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The new faces of nonviolence: from hunger riots to white revolutions. Gandhi or La Boétie

Rafael Grasa
President of the ICIP 1
Rafael Grasa

Rafael Grasa

We are living through uncertain and optimistic times: what in other circumstances used to be known simply as "hunger riots" have become almost spontaneously structured social movements (or at least largely outside the basic political parties), with people taking to the streets on a continuous basis after arranging the actions using social networks, using mobile phones and computers. We have seen in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen how these movements have been created based on demands for basic needs, among which the demands for democracy, a change in regime and political leaders and an end to corruption are central. The phenomenon has also been broadcast on television, and of course, by means of social networks all over the world. Much has already been said about the "Facebook effect", which has helped to achieve one of the things that nonviolent struggle as a strategy always seeks by means of the educational and exemplary nature of its actions: to stir consciences, to encourage more people to take action, to create a "snowball effect", inside the country and beyond; in this case, in the Arab world.

The result has to date, in mid-February, been the fall of two dictators, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. Furthermore, the domino effect is certain to have consequences in many other countries, especially in the Arab world; in the words of Raimon, once you've tasted freedom, you have more strength to live. And to fight!

In addition to satisfaction at the impact and congratulations to those involved, this phenomenon, which emerged as this issue of Peace in Progress dedicated precisely to nonviolent struggle went to press, warrants three types of urgent reflections, which still have little basis and are perhaps too closely linked to the events and the emotions involved.

First, the causes of the movements, and the objectives and tactics and instruments used, must be carefully analysed, with a case-by-case comparison. The basic fact is that we have moved from hunger riots to so-called "white revolutions", in which the violence of the former - spontaneous, sometimes intense, and always of short duration - has been replaced by nonviolent actions. Once again, when undertaking analysis and comparison, a distinction should be made between structural causes (social, political and economic) and accelerators and triggers, as well as a distinction between social, economic and political factors. We will leave that for later.

Second, it will be necessary to consider the consequences and impact, beyond the immediate future and the headlines, in each country concerned, in the Arab world, on international relations and foreign policies in the North (in the European Union and the United States in particular) and also at various levels. Many things may change, especially in the evolution of political Islam, in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and even development, peace and human rights policies. However, we must avooid conclusions that are generic and above all hasty: international politics is based firmly on Tomasi di Lampedusa's principle: make changes so that everything stays the same.

Third, it is necessary to focus on the new use made of nonviolent tactics and strategies, combined with communication technologies. Many people, from Obama to many political analysts, have recently invoked Gandhi when discussing the cases of Tunisia and Egypt. In addition, various authors have been pointing to the relevance of nonviolence that is not based on religious convictions in the new political era for some years.

A mobilisation may be not violent and not necessarily "nonviolent," despite the use of instruments and tactics based on centuries of nonviolent struggle. It is therefore worthwhile remembering what nonviolence means in the strictest sense of the word.

In the words of Gonzalo Arias, an excellent example of a practising theoretician, the violence that nonviolent individual unilaterally and unconditionally rejects, is his ort her own, in order that the rejection of murderous methods "can end the monotonous vicious circle of violence and counter-violence which constitutes most of the history of humanity."2

Based on this premise, Gonzalo builds an argument about the meaning of rejecting violence and choosing nonviolence, using a non-religious political ethic and focusing on practical action. First, he defines the rejection of violence, restricting the total rejection of direct violence aimed at killing or attacks on people's physical integrity, which enables moral coercion to be used in the nonviolent struggle. Second, he argues that the rejection must be total, at least on a personal level, and does not accept that violence could be resorted to in some extreme cases. Third, it is necessary to distance oneself from those who believe that a surgical use of violence is acceptable at the end of the process, to provide the finishing touch to the work done up until that point. And fourth, he proposes establishing all nonviolent strategy based on two preconditions: the unambiguous and categorical declaration - mentioned above - in favour of nonviolence and the conviction, which is a guiding principle, that it is always possible under any circumstances to find a nonviolent path, however difficult it may sometime appear.

To put it another way, the thought of the great minds of nonviolence involves a strategic rather than a tactical decision against violence, and in favour of nonviolent struggle in political action. Those involved in nonviolent action therefore have a dual personal commitment to planning their political actions; there are no exceptions to the rejection of violence, and it is always possible to find ways and alternatives to fight against injustice and for peace in a nonviolent manner. In other words, nonviolence as an alternative is based on ethical and political principles, not necessarily religious ones, which enable political action and the exercise of influence on public policy-making in a different way. As Gandhi said in his argument which justified the reasons for calling for non-cooperation, in the Swaraj they involve accepting that "non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good [...] evil can only be sustained by violence, withdrawal of support of evil requires complete abstention from violence". And doing so really and effectively entails other ways of action, and implementing policies to guarantee the dignity and welfare of all human beings and that of future generations.

Is that what we've seen in Tunisia and Egypt? I'm not one hundred percent sure. I don't think that the principles of Gonzalo Arias mentioned above were always present, at least in the initial intentions and "design" of the actions. However, it does not really matter very much. In my opinion, the thought of Étienne de la Boétie and his position on voluntary servitude has been as relevant or indeed more so than the thought of Gandhi in the "white uprisings": as long ago as the sixteenth century, he told us that not even the most despotic regime in the world can be maintained without the consent of those governed, which despots often obtain by force, coercion, and especially by fear and force of habit. Once fear has been lost and consent withdrawn, once the dialectic of domination/submission/servitude has been abandoned by important sectors of the population, no dictatorship or despotism can last for very long.

To put it in his own words, which are relevant today: "Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces." That is what the white revolutions have done, by nonviolent means and using nonviolent tactics.

1. The text contains ideas and extracts from a recent text by the author, the prologue to book by David Cortright, Gandhi and Beyond. Nonviolence for a New Political Age. Barcelona: Pagès editors/ICIP, 2011. This book begins the Institute's "Nonviolence and the Fight for Peace" collection. (Back)
2. La noviolencia, ¿tentación o reto?, author's edition, page 146. (Back)