Nonviolent Action


The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Nonviolent Action

Editor's Note: Although this article is included for the time being as our entry for Nonviolent Action, its main thrust is more specifically the extent to which conflicts around the world were waged nonviolently between 1984 and 1995.

Surveying global news media shows both the persistence and universality of nonviolent forms of struggle in conflicts, but also reveals important variations among countries, regions, and types of political systems. By analyzing reports of nonviolent direct action in news stories for the years between 1984 and 1995, we can provide tentative answers to several important questions: Just how common is nonviolent struggle in the world today? What differences are there among countries and regions? Under what kinds of political conditions and for what different purposes has nonviolent action been used? Has nonviolent struggle become more or less common in recent years?

First and foremost, nonviolent action appears in nearly every country in the world, regardless of culture, type of political system, or level of economic development. Nevertheless, nonviolent action is not equally common in all countries. Finally, the "surprising outbreak" of nonviolent struggle in 1989 does not appear to be an indicator of a rising trend toward greater use of nonviolent action over all. Rather, 1989 represented a momentary surge of activity in a number of closely related states.

Where and Why Is Nonviolent Action Used?

Nonviolent direct action is one means by which people and groups engage each other in conflict. Like violence, nonviolent action operates outside of the established parameters of institutionalized political interaction. "Direct action," both violent and nonviolent, has certain characteristics that set it apart from what might be called "routine," "institutional," or "normal" politics.

The key feature of direct action is the indeterminacy of its outcome, owing to the fact that no rules, norms, or procedures prescribe the outcome. For example, a fair election has an unknown outcome in the sense that the winner cannot be predicted in advance. However, the election process has known and predictable rules that will determine the outcome — the person receiving more than half the votes cast will win, for example. In contrast, direct actions have no procedural rules governing the results. When workers engage in a labor strike, a very common form of nonviolent direct action, or terrorists begin bombing public buildings, a form of violent direct action, there is no established procedure or norm that says, "You will win if you stay on strike for x number of days (or if you blow up x number of buildings)." The outcomes depend on factors related to the strategic and bargaining interaction between the parties to the conflict.

The degree to which conflicts are being waged in the streets rather than through existing political institutions and procedures provides an indicator of the capacity of those institutions to resolve conflicts effectively — higher levels of direct action indicate both intensified social conflict and the breakdown of established institutions. Similarly, the relative portions of nonviolent and violent direct action will indicate very generally the strategies and tactics people use to wage their conflicts.

News stories regularly report political behavior and conflict engagements, and implicitly distinguish between direct and routine action. Thus, it is possible to construct a global survey that focuses, on the one hand, on the relative amounts of direct action taking place around the world, and on the other hand on the uses of nonviolent struggle in these conflicts. News stories, of course, offer only a limited and selected reflection of reality. We know, for example, that the level of news media attention varies significantly among countries and that much more of any kind of behavior occurs than is reported. Nevertheless, news stories provide a source of data from which broad comparisons can be drawn.

Between 1984 and 1995 the Reuters world press news service reported direct action (either violent or nonviolent) in almost a third of its stories (approximately 30 percent). Nonviolent direct action accounted for somewhat less than one half of the stories concerning direct action (approximately 45 percent), or roughly 14 percent of all news stories.

Nonviolent action appears in virtually every country in the world, lending support for a very basic proposition — the use of nonviolent action is a ubiquitous phenomenon in social conflicts, cutting across cultures and histories. However, the distribution of reported nonviolent direct action is hardly uniform across the globe. One explanation is simply that the volume of new stories is much greater in some countries than in others, making the relative portions of the types of events reported somewhat skewed. Among countries that receive a high level of news attention, where the overall level of reported social conflict is low (as indicated by the portion of all direct action reports), nonviolent action tends to be the predominant means of expression. Notably, this group includes countries that are very different — such as the United States and the Soviet Union. In countries like the United States, where political processes are open and broadly accepted, violent direct action is delegitimized in favor of nonviolence when a conflict moves into the streets. In very repressive countries like the former USSR, social conflict in general, and violent opposition in particular, is strongly repressed. These important differences in the manifestations of conflict within different social and political systems are explored below.

Issues

As with the overall distribution of nonviolent direct action, the distribution of issues over which people struggle using nonviolent action varies rather dramatically. For the decade, the least frequently reported issues involved moral issues, such as abortion or obscenity, and explicitly communal or ethnic conflicts. The most frequently reported issues under contention involved human rights, economic disparities and poverty, peace or terrorism, and military and weapons concerns.

Just as the incidence of nonviolent action varied among countries and regions, the issues on which nonviolent action was used varied geographically. For example, in the Middle East and Central America, by far the most common issues involved peace, violence, and terrorism. In the former region, however, the next most prominent concerns were either military issues or self-determination, whereas in Central America the next level of concerns involved political legitimacy. This pattern makes sense in light of the regions' conflicts — each had ongoing armed conflicts over the decade; in the Middle East the struggle for Palestinian independence focused events; in Central America guerrilla insurgencies challenged the military-backed regimes then in power. In South America, the issues of poverty and crime dominated the news. Across the North Atlantic community of states (including Western Europe and North America) military issues predominated, reflecting the public concerns with nuclear weapons deployments during the 1980s. Finally, whereas issues of communal and ethnic strife ranked low in the global pattern of conflict issues, in southern Europe, which includes the Mediterranean countries and the Balkans, matters of self-determination, communal conflict, and human rights were as common as reports about violence and terrorism.

