Srdja Popovic is the co-founder of CANVAS, and was a founding member of the Otpor! (“Resistance!”) a movement that had a crucial part in bringing down the Milosevic regime in Serbia. He recently coauthored an article in the Journal of Democracy with Sophia McClennen and Joe Wright called, “How to Sharpen a Nonviolent Movement.”
It is one Putin when you see him on a calendar. It’s yet another Putin when he needs to arrest a snowman.
- Introduction – 0:27
- What are Dilemma Actions? 2:24
- Different Types of Dilemma Actions – 18:53
- Effectiveness – 33:01
- Strategies and Tactics – 38:37
Srdja Popovic is a well-known activist who has championed nonviolent resistance movements. During the Bulldozer Revolution that overthrew Slobodan Milošević, he was a leader of the of the student movement Otpor. It was during that time that he experimented with pranks and humor to undermine the regime’s legitimacy and build a powerful grassroots movement.
Recently, Srdja coauthored an article in the Journal of Democracy with Sophia McClennen and Joe Wright called, “How to Sharpen a Nonviolent Movement.” They argue a tactic known as dilemma actions can make a nonviolent movement even more effective. It’s an approach Srdja practiced as an activist in Serbia and has taught countless others through the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies or CANVAS.
This podcast has talked about nonviolent movements in a few different episodes, but it often treats civil resistance as something monolithic. It’s often easy to think of it only as protests. So, I wanted to understand how dilemma actions offered a distinct tactic for civil resistance campaigns and what made them so effective.
Now while you listen, you can follow along with a complete transcript at www.democracyparadox.com. You’ll also find additional blog posts, past episodes, and book lists. If you want to support the podcast, you can make a one-time donation on the site or become a monthly contributor at Patreon or a Premium Subscriber at Apple Podcasts. But for now… this is my conversation with Srdja Popovic…
Srdja Popovic, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Already feel welcome.
Great. Well, Srdja, your recent article in the Journal of Democracy is called “How to Sharpen a Non-Violent Movement.” It explains this concept called dilemma actions which are such a powerful tool and civil resistance and you yourself have experience with dilemma actions, not just as an idea, but as somebody who’s practiced them and engaged with them directly Can you tell me a little bit about your own first dilemma action, how it came about and why it clicked for you? Why it made sense?
Oh, well, first of all, hello. It’s great to be on this podcast and, of course, I’ll start with anecdotes from my activist past. I was born in Belgrade in 1973. At the time I was playing in a rock band in my late teens when the bad guy named Slobodan Milošević came to power. People tried various things to get rid of this guy. They tried protests. They even tried violence at some point. But the student movement that I was a part of which launched in 1992, peaked around 96-97 and in 1998 led to the formation of the movement called Otpor which was a Serbian movement which actually had humor and dilemma action as its signature part.
How did we come to this? It’s difficult to say. Serbs learn by doing. So, there was not a manual we could read. I couldn’t even imagine that 30 years ago. Thirty years afterwards I would team up with real professors and do the real research. So, basically humor works. Pranks work. Serbs are cheerful people. We figured out very early in the process, around 1992 that making a street theater, which has the element of irony is going to upset the opponent. Milošević was one of these gray post-communist bureaucrats with no sense of humor.
The first and probably best-known signature dilemma action of the movement was called a Dime for Change. I’ll explain it in detail just for people to get the idea. So, here we are in this environment where you don’t have a space to work. You want to do something, police will appear. They will not necessarily be violent. It’s not going to be Iran. You’re not going to be dead, but you’ll be detained. It’ll be unpleasant, and certainly whatever you plan to do, they’re going to dismantle it. So, we decided to do a kind of hit and run thing. We had several designers and artists on our team. They designed a wonderful barrel. Like we got this very old petrol barrel and then painted it really nicely into black, so it looks new.
Then there was a giant face of Milošević on it, so probably a three or four foot face so everybody could see who it is. It was lovely cartoon artwork. So, it looks like him, but it’s not really him. So, here is this barrel. There is a hole in the top. We brought the barrel in the main pedestrian district, the Belgrade equivalent of Champs-Élysées or Fifth Avenue and we invited people to put a dime in, which kind of buys them the right to get the baseball bat, well, the Serbian version of a baseball bat, we don’t do baseball, and then hit the barrel. You put the coin in, so you fund the movement. There is a fundraising element in it, but there is also a pinball element in it.
