:

“Though it defies consensus, between 1900 and 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts. Attracting impressive support from citizens that helps separate regimes from their main sources of power, these campaigns have produced remarkable results, even in the contexts of Iran, the Palestinian Territories, the Philippines, and Burma.

Combining statistical analysis with case studies of these specific countries and territories, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan detail the factors enabling such campaigns to succeed-and, at times, causing them to fail. They find that nonviolent resistance presents fewer obstacles to moral and physical involvement, information and education, and participator commitment. Higher levels of participation then contribute to enhanced resilience, a greater probability of tactical innovation, increased opportunity for civic disruption (and therefore less incentive for the regime to maintain the status quo), and shifts in loyalty among opponents’ erstwhile supporters, including members of the military establishment. They find successful nonviolent resistance movements usher in more durable and internally peaceful democracies, which are less likely to regress into civil war. Presenting a rich, evidentiary argument, this book originally and systematically compares violent and nonviolent outcomes in different historical periods and geographical contexts, debunking the myth that violence occurs because of structural and environmental factors and is necessary to achieve certain political goals. Instead, Chenoweth and Stephan find violent insurgency is rarely justifiable on strategic grounds.” [all bolds will be mine throughout]

Please refer as often as you want either to Lambert’s diary at NC or the pdf of Chenowith’s powerpoint presentation.  Lambert published some, but not all of her slides; I will publish even fewer, and try to synopsize others.  It’s a daunting task in that it’s not possible to copy and paste from the slides, and my memory is challenged.  Where I may be inaccurate, it will be unintentional as I try to paraphrase what’s there.

From Naked Capitalism:

“Lambert here: Occupy’s public discussions on “diversity of tactics” have often lacked historical perspective; discussions, at least online, have tended to degenerate to “Ghandi!” “No, ANC!” Now, however, Erica Chenoweth has developed a dataset and analyzed the historical record. Below the fold are slides summarizing the results of her study of 323
 non-violent and violent campaigns 
 1900‐2006. (There are twenty slides, so anybody with a slow connection may prefer to download a zipped file of the original PDF). (I’m liberally providing the links to the slides.)

These are the ‘conventional wisdoms’ that Chenowith wants her data to explore:

In response to the first two, she posts this chart:

And this one that examines the success rates over the 106 years she studied:

As for the conventional wisdom that ‘all insurgencies begin non-violently, and adopt violence when nonviolence fails’ meme, she offers her beliefs that many insurgents use violence reflexively, and many abandon nonviolent tactics too soon.  She quotes Dissent Magazine’s Michael Walzer speaking of ‘Just War’:

“It’s not so easy to reach the last resort; to get there, one must indeed, try everything (which is a lot of things) – and not just once, as if a political party or movement might organize a single demonstration, fail to win immediate victory, and claim that it is now justified moving on to murder…it is by no means clear when they run out of options…What exactly did they try when they were trying everything?”

The slide on violent/nonviolence and brutal regimes is a little inscrutable to me, given no clear definitions or goals reached, but she asserts a 46% win for nonviolent insurrection; you may interpret that through your own lenses and personal definitions.

One graph that’s of major importance is this one showing the ‘Effects of Campaign Membership on the Probability of Success’.  We can’t know what ‘membership means here, whether it’s people willing to support various actions in the street, or expressing approval, whether in polls, the press, or what.  It seems that about 1.5% of the populations creates a serious tipping point for success, and causes me to envision the multitudes of protesters joining together to physically push the police vans across the bridge into Tahrir Square last year.  People power, mass numbers of which can turn the time against our oppressors via neutralizing the power of their protectors.

The data concerning post-insurrection/revolution regimes ‘democracy’ and civil war in the cases of violence-based movements are clear: nonviolence wins by a huge margin.

The question asking whether or not those insurgents advocating violent tactics and or strategies being persuaded otherwise brought Chenowith to this chart, self-explanatory but certainly open to discussion:

The chart on radical flanks aiding or not makes me wonder on her defintions: Does she include ‘perceived threats’ not acted upon, much like the Panthers in aid of MLK seeming a saner alternative, the ‘Let’s negotiate with the Taliban who are preferable to Al Qaeda’ themes; we just don’t know.

