By Caleb Weaver
For many viewers, a photograph of Venezuelan protesters preparing to hand out flowers during the February confrontation on the Tienditas Bridge likely evoked the iconic photographs taken during the 1967 March on the Pentagon. For students of social movements, it also provided unmistakable confirmation of the scholarly literature and political playbook from which the Venezuelan opposition is drawing. The eternal return of the flower gesture speaks to the influence that Gene Sharp, Erica Chenoweth, and other political scientists studying civil resistance have gained in the human rights, democracy-promotion, and foreign policy fields. Drawing upon a seemingly bottomless reserve of case studies on Serbia’s Otpor movement, civil resistance literature emphasizes activist strategies and civil society organizations rather than armed struggle or class dynamics as the driver of political change.
Backed by an impressive dataset, Chenoweth and Maria Stephan find that nonviolent campaigns are more likely than violent ones to achieve independence, regime change, or an end to occupation. The core argument of their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works is that nonviolent resistance efforts present lower barriers to entry than do armed struggles and can therefore generate much higher levels of mass participation. This mass mobilization offers protestors a variety of levers with which to force capitulation. Civil resistance scholars argue that whatever benefits movements derive from violence tend to be outweighed by the repression and public disapproval that it invites. They push back, therefore, against studies such as This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed and We Will Shoot Back which argue the presence of an armed wing or violent flank can increase a movement’s chance of success
While leftists energized by the examples of the Russian Revolution, the Black Panther Party, or the Zapatista uprising may bristle at its rejection of ‘violent flanks,’ civil resistance scholarship often overlaps with leftist analysis. To give one example, Sharp, Chenoweth, and others correct the hagiographies that credit mass movements with appealing to their opponents’ conscience or forging moral consensus. Participation is valuable, they argue, for the coercive power that it lends protestors. This conclusion should resonate with leftist observers of the labor movement, who know from the tradition of dockworker militancy that a small group exercising control over a chokepoint in production has a clearer path to success than a universalist effort to convert class antagonists into friends.
The Arab Spring, which seemed to prove that dictators could be toppled without military interventions and that such uprisings grew from seeds that could be duplicated and planted elsewhere, transfixed foreign policy experts. These elites have taken interest in the recent wave of nonviolence studies inspired by Why Civil Resistance Works. The foreign policy community has been particularly transfixed by studies indicating that when nondemocratic regimes are overthrown nonviolently, post-revolution democracy is more stable and persistent. This conclusion and the roots of civil resistance campaigns in entities such as student groups, unions, or community organizations has led to a heavy emphasis on the concepts of ‘civil society’ and ‘civic space.’ Democracy-promotion organizations and foreign policy think tanks, often citing nonviolent conflict literature, at times seem to equate civil society with democracy itself. “Opening civic space” and supporting or empowering civil society are now de rigueur elements of program proposals, in the hopes that this sector will produce civil resistance movements.
Why have scholars and policymakers taken this recent interest in nonviolent struggle, forty-six years after the publication of Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action? On the one hand, Why Civil Resistance Works has provided a compelling social science framework with which to analyze the role of everyday people in social change, a boon for progressive thinkers. Analysts have applied Sharp and Chenoweth’s paradigms to the fight against corruption, the urgent efforts to protect human rights defenders from attacks by capitalists and their hired thugs, and the surge of grassroots resistance that has responded to the global far right.
Meanwhile, a significant amount of the foreign policy establishment’s work on civil resistance is motivated by a desire to apply its findings to overseas interventions and regime-change efforts. Many foreign policy thinkers remain convinced that every “illiberal country” contains a longing for free markets and bourgeois democracy waiting to be set free. After the calamitous attempts to unleash this yearning by toppling governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, these thinkers found themselves in need of new arguments to defend continued intervention and a less toxic set of tools with which to carry it out. They have therefore seized upon Why Civil Resistance Works as a scholarly justification for continued overseas interventions, wielding it as a sort of Rules for Radicals for the end of history.
