Nonviolent Resistance & Political Power

Bruce Hartford, 2008

[This article is written from the point of view of "Tactical" nonviolence. See Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance for a comparison of "Tactical" and "Philosophical" nonviolence.]

During the Freedom Movement of the 1960s, we did not protest simply to vent to our anger and alienation. We took action to change society. Our sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and mass marches were grounded in an analysis of political reality that led to the strategy and tactics of Nonviolent Resistance as a means of winning actual changes. As the Freedom Movement evolved, so too did our analysis of political power — an analysis that is relevant to this day.

We understood that the injustices we opposed were deeper and more complex than just some bad people with racist ideas. Beneath the surface of segregation and denial of voting rights lay a "white power-structure" of wealthy individuals, powerful corporations, and influential politicians who derived significant economic and political benefits from systemic racism, and therefore they used their political power to establish, extend, and maintain the Jim Crow system. Which meant that in order to change that system, we had to understand what political power is, where it comes from, how it is generated, and how it can be used to change society.


Political Power

In this context, "political power" is defined as the ability to change — or maintain — some aspect of society, government-policy, or the economic system.

Obviously, with this definition of political power the first thing we think of is government and that's what this discussion focuses on. But government is not the only means by which political power affects society. Culture and economics both create and respond to political power.

Government exercises power through legislation, court rulings, regulations, police & military force, spending priorities, and so forth. Politicians and bureaucrats assure us that they objectively study the issues, and adopt policies and programs based on rational and unbiased judgement for the benefit of all. That's a self-serving myth. In real life, the actual content of government policy is largely influenced and directed by political forces from outside government. In other words, while government both generates and wields political power, it also responds to political power. By analogy, the engine makes a car move, but it's the driver behind the wheel who decides where it goes. Sometimes government decides for itself where it goes, but most of the time it is steered by political pressure — political power — applied to it from the outside.

When we look at political power in the abstract, we see three sources, or kinds, of political power:

These three kinds of political power are neither separate nor distinct, they are closely related and mutually interactive:

For example, both pro- and anti-gun groups work to mobilize People Power to influence gun-related legislation. As an example of Money Power buying People Power, the firearms industry gives major financial backing to membership organizations such as the National Rifle Association. On the other side, wealthy liberals fund the anti-gun groups. And as an example of People Power amassing and weilding Money Power, organizations representing both sides collect money from members to form political action committess and make campiagn contributions to political candidates.

The best way to understand American history — and the current events that shape our lives today — is to analyze both past and present in terms of:

  1. A broad historic, ongoing struggle between Money Power and People Power over who rules and who benefits.

  2. Intermittent conflicts between different Money Power or People Power factions.

Which is why the first rule of investigative reporting is "Follow the money."



Potentially, government wields enormous violence-power at all levels of society with its police and military and by the threat of violent repression and prison. Ruthless, sustained, violence-power backed by money-power can often suppress people-power movements. In the 1960s, government violence-power exercised through sheriffs, cops, and state troopers was a primary method of maintaining segregation and political control in both the North and the South.

But at the national level during the early and mid-1960s, repressive violence was largely held in reserve, and infrequently used for political purposes — at least overtly — except in cases where they could claim they were "defending" civil society from violent political "outlaws." One of the reasons we used nonviolent tactics — and loudly proclaimed our nonviolence — was to minimize, and if possible prevent, governmental violence-power from being used in a sustained way to suppress us.

The one limited form of government violence-power that was, and is, most commonly used to exert political power to maintain the status quo is arresting protesters. In some cases this can be a ritualistic, and largely symbolic, act by both sides as people-power demonstrators deliberately provoke arrest to make a political point and government accomodates them to enforce "law and order" and the tranquility of things as they are. But in other cases, large-scale incarceration of nonviolent protesters who are not deliberately courting arrest has been used to quash people-power movements or deny legitimate First-Amendment actions that embarass or annoy the powerful. The suppression of the Albany Movement in 1961-62 for example, or the illegal arrest of protesters at Presidential appearances, political conventions, international events and so on.

