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Nonviolent Resistance, Social Justice, and Positive Peace

Authors:
1
Springer Handbook of Positive Peace
Chapter 2.3.3
Nonviolent Resistance, Social Justice, and Positive Peace
Jonathan Pinckney
United States Institute of Peace
Introduction
1
What is the role of nonviolent resistance in achieving positive peace? In this chapter I
will argue that nonviolent resistance is crucial for positive peace at anything beyond the
individual scale. The steps in my argument are as follows: to be meaningful, achieving positive
peace requires achieving social justice. Yet social justice is almost never voluntarily given by
oppressors. Thus, achieving social justice requires the exercise of coercive power. However,
when coercive power involves the use of violence, even when deployed for social justice, it tends
to destroy that socially just order. Thus, to achieve positive peace requires an alternative avenue
for the exercise of coercive power. Nonviolent resistance the application of political force
outside the normal bounds of politics and without the use of violence provides the toolkit
through which to exercise this coercive power.
I present evidence to this effect from the growing literature on nonviolent resistance,
emphasizing three key ways in which nonviolent resistance advances positive peace: first,
through its practice, which prefigures and embodies a political order of greater positive peace;
second, through its ability to overthrow unjust political systems; and third, through its positive
long-term effects on political order. I conclude by reflecting on the challenges and limitations
that remain in studying nonviolent resistance and applying it to achieve positive peace.
1
While the author of this chapter is currently an employee of the United States Institute of Peace, the chapter was
written prior to his employment there. The opinions expressed in this chapter are solely those of the author and
do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the United States Institute of Peace.
2
The Problem of Positive Peace
What is the shape of a political and social order characterized by positive peace? The
seminal answer to this question comes from Johan Galtung, the original coiner of the distinction
between negative and positive peace, who made positive peace explicitly interchangeable with
“social justice…egalitarian distribution of power and resources” (Galtung, 1969, p. 183). In
Galtung’s formulation positive peace goes well beyond the absence of direct violence (of which
physical violence is a form). It is an environment in which all human beings and for some other
thinkers all living or sentient beings (Garner, 2013; Nussbaum, 2005; Singer, 1995) are able to
reach their full potential in both mental and physical capacities.
Anything that prevents this by reducing the expression of human potential, is structural
violence. Structural violence is indirect, and does not involve the imposition of physical harm.
Yet its effects on human thriving can often be even more pernicious than direct violence. An
environment of positive peace must therefore be one in which both direct violence and structural
violence are fully absent
Complete positive peace is an ideal, unachievable in the real world but nonetheless
meaningful as a target for effort. While we may never reach a position of total positive peace,
certain political and social orders have greater positive peace than others.
There are diverse barriers to moving towards greater positive peace. Yet we can
summarize many of these as follows: some groups and individuals benefit more from an order
lacking in positive peace than one with positive peace. Structural violence is a strategy rationally
3
pursued by those who benefit from it. Thus, any moves to change the social and political order
towards greater positive peace will meet resistance.
This contention is not meant to deny the constitutive effects of oppressive social orders.
Much of the power of deep systems of structural violence such as patriarchy or racism comes not
just because they differentially benefit some groups over others but because of their ability to
transform what the individual finds beneficial. Power not only constrains subjects, it also creates
them (Foucault, 1980). This does not diminish the resistance that moves towards positive peace
are likely to engender. Instead it makes these moves even more difficult to achieve, and the
positions of oppressive power holders that much more difficult to dislodge.
Theorists of oppression and struggle from many traditions have recognized this core
difficulty, as well as the conclusion that logically follows from it: achieving positive peace
requires coercive struggle. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is perhaps a prominent example of an
activist and thinker who recognized this fact. King characterized his perspective as one of
realistic pacifism, that, building on the insights of thinkers such as Gandhi and Reinhold Niebuhr
(1932), sought to blend ethical persuasion with coercive power (King, 1958). As he reminds us
in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it
must be demanded by the oppressed (King, 1963, p. 5). This is certainly the case in
authoritarian political systems, but holds true even in nominally democratic systems as well,
where countering the disproportionate power of some groups and individuals typically requires
coercive action (Aitchison, 2018).
The necessity of coercively dislodging the powerful from their positions of structural
oppression has inspired theorists of violent revolution to argue that the structural violence of
4
oppression can only be met with similar levels of physical violence from the oppressed. As
Fanon writes:
If the last shall be first, this will only come to pass after a murderous and decisive
struggle between the two protagonists…from birth it is clear [to the “native” opposed to
colonialism] that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in
question by absolute violence (Fanon, 1963, p. 37).
