Gene Sharp’s Strategic Non-Violent Conflict and the Egyptian Revolution

This is an item that I wrote a couple of months ago and for some reason never posted.  I’ve dredged it up and offer it for what it may be worth, recognizing that it is rather less than timely at this point.

NPR recently interviewed Gene Sharp, whom they call the “Clausewitz of Nonviolent Warfare,” about the revolution in Egypt.*  The excuse for the story was that apparently some of the Egyptians in Tahrir Square had read Sharp’s books From Dictatorship to Democracy and the three volume Politics of Nonviolent Action.

The story is interesting in itself but the comments are also worth reading.  They touch on the difficult question of how one knows that a text has actually had an effect in the real world.  Another comment, apparently from an Egyptian, downplays the influence of Sharp’s work.  He writes “Yes, the organizers are sophisticated and educated, but not in the theory of nonviolent movement.”  Then he gets into more difficult territory:

It really is important to give credit where it is due. It is the habit of the West to want to own the origins of good ideas. Unfortunately this habit ends up being the ugliness of Orientalism. That is not what NPR is saying, I know. But, the Egyptian people own this victory. Let us have it.

I have trouble agreeing that enunciating the proposition that some of the Egyptian revolutionaries may have among their influences an American is tantamount to stealing the credit for the revolution.  It seems to me that if one is to believe that one must believe at least one of the following propositions:

  1. The Egyptian revolution is unusual in that it was invented from whole cloth, conceived completely without influence from “the other.”
  2. All struggles, including this one, are invented from whole cloth, conceived from first principles and indigenous work without influence from any “other.”
  3. Some of the Egyptians may plausibly have been influenced by Gene Sharp but that fact should be suppressed so as to avoid hurting anyone’s ego.

I find all of these insupportable.  The third proposition is condescending, the second is demonstrably false; and the first is highly improbable on its face.  In addition, of course, the first proposition is, I would argue, precisely the sort of thinking that constitutes Orientalism: the idea that Egyptians (in this case) are special and exotic, set aside from all the rest of us, and with limited capability for learning or evolving.

I think, rather, that the possibility that some Egyptians read and took to heart the work of Gene Sharp is a profoundly un-Orientalist idea.  It means that Egyptians, like the rest of us, are global citizens, not merely captives of their own exotic, retrograde world.  Like the rest of us, they do learn and they do evolve.

Now, whether Egyptians were, in fact, meaningfully influenced by Gene Sharp isn’t clear yet, the NPR story notwithstanding.  However, as someone interested in strategic thought, I’d like to think that we will learn more about this over time.


* I think calling Gene Sharp “Clausewitz” is ill-advised, though he is a man of great abilities who has made tremendous contributions.  To that extent, I think that NPR’s title for the story is poorly chosen.  However, I do tend to think that “warfare” is the right word for it.  I will admit that my thinking on this is not fully formed, but I’m not convinced  think that warfare needs to be predominantly violent and I’m willing to seriously entertain the possibility that it need not be violent at all in its actual manifestation.  Clausewitz, it seems to me, opens the door to this line of inquiry, though I admit he probably wouldn’t agree with me.  I refer, in particular to his section in Book 3, Chapter 1 entitled “Possible Engagements Are To Be Regarded As Real Ones Because of Their Consequences.”  (p. 181 in the Paret-Howard translation)

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The Latest from Anarchist News

Anarchist News has some interesting recent articles.

First, they reprint (almost certainly without permission) an article from the New York Times about flash mobs in Philadelphia.  What makes the Philadelphia flash mobs interesting is that they’ve been engaging in violence, albeit low-level violence: vandalism, pushing people around, etc.

I’ve been wondering for a long time when this was finally going to happen.  (Or DID it happen recently in Iran?  That’s not clear to me, perhaps some readers know.)  In any event flash mobs seemed to me the sort of thing that disgruntled and/or maladjusted people could not leave forever to people who only want to recreate Backstreet Boys’ choreography.  The comments on the article include a variety of different perspectives over how these youths are setting a good example (or not) and whether they require an anarchist “vanguard” to point them in the right direction.

Second, Anarchist News has a story about how three masked individuals, apparently radical vegans, attacked a speaker at the recent 15th Annual Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair with pies made from hot sauce and cayenne pepper.  (Youtube has many postings with video of the incident.  See e.g. here.)  The speaker who was speaking about the dangers of veganism and who herself is not an anarchist, apparently went to the police about the matter.  Anarchist News asked its readers for information about the attack and the perpetrators and said they would pass the information along to the woman who was attacked.