Back in the early and mid-'60s there were Movement organizations and individuals who on occasion used self-defense against racist attack. Some of us combined nonviolence and self-defense as the situation warranted to defend ourselves from KKK terror. But that limited self-defense was the extent of our violence-power.

Then in the late '60s and early '70s some leaders and organizations — primarily in the North — publicly turned away from nonviolence as the strategy of social change. They heaped scorn on Nonviolent Resistance, glorified guns, and urged "armed struggle" or other forms of offensive violence. In most cases, this was little more than posturing.

Bombastic rhetoric aside, we had no real access to violence-power in the political sense, then or now. Neither then, nor now, could we successfully use violence to deter police oppression or ensure justice. We could not then, and cannot now, wage a successful violent revolution against either Wall Street or Washington. We cannot use a pistol to force a slumlord to turn on the heat, or put a corporate polluter in prison, or prevent a friend from being deported, or stop an illegal war for oil, or adequately fund a school system, or ... you fill in the blank.

Those few who actually committed some small acts of political violence — or threatened to do so — failed to generate any significant amount of political power or achieve and significant social change. They succeeded only in isolating themselves from potential supporters, and gifting both local and national government with convenient political cover for ruthlessly suppressing them. This has been the political reality for a long time. As far back as 1900, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "Wobblies") had an adage: "Watch the man who advocates violence," because he was either a nut who is dangerous — or a police agent.

While political violence in the U.S. is a form of political suicide, today's music and entertainment glamorizes violence and gangster culture and encourages us to use violence against each other. But killing neighbors, abusing spouses, burning local stores, breaking windows, and waging turf-wars against other powerless people, only makes life in our communities that much worse — that much more unbearable. Not only does communal violence not generate any political power to improve our lives, it provides convenient pretexts for police suppression, isolates potential allies from each other, and divides us against ourselves in ways that block development of people-power.

In general then, within a democracy the role and use of violence as an effective use of political power is far less than that of money-power or people-power. In the United States at this time, organized money and organized people are the main opposing poles of political power.



The goal of Money Power is to influence government and society to increase their own wealth and power, and to prevent any changes that might upset the status quo which places them at the top of the heap.

Money-power is constant and implacable but not omnipotent. Money-power never rests and never takes a day off, it exerts its political pressure 24/7. The politicians who set government policy do so primarily in response to money-power. As a general rule, it is money-power that sets their agenda and guides government actions.

This view of money-power may sound radical to some, and perhaps it is, but it is not a new concept. In 1787, John Adams one of America's Founding Fathers, and the 2nd President of the United States wrote: In every society where property exists, there will ever be a struggle between rich and poor. Mixed in one assembly, equal laws can never be expected. In 1837, Abraham Lincoln wrote: These capitalists generally act harmoniously, and in concert, to fleece the people. And in 1911, Helen Keller, wrote: The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, for the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor.

The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 raised a slogan refering to the 99% and the 1%. But if we're making an actual analysis the truth is that it's really only the 1/10 of 1%, or the 1/100th of 1% who really have Money Power in political terms. Definitions vary, but in general when we look at the wealthy few we see:

Sector Income Scale of Political Power:
Top 1.0% $750K & up Organizations & associations (AMA, Rotary, etc)  
Top 0.1% $5 million & up Local lobbying & campaign contributions
Top 0.01%   $25 million & up   National level campaign contributions
Giant Corps.   Multi $Billions Global political access & influence

The primary wielders of Money Power are the global trans-national corporations not wealthy individuals. For example, in 2012 the Royal Dutch Shell corporation had a total Revenue of $484 billion. That's greater than the total Gross Domestic Products of countries like Belgium, Argentina, South Africa, and Thailand. That single corporation was a larger economic entity than medium-sized nations.

Few of us have money-power in the political sense. We don't have the kind of money it takes to buy Senators with campaign contributions, or threaten city councils with loss of jobs by closing plants or withholding investments. Nor can we finance radio talk shows or bribe government regulators who have served us well by appointing them to cushy directorships after they leave government. And we don't own or control major media outlets.

