Tag Archives: protest

Gulf countries need revolutionary climate action, not glossy mega-projects

Gulf countries need revolutionary climate action, not glossy mega-projects
by Ian Sinclair
The New Arab
20 December 2016

In May 2016 researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute published a deeply concerning study for the Middle East. According to the academics, climate change could make large parts of the region uninhabitable. By the year 2100, midday temperatures on warm days could reach 50°C, with heat waves potentially occurring ten times more than today. The expected temperature rises could put “the very existence of its inhabitants in jeopardy”, noted Jos Lelieveld, the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

The future looks similarly bleak on the global level. In 2013 Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, explained that “We are already planning for a 4°C world because that is where we are heading. I do not know of any scientists who do not believe that.”

What would a 4°C world look like, I asked Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, earlier this year? “Global chaos and collapse I think would be a fair assessment”, was his frightening reply. He went on to list a number of likely outcomes: Sea level rise of one metre by 2100; an increase in the frequency and severity of storms; a 40 percent reduction in staple crop yields; substantial changes in rainfall patterns and massive migration.

In the face of this crisis, Middle East governments have slowly started to turn their attention to the problem of climate change, largely presenting it as an uncontroversial topic that requires technical solutions – a perfect example of fatally flawed “techno-optimism” if ever there was one.

A number of large-scale, press-friendly projects are being built, including Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and Masdar City near Abu Dhabi. “Designed to be zero-carbon and zero-waste, home to a population of 40,000 people, 50,000 commuters, in an area of six square kilometres” Masdar City is “playing a crucial role in the development of sustainable design and technology”, gushed Susan Lee from the University of Birmingham.

However, though it’s rarely said, these top-down mega projects are unlikely to help in addressing climate change. Take Masdar: in reality, as Grist noted earlier this year, it “is, essentially, the world’s most sustainable ghost town”, with only a small part of the planned city built and the completion date pushed back from 2016 to 2030.

According to Deutsche Welle, critics “see Masdar first and foremost as a clever project to improve Abu Dhabi’s image” when “it remains one of the world’s worst polluters”.

And it’s not just the United Arab Emirates. The World Wildlife Fund’s 2014 Living Planet report found Kuwait and Qatar have the world’s highest per capita ecological footprint. “If all people on the planet had the footprint of the average resident of Qatar, we would need 4.8 planets”, the report noted.

“The thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything”, Canadian author Naomi Klein argues in her seminal 2014 book on climate change. “It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders. It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand.” Klein maintains the scale of the problem means radical transformations are required in the political, economic and cultural spheres. In the Middle East this will mean revolutionary change. For example, the Paris climate agreement pledged to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”.

What does this mean for oil producing states? Using industry data, a recent report from US-based thinktank Oil Change International explained that “the potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming”. Averting runaway climate change, according to the study, means no new fossil fuel extraction and some existing fields and mines closing before being fully exploited. Furthermore, Klein argues it is dangerous to consider environmental problems on their own. Rather they will only be solved together with other problems such as economic inequality, the corporate domination of the political and social world, consumerism and western imperialism. A classroom guide created to accompany Klein’s book even asks students to provide a “feminist ecological critique” of extractivism.

Many of the necessary changes will be difficult for rulers in the Middle East to contemplate. Analysing the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and the World Energy Council’s Energy Trilemma Index, Professor Robert Looney from the Naval Postgraduate School in California explains that democratic governments are “more likely to comply with global agreements that set specific targets for carbon agreements” and “give environmental sustainability priority over either energy security or affordable energy supplies”. Concerned about their own survival, authoritarian regimes will invariably prioritise energy security and equity, Looney argues, since rising fuel prices risk social unrest.

A media free of government censorship and corporate influence is a key component of Looney’s findings, as it creates an informed citizenry. And once large numbers of people understand the dire threat of climate change, they will likely push for government action. An independent and critical media also engenders discussion and disagreement. The alternative – sadly commonin the Middle East – is hugely counterproductive and threatening to young people and future generations as it muzzles criticism and serious debate. For example, one critic of Masdar (who described it as a “green Disneyland”) said they wished to remain anonymous “Otherwise, you could get in trouble in Abu Dhabi”.

Another key feature of more democratic societies, is an active and independent civil society. As freed slave Frederick Douglass once said “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Progressive and lasting change almost always comes from below – something Klein implicitly understands when she calls for a “grassroots anti-extraction uprising”.

The blocking of the Dakota Access pipeline in the United States, the cancellation of Margaret Thatcher’s road expansion plans in Britain (“the biggest road-building programme since the Romans”), the introduction of the United Kingdom’s groundbreaking 2008 Climate Change Act – all of these environmental victories happened because of long campaigns by activist groups overcoming state-corporate power.