So, you buy your right to play. It’s very playful. The people are expressing their love for Mr. President. The barrel clanks tremendously loudly. There is a cue of 200 people waiting there. There are kids kicking the barrel and everybody has fun. So, we drove to the position B, which is a nearby coffee shop. We order espresso and we see what is going to happen. So, now the police arrive and this is where dilemma action really kicks in. It is one thing to do the playful show. It’s yet another thing to involve your opponent, not as an audience, but like the actors in the show.
So, what will police do? Obviously, they’re trained to arrest whoever sparked the dissent. But the people who sparked the center are not there. They have orders to stop this show, but they don’t have a means to because arresting people for hitting the barrel wasn’t illegal. Once again, Serbia was not Iran at that point. These people will probably be out within 15 minutes. Some of them might press charges against the police in the case they were arrested. They’re talking to their communicators. They look nervous. We observe the situation and have a lot of fun. Because it’s happening downtown, there are like 200 people around. The police are around. Everybody’s teasing them. They look completely confused and then they arrest the barrel.
So, now the barrel is arrested. The barrel is dragged to the police car. And, of course, everybody takes their cameras out and we were evil enough to invite the journalists so it ends up on a cover page of, at that time, the only Serbian opposition newspaper. So, 350,000 people tomorrow morning can see this show. Now why this works and how it works are different things. But from there we got addicted to it. And because we knew that whatever we do, the police will do exactly as we expect them to do, we kept doing it over and over.
So, when you talk about a dilemma action, the dilemma then is on the part of the state or on the part of the police or whoever the authority is then. Right?
Well, dilemma is always part of the game and you want to engage your opponent. When we were taking a look at this, and once again, I don’t want to take credit for it. The serious academic lifting has been done by real academics, two people, Sophia McClennen and Joe Wright, both from Penn State University, and the real hard work of filing 400 cases, which is a lot of scientific work, was done by some amazing interns from Canvas, my organization, and Penn State. But when you take a look into this, first of all, they work well in autocracy and they seem to be more effective when they’re challenging more autocratic opponents, because there is a less of space. It’s more likely they will do this stupid thug play. But it works in many other cases.
Dilemma actions historically have been used in almost every single type of struggle you can imagine ranging from labor rights, women rights, LGBTQ rights, environment, whatever you can put your finger on. So, it’s not only autocracies, it really works well in all the other cases. The pattern is you need to tackle a wildly held belief. People in costumes on the street can be funny, but this is not a dilemma action. It is a dilemma action only if it tackles a wildly held belief. Why? Because it creates the dilemma for the opponent to do or not to do. The purpose of dilemma action is to put your opponent in a lose-lose scenario.
So, let’s go to another place. Let’s go to Russia: Barnaul 2012 elections. People are caught stuffing ballot boxes. Putin would win elections anyhow, but for some reason his officers decided that he needs to have more than 100% of the vote. So, they were doing this hard job of stuffing things and then somebody tapes it. It is the era of mobile phones, so protests erupt. So, here is this little place in Barnaul, Siberia where protests are banned. Putin lets them protest, he is a clever guy, in St. Petersburg and Moscow because he knows the cameras are there. Outside, it’s out of questions.
So, because people cannot protest (this is the widely held belief; people have the right to protest), their toys can protest. so now they bring their toys to the little square. There is a little toy rally. There is a little toy city. The toys are everywhere. They’re holding the signs calling for free and fair elections and actual footage exists done by Russian artists. You can find it on The Guardian website. So, you see on day one there are 15, 20, 30 people. It’s a very small place and all three of the policemen are there as well. Everybody’s taping. Everybody’s having fun. There is no tension. There is no arrest. There is nothing like that.
But the next thing you know, it goes online and it goes viral, because it’s obviously a good prank and people like it. So, if you are the Kremlin what will you do? This poses the dilemma for the opponent. If they let this thing go, they’ll look weak. Within a few days, people will replicate it. Part of our study identifies where dilemma actions are replicated, because it proves their effectiveness. Of course, they want to crush the dissent. So, they find a little hole in the plot. The phone rings to the Chief of Police of Barnaul and the poor soul needs to go tomorrow, because citizens want to do it tomorrow and part of this is that people are enjoying it. If you’re enjoying something you’re doing, you’re more likely to repeat it. Once again, it’s a human nature.
Now the Chief of Police needs to ban the toy protest. He needs to stand in front of the camera and literally read that the protest of 150 toy people is banned because the toys are not citizens of Russia and by constitution only citizens of Russia can protest. So, here you are taking a choice between looking weak and looking really stupid or fearful.