This led to a very lengthy discussion in the comments section.  Some people castigated Anarchist News for in effect going to and cooperating with the police.  A number of them said that a more appropriate response would simply be to find the perpetrators and beat them.  Other people seemed much less adamant on the point.  Another major theme in the thread is whether it is acceptable to attack women and children.  Some said this is beyond the pale while others argued that it was sexist to accord women exemption from attack when they deserved it.  Also many posters express a great deal of disdain for vegans in general.  The whole thread shows an impressive lack of conceptual coherence in anarchism, at least as represented by Anarchist News’ readers.  In fact, the whole thread ended generating so much more heat than light that one commenter indicated that the FBI wouldn’t need to mount “COINTELPRO” operations against the anarchists because the anarchists were so highly skilled at infighting and rendering themselves ineffectual.

Left Bank Books near Pike Place Market in Seattle (photo: schwartzray)

The third piece that caught my eye was of rather more personal interest.  Left Bank Books, a longtime landmark of Seattle’s Pike Place Market area will  have to close for up to three months for “earthquake retrofitting.”  There is concern that they may not survive.  While it would be more than fair to say that my politics do not accord with the politics of the proprietors, I will be sad if the store doesn’t make it.  Not only is it an integral part of one of my favorite areas of my favorite city (I grew up in the Seattle area) but I’ve spent a lot of money there.  Most of the books I own dealing with Marxism and radical leftism I purchased there.  The very earnest people there were always willing to sell me books about the Baader-Meinhof gang and such.  I have often wondered if they would have sold me books had they known that I’m an alum of the CIA.  Speaking for myself, I have a hard time disliking anybody who sells me books.  In addition, of course, though I admit to frequenting Border’s Books, I do lament the almost complete disappearance of independent bookstores.  Every independent bookstore has its own vibe and when it’s gone that vibe can never be recaptured.  On those grounds alone, I hope that Left Bank Books survives.

A New Totalitarianism

I strongly recommend Ernest Sternberg’s article in the latest Orbis.  Entitled “Purifying the World: What the New Radical Ideology Stands For,” it discusses a new totalitarianism that the author sees challenging the present world order.  No, this is not “Islamo-Fascism.” If that were the subject of this article, I wouldn’t blog about it, because I am tired of the banal arguments on both sides of that debate.  (But that’s a different story.)  No, though radical Islamism plays a role here, this article is about something much broader.

Sternberg notes the existence of some seemingly very odd ideological bedfellows.  He notes the long-known fact that the traditional left-right spectrum actually wraps around itself.  He reviews the literature about the so-called Red-Brown and Red-Brown-Green alliances.  (In this context, “green,” he observes, sometimes means environmentalist and sometimes means Islamist.)  To me all of these apparent contradictions and non sequiters can be nicely summarized in one incident that shows up in the article: why should it be that a protest in France to show support for the maintenance of the Roquefort cheese appellation should attract demonstrators carrying anti-Zionist placards?  What could possibly be going on here?

Steinberg is not and does not claim to be plowing new ground here.  One interest recent piece which has gone over major aspects of this issue is George Michael’s fascinating article “The Ideological Evolution of Horst Mahler: The Far Left–Extreme Right Synthesis” in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism last year.  (Mahler went from Baader-Meinhof to neo-fascism.)

Where Sternberg shines is in his argument—admittedly more than tinged with polemicism—that there really is a coherent ideology at work, though it has yet to find its Marx, let alone its Lenin.  Nor yet, do all of its adherents understand the ideology with which they have associated themselves.  That said, there is a there there and it’s totalitarian and he calls it “world purificationism.”

This ideology is best known to all of us through its list of enemies.  World Purificationists see a world divided between the toxic and the pure.  The “empowered global system” exudes toxicity while disempowered peoples suffer from that toxicity.  This global system:

exercises domination through corporate tentacles, media manipulation, state power, and military prowess. It is selfish, greedy, ruthless, racist, and exploitative, and heedlessly pollutes the earth. It imposes its media-saturated culture, dehumanizing   technologies, and exploitative production systems on subject peoples.

This empire is maintained by “liberals” and “neoliberals” in the European senses of the words.