In short, far from being an uncontroversial, technical issue, climate change is actually a real threat to the status quo – in the Middle East and elsewhere. Because if we are serious about addressing climate change, then we need to successfully challenge established power – that is the extractive-enriched, growth-obsessed, profit-driven, largely unelected elites whose actions have led us to this existential crisis point.

With some of the region’s governments repeatedly trying to impede international agreements to combat climate change, this is especially true for the Middle East. With time running out, the future of the Middle East and the wellbeing of humanity depends on how quickly we win the revolutionary changes that are so desperately needed.


How we can win the Nordic model for the UK: an interview with George Lakey

How we can win the Nordic model for the UK: an interview with George Lakey
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
19 December 2016

Active in social movements since the 1960s, in 1971 American George Lakey co-founded the radical group Movement for a New Society, and in 1973 he wrote the influential book Strategy for a Living Revolution, a guide for achieving nonviolent revolution. More recently he was Visiting Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College in the United States and has been involved in the Earth Quaker Action Team campaign opposing mountain-top removal coal mining.

Now 79-years old, Lakey has just published Viking Economics: How The Scandinavians Got It Right – And How We Can, Too. Having married a Norwegian, lived in Norway for a year in 1959 and visited the region many times since, he argues the superior Nordic model is within reach of the neoliberal US and UK, although it will take large-scale struggle with the economic elite to achieve it.

I interviewed him about ‘the Nordics’, their history and how their social and economic policies could be won in the US and UK.

Ian Sinclair: What have the Nordic countries “got right”?

George Lakey: What economists call the Nordic economic model generates an extraordinary amount of both equality and individual freedom. We can see the synergy on both small and large levels in those countries.

All new parents, for example, are offered many months of paid family leave when they give birth or adopt. In a mixed-gender couple, part of the leave is reserved for the male. If he refuses to take his part of the leave, the couple loses his part of it. With parental paid leave each member of a couple experiences fuller opportunity to parent in the first year of a child’s life – or not, as that person chooses. In other societies that opportunity would be reserved for the better off. At the same time, the policy nudges the couple toward equality in roles and responsibilities.

This is one of a thousand features supporting both equality and freedom made possible by the Nordic design. A macro example is a typical large Norwegian corporation being owned largely by government but individuals invited to own shares as well up to a certain amount. Widespread public ownership, alongside the large cooperative sector, reduces the inequality that otherwise accompanies an economic market. Substantial individual wealth and inheritance taxes further reduce inequality.  Nevertheless, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, and there are more start-ups in Norway per capita than in the US. Entrepreneurship can be seen as the application of creativity, and it gets public support just as does the thriving sector of performing arts.

While the countries I studied – Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden –may share an economic design with a half century track record of remarkable outcomes, they are not utopias. Norwegians admit to me, “We are a nation of complainers.” I’ve met many Nordics who see more problems that need to be solved.

IS: In your book you note that at the turn of the twentieth century the Nordic countries had very high levels of inequality and poverty, with many people emigrating to the United States and elsewhere. However, as you say, today the Nordic countries consistently top international measures for human development and well-being. How did this transformation occur?

GL: People organized themselves into mass direct action movements to force the economic elite out of dominance.  Of course the privileged defended themselves, suppressing the press, jailing organizers, hiring strikebreakers. The historic details vary for each country. In each case it required cross-class alliances.

In Norway the elite organized the Patriotic League in 1926 to wade into strikes and violently defend replacement workers. In the ‘30s [the government minister Vidkun] Quisling organized a Norwegian Nazi paramilitary force to march in the streets to provoke violent clashes with working class activists. Nonetheless, the nonviolent militancy in the workplace and rural areas made the country ungovernable, and the economic elite was forced to allow the workers’ and farmers’ movements to take leadership of the country.

For Sweden the turning point came in 1931 when, in Ådalen Valley, workers struck three lumber mills at once and four thousand workers picketed the owners and government officials. Troops fired into the workers’ march, killing five and injuring five more. The workers called a national general strike, forcing the conservative government out of power and replacing it with the Social Democrats who ruled almost without a break until 1976.

IS: You also discuss the key role played by trade unions in this transformation.

GL: To make a nonviolent power shift a mass of people whose cooperation is necessary to operate the system must be willing to force change by withholding that cooperation. A century ago, when nonviolent struggle appeared to have only a few tactics in its arsenal, the obvious means of noncooperation was the strike. Industrialization was generating the “nonviolent soldiers” who could do strikes: the workers. These days we know far more nonviolent tactics that can make a country ungovernable. Mass noncooperation can be precipitated in more ways than the Nordics did, so today’s revolutionary strategy is not so dependent on the workers and their unions.