I’ve clipped some comments from the NC comment stream that show some of the thoughts represented there; please note that one of the best known anarchists, David Graeber participated.  There were a number of ‘kill all the oppressors’ involved, and one of my favorites, Richard Klein, who has written in the past on Progressives Fearing Power (not the exact title, but close).


Richard Kline says:

February 3, 2012 at 4:24 am

It has been well-understood since the 1950s, due to comparisons exactly as here, that nonviolent campaigns had far higher probabilities of success. Stil (sic), this study extends the timeframe surveyed, and that’s a plus.

What I found especially interesting and new, though, was the data on participation rates relative to success. That was very thought provoking. A participation rate of ~1.5% equated to a 90% success rate. And the relationship was effectively linear, greater participation has a very strong correlation with success (though of course there are other variables).

I see one minor and correctible flaw with the presentation, and one examination not evidently pursued but which would be highly valuable. First, nowhere in the presentation is ‘violence’ defined. I’m assuming that violence as presented in this study is guns-and-bombs kind of insurgency, with assassination being a third leg of the stool. I’m sure Ms. Chenoweth had a definition, but it should be made explicit in the presentation. Second, it would be valuable to correlate the degree of violence with the degree of success (or the lack of it). I suspect that this study already has the criteria to perform that evaluation, but it would be a distinct benefit to get the actual results for comparative purposes.

High participation and pronounced nonviolence are by far the best organizational desiderata if objective success is the goal. What we see to my mind is that those committed to violence, or to the gray area of property destruction, simply don’t share the same goals as those focused on nonviolent political change. There is not a ‘diversity of tactics’ but rather an incompatibility of goals. Those perpared to smash-and-dash are not shy about imposing their goals upon others, and have given scant indication of changing those goals. So it remains for the rest of us to decide what we will do about that. ‘Tolerate it’ has been the working choice thus far; as we see here, that will substantially drive down the likelihood of success.”

Paul Tioxon says:

February 2, 2012 at 11:06 am

Violence works.

Dr. Chenoweth isn’t arguing that violence doesn’t work—she, in fact, acknowledges [PDF] that it does. But she says that nonviolent resistance is twice as effective as violent campaigns and gives reasons as to why:

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.

When David Graeber says:

“We obviously are never going to defeat the 101st airborne division on the streets,” said anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber [my link; wd], addressing that general assembly. “Where we win is when we are able to convince the 101st airborne division not to shoot us.”  He’s pointing to one dynamic—defection of the security forces—that makes nonviolent resistance more effective, according to Chenoweth, than violent campaigns.

David Graeber says:

February 2, 2012 at 8:15 pm

This is all true, but I feel I should clarify a bit on what we’re calling “violence.”

The Egyptian uprising against Mubarak is generally seen as having been successful in this way because of non-violence, as indeed it was. However when I talked to Egyptians involved in organizing it, they said things like “sure we were non-violent. We just threw rocks. We never used guns or anything like that.” Which kind of brings home that how protestors acts are reported and perceived means a lot too. It would be extremely difficult to create a way to ensure that when a crowd is being assaulted by riot cops with plastic bullets, let alone real bullets, no one will even so much as chuck a bottle at them, or throw back a tear gas canister. But we have plenty people here in the US who claim that even strong language (“fuck the police”) on the part of protestors being attacked is a form of violence and somehow justifies those attacks or anyway is the only thing worthy of report from the event.

If events like have been happening in Syria were happening in the US, the US media, despite not being directly controlled by the government, would have reported them exactly like the Syrian government-controlled media did: just repeat whatever the army and police said, note protestor “violence” of any kind and never describe the army and police violence as “violence” but only as a response, etc etc.

So we have to understand there’s a difference between not attempting a military solution, which is not only ineffective, as you note, but also will pretty much guarantee if you win nasty things will happen, and total pacifism. And I would encourage everyone to be careful not to frame things in ways that play into the hands of media whose first instinct will always be to justify official violence against protestors who – while one or two might break some glass or throw something against armored riot cops (basically an expressive act) – are not setting out to actually hurt someone.

