Writer: Erica Chenoweth
The first answer is that more people around the world are likely to accept the view that nonviolent resistance is a legitimate and successful way to effect change.
Second, information technology has made it easier for people to access information about events that were previously unreported or suppressed. The elite can no longer control information as easily as in previous eras, which suggests that it may be easier to find news and information about ordinary people today.
Third, the market for violence is becoming stagnant. This is even more evident given the decline in state support for armed groups, which largely subsided with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Fourth, in the post-World War II era, a significant number of people care about and demand the protection of human rights, justice, and the elimination of violence.
But perhaps most worryingly, people around the world may feel that mass mobilization against oppression is now even more necessary. Over the past decade, democratic governments have faltered more than ever and returned to authoritarianism. Statistics show that more than 50% of non-violent revolutions from 1900 to 2019 were successful. Meanwhile, although the success rate for nonviolent revolutionary campaigns was around this average or increased from the 1960s to around 2010, important changes have occurred over time. Since 2010, the success rate of all revolutions has declined. In fact, less than 34 percent of nonviolent revolutions in the past decade have been successful, compared to less than 9 percent of violent revolutions. Thus, the past ten years reveal a disturbing paradox: as civil resistance has become the most common approach of revolutionary struggles to challenge regimes, their effectiveness has also declined in the short term.
The most likely explanation for the decline in the effectiveness of nonviolent revolutions after 2010 refers to the changing nature of the global context in which these campaigns take place.
First, ongoing movements may face more difficult regimes. Regimes that have overcome their frequent internal crises by supporting local allies and supporters, imprisoning prominent members of the opposition, or inciting popular movements to use violence. Some of these regimes have sought to delegitimize the protesters by spreading rumors that they are supported by foreign conspiracies or imperialism. Others—such as the regimes of Iran, Venezuela, Turkey, Syria, Hong Kong, China, and Russia—have relied on powerful international backers to provide diplomatic and sometimes military cover for the regime. There is no doubt that the activists who work in such fields are facing tough and inconsistent enemies.
Second, current governments may be learning and adapting to nonviolent challenges. Today, those in power are also more widely aware that mass campaigns are indeed a threat to existing power holders. In addition, civil resistance has become so widespread that governments have done more to develop and standardize more politically intelligent approaches to repression. Many researchers call this approach “intelligent suppression”, which is one of the prominent strategies of suppression and creating influence and division within the movements. By doing so, authorities can incite nonviolent movements to use more militant tactics, including the use of violence, before they develop a broad base of popular support and maintain power. This issue can discourage allies and moderates from joining the movement or question the movement’s policy.
Third, growing domestic and global resistance to US imperialism has led the country to withdraw from the world stage as a superpower intent on promoting its brand of liberal democracy abroad.
However, it seems that the main reasons for the decrease in the effectiveness of non-violence campaigns are related to the characteristics of the campaigns themselves. First, as explained in the previous sections, the most important indicator of the success of resistors is their size. In recent years, civil resistance campaigns have become smaller on average than they have been in the past. Since 2010, the average peak participation has dropped to less than 1.3 percent.
Second, current movements tend to rely too much on mass demonstrations without developing and organizing other techniques of non-cooperation—such as general strikes and civil disobedience—that are more effective methods. Mass demonstrations are not always the most effective in exerting pressure on elites, especially when they are not sustained over time. Other techniques of non-cooperation, such as general strikes, can be very disruptive to economic life and thus often have more immediate benefits.
Third, recent movements have increasingly relied on digital activism and organizing, particularly through social media, which have strengths. On the one hand, digital activism is very effective for today’s movements in gathering massive numbers in a short period of time. This allows people to share their grievances widely. It also enables people to communicate and organize through media not controlled by mainstream institutions or governments. But movements that rely on digital platforms may be less equipped to lead individuals and effective institutions that can plan and negotiate and create common goals. In addition, the dark side of easier communication over the Internet is easier monitoring and control. Those in power can use digital technologies to monitor, isolate, and suppress dissent, or simply cut off communications and challenge the movement. Autocrats are also increasingly exploiting digital technologies to spread disinformation, propaganda, and counter-messages.
Finally, the decline in revolutionary effectiveness may also be partly due to the development of more sophisticated techniques of repression by governments. Authoritarian leaders have developed smarter ways by which to suppress domestic rivals, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), opposition leaders, reformist campaigns, and revolutions.
However, for the following 4 reasons, it seems that civil resistances can still challenge entrenched authoritarian powers.
1- None of the actions of authoritarian governments in the direction of suppressing the opposition are without fault.
2- Public repression is not necessarily a reliable deterrent to collective action, research shows.
3- Regardless of governments using smart repression tactics, there are manifestations of people’s power in many parts of the world.
4- Activists have begun to adapt to smart suppression techniques in various ways.