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Nonviolence 2.0

Oriol Leira
Graduate in philosophy, he has combined lecturing with social activism in anti-military and ecological movements alike. He has collaborated in alternative publications and is the cofounder of the magazine Illacrua
Oriol Leira

Oriol Leira

Who can say how Mohandas Gandhi would have viewed this year of 2012, the demonstrations of the so called "Arab Spring" (especially in Tunisia and Egypt) and those closer to home, the 15-M. Undoubtedly, Gandhi would have viewed it with avid interest given that one of the most outstanding features openly displayed and put into practice in these initiatives, otherwise sufficiently differentiated, was nonviolence.

Few expected that such a spontaneous and diverse mix of people, without backing from any stable organization and without any declared strategies, would adopt non-violence as a common slogan for conveying their street protest. Obviously we cannot lump the human cluster which filled the squares of Tahrir and Sol, just to mention two examples, into the same bundle given that the social situation and conditions on the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean continue to be notably different; however there is absolutely no doubt about the fact that the massive presence of youth making their debut in social activism in the streets was the most outstanding common strand to both, just as the Tunisian lecturer in Law and Political Sciences Hamadi Redissi highlighted by considering the youth as the deus ex machina of the Tunisian revolution. However, the most surprising fact has been that these inexperienced young people, without any prior preparation in this area, adopted non-violence with such a high degree of personal implication and physical risk. It is as if non-violence had entered the shared psyche of a new generation of activists, until it has become part of what we could refer to as their "common sense". And all this without denigrating the active role played by members from other generations more accustomed to social activism and who made this strategy their own for the first time.

Without professing to unravel the social, economic and political context that sparked the uprisings, what we are interested in here is analysing this phenomenon. We wish to ask ourselves where it originated, whether its emergence would be unthinkable without some kind of basis, a breeding ground prepared by previous generations, or if there are new cultural and/or spiritual currents, more or less explicit, which have facilitated it. Finally, if there are contextual elements related to new technologies, with new ways of relating to one another or new consumer habits that have fostered, or even if there have been specific commitments of a political nature, with a medium-term effort to promote non-violence –from its understanding and practice- under the supervision of organised social groups or political lobbies, on the basis of works such as that of Gene Sharp, one of the principal US theoreticians, which in recent years has enjoyed growing circulation, especially on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, as more than one observer noted. The end goal of these questions was to attempt to understand whether there are specific and differential traits to this version of non-violence, which still lacks a clear adjective to define it and which we have taken the liberty or even the recklessness of naming it "non-violence 2.0".

The theorists for this discipline make a distinction, not without its controversies, between ethical non-violence and pragmatic non-violence. The former has positive conception of conflict (the oppressing party must should realize the error of their ways) and emphasizes the combination of the means and the ends in the struggle and the importance of moral values, while the latter makes a more traditional analysis of conflict, insofar as this type of nonviolence understands a more antagonistic relationship between the parties with incompatible interests; in this way, non-violence is only a strategy, a means for advancing towards one's own objectives as much as possible. When we say that the nonviolent strategy we have witnessed in the squares has specific features, this is because we are unable to categorize it into either of the aforementioned types, even though it may have features similar to the pragmatic version. In fact, they were "uprisings without violence", in which foregoing violence played a more important role than its use. If we had to fall back on a category that better suits this phenomenon, perhaps we could make use of that which Robert Burrowes refers to as a "minimalist" conception of non-violence, in other words, a method of struggle where diverse expressions share the common denominator that is the refusal to resort to violence. In this sense, an action shall be considered nonviolent regardless of whether it is inspired by ethical or moral principles or whether it is motivated by eminently practical considerations.

In order to expand slightly the profile of these variations of non-violence, we should take a closer look at some of the highlighted elements that have accompanied the mobilisations. Firstly, we should highlight the fact that the phenomenon of the squares represented a move towards "breaking the silence". Central, emblematic spaces were occupied to raise their voices in protest against an unsustainable situation in which the majority of the population, and particularly youth, were seeing themselves being pushed into an ever-increasing precariousness in their living conditions, where corruption and the abuse of power was the trademark of democracies in decline –the north American political philosopher Sheldon S. Wolin labelled these harshly using the term "inverted totalitarianisms". But this could not have been brought about in any way whatever, because arguments for discrediting or repression should never be facilitated. The recent experiences were still felt too strongly (severe repression of the strikes in Egypt and the anti-globalisation movement in Europe) and risks were to be avoided. Sharp also identified three general methods of nonviolent action: persuasion and nonviolent protest, noncooperation and direct action, generally in the form of civil disobedience. The mobilisations in question should basically be placed within the first group and to a lesser extent in the second. Nonviolent protest is based on symbolic actions such as petitions, proclamations, demonstrations, vigils… to express disagreement, opposition or support of specific issues, while non-cooperation is an initial form of deliberate defiance of the regime or institutions with which one is in conflict, adopting measures such as suspending public activity, economic noncooperation, political noncooperation, etc. We cannot speak of direct action because the situation did not reach forms of organised civil disobedience aimed at blocking or sabotaging behaviour patterns, policies, regulations, relations or institutions deemed unacceptable, nor were any new patterns established. While in the undercurrent of all the mobilisations there was dissatisfaction faced with a lack of real democracy, in the squares of south the objective was very clear: to topple the government, while in the squares of the north, the goal became more unclear, less defined.