Union organizations, of course, vary widely on their willingness to wage class struggle.  The Nordics give us a recent example.

The influence of Thatcherism in the 1980s became threatening to Scandinavians and the unions there lost confidence. The governments of Norway and Sweden relaxed some bank regulations, with nearly disastrous results. Observing this trend among their Viking cousins and knowing Thatcherism was also growing in Denmark, the Danish workers defied their own unions and launched a general strike in 1986, including barricading parliament in its building in Copenhagen. The workers frustrated the neo-liberals’ plans and prevented Danish bankers from running wild. Remembering the distinction between the union leadership and the members can matter for strategy.

IS: What is the current political situation in Scandinavia today? Are the gains made by the social movements in the twentieth century holding firm or being degraded?

GL: Forcing a power shift in the last century doesn’t mean the class struggle disappeared. Small countries are vulnerable not only to internal tensions but also to manipulation by global market forces. Knowing this, Norway refused to join the EU, even before it gained the security of its oil find. Norwegians could see that the EU was led by neo-liberals, and they wanted the freedom to continue on their left course. Sweden and Denmark did join the EU but stayed out of the Eurozone, maintaining maneuvering room for themselves.

In my book I present a mixed picture of today’s Nordic class struggles: both losses and wins.  Here are a few of the many on both sides. Inequality has risen, although they remain at the top of the heap for equality. Belts are tightening on services, although they are still far more generous than other countries. Sweden struggles with maintaining the Nordic full employment policy. The mighty cooperatives are not matched by achievements in worker democracy in the other workplaces.

On the other hand, Sweden took in per capita the most Middle Eastern refugees of any European nation. Norwegian citizens can challenge Norwegian corporations’ behavior in the Global South and force changes. Iceland only a few years ago jailed bankers and brought down their government in the “Pots and Pans Revolution.” All the Nordics are speeding ahead in addressing climate change.

The Nordics remain largely faithful to their trademark approach to benefits: not means-tested (“welfare”), but applied to all (universal). I don’t call those countries by the misleading term “welfare states.” They are actually “universal services states,” and that is key to their success in virtually abolishing absolute poverty.

IS: What strategies and tactics do you think activists in the US and UK should employ to move from our current neo-liberal, high inequality economies to something approximating the Nordic Model?

GL: First, we should learn from the example of the Danish 1986 general strike: “go on the offensive.” The Danish workers didn’t just try to defend previous gains – they fought for further gains for working people.

Gandhi and military generals agree on at least one point: nobody wins anything on the defensive!  The activist history of the UK and US since the Thatcher/Reagan counter-revolution sadly forgot this strategic necessity of staying on the offensive – and paid the price. In fact, the biggest UK/US activist win since 1980 has arguably been rights for lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans people. The LGBT struggle stayed vigorously on the offensive!

Remaining on the offensive requires a vision of what we truly want.  Vision is where our demands should come from rather than from our fear of what we might lose. The Scandinavians a century ago took the time to get out of their little activist groups to gain wide agreement on a positive vision.

This can put radicals in a dilemma. Many Nordic radicals who wanted to win understood that the movement’s vision couldn’t express the full extent of their personal yearnings and still gain broad agreement. The vision had to be seen as practical and achievable within the middle term, a horizon that could inspire all-out struggle.

A sufficient number of middle class intellectual radicals overcame their class training (to be superior, differentiating egos) so they could join the growing mass movement that could unseat the one per cent, thereby opening the space for all kinds of possibilities – even some radical ones.

We are in a fundamentally new political moment from that of the 1920s/30s. At that time, no one knew for sure if there was a variant of socialism that would actually work to achieve a high degree of equality, freedom and shared prosperity. Now, we know. There is a track record, an economy that consistently out-performs the Anglo-American economic model, despite the disadvantages of small countries in a fierce and globalized world. My book shows that the practical argument is now entirely on our side.

What remains strategically is to sharpen the art of nonviolent direct action campaigning that meets people where they are and deepens their skills and knowledge while building ever more powerful movements. It may be time to drop the one-off protest and routine march and rally!  Campaigns with (a) specific grievances and (b) winnable demands and (c) a target that can be forced to grant the demand are the campaigns that empower. Empowered campaigners can then merge into mass movements that – when history opens the opportunity – become a “movement of movements” that can force a power shift.

The Nordic examples are included in an online, searchable database of over a thousand campaigns from nearly 200 countries: the Global Nonviolent Action Database. Campaigns range from those that have overthrown military dictatorships to those that forced local resolution of environmental dangers.

