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Sunday, January 24, 2010

198 More Sundays: Power Of The People And The Purse

I began a couple weeks ago to try introducing direct action to a wider audience by covering the Move Your Money campaign.  I followed that up the next week with a discussion of sedition, which bloggers can engage in to some extent.

My idea was that I should skip any preliminary discussion of theory and history to more quickly get into things people could easily start doing.  Going for the low-hanging fruit, I figured people would start thinking about the resistance they're a part of and start to see their inherent power, then perhaps the larger context would become more apparent.

However, I see that our educational system is so lacking in any treatment of nonviolent social and revolutionary movements, there is a good deal of misunderstanding about and bias against their application today.  I won't go tinfoil and suggest that's a deliberate ploy by our overlords to make people passive, but the effect is the same: we've been convinced we have no recourse so might as well stay at home and enjoy the consumer items corporatism bribes us with.

I guess I should therefore take a step back and present the big picture before getting into today's specific form of action.  A good place to start is whit what Gene Sharp, the person who originally cataloged the 198 Methods that I'm always going on about, explaining a bit about nonviolent action:

"If the withholding is undertaken by enough people for a long enough period of time, then the regime will have to come to terms or it will be collapsed. Nonviolent action seeks to bring about change in three ways. The first is conversion, which is the rarest. The second is accommodation, which is the most usual. The third is nonviolent coercion, which is the most extreme of all forms."

Sharp is at pains to divest nonviolent action of any semblance of passivity. He says: "Nonviolent action is a means of combat, as is war. It involves the matching of forces and the waging of "battles", requires wise strategy and tactics and demands of its "soldiers courage, discipline and Sacrifice'. Sharp also tries to make it different from anarchism. It is based on fear of sanctions as well as consent emanating extra constitutional tenor. He says that it is possible to integrate nonviolent action into a constitutional system of government. Here, Sharp at once defends the existence of the state, integrates nonviolent action as democratic and posits it as a perennial element in society capable of defending and sustaining human freedom. He detaches nonviolence from its normative life forms as Gandhi did in his critique of modem civilisation and incorporates it as a legitimate mode of action rooted in liberal democracy.

Sharp first cataloged his methods in 1973's The Politics of Nonviolent Action and revisited them in his 2005 book, Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential.  They fall into three overarching categories: actions to suspend social relations, actions to suspend economic relations, and actions to suspend political submission and assistance.

When I bring up direction action, people often only think of protest marches.  They correctly observe that such demonstrations "don't work": we marched against the Iraq War, for example, and Bush still invaded.  The problem is that marches are a type of protest and persusasion, which Sharp describes in Waging Nonviolent Struggle:

Nonviolent protest and persuasion include numerous methods that are mainly symbolic acts of peaceful opposition or attempted persuasion.  These extend beyond verbal expressions of opinion but stop short of noncooperation or nonviolent intervention.  The use of these methods shows that the resisters are against or in favor of something, the degree of opposition or support, and, sometimes, the number of people involved.

The impact of these methods on the attitudes of others will vary considerably.  It is possible that where a particular method is common, its influence in a single instance may be less than in locations where the method has hitherto been rare or unknown.  The political conditions in which the method occurs are also likely to influence its impact.  Dictatorial conditions make an act of nonviolent protest less common and more dangerous.  Hence, if it does occur, the act may be more dramatic and may receive greater attention than it would where the act is common or carries no penalty.

The message may be intended to influence the opponents, the public, the grievance group, or a combination of the three.  Attempts to influence the opponents usually focus on convincing them to correct or halt certain actions, or to do what the grievance group wants.  The methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion may also be selected to facilitate a concurrent or later application of other methods, especially the forms of noncooperation.

Some Methods are designed to garner sympathy and persuade people to come to your side.  Some intend to shame those in power.  And some merely register dissent.

Other Methods are more intense and meant to tangibly threaten the opponent, which could be a regime, a particular social group or even corporations.  Those are forms of noncooperation (social, political, and economic), which Sharp describes:

Overwhelmingly, the methods of nonviolent struggle involve noncooperation with the opponents.  "Noncooperation" means that the resisters in a conflict either deliberately withdraw some form or degree of existing cooperation with the opponents or the resisters refuse to initiate certain forms of new cooperation.  Noncooperation involves deliberate discontinuance, withholding, or defiance of certain existing relationships--social, economic, or political.  The action may be spontaneous or planned, and it may be legal or illegal.