Evidence for this ulterior motive can be found in the attempts to compile lessons about civil resistance and use them to cultivate nonviolent uprisings against the US’s nemeses. The vaunted role of social media in the Green Revolution and the Arab Spring, for example, inspired USAID’s harebrained strategy of undermining the Cuban government through social media.
The National Democratic Institute lifted a quintessential Alinskyite framework by funding trainings for “neighborhood committees” of young people that built power by practicing community organizing techniques in underserved neighborhoods in Managua. Four years later, these groups are at the center of protests against the Sandinista government. As this uprising gained steam, analysts began to question what lessons from the civil resistance literature could be applied to achieve the ouster of Daniel Ortega, shifting the goals of such programs from strengthening civil society to overthrowing a government.
Finally, the regime-change utility of civil resistance literature is on full display in Venezuela, where the various student organizations, business associations, and middle-class protest groups that have long opposed Chávez and Maduro see themselves as part of the civil resistance tradition. Chenoweth reported having received hundreds of requests for advice from Venezuelans by mid-2017, and the opposition’s current discourse reveals her intellectual influence. Opposition leaders and US analysts have fixated, for example, on the possibility of securing defections from the military, which is invariably described as a “pillar of support” for the government. They also discuss the efforts of the international pro-Guaidó coalition to divert resources from the state-owned oil company PDVSA as eroding another crucial “pillar.” These “pillars of support” are a core concept in civil resistance, which sees a movement’s ability to win defections from the regime as crucial.
Working through overseas civil society to undermine governments through civic action is nothing new for US foreign policy. The post-Arab Spring wave of civil resistance analysis, however, gave this strategy a shot in the arm at a low point for the influence of old-guard interventionists. It has also re-legitimized and reinvigorated pro-intervention rhetoric by updating its intended purpose from fighting Communism to promoting democracy.
Bringing domestic civil resistance into foreign policy in this way can result in successes. From a mainstream US foreign policy perspective, the 2014 overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych represents a clear case of home-grown and internationally-assisted people power (note a certain protest tactic at 2:03 of this video from the Council on Foreign Relations) advancing democracy and fulfilling US interests without war. The 2015 elections in Burma were also celebrated as a triumph of civil resistance-based foreign policy. While human rights and democracy-promotion thinkers have largely turned against Aung San Suu Kyi as a result of her dismal performance in office, the veneer of democracy provided by her ascension has fulfilled capital’s interests in re-opening the country to trade and exploitation.
Chenoweth and Stephan strenuously argue that civil resistance can succeed in any political or socioeconomic context. It is also clear that civil resistance practitioners pitch themselves to USAID, the State Department, NED, and other funders as able to deliver results regardless of context. Some actors claim to offer an “export-a-revolution” toolbox that can “just go and set up shop in a country and try to bring the government down,” knowing that such claims will get a second look from funders.
Despite their attempts to apply civil resistance principles, however, the Venezuelan opposition has failed repeatedly to remove Chávez and Maduro from power. Civil resistance boosters find themselves forced to explain the failure of the model in Russia, Iran, Egypt, Bahrain, and for the moment Venezuela. Unable to appeal to context, they either become Monday-morning quarterbacks who criticize protest plans or offer truisms pointing out that if certain turning points had gone differently, the result would have been different. Such post-mortems pose a dilemma in countries where US, Saudi, Russian, or Chinese support for a regime is critical. Downplaying the importance of these alliances flies in the face of all evidence from Egypt or Syria. On the other hand, attributing regimes’ persistence to external support, as Venezuela-watchers so often do, leads naturally to demands for US action to counter this support. Suddenly, great powers are re-centered as the principal actors and civil resistance merely serves as a justification for intervention.