I mean, come on, take a look at this guy. This is Putin. This is the guy who loves to pose shirtless riding on horses, fishing, wrestling tigers, saving dolphins from drowning, and he’s afraid of toys. So, how does this look for this guy? Part of our research is how dilemma actions influence authority. Authority of the movement because they dare to prank. They dare to do things. But also authority of the opponent because looking stupid doesn’t really increase your authority.
So, when you’re talking about dilemma actions, it’s a decision then that the authorities have between either doing nothing and potentially undermining their authority or deciding to take action, which again, undermines their authority because they’re taking action in a way that people think looks ridiculous or looks somehow wrong in some way. It doesn’t feel like it’s a strong state. At the end of the day, the rules get questioned in a way that really makes people think about it even though it’s oftentimes using humor, using pranks, using a very different strategy than what we normally think about when we think about protests and nonviolent movements.
Yes. That’s a very important element to this. Sophia McClennan, who is in charge for comedy and irony and has the best job in the world. She needs to watch all of these late-night shows and take a look at how SNL impacts Trump and things of that kind. She really puts this well because dilemma actions, and this also relates to the name of your show, expose a paradox. So, here is this thing called Belarus and within the thing called Belarus, you have a guy named Lukashenko who, of course, claimed that it’s all flowers and things of that kind. But there is also a ban in Belarus that if you gather more than five people, you need to declare a political rally.
So, anything with more than five people is an unsanctioned gathering or however it’s named in the Belarusian language. So, here are the people of Belarus who are notorious for dilemma actions. I think they have 15 or 20 of them in that range. So, they decide to gather on a main square in the number of six. This is not 10,000 people. So, obviously it’s not a rally. It’s a little bit more than five because five is where the red line is. What these people do is they run around the main square and they read the state constitution aloud.
So, here we are doing something which is very patriotic. I mean, senselessly patriotic in a way. You can’t even find Americans doing this these days. But when you take a look at this now here are the police and here is the dilemma. People reading the constitution looks okay. Six people reading the constitution breaks the law. So, the ingenuity of designing a dilemma action is finding the fine line where your opponent will also open kind of paradoxic things.
Now let’s move a little bit from autocracy to the daily use of dilemma action. Let’s go to something which is the least political and least inspiring in the world, which is the pothole. Now, 2014 there was a governor and mayor in Yekaterinburg, which is the fourth largest Russian city. The guy was famous for saying all the potholes will be gone by October, whatever. Of course, you do these promises before you get elected. Then you get elected and then the potholes are there this year and next October and next October and every October forever. So, here is the October, the anniversary of the promise, and the people of Yekaterinburg, the small group, hires the local artist.
So, now you have this guy who looks like a fat communist bureaucrat with a big mouth. So, the mouth is the pothole and around the pothole there is a face of the mayor. So, imagine you hit that pothole and, of course, doing whatever you’re always doing when you’re hitting the pothole like cursing. That’s a kind of visceral reaction, but now I have a person to curse. There is a statement saying, ‘Well, I will fix this thing by two years ago.’ So, what will the government do? If they fix the potholes, they grant the victory to the movement, and, of course, they erase the graffiti, but never fix the potholes. Welcome to Russia. Have a nice day. They’re probably still there.
So, move from there to technological invention. The beauty of dilemma actions is that you see the creativity around the different problems in different parts of the world and our study covers 1905 all the way to 2019 and even some really, really historic actions before that. We take a look at Panama City. It’s the Miami of Central America with all the development, the huge buildings, and, of course, streets are falling apart. They’re projected for far smaller business. Now, these guys hired a PR company and they come up with a solution, which looks like a hockey puck.
So, there is a small machine which you can put in a pothole when the car goes over the machine, the machine tweets. Welcome to 21st Century. It tweets straight to the mayor’s account quoting, ‘Oh, I’m a little pothole at the corner of Cascade and Colombia Street and I just hurt the car of this old lady. Fix me. Fix me. Fix me.’ Now we get to 14,000 tweets a day and the mayor is of course overwhelmed with these tweets. The guy goes out opening factories, building stuff like that, but everybody’s talking about the potholes. So, what will you do? This guy fixed potholes. This is not Russia. Then you can find amazing examples in Serbia. For example, people plant flowers in potholes. First of all, it’s nice to plant flowers. There are like little flags. You don’t hit the flower or the pothole. Lastly, they give you the idea of the size of the pothole.
