“How to Get Shit Done” – Review of Blueprint for Revolution

In Blueprint for Revolution, Srdja Popovic surveys non-violent movements that have brought about revolutionary change. In his words:

“It’s a book about the revolutions launched by ordinary peole who believe that if they get together and think creatively, they can topple dictators and correct injustices.”

If you are someone who wants to learn more about effecting political change, Blueprint is a good book to pick up. But be aware  that this book is more about social movements working outside of formal political institutions than it is about directly influencing legislation, electing progressive candidates to office, and related topics. If your primary interest is in this kind of politics, this book will not offer many direct insights, but it will still provide some interesting and useful ideas about how change can be brought about. And it’s a good read.

Blueprint is divided into two main parts. First, there are case studies. Popovic relates his own experience as a leader of the Otpor movement in Serbia that was instrumental in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic. He also tells the stories of many other movements and countries that he learned about in his work for the  Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) that he and colleagues set up to bring the lessons of Otpor to other movements.

Second, the book offers practical tips and tactics that movements can use to undermine authoritarian rulers and the forces that support them. Popovic–a good story-teller–conveys how creative some opposition movements have been over the years in undermining personality cults and breaking the barrier of fear that often prevents ordinary people from coming together to take even the most modest steps to voice their opposition.

It is often humor that people resort to initially. Popovic relates the story from the Polish Solidarity movement in the 1980s. In a small town, people were so fed up with government-controlled evening news at 7:30 pm that they took to parading around with their TVs in wheelbarrows every day at that time. It wasn’t enough to just not watch the news any more. No, they realized that they had to be public about their feelings and they also had to make it funny, while also ensuring that they avoided a crackdown. This prank caught on in the town and spread to surrounding areas.

Popovic tells many stories like this from different countries. The point is not that protesting in this way has an immediate or profound impact. Rather, it is to illustrate the point that easy first steps that are also fun can get people involved and undermine the fear that regimes use to control populations. Popovic calls this “laughtivism.”

Popovic weaves his stories and anecdotes around important points about strategy. The most fundamental principle is to actually have a strategy. Demonstrations and other types of activities can be worthwhile, but they are much more powerful if undertaken within a framework that identifies a clear objective and a plan to pursue it. It is one thing to act; another, as Popovic is fond of saying, to “get shit done.”

One element of strategy is to assess the pillars of support for a regime or government. Popovic takes this concept directly from Gene Sharp, who developed it in his Politics of Nonviolent Action, a three-volume catalog of strategies and tactics for opposing authoritarian regimes non-violently. For such regimes, there are economic and political pillars that under-gird its power. Political supports could be ethnic or sectarian groups, patronage networks, business or other social classes, security forces, and outside powers.

Economic supports could be state enterprises, export industries, and other important economic sectors that business elites or other social classes rely on. For anti-regime movements in authoritarian countries, being strategic means identifying the pillars of the regime and figuring out how to undermine them.

Going beyond Popovic, we should add the concept of legitimacy as a pillar. In simple terms legitimacy is a combination of the right of a regime or administration to govern and the support of a meaningful segment of the population. In addition to fear, an authoritarian government depends on a certain willingness of people to go along or even actively support it if it delivers economic benefits or is seen to promote the national interest.

In the US context, the same principles apply generally, although there are some meaningful differences. In western democracies, security forces have a smaller role in directly supporting the government against the people. Democratic channels of public participation and various political rights give the government legitimacy. Those, along with more-or-less independent legislative, executive, and judicial branches complicate the context and potential of protest movements. Legitimacy in the context of a democratic regime generally is more about support for what an administration is doing than the right of that administration to hold power.

Having said this, it also has to be acknowledged that legitimacy for the Trump administration may be more akin to that of authoritarian government in that major segments of the US polity believe the actions of the Trump presidential campaign and administration cast doubt on the right of the administration to be in power.

The notion of pillars of support can be useful in thinking about a strategy for taking on the Trump government and the republican-led Congress. We can see that this has already happened, that people intuitively recognize there are ways to undermine confidence in the administration such as poking fun at individuals and engaging in marches and various other actions. (Of course, the administration seems to be quite adept at exposing itself to ridicule without any prompting from the opposition). And focusing relentlessly on the promises Trump made during the campaign and his proposed healthcare legislation undermine his legitimacy as well as that of the republicans in Congress.

Although people and organizations may not be thinking “pillars of support” in undertaking the Trump presidency, the idea of these pillars helps us understand the difficulty the administration is facing and will continue to face. At the moment, several of the pillars are crumbling or have disappeared altogether. It may be possible for Trump to rebuild them and he is clearly attempting to reshape much of the bureaucracy to support his agenda. But the prospects of success seem to be low unless he is able to somehow get past the Russia-election investigations and retain the GOP majority in Congress in 2018.

Getting back to Popovic, the concept of gradualism is another important element of strategy. Spontaneous uprisings to throw out a dictator or compel some other dramatic change rarely succeed on their own. Popovic goes as far as to argue that mass demonstrations are often the end points of a series of actions, not the beginning. In thinking strategically from the beginning, movements against dictators necessarily start small with a few dedicated supporters and build through limited actions that slowly break the wall of fear and engage participation by more and more people. Only when a movement has been able to break out into the open and engage a significant level of public support will it be in position to take bigger steps.

In the process of building support, movements must carefully consider the kinds of actions that help them advance the process. Here Popovic cites activist Jonathan Kozol, who advises movement leaders to “[p]ick battles big enough to matter, but small enough to win.” [p. 37] This gets at the crucial element of momentum. Big actions are hugely risky for movements because they can expose protestors to arrest and other forms of repression. They can also demonstrate a movement’s weakness. If leaders call for a massive march and few people show up, it severely undermines their credibility. On the other hand, if a movement starts small, as in the example of Otpor, asking people to engage in small, winnable actions, investment in the movement by those participants is solidified, and active participation by passive supporters becomes more likely.

I’ll end this post by mentioning one final point that Popovic and others stress: the importance of non-violence. I will develop this argument in a full blog post, but for now, I’ll just present Popovic’s perspective. For him, the logic is obvious. If you are trying to build a movement, you need to attract as many people as possible and get them to commit to a certain level of activity. Your movement must be “likable.” If you are carrying guns or engaging in destruction, very few people will join and others will be alienated. In addition, violent opposition movements are playing a game that security forces are trained for, as opposed to peaceful actions, which they often do not have an answer to. At the same time, violent opposition activities create confusion in society about who the “good guys” are–regime or opposition. [p. 204-5]

Are violent actions sometimes necessary? Societies and movements caught up in actions against repressive regimes and occupying forces necessarily must have this debate and there are always adherents on both sides. Sometimes, as in Algeria and the United States itself, anti-colonial forces have successfully used violence to gain their objectives. But in other places and times, violent opposition has not worked and had immensely damaging consequences.

Arguments for and against violence are often couched in ethical terms. But Sharp, Popovic, and Mark and Paul Engler in This Is an Uprising argue the case on a pragmatic basis: that non-violence has a much better chance of success than violence. In the early 2000s, the scholar Erica Chenoweth set out to examine this proposition and found, after examining many dozens of violent and non-violent movements, that non-violence has a much better chance of success. There are no absolutes of course and no guarantee of success under any conditions, but the logic is compelling and the empirical basis is quite sound. I’ll leave it here for now.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in an easy, up-to-date read on non-violent social movements, pick up a copy of Blueprint for Revolution at your local bookstore or library.

See Srdja Popovic’s TED Talk here:

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