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Andy Kroll: The Unlikely Oracle of Occupy Wall Street

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How could that be? Well, because they had won over the garrison of Saint Petersburg; they had, that is, won the "hearts and minds" of the military and the police.

AK: The Bastille was like that as well.

JS: The Bastille was absolutely like that. In that first stage of the French Revolution there was almost no violence at all. Some people were beheaded in the aftermath of the action, but the victory was not won through violence, but through the defection of the government's minions. It didn't mean the revolutionaries loved nonviolence. On the contrary, what followed was the Terror, in the case of the French, and the Red Terror in the case of the Bolsheviks, who went on to shed far more blood as rulers than they had shed on their way to power.

Usually the cliche is that the stage of overthrow is the violent part, and the stage of consolidation or of setting up a new government is post-violent or nonviolent. I discovered it to be just the other way around.

AK: On this subject, as your book makes clear, some re-teaching is in order. We're so conditioned to think of overthrow as a physical act: knocking down the gates, storming the castle, killing the king, declaring the country yours.

JS: In a certain sense, overthrow is the wrong word. If you overthrow something, you pick it up and smash it down. In these cases, however, the government has lost legitimacy with the people and is spontaneously disintegrating from within.

AK: As you note, the Hungarian writer György Konrád used the image of an iceberg melting from the inside to describe the process.

JS: He and actually the whole Solidarity movement had already noticed how Franco's cryptofascist regime in Spain sort of melted away from within and finally handed over power in a formal process to democratic forces. That was one of their models.

AK: Reading The Unconquerable World feels like swimming against the tide of conventional wisdom, of conventional history. Why do you think antiquated ideas about power and its uses still grip us so tightly?

JS: There is a conventional assumption that superior violence is always decisive. In other words, whatever you do, at the end of the day whoever has the biggest army is going to win. They're going to cross the border, impose their ideology or religion, they're going to kill the women and children, they're going to get the oil.

And honestly, you have to say that, through most of history, there was overwhelming evidence for the accuracy of that observation. I very much see the birth of nonviolence as something that, although not exactly missing from the pages of history previously, was fundamentally new in 1906. I think of it as a discovery, an invention.

The fundamental critique of it was that it doesn't work. The belief, more an unspoken premise than a conviction, was that if you want to act effectively in defense of your deepest beliefs or worst cravings, you have to pick up the gun, and as Mao Zedong said, power will flow from the barrel of that gun.

It took protracted demonstrations of the kind that we've been talking about to put nonviolence on the map. Now, by the way, states have come to understand this power and its dangers much better. Certainly, those who govern Egypt understand it. And what about the apparatchiks of the Soviet Union? They saw it firsthand -- the whole thing going down almost without a shot being fired.

Take, for instance, the government of Iran. They're very worried foreign activists or certain books might show up in their country, because they're afraid that a soft or velvet revolution will take place in Iran. And they're right to worry. They've had two big waves of protest already, most recently the Green Revolution of 2009-2010.

It hasn't succeeded there yet. And to be clear, there's nothing magical about nonviolence. It's a human thing. It's not a magic wand that you wave over empires and totalitarian regimes and they simply melt away, though sometimes it's seemed that way. There can, of course, be failure. Look at what the people in Syria face right now. And look at the staggering raw courage they've displayed in going out into the streets again and again in the face of so many slaughtered in their country. It's anyone's guess who's going to emerge as the victor there.

AK: It can fail.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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