Yet the record of violent revolution shows it to be woefully inadequate in achieving
positive peace. The literature on revolutions, building on foundational events such as the French
Revolution, has long recognized that the violent overthrow of systems of oppression tends to
lead, not to freer and more just political orders, but rather to orders that involve even greater
degrees of structural violence than those that preceded them (Brinton, 1938; Skocpol, 1979). The
French Revolution replaced the monarchy with the reign of terror. The Russian Revolution
replaced the Czars with the Gulags. And perhaps most horrifically, the Chinese Revolution
replaced the Kuomintang with the greatest mass slaughters in history during the Great Leap
Forward and Cultural Revolution. When revolution overthrows systems of structural violence,
the violence is not quenched, but only rises again harder and stronger.
This relationship is not deterministic. There are historical examples of major violent
uprisings leading to political outcomes that plausibly incorporate greater positive peace (Wood,
2000). However, these outcomes are the exception, rather than the rule. And even in
environments in which violent revolution initially leads to higher levels of positive peace, over
the long term political orders founded on violence tend to revert to violence. Violent conflict
tends to lead to a recurrence of violent conflict, the well-known conflict trap (Collier &
Sambanis, 2002; Walter, 2004). And political regimes founded on violence tend to themselves
5
become violent and oppressive over time. For example, while the Sandinista revolution in
Nicaragua plausibly initiated a political order with greater political freedom and economic
equality than the Somoza dictatorship that preceded it, it has led to a current political situation of
corrupt nepotistic political control and severe repression of political dissent (Belli, 2018).
The mechanisms for this relationship have to do with violence’s personal, interpersonal,
and political effects. On a personal level, exposure to violence triggers psychological processes
that predispose individuals to greater use of violence in the future (Bingenheimer, Brennan, &
Earls, 2005), on an interpersonal level it tends to break down bonds of social trust and degrade
the social capacities for peaceful dispute resolution (Hartzell, Hoddie, & Rothchild, 2001),
2
and
on the political level violence tends to centralize power in the hands of those with
disproportionate access to the means of violent coercion and willingness to use them (Bermeo,
2003; Lyons, 2016).
3
We are thus faced with a dilemma, and three poor choices to respond to it. We can refuse
to resist unjust political orders, giving up the possibility of positive peace. We can ask the
powerful to give up their positions of power, knowing that we will rarely if ever succeed. Or we
can seek to violently overthrow unjust political orders, knowing that what will follow is only
likely to harm positive peace in the long term. None of these responses is likely to engender
greater positive peace.
2
Though there is scholarly debate over this point. For evidence that violent conflict actually builds social trust, see
Gilligan, Pasquale, & Samii, 2014.
3
This is also a matter of debate in the literature. For analysis of many of the relationships between violent conflict
and greater political freedom see Fortna & Huang, 2012. For views that victory in civil wars by rebel groups may
encourage democracy see Toft, 2010.
6
Nonviolent Resistance for Positive Peace
Nonviolent resistance provides an alternative avenue to the options presented by this
dilemma, and thus a way to encourage greater positive peace. Yet to make this contention, it is
important first to define nonviolent resistance clearly.
Nonviolent resistance is related to and yet distinct from the broader concept of
nonviolence, which is “an action, system, or inner state of non-harming” (Standish, Devere,
Rafferty and Suazo 2019). By nonviolent resistance, I mean a concept with three core elements:
The application of political force outside the normal avenues of politics and without the use or
threat of physical violence. This definition draws on many of the existing definitions of
nonviolent resistance in the current literature. For instance, Gene Sharp defines nonviolent action
as “a technique of socio-political action for applying power in a conflict without the use of
violence” (Sharp, 1999, p. 567).
4
A brief explication of each of these three components of nonviolent resistance is in order.
First, nonviolent resistance is an application of political force. That is to say, it is an action
involving at least the latent capacity for coercion. It is thus conceptually distinct from, though
often overlapping with political acts that are purely communicative, or that rely solely on an
appeal to the morality or reason of an opponent.
5
The point of nonviolent resistance is to apply
4
See also the excellent introductions to the concept of nonviolent resistance and common misconceptions about it
in Chenoweth & Cunningham, 2013; Schock, 2003.
