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Can Nonviolence Govern?

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – Mayan woman in the streets of this colonial tourist town sell hand-made dolls of Zapatistas, the media-savvy, black-masked rebels who claim to speak for the local indiginas and, indeed, for all the oppressed peoples of the planet. While they began, on New Year’s Day in 1994, with an armed rebellion here, the Zapatistas have since committed to nonviolent methods, even amidst ongoing abuse from the Mexican army. The ammunition they wear around their chests has become as much a caricature as the Zapatista Air Force, the fleet of paper airplanes that rebels tossed at Mexican soldiers with political messages written inside. They have joined the legions of 20th (and now 21st) century resistance movements that have learned the effectiveness of peaceful popular organizing against repressive, far more powerful and far more violent regimes.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more accessibly spelled out than the book, documentary, and video game series, “A Force More Powerful“. No less than John McCain has a blurb on the back of the book: “I recommend it to anyone who believes that power only flows from the barrel of a gun.” The franchise promises Gandhian nonviolence as the method par excellence for little people to fight bad guys in power, but little do they offer it as a method that good guys (or gals) in power might use. Yet this enthusiasm for Gandhian nonviolence in the hands of the oppressed didn’t stop McCain from betting his presidential campaign on a gun-barrel approach to American foreign policy. Nonviolence is great for the powerless, particularly when their targets are regimes that get in the way of our own power, but not really practical for the conventionally powerful.

The notion that government requires the measured application of violence has survived some of the world’s most robust nonviolence movements. In its early days, Christianity was perceived to be so opposed to violence that the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine I, wouldn’t let himself be baptized until lying on his deathbed, knowing all the blood his office would force him to spill before then. And after India won its independence in 1947, at the end of what is probably history’s largest and most inspiring nonviolent resistance movement, the new government saw itself as under no obligation to cling to the principles and practices that had won its existence. Ever since, it has been in a more or less perpetual state of conflict with Pakistan, claiming the lives of nearly 50,000 people in the last two decades alone. After its people suffered so much from American bombs, Japan’s 1947 constitution claims to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” But, with the blessing of other world powers, the country has had a military since 1954 anyway. Indeed, say India’s and Japan’s rulers together with the Christianized Roman dictators, nonviolence may be wonderful for the underdog, but violence is necessary to govern. Gandhi seems to have been sure of this too when he declared, “the State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form.”

Justified as cynicism about the principalities and powers always is, might this ultimately be a cop-out? The state, like the poor (as Jesus promised), remains always with us, so peaceniks can use it as a never-ending foil to their sense of moral superiority. Meanwhile, they need not lift a finger in the halls of government, leaving that work to people with other approaches to conflict.

The theory that nonviolence can only be a weapon of the weak has become a particularly noxious tool of international power politics. It lays the burden, for instance, on Palestinians to renounce violence, while Israel, because it is armed to the teeth, has the right to answer every provocation with massively disproportionate force. And, while the U.S. could invade sovereign Iraq with military might, Iraqis and foreign volunteers are seen as no better than barbarian for sabotaging the subsequent occupation. Not altogether different from the violent, CIA-backed coups of the Cold War, we are eager to valorize local nonviolent dissidents in places like China and the former Soviet Bloc since they allow us to keep our own military in the Middle East, where the enemy uses only improvised explosives rather than jet fighters and nuclear submarines. By the same logic, many in Washington found Martin Luther King, Jr. politically useful on civil rights issues in the South, but they silenced him as soon as he spoke out on what the Pentagon was doing in Vietnam.

In this charmed period after the election of Barack Obama and before his administration has had the opportunity to disappoint, however, many of us have discovered a new confidence that government may be a source for good or, at least, for better. What a wasted opportunity, it would seem, to write off the possibility that together with our government, we as a society may actually act in ways worth being proud of. For those persuaded that nonviolence is preferable wherever possible to the alternative, perhaps the time has arrived to question the assumption that has reigned since Rome: that those in power should not flinch at the exercise of violence.


The possibility of nonviolence in ordinary politics swings on two hinges: that the business of government can in fact be done nonviolently and that the very nature of the modern nation state won’t simply use nonviolent methods as violence in disguise. Neither is a sure thing, but both are at least reasonable to hope for.

When Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, something happened that nobody had quite seen before: a peaceful transfer of power from one political faction (the Federalist party) to another (the Democratic-Republicans). Even England’s relatively bloodless Glorious Revolution in 1688 required an invading army at the door. But in 1800, there was no army. Ever since, though there have been plenty of violent coups, the world has at least known that peaceful transfer is possible. So much else followed. Women and ethnic minorities could be given the vote without causing the social order to collapse. Places that end the execution of prisoners tend to see less violent crime, not more. Because governments have always practiced certain forms of violence, it is easy to assume that they always will. But, as all these reforms showed, governing less destructively isn’t necessarily so catastrophic as people think.

