Change is in the air - The power of nonviolence

By Andreas Speck and Javier Gárate

It seems the year 2011 will end as it began – with huge social mobilisations all over the world and ongoing social protests. It is hard to take a break and to digest and reflect on everything that has happened this year. As we write, Tahrir Square is again full of protesters as in January and February, this time demanding not just the resignation of one man, but of the military dictatorship as a structure; the Occupy Movement is still going from strength to strength in many locations all over the world, and starting to think about its next steps, the student demonstrations continue in Chile and so many other social movement expressions continue to bring hope, showing that we have had enough of this economic and political system that benefits the very few and which does not represent the people. Many of these movements are still developing, and it is hard to evaluate them in terms of achievements of their end goals. We can only look at what impact they've had so far and look at how they have organised themselves.

One thing is for sure, no one can deny that there is a huge energy for change, and not just to demand change, but to actually be it.

Analysis and Messaging

Across the different movements, there seems to be a clear understanding of what is wrong, that it is a structural problem, it is about changing the whole system not changing the way resources are allocated or even just the names of the people in charge. In the case of Egypt, and as we see with the second phase of the protests, change was not only about getting rid of Mubarak. Of course, getting rid of the dictator was a huge step in the right direction – but the reality is answering the question:what kind of political system do Egyptians want for their country? The second wave of protests showed that it is one not controlled by a military dictatorship. In the case of the Chilean students it is about a completely different educational system which is linked to a different way of how wealth is divided, they struggle for a change in the tax system that allows students the necessary resources to guarantee free and quality education for all. The Occupy Movement has a clear understanding that the whole economic and political system is wrong, focusing on the economic growth that has benefited only the very rich and a political system corrupted and without direct representation.

What unites these movements is their deep disillusionment with the existing political and economic systems. There might not – yet – be a clear analysis of the powers that be, and how all of this is related, but there is a deep seated mistrust in the ability of the system to solve the problems it created. There might not – yet – be a clear vision of an alternative society, but there is a search for alternatives, a real search and hunger for real democracy, and for practising this in the organising of the movement.

Making the links

For us as war resisters, as nonviolent movements, these are important perspectives. On the one hand, we believe that we need to practice the change we want to see in our own movements – this is why we use strategies like nonviolence and consensus decision making. For us it is also important to see the links between the different systems of oppression – the structural side of violence. That is why we say that you can’t fight capitalism if you don't also fight militarism, and you can’t look at militarism without looking at the role of the state and of patriarchy.

How many times can we go back to the famous farewell address of US president Dwight D Eisenhower? He said that “in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together”. A warning that in the US there was a power more powerful than the White House - the military industrial complex. If we look at the economic system and where the money goes, you can’t ignore the amount that goes to the military.

Only in the last year (2010) global military spending has risen to US $1,620,000,000,000 (1.62 trillion USD). In the US this being 48% of the total Federal Budget, which amounts to 1,372 billion USD. In the state of Spain a very revealing figure shows how the per capita military spending is equivalent to paying one month of social benefits to somebody unemployed, and while social services are cut massively, this is not the case for military spending. According to SIPRI the arms trade is responsible for 40% of all corruption in global transactions.

More importantly, when we look at the less than 1%, we find the banks and the war profiteers.
If we don't see the connection between the economic system and militarism, then we are missing a very big piece of the problem.

During the Arab spring we learned of how the same governments that were supporting the uprisings, had exported weapons to these regimes. In the case of Chile, when we talk about the need for funds for education, we should not forget that the Chilean military continues to receive 10% of the copper revenues, on top of what is allocated in the national budget.

In each example of social mobilisation you will easily find a connection to militarism, and while military budgets still increase, or are only moderately cut, the majority of budget cuts are in education, social welfare, etc. Doesn't, this in itself, say something?