Michael says:

February 2, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I have to admit that this study is consistent with my biases. In my experience, the people advocating for violence in the orgs I was involved with were doing so because they wished to be violent, not because they viewed violence as the tactic most likely to be successful. There were often good reasons for this — those advocating for violence were often deeply angry and hurt by brutality which had been committed on them in the past. But it was about them, not the movement.


RW Jones says:

February 2, 2012 at 1:58 pm

This is a definite problem with resorting to violence. A cause may actually attract new followers when it resorts to violence, but this isn’t necessarily because they think the cause now has a chance of success. Often they are simply attracted to the violence itself, and prove to be adept at using that violence for their own personal ends rather than in furtherance of the cause. Napoleon comes to mind as an excellent historical example of this phenomenon.

rotter says:

February 2, 2012 at 1:29 pm

this study is full of loaded asumptions…er..assertions.. .. mostly everything in your power point presentation in undefined…what is a “democracy” 5 years after? what is “success”? …Personally i believe that the western focus on “nonviolence” is a protection feature for the ruling class. Youll notice the culture of the U.S…all of it. poliitcal, acadremic, etc., which pays such glorious lip service to “noviolence” is always, nonstop, in the process of inflicting violence on anyone and anything that stands in its way.

libarbarian says:

February 2, 2012 at 10:56 am

Nonviolent campaigns precludes the killing of people who deserve to die.


F. Beard says:

February 2, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Nonviolent campaigns precludes the killing of people who deserve to die. libarbarian

Why do them the favor? There are many other problems with your desire for vengeance but ineffectiveness is one.


Praedor says:

February 2, 2012 at 4:59 pm

I am more than happy to see to it that those who deserve to die actually die. I would be unaccepting of a “Truth and Reconciliation” movement that allowed murderers from a nasty regime to go free for the sake of “reconciliation”. How nice of you to decide for the dead, for their families, etc, that reconciling with the torturers or murderers trumps true justice.

Some people deserve to die and must die. Anything less is rewarding their monstrous actions.


Lambert Strether says:

February 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Well, apparently Chile, South Africa, and Argentina disagreed with you.


Maju says:

February 2, 2012 at 7:59 pm

I can respect the process of South Africa: it was deep and pardon was not guaranteed: the victims had to issue it and the criminal had to show repentment. That was intended to be cathartic and, as far as I know, it was.

But the process of Chile and Argentina has been like in Spain: burying the memory of the fascist terror. That only causes persistence of the wound and of the vicious dynamics created by the fascists, who in Chile and Spain at least, still control the system almost totally.

The anger remains, the countries are divided sociologically and the fascists have not repented at all. The corpses of the massacres remain buried by the roads, the kidnapped children may still no know who were their true biological parents but worst of all is the lack of shame by which the fascists, recycled into conservatives and liberals (center-right in Europe), still think that the are in charge (and for most practical purposes they are).

That’s not any solution. It does not work. I prefer all out war to this shameful method of “I beat you and then we are friends, so I can beat you again”. That’s not reconciliation: it’s a vicious circle of abuse.

Lambert you are either extremely naive or a system’s propagandist.

Fiver says (in part):

February 3, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely CRAVE a non-violent re-ordering of power. But to win requires MORE courage than violent resistance, because you have to be willing to be brutalized and NOT fight back. How many people in the US or other wealthy countries have THAT sort of courage, or ANY sort of courage, for that matter? So far I’ve seen a tiny handful of the adult population, a few terrific people, mostly kids, involved in OWS and the attempted Flotilla(s) and that’s it – in a country where the President has asserted the right to incarcerate or kill anyone deemed an “enemy”. Have we even 1 iota of the courage of the Palestinians who dared that walk KNOWING what would happen?

We better be clear in our minds exactly what it means when those with power refuse to hand it over and do not care what it takes to keep it.

This exchange made me laugh:

ebear says:

February 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm

I’ll just add that there are really two questions here.

