Histories of Violence: Does Civil Resistance Still Work?

September 16, 2021   •   By Bryony Lau

THIS IS THE 52nd in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This interview is with Erica Chenoweth, the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at the Harvard Kennedy School. Chenoweth’s latest book is Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2021), in which they show why civil resistance isn’t so much a moral choice as it is a strategic one.


BRYONY LAU: Your research has shown that nonviolent movements are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones at achieving revolutionary goals, such as overthrowing governments. Over the last 10 years, there has been an explosion of civil resistance beginning with the Arab Spring. But you write in the new book that you’re concerned that some of these movements aren’t succeeding at the same rate as before. Is that partly because governments have become smarter?

ERICA CHENOWETH: There are techniques that many scholars refer to as smart repression, which is a form of repression that’s highly selective, meaning targeting specific people rather than using brute force against, say, innocent protesters or bystanders, which would politically backfire. And the internet certainly makes those collective forms of repression easier for governments. But the other thing is that movements have had a tough time maintaining as high a degree of participation as in previous decades. They’ve also had a tough time with over-relying on particular tactics, like street demonstrations and mass demonstrations, which are important for their symbolic power, but are very difficult to sustain, particularly when repression begins and escalates compared to say general strikes or other really large-scale forms of economic noncooperation which are difficult to pull off with that long-term planning, preparation, and organization.

The model of movements over the past 10 or 15 years has been this kind of leaderless movement that doesn’t necessarily prioritize organizing. But organizing is absolutely essential for the long-term staying power of these movements and for them to be able to absorb tactical losses along the way, without completely demobilizing. Movements don’t need single leaders, but they definitely do need some kind of consensus or coalitional leadership that has staying power or a succession plan in place if certain individuals become incapacitated or compromised for some reason.

Many governments, even in established democracies, have become more authoritarian recently — including in the United States under former president Donald Trump. How does the character of a regime and its willingness to use violence against protestors affect civil resistance?

What’s interesting is that civil resistance campaigns that emerge to overthrow the incumbent national leader, a dictator or a leader of a country are more likely in authoritarian regimes, precisely because there are fewer legal avenues for people to express their political views. There seems to be a generalized pattern that when regimes become more repressive over time toward their population, people calculate that they need to rise up to protect themselves and their communities. It’s a little bit counterintuitive that the more authoritarian a country becomes the more resistance there is against it.

[Repression] depends on the degree to which the authoritarian leadership is unified and can compel the obedience of security forces and others. Some of it depends on the nature of the politics itself and the size of the movement. The larger and more diverse a movement, the easier it is for the movement to start to unsettle existing political alliances and to have a lot of capacity to transform the political environment.

But people should know they do have options other than being in the streets. Many movements, when they’ve faced massive violence from the regime, like in Sudan in 2019, they shift from being in the streets or doing sit-ins and mass demonstrations to doing stay-at-home demonstrations — pulling off a general strike even. And that can provide people with the ability to stay mobilized and use very disruptive techniques like economic noncooperation while also not exposing themselves directly to risk from police or security forces.

The internet has transformed how mass mobilization occurs, as well as how governments surveil their populations. Is social media helping these civil resistance movements become more or less effective?

Social media is a double-edged sword because on the one hand, we know that that it does allow for rapid mobilization of large numbers of people in a very short amount of time. But it’s also very good at allowing the other side to mobilize its supporters very quickly. And we have observed a much more robust pattern of protest and counterprotest or countermobilization during the digital age than before. The other thing is of course that governments long ago figured out how to wield social media to their own benefit either by using it to spread propaganda or fear in the population by publicizing instances of brutality against particular protestors that scare other people, or by using it to target key activists. At this point, the overreliance on social media as the only way that some movements communicate and coordinate makes them quite vulnerable.

In Egypt during 2011, Hosni Mubarak’s shutdown drew far more people into the streets in the short term, in part because they were outraged that the internet was shut off, and in part because they weren’t sitting in front of their computers or their devices. They found that the only way to really know what was going on was to come out. It backfired in that instance and other more recent examples. It seems clear that some regimes, like in Myanmar after the February coup, have been using internet shutoffs strategically. The military shuts off the internet and cellular service for a period of time to try to prevent coordination and planning, but then allows it to come back on when they want to spread a message of fear. Movements that understand how the information environment is being manipulated against them and find alternative methods of communication may be in a better position to maintain their momentum, despite shutdowns.