Through advertising and rhetoric they want us to believe that by buying things we empower ourselves and achieve happiness. But most of us who drive a new car or live in our own home do so through debt, not wealth. Consumer debt isn't money in the political sense, and consumer debt does not generate money-power — quite the opposite, it makes us vulnerable to the money-power of others.

But money-power is rarely monolithic, entirely united around any particular issue. Banks & financial institutions, for example, are generally "deficit hawks" opposed in principle to government spending because as creditors they hate even the slightest amount of inflation. But the military/industrial complex, the health industry, and construction giants like Bechtel grow rich from government spending which they generally favor so long as the money flows to their sector rather than other sectors.

During the Freedom Movement of the 1960s, money-power was split. The local/regional money-power in the South — plantation owners, corporations relying on cheap non-union labor, local financial institutions — was extremely hostile to the Freedom Movement. Acting through the White Citizens Council, local money-power waged economic terrorism against Blacks who challenged segregation and demanded the right to vote. But elements of national/international money-power saw economic opportunity for themselves in opening up the South to their investment which required (among other things) a stable rule-of-law and an end to racial "disturbances." Some elements saw great advantage in breaking the "Dixiecrat" stranglehold on the region's economy and politics. And other elements, such as chain stores like Woolworths, were pressured around segregation issues by people-power consumer boycotts organized by northern students.



Our mass-produced corporate-marketed culture glorifies and exalts both violence-power and money-power while ignoring or discrediting people-power. But most of us have little access to Money Power and even less access to Violence Power. Yes, we of the 99% can work hard and buy a car, maybe a home, and maybe earn a comfortable life. But few, if any of us, will ever have the kind of wealth from which flows money power in the political sense. Yes, we can use violence against each other, and today's popular music and media glamorizes individual violence. But we have no access to Violence Power in the political sense. We cannot use a pistol to to put a corporate poluter in prison, or to prevent a lover from being deported, or to force a slumlord to repair substandard housing. What we can use is People Power.

Most people do not believe that ultimately government rests on consent of the governed and therefore they remain unaware of the potential power they hold. This idea was articulated in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ... That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

Every 4th of July the nation celebrates this Declaration with fireworks, flag waving, and patriotic speeches. But almost never do any of the orating politicians actually quote any portion of the Declaration to their audiences — or explain what it means. Yet, despite our rulers' desire that we remain ignorant, docile, and obedient to their commands, throughout our history some individuals and organizations have successfully used strategies of Nonviolent Resistance to mobilize people-power around a wide variety of issues. The Freedom Movement being just one example.

People-power movements apply political power to directly influence government, pass legislation such as the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, affect spending and taxes, and so on. But people-power can also change the social/cultural context within which all political power is exercised. Prior to the Freedom Movement, for example, overt, explicit, racism was a common aspect of American society. "Nigger" jokes were on the radio and "Blackface" stereotypes on TV, derogatory racial images were an everyday part of commerce, and politicians used explicit racist appeals in campaigns and cited racist ideology in legislative debates. If you questioned or criticized such overt racism you were, at the very least, considered to be an un-American crank — and probably a Communist.

The Freedom Movement fundamentally changed our cultural context so that what was normal in the 1950s is now utterly unacceptable. The Walt Disney company, for example, made a movie called Song of the South, a feature film filled with racial stereotypes that are so offensive today that since the early 1970s Disney has never re-released it in its entirety in the U.S, nor made it available for domestic home video or DVD.

Other people-power movements have made similar profound changes in how our society views women and women's roles and how we view the global environment. And today, ongoing people-power movements continue to struggle over issues as varied as immigration and sexuality in its many varied forms.

But since the '60s, efforts to mobilize people-power have been only partially effective in some areas — women, environment, and gay issues, for example — and largely ineffective in other areas — foreign policy, war, economic justice, covert racism, etc. In part, this is because money-power is constantly active in influencing government, while people-power is intermittent and most of the time largely latent. And in part it is because people-power today has become weak and divided. One reason for that weakness is our failure to fully use the power of Nonviolent Resistance.

