By Jake Olzen
If 2011 was the year of the protester, 2012 may prove to be the year of nonviolence. What’s the difference? It’s as great as between yes and no. A crucial awakening that envelopes humanity’s collective struggle for justice, peace and democracy is happening; it is an awakening that clarifies the circumstances we embrace with a yes and those by which we respond with a vehement no. Like many I know, I often teeter between despair and hope–stuck in a kind of uncomfortable tension resembling Wendell Berry’s poetic instruction to “be joyful though you have considered all the facts” –grasping for some measure of sanity to make sense of all that is happening.
It is tempting to succumb to despair, what with the onslaught of major media coverage telling us all the bad news, dismissing the promising news, and ignoring the good news. Consider the challenges: the unraveling violence of the Egyptian revolution, the 5,000 killed in Syria, climate change and the instability and disasters brought by extreme weather patterns and an ill-equipped global populace with inadequate leadership, the threat of random violence and terrorist activity–Norway, Belgium, India, the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq–and state and cultural violence against immigrants, women, refugees, the poor, GLBTQ persons, and people of color. So where is the hope? Well, in 2011, the fires of our hope were stoked by the global protest movements–the Arab Spring, the Indignados, Occupy Wall Street–of millions of people rising up to say: كفاية …Basta…Enough!
Resistance was in the streets and occupations in city squares. A resounding “no” echoed around the world–what Bernard Harcourt has perceptively termed “political disobedience”–signifying contempt, dissatisfaction, and rejection of entrenched governments and status quo economics. Dictators were ousted in Egypt and Tunisia. Revolutionary fervor was sparked by nonviolent action in Libya, Syria and Yemen. South Korean activists are poised to possibly shutter the building of a controversial US naval base with profound geopolitical implications. Afghan youth are getting organized–an incredible feat considering all the challenges they face. Palestinian nonviolent resistance and the Free Gaza movement is growing as are Israeli protests for social justice. In the US, activists and organizers in Wisconsin and Ohio occupied their state capitals to protest budget cuts and GOP anti-unionism. Undocumented students–DREAMers–took it to the streets and Senators’ offices. Environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, students and citizens staged sit-ins at the White House to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline–whose fate is still TBD but the resistance is growing. And then there was Occupy Wall Street. The movement propelled American activism back into public purview and is proving to be the era where a generation of young people–equipped with the tools, knowledge and experience of the civil rights and anti-war generations–are cutting their teeth in nonviolent social change. We are telling ourselves that there is reason to hope because we incarnate it.
The protests of 2011 are the harbinger of what we’ve already known–what we’ve been waiting and working for–that neoliberalism’s carte blanche as signed by the Washington Consensus is on the way out. The days of political regimes that are not truly democratic (and, apparently, equitable) are–at the very least in ideological terms–numbered. In the 00s, there was an explosion of social commentary on globalization: Thomas Freidman, Naomi Klein, Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva. Paul Kingsnorth, a British journalist, penned a book whose title has stayed with me: One No, Many Yeses. The catchy, chant-like title offers a simple way to reflect on the the historical moment we are experiencing. As symbolized by Time‘s “Person of the Year,” there is a global “no!” to anti-democratic governments and unfettered capitalism. But at the same time, that singular no of protest is united by the multitude of “yeses” whose global resonance signifies the arrival of a comprehensive vision of nonviolence.
This yes to nonviolence signals the awakening consciousness that summarily connects us to that which is most important in our lives and our communities: the desire to be connected, to live without fear, to be healthy and be in healthy relationships, to be free to have self-determining and mutually-supporting ways of living, working, parenting, learning, teaching, creating, and, yes, even dying. Never before have we witnessed the acute, raw, powerful desire for life in such a way that so many diverse peoples are willingly struggling for that way of being.
Nonviolence–however broadly we choose to define it, whether that be strategically, principally, as a communication technique, as a tactic, as a religious commitment, as a process–has inspired hope, awakened creativity, and substantially changed, once again, the world. Gandhi’s term, “satyagraha,” contains a meaning so varied yet concrete and so distinct yet common that “nonviolence” left lacking. Satyagraha is means and ends. It is an effective tactic of protest, a viable social program and an eternal, utopian hope. The nonviolence in 2012 is shoving the nonviolence of protest into the “constructive program” that rejects the there-is-no-alternative to global capitalism. The nonviolence of 2012 will continue to hold up the alternatives to violence, oppression, and injustice by being the vision it seeks. Democratic participation, consensus-based decision-making, decentralized leadership models, shared responsibility, and economics of common wealth and individual affirmation of uniqueness are being experimented with across the world in thousands of different contexts–and with success! “General assembly” being a household word, the lack of charismatic leadership and establishment confusion over what protesters demand all confirm that nonviolence is more than just protest.
Despairingly, I don’t have much hope in protest alone any more; many of us do not. The record-breaking millions who protested the 2003 Iraq War and the continued political impotence on climate change–like in Copenhagen, 2009, and Durban, 2011–show that the “system” is incapable of responding to genuine democratic sentiments. But the hope of nonviolence, besides having some ability to shake the system into response, is in its birthing new paradigms that are more about praxis and participation than they are about ideology. Through these protests, power is in the process of being fundamentally redefined as something to be shared. Political systems and social relationships–having been more or less stagnant since political liberalism first appeared on the Enlightenment scene and later re-affirmed post-Cold War–are showing early signs of social evolution, an indicator that we are not yet at the end of history. Nonviolence, then, as a common denominator in politics, economics, relationships, and resistance movements can be a guiding–and deciding–force for local and global solutions that are democratically-directed and people-powered. I have hope in 2012!
Jake Olzen is a member of the Kairos Chicago community and a graduate student at Loyola University in Chicago. He lives in the White Rose Catholic Worker.