Campaigns are not sufficient to make a revolution, but their vitality, creativity, and escalating confrontation are central in making the power shift that gives us a chance to build the new society, as different from our present order as contemporary Scandinavia is different from that of a century ago.

IS: A common critique of your argument pushing for the US and UK to adopt Nordic-style economic and social policies is that it is unlikely to work as Nordic countries are very different to the US and UK – they are smaller, more homogenous and have very different political cultures. How do you respond to these challenges?

GL: The Nordic countries represent to me small laboratories in which experiments have been tried and conclusions reached. Through theory, trial and error they have achieved “best practices” in many areas, according to third party global measures.

Two attitudes are commonly held toward these practices. The first attitude was voiced by Hillary Clinton in an election debate with Bernie Sanders when he referenced a feature of Denmark’s political economy. “That’s Denmark,” Clinton said dismissively, certain it could have no relevance to the exceptionalist USA.

The second attitude was voiced by a delegation of Chinese economists and policy-makers who were sent by Beijing to investigate Norway.  I interviewed researchers in Oslo who had previously received the Chinese. They told me they were surprised by the Chinese government’s interest. I was as well, knowing that China makes the U.S. seem a small and homogeneous country compared with its own size and cultural complexity.

When asked, the Chinese said some economic questions are affected by scale and cultural diversity, and some are not. The Chinese were curious to learn what had been working “in the lab,” eager to identify the features that could scale up to provincial or even national size within China.

As a curious sociologist, who is strongly dissatisfied with the US economy, it is easy for me to be interested in the best practices of others.

IS: Doesn’t the election of Donald Trump as president suggest, if anything, the American population is moving further away from supporting the things that make up the Nordic Model? 

GL: The situation on the ground is the opposite from what you imagine. When we compare the votes for Trump and Clinton, we find that more supported Clinton than Trump, but the voters for the major candidates were far exceeded by those who didn’t vote for either Clinton or Trump – almost half the total electorate, most of whom didn’t bother to go to the polls at all.

The election reveals a deepening crisis of legitimacy for the American political class. In November the polls attracted the lowest percentage of eligible voters in 20 years – only 58%. Because of this, our next President was elected by roughly one in four of the eligible voters. And in exit polls, about one fifth of Trump’s voters said they don’t actually consider him to be competent to be President. To me, this does not sound like a mandate from the American people!

The story of voter participation is accompanied by the trend away from registering as Democrats or Republicans; more people are choosing “Independent.” Deep anger and alienation is felt by voters who feel abandoned by both of the major parties. Recent opinion polls asking about issues find majorities backing policies characteristic of the Nordic model, including aggressive anti-poverty measures, decreased rewards to the rich, the equality profile of Sweden rather than that of the US, and actively addressing the climate crisis.

For the history-minded, the combination of declining legitimacy of the established order with preference for an alternative is the recipe for system change.

The 1,000-year ago Viking spirit of expedition emerged in the twentieth century and inspired people to, economically-speaking, go where no one had gone before. We need not be so brave as the twentieth century Nordics were; we do not need to expedition. We can, more cautiously, learn from best practices already established, then take on the struggle with some confidence.

Do you have to gain power to make change?

Do you have to gain power to make change?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 November 2016 

“The greatest lesson that we can take from our history is that we can only implement our vision and apply our values when we win power and form a government”, Labour MP Owen Smith repeated ad nauseam during the recent Labour leadership contest. Owen Jones, generally considered to be on the left of the Labour Party, seemed to echo Smith on the issue of power and influence on his Youtube channel in August 2016. “Instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘lalalala it’s all fine’ there just needs to be strategy to improve those ratings”, the Guardian columnist argued about Labour’s poor poll ratings. “Otherwise we are finished, and the Conservatives will run the country for years. I’ll just keep doing my videos whinging about things, coming up with ideas. Waste of time. Just words, isn’t it? Just words.”

However, despite what the two Owens assert about the futility of opposition, the historical record suggests a far more hopeful conclusion.

“Power is not the only factor instrumental in creating change”, Salim Lone, a former Communications Director at the United Nations, noted in a letter to The Guardian in May 2016. “In fact it’s what one does in ‘opposition’ that has historically paved the way for real change. Humanity’s progress has resulted primarily from the struggles of those who fought for change against entrenched power.” US author Rebecca Solnit agrees, noting just before the US presidential election that “election seasons erase the memory of movements that worked for years or decades, outside and around, below and above electoral politics.” She describes these as “the histories that matter.”