Under the thrall of Neoliberal Empire, people live in poverty, food is contaminated, products are artificial, wasteful consumption is compelled, indigenous groups are dispossessed, and nature itself is subverted.  Invasive species run rampant, glaciers melt, and seasons are thrown out of kilter, threatening world catastrophe. 

More specifically, the World Purificationists have identified two “enemies of humanity.”  These are the United States and Israel.  The United States is genocidal in every possible meaning of the word.  Not only does it feel free to kill anyone in the world when it deems it necessary, but it also “is a wasteland of commercial advertisement, corporate homogenized products, franchise restaurants, theme parks, processed chickens, and so forth. Not only does the United States have phony culture, it strangles the real cultures around the world.”

The most interesting part of all this is Sternberg’s explanation of what this movement stands for, his portrayal of the “exhilarating future” that the World Purificationists foresee.

The new order will be sustainable. It will run on alternative energy, organic farming, local food markets, and closed-loop recyclable industry, if any industry is needed. People will travel on public transit, or ride cars that tread lightly on the earth, or even better, ride bicycles. They will occupy green buildings constructed of local materials and inhabit cities growing organically within bioregions. Life will be liberated from carbon emanations. It will be a permanent, placid way of life, in which economies are integrated into the earth’s ecosystem.

The new world will also achieve cultural purity. … [Here] culture is the offspring of folk-spirit: that mysterious life-source from which identity, meaning, and pride emerge. It is found in indigenous life-style, local habitat, feeling of community, and the heady experience of fringe art. Even communities that may have little left by way of traditions can look inward, perhaps just to their shared experience of oppression, for the folk-spirit from which to extract identity and pride.

In this new world, individuals’ beliefs will grow naturally from their cultures. As against rampant Americanization, indigenous ways of life become secure. What is more, communities will be protected from criticism leveled at them by means of abstract, rationalist reasoning.

Victims especially enjoy the status of ethereal purity. They do so by dint of their victimhood, a sign that they are antagonists of Empire.

Multiple cultures will flourish, saved from global homogenization. Persons of diverse ethnic communities, conditions of ability or disability, and gender and transgender statuses will live with each other in harmony and mutual appreciation. Varied views will be expected and welcome, as long as they stand in opposition to Empire. All religions will be welcome as long as they celebrate other religions. A religion that fights Empire is, however, exempt from having to celebrate another culture; instead, it will express understandable anger against its subjugation to Empire.

The new world will have political structures very different from the republican regimes that lead Empire. … In contrast, the new world will be purely democratic. …The democratic process will proceed through meetings freed from the manipulative reins of law, procedure, precedent, and hierarchy. These will be forums in which non-hegemonic discourse will flourish. And the forums will be assuredly democratic because bona fide grass-roots progressives will facilitate them.

Despite their concern with racism, torture, and genocide, the World Purificationists, Sternberg argues, engage in “ideologically-induced corruption of language” to obscure the fact that precisely these actions are committed by entities other than the United States or Israel.  Definitionally, only the United States and Israel (and, one supposes, their close associates, such as Britain) can conduct these acts.  Hence, abuses in places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, and the Congo simply become un-events (my formulation, not Sternberg’s).

Sternberg notes that the proponents in the west of this movement have yet to make any serious resort to violence, though they applaud violence by groups abroad who “resist” the Empire.  He suggests, however, that this violence, when it comes, will be utterly unapologetic even if it happens to be massive and wanton in its application.  In words that remind me of Ward Churchill, Sternberg writes, “It should be clear, though, that when acts of resistance occur against Empire and cause mass civilian casualties, the maimed and the dead are not victims of purity, something that is, by definition, impossible. Rather, such casualties are understandable blowbacks of Empire’s aggression.”

As you can see I think this is a fascinating article.  However, as someone who spends his time thinking about the organized application of violence (that is, war) I was left wondering what the threatened revolution by the World Purificationists would look like were it to come.  Warfare is, after all, a political and a cultural act reflective of the broader values and structures of the combatant groups.  The revolutionaries would clearly be incapable of conducting a war involving a high-degree of centralized control.  In some senses that may be an encouraging idea.  On the other hand, presently popular notions of network analysis and decapitation would be quite unhelpful in holding back such an onslaught.

This calls for more pondering.

Published in: on January 31, 2010 at 4:50 AM  Comments (5)  
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