The impact of the various forms of noncooperation hinges heavily on the number of people participating in the use of the methods and the degree to which the opponents are dependent on the persons and groups that are refusing cooperation.

I've heard people say, "I'd do that, but I don't want to be the only one."  A minority of one is certainly more symbolic and less effective than a mass movement, yet you do have start somewhere.  And if you consider blogs as being a cheap and fairly wide-reaching--though admittedly still not having as the same penetration as TV or radio as yet--medium that can help coordinate collective efforts, you won't be alone for very long if you're willing to take a risk.

One type of collective noncooperation in the economic sphere has been widely used since at least the 18th Century, such as when British abolitionists responded to Parliament's failure to abolish slavery (a great early example I will cover later): Method 71. Consumers' boycott.

Again, Sharp:

An economic boycott is the refusal to buy, sell, handle or distribute specific goods and services, and often also includes efforts to induce others to withdraw such cooperation.

Just as with Move Your Money, this tactic (generally) carries less risk with it than something like civil disobedience and allows individuals and groups to flex their economic muscle.  More importantly, this is a step up from just trying to persuade an opponent to do the right thing: now you're threatening them directly by cutting off the lifeblood of their revenue.  Following a few simple rules, there have been many successful consumer boycotts just in the last 20 years, so clearly it's still a useful tool in our kit.

So when I use the word 'escalate' I don't mean getting more people to more marches.  I'm talking about upping the ante in terms of psychological pressure, physical intervention and economic impact.  Once you've issued your demands with a "down payment" of action in the form of protest and persuasion Methods, you must move on to higher-level actions and ratchet up the force brought to bear through tactics like coordinated boycotts.

Okay, people have been able to get corporations to change some policies and whatnot, but how could we use this Method for something like HCR?  Ignoring the difficult logistics for a moment, an obvious target would be the insurance companies themselves.  If we were to attack their obscene, ever-growing profits by massively refusing to pay premiums after demanding they end policy rescissions, stop increasing premiums, reduce denial of claims, etc, they would necessarily have to accommodate us.  What's more, we probably would put indirect pressure on politicians who get campaign contributions from their corporate constituents, so government policy could also be influenced.

Now, of course that would be very difficult to organize.  I'm not saying it wouldn't work, because it absolutely would.  When people say "it won't work" they're usually conflating the issues of an action's effectiveness vs mobilizing people to act, and really mean "it won't get anybody on board."  In this specific example, there is too much to risk from some folks' perspective--there's no alternative to insurance available for most--not to mention that so much insurance is through employers and trying to get them to stop paying premiums would be extremely problematic.

So regarding the insurance companies themselves we probably would be better served by sticking with symbolic acts of protests.  Perhaps sending mock rescissions along with premiums, or standing vigil outside their offices, etc.

Maybe instead we could make more of a flanking maneuver and target other corporate entities that are tangentially related.  The media is certainly part of the problem, so what about boycotting cable companies who take ad dollars from insurance companies and deliver "news" shows that misinform the electorate?  Cancel your cable TV and you will harm their revenue stream, plus you could redirect some of those savings to other forms of action, donations to groups doing yeoman's work on reform and the like.

What other corpos could we try this on?  Which targets would be the most likely to help us mobilize participation? How would we organize it?

As we experiment, we must keep in mind that we can't expect this Method alone to carry the day.  What's more, boycotts themselves can divide a movement as some factions might harbor concern about potential negative consequences, timing and other issues, so we can't count on everybody buying into the idea (which ultimately can limit effectiveness).  Thus I'll be elaborating on more tactics in the coming weeks so we can have a fuller toolkit to work with.

ntodd

(Post at Pax Americana, Dohiyi Mir, Green Mountain Code Pink, Corrente and Daily Kos.)

January 24, 2010 in Pax Americana, Why We Fight | Permalink

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