In the current issue of Yes! Magazine, Stephen Zunes has a great piece, entitled “Weapons of Mass Democracy,” which strongly makes the case that nonviolent resistance is the most effective tactic against oppressive regimes.
I’ve seen many articles like this before and they are no doubt important, especially for those who are just learning about this alternative history. But lately, my thinking about how we can most honestly discuss many of the success stories that Zunes cites has been evolving.
Whether we’re talking about the nonviolent movements that brought down dictators or repressive governments in the Philippines, South Africa, Poland or probably many others countries, the story is actually far more complicated than we often admit.
Yes, Ferdinand Marcos was driven from power, Nelsen Mandela was elected president, and trade unionist Lech Walesa brought the Communist government in Poland to its knees, but what was the real effect on the ground of these victories? In each of these cases, unfortunately, the economic elite that controlled their respective countries before the nonviolent uprising managed to do so afterwards as well, and the plight of the poor was exacerbated.
As Naomi Klein documents in extensive detail in The Shock Doctrine, as these countries were moving towards democracy, the new leaders – in various ways and for various reasons – effectively sold out.
For example, in Poland the Solidarity movement that Walesa led covertly abandoned their progressive economic program of worker ownership, and enacted economist Jeffrey Sach’s neo-liberal recommendations – a 15-page plan which he drew up in one night. That meant eliminating price controls, slashing subsidies, and selling off state mines, shipyards and factories to the private sector. The results of the country’s embrace of the free market are grim, but not surprising.
“Most dramatic are the number of people in poverty: in 1989, 15 percent of Poland’s population was living below the poverty line; in 2003, 59 percent of Poles had fallen below the line,” Klein writes.
A very similar and tragic story unfolded in South Africa as well. For 35 years, the African National Congress (ANC) advocated for radical economic change, including the right to work, to decent housing, and the nationalization of much of the country’s wealth and industry. As the exciting transition to democracy was taking place there, however, the ANC effectively caved on their platform. They made concessions when negotiating the new constitution, signed on to the GATT – the precursor to the World Trade Organization – which severely constrained their economic policy, and let the old apartheid bosses keep control of the central bank. As Klein notes, the results again are telling.
As for the “banks, mines and monopoly industry” that Mandela had pledged to nationalize, they remained firmly in the hands of the same four white-owned megaconglomerates, that also control 80 percent of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. In 2005, only 4 percent of the companies listed on the exchange were owned or controlled by blacks. Seventy percent of South Africa’s land, in 2006, was still monopolized by whites, who are just 10 percent of the population… Perhaps the most striking statistic is this one: since 1990, the year Mandela left prison, the average life expectancy for South Africans has dropped by thirteen years.
So while these nonviolent movements were able to nominally gain power, the folks who actually owned and controlled these countries, seemed to only get richer.
Now to be clear: I’m not making the argument that we shouldn’t reference these examples as victories for nonviolence, but that the stories shouldn’t end where we normally end them. There is no doubt something to be celebrated in these movements, but we must also take a very critical look at how democratic the regimes that followed actually were, and most importantly, how the folks at the bottom fared.
Acknowledging that the potential economic gains from these transitions to democracy can and often have been lost at the last moment will only help us stop such scenarios from playing out again in the future.
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I’ve lived in Poland since 1994 and now partly in Romania. The nonviolent struggle in Poland against the regime is rightly held as an example of the success of nonviolence over violence at effecting social and political change. And the hole that was left was, indeed, unfortunately filled with rapid and painful economic liberalisation that hit the ‘folks at the bottom’ while benefiting those at the top. The gap between the top and bottom has widened considerably.
I don’t have the figures to hand but my impression is that the average economic condition of people is now much higher – so the poverty line is higher. My guess is that overall standard of living is now better – in other words moving from 15% to 59% below the poverty line is relative rather than absolute.
The main thing I notice though is people are happier, enjoy their freedom and are more satisfied with life. So the economic mistakes are only part of the picture.
In Romania the revolution was violent. There the turmoil in the political and economic changes is still clearly visible and has an impact on day to day life.
I know this is purely my subjective, anecdotal view and you are absolutely right to suggest we look at the examples of revolution and social change at the larger scale.
Thanks Ian. I really appreciate your observations. Your point about the poverty line being relative is something that I hadn’t thought of. And I’m sure the political freedom and civil liberties are much appreciated.
I also thought your comparison to Romania was very interesting. What you described seems to often play out in these situations. When violence is used in political revolutions, when and if the movement succeeds, there seems to generally be more issues to deal with due to the means that were chosen. I think of Cuba as another example of this phenomenon.
Nonviolence on the other hand is far more likely to lead to a healthy democratic outcome because of the inclusive nature of nonviolent struggle.
I think this is an interesting and important article, however, I question your characterization of the movement in South Africa as nonviolent. Actually, I need to be a little bit more assertive than that. What history book are you reading??
The ANC was NOT, by an stretch of the imagination, a nonviolent organization throughout its history. In fact, not only did they openly and forcefully both advocate and carry out armed struggle, but by the end of apartheid were using tactics that can only be described as terrorism. Yes, apartheid ended via peaceful negotiation; however, peaceful negotiations forced by a country on the absolute brink of open civil war, the threat of which was made very real by the ANC’s campaign of bombings.
I am a passionate advocate and practitioner of nonviolent civil disobedience; however, let us not revise history to suit our own narratives. The liberation struggle in South Africa used a diversity of tactics and needed every one of them.
Of course there was violence. I was by no means saying that it was entirely nonviolent. But from what I’ve read, it was predominately nonviolent tactics, mainly a very effective boycott of white-owned businesses within the country and international economic sanctions, that brought the apartheid regime to the negotiating table.
The first place I probably read about the role that nonviolence played in bringing down the apartheid government was in A Force More Powerful, by Jack DuVall and Peter Ackerman. I really recommend it as a good place to begin to learn about these case studies.
But you can also learn about it online. Here is a study of the role nonviolent action played in South Africa, by Stephen Zunes in The Journal of Modern African Studies: http://188.8.131.52/Articles/JournalModAfStudies1999nonviolence.pdf