Everyday Resistance

In the essay “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell— who held little faith in the power of nonviolent actions—recounts, as it appears, his personal experience of living in Burma in the 1920s. As a British police officer, he was the subject of exasperating small acts of resistance that often took the form of contemptuous and mocking verbal exploits. The “natives,” in the words of the essay’s narrator, “baited whenever it seemed safe to do so.”


Orwell explains further:
When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on the street corners and jeer at Europeans. [Later in the text, the narrator concludes,] and my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

Careful analysis of the methods of nonviolent resistance found in each case study in this book uncovers rich, but subtle, methods of defiance often hidden in everyday life—a seemingly ordinary type of human action that can represent a powerful form of rejection of a dominant political reality. Many populations have resisted cultural domination and denationalization through tactics that could be described as antlike, stubborn endurance to ensure collective survival in the midst of severe oppression, within a limited public space for independent political activities. This attitude is equivalent to what the Palestinians refer to as sumud—steadfastness and perseverance or what is known as “existence is resistance”: merely staying in place or on the land in the face of oppression becomes itself a form of defiance. This subaltern type of resistance— as highlighted in a number of chapters—has often been confined to private, family, and individual spheres of life or has taken the form of less risky, lower-profile, and seemingly nonpolitical and benign actions such as celebrations of cultural figures; wearing homemade cloth; organizing street theater, public performances, artistic exhibitions; or setting up and running economic, cultural, mutual aid, sport, music, or literary clubs and circles. Some observers describe this type of actions as “everyday forms of resistance” or “small acts of resistance.”


One version of this form of defiance is known as Svejkism—named after the actions of a fictional character of the Czech soldier Svejk enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army. The comedy of his botched implementation of orders, with its ambiguity between incompetence and disobedience, has given its name to the small-scale, hidden defiance of people working in political and military institutions. Another version of everyday resistance is seen in colonized Egypt and Algeria where the seemingly innocent act of wearing a veil became a powerful symbol of enduring opposition against foreign authorities. 


Decades later and on a different continent, ingenious benevolent protests of everyday defiance are taking place on the streets of Minsk against the authoritarian regime of Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko. Silent and do-nothing gatherings, public clapping, phone beeping set for specific times, and stuffed rabbits and bears holding protest signs at a bus stop in the country’s capital or falling down from the sky are all expressions of dissent that have provoked surreal police action (e.g., arrests of protesting teddy bears) against harmless and mundane activities, making the authorities look absurd and lose legitimacy. While striving to maintain non violent discipline (later overtaken by violence) and diversify their civil resistance strategies and tactics, Syrians undertook creative and lower-risk activism in the form of dyeing public fountains red to symbolize the blood of the civil protesters killed across the country since the uprising began in March 2011, releasing balloons with freedom messages, or gluing the door locks of government offices. Across the world, in the more open societies of Chile and the Philippines, young people are demonstrating against their government by carrying out mass kiss-in protests, jogging around the clock, circling the presidential palace, or planking highways and state institutions.


In normal times these types of action would not be considered resistance. Yet under circumstances of oppression, such obvious but non-provocative defiance can demonstrate deep and persistent opposition and put the government in a dilemma because suppressing the actions will expose the brutality, abnormality, and autocracy of those in power. Despite their importance and force, memories of these kinds of action fade and, as Chapter on Algeria emphasizes, they have left few historical records. This may be partly because these everyday forms of hidden nonviolent rebellion are often tails of the dog that did not bark and, thus, lack the overt contestation, drama, and spectacle of violent struggle.


An important element of the indirect form of resistance described in a number of chapters was the development of an autonomous society with every aspect of self-rule well before a formal independence was achieved. Often, it took the form of society’s own schooling system, self-managed economic cooperatives, social services organizations, and judicial or quasi-governing institutions. The idea was not to take the fight directly—with the use of collective actions—to a more powerful and brutal adversary but rather to transform the society first and, through that transformation, liberate it from the control of the foreign occupier. This was a stealth resistance more than an open confrontation. Society was seen as a social organism that could grow, defy foreign authorities, and defend itself via its own self-organization, self-attainment, and self-improvement. Such nonviolent resistance was forceful, but gradual and protracted. It thus not only could be measured by the outcomes of undermining its adversary, but also by the process of societal work through alternative institution building that instills greater unity, solidarity, mobilization, and resilience in the society. This type of indirect resistance, through the creation and seemingly apolitical work of numerous legal, semi-legal, or banned grassroots institutions in the economic, social, judicial, or educational spheres became the type of silent but salient resistance akin to Assef Bayat’s notion of “quiet encroachment of the ordinary.” They were coercive, but nonviolent acts, in the protracted struggle of the destitute population against foreign powers, its domestic surrogates, or both.  


This type of alternative institution building or associationalism has often helped to create sounder ground for waging more direct nonviolent actions against a more powerful enemy that required greater mobilization and unity. In that sense, indirect resistance through institutions of societal development and education became a tool that a well-known, nineteenth-century, Syrian-born Arab reformist, Abd al Rahman al-Kawakibi, regarded as the necessary step for setting up appropriate conditions before a fully fledged peaceful resistance takes on despotism. This was also the means for civil resisters to redress a huge asymmetry of force between themselves and their adversary by rendering its military superiority useless when confronted by a withdrawn, self-organized society. Yet another feature of indirect resistance of self-organized alternative institutions was a creation of an organic link between ordinary life and work on one hand and resistance on the other. There was no life beyond resistance and no resistance beyond life. Often, a sense of people’s own prospects was fused with the prospect of the movement and the struggle, creating an existential unity between the two. Finally, indirect acts of resistance in the form of self-managed institutional life that empowered people and engendered the resistance in the fabric of a nation played an important role in turning the victims of oppression into self-conscious individuals aware of their powers and the sources of their captivity. Al-Kawakibi believed that people “themselves are the cause of what has been inflicted upon them, and that they should blame neither foreigners nor fate but rather ignorance (al-jahl), lack of endeavor (faqd al-humam), and apathy (al-taw?kul), all of which prevail over society.” This echoes the views of al-Kawakibi’s older Polish contemporary, the philosopher Józef Szujski, who points out that the guilt of falling into the predatory hands of foreign powers lay in the oppressed society and, thus, the solution and liberation need to come from that society transformed through its work, education, and civility. Victims and the seemingly disempowered are thus their own liberators as long as they pursue self-organization, self-attainment, and development of their communities.  


The chapters in this book also show an interesting dynamic between direct forms of resistance and more subtle forms of defiance, whereby everyday and barely noticed acts of civil resistance were closely intertwined with or paved the way for more direct and demonstrable forms of nonviolent actions. The latter development often exhibited a growing consolidation of national identity, a realistic assessment of costs and risks of disruptive activities, and better skills in planning and collective organizing as well as reflected the memory of lost armed insurrections, emerging new opportunities due to external geopolitical changes (i.e., regional or global wars) or development and popularization of new means of communication (at various times, print technology, the telegraph, and radio well before the communications revolution of recent years). Helped by these shifts, people have begun to devise and plan methodically and, thus, develop more direct and forceful actions in order to put overt pressure on the authorities. These more confrontational engagements often involved ever-growing participation of wider swathes of the society who directly and immediately challenged the authorities and their control over land and population. In this way, nonviolent struggle expanded beyond subtle forms of social organizing and campaigning for greater autonomy and political freedoms to encompass mass-based actions that were filled with explicit nationwide demands for self-rule and independence.