April Carter, People Power and Political Change: Key Issues and Concepts

IssueApril 2012
Review by Michael Randle

This is an important new book on a topic that could hardly have greater political relevance or urgency.

Its author, April Carter, comes from a background of nonviolent activism and has established herself as a leading academic specialist in this field and in the broader arena of political philosophy. She examines ‘people power’ with dispassionate thoroughness, taking account of the conceptual ambiguities in the term itself and theoretical and practical issues related to its implementation.

‘If people power provides no panacea, it does in many instances open up alternatives to war and armed struggle.'

The term ‘people power’ is sometimes used imprecisely to cover the broad spectrum of nonviolent protest – taking it to mean that ordinary people by this method find a voice and a means of exercising political leverage.

Carter defines it more narrowly to designate nonviolent movements which unite large sections of a population in a common effort to achieve greater political freedom and a more democratic government. In its strongest, near ideal, form the demands of people power ‘approximate to an expression of the virtual united will of a population’.

Carter explores the ambiguities of the term in a chapter entitled ‘Constructing the People’ where she sets out some basic criteria for designating nonviolent resistance movements as people power –the involvement of large numbers, including people from normally diverse sections of society, persistence on the part of the resisters and organizational vitality.

Thus it includes national resistance to foreign domination, as classically in the case of India under the leadership of Gandhi, mass, persistent resistance to dictatorial or authoritarian rule, as in Iran in 1978-9, the ‘velvet revolutions’ in Eastern Europe in 1989 and currently the Arab uprisings, and resistance to attempts to thwart the democratic protest through a coup d’etat or stolen elections - as in the ‘colour’ revolutions in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003) and the Ukraine (2005).

People power is thus differentiated from nonviolent social movements which seek to remedy particular wrongs in a society, including discrimination against sections of the population. (Sometimes, however, such resistance can escalate to the point at which it becomes a challenge to the whole political system.)

Carter also suggests that the resistance itself can sometimes create ‘the people’, as in the ANC struggle in South Africa which in its origins brought together the Xhosa, Swazi and Zulu nations, eventually included many whites, and in the 1994 elections ‘consolidated the creation of a new people’.

Consent theory of power

Theorists of people power have argued that the reason even heavily-armed and ruthless regimes may be vulnerable to concerted nonviolent action is that they depend ultimately on the cooperation or at least the compliance of a plurality of the population.

When that cooperation is replaced by widespread and persistent defiance, the regime’s own pillars of power in a society can be eroded to the point where even the loyalty of its instruments of coercion and persuasion – the police, army, civil administration and media – breaks down.

Carter gives due weight to the critiques of this ‘consent’ theory of power, noting that in particular circumstances it may not apply – for instance where a territory is being occupied simply for its resources and there is no dependence on the indigenous population, as in occupied Palestine. In such situations, other strategies, including enlisting support from among the population of the occupying power, and/or persuading outside powers to apply pressure and sanctions may provide some leverage though less under the control of the resistance movement.

Still more problematic, however, is the case where the population is split along tribal, ethnic or religious lines, as was true to some degree in Libya and more markedly so at the time of writing in Syria. Carter also notes that in other power relations within a society, the consent theory is less convincing. Feminists, for example, have challenged the idea that it applies to the oppression of women under patriarchy.

But if people power provides no panacea it does in many instances open up alternatives to war and armed struggle which have sometimes been overlooked in the past, and indeed overlooked also by some historians when it is a major component of liberation struggles. Thus forms of civil resistance played a key role in the English, American, French and Russian revolutions. Strikes and civil unrest have also sometimes complemented guerrilla warfare, as in Cuba and Algeria.

For some theorists and practitioners of nonviolent struggle, any resort to violence is seen as undermining its moral, political and psychological leverage.

This position tends to be most firmly held by people committed to nonviolence as an ethical principle, rather than a pragmatic strategy to be deployed as and when it promises to be effective.

Pragmatic reasons

The trend in recent years has been towards emphasizing the pragmatic approach, notably in the writings of Gene Sharp and his colleagues – though Sharp finds pragmatic reasons for effectively ruling out any resort to violence in political struggles.

However, one finds in the writings of Eastern European ‘dissidents’ during the 1970s and 1980’s, such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik in Poland, a stronger emphasis on the moral and political impact of nonviolent action in a society built on untruth and hollow propaganda.

Havel’s insistence, for instance, on the power of ‘living in truth’ bears a striking resemblance to Gandhi’s term satyagraha or ‘truth-force’.

Some movements during that period called for the recognition of conscientious objection, and took a pacifist or near pacifist position, like the Swords into Ploughshares movement in East Germany. Most, however, were not pacifist, but argued the importance of avoiding violence on both moral and practical grounds.

Carter, in common with other theorists, draws a distinction between nonviolent and unarmed resistance.

In the former, there is a greater emphasis on communicating with opponents and on winning over at least those who might be susceptible to changing their convictions and behaviour.

In the latter, while lethal weapons are not used, other lesser forms of violence may be countenanced, and the notion of conversion plays little or no part.

The campaigns led by Gandhi are most clearly in the nonviolent camp, while the first Palestinian intifada, which was marked by frequent stone throwing at Israeli forces, was in the latter.

However, in practice most civil resistance falls somewhere along the spectrum between these two polarities.

Guerrilla warfare

Carter also devotes a chapter to a discussion of the similarities and differences between guerrilla warfare, or ‘people’s war’, and civil resistance. Some of the points they have in common are an emphasis on the importance of the political struggle, building alternative social institutions at the base, subverting the loyalty of the opponent’s military forces, and instilling fearlessness among activists and supporters.

However, the strategy is different too in important respects. Guerrilla warfare usually depends, at least in the early stages of a campaign, on clandestine organization, the use of hit and run tactics, and the creation of liberated zones where its combatants and commanders can take refuge and plan their strategy.

Civil resistance relies more on open defiance (though some clandestine planning may be necessary especially under highly repressive regimes), and the willingness of resisters to accept arrest and imprisonment as an integral part of the campaign strategy. Theorists of civil resistance also point to the horrific bloodshed and brutality on both sides that frequently accompanies guerrilla campaigns.

A new alignment

Carter puts forward a challenging proposition about the historic situation in which resistance movements now find themselves.

She cites the thesis of Jonathan Schell that ‘people’s war’ marked one extreme in the evolution of total war during the 20th century, and that civil resistance marks a dialectical response to the extremes of both conventional war (with its potential to escalate to the nuclear level) and guerrilla warfare.

She then goes on to argue the case for a different historical dialectic:

‘In the light of the undoubtedly increasing prevalence of unarmed popular resistance, but also of a new strikingly ruthless “terrorism”, attacking ordinary citizens and co-religionists as well as military and economic symbols of Western “imperialism”, it appears that in the twenty-first century there is a new alignment of forces. Genuine “people’s war” has to a large degree lost its historic moment. The primary choices today are between social movements and people power on the one hand and resorting to terror on the other.’