5
Though nonviolent resistance does have crucial communicative elements. For more on this see Martin & Varney,
2003.
7
force to compel an opponent to do something they otherwise would not choose to do. It is limited
conceptually as well to the realm of politics. This is not to argue that the same or similar tactics
cannot be employed outside of the political realm, simply to limit the discussion for the sake of
clarity.
Second, nonviolent resistance takes place outside of the normal avenues of politics. It is
often, though not necessarily, illegal.
6
The key thing that separates nonviolent resistance from
conventional politics is not necessarily that it breaks laws, but that it runs in opposition to regular
norms and procedures. Nonviolent resistance is unexpected and abnormal. It refuses to play by
the rules of the current political game, typically because its proponents do not have faith that
those rules are effective in achieving a just redress for their grievances.
This characteristic means that the same kind of action may or may not be nonviolent
resistance depending on context. The typical protest march, for example, may be a bold act of
resistance in a dictatorship, but a normal part of the political repertoire in an advanced
democracy. Even civil disobedience can be normalized as a regular part of politics, as in modern
India, where getting arrested at a protest is a sort of rite of passage for up and coming
politicians.
7
We can identify nonviolent resistance actions based on their departure from the
norm and their capacity to disrupt the regular patterns of achieving and maintaining political
power.
Third and finally, nonviolent resistance does not involve the use or threat of physical
violence. To be nonviolent resistance, an action cannot involve the intentional physical harm of
6
Thus nonviolent resistance is broader in scope than civil disobedience, which is the public violation of a specific
law. See definitions and discussion in Rawls, 1999, p. 320 and Bedau, 1961, 654.
7
See for example: Deccan Herald, 12-5-2011, “Rahul Gandhi Arrested Amid High Drama.”
https://www.deccanherald.com/content/160683/rahul-gandhi-arrested-amid-high.html.
8
another human being. Political violence relies on its own distinct logic, through which threats to
an opponent’s bodily integrity or the bodily integrity of their supporters compel the other to meet
one’s demands. This logic can operate through both physical harm or the threat of harm (for
instance, by carrying weapons).
8
It rests on manipulating the basic human desire for physical
safety. One can compel powerholders to give up power by either killing them or showing one’s
willingness and ability to kill them through killing a sufficient number of their soldiers and
supporters. The understanding of power is primarily material.
In contrast, the logic of nonviolent resistance rests on a more intersubjective
understanding of political power. Political power is not a material attribute of certain powerful
individuals. Rather individuals gain and maintain power through their positioning within
complex social systems. The continuation of these systems and thus the continuation of any
individual’s power – requires that a critical mass of their participants belief in the system and
cooperation in its operation. Even those who are disadvantaged or oppressed by the system
almost always play a crucial role in keeping it functioning.
Because of this, just as the oppressor possesses power over the oppressed, so the
oppressed possess power over the oppressor. The oppressed tacitly participate in systems of
oppression because of the costs that failing to participate would impose upon them. Yet the
imposition of these costs require that a critical mass of the oppressed continue to participate. If
the oppressed collectively withdraw their cooperation from systems of oppression then the
system will no longer be able to function. As Thomas Schelling says:
8
Some scholars go further and argue that nonviolent resistance movements should also not involve structural
violence (Vinthagen, 2015). While I agree with the logic of this argument, its empirical implications are more
difficult to consistently apply, thus I limit my definition of nonviolent resistance to excluding direct physical
violence.
9
The tyrant and his subjects are in somewhat symmetrical positions. They can deny him
most of what he wants they can, that is, if they have the disciplined organization to
refuse collaboration. And he can deny them just about everything they want he can
deny it by using the force at his command…it is a bargaining situation in which either
side, if adequately disciplined and organized, can deny most of what the other wants, and
it remains to see who wins (Schelling, 1969, pp. 351352).
At its core, nonviolent resistance is this withdrawal of cooperation. Through applying
force outside the normal bounds of politics, participants in a social or political system break
down the normal links that maintain the system. The withdrawal of cooperation threatens the
power position of the oppressors, and thus gives the oppressed a powerful point of coercive
leverage. This coercion motivates the oppressor to meet the demands of the oppressed, either
because they fear worse consequences or because the process of withdrawing consent has
already broken down their own coercive capacity (Sharp, 1973).
9
Henry David Thoreau’s analogy on the character of civil disobedience is appropriate
here. Nonviolent resistance is “the counter friction to stop the machine” (Thoreau, 2016, p. 7).