In Zimbabwe, the group we worked with plants trees. These are serious potholes. So, what will you do? Arrest people for planting trees into potholes. We go to Canada. People celebrate the birthdays of the potholes with a cake. You go to Mexico. People fill the potholes with water and release livestock fish in it. So, when you take a look at the battlefield, this is kind of a common thing. It’s kind of corruption, you know, transparency. You can name the type of struggle that we want. It’s really small and inspiring, but what fascinated us when we were doing this research is the way that people are using the same pattern or widely held belief: Potholes should be fixed for taxpayers’ money. Politicians should be fulfilling their promises.
Putting it in a dilemma framework, doing a little bit of creativity, very often some humor, and doing something which puts these guys into exactly the same position and know that there is no difference between the position where you are the mayor of Yekaterinburg in a very autocratic Russia or you are the mayor of Panama City or whatever is the name of the city in Canada. Whether you have a democracy, it’s the same rock and hard place for this person and so they work across the spectrum of issues. They also work across the spectrum of level of the social space.
Now, does it have to use humor? Because when I think about historical examples, one thing that seems like it could be a dilemma action to me would be when Rosa Parks sat at the front of a bus and the authorities had to make a decision whether or not to move this elderly lady out of her seat and force her into the back of the bus or to just ignore the rule. It sparked the Montgomery bus boycotts. It set off the civil rights movement. It gave them a lot of momentum. Is that an example of a dilemma action that did not use humor that was a little bit more serious?
Oh, there are plenty of them. Only 30% of dilemma actions which we were examining are using humor. A highly profiled activist hunger strikes, for example, those are always a dilemma action because what happens if Navalny dies. So, the first and best-known dilemma action in the world is actually a salt march. It’s where Gandhi took a look at how everybody needs salt, at how salt is taxed, and then went after making salt in order to show the paradox of the fact that India has 4,500 miles of a seashore, so literally anybody can make salt.
At the same time, the British colonial empire is taxing the salt. So, shall we stay the benevolent colonizers, which are doing things in accord with whatever people of India want, which is how the Viceroy wanted the UK to be perceived at the time or do we go full scale ballistic and arrest thousands of people because they’re making salt and upset a continent of, at that point, more than half a billion people? There are certain tactics, and what we did in our research, is we compared the type of tactic with a list of Gene Sharp’s tactics.
So, some tactics are always dilemma actions, which is really interesting. A general strike, if held in a good quality is always a dilemma action, because if you shut down the country and the government doesn’t respond what happens? If you shut down the country, what will the government do? Of course, they will look into some kind of concession because they cannot kill a million workers.
Some smaller things are especially very popular in Africa. A complicated name for a tactic, which is almost always a dilemma action, is called lysistratic ostracism. In common English that means denying sex. So, what happens is that you have some actions that we found like in Liberia, Somalia, it’s very popular in Africa where women obviously have this very great sense of what they can do to make their men do whatever they want them to do. So, whether this is forming a government in Somalia to tackle the ethnic problems and uprising in Liberia or if women deny men who are the members of the government sex long enough, they will eventually comply with the request.
So, once again, they don’t need to involve humor. Some types of tactics are automatically dilemma actions, but once again, they work if there is a discipline in their organizing. It’s not enough to deny sex of one minister. You need to work over the whole government.
So, it gives me the impression that almost any kind of non-violent form of resistance is a dilemma action, because I can even think of just a protest itself that there’s a dilemma. Do we lock up all of these protestors or do we do nothing? What is the choice? What really separates the idea of a dilemma action makes it a distinct form of civil resistance? Why is it that other forms of civil resistance are not labeled as dilemma actions?
Well, once again, it depends on how the action is structured and it also depends on the answer. But we were looking at the several different elements that connects all of these actions. One of them being playful irony. So, once again, when you mock your president, that’s one thing. When you mock your president in a way he needs to respond to, it’s yet another thing to do. Then a second thing is a strategic choice. So, you are looking into what do you want to achieve with a tactic? I think what makes this research interesting is that there is a lot of research into non-violence struggle. You have the NAVCO data set. You have great work done by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan looking into the effectiveness of nonviolence protest. But this is the first time you were looking into strategic element of tactics.
So, you know, not all tactics are born equal because what differs dilemma action from normal protest is whether your opponent can ignore it. This is one thing. So, there was this amazing day of rage in the United States on the day of Donald J Trump’s inauguration four years ago, which was explained as the largest single protest in American history in terms of millions of people participating. So, people can’t ignore it.
Take a look at the gun control movement. Every time you have a school shooting, you have the vigils and protests. Does this impact this thing? No. We take a look at the Parkland, Florida and see that the students decided to target Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods and all these shops where guns are sold and present their opponent to this type businesses with the dilemma of whether they will lose the revenue of all the teenagers, outdoorsy teenagers, buying in these shops compared to the revenue of not putting the background checks on the desk counters when they’re selling guns. So, this is the dilemma.