Producing change while not in power can broadly be separated into two camps: transformation that is forced on an unwilling ruling elite, and government policies that are stopped or modified by strong opposition. And let’s not forget that any change from below almost always involves an extra-parliamentary direct action struggle, from the setting up of trade unions and women winning the vote to the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – all forced on an initially resistant ruling class. In the 1990s direct action played a key role in stopping the “biggest road building programme since the Romans” planned by the then Tory government and the attempt to introduce GM food to the UK.

Indeed, a close reading of the news demonstrates that successfully making change while not in power happens all the time. Last month The Guardian headline was “Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests”. Back in the UK, Corbyn’s Labour Party has inflicted a number of defeats on the government – on planned cuts to tax credits and housing benefit, and the proposed prison contract with Saudi Arabia. It was a Tory-led Government, let’s not forget, that introduced gay marriage – 25 years after they introduced the anti-gay Section 28. And responding to the Chancellor’s recent announcement about investing in the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quipped “It’s clear Philip Hammond is now borrowing from Labour to invest in his own speech”.

Unsurprisingly governments will try to take the credit for any popular changes – former Prime Minister David Cameron making it known he had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, for example. But rather than taking the powerful at their (retrospective and self-justifying) word, a more accurate explanation of the process of positive change is highlighted by Tony Benn’s famous dictum: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Of course, being in power is preferable to not being in power. Far more change is obviously possible when one is in control, when it can be planned, coordinated and sustained. Those attempting to force change from the outside do not have control of the process, the timing or the details. However, it is important not to underestimate the power of social movements and activism – the power of ‘ordinary’ people to create real, long-lasting change.

Indeed, with Donald Trump likely to be in the White House for the next four years it is essential this hopeful understanding of political change is widely understood and acted upon. The signs are promising: with Trump reviled and distrusted by a large section of the American public, it is likely there will be a much needed resurgence of progressive activism following the unjustified lull during the Obama Administration. Trump is dangerously unpredictable, so making predictions about his foreign policy is difficult, US dissident Noam Chomsky noted in a recent interview. However, he ended on a note of optimism: “What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly organized and conducted, can make a large difference.”

Book review. Rebel Footprints: A Guide To Uncovering London’s Radical History by David Rosenberg

Book review. Rebel Footprints: A Guide To Uncovering London’s Radical History by David Rosenberg
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
August-September 2015

Rebel Footprints is effectively two books woven into one. First, in response to the statues celebrating imperialist and ruling class men that dominate the streets of London David Rosenberg has written an exciting radical history of the capital. In addition, interspersed throughout the lively prose are delightful practical walking guides that the reader can use to explore the rousing accounts of resistance and rebellion Rosenberg has unearthed.

Focussing on the hundred year following the widespread disappointment of 1832’s so-called Great Reform Act, the book honours those who refused to accept the poverty-ridden, undemocratic status quo and who, as one newspaper said of Labour MP George Lansbury, were “impatient to put the world right.”

Refreshingly, Rosenberg balances familiar names, organisations and protests with lesser known history. Who knew that in response to the huge Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common in 1848 the Queen was evacuated to the Isle of Wight and 3,000 soldiers were sent to London? The dissidents of Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury gets a chapter each – but so does the relatively unknown socialist agitation in Battersea which led to the election of London’s first Black mayor and first Communist MP. Turning to the women’s vote, Rosenberg skirts past Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union to highlight the work of her pacifist, class-conscious daughter Sylvia and the East London Federation of Suffragettes.

Rosenberg is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide who is particularly good at showing the myriad of links between different campaigns. For example, as well as agitating for votes for women with the Women’s Freedom League, the vegetarian activist Charlotte Despard also set up a community centre, campaigning for socialist causes and Irish Home Rule.

“London remains a vibrant and rebellious city”, Rosenberg concludes, pointing to the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral and “the uprisings” in Tottenham in the 1980s and 2011. With a Tory majority Government elected in May, Radical Footprints will hopefully inspire people to fight back against the next five years of austerity-driven class warfare.

Review: We Are Many documentary

Review: We Are Many. Directed by Amir Amirani
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 May 2015

Four stars

15 February 2003 “was the single largest mobilisation of people in the history of humanity – bar none”, notes US analyst Phyllis Bennis in We Are Many, Amir Amirani’s brilliant new documentary about the global anti-war movement against the Iraq War.

Beginning with the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Amirani uses tons of stirring archive news footage and original interviews with key figures like Tony Benn, Clare Short, Jesse Jackson and Noam Chomsky to tell the story of that momentous day. Around 30 million people marched in 789 major cities in over 72 countries across the world. A small rally even took place at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica.