Both wealth and government do everything they can to maintain their power by making us feel helpless and confused. One way is by telling us that in a democracy it is only through elections that we the people wield power. But for the most part, candidates are chosen, and issues framed, by money-power. Political parties and candidates for office are influenced by money when before they are running for office , when they are running, and after they are elected. Few of the many volunteers who actively work in electoral politics have any actual voice in selecting the candidates, crafting their positions, or shaping the subsequent legislation. The only real role most of us have is voting on election day. The result is that today we have two money parties that both represent the interests of the giant corporations and the wealthy few — one of those parties supports "liberal" social policy such as a woman's right to have an abortion, and the other opposes those rights. But no party represents our interests against those of the wealthy.

Yet, people-power can be exercised through elections — at times people-power has been powerful at the ballot box — but only when there are organizations and movements that educate and mobilize people around their interests OUTSIDE of the electoral process.


People-Power and Nonviolent Resistance

Which brings us to direct action and Nonviolent Resistance. By and large, the strategies of the Freedom Movement — and the strategies of most successful reform movements — were the strategies of Nonviolent Resistance.

In modern times elsewhere in the world there have been instances where revolutionary Nonviolent Resistance was used to overthrow authoritarian governments, but Nonviolent Resistance is more commonly used to reform some aspect of government or society — the U.S. Civil Rights Movement being a case in point. Whether the goal is revolution or reform, the purpose of nonviolent tactics and strategies is to create a political dynamic that organizes and mobilizes people-power while at the same time limiting and restricting the ability of opponents to suppress the movement with violence and money-power.

The weakness of money-power is the illegitimacy of actions and policies designed to benefit the wealthy and powerful few at the expense of the many. The strength of nonviolent people-power is inherent in the word "NO." "No" is the most powerful word in the English language:

No, we won't accept segregation
No, we won't silently stand by in the face of injustice
No, we won't believe the lies of President Bush
No, we won't submit to corporate domination our lives
By mobilizing nonviolent popular action, we use our strength against their weakness.

Violence, on the other hand, pits their strength against our weakness. In modern society, both money-power and the state are well prepared for political violence with police, courts, jails, military, intelligence agencies, private security and so forth. Violence plays on their field, on their terms, under their rules. Time and again, small violent groups have been ineffective at generating political power and proved to be counter-productive in advancing their cause. Not because they were small — small nonviolent groups have sometimes achieved great success, the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides being two examples — but because they tried to rely on violence-power rather than people-power.

To be politically effective using people-power, you have to build mass popular support. But in our society, building popular support based on violence won't work for two reasons:

  1. Repression. The state is well-organized and over-equipped for suppressing violence. Those in power would prefer that there be no resistance or opposition to their rule. But if there is going to be resistance, they prefer that it be violent because they can quickly destroy violent opposition. Yet few police forces are equipped or trained to effectively contain Nonviolent Resistance, and often times it confuses and confounds them because it is so at odds with what they expect and are prepared for. Yes, they can beat and arrest nonviolent protesters, but that does not necessarily suppress a nonviolent movement or the ideas behind it. Which is why undercover cops & FBI COINTELPRO agents who infiltrated Movement organizations always advocated the most violent acts, and were the most vehement in disparaging Nonviolent Resistance.

  2. People fear and oppose violence. Most people will defend themselves if attacked, but unless driven to utter desperation they won't commit offensive violence, and they don't want their children doing it either. Obviously, you can train and discipline people to do violence — that's why militaries and police have elaborate training camps and academies — but it's not easy. Official, state violence may be "As American as cherry pie," but despite the media's gangster glorification, civil disorder and citizen violence are broadly rejected by all levels of society, and only a tiny fraction of the population will engage in it. But if properly organized and led, people will exercise their rights as citizens to advocate a cause they believe in — whether that be boycotting buses in Montgomery or facing down the Klan, posse, and state troopers in Selma for the right to vote.

So there is this contradiction: Our mass culture tells us that to take effective action you have to be violent, but in our society today social change through violence does not work. Nonviolent Resistance breaks this contradiction by providing a method of mobilizing people-power to create social change.

 — Copyright © Bruce Hartford.

See also
      Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance
      Nonviolent Resistance, Reform, & Revolution
      Nonviolent Training
      Notes from a Nonviolent Training Session

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