The Impossible Becoming Possible: Nonviolence and Democracy (by Jonathan McRay)


Apparently, nonviolence and democracy are strongly connected. Recent research suggests that nonviolent resistance campaigns are much more likely than violent ones to pave the way for “democratic regimes.” . . . But what, in the world, is democracy? The term resides in a restless spectrum, so perhaps the adjective democratic should be employed more than the noun.

Apparently, nonviolence and democracy are strongly connected. Recent research suggests that nonviolent resistance campaigns are much more likely than violent ones to pave the way for “democratic regimes” (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 10). Even failed nonviolent campaigns are more likely than successful violent revolutions to establish democracies (ibid, p. 202). Nonviolent campaigns are often successful when they elicit diverse and broad participation (ibid, pp. 30, 61), something all democracies claim to desire.

But what, in the world, is democracy? The term resides in a restless spectrum, so perhaps the adjective democratic should be employed more than the noun. At the end of their important book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan explain democracy as a national institution in which leaders are voted for through competitive elections, citizens have enforceable civil liberties, and government is divided into checks and balances (2011, p. 203). This emphasis on procedural bureaucracy and competition might suggest why capitalism has followed democracy everywhere like Mary’s little lamb. And this emphasis is one of the West’s greatest assembly-lined exports. Anthropologist David Graeber quips that Western nations certainly didn’t invent democracy, but they did spend “several hundred years invading and spreading democracy to people who were practicing democracy for thousands of years and were told to cut it out” (Graeber, 2004, p. 93).

Chenoweth and Stephan admit that their definition falls under the category of liberal democracy (2011, p. 203), further noting that modernization theory assumes that democracy is only possible within liberal political societies (ibid, p. 203). Defining democracy this way smells suspiciously like Eurocentrism, especially because equating democracy with voting is a recent historical classification. Consensus decision-making was the necessary norm in many societies without an apparatus to enforce majoritarian decisions, but indigenous village councils aren’t often considered democratic because they don’t vote (Graeber, 2004, p. 88). The nonviolent egalitarian society of the Buid (Braun, 1990, pp. 182-184) and the consensus decision-making of the Golani Druze (Kennedy, 1990, pp. 197, 201) trouble the notion that democracy and nonviolence are only found within modern liberalism. As we should also recall, democracy etymologically refers to the force or violence of the people. The political elites devising the word didn’t see a huge difference between democracy and mob rule (Graeber, 2004, p. 91).

In spite of this, liberal state democracy is usually presented as a social contract that prevents widespread violence. However, many historians now claim that statebuilding originated, not to protect people from violence, but to organize for the purpose of war (Cavanaugh, 2004, p. 250). European peasants staged major popular rebellions, causing some of the most tumultuous periods in European history, during the infancy of the nation-state when royal leaders consolidated power through uniform language, currency, and taxes over huge territories (ibid, pp. 248-249). Statebuilding is historically a form of violence. After the First World War, the U.S. and Europe used their political and economic interests to impose arbitrary borders on the bioregional boundaries of the Middle East, paying little attention to ecological patterns and cultural affiliations. Current conflicts, such as Syria and Israel/Palestine, are due in part to the violence of these colonial maps.[1]

In a recent speech about the impending congressional decision to strike Syria, President Obama acknowledged that Americans are tired of war and have the commonsense to know that firepower alone will not solve the complex problems of the Middle East. “But,” he added with emphatic profundity, “we are the United States of America.” Obama claimed that from the ashes of a world war the U.S. built an international order on the rule of law, and that law must be upheld. The U.S. has a poor memory.

In the five years after WWII, the Allies forcibly relocated between 12 and 14 million ethnic Germans from their homes in Eastern Europe in what may be the largest episode of forced population movement in history. Conservative estimates believe that at least 500,000 died during this operation, including tens of thousands who died while being used as slave labor, or what the Allies called “reparations in kind,” in former German concentration camps maintained after the war. Historian R. M. Douglas notes ironically that Nazi leaders were being tried by the Allies at Nuremberg, around 100 miles from some of these camps, for deportation and other crimes against humanity. Some historians justify these atrocities as necessary retribution for the Holocaust and as a successful test in preventing ethnic conflicts through population transfers. Douglas writes:

It is important to note that the expulsions are in no way to be compared to the genocidal Nazi campaign that preceded them. But neither can the supreme atrocity of our time become a yardstick by which gross abuses of human rights are allowed to go unrecognized for what they are. Contradicting Allied rhetoric that asserted that World War II had been fought above all to uphold the dignity and worth of all people, the Germans included, thousands of Western officials, servicemen, and technocrats took a full part in carrying out a program that, when perpetrated by their wartime enemies, they did not hesitate to denounce as contrary to all principles of humanity.