Unlike protests when somebody got shot and politicians do nothing, which can be ignored, they forced businesses to choose between A and B. In case A, they put in the background checks and they lose some money and probably some people will go to shops where they don’t have background checks. In case B, they lose hundreds of thousands of customers. Once again, lose-lose. So, what dilemma actions do, what usual nonviolent action doesn’t necessarily do is put your opponent in this kind of lose-lose framework that starts with tackling the wildly held belief.
Once again, you mentioned Rosa Parks. Take a look at the Civil Rights movement and ask yourself why they didn’t protest… Well, they did… But why didn’t it work in front of the city halls in places like Alabama? Because the governor of Alabama was elected by the people who didn’t want their kids to go in the same schools with the kids of color. So, when you take a look, that’s the wrong target. Now take a look at the business. Why buses? Because the majority of bus consumers were the people of color.
So, once again, you go back and you see the strategic framework around building the tactic and then proposing some kind of action. The bus company has to choose where they will desegregate buses and upset the minority of their consumers who are white or they will keep losing money, because the black people who don’t have cars and normally uses buses, are not using buses. They’re walking to work because the buses are segregated. So, once again, it is the choice in which you put the opponent which differs dilemma action from any other type of nonviolent tactic.
There’s actually a fascinating quote from your article where you write, “Getting the opponent to respond to the dilemma action in a norm transgressing way is key.” I think that if we bring it back to the Rosa Parks example, it’s not just the fact that they had a boycott. It’s also the fact that what sparked the boycott was a choice that was going to break some kind of norm. Asking somebody who’s an elderly woman to be able to change her seat feels like that’s wrong. It’s taken it away from just being about race and starting to change the dynamics of the situation because if she was somebody who people thought looked like a threat, it wouldn’t have worked the same way.
But she was clearly somebody that you’re normally supposed to assist and be able to make more comfortable and be able to help. And they weren’t doing that. They were breaking that fundamental norm in society. I think that’s what sparked not just the reaction within the African American population, but even within some people who were white within that community started looking at the issue a little bit differently. Again, it puts them into this lose-lose situation where they’re not really sure how to be able to keep this contradictory norm that doesn’t make sense within the expectations of society.
You are absolutely right. That’s a sentence from Sophia who really understands these type of things really well because she works on the psychological aspect of this. Back to the constitution in Belarus. Once again, arresting the people who read the national constitution, which is ridiculously patriotic if you ask me, makes no sense. What about arresting people for carrying blank signs in places like China or Russia? So, once again, you take a look at the Civil Rights Movement, you move on from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, you move on to the Nashville desk lunch counter, which is the complicated way that people were calling food courts at the time.
So, what is the paradox? Once again to the word paradox of this situation is that you have a mall where the majority of buyers were people of color. And once again, the genius of Jim Lawson who designed this type of action for the Civil Rights Movement. He was targeting specific malls. So, you’re not targeting all malls. You’re looking at the malls where we have power and the power is in the majority of revenue. Once again, public transportation is coming from the people you can mobilize. In this case, it is African Americans. So, here we are targeting this mall. We are not only boycotting the mall, which is your first take. You are not only ticketing in front of mall, which is your second take. Once again, these are all non-violent actions, but they’re not dilemma actions in this case.
You are looking into a very narrow stupidity and paradox of the mall, which is, yes, we want African Americans’ money when they shop in a mall, but we won’t let them sit in McDonald’s, because this is a no-go zone for black people. So, now we organize the people who come in that mall and they sit in a food court, 50 of them. Then the police arrive and take them away. The moment the police cars leave, Jim Lawson has 50 people ready to take their places. Here come the police. Then at some point, even the jail is full. So, they counted the capacity of seats plus the capacity of the jail. You see the planning process here.
So, what it makes is A, first of all, it plays with the products of the situation. Yes, I want your money in the mall, but I will not sell you french fries. At the same time it makes a dilemma for the mall owner. Because for the mall owner, this makes no sense. He wants their money in the food court as well. So, then he runs to the mayor. He runs to the governor saying, ‘Oh, we need to desegregate the food court.’ So, once again, behind every dilemma action, there is an understanding of the widely held belief. What is the wildly held belief and how will it impact the way the issue is changed? But also the clever targeting that plays into understanding the four main areas through which dilemma actions occur.