Do such failures point to flaws in the civil resistance framework itself, or merely in its instrumentalization? The Venezuelan opposition’s struggles suggest that the effort to put transferable lessons from the Serbian case into a go-anywhere “toolbox” have failed to communicate what actually makes such campaigns successful. For example, one of Sharp’s best-known ideas is “political jiu-jitsu,” in which protestors respond to repression by “using the force of the opponent against him,” sparking backlash against the oppressor. The somewhat cheesy label aside, this concept does speak to the reasonable intuitions that experiences of repression can be channeled into increased solidarity and that images of state abuses can be a powerful tool for activists.
As leftists know, however, this only happens when these upswells are captured by effective organizations. As civil resistance is absorbed into the Blob, the insight that Chenoweth and Stephan share with leftists about the necessity of wielding power has been lost. So, in their eagerness to activate moral outrage against the Maduro government, the opposition and its foreign supporters wave the bloody shirts of Venezuelan protestors beaten in street clashes, but are frustrated when the Venezuelan opposition—which has long been fractious, personality-driven, and simply unpopular due to its class position—cannot turn this raw material into electoral success.
Secondly, any discussion of civil resistance eventually arrives at a prescription for more humorous forms of protest. Otpor veterans insist that “dictators fear humor” and that they succeeded in reducing the public’s fear of repression through stunts such as clown-themed protests. Civil resistance doyens also call for actions that make regimes look hypocritical in order to erode their support. This impulse is clearly visible in the bungled humanitarian aid gambit in February, which was designed and orchestrated to create the tableau of the cruel Venezuelan government ‘denying its starving population food.’ Another frequent recommendation is to trade off the power of images that depict a contrast between heavily-armed security forces and harmless protestors, hence all the flowers.
The shortcomings of this thinking are clear to any leftist. The “Egyptian Jon Stewart” Bassem Youseff is typically extolled as an example of how to wield satire against repressive regimes. But Youseff is off the air and Sisi is still in power. Making adversaries look foolish is satisfying, but it does little or nothing to advance necessary organizing and action, and may in fact contribute to complacency and demotivation.
Both of these examples reveal that civil resistance studies put too much emphasis on the choice of nonviolence and the precision of protest tactics as the independent variable, rather than the existence of deep organizing that propels and sustains revolutionary change. This distorted view is on display in a February op-ed applying How Civil Resistance Works to Venezuela. The authors argue that if the opposition has begun to extend its message into the working-class and popular sectors that formed the basis of Chavismo, it must be because its leaders are learning how to win them over from the civil resistance literature, perhaps with the help of US-funded trainings and workshops. For one, Guaidó’s repeated failure to call enough Venezuelans into the street for “decisive” protests calls into question whether the opposition is expanding its base at all.
And if Guaidó is winning over the poor through his appeals, why did they support Maduro, who “lacks the charisma of his predecessor” as the media never tires of reminding us, for so long? No serious observer of Venezuela denies that support for Chávez and Maduro among the working and popular classes derived from the tangible benefits they gained from the redistribution of political power and economic resources. The wavering of their support for the Bolivarian project stems from its long-term degradation as a result of foreign interference, mismanagement, and corruption.
How Civil Resistance Works can guide future Juan Guaidós in their choice of tactics and rhetoric, but it is silent on which economic and political agenda they should place at the heart of their movement. The fact that Venezuela’s juncture came about through exogenous commodity shocks, the errors of its leaders, and the contradictions of its political-economic model indicates that class dynamics and struggle over the direction of the state, rather than protestor know-how, remains the great motor of the country’s history.
Potential revolutionaries would be better-served by striving to comprehend the demands and aspirations present in their society and the long-term class dynamics that shape them before choosing tactics that will best achieve those demands. As Guaidó’s failure to turn out significant numbers on Tuesday demonstrates, neglecting to do so results in protests that check all the boxes suggested by civil resistance literature but fizzle without winning over new supporters. Meanwhile, current and aspiring foreign policy practitioners in the US should strive for the kinds of international outlook and relationships that will provide accurate information about of these dynamics, rather than taking the word of actors promising broad coalitions and mass defections overnight.
Caleb Weaver is a student at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, studying the role of labor and social movements in international affairs.