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.
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