Power of nonviolence?

IssueFebruary 2008
Feature by Capten Ollie Cyboli

If there is power in nonviolence, what are its effects? How are we to assess the impact of nonviolent direct action (NVDA)? After many hard-fought CIRCA campaigns, am I, my comrades and allies in any sense empowered?

Personally, I don't feel any significant political power has come my way: I don't feel any more in control; I don't feel any relaxation in the throttling grip of authority.

There have been moments of feeling psychologically empowered, of course.

Power, ha ha

Just last year there was the “capture” of a car full of police officers at Faslane; breaking out of a police “kettle” [line of police surrounding and penning in protestors] at the Camp for Climate Action; taking part in consensus decision-making on numerous actions, feeling euphoric about being part of a democracy that makes me more than me, better than me....

Powerless, boo hoo

To set against such experiences, though, are those where I felt totally powerless, outraged or terrified: arrested and placed in solitary confinement at Faslane for symbolically replacing Trident with rubber ducks floated on the Gare Loch; finally kettled and held for hours by police near Heathrow; having the Clown next to me clubbed to the ground by a policeman at the G8 in Rostock with no provocation; having a bulldozer at Ffos- Y-Fran open-cast coal mine in Merthyr Tydfil refuse to stop in the face of our climate change protest and head straight for me.

Effectiveness, oh yes!

These moments of feeling powerful or powerless are beside the point, however.

Because surely the point of NVDA is to effect social change; through nonviolence we want the “power to do” something.

In the first instance, we want to stop the replacement of Trident; to stop a third runway at Heathrow; to stop open-cast mining; to stop the G8 taking undemocratic decisions that impact catastrophically on current and future generations....

Then, following effective resistance, we want to implement alternatives based on peace, social justice and environmental sustainability.

Failure, oh no!

But if the power of nonviolence is to be judged by the social change effected, NVDA seems doomed to failure.

Because, were I a gambling man rather than a gambolling Clown, I'd bet my shirt on Trident replacement, a third runway at Heathrow, humanity mining and burning the last nugget of the dirtiest coal, and catastrophic climate change.

Never mind political power, which way to Paddy Power?

Success, yes

Most often empowerment is treated uncritically; just to act is empowering.

To create spaces in which to practice a prefigurative politics - in which to be the change we want to see in the world - is psychologically empowering, no matter how long that space can be held.

Autonomous communities like Christiania in Copenhagen strive to hold out long-term, though pressure from the state is intense, violent and corrosive; social centres create urban community space; actions such as the Camp for Climate Action create democratic space for shorter periods; and in demonstrations, protestors snatch and savour moments of power. Can we expand such prefigurative politics in time and space? Are you Can psychological empowerment become political power?

Wibble wobble power

By subverting it, Clowns seek to change the space of encounter between domination and resistance. Police from the car captured at Faslane demanded that Clowns move when we blocked their exit. Good soldiers, we obeyed: each Clown changed places with another.

We are unsettling. Authority feels out of place and the cultural space, if not the territory, is ours. But what's the point of that, to claim a car park for scant moments, to have fleeting power over a few police officers? It seems hopeless to seek real empowerment through such nonviolence. At best NVDA is a symbolic assertion of resistance; having nothing changes, the centre holds.

Sad clown

So, it is with deep regret that I must resign my CIRCA commission and slip back into “the matrix”, surrendering to lethargic, seemingly boundless, consumption: “ignorance is bliss”; join me, slip-sliding away.... Happy clown But what if the power of nonviolence is not to be found in reversing the “power-over” social relation between state and citizen, domination and resistance? What if it lies in extending “power-with”, as Hannah Arendt termed it, the power to do something together that surely comes through expanding “together”. As a Clown, I sort of know this. That's why CIRCA choose nonviolence and to play with “the authorities” not pitch ourselves against them; one day we hope we'll be on the same side. The tactical question remains though, how to extend “power- with”, how to scale up “together”? New world clown For me, San Francisco activist Chris Carlsson comes up with a considerable answer. Reviewing the G8 in Germany, he places our actions in a much longer timeframe.

We are creating the founda a laugh? tion of a social movement, we're engaged in “a process of political re-invention and re-engagement.... Our protests and creative alternatives have to inspire our enemies to join us”. All our actions have to be “irresistibly compelling invitations.”

For now, this nugget is enough to get me back in uniform; I'm (still) in the army now. Though the mission is both more urgent and more daunting than ever, the means seem revitalised. Action becomes seduction, our spaces must always be more attractive: welcoming, challenging, full of fun...

So, come all you militarists, neo-liberals, multinational corporations, myopic politicians, policemen, bureaucrats and Daily Mail readers, come out and play! We're having a party: come and sing, come and dance; eat, drink and be merry.

Then let's discuss the future, let's disagree, rant and rave. But let's always return to this space to talk again: you are cordially invited to true democracy, power-with.