"The 3.5% rule" says this proportion of the population, doing non-violent direct action, generally win their causes. True?

A couple commemorate the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which helped bring down Communist rule in Czechoslovakia - another example of Chenoweth's "3.5% rule"

A couple commemorate the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which helped bring down Communist rule in Czechoslovakia - another example of Chenoweth's "3.5% rule"

Here’s a very useful BBC Future overview and report on that new, tiny percentage that promises to explain everything (or at least a lot).

You’ve had the richest 1% (that owns half the world’s wealth). You’ve had the 2-4% of the electorate that are members of Western political parties (our favourite).

And now, we have the 3.5%. This is the percentage of a population which becomes committed to non-violent direct action and civil disobedience. And - if they reach that figure - they will more likely than not achieve their political and social aims.

David Robson from the BBC article sets out the claim:

In 1986, millions of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila in peaceful protest and prayer in the People Power movement. The Marcos regime folded on the fourth day.

In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze through the bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament building holding the flowers in their hands.

Earlier this year, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria both announced they would step aside after decades in office, thanks to peaceful campaigns of resistance.  

In each case, civil resistance by ordinary members of the public trumped the political elite to achieve radical change.

There are, of course, many ethical reasons to use nonviolent strategies. But compelling research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only the moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics – by a long way.

Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.

What is the explanation for such a specific figure?

Chenoweth performed an extensive review of the literature on civil resistance and social movements from 1900 to 2006 – a data set then corroborated with other experts in the field. They primarily considered attempts to bring about regime change:

  • A movement was considered a success if it fully achieved its goals both within a year of its peak engagement and as a direct result of its activities.

  • A regime change resulting from foreign military intervention would not be considered a success, for instance.

  • A campaign was considered violent, meanwhile, if it involved bombings, kidnappings, the destruction of infrastructure – or any other physical harm to people or property.

    “We were trying to apply a pretty hard test to nonviolent resistance as a strategy,” Chenoweth says. (The criteria were so strict that India’s independence movement was not considered as evidence in favour of nonviolent protest in Chenoweth and Stephan’s analysis – since Britain’s dwindling military resources were considered to have been a deciding factor, even if the protests themselves were also a huge influence.)

By the end of this process, they had collected data from 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns. And their results – which were published in their book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict– were striking.

Overall, nonviolent campaigns were twice as likely to succeed as violent campaigns: they led to political change 53% of the time compared to 26% for the violent protests.

This was partly the result of strength in numbers. Chenoweth argues that nonviolent campaigns are more likely to succeed because they can recruit many more participants from a much broader demographic, which can cause severe disruption that paralyses normal urban life and the functioning of society.

In fact, of the 25 largest campaigns that they studied, 20 were nonviolent, and 14 of these were outright successes. Overall, the nonviolent campaigns attracted around four times as many participants (200,000) as the average violent campaign (50,000).

Chenoweth says she went in with “scepticism that nonviolent resistance could be an effective method for achieving major transformations in society”. She came out with a solid finding that “when 3.5% of the whole population has begun to participate actively, success appears to be inevitable”.

The academic lays out what she thinks are the explanations for this success:

  • Violent protests necessarily exclude people who abhor and fear bloodshed, whereas peaceful protesters maintain the moral high ground.

  • Nonviolent protests also have fewer physical barriers to participation. You do not need to be fit and healthy to engage in a strike, whereas violent campaigns tend to lean on the support of physically fit young men.

  • And while many forms of nonviolent protests also carry serious risks – just think of China’s response in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – Chenoweth argues that nonviolent campaigns are generally easier to discuss openly, which means that news of their occurrence can reach a wider audience. Violent movements, on the other hand, require a supply of weapons, and tend to rely on more secretive underground operations that might struggle to reach the general population.

  • By engaging broad support across the population, nonviolent campaigns are also more likely to win support among the police and the military – the very groups that the government should be leaning on to bring about order.

  • During a peaceful street protest of millions of people, the members of the security forces may also be more likely to fear that their family members or friends are in the crowd – meaning that they fail to crack down on the movement. “Or when they’re looking at the [sheer] numbers of people involved, they may just come to the conclusion the ship has sailed, and they don’t want to go down with the ship,” Chenoweth says.

  • In terms of the specific strategies that are used, general strikes “are probably one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, single method of nonviolent resistance”, Chenoweth says. But they do come at a personal cost..

  • …Whereas other forms of protest can be completely anonymous. She points to the consumer boycotts in apartheid-era South Africa, in which many black citizens refused to buy products from companies with white owners. The result was an economic crisis among the country’s white elite that contributed to the end of segregation in the early 1990s.

  • “There are more options for engaging and nonviolent resistance that don’t place people in as much physical danger, particularly as the numbers grow, compared to armed activity,” Chenoweth says. “And the techniques of nonviolent resistance are often more visible, so that it's easier for people to find out how to participate directly, and how to coordinate their activities for maximum disruption.”

What numbers of people does 3.5% actually mean? “In the UK it would amount to 2.3 million people actively engaging in a movement (roughly twice the size of Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city); in the US, it would involve 11 million citizens – more than the total population of New York City.” If this number is reached, the researchers suggest, it’s also means there’s a larger group around it, tacitly approving of their actions.

And it’s interesting to look at those in the 47% who have not succeeded. Take the failed uprising in Bahrain in 2011 - which “initially engaged many protestors, but quickly split into competing factions. The resulting loss of cohesion ultimately prevented the movement from gaining enough momentum to bring about change”.

Perhaps the strong strategic core at the heart of Greta Thunberg/School Strikes, Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion which predicts their success.

But it’s hard to disagree with the conclusion of the article—that much more study should be done of successful social movements, as opposed to violent conflict and warfare. “Ordinary people, all the time, are engaging in pretty heroic activities that are actually changing the way the world” says Chernoweth – “and those deserve some notice and celebration as well.”

More here.