This doesn't mean that your message always has to include the role of militarism. We know that for a message to work you need to focus on what people can relate to most. In the case of the Occupy Movement they have chosen to focus on the role of banks, and rightly so, as they represent the symbol of the economic system, and they are good targets for campaigns, as most people have bank accounts, or have to pay a mortgage to a bank, to which they can relate. At the same time you cannot forget that these same banks are the ones investing and owning shares in the main arms producers. For example in the 2008 bank bailout, it was agreed to back $306 billion of residential and commercial loans and securities on Citigroup's balance sheet, Citigroup being one of the biggest banking corporations in the world. The US Treasury also agreed to invest $20 billion in Citigroup from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in exchange for preferred stock with an 8% dividend to the Treasury. The day before the announced agreement the company's stock was trading at $3.77 -- a price that represents a total loss of $244 billion in value in just two years. This is the same bank that participated for a sum of € 145 million in a revolving credit of € 3 billion for EADS - one of the main arms producers in the world. Citigroup also had a strong participation in the occupation of Iraq, where it had an influential position with the Iraq Panel of experts who were supposed to come up with a solution for war torn country. The ten member panel -- aided by issue-specific sub-groups comprised of 44 experts from academia, government, and the private sector -- advised a "redeployment" and "transition from a combat role to a support role" for U.S. military forces in Iraq... So choose your message carefully but don't miss out on your analysis.

There is one strand of movement theory which argues that movements need to have a very clear and narrow message to be successful. But these movements are about more than one issue, or cosmetic change. What they are searching for is radical change – a fundamental change of our political and economical systems. To achieve this, it is important to be aware of the links.

Bringing many movements together

Sometimes when a particular movement gains momentum, it can feel that everyone else tries to piggyback on it. It can appear on occasions that this is what the antimilitarist movement does, that we tend to follow what is on the top of the agenda and we struggle to set the issue of militarism on its own right. This is a big challenge, and of course we should be using any opportunity we have to make the connections. When we talk about the role of militarism in Egypt, the economy, Chilean education, etc we are not trying to hijack the focus of the movement, we are showing how militarism is present and responsible for more injustices that most are aware of.

We believe that for movements to be successful it is necessary for many of them to unite and find some joint issues to work on together. We should all be able to come together and say the economic and political system is unjust and doesn't represent us. It can be the antimilitarist movement saying it, the unions, the environmental movement or any other. Although we start from a different focus we can come together and agree on a bigger issue that affects us all. This way we are much more likely to have an impact than each of us continuing doing our work in isolation. We also need to understand that for a movement to be effective, it needs to give space for different forms of participation. Referring to Bill Moyer's Movement Action Plan, in your movement you need to have people playing different roles, Moyer categorised them in four main roles: rebel, reformer, citizens and change agent. The movement should allow space for all of them to join in.

Also the ‘Movement Action Plan’ tells us that movements take time to build momentum and reach their goals. This is currently a crucial aspect, when some of the Occupy Movement and Chilean Students seem to have lost some momentum, this doesn't mean that they are heading in the wrong direction. They have managed to put the issue on the agenda and gain quite some support. Now it is time to reach out to the other sectors of society and build more alliances to then come back stronger and to apply more pressure.

It is also important to review the tactics you follow, for example; for how long can you keep on doing the same actions? In the case of the Chilean students, how many more demonstrations can you do? What alternatives there are to demonstrations? Or in the case of the Occupy Movement, is the plan to stay forever occupying the squares or what are the next steps. The Spanish indignadxs have already moved towards a more decentralised organising than focusing on square occupation. It is also important to work on the alternatives we want to have, as we very often are criticised for not having a clear alternative to the problem. So remember that change takes time, so don't get frustrated if you see things not changing immediately, it is important to keep the work going and build these alliances to create the bases for different movements to come together.

What do we antimilitarist bring in to the mix?

So what is the role of us as antimilitarists? We have already mentioned our contribution to the analysis, bringing in the issue of the connection between capitalism, militarism, the state and patriarchy. Equally important are our principles of nonviolence, where we want a movement that's inclusive, where everyone can join. We want a movement that in our day to day actions reflects the society we want to build. We want to be creative and also radical in our actions.

As war resisters we have a long history of training in nonviolence, we have developed for years some skills that can be useful at this time. It is not surprising when we hear from our antimilitarist friends in the state of Spain that they have received many requests for nonviolence training from the indignadxs movement, mostly training on consensus decision making, but also other training areas. Apart from nonviolence training we also have a rich history of actually carrying out nonviolent direct actions, it is important for us to connect with other movements and pass on these skills and experiences, as well as for us to learn from what is happening today in the streets.

These are important times for social movements and an opportunity for the antimilitarist movement to connect with others to build a stronger movement for social change.

Programmes & Projects

Add new comment