Sunday, July 21, 2013

What "V for Vendetta" Teaches us (and doesn't teach us) about Civil Resistance.

This post may seem a bit dated as the movie's been out for around seven years now, but the continuing recurrence of the Guy Fawkes mask (Prominently present in the three mass protest movements of the year: Turkey, Brazil, and Egypt and in other places as diverse as freedom of information protests by the group Anonymous, the Polish Parliament, and the streets of Bangkok), speaks to the movies' continuing power as a symbol of revolution and resistance.

But does the Guy Fawkes mask and the story behind it really represent anything more than a pop culture symbol of resistance to authority?  What lessons does "V for Vendetta" really teach about how revolutions are really fought and won?

(It may be unnecessary to put a spoiler alert on a movie seven years old but for courtesy's sake I'll throw one in anyway...Also for those of you keeping track, all of this is in reference to the 2005 movie, not the original 1980s comic series)

1.No regime is monolithic.

It's a common misconception (and one often echoed in popular media coverage) that authoritarian political regimes are a single, coherent power structure that can only be beaten by a force greater than their own.  The Third Reich in Germany, for example, is typically seen as a direct outgrowth of the will of Hitler.  But this view is radically simplistic and simply wrong.  Authoritarian governments are often characterized by intense and often violent internal power struggles, and even more fundamentally rely on the obedience and cooperation of lower ranking supporters who may not share their brutality.  Revolutions which take advantage of these internal tensions and dependencies have much better chances for success.  V for Vendetta illustrates this point brilliantly.  Adam Sutler, the dictator of Britain, relies on a council of high-ranking supporters to carry out his wishes, including the power-hungry Adam Creedy and the morally-conflicted Inspector Finch.  V skillfully uses both Creedy's lust for power and Finch's basic decency to wean their support away from Sutler and turn the regime upon itself.  Creedy delivers Sutler to be executed by V in an attempt to make his own play for political power, and Finch defects by refusing to stop V's booby-trapped train from destroying parliament after V reveals the extent of the Norsefire government's brutality.

2. Violent repression often backfires.

Another common misconception is that nonviolent civil resistance movements are effective only as long as the regime they face is unwilling to use violence to repress them.  While violent repression certainly can suppress a revolutionary movement the realities are much more complex and dynamic.  Sometimes a brutal act committed by a