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4 ways in which unarmed insurrections may weather repression in nondemocracies

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The emergence of movements or challenges for political change threatens the interests of regimes, especially in nondemocracies or pseudo-democracies. According to Kurt Schock, authorities may respond in four possible ways to these challenges: Ignore, conciliate, reform and repress. When a challenge expands and gains momentum, authorities can not ignore anymore because it undermines their legitimacy. When authorities can no longer ignore the challenge, they seek conciliation. Conciliation may take the form of “symbolic gestures,” channeling or cooptation to encourage challengers to adopt institutionalized political channels such as contesting elections and etcetera.

If conciliation fails, then political reforms may become an option. But the problem with political reforms is that if the authorities introduce reforms, it may encourage the further mobilization of the challenge. Lastly, authorities rely on repression. According to Schock, repression may entail the imposition of negative sanctions, use of force and coercion and violence by proxy. Repression may be used in both democracies and nondemocracies, but Schock argues that it is more pervasive in nondemocracies because most overt challenges pose a direct threat to the regimes.

The question is how may unarmed insurrections survive repression by authoritarian regimes. Shock suggests four possible ways: However, they don’t guarantee the success of the insurrections. If followed, the suggested ways “may increase the likelihood that a challenge will remain resilient in a nondemocratic context.” While adopting these strategies, the challengers should be mindful of their political context. Shock contends, “The factors influencing the trajectories of unarmed insurrections and their interactions are far too complex and subject to the influence of factors beyond the control or recognition of activists and social scientists.”

Here are the four ways that a challenge under repression from the authorities may adopt to sustain its struggle.

1. Adopting network-oriented rather than hierarchical organizational structure: Shock and other theorists such as Walter Powell and Robert Burrows contend that social movement organizations under repression should adopt network-oriented or decentralized than hierarchical or centralized organizational structure.  Shock argues that “… Network-organized challenges are more flexible, are more adept at expanding horizontal channels of communication, are more likely to increase the participation and commitment of members and the accountability of leaders, are more likely to innovate tactically and are more likely to weather repression.”

2. Implementing more diverse tactics and methods: Shock argues that “The more diverse the tactics and methods implemented, the more diffuse the state’s repressive operations become, thus potentially lessening their effectiveness.” He emphasizes on using a mix of three methods that the theorist Gene Sharp talks about at length in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Protest and persuasion, noncooperation and disruptive nonviolent intervention. The first method, protest and persuasion “help overcome apathy, acquiescence, and fear; promote solidarity; contribute to the elaboration and dissemination of counterhegemonic frames; and signal to third parties and reference publics the existence of an unjust and intolerable situation.”

The second method, noncooperation, challenges the legitimacy, resources and power of the state, “and the collective withdrawal of cooperation from the state promotes cooperation and empowerment among the oppressed.” Finally, disruptive nonviolent intervention may be used in support of the previous two methods. “Creative nonviolent intervention,” Schock claims, “undermines state authority and contributes to the ability of movements to sustain themselves by providing networks that are alternative to state-controlled institutions.”

3. Shifting from methods of concentration to methods of dispersion: Another way for social movement organizations to weather repression is to shift from methods of concentration such as protest demonstrations to methods of dispersion such as a strike or a boycott. According to Schock, methods of concentration are useful for building solidarity, highlighting grievances and the extent of dissatisfaction and if the state responds with repression, exposing “the fact the state is based on violence than legitimacy.” However, in the face of repression, challengers must be able to shift to methods of dispersion, since the latter does not provide the state with tangible or discriminate target for repression. Shifting to methods of dispersion “may overextend the state’s repressive capacities due to the lack of specific target.” Shock argues that depending on the context, both methods may be useful and effective.

4. Adapting more quickly than the state: Last but not least, challengers need to adapt more quickly to the state’s actions than the state does to theirs. Schock argues that “If challengers adapt more quickly than the state, they increase their likelihood of weathering state repression.” Since the state does the same thing, the challengers must be tactical and innovative in their methods to keep the authorities off balance and save the challenge from stagnation. Several theorists argue that challengers can adapt well if their organizational structure is network-oriented rather than hierarchical and if they use a combination of methods outlined above.

To sum up, Schock argues that “challenges characterized by dispersed yet coordinated networks and decentralized organizations that can mobilize resources through channels not directly controlled by the state, and that implement a diverse mix of methods and respond effectively to the state’s actions, are more likely to remain resilient in the face of violent repression.”



  1. Murad says:

    Hi Aslam, this is an amazing article. thanks for introducing Gene Sharp to us. Can you expand on the point that what would methods of dispersion in Pakistan’s context?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aslam Kakar says:

      Thanks Murad! Methods of dispersion are strike, boycott, etc. It is difficult to know what will suit the PTM in Pakistan as much of it depends of the political context and the details of the struggle. But in theory at least, when repression increases it is better to turn to activities that can not be easily targeted. And that is precisely the logic of methods of dispersion.


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