Back to this point of counterprotests and the way that we’ve seen antidemocratic, fascist, or far-right groups sometimes use the same tactics. Would you still call that civil resistance?

It’s controversial. There are some people who say it absolutely cannot be considered civil resistance if the claims of the movement are to dispossess others of their rights or to exclude others or to create totalitarian or autocratic systems over others. And then there are other people who say: It’s a method of conflict that can be used by anybody. There is ongoing controversy in the field about this. Part of it is related to the similar controversy about whether a movement can really be considered a nonviolent movement if it’s only committed to nonviolent methods because they work as opposed to being committed to nonviolent methods because they’re the right thing to do in creating a society that we would all want to live in. It’s not dissimilar from the discussion that has been going on for a hundred years between strict pacifists and people who are more interested in civil resistance from a pragmatic perspective.

My book makes explicit that I’m approaching this from a progressive orientation and that I don’t want people to use these techniques in ways that dispossess others of their rights or to promote antidemocratic aims. I also am skeptical that these methods can work for those movements as much as they can for those that are advocating for civil rights. Because movements that try to use nonviolent methods but actually are promoting a violent ideology over others make it very easy to see that they’re just relying on these methods for instrumental reasons. And they would use violence and do use violence if they think it’s the most effective way of achieving their ultimate goals.

Research that compares the use of nonviolent and violent techniques by antifascist groups and by white supremacist groups also finds that antifascist groups and antiracist groups suffer more in public opinion when they use violence. They’re expressing more egalitarian goals and aims and so the public takes them at their word and sees hypocrisy when they fall short. Whereas white supremacist groups explicitly have anti-egalitarian aims. They are looking to subjugate people and so the public expects them to be violent and when they are violent, they don’t get punished in public opinion. On the other hand, there’s far less overt public support for white supremacy so these groups don’t have as far to fall as those that are promoting antiracism or antifascism, who are viewed as hypocritical. This is one of those political realities right now that feels maddeningly unfair. It’s often noted that it is unfair for oppressed peoples to be held to higher standards morally than those who are oppressing them. I agree. It’s unfair. But at the current moment, in our political environment, it’s an important piece of context for understanding how to actually expand the base of support and mobilize a constituency that can change that unjust situation.

Using an effective method of resistance can sometimes make it surprisingly easier to achieve those goals than one might expect in the short term. Of course, long-term transformation takes long-term mobilization and sustained work across generations. That can be very frustrating, as it feels like there’s one step forward and then two steps back or four steps back. But again, the long arc of progressive change indicates that people power movements not only matter, but sometimes they’re the only way that these types of changes come about.

While this book draws on your academic research, including with Maria Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, it is primarily written for a general audience. How do you think it will help activists?

It’s not a “how-to” but it is trying to synthesize existing research that we have available to us right now to answer different questions that activists have. For example, how does the use of fringe violence by a movement affect its prospects for short-term success? We have some pretty good empirical research on that question by a lot of different scholars over the past 10 or 15 years. We can say that there might be some short-term, attention-grabbing benefits for movements that are embracing or tolerating fringe violence. But longer term, there are major political trade-offs. The research suggests that there are very few instances where violence will lead to the long-term strategic success of a movement. These are strategic dilemmas that have to be managed if a movement is going to survive and maintain its discipline.

The book is meant for the broader public and for anybody who wants to understand what social scientists and what activists know. What are the trade-offs? What’s the nature of the politics? And how have movements effectively overcome some of these dilemmas to win against the odds? The prevailing view is that when power asserts itself, people are either completely powerless or the only way of really challenging power is through violence. What I want everyone to know is that’s not true in the empirical record and there are other alternatives that often are as effective or even more effective. This is well established in the literature, and it might shape the way future generations undertake important transformative conflicts.


Bryony Lau is a freelance researcher and writer covering refugees, migration and conflict, with a focus on Southeast Asia.