The real promise for less violent government lies in steadfast efforts that can be just as mundane and incremental. Dare one speak of diplomacy, which 2008 Nobel Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari showed can still be wielded to great effect when one believes in it. Through prison reform, we can commit to moving from an incarceration society to one that provides genuine social services for those on its fringes. General Petraeus’s successful counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq takes baby steps by recognizing that helping people help themselves works better than blowing them up. Guiding the overgrown defense economy toward missing industries like sustainable energy would lessen the economic incentive to go to war every few years (an annual report from Foreign Policy in Focus offers more concrete suggestions). And, by the same token, so would retooling military bases for peaceful purposes that would offer even more to the local communities that depend on them.

At the heart of nonviolent governing must be the recognition that violence only breeds more of itself. It is not really a viable solution to problems at all. Even when kept as a very last resort, it exacts a cost from its perpetrators. Instead, rather than quietism, which would have us hide from the problems of others, we can choose to find other ways to help than sending armies and pursue them with the same gusto we always seem to find in ourselves for fighting.

This is not simply a policy decision, a bill to be passed by Congress. It means changing what citizens expect from government and what government expects from itself. Think, for instance, of the hopes of some for a “culture of life” or an “ownership society,” and take them literally. Nonviolent governance means adopting a sensible revulsion to harming people and stealing their property, no matter how much you stand to gain in the short run. Taking such a stand, one can only expect, would change the nature of government from the inside.


Though you might not hear it from the revolutionary pilgrims who gather in San Cristobal from around the world, the Zapatistas here in southern Mexico have undergone a difficult evolution. Since at least the 1980s, a group Marxist intellectuals from Mexico City had been coming down to the Mayan jungles as part of their ongoing efforts to foster revolution. The more they succeeded in making common cause with the locals, however, the more their cause had to change. They had to exchange some of their revolutionary fervor for taking part in the day-to-day life of people more concerned with keeping their ancestral land than with enacting a post-Hegelian eschatology imported from Europe.

Now, driving along the winding mountain roads in the state of Chiapas, there are two kinds of battles being fought. On the one hand, imposing Mexican military installations stand at the ready for a revolt while paramilitaries harass guerrilla sympathizers. The possibility of violence is ever-present. On the other, rebels and government alike fight a war of signage—signs not threatening death but promising hope. The government, matter-of-factly, lists development projects on large, professionally-printed placards. More at home among the wooden huts of the Mayan villages, the hand-made Zapatista signs declare autonomy, justice, and self-respect. Both sides have been learning to move past the parasitical theater of revolution to a principled basis for the minutiae of governing. The only one that can really and truly win Chiapas over will be not the victor of any battle but that which really and truly governs. The army bases and the gun-toting rebels attract a lot of attention, but they are beside the point.

Still, throughout history, the more powerful the state, the less willing it is to disown its capacity to destroy. This kind of experiment remains an undiscovered country that awaits us. It isn’t supposed to be possible. Yet resistance movements like the Zapatistas, Gandhi’s Satyagraha, Poland’s Solidarity, and civil rights in the United States have shown that nonviolent action can be stronger than powerful, militarized governments. The great reforms of the last several centuries, from electoral process and the abolition of slavery to equal rights, show that governments themselves can change in ways that were once unthinkable.

The rudiments of a less violent way of governing already exist, though only in bits and pieces. To undertake it now requires no less than faith—a reasonable faith perhaps, but no less the hope in something yet unseen. Fortunately, in recent months, we’ve been remembering how to hope again.

6 comments on “Can Nonviolence Govern?

  1. Still, throughout history, the more powerful the state, the less willing it is to disown its capacity to destroy.

    I should think intuitively that it would be the opposite.

  2. “Taking such a stand, one can only expect, would change the nature of government from the inside.”
    It would seem to call for a change in human beings from the inside. Not impossible, I guess.
    Have you ever read “We Hold These Truths,” John Courtney Murray’s essays on church/state relations?

  3. No, almost criminally, I’ve never actually read Murray. Just found a copy of We Hold These Truths online at Georgetown’s wonderful Woodstock library, where I’ve spent many an afternoon in the physical stacks. I’m looking forward to chapter 11, “The Uses of a Doctrine on the Uses of Force.”

    Gandhi always emphasized the necessity of self-transformation through nonviolence. For him, it was impossible without tremendous self-discipline that had to carry over to every aspect of life. Without transformation, any effort at nonviolence would be futile.

    If I were to translate in Christian terms, I would change the language of transformation (which only God can do) to conversion (by which a person can orient him/her-self to God).

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