Once again, the data show that movements that use dilemma actions or campaigns that use dilemma actions are between 10 and 15% more likely to be successful. When you break down this number, you really see that it impacts four different elements. The first is group formation. Dilemma actions in 92% of the cases tend to increase the number of the people participating because they like it and because they look like they work. The second thing, as you said, is legitimacy. How legitimate is it to keep Rosa Parks standing? How legitimate is it to keep the food court segregated while the rest of the mall is not segregated and how legitimate are you if you’re arresting people reading the constitution or if you’re arresting people organizing a toy protest?
Then the third element, which is very important, is how it plays the fear. It is one Putin when you see him on a calendar, it’s yet another Putin when he needs to arrest a snowman. You know, they arrested a person for making a snowman protest. He looks like an idiot. That’s the truth. I mean, there is no more politically correct word to explain it. Then lastly, how is the movement perceived? Because a very large part of this kind of stuff is that they attract positive media attention. You want to take a look at the serious ones like the Montgomery bus boycott. You want to look at the pranky ones. But in all of these cases, the positive media attention is the essential part of the dilemma action.
Then the movement is perceived in another way. It sparks one of two things. It either increases the popularity in the numbers of the people joining in the movement or it inspires others to replicate a similar tactic. So, when you take a look at this, when you take a look at the 101 of the nonviolent movement dilemma actions has it all. They’re strategic. They increase your authority. They give you positive media attention. They decrease fear or apathy because police arresting cars doesn’t have the authority to make you afraid. They look ridiculous. They are the punchline and the regime wants to be the hammer. You’re afraid of the hammer, but you’re not afraid of a punchline.
So, you just mentioned that dilemma actions are more effective than other forms of civil resistance. But they’re still not a hundred percent effective. Why is it that this tactic of civil resistance that logically makes so much sense, that the authorities are in a lose-lose situation, that there’s no way that you can’t come out with some sort of victory, still fails to succeed all of the time?
Well, first of all, they are more successful than the campaigns that don’t have dilemma actions. But this has three different answers. The first one is strategy, not tactics. So, when dilemma actions are exercised in a campaign, which has the wrong strategy or doesn’t have a sound strategy or there is no plan or the movement failed to mobilize the numbers or there is an outbreak of violence, obviously, you cannot blame dilemma actions on the failure of the whole campaign. The second part is choice. Your opponent sometimes makes choices to show their teeth. Your opponent is sometimes not afraid of losing the authority and your opponent sometimes makes tough choices.
So, take a look at Iran and what a dilemma for a clinical regime is posed as the most oppressed population in the country, which is young girls of 15, are gathering inside madrasas, which are the religious schools designed to oppress them. They stand in front of the portrait of Khamenei, which of course hangs from the wall above every blackboard, and they’re making funny TikTok videos about them as a group showing him a middle finger. So, now how does this impact the authority of Khamenei? How does this impact the idea that women should be obedient? How does this impact the very idea of oppression being imposed on them? What will they do?
Well, sometimes they choose to arrest and execute a lot of people because in the short term, they don’t want to give concessions. Although though Khamenei met with a few high school girls a few days ago, which he never did in the past, by the way, which tells you that the tactic actually worked. But some of these opponents don’t care about losing authority. They think that they need to instill more fear. There’s also a learning curve. That is also a very important part of how people portray this. In the era of internet, you really need to do the post-production as well the production well. Sometimes you just make the wrong decision or you pick up the wrong target.
You take a look at the iconic action of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock band, and their little performance in the church where they were mocking Putin and mocking the church for being in bed with Putin. Both very well selected targets, but because they desecrated the church and because there is a powerful machinery, which was playing the narrative in that direction, people actually didn’t like it. And they actually lost the authority. So, it is the thin line you walk against the opponent who learns. Take a look at another great book that I would recommend everybody called Dictators Learning Curve written by my friend and now editor of Journal Democracy Will Dobson and you see how some of these regimes are adapting to these kind of provocations.
Go no further than a few months ago. You have two very different regimes on two very different place of the learning curve faced with two very different protests. So, you have Iran that was faced with the protest of millions of people, literally millions of people coming from all walks of life, who couldn’t find their nose and couldn’t do anything more clever than oppressing. You can see the regime in decay. They can hold on for a day, but there is no adaptability.
And then you take a look at Master Xi, who is the master of adopting and the master of the learning curve. The moment the protests against the Covid Zero policy looked like they were taking flame, he backpedaled. He accommodated. He found a way to distinguish between the political dissent and punish those people harshly and what he says is a kind of justifying dissent. The people spent too much time in the lockdown, blah, blah, blah, blah. Let’s cancel the zero-covid policy, however many human lives it’s going to take after not having any resistance to the virus.
