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On Monday, February 9, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion on Leaderless Revolutions and their Challengers.

Location: Thomson Reuters, Washington DC

Speakers:

Srdja Popovic: Serb activist and politician, founder CANVAS, author of Blueprint for Revolution. PS21 global fellow.

Jack Goldstone (chair): professor of public policy, George Mason University currently on attachment to the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars. Author, Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. Member of the international advisory group, PS21.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion. For the full transcript click here.

“If you look through the history of these uprisings it’s always the outsiders,” Popovic said. “The power of outsiders in modern political life, whether we agree with them or disagree with them, is growing.”

Technology, particularly social media, has made organising protests and resistance in many ways easier. Popovic’s book and organisation — the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) aims to share them around the world.

“Fifteen years ago if you wanted to organise a rally, you need it posters, leaflets, radio commercials, knocking on doors and a large organisation,” said Popovic, one of the leaders of the largely peaceful revolution that toppled Serb president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. “Now I can make a Facebook group and everyone will know.”

“(There is) the phenomenon you call citizen journalism. Even in the most off-line places like Yemen, you can see people demonstrating and they are videotaping it on their cameras. So you can make sure that any type of state/police brutality can be seen by the world.”

“The last and most important events is that new media brings the power of horizontal learning… there was a girl who made a viral video called “what’s wrong with Venezuelan in a nutshell”… now somebody sees it in Ukraine. The way we can learn from this… is something we are really exploring now.”

But, he said, such technologies also bring with risk. Campaigns — such as the Kony 2012 effort to encourage US and its allies to track down the leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army — can bloom quickly but also lose traction.

“Every coin has two sides. I’m thrilled about making things fast and cheap but I would say “clicktivism” is a real problem… The fact that you are “lighting” the page to save the polar bears does not necessarily mean that you have saved the polar bears.”

Social media can also be used as a tool for regimes to trace and control dissidents.

“The first thing any government will do is track your Facebook password so now it can be used to know your friends into a trap.”

Up to 2010, nonviolent revolution had a higher success rate in changing regimes and leading to democracy than violent movements. The 2011 revolts over the “Arab Spring” appeared to illustrate something similar. But in recent years there has been considerable push back. The Green Movement in Iran failed in 2007. In Hong Kong in 2014, protesters failed to retain momentum.

“In Bahrain, you probably have a larger proportion of the population than anywhere else in history,” said Goldstone. “Over 10% of the population seems to have been involved on the eighth day of the movements and yet that was suppressed… does the format have to be revamped?”

Autocratic regimes, Popovic said, were adapting fast. He cited Philip Dobson’s DATE book, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve”.

“The first thing they learn is to put a velvet glove on the iron fist. There are more NGOs shut down in oppressive places of the world for not following fire regulations are supposed to be anti-government.”

“Secondly, it’s a propaganda war,” he said, pointing to increased efforts to discredit activist organisations by alleging they are tied to western intelligence agencies, etc.

Maintaining discipline and organisation, Popovic said, was key.

“We think it can start small. And small means small, tangible victories. Things like graffiti, recruiting 10 people, street theatre… They show your commitment, they showed presence. And they teach your people how to do stuff.”

“One single Molotov cocktail will completely destroy the reputation of them. Plus it will give fuel to your enemy to respond very actively and nastily.”

Humour was also a powerful weapon, he said. He cited the example of a 2012 protest in a Siberian town against election fraud that saw protesters put out hundreds of small Lego characters waving signs saying things like “106% for Putin”. The authorities ordered it banned.

“It was effective because someone is putting the opponent in a losing situation,” he said. “If they let the toys protest, everyone will see (it) but if you ban it, you are afraid of toys… humour breaks fear.”

From the Arab Spring to Occupy, in 2011 in particular took to the streets and governments quailed. By 2014, however, many of those movements have faltered. “A good year for bad people,” Goldstone said, pointing to events in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere. Popovic called it “the year of bad hangovers”

“There are many different reasons why movements fail,” said Popovic.

“If you play video games, you understand that they are made of levels. When Mubarak is down you don’t claim “game over”. You know that more nasty people are coming in a nastier spaceship that they will throw more bombs at you.”

“The second thing is losing unity too early… Part of the reason Syria failed is that the Sunnis could bring the Christians onto their site to oppose Assad. Look at Ukraine. Great victory in the Orange Revolution and then (opposition leaders) Tymoshenko and Yushenko stop fighting from the moment they start sharing office and it all falls apart.”

Popovic cited the example of Occupy as a movement but failed to capitalise on its potential. It became committee said, far too broad, too keen to be all things to all people and never really worked out what it wanted.

“The enthusiasm is great, the topic of social inequality is the most important topic of the 21st century,” he said. “What’s problematic with Occupy is they… adopted this “we need to build a consensus around everything every time”. That’s death for an organisation.”

One of the most important things when Popovic said, was to ensure there was a roughly shared view of the future a movement wanted.

The discussion was fast moving, light-hearted and well received.

“Very hard to make Serbs serious,” said Popovic.”You tried bombing our country and it didn’t work.”

“One can learn a lot from scholars and academics about nonviolent resistance but there is absolutely no substitute for the wisdom and inspiration of those who have done it,” said Goldstone.

“This was a talk that I wish had gone out to a thousand or ten thousand people, Thanks to the Project for Study of the 21st Century for organizing this and keep your eye out for more such events, it’s gonna be a fun ride.”

View a transcript of the discussion here: Leaderless Revolutions transcript.

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