Systems of political authority require that those participating in them not counter them with
friction. If enough counter friction is applied, the machine can no longer operate and will break
down.
How is this withdrawal of consent accomplished? Gene Sharp’s (1973) seminal Politics
of Nonviolent Action identified three basic categories of nonviolent resistance methods: protest
9
While this “voluntarist” approach to nonviolent resistance is typically associated with the foundational scholar
Gene Sharp, it draws on earlier work from thinkers more typically associated with an ethical or principled approach
to nonviolence such as Thoreau or Gandhi. For more on this, see the explications of Gandhi’s political thought in
Bondurant, 1958; Iyer, 1973; and Shridharani, 1939.
10
and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention, and 198 specific methods within
these three categories. The practical experiences of activists in nonviolent resistance struggles
across many different political, social, and cultural contexts has generated many more.
10
The methods of protest and persuasion are primarily mobilizational tools, ways of
signaling one’s own withdrawal of consent, communicating that to potentially sympathetic
populations, and gaining more supporters who will also withdraw consent from the system.
These tactics are crucial for coordinating the actions of a sufficient critical mass to significantly
disrupt the operation of an oppressive system, particularly because socially unjust orders tend to
also involve widespread preference falsification (Kuran, 1991). That is to say, most people
would prefer a more just and equal order since in most cases an unjust order implies the
domination of the many by the few but they are afraid of signaling their preference without
widespread support. Tactics of protest and persuasion signal to those afraid of expressing
themselves that widespread opposition exists, and highlights the grievances that have motivated
them to protest.
Protest and persuasion includes well-known tactics such as public marches and
demonstrations, as well more unusual tactics such as mock funerals and mass silence. It may
sometimes involve gathering large numbers of people in one place (tactics of concentration) but
also may involve spreading people across many different locations (tactics of dispersion).
11
For
example, in the movement against the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the
1980s government repression made public marches and demonstrations too dangerous for
activist groups to organize. So instead activists organized a cacerolazo protest, in which, at a
10
For example, see the listing of additional methods of nonviolent action on the Swarthmore Global Nonviolent
Action Database: https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/browse_methods.
11
See Schock 2005 for more on this distinction.
11
specified time, people all across the country banged pots and pans to express their opposition to
Pinochet (Ackerman & DuVall, 2000).
Once methods of protest and persuasion have generated opposition of sufficient size, a
nonviolent resistance movement can then more effectively move into the more directly coercive
methods of noncooperation and nonviolent intervention. The methods of noncooperation involve
withdrawing cooperation through engaging in actions that are unexpected or refusing to engage
in expected actions. The best known and perhaps most widely used of these tactics is the labor
strike, in which workers refuse to continue at their jobs until certain demands are met. Strikes
come in many different forms, such as the go-slow, the sick-in, or the work-to-rule. The
most extreme of these is the general strike, in which not just workers in a single industry but the
entire population of a country, region, or city cease all economic activity for a predefined period.
General strikes can have serious economic consequences (Shrestha & Chaudhary, 2013), and
thus provide powerful signals of a withdrawal of consent even when only followed for brief
periods. For instance, in the Velvet Revolution against the Communist government of
Czechoslovakia, the opposition organized a two-hour symbolic general strike, too short to
actually affect the country’s economy but long enough and widespread enough to signal that the
government had lost control of the country and needed to negotiate (Williams, 2009).
Nonviolent intervention involves directly physically intervening in a specific situation to
prevent an action from occurring. While non-cooperation tend to involve acts of omission,
nonviolent intervention almost always involves acts of commission. Sit-ins and other methods of
nonviolent blockade fall into this category. Occupations of public spaces such as in the Tahrir
Square protests or the Occupy movement of 2011, while they typically involve an element of
protest and persuasion, would also fall into this category.
12
While tactics of noncooperation tend to be more diffuse and require large numbers of
participants, nonviolent intervention tactics can often achieve significant impact with very few
participants (Cunningham, Dahl, & Fruge, 2017). For instance, in 1980 eight activists with the
American Plowshares movement broke into a General Electric facility in King of Prussia,
Pennsylvania; destroyed several nuclear warheads, and poured blood on security documents.
This act of nonviolent intervention took minimal planning and intervention, but its highly visible
and dramatic nature sparked a national and later international movement against nuclear weapons
(Nepstad, 2008).
