Despite the amazing string of victories that “people power” movements have chalked up over recent decades, it’s surprising how little-known many of these stories still are, even to folks who are politically aware in many other respects.
That is why “Weapons of Mass Democracy,” Stephen Zunes’ article in the Fall 2009 issue of Yes! Magazine, is so important, especially for those just discovering the hidden history and potential of nonviolence. He cogently lays out why nonviolent tactics—such as strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, and demonstrations—are the most effective way to resist oppressive regimes, and backs up his case with considerable evidence.
Lately, however, my thinking about how we should most honestly discuss many of the success stories that are regularly cited by advocates of nonviolence has been evolving.
Whether we’re talking about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, about the nonviolent movements that brought down dictators or repressive governments in South Africa, Poland and many other countries, or about the recent “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, the stories are actually far more complicated than we often admit.
While these nonviolent campaigns were undeniably successful at kicking the British out of India, gaining civil rights for blacks in the United States, and installing governments that were, at least on the surface, more democratic, we tend to overlook the economic effects of these victories.
The sad truth is that when it comes to fundamentally changing the distribution of resources or wealth in a society, these nonviolent movements were less successful.
In each of these cases, the economic elite that controlled the country before the nonviolent movement gained power continued to do so afterwards, and the plight of those at the bottom was in many cases exacerbated.
Both Gandhi and King sincerely fought for radical economic change, but their lives were cut short before their full vision could be realized.
Gandhi famously called poverty “the worst form of violence,” and stridently advocated for economic self-sufficiency. More than just about anyone in history, he struggled to practice what he preached, by spinning his own clothes and living a life of material simplicity.
After Gandhi’s assassination, however, his beloved homeland whole-heartedly embraced capitalism, which has forced two-thirds of India’s population to now survive on $2 or less a day.
Towards the end of his life, Martin Luther King began to connect the war in Vietnam to poverty at home. During his famous speech at Riverside Church, a year to the day before he was killed, King challenged the very foundations of our economic system. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar,” he declared. “It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Though the civil rights movement succeeded in ending Jim Crow and earning the right to vote in the 1960s, the racial economic divide in the United States has barely budged. “Since 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the income gap between blacks and whites has narrowed by just three cents on the dollar,” wrote Dedrick Muhammad last year in The Nation. “At this slow rate of progress, we will not achieve income equality for 537 years.”
Even more troublesome, in The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein documents in extensive detail how leaders of other nonviolent movements—in various ways and for various reasons—effectively sold out as they gained power during the transition to democracy in their countries.
For example, the Solidarity movement that Lech Walesa led in Poland abandoned its long fight for the progressive economic program of worker ownership, and enacted economist Jeffrey Sachs’ neo-liberal recommendations—a 15-page plan which he literally drew up in one night. That meant eliminating price controls, slashing subsidies, and selling off state mines, shipyards and factories to the private sector. Not surprisingly, the results of this embrace of the “free market” have been grim.
“Most dramatic,” Klein writes, “are the number of people in poverty: in 1989, 15 percent of Poland’s population was living below the poverty line; in 2003, 59 percent of Poles had fallen below the line.”
A very similar and tragic story unfolded in South Africa as well. For 35 years, the African National Congress (ANC) advocated for radical economic change, including the nationalization of much of the country’s wealth and industry as well as protecting the right to work and to decent housing. As Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency, however, the ANC effectively caved on these aspects of their platform. They made concessions when negotiating over the new constitution, signed on to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)—the precursor to the World Trade Organization—which severely constrained their economic policy, and let the old apartheid bosses keep control of the central bank. As Klein notes, the results have again been heartbreaking:
As for the “banks, mines, and monopoly industry” that Mandela had pledged to nationalize, they remained firmly in the hands of the same four white-owned megaconglomerates that also control 80 percent of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. In 2005, only 4 percent of the companies listed on the exchange were owned or controlled by blacks. Seventy percent of South Africa’s land, in 2006, was still monopolized by whites, who are just 10 percent of the population. Perhaps the most striking statistic is this one: since 1990, the year Mandela left prison, the average life expectancy for South Africans has dropped by thirteen years.
So while these nonviolent movements were able to nominally gain power, the folks who actually owned these countries only grew richer.
Acknowledging that these transitions to democracy have so frequently failed to democratize wealth will only help us stop such scenarios from playing out again in the future.
In the former Soviet satellites, another phenomenon has emerged over the last decade. During the nonviolent “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, there wasn’t even a pretense that poverty and inequality would be addressed with redistributive economic policies. The leaders of these movements did not hide the fact that they would reorient their countries towards the West, and Washington openly supported them for it. After emerging victorious, they promptly followed through on their promises.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, for example, is conducting what Newsweek called “the world’s most radical experiment in economic reform,” which has included privatizing virtually every state-owned industry, firing tens of thousands of civil servants, eliminating tariffs on almost all imported goods, and instituting a flat income tax of 12 percent.
As has happened with every other country that has swallowed this toxic mix of “free market” reforms, the number of unemployed in Georgia has swelled, prices have risen, and the standard of living for most of the population has gotten worse.
Now to be clear: I’m not making the argument that we shouldn’t reference these examples as victories for nonviolence. In all of these cases and many more, everyday people employing nonviolent techniques were able to win substantial political freedoms and rights that have unquestioningly made their lives, and those of millions of others, better.
But these stories should not end there. Even as dictators or repressive regimes bow to public pressure, the economic elite will do everything in its power to maintain control during the wave of democratization. They will give the illusion of democracy, while holding firmly on to the reigns of the economy, if at all possible. And if history is any guide, attaining real economic justice is a far more elusive goal than nonviolently bringing down a dictator.
Therefore, the best way to gauge how genuine any democratic transition has been may be to critically examine the extent to which economic relationships have changed since the nonviolent revolution—and, most importantly, how those at the bottom have fared under the new government.
Eric Stoner wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit magazine that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Eric is an adjunct professor at St. Peter’s College and an editor at Waging Nonviolence. His articles have appeared in The Guardian, Mother Jones, and The Nation, among other publications.