More Power Than We Know

Nonviolent activists are people who put a disproportionate amount of ourselves - our lives, our energy, our emotion - into trying to make a difference to a situation. Osman Murat Ulke, the Turkish war resister being imprisoned repeatedly, could probably avoid conscription quietly, and could certainly avoid having to kill anybody. But instead he is using all the power within him, and within his social base, to make a difference.

We don't choose a "personal solution", but seek a social or even universal solution. And so, for instance, we get arrested and sometimes put ourselves at physical risk to obstruct some death-dealing programme - for just a few hours or even minutes - and we do the countless other things we do which, when weighed in some grand balance, are socially marginal, but which on occasions we will treat as matters of life and death.

Nonviolent action - be it civil disobedience or constructive work - normally aims to be infectious. Ultimately we hope to be catalysts of a more general empowerment, encouraging others not to behave as victims but to assert themselves as active citizens, initiating a process of restructuring social power from the bottom.

Nonviolent power is not about domination: it is the power to be and the power to do. It combines a personal sense of power - power within - with a will to collective action - power with - and a desire to achieve certain ends - power in relation to.

Power within

It begins with yourself. Most people are resigned to events happening "out there", and most also adapt to their own oppression. Whatever leads nonviolent activists to rebel, to find their power within, and then to keep going, can strike a chord with other people, and is worth discussing. Our motives may combine heart and head, love and anger, frustration and hope. Sometimes some people may find a good balance, but nonviolent activists are not angels - we're rebellious humans, and can make life quite hard even for each other. Any group would profit from brainstorming around two questions:

· What moves us to go to such trouble?

· What keeps us going?

The personal stand - whether it's a matter of the everyday choices we make about mundane matters such as food, clothing or transport, or an occasion where you're risking prison or worse - is at the centre of nonviolence. And occasions arise when we feel impelled to take a particular action regardless of any calculation of effectiveness.

However, in working for change, our power within needs to be accompanied by power with, joining with other people. Indeed it can be hard to express our power within unless we have a sense of connection with others.

Power with

The structures of a movement - and in the West I would particularly point to the practice of organising in small groups - can play a vital part in helping each of us find our voice, maintain our personal equilibrium, and sustain ourselves in struggle. This means paying attention to relationships and structures in a movement.

Working together we have many ways of overcoming fear, inhibitions and other blocks to finding our power within, but also of balancing the urge to push ourselves to the limit by caring for each other and indeed by caring for ourselves. In hard times - when there seems little hope and we feel isolated - we need each other to keep ourselves going. In general movements tend to have a cyclical character: activists get tired or stale, or have to meet other demands in their lives. This might be inevitable, but movements can accelerate their own decline and waste their own potential by neglecting their structures, by failing to encourage participation at various levels and by failing to help people adapt at times of change. For many of us, it is also important to demonstrate alternatives to the top-down models of organising characteristic of conventional power structures.

Identity bonds a movement, whether it's around values or around oppression. Sometimes this takes external forms. For Indians, the wearing of handspun clothes - khadi, what Nehru called "the livery of freedom" - was a symbol of unity in struggle and of a self-discipline embraced willingly. Sometimes it takes the form of self-affirmation. Slogans such as "black is beautiful" and "glad to be gay" have had the power to transform self-oppression. When a group of people - be it a gender or a nation - has been marginalised and its achievements rendered invisible, its sense of identity and of its own history and culture are vital in restoring self-worth.

Identity can, of course, be double-edged. However, for movements based on a philosophy of nonviolence, identity is not based on exclusion, but on matching self- esteem with respect for others; or, in Gandhi's terms, working for Independence while cherishing Interdependence. One source of a movement's identity can be the ways it tries to do things, its methods of action and modes of organising, their concern to be inclusive and participatory.

Power in relation to

In thinking about power with one must consider how we make alliances and who with. For some, it is enough to combine power within and power with, concentrating on building our own strength. But most movements tend to engage in conflict: our very goals normally conflict with ruling power structures and often with conventional attitudes.

So power with has to deal with strategic questions: from what social base are we taking action? whose support can we enlist for particular goals? which sites of power in society are most susceptible to pressure for change?

Hence to power in relation to - in relation to our goals and to the dominant power relationships. What leverage does a nonviolent movement have against the policies of entrenched corporate and institutional power? The classic nonviolent answer is ultimately "the power of a population to withhold its cooperation" - and movements should never forget that regimes rule because people obey. In the days when it was more common to talk about "an alternative society", we would also talk about making the state redundant - and that is still not a bad perspective for constructive action.

However, whatever validity these classic answers retain, they are too sweeping to meet the needs of most movements. Major social change is rarely achieved so simply. Instead there have to be combinations of methods: of dialogue with defiance; of persuasion with pressure; of the self-organised construction of alternatives with nonviolent resistance - and rhythms of activity; of quiet periods with dramatic highpoints; of risk-taking with caution.

A strategic grounding

Here it becomes vital for a movement to have a sense of its own effectiveness, and that sense is best grounded in a shared strategy, with well-defined themes and clear objectives.

Without this strategic grounding, it is easy to have delusions of effectiveness:

· to repeat actions or events because they "feel good", and then to discover that they've stopped feeling good, that you've created a charmed circle of people enjoying themselves but failing to reach out - to stretch themselves - or to make a difference to the situation;

· to rely on false criteria for evaluation, for instance quantifiable criteria - the number of participants, the amount of press coverage, the cost inflicted on one's opponent, the length of delay caused to a project, the funds raised;

· to get hung up on technique.

There is also the opposite danger, of failing to recognise successes. If a movement's ultimate goal has yet to be gained, this does not mean that nothing has been achieved. Strategy needs to mark off subsidiary goals, steps in a process of change.

Movements also should be aware of the gap in time that usually separates an action from evidence of its impact. This applies at both a micro- and a macro-level. Movements may have declined by the time they are closest to reaching their goals. Solidarnosc in Poland was a clear case: it had helped set in motion a process of erosion of state power which led to the regime stepping down later, but by that time the movement had lost its dynamism.

We have, as Barbara Deming observed, "more power than we know". A central role for organisations such as War Resisters' International and a paper such as Peace News is to reveal to ourselves and each other the sources and extent of such nonviolent power - from personal through group to the social level. And there can be few criteria more important for evaluating a nonviolent movement than our effectiveness in unleashing the nonviolent potential in our societies.

Howard Clark

From Peace News No.2422, Feb. 1998