Obama’s amnesia is required by this liberal democratic state, which (mis)remembers its actions as benevolent interventions and not as hegemonic coercion. His red line for Syria is drawn in shifting sand: CIA documents reveal that the U.S. government knew about and aided Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, but it later defended invading Iraq because of WMDs. Cornel West claims that the United States was born with a schizophrenic vision because the “contingent origins of American democracy and the ignoble beginnings of imperial America go hand in hand” (West, 2004, p. 14). American exceptionalism is real “because of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots of our democratic project” (ibid, 41).

America’s schizophrenia is a reminder that how governance transitions, whether through nonviolence or violence, often predicts the outcome of the new regime (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 204). Hierarchy and violence are correlated in resistance movements (ibid, p. 35); where there is one, the other is often found. Active membership in social movements increases possibility for later democratic engagement, but popular disillusionment with government often follows nonviolent transitions (ibid, p. 207). This could be because the road to accountable government is long, but it could also be the inevitable result of replacing deep participatory movements with procedural systems of checks and balances, especially when the former seem marked by creativity and the latter by constraint. Chenoweth and Stephan argue that when citizens circumvent sanctioned political avenues to achieve their goals they highlight a weak democracy (ibid, p. 211), but they might instead be exposing some level of incompatibility between nonviolence and nation-states. Quality of engagement is just as important as quantity (ibid, pp. 30, 39), but after the quality dilutes, the quantity dwindles. Our ends and means should rhyme.

Gene Sharp acknowledges that while nonviolent action is usually extra-constitutional, he believes it could be incorporated into statist systems (Sharp, 1990, p. 149). Therefore, he argues, nonviolent action shouldn’t be confused with anarchism (which is indirectly what I’ve been discussing) because the latter hasn’t adequately thought about practically achieving its envisioned society or considered realistic means for social struggle that are substantially different from the state (ibid, p. 149). Erica Chenoweth agrees with Sharp when she critiques nonviolent action’s over-reliance on inefficient leaderless movements. Both fine scholars do not appear to have studied much of the long history of anarchist praxis and seem unaware of extensive anthropological research on anarchistic societies (Graeber, 2004, pp. 13, 39). Anarchism is less a pure ideology and more a diverse set of practices which:

  1. Does not depend on the sanction of the state or the market
  2. Creates alternative social processes that are horizontal and decentralized
  3. Networks with allies working for shared goals
  4. Maintains flexible determination to remain effective within non-anarchist systems.[2]

Maria Stephan writes that nonviolent social movements emphasize “civic organization and decentralized power,” which are the “bedrock of democratic development” (2009, pp. 314-315). So why not continue and deepen these grassroots radical democracies? In Pakistan, the Khudai Khidmatgar strove to reform not only political life but also social and economic life as members cooperatively shared work to achieve local sufficiency from colonial power (Raqib, 2009, pp. 109-110). Carpenter and scholar John Curl documents the long hidden history of cooperative movements and communalism in America that played a major role in opposing corporate domination (Curl, 2009, p. 7). The Zapatistas challenge the necessity of the nation-state by reimagining indigenous sovereignty in 32 autonomous municipalities. The Zapatistas have spent years crafting the Councils of Good Government that now oversee agriculture, health and education, and taxation. These are experiments in radical democracy that care for common goods and differences. They pose a major question mark to Sharp’s assertion about anarchism.

Grassroots movements of deep democracy are often treated as an interim phase until institutionalized modes of liberal democracies are achieved. Instead, the point of anarchism is direct democracy by building a new society in the shell of the old. Nonviolent social movements could view themselves as the harbinger of the impossible becoming possible.


Jonathan McRay grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. He has worked in Palestine as a journalist, in nonviolent direct action, with a center for developmentally disabled youth, and is the author of You Have Heard It Said: Events of Reconciliation. Additionally, he worked with a resource center and community farm in Mozambique. He has a BA in English Literature and Language and an MA in Conflict Transformation (with emphases in restorative justice and community development). He and his wife Rachelle, a PA student, currently live with friends on a permaculture homestead in the Shenandoah River watershed, where he also works with New Community Project, a sustainable education center and demonstration site; a supportive home for friends struggling with addictions, homelessness, and abusive relationships; and a project incubator to hatch local action for justice and resilience. 



Braun, S. (1990). Jungle nonviolence. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 181-184). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Cavanaugh, W. (2004). Killing for the telephone company: Why the nation-state is not the keeper of the common good. Modern Theology, 20, 243-274.

Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Curl, J. (2009). For all the people: Uncovering the hidden history of cooperation, cooperative movements, and communalism in America. Oakland: PM Press.

Fromkin, D. (1989). A peace to end all peace: The fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East. New York: Avon Books.

Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Kennedy, R. S. (1990). The Druze of the Golan: A case of nonviolent resistance. In R. L. Holmes (ed.), Nonviolence in theory and practice (pp. 193-203). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Raqib, M. (2009). The Muslim Pashtun movement of the north-west frontier of India, 1930-1934. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 107-118). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  

Stephan, M. J. (2009). Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  

West, C. (2004). Democracy matters: Winning the fight against imperialism. New York: Penguin Books.


[1] See Fromkin (1989).

[2] These points are adapted from a conversation with Ric Hudgens.

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