Gene Sharp and the scholars in his tradition
12
argue that through the widespread,
coordinated, and strategic use of these methods nonviolent resisters can disrupt and ultimately
dismantle almost any system of political oppression. Yet one should be careful not to overstate
the ease of nonviolent resistance. Choosing to withdraw consent from an unjust system is by no
means a simple process. In particular, to effectively undermine an entire system of oppression,
such withdrawal of consent must be widely coordinated (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011), and
involve a prior process of cognitive liberation whereby the oppressed become aware that such
withdrawal of consent is even possible (McAdam, 1982). Skillful application of the tools of
nonviolent resistance is also by no means guaranteed, but typically requires a strategic capacity
by the organizations seeking to practice it (Ganz, 2009). Nonviolent resistance movements face
several challenges during their life cycle, including maintaining unity (Pearlman, 2011) and
avoiding breakdowns in nonviolent discipline (Pinckney, 2016).
12
See, for example: Ackerman & DuVall, 2000; Ackerman & Kruegler, 1994; and Helvey, 2004.
13
Nonviolent resistance thus provides a conceptual way out of the dilemma of either
passively accepting oppressive systems of power or violently overthrowing them in the
knowledge that this process is unlikely to issue in greater positive peace. This is a contention that
has been long-recognized, and is indeed the fundamental insight behind much of the classic work
by practitioners and scholars on nonviolent resistance (Deming, 1971). Yet the crucial question
is whether this conceptual insight can be matched by empirical data. Is nonviolent resistance
indeed an effective force for fostering positive peace? A growing scholarly literature leads us to
clearly and definitively answer yes.
The Success of Nonviolent Resistance
Nonviolent resistance has encouraged positive peace in three ways: constitutively through
its practice, practically through its ability to extract concessions from unjust political regimes,
and transformatively through its effects on long-term political order.
The process of nonviolent resistance itself both prefigures and constitutes greater positive
peace.
13
The experience of participants in nonviolent resistance movements tends to lead to an
environment of greater inclusion and human flourishing in an environment of heightened agency.
While there are exceptions, nonviolent resistance movements tend to be non-hierarchical and
participatory, encouraging the undoing of past injustices within their own structures and
embodying an order of positive peace (Polletta, 2002). During the Egyptian revolution of 2011,
participants spoke glowingly of the environment of the “Republic of Tahrir” and the greater
feelings of dignity and self-respect that they experienced during their participation in the
revolution (Khalil, 2011). Describing many different movements from diverse settings, Zeynep
13
On prefiguration in nonviolent resistance movements see Breines, 1982.
14
Tufekci (2017) speaks of the ability of movement culture to bring together disparate social
groups and elevate the position of the traditionally disadvantaged. Thus, the practice of
nonviolent resistance alone has beneficial effects on positive peace, no matter the outcome.
Yet the track record on nonviolent resistance’s outcomes is also very positive. Nonviolent
resistance has a demonstrated superior ability relative to violent resistance to end unjust political
orders and thus issue in societies with higher levels of positive peace. The seminal work
demonstrating this relationship is Chenoweth and Stephan’s (2011) book Why Civil Resistance
Works, which showed through statistical analysis of over 300 violent and nonviolent resistance
movements from 1900 to 2006 that primarily nonviolent resistance movements were on average
more than twice as successful in achieving regime change, secession, or ending military
occupations as primarily violent resistance movements.
Nonviolent resistance played a crucial role in most of the major advances of political
freedom and social justice in the 20th century.
14
For instance, nonviolent resistance was central in
many of the anti-colonial struggles in places as diverse as India and Ghana. Nonviolent
movements touched off the third wave of democracy with Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in
1974, and carried it through with a series of movements that brought down dictatorships from
Brazil to the Philippines. And in perhaps the most powerful moment for nonviolent resistance in
recent history, a wave of nonviolent movements brought down the Communist regimes of
Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989.
14
There is a long history of nonviolent resistance promoting social justice before the 20th century as well, though
much of this has been lost or is poorly studied. Examples of nonviolent resistance to political oppression go back as
far as the Jewish midwives resisting Pharaoh’s order to kill the firstborn sons of the Israelites in Egypt, or the
Plebeians refusing to engage in military service for the Roman Republic until they were granted greater political
rights (Howes, 2015). Many historic national liberation struggles, including the American Revolution, also had
significant elements of nonviolent resistance (Bartkowski, 2013).
