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A more honest look at nonviolent success stories

Former Polish President and Solidarity founding leader Lech Walesa speaks to workers during a strike at the Gdansk shipyard in this August 8, 1980. (REUTERS/Forum/Erazm Ciolek)

Former Polish President and Solidarity founding leader Lech Walesa speaks to workers during a strike at the Gdansk shipyard in this August 8, 1980. (REUTERS/Forum/Erazm Ciolek)

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.