But obviously you see the adaptation. So, when you take a look at these things, going back to your question, why aren’t all of the non-violent campaigns effective. Instead, only 50% of them actually are. The effectiveness number has decreased in the last 15 years because you have had a learning curve from the opponents, especially the autocracies. So, taking a look at this kind of stuff, this one thing, and then taking a look at how to zoom out to the wider picture. It is not that the Civil Rights Movement was effective, because of dilemma actions. Dilemma actions gave them a 12% edge over other movements. It is because it had a strategy. It had a grand vision of tomorrow.
It was capable of uniting people of color with people who were not of color. It was strategically aimed with certain tactics like the Million Man March in the places where you could do it like Washington. They were using a low risk tactic because you could not really execute it in places where oppression was high like Montgomery, Alabama.
So, is it better to try different tactics that might fail or even backfire or should people show more restraint and be hesitant to be able to try different things and experiment, because if it doesn’t work, it could end up with adverse results?
People should be reading Canvas. People should be reading Gene Sharp. People should be understanding that before tactics, the principles come. The first principle is you need to know where you are going. The second principle involves strategic and tactical planning out of which dilemma actions are a very important part. The last principle is organization discipline. What really distinguishes successful non-violence movements from unsuccesssful movements are these three things. So, where the movement has a vision of tomorrow and is capable to move different constituencies towards this vision where there is a strategic plan and then a tactical plan and whether a movement is capable of growing numbers and keeping people disciplined including non-violent discipline, which is a very important breaking line between very successful non-violence movements and how successful movements that are using proven tactics.
Long story short, the major difference is there are only two types of non-violent movements in this world. They’re either spontaneous or successful. So, before engaging in spontaneity, you need to take a look at the planning. You need to pick the pillars or institutions you want to target and then you put on your dilemma action slash laughtivism hat and really do it well on a tactical level.
When you were involved in Otpor, did you read any of the literature about civil resistance to be able to come up with some of your ideas? I mean, were these ideas that you had that were just from inspiration that you had or did you actually learn things from books or from scholars to be able to come up with some of those tactics and strategies?
In Serbia it was a mix. It was a mix of the way we were brought up. Because we were living in the coolest communist country of all communist countries, which was defined as Coca-Cola socialism by a famous historian, Radina Vučetić. We read a lot and we knew in elementary school who the Gandhi was. We knew by the secondary school who Martin Luther King was. The musical Hair was played in Belgrade before it was played in Paris. So, we took inspiration from all of this. We did a little bit of reading of Gene Sharp. One of his books From Dictatorship to Democracy was translated in Serbian, but a lot of these things we came up with ourself.
Then moving into Canvas phase, the phase where we started the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, which is the organization I still run and have done work with people from 50 different countries. Some of them were imposing amazing dilemma actions. That became part of the training. So, we took this experience into the tool. You know, the tool says, ‘What is the widely held belief? How do you design a tactic around this widely held belief? What will your opponent do and how will you capitalize on his or her response?’ Today is probably a mix. The least is about people reading scholars. A little bit more is about people being trained and understanding the importance of training.
There is a great study proving that educating people, training people to do non-violent action is actually the best form of foreign assistance for the local movements. This is something my organization has committed 15 years of its work. Lastly, people learn horizontally. So, now in the era of internet, you can see that snowman is upsetting Lukashenko so you replicate a snowman in Russia. So, we found a lot of replicability, being spread online between the groups who don’t normally communicate with each other, but people are learning by looking up to somebody who was successful. So, yes, reading will help you. So, read the Journal of Democracy and read our little book called Pranksters Versus Autocrats.
Training makes it even better, because you have a lab and Yes Men, one of the iconic anti-corporate groups, which is I think listed 12 times, are the masters of pranking the corporations. They have their lab at NYU, which I visited a few years ago in how to make a protest funny and playful and how to use this playful irony. Then of course, last, but not least important, record what you do. Explain why it is successful. Post it online. People will take it from there.
It feels like today with so many different organizations that are training people in civil resistance, including CANVAS, that it’s very different to begin a civil resistance campaign than during the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia or other revolutions before that. As somebody who’s actually in this space, who’s actually working with people, how much different is it for people who are conducting these civil resistance campaigns, who are launching these new revolutions after receiving this kind of training that you provide and others provide?