15
Nonviolent resistance has also been effective in promoting positive peace through
increasing social justice in democratic societies. One of the best-known examples of this is the
1950s and 1960s civil rights movement in the United States, which ended legal racial segregation
and significantly improved political and social rights protections for African Americans.
Finally, in addition to its ability to encourage positive peace by its superior effectiveness
in directly combatting political oppression, nonviolent resistance also has strong long-term
positive effects on political order. The most consistent and well-replicated finding here is
nonviolent resistance’s effects on democracy. Nonviolent resistance tends to lead to better,
stronger, and more robust democratic countries. In Portugal, the experience of the Carnation
Revolution in 1974 created a wave of civic activism in which ordinary people developed
powerful ways of pressuring their government for progressive change (Fernandes, 2015). In
Poland, eight years of nonviolent resistance against Communism by the Solidarity movement led
to a political culture in which protest became a regularized way of keeping leaders accountable
(Ekiert & Kubik, 2001). The common dynamic across cases like these is a diffusion of power
from elites to the masses. The experience of nonviolent resistance against a dictatorship tends to
create a political order with high levels of public engagement and political empowerment for
ordinary people.
These country-specific instances of a positive, democratizing effect of nonviolent
resistance are borne out in a more recent quantitative literature on nonviolent resistance and
democratization. Scholars have found that nonviolent resistance tends to make transitions to
democracy more likely (Celestino & Gleditsch, 2013; Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011; Johnstad,
2010; Karatnycky & Ackerman, 2005; Pinckney, 2018), that democracies brought about through
nonviolent resistance are less likely to revert back to authoritarianism (Bayer, Bethke, &
16
Lambach, 2016), and have higher democratic quality, particularly in regards to freedom of
expression and association (Bethke & Pinckney, 2016).
The effects of nonviolent resistance in improving political freedoms and thus moving
towards political systems of greater positive peace are strong and substantive, with meaningful
long-term consequences for those who participate, their fellow citizens, and indeed for others
around the globe who benefit from their knowledge and example. Thus, the evidence of the
scholarly literature shows that nonviolent resistance does not just conceptually resolve the
problem of resisting unjust political orders without the use of violence. It is indeed a practical
tool, with a proven track record for creating more positive peace while being practiced, in its
immediate aftermath, and over the long term.
Limitations on Nonviolent Resistance
While there is significant evidence that nonviolent resistance can end unjust political
orders and thus create the conditions for greater positive peace, there are also significant
limitations on the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance that we must keep in mind.
First, several scholars argue that nonviolent resistance’s ability to lead to positive peace is
significantly limited by contextual factors. For instance, Ritter (2015) argues that connection to
the West and the constraining influence of originally quasi-democratic institutions prevented
nonviolent revolutionary movements in the Middle East from being repressed, helping them
achieve success. Lehoucq (2016) similarly argues that pre-existing social and political
institutions, particularly levels of government repression, largely determine whether nonviolent
resistance is possible. Thus, it is not particularly causally meaningful to focus on nonviolent
resistance as a force for positive change.
17
Nonviolent resistance is doubtless encouraged by particular social and political
structures. Nepstad (2015), for instance, argues that free spaces for civic organization and the
existence of cross-class coalitions are crucial. Svensson and Lindgren (2011) show that
polarization along ethnic lines makes nonviolent resistance more difficult, and Thurber (2018)
shows that nonviolent resistance is more difficult for politically disadvantaged ethnic
minorities.
15
Several other contextual factors highlighted in the literature on social movements,
including the pre-existence of facilitating organizations, the availability of mobilizing frames,
and a favorable political opportunity structure do seem to at least play some role.
More research is needed into the contextual factors that systematically affect the
likelihood of nonviolent resistance emergence. Yet there are strong indications from existing
work that while context may provide some limits on nonviolent resistance, nonviolent
movements can emerge and succeed even in very unfavorable environments. Chenoweth and
Ulfelder (2017) find that a wide range of plausible structural predictors do poorly in predicting
the onset of major campaigns of nonviolent resistance, indicating an important role for
contingency and nonviolent activists’ agency.
When it comes to the long-term effects of nonviolent resistance, Pinckney (2020) finds
that the most common structural predictors of democratization perform poorly in predicting
levels of democracy after successful nonviolent resistance movements. If there are systematic
predictors of both nonviolent resistance and positive political change, they have yet to be
definitively identified, nor do their effects eliminate the independent impact of nonviolent
15
Other important works on the factors that increase the likelihood of nonviolent resistance movements emerging
include Braithwaite, Braithwaite, & Kucik, 2015; Butcher & Svensson, 2016; Dahlum, 2018; Karakaya, 2016; and
Schaftenaar, 2017.
