Agency of People

New approach to the emergence of independent nation-states:


Purposeful agency of people that used nonviolent resistance to:

  • defend emerging national community
  • raise collective consciousness
  • build socio-economic and political institutions
  • win independence, in some cases


Traditional approaches to the emergence of independent nation-states:

1) violence

  • raise of violent nationalism
  • violent uprisings and regional or global wars
  • violent breakout of empires
  • violent interventions

2) structures and processes

  • urbanization
  • migration
  • industrialization
  • universal conscription
  • increase in literacy

3) elites

  • political, economic and military elites and leaders

The study of civil resistance presented here represents a paradigmatic shift in the understanding of national struggles and the making of nation-states, which moves away from the traditional focus on structures, conditions, processes, military power, violence, and political elites. This investigation approaches historical knowledge in a novel fashion, recognizing that the force that shapes nations and propels their resistance lies in the organized, purposeful, and defiant actions of an unarmed population. Its non-state alternative to understanding political power goes against the established Weberian canon of political authority that is top down, centralized, static, material, and elite or institution centric. Instead, the people power perspective emphasizes the fragility and diffused nature of political power, its outside-of- the-state origin, and the agency of ordinary people. Regimes are sustained not merely by their material power, including mechanisms of coercion, but also or primarily by the apathy or ignorance of the common people. The dormant people power becomes apparent with a sudden or gradual collective withdrawal of consent and mass disobedience. This force, according to Mohandas Gandhi (Mahatma), gains its strength from the fact that “even the most powerful cannot rule without the co-operation of the ruled.”


This book shows various mobilizers of the power of agency in liberation struggles. First, there are powerful resources for the emergence and conduct of resistance that lie in culture and are used by local people to resist subjugation.

They borrow from existing symbols, rituals, and customs to devise ever more effective strategies and tactics against an oppressor, particularly a foreign one. Religious or cultural ceremonies become occasions to gather and organize in a space not fully controlled by a regime. While engaging in culturally infused resistance, people also create new understandings, meanings, and identities that in turn reinforce unity and resilience of a given collective, mobilize others and spread consciousness, and help nation-building processes. Second, people have the power to independently activate existing or create new non-state or civic institutions (e.g., religious groups, labor organizations, educational institutions, and civil society associations). These structure-building processes turn out to be a potent weapon of ordinary people in waging a protracted struggle for the transformation of their society and its eventual liberation from the control of a foreign oppressor—often without directly challenging the latter or raising unnecessarily its ire until the moment of the movement’s own choosing.


Although the book emphasizes the role and impact of agency, it does not disregard structures as they may constitute a crucial part of nonviolent strategies. However, structures remain important insofar as the actions of agency are taken into consideration. At the same time, civil resistance, its trajectories, and even its outcomes are not circumstantial. They are driven and shaped by people’s decisions and actions.