Preconditions and social-political factors for mass civil disobedience

Jochen Stay

Jochen Stay, who was active in civil disobedience campaigns against the deployment of Pershing-II nuclear missiles in Mutlangen in Germany in the 1980s, and later in the campaigns against nuclear waste shipments in the 1990s and early 2000s, reflects on his experience with mass civil disobedience. In the present situation, it is clear that courageous action is again necessary, but he asks: Is civil disobedience with the participation of thousands of people an appropriate perspective for the peace movement today?

It is evident -- and the many failed attempts prove -- that not just any issue, nor in just any political context, and nor with just any political approach can thousands of people be attracted to take part in civil disobedience. Some political conditions have to be met for it to work. I will give ten points, which can be found in Mutlangen and with "X-thousands in the way", but I don't claim to be able to offer a recipe for success:

  1. The issue at hand is perceived by many people as a real threat. Being affected as a person is also a crucial factor.
  2. The issue at hand is one where many people believe that powerful interests are superior to politics and that party politics does not represent the will of the people.
  3. The movement has been able to focus on highly visible, controversial, or symbolical part of a big, general, and highly complex issue, and to generate a conflict around this part, which symbolises the issue as a whole.
  4. The movement has been able to escalate the conflict at one concrete place -- Mutlangen, Gorleben -- so that the place itself gets a large symbolic meaning and even becomes part of the identity of the movement.
  5. The campaign gains energy from a social vision which goes far beyond the political aim, and which is reflected within the campaign, in the way people relate to each other. I only want to mention grassroots democracy, consensus decision making, affinity groups and spokescouncil.
  6. The campaign for civil disobedience is carried by a circle of activists, who for years put all their energy and time (almost full-time) into the campaign and the fulfillment of their vision.
  7. A form of civil disobedience is devised whose consequences are neither too heavy nor too light. This means through limited violation of the law and through the preparedness to confront the consequences public awareness is created, but also that many people are prepared to wage civil disobedience, because the legal and physical consequences are limited and costs can be calculated.
  8. The actions develop into a good mixture of effective disruption of the machinery and ritual. For me, rituals are not negative, as long as they are filled with life.
  9. The mobilisation for the actions asks for a personal commitment from participants, for instance via pledges.
  10. Participants have the opportunity to prepare themselves well. A lot of effort is put into creating of an organisational framework that allows the individual activist to focus on the act of blockading itself.

Those are some commonalities. But there are also differences, factors that have changed since. I want to name some of those too. (...)

  • The use of and preparation of civil disobedience is now seen from a more pragmatic perspective. In Mutlangen there was a long and deep debate why civil disobedience is justified in times of the nuclear arms race. Nowadays, many see civil disobedience as one normal form of action, which is able to get more public attention than a normal demonstration. But it is also attractive because it provides the opportunity to put your own body as a spanner into the works.
  • "X-thousands in the way" works less with existing groups. Though they still exist and form the core of the action, most activists join as individuals or in small groups, and only form affinity groups on arrival. Therefore one or two days of preparation are needed before an action, to turn a chaotic mass into a community ready and able to act. And even this community is little more than an expanded core of participants. Most activists join spontaneously and without preparation, and the action has to be planned in a way that makes this possible.
  • The actions are a bit more “military style”. Because the police try to prevent any action in advance, using bans on demonstrations and deploying huge amounts of police, often getting to the action can be the most difficult part. Watching an action of "X-thousands in the way", we can see how thousands walk almost like a route column to the action, where thousands of police wait, reminiscent of images from the Napoleonic wars. The difference becomes obvious when shortly before the confrontation we fan out and calmly but determined walk through the police lines.
  • What changed too is the perception of success. Our aims in the '80s were set high too, but the individual activist was aware that the action itself wouldn't stop the arms race. Nowadays many are more ambitious and want short-term success.

This is an abstract from a longer presentation by Jochen Stay at the conference "with new energy for peace", 7 December 2002, Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany. The full version has been published (in German) in gewaltfreie aktion no 138/139, 1st+2nd quarter 2004, and a translation will be posted on the WRI web page!

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