Review of This is an Uprising by Paul Engler (Nation Books 2016) subtitled How nonviolent revolt is shaping the 21st century)

One of the problems with observing global change from New Zealand is that we’re poised here on the window-ledge of the world.

Like that old saying: One of the best things about NZ is we’re so far from everything…and one of the worst things is…we’re so far from everything. There’s a temptation to luxuriate in our remoteness – and ignore all the crap happening elsewhere on the planet.

If we are interested, unless we travel and see it first-hand, we rely on the media to tell the stories. But mainstream media are selective and often distorting.  Anything goes on overseas, we don’t get depth and rigour in terms of recording, assessment and analysis.  This may also be true of places much closer to the action, of course.

To be fair, the media must satisfy their local (paying) audiences – the majority of whom aren’t probably that interested in much of what happens unless it’s got “pop” appeal. Our media playmakers make a call on what to run and the presence (or not) of a local (NZ) angle also might dictate the priorities.  So an air crash is ho-hum unless kiwis are on board (and worse – die); or a film wins an award and gets high billing because a kiwi was involved.

Things are different, in one sense, in the era of social media.  Everyone’s a journalist and images and short snippets of what happened do circulate in their millions.  That stuff can be raw, rough and real but can also be distorting and incomplete, possibly moreso.  Like mainstream media it can be manipulated.

So much of enormous significance happens beyond our shores that we hear very little about.

Which is why I found Mark and Paul Engler’s book This is an Uprising (Nation Books 2016 – subtitled How nonviolent revolt is shaping the 21st century) a welcome gap-filler – and a thoroughly absorbing account.

The Englers have taken a deep look at some of the major “non-violent” movements from this century and the previous one to try to make sense of what happened and why – and to look for common threads and learnings.

They canvas in depth Mohandas Gandhi’s movement to win freedom from the Raj for India in the 1940s and 50s, the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s under Martin Luther King, the Otpor (“resistance”) movement in Serbia at the turn of the century that ousted the government of Slobodan Milosevic, the “Occupy” movement in the US and elsewhere earlier this century, the gay rights movement that grew out of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the environmental movement in the US around clear-felling in the late 20th century, and the movement that toppled Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 as part of the “Arab Spring”.

What the Englers found was a pattern to the uprisings that seemed to be blueprint for success (or not if key elements were missing).  In each case, the odds were unquestionably against those trying to make change: they were up against powerful, entrenched forces who didn’t want a bar of the change being sought and were prepared to act brutally to suppress any uprising.

We’re talking non-violent uprisings here: one side eschewing armed force against another prepared to use it.  How did they succeed?

At the core is civil resistance – people refusing to be segregated on buses or at lunch counters in the US, or disrupting public places in Cairo or New York.  Spontaneous – a spark setting things off – is good, but the Englers point to the importance of organisations taking that spark and escalating it, giving it momentum and securing media attention through stunts or symbolic acts – to grow their support base. And planning, planning, planning.

Social change they showed to be reliant on the existing pillars supporting the old bad ways being pulled down one by one – the media, political parties, the churches, the judiciary, academia.

The blueprint identified by the Englers had organisations using “disruption, sacrifice and escalation to build tension and bring overlooked issues into the public spotlight.” At the peak of the uprising, the Englers talk of the “whirlwind moment” when outbreaks of decentralised action occur.  They note that the successful organisations were “willing to polarise public opinion and risk controversy with bold protests”…but maintain “non-violent discipline to ensure it does not undermine broad-based support for its cause.”

They also point to the need to institutionalise any gains “and foster alternative communities that can sustain resistance over the long term.”  Sadly, that was where Occupy and the Egyptian uprising failed – neither was able to kick on to achieve their original goals in an substantial way.  The military now controls Egypt and society is as repressed as it was under Mubarak. The stories of those failures are fascinating and a strong lesson on the importance of knowing where the revolution will go when the revolt is over. That’s also a time, the authors note when the seminal figures in the uprising – Gandhi and King are strong exceptions – can fade into obscurity as others, late to the party (and possible strong opponents earlier on), take credit for the gains that have been won.

The Englers argue that trigger events for change occur all the time but only a few become something momentous.  The conditions may be there for change, but the skills of the social movement participants must also be present – the time is ripe “because people have deliberately endeavoured to make it so.”  An uprising where the action of participants is confronting or disruptive may be polarising but if the positive sympathy outweighs the negative the uprising may in time sway undecided opinion – especially if the established order acts brutally.

Where movements use more violent methods – arson or sabotage – they risk alienating the support they are seeking to change the established order.

Again, the blogger’s lament, it’s not possible to do a great text justice in a thousand-word essay so I’d direct you to the book to enjoy the unraveling of movements we might know a bit about, not much at all or never heard of.  Otpor’s creative publicity, Gandhi’s brilliant Salt March, the trap Birmingham police chief “Bull” Connor fell into, why the Arab Spring ultimately failed in Egypt…this is a rich telling of history.  And there are many other events that don’t get covered in depth here – the fall of Communism in 1989, the colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in the early 2000s, and the fall of Apartheid for example. This book helps us understand those better.

My only warning would be not to expect a “pop” treatise here; This is an Uprising is earnestly textbook in its pitch; footnotes and index take up pages 289 to 343 for instance.  But persevere; you won’t get this level of scholarship and detail on some of the more important defining events of our time and recent history – and a road-plan for what successful social change must look like in future – very easily anywhere else.