18
resistance. Yet more research, including more careful examination of specific cases of nonviolent
resistance, is needed to shed further light on this question.
A second objection to the positive relationship between nonviolent resistance and
positive peace has to do with the character of the political change that tends to follow nonviolent
resistance movements. While there has been extensive research showing the ability of nonviolent
resistance to lead to more democratic political orders little work has focused thus far on
nonviolent resistance’s ability to also transform systems of economic exploitation.
16
Thus, the
objection has been raised that the revolutions brought about through nonviolent resistance are
cosmetic and do not advance positive peace since their institutional transformations only go so
far as a neoliberal democratic consensus and do not push for more fundamental economic change
(Chabot & Sharifi, 2013). Nonviolent resistance may be able to improve positive peace through
ousting non-democratic regimes, but we know little about whether it can create deeper economic
transformation that would lead to more fully just societies.
Yet even here there are many examples of both local and transnational struggles that are
transforming systems of economic exploitation. For example, Brazil’s Landless Peasant’s
Movement (MST) and India’s Ekta Parishad movements have both employed nonviolent
resistance tactics to successfully push for a more equitable distribution of land in their respective
countries (Schock, 2015). And transnational social movements have used nonviolent resistance
in many different environments to push for greater economic justice (Smith, 2008).
In some cases, nonviolent resistance may also undermine the possibility for positive
peace through destabilizing political institutions. In countries such as Thailand and Bangladesh,
16
A gap in knowledge that some attribute to “Eurocentric Universalism” in the field (Chabot & Vinthagen, 2015).
19
successful nonviolent resistance movements against dictatorships have led not to stable political
orders of increasing positive peace. Instead, the factions of these movements turned against one
another and initiated a pattern of back and forth, all-or-nothing struggles in which the tools of
nonviolent resistance were deployed for their own narrow agendas. This street radicalism
(Pinckney, 2018) has led to increasing levels of political instability and, in the case of Thailand,
motivated a return to authoritarianism. There is little research so far on the reasons why in some
countries nonviolent resistance builds healthy civic engagement, while in others it leads to this
more destructive street radicalism.
Thus, while there is strong evidence that nonviolent resistance is a powerful tool for
improving positive peace, particularly when it comes to ousting oppressive regimes and
improving the protection of civil rights and liberties, there is much that we still do not know
about how nonviolent resistance movements emerge, succeed, and have their long-term societal
impact. More work is also needed to look at when nonviolent movements can go past ending
political oppression and spark more fundamental economic transformations.
Conclusion
Achieving positive peace is a challenge not just because of disagreement over the most
effective ways to achieve it, but rather because groups responsible for violence and oppression
directly benefit from and thus seek to continue unjust and violent political orders. The logical
implication is that a political and social order characterized by positive peace will not simply
arise naturally, but requires an active and engaged process of political struggle, and coercive
force exercised on those who maintain the current system of injustice.
20
Yet the necessity of struggle by no means implies that any means of pursuing the struggle
is equally useful. In particular, using violence to pursue positive peace is typically misguided.
The track record of violent revolutions indicates that the pursuit of positive peace through
violence is almost always doomed to fail. Even when it succeeds the political orders it brings
into being are highly likely to regress to some form of injustice in the future.
Nonviolent resistance, the application of political force outside the normal avenues of
politics and without the use or threat of physical violence, thus must be a central part of the
agenda of any pursuit of positive peace. Unjust laws, institutions, and political orders are highly
unlikely to be transformed from within. They must be challenged from without, through means
that can both effectively undermine their pillars of support and create the conditions for positive
peace once they have been undermined.
Research on nonviolent resistance has shown that, when applied consistently and
strategically, this method of struggle is one of the most potent avenues for achieving more just
political orders, that is to say orders that approach closer to the ideal of positive peace and reduce
the amount of structural violence inherent in their operation.
There is much we still do not know about nonviolent resistance, including the degree of
its ability to move beyond political change to deeper economic and social transformation. Yet
advances in the study of nonviolent resistance and the example of countless millions of brave
nonviolent activists should give us hope that this method of struggle provides potent potential
solutions to, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (King, 1964, p. 2) said in his speech accepting the
Nobel Peace Prize, “the crucial moral and political questions of our time.”
21
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