With over a million people marching through London in the biggest protest in British history, in one sense the story will be familiar to many Morning Star readers. However, the film includes many important and interesting snippets of information.

US Air Force veteran Tim Goodrich blows apart the fiction that war was a last resort, noting that the US bombing of Iraq increased by over 500 percent in autumn 2002 “with the purpose of trying to goad Saddam Hussein into retaliating to give us a reason to go to war.” Elsewhere, Hans Blix, the Chief UN weapons inspector from 2000-3, amusingly explains the US and UK “were 100 percent sure that there were weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq though “they had zero percent of knowledge where they were.” And who knew Virgin boss Richard Branson had made an unsuccessful attempt to stop the war by flying Nelson Mandela to Baghdad on the eve of the invasion?

The film ends by exploring the long-lasting impact of 15 February 2003, including its role in shifting British public opinion so much that it made it impossible for the Coalition Government to go to war against Syria in August 2013. Amirani also tells the unknown story of how the global movement against the Iraq War inspired Egyptians to start protesting against President Hosni Mubarak. “That’s exactly when I was thinking, and others, that if we were triple that number, or four times that number, we could take down Mubarak”, notes one Egyptian activist about the 20 March 2003 protest that occurred in Tahrir Square against the war.

Writing in the New York Times, journalist Patrick Tyler commented that the global demonstrations were “reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” Taking its name from the last line of Shelley’s 1819 poem Mask of Anarchy, We Are Many is itself a moving and timely reminder of the power of activism and protest – the perfect antidote to the despair created by the new Tory majority government.

Was marching on 15 February 2003 a waste of time?

Was marching on 15 February 2003 a waste of time?
by Ian Sinclair
20 December 2014

Was it a waste of time marching on 15 February 2003? Did the march have no effect on British politics? Many people believe so. This account from Maajid Nawaz of speaking to a bomb-maker in an Egyptian prison suggests the march had one very important, far-reaching influence:

‘So when I was in prison in Egypt as a political prisoner there… one of the things I did was have a conversation with a convicted, professional bomb-maker… He was from Dagestan. He came to Egypt to train Egyptians to cross the border into the Gaza Strip to train Palestinians to kill Israelis. He was caught, thankfully, and he was put in prison. The conversation I had with him was after the mass protest movement in Britain against the [2003] Iraq War. I said to him the following, I said “Look, the majority of these people protesting – first of all the largest protest against the Iraq War wasn’t in Pakistan, it wasn’t in Saudi Arabia, it wasn’t in Turkey, it was in Britain, this country you want to blow up. Second fact, most of the protesters were non-Muslims. So what does that tell you about the people you define as your enemy? In fact, Turkey is a member of NATO that is part of this alliance, so surely you should be trying to blow-up Turkish Muslims instead of the Brits who are opposed to the Iraq War.” First of all I got a look from him that kind of told me he wanted to kill me. That conversation lasted over a couple of weeks and one day I was in my cell and he came knocking on the door and he said “Maajid you know I’ve been thinking”. This is a guy who knows how to make bombs and kill people. He says “You know I’ve been thinking” because we had a lengthy conversation about it. He said “You are right”. After seeing the photographs I showed him from the newspapers of the mass protests against the Iraq War, he said “You are right, these people aren’t my enemy”. He was still a terrorist, he was still an Islamist, he was still an extremist, but he no longer believed in targeting Britain.’ – Maajid Nawaz, former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir and co-founder and Executive Director of Quilliam, Overtime with Bill Maher, October 25, 2013

This account concurs with an interview Moazzam Begg gave in 2008 about being a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay:

‘The Stop the War movement has become a buffer between people who may want to carry out acts of violence on innocent Westerners, and the government itself that does carry out acts of violence against people in the Middle East. I had a conversation with the only self-described member of Al Qaida I’ve met, in Guantanamo. He said that people in the West are not innocent because they vote in their leaders and therefore must share part of the blame. I explained that most people vote on domestic issues like the health service and roads. I said that you’ll probably find a great number of them don’t support the war, but when you strike you don’t discriminate. Then he started thinking about it a little bit. The Stop the War movement is a buffer which helps prevent terrorism in a way that the government would never conceive; when they see people demonstrating against the war it helps to pacify some of the radical elements who would otherwise have said, “They’re all the same – go and bomb the whole lot of them.”’

Interview with Gene Sharp

Interview with Gene Sharp
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
March 2012

Arguably the best-known advocate of nonviolence working today, through books such as 1993’s ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’ Gene Sharp has influenced popular revolutions and revolts across the globe. He was interviewed by Ian Sinclair for PN.