1. what is an appropriate level of response to violence?

2. what is the rate of success of that response?



lambert strether says:

February 2, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Actually, there’s one question, and here it is:

Why do violence advocates, who believe killing in service of their political goals is good, try to impose standards of evidence and reasoning on non-violence advocates that they are not willing to impose on themselves?

I’m seeing an awful lot of repetition of shopworn anecdotes and talking points I see from violence fan bois on Occupy threads; and I see very little direct engagement with the points Chenoweth makes. Where’s the massive takedown? Come on, violence fans: Is that all you’ve got?

Maju says:

February 3, 2012 at 5:50 pm

“throwing bottles, rocks, smashing a few windows”…

Where? I see these accusations being thrown once and again but all I see in videos is nonviolence, at worst some angry yelling. I have the impression that some people is just lying to throw shit on a movement and damage its reputation.

affinis says:

February 3, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Yep Maju, I guess “some people is just lying”.

Is it worth taking the time to respond to trolls who choose to be willfully blind?
For a start.
There’s a ton of additional similar video available, but I trust I’ve made my point.

Maju says:

February 3, 2012 at 10:21 pm

How do you know those “activists” so keen of gratuitous vandalism (not even real violence, just vandalism) aren’t police infiltrators? That’s what we got in Canada just a year and a half ago – some have short memory! Probably US secret services are less naive and won’t use uniform boots in undercover operations, specially not after that fiasco.

Whatever the case these acts are isolated provocations, whoever is the culprit and do not seem to represent the general spirit of the Occupy movement. I watch videos and news all the time about this movement and it’s the first time I have watched such acts, certainly too similar to the provocations of Ontario police in 2010 (and other cases).

Maju says:

February 3, 2012 at 10:22 pm

And all the images are from the same isolated incident for what I can see.

Lambert Strether says:

February 3, 2012 at 11:14 pm

“For what you can see?” You didn’t click through to the videos (not “images”), then. Or you did, and decided not to tell the truth. One is from the ground during the night, the other is from a skycam during the day, and the third is agitprop for black bloc aggro (which I encourage all to watch). They are clearly not the same incident, nor could they be, since the agitprop is not an incident, by definition.

I certainly hope all violence advocates aren’t this lazy or untruthful. That would bode ill for those who buy into their tactics.

affinis says:

February 3, 2012 at 11:55 pm

The three links I posted are from at least two entirely different dates – as it says on the videos.
Here’s one from yet another date
I can keep posting these indefinitely, but I don’t see the point, since infinite evidence will never be sufficient for willful blindness.

BB is mainstream in Occupy Oakland. I didn’t say it represents Occupy in general. There have been BB actions elsewhere, but more limited.

Most of the people doing BB actions sincerely think they’re heroic revolutionaries. They’re deluded. I’ve been trying to convince some of them that their actions harm the movement, but have had zero success. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some provocateurs among them.

As someone from Occupy Oakland said, “violence is sexy”, so it gets attention and spreads. And some people elsewhere see Occupy Oakland as “inspirational”, so want to emulate its tactics.

Some of the latest BB acts are against Occupy livestreamers – e.g multiple streamers targeted in Oakland (with cam stolen from OccupyFreedomLA) and an attempt by a BB guy to snatch Tim Pool’s cam at OWS (with multiple people calling Tim Pool a “snitch” for filming BB acts). The BB don’t want their antics filmed. But if you take out the streamers, you’re undermining one of the most important assets Occupy has.



A term that I’d like to see added to these discussions is: confrontational, and I’m thinking of videos in which protesters approach the police and get right in their faces and scream obscenities. It’s another thing that makes it to the teevee news at night.  We also need to have major discussions over The Message Wars, which are crucial to any movement’s success or failure, IMO, given the need for massive public buy-in and activist support.

Thank you for reading, and I hope, as Lambert Strether and Erica Chenowith do, that this will cause further thinking and discussion past discussion for its own sake. This democracy movement must work, and we need to aid the bumps it will face with honesty, courage and clear eyes.

Stay strong, and build community through loving attention wherever you’re able.

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