Well, first of all, training works and there is a science behind it and research behind it, so you should never underestimate the skills and knowledge that you give to your organization whether it’s given to you by an external actor like CANVAS where you’re organizing like Egyptians. They went through the CANVAS training then they organized their own human resource place and trained people across Egypt to do resist Mubarak. However, the movements are different now, so it’s not only very different work for people who train movements, it’s also understanding the new nature of the social movement. Take a look at how the internet era changed the movements.
First of all, the existing movements are more likely to be horizontal. They tend to spread very fast across territory and constituencies and races and religions and you can take any one of them. If you want to make it American-centric, we can deal with the George Floyd thing and Black Lives Matter. So, there is always a trigger. The trigger spurs virally. It creates a visceral reaction. A lot of people do independent things in many different geographies or many different times, which makes protest very difficult to predict. It’s very difficult to repress because you don’t know where the next outburst will be. Take a look at Iran. It’s then very difficult to maintain because there is no central organization.
So, now the movements take credit for being leaderless, but this comes with a Catch 22. In order to be successful, movements need to be led. They are not random groups of people getting excited about issue A, B, C, and immediately change appears. Movements need vision. Movements need sound strategy. Movements need some kind of leadership. Every successful movement ends in some form of negotiation. Now, you always have this question, so take a look at Iran. You have millions of people and the regime is going to make some concessions. But even in this super effective case that everybody is dreaming about… What comes next? Is there a version of a different Iran if the regime wants to concede? Whom does the regime concede to? Who is leading the negotiation?
So, taking a look at how these contemporary movements are different, how they operate in the internet era, how they spread fast, how they have this amazing thing which makes people own the movement more. You take a look at the Sunrise, take a look at the Fridays for Future people, see Greta Thunberg. But people doing nonviolent direct action about the climate changing Portugal, don’t know about Greta Thunberg. They’re doing their own thing. So, take a look at these and they are called Fridays for Future. So, people own movements more, which is great because the more you own a thing, the more of your own investment you will have in the thing.
But then how do you coordinate all of these things so you don’t make it fizzle? How do you prevent a group of radicals in a place, like, I don’t know, Seattle to become the public face of the Black Lives Matter by having photos of people in tactical equipment burning things. So, now once again, back to discipline. Successful movements share discipline and organization. Organizations and non-violent movements, whatever form of organization, it can be a very decentralized organization, once again, like or Fridays for Future. It can be highly centralized organization like the US Labor Movement decades ago, whatever form of organization.
But somebody needs to coordinate the effort. Somebody needs to tell people what to do. Somebody needs to tell people what not to do and when not to do it. Taking a look at this once again brings us back to the principle. Whatever new shape of the movements you have, they will always be successful if they have vision, if they’re capable of building unity, if they can build strategic and tactical plans, and if they can exercise discipline. Most importantly, nonviolent discipline, as opposed to the movements, once again, regardless of numbers, which rise up as the wave and spark amazing conversation.
But instead of looking strategically at the places where they can advance… BLM movement can advance in employing more women of color, getting equal pay for equal work, school curriculums, but they ended up focusing on the most divisive of all proposals, which is defunding the police. Then defunding the police dies even in Minneapolis. So once again, strategic planning.
So, regardless of numbers and the hype and the seriousness of the situation, you end up having the movement, which has achieved less than it could have if it could have the sound organization, the sound discipline, the clarity of goals, and long-term strategy. It is not where you are able to mobilize the numbers. It’s where there is a leadership that can utilize the numbers, turn the numbers either into the small victories like legislative changes and things of that kind or long-term organizations. In fact, that never differed. It’s not about having a strike in a factory. It’s about using this strike to create a branch of labor union, which will keep workers’ rights at the table of employers forever. That’s the victory. A successful strike is a tactic where you give people salary for a day and then you fire them next week. All of them.
Well, Srdja, thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you so much for writing the article. Thank you so much for your activism and the movement at CANVAS. Again, thanks for this great conversation.
Thank you so much. Pleasure talking to you. And what have I tell you? Keep looking playfully in your activism. It pays off. There is a scientific proof for it. Now, thanks to Sophie and Joe.
“How to Sharpen a Nonviolent Movement” in the Journal of Democracy by Sophia McClennen, Srdja Popovic, and Joseph Wright
Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World by Srdja Popovic with Matthew Miller
Learn more about CANVAS
Democracy Paradox Podcast
Email the show at firstname.lastname@example.org
Democracy Paradox is part of the Amazon Affiliates Program and earns commissions on items purchased from links to the Amazon website. All links are to recommended books discussed in the podcast or referenced in the blog.