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Meet the Author Who Predicted the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street

Jonathan Schell may not have known exactly what was coming. But in 2003, he knew nonviolent action was the key to fighting even the biggest empires.

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 5:56 PM EST

AK: On this subject, as your book makes clear, some re-teaching is in order. We're so conditioned to think of overthrow as a physical act: knocking down the gates, storming the castle, killing the king, declaring the country yours.

JS: In a certain sense, overthrow is the wrong word. If you overthrow something, you pick it up and smash it down. In these cases, however, the government has lost legitimacy with the people and is spontaneously disintegrating from within.

AK: As you note, the Hungarian writer György Konrád used the image of an iceberg melting from the inside to describe the process.

JS: He and actually the whole Solidarity movement had already noticed how Franco's cryptofascist regime in Spain sort of melted away from within and finally handed over power in a formal process to democratic forces. That was one of their models.

AK: Reading The Unconquerable World feels like swimming against the tide of conventional wisdom, of conventional history. Why do you think antiquated ideas about power and its uses still grip us so tightly?

JS: There is a conventional assumption that superior violence is always decisive. In other words, whatever you do, at the end of the day whoever has the biggest army is going to win. They're going to cross the border, impose their ideology or religion, they're going to kill the women and children, they're going to get the oil.

And honestly, you have to say that, through most of history, there was overwhelming evidence for the accuracy of that observation. I very much see the birth of nonviolence as something that, although not exactly missing from the pages of history previously, was fundamentally new in 1906. I think of it as a discovery, an invention.

The fundamental critique of it was that it doesn't work. The belief, more an unspoken premise than a conviction, was that if you want to act effectively in defense of your deepest beliefs or worst cravings, you have to pick up the gun, and as Mao Zedong said, power will flow from the barrel of that gun.

It took protracted demonstrations of the kind that we've been talking about to put nonviolence on the map. Now, by the way, states have come to understand this power and its dangers much better. Certainly, those who govern Egypt understand it. And what about the apparatchiks of the Soviet Union? They saw it firsthand—the whole thing going down almost without a shot being fired.

Take, for instance, the government of Iran. They're very worried foreign activists or certain books might show up in their country, because they're afraid that a soft or velvet revolution will take place in Iran. And they're right to worry. They've had two big waves of protest already, most recently the Green Revolution of 2009-2010.

It hasn't succeeded there yet. And to be clear, there's nothing magical about nonviolence. It's a human thing. It's not a magic wand that you wave over empires and totalitarian regimes and they simply melt away, though sometimes it's seemed that way. There can, of course, be failure. Look at what the people in Syria face right now. And look at the staggering raw courage they've displayed in going out into the streets again and again in the face of so many slaughtered in their country. It's anyone's guess who's going to emerge as the victor there.

AK: It can fail.

JS: It does fail. But the fact that it can succeed suggests something new historically. People, I think, are only beginning to understand this and notice it. Certainly, governments have noticed it. As soon as they see a few people getting out in the streets now, they start to get very nervous. For instance, Russia's Vladimir Putin is obviously feeling this nervousness right now in the wake of the sub-zero activists in the streets of Moscow.


The Hidden Sphere of the Human Heart and Mind

AK: Unconquerable World was published in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the drum beat of invasion mania reached a deafening roar. How did that affect the book's reception?

JS: At the moment it came out, in this country certainly, the believers in violence reigned supreme. Here I was saying all empires are going under the waves, and here under George W. Bush was the US styling itself as the last world-straddling imperial superpower about to administer an unstoppable, shock-and-awe demonstration of its might. So it was a particularly unpropitious moment for a message about the power of nonviolence. There were some favorable reactions, but at that point the book didn't really enter the broader discussion.

I honestly wondered myself whether this history of successful nonviolent movements hadn't… [he hesitates] if not ended, at least come to a pause. Eight years later, I was as surprised as anyone by the Arab Spring. And while I'd certainly hoped for something like the Occupy movement in the United States, I hadn't foreseen that either. I was happily surprised by these movements, which gave new life to the whole tradition of nonviolent action and revolution.

The reason I had wondered whether we weren't at some sort of pause was that so much of the nonviolent action of the twentieth century had been tied to the anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements. Certainly that was true with Gandhi and the Soviet Union. Even the civil rights movement in the United States was, in a certain sense, a response to a crime that had really begun under imperial auspices—namely, the slave raids in Africa, which were distinctly an imperial enterprise. If I was right that a certain kind of territorial imperialism imposed by force had run its course, then maybe so had the movements generated in opposition to it. There were a few examples where that wasn't the case. Myanmar, for example.

There was, however, another aspect to the surprise of 2011. I think it may be the nature of such nonviolent movements that they come as a surprise, because at their very root seems to be a sudden change in the hidden sphere of the human heart and mind that then becomes contagious. It's as though below the visible landscape of politics, whose permanence and strength we characteristically overestimate, there's this other landscape we rather pallidly call the world of opinion.

And somewhere in this landscape of popular will, in these changes in hearts and minds—a phrase that has become a cliché but still expresses a deep truth—lie hidden powers that, when they erupt, can overmatch and bring down existing structures. That's what John Adams said about the American Revolution: the revolution was in the hearts of the people, the minds of the people. It was amazing to find that very Vietnam-era phrase in Adams' eighteenth century writings. What John Adams was saying you find over and over again in the history of revolutions, once you look for it.


Occupy and Freedom

I used to say that, before the Occupy movement here, we Americans were suffering from our own energy crisis, which was so much more important than not being able to drill for crude oil. We didn't know how to drop a bucket into our own hearts and come up with the necessary will to do the things that needed to be done. The real "drill, baby, drill" that we needed was to delve into our own consciousness and come up with the will.

AK: How do you see the history of nonviolent action since Unconquerable World was published? What were you thinking about the Tunisian uprising, the Egyptian uprising, the Occupy movement, the general global protest movement of the present moment that arose remarkably nonviolently?

JS: I was astonished. Even now, I don't feel that I understand what the causes were. I'm not even sure it makes sense to speak of the causes. If you point to a cause—oppression, food prices rising, cronyism, corruption, torture—these things go on for decades and nothing happens. Nobody does anything. Then in a twinkling everything changes. Twenty-three days in Egypt and Mubarak is gone.

How and why a people suddenly develops a will to change the conditions under which it's living is, to me, one of the deep mysteries of all politics. That's why I don't blame myself or anyone else for not expecting or predicting the Arab Spring. How that happens may, in the end, be undiscoverable. And I think the reason for that is connected to freedom. Such changes in opinion and will are somewhere near the root of what we mean when we talk about the exercise of freedom. Almost by definition, freedom refers to something not visibly or obviously caused by anything else. Otherwise it would be compelled, not free.

And yet there is nothing obscure—in the sense of clouded or dark —about freedom. Its exercise is perhaps the most public of all things, as well as the most powerful, as recent history shows. It's a daylight mystery.

Andy Kroll is an associate editor at TomDispatch and a staff reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine. He writes about politics, business, and campaign finance. He can be reached at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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