Peace News: When and why did you first get interested in the serious study of nonviolent struggle?

Gene Sharp: Well, the world was in a bit of a mess [after the Second World War], and I began to learn that there was a phenomenon of nonviolence that had been in existence for a long time; that some means of conflict are necessary and people were still trying to use it [nonviolence] in various parts of the world. So this could prove to be very, very important, so I started studying and reading over quite a number of years. It goes way back.

PN: How would you describe your own politics?

GS: I have a chapter on that in the [1980] book Social Power and Political Freedom. And the chapter is ‘Rethinking Politics’. You have to rethink politics, not choose from what’s on the present menu. I cooperate with people with various political perspectives. There’s no one that I find so adequate to simply accept it and embrace it.

PN: You wouldn’t call yourself a pacifist?

GS: Not anymore. That doesn’t mean I’m for violence but, maybe unjustly, or maybe not, pacifists are known for their refusal to use violence. And doing a number of other good things, perhaps.

It goes back to the old PPU [Peace Pledge Union] slogan: “War will cease when men refuse to fight.” But I don’t think you get rid of war that way. I think you have to have a substitute. You have to, unless you just want to make a moral gesture.

I’ve done that [Sharp spent nine months in prison for protesting against conscription during the Korean War]. But moral gestures, to be crude, don’t achieve much, sometimes nothing. Sometimes a little bit.

PN: Underpinning your ideas and arguments is a specific understanding of how power works in society. Could you summarise this for people who may not be familiar with your work?

GS: I will do that but it’s expressed at length in the first volume of the paperback edition of The Politics of Nonviolent Action. I think it’s the first chapter on the nature of political power… Power has sources. It’s not something in a package. And where those sources are there and available to the regime, there can be great power.

I think I identify six or seven sources: a moral authority – they have the right to rule or the right to be our government, for whatever reason; the control of the economy; the control of the civil service; the control of the police; the control of the military; and certain more fuzzy factors, more psychological factors.

If those are available then there’s power. But those sources, people in government positions, they weren’t born with those; they come from somebody else. Those can be traced and they all come from the obedience and cooperation of individuals, or more commonly, institutions and groups of people. They make them available, and in some rare situations their sources are not made available readily, or they’re withdrawn. Massive non-cooperation movements are an example. Then their power is taken away.

That’s why some governments fall apart, like the Soviet Union and Eastern European governments fell apart, because they weren’t able to mobilise those sources.

PN: What are the problems of using violence to overthrow a dictatorship?

GS: It’s foolish. Stupid. If your enemy has massive capacity for violence – and modern governments today have massive capacity for violence – why deliberately choose to fight with your enemy’s best weapons? They are guaranteed to win, almost certainly.

PN: Are there any instances where you have supported violent resistance to occupation or invasion?

GS: I’m often happy that people opposing a regime have won. Libya’s used as an example now, which the Libyans did not do themselves – the French air force, US military capacity and so forth. It wasn’t a struggle by the Libyans, and now it’s not their victory. I was told the number of Libyan casualties and the physical destruction are absolutely horrendous – far, far worse than what’s been going on in Syria, as horrible as that is. You have greater casualties with violence.

It’s a very good chance you’re going to lose and if you get outside help then part of the control afterwards is in the hands of the foreigners for whatever motives. That doesn’t sound very good to me.

PN: What have been the most successful examples of nonviolent revolution in recent history?

GS: There are a whole variety of them. You could look at Poland, for example. It took ten years but they did it. They withstood their own authoritarian regime back in the ’30s. They withstood the Nazi occupation and the Soviet occupation and opposed the Communist government. Eastern Europe – Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, where we [the Albert Einstein Institution] did consult.

Those countries were already part of the Soviet Union and they got out using these means. We directly consulted with those governments in person. They got out with very few casualties. I think in Lithuania it may have been 14 dead, in Latvia eight and in Estonia nobody was killed. To me the [resistance to the 1991] hard-line coup in the Soviet Union is another example.

PN: As you will know, with the Arab spring there have been numerous reports of your influence on the various revolutions and revolts.

GS: I don’t know. I get these reports all the time. We had known that there was interest in my writing in Egypt for a few years. We even heard that there was a special headquarters that had been set up in an apartment in Cairo and occasionally we have Egyptians visit us in Boston, Massachusetts. But none of that proves anything in terms of real documentation – how you transfer all the knowledge gained just by reading, talking or listening, to people’s actions.

PN: In How To Start A Revolution you say you are primarily trying to “understand the nature and potential of nonviolent forces of struggle to undermine dictatorships.” Are your arguments and ideas transferable to making radical transformations in industrial democracies like the US and UK?