Political Systems

As noted above, the reported incidence of nonviolent direct action tends to vary with two factors — the overall level of conflict reported and the nature of the country's political system. Countries in which conflicts take up an increasing portion of the total news are experiencing greater stress and challenge than those with a lower portion of reports. The rising frequency of demonstrations, marches, strikes, and other forms of protest and noncooperation, as well as bombings, assassinations, and armed clashes, suggest that the institutional channels for resolving conflicts are not working effectively.

Part of the variation in both conflict levels and the ways conflict is prosecuted can be attributed to their varying political conditions. Insofar as countries affording greater freedoms to their peoples generally have more efficient and effective institutional processes for resolving disputes and making decisions, we would expect to find less recourse to "protest politics" (both violent and nonviolent) and greater reliance on established procedures. Countries with new freedoms, on the other hand, provide people with fewer institutional opportunities, and, perhaps, greater grievances. However, while the incentives for opposition may be higher in countries lacking freedoms, repression by the government also raises the cost of opposition, especially of violent opposition. This does not mean that opposition does not emerge under repressive regimes — both violent and nonviolent expressions of opposition can sometimes be quite powerful, as in Eastern Europe or China in 1989. However, overall, the tendency for opposition actions, as reflected in news reports, will be diminished.

Between the extremes of the most and least free countries are those countries with some degree of civil and political freedoms, but far from open and accessible institutions or substantial personal liberties. These countries may have some combination of moderately competitive political systems, partially free media institutions, or relative protections of human rights. Some of these countries may be undergoing transitions from less to more free political and social systems. In these partially free countries, the tendency for conflict to spill over into the streets is great because the institutional arrangements provide inadequate avenues for resolution, and yet the repressive response of the government is not likely to be as powerful as in very repressive regimes.

We can group the countries of the world into three clusters corresponding to the relative levels of freedom suggested above. In the most free group we find countries like the United States, Canada, Japan, Western European states, and Czechoslovakia after 1989. In the partially free cluster we find countries such as Bangladesh, Chile before 1987, Egypt, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. The least free grouping includes Cambodia, China, Iraq, Syria, Poland before 1989, and the Soviet Union (before its dissolution in late 1991). Because the level of freedom in some countries changes, sometimes dramatically, a grouping may have different members at different times. Therefore the discussion below characterizes the reporting of conflicts according to general types of political systems, rather than any one country.

Over the decade as a whole, conflict is least frequently reported in the most free countries, and most frequently reported in the partially free group. The expression of conflict through nonviolent methods is most common in the most free countries and least common in those that are partially free.

On an annual basis, a slightly different pattern emerges. While the portion of news stories reporting conflict in the most free group remained almost unchanged from year to year, those in the other two shifted. Beginning in 1989, the portion of stories reporting direct action in the least free countries increased slightly, indicating rising challenges to the world's most autocratic regimes. For example, the portions of news stories reporting conflict in Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia all increased dramatically in 1989. And, despite the well-known tendency of the news media to be attracted to and emphasize violence, the degree to which that conflict was expressed by nonviolent methods also increased.

After 1990, however, in countries in the least free group the level of reported nonviolent direct action declined, even as reports of conflicts continued to increase, suggesting either that new challenges were being expressed in more violent terms or that repression by governments increased in response to opposition. For example, both conflict and violence increased in Angola, Iran, and Pakistan.

Generally, the most turbulence was experienced in those countries in the partially free group. The level of conflict reported, always higher than either other group, varied over the decade within a range of about 5 percentage points up and down. Significantly, however, the reported level of nonviolent struggle declined after 1989. For example, beginning in 1990 Algeria began to experience a rising intensity of conflict and a decrease in the degree to which methods of nonviolent action were used. In 1992, it shifted from the partially free to least free grouping as the conflict continued. Similarly, news reporting in Egypt showed a rising level of conflict and a diminishing resort to nonviolent struggle beginning about the same time, although the political system did not become increasingly repressive, as it did in Algeria. Finally, in South Africa, the reported level of conflict remained high throughout the decade; and even as the country moved away from apartheid and toward nonracial elections in 1994, there was a decrease in the use of nonviolent direct action.

Trends and Conclusions

The patterns and descriptive data discussed above lead to the conclusion that although nonviolent direct action has been a prominent and important element in social conflicts throughout the world in recent years, the "surprising" events of 1989 did not presage a trend of rising use of nonviolent action. Over the past decade the general portion of direct action reported in Reuters news stories remained relatively constant at about 30 percent; the degree at which direct action was expressed nonviolently was about 45 percent. Significant variation in these portions existed among regions, countries, and political regimes.

The events of 1989 were a pivotal transitional moment in world politics, dramatically helping to restructure the global political order. The results of the revolutions in Europe in 1989 and 1990 encouraged people suffering under the remaining tyrannical regimes to mount new challenges, both nonviolent and otherwise.

William B. Vogele and Doug Bond, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Nonviolent Action
  • Program on Nonviolent Sanctions and Cultural Survival. Transforming Struggle: Strategy and the Global Experience of Nonviolent Direct Action. Cambridge, Mass.: Program on Nonviolent Sanctions and Cultural Survival at Harvard University, 1992.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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