Another important aspect which strengthens this distinction is the fact that the first people to break this silence unexpectedly were a people who appeared either to not count at all, or counted for very little. The Franco-Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb referred to the Tunisian uprising as the inaugural event in the acceleration of the decentering of History, in which the periphery has been raised to the centre –calls this uprising, "decentering revolution", given that it was the people of a small north African country who have brought about an immense storm in the Arab-Muslim world in North Africa and the northern shores of the Mediterranean. It even appears that the wind of protest and change in Europe will progress from the periphery to the centre. The decisive factor that has made it possible for the uprisings in the south have been more successful than those in the north, was the adverse reaction of the media and independent observers, from the region and the north alike, to the repression of nonviolence (or nonviolent protesters), by the police and the army as well as by supporters of the regime. In the squares of the north, it has been possible to minimize this, because in general, the authorities have been more permissive and have waited for the moment and the necessary excuses before intervening.

In this sense, Burrowes makes a distinction between reformist and revolutionary nonviolence. Those who engage in the former identify specific policies as the principal causes of social problems and take action accordingly; those who practise the latter question the global model, given that these are guided by structural analysis of political and economic relations. In the first case, people are driven by the accomplishment of limited goals, and therefore the effectiveness of the action is more easily recognisable, while in the second case, the pretence of structural changes generates a more decisive reaction from the defenders of the established order and increases the likelihood of violent repression. In the squares of the south we can identify reformist nonviolence whereas in the north they have signed up to the second type, although without much conviction.

The overriding instrument in the success of these mobilisations was the Internet. Thanks to the Internet, we have been able to set the pace of the events, with a power of mobilisation previously unimaginable, and have prevented the initial attempts from being prematurely aborted. In fact, if people have given life to the squares and the assemblies have given it a voice, the Internet is responsible for acting as its loudspeaker. So, the blogosphere has been a decisive player in promoting and catalysing the activity of the acampadas (tent camps), as it has encouraged a greater rotation of those in attendance and haas enabled those who could not be present in the squares to participate all the same in their actions and their objectives. Support from Anonymous nebula with the entrance into play of thousands of hackers (8,000 alone in Tunisia) was successful in halting the efforts of police and governments to close down the web. Therefore, the confrontation largely shifted to cyberspace, from where logistical support was given to the mobilisations and a new domain was opened in relations and collaboration, thereby enabling the exchange and sharing of information and encouraging the use of nonviolence.

The relevance of the blogosphere is unquestionable given that the generation of young people who took to the streets is better informed academically and professionally that their predecessors. This preparation also facilitated other external references coming into play, such as that of Gene Sharp, as mentioned above, at least in the squares of the south. Nevertheless, the presence of the internet, even the habit of thinking and communicating via a network has made another process possible: it has gone from the great assembly in one single square to many assemblies in the different towns and neighbourhoods. If the concentrations gave the movement visibility, fragmentation brings it to move along almost invisible paths, not always easy to follow. Perhaps spontaneous aggregation is better able to cope with the ups and downs, because people, even though they may not meet, continue to make their own inroads; they read, they acquire information, they participate in their micro networks.

Meanwhile, out there reality presses on and those who are in charge continue to turn things to their own advantage, remaining loyal to the idea that no other world is possible. In this context, it remains unclear as to which path these mobilisations may take and whether this new form of nonviolence can stand up to onslaughts of situations of ever-increasing tension where the loss of confidence and hope could lead to division and loss of patience. We must never forget that, regardless of how spontaneous the social movements are, they also require a minimum of success to spur them on. It remains to be seen whether this new direction nonviolence has taken is capable of allowing new forms of action to flourish, with a significant measure of creativity that can allow them to become effective to any extent.