GS: From Dictatorship to Democracy is only a small piece of my writings. A very small piece. The nature of nonviolent struggle is broader. My 1973 book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action was never published in the UK. I’m hoping to do it in a large edition to be published here in a couple years. It’s on the nature of the technique: what are its methods, how does it work? That then can be adjusted for application for a variety of broadly democratic purposes – economic objectives, political objectives, anti-colonial movements, extensions of the franchise and so forth.

So you wouldn’t take the model From Dictatorship to Democracy and apply it to social revolution because that’s a different objective. You’d have to have a different analysis. But a nonviolent struggle can be extremely important in the new model for a social revolution.

PN: The most important and influential social movement in the US at the minute seems to be the Occupy protests. What is your assessment of these?

GS: It’s been succeeding and accomplishing what? It’s an expression of people who are very frustrated and quite angry. And for damn good reasons. They think politically they’re not having the impact they had wanted. They see the extreme non-distribution of wealth in the country is getting worse. It’s coming out even in the Republican debates with the candidates there.

So people who’ve been in the middle class their whole lives are now becoming quite poor. And I don’t know what political consequences there are going to be over this but all that is happening.

The Occupy movement expresses some of that frustration. It has spread not only within the United States but also in other countries. Because people think there’s something they can do. But they think that by expressing themselves, they think that’s going to change things. And to be honest it won’t. It’s too little. Not enough. It is only symbolism.

You don’t get great economic and political changes by symbolism only, which any radical would agree with. Now whether they will do other thinking, they are going beyond this – there are some signs that some of them are. Whether it’s going to be adequate, I have my doubts. If they do this thinking they are going to win, and they don’t, they may collapse and think: “We’re as helpless as we thought we were and so won’t do anything.” Or they’ll go over to violence which will bring down greater repression, predictably. It won’t change the situation.

PN: You have been involved in activism and academic writing and work for a long time. What keeps you going? Do you have moments of doubt?

GS: Not really, no. Maybe I’m kind of a stubborn person. That always helps. To see on the one hand the great need for the application of nonviolent struggle, to see the great impact when it is applied wisely, which is not always the case.

Sometimes you get contact and letters from people you had never heard of, about what this has meant for them, sometimes individuals see the movement developing. And sometimes you see the regime has come down. The victors have won. That’s encouraging.

But we can still learn to do this more skillfully, more effectively. Sometimes we know a lot, but people are unaware of what we do know. Sometimes we may not know what we need to know. My ignorance is vast.

People come and ask me what they should do, and I say: “I’m not going to tell you! I don’t do that. Here’s what you need to learn and understand in order to do this yourselves.” That’s why our guide is called Self-Liberation.

You may have seen this, it’s on our website. It’s kind of deceptive but not on purpose. People would come to us and finally we figured out what they need to plan a strategy, they need three things. They have to know their own situation in depth, far better than we would know it – they need to know it better.

They need to know nonviolent struggle in depth. Not the superficial impressions that people claim they know – they don’t. So there’s a condensed version of what they need to read, it’s only 900 pages. And that’s condensed.

And then they need to learn how to think strategically; how to act facing opposition so you can actually accomplish something. Strategy being probably more important in nonviolent struggle than it is in military conflict. If they learn all that, then there’s a chance they can plan their own struggle.

PN: But surely most people in Egypt and other places where they have used your ideas and arguments have not read all your writings?

GS: No, but the masses of people didn’t formulate the strategy. That is for getting people competent enough to plan a strategy. Then there are many people who can be very important and very effective in conducting a struggle – they don’t have to read all that. But somebody needs to – as many as possible – need to have that know-how. This is people learning how to do this. This is new. They don’t need a Gandhi.

What if this existed in 1930, all this knowledge and know-how? Before Hitler came to power? If people who struggled against Hitler had greater knowledge of how to conduct struggle effectively to prevent him ever succeeding in becoming chancellor in the first place?

When Hitler came into the government the Nazis were very frightened of a general strike. A nonviolent method. They were very frightened of that. If only the opposition really knew how to conduct this kind of struggle effectively, the world would have been very different. But it didn’t happen.

You ask me: “Why don’t I call myself a pacifist?” I don’t favour violence but I think the old assumption “you’re either for war or you’re a pacifist” is wrong.

There’s a third position, which I think was Gandhi’s position. I’m working to develop nonviolent struggle as a viable alternative. Only if you have a viable alternative can you have a chance of getting it used and being effective. And that is not a case of refusing to use violence, that’s a case of using nonviolent struggle competently. That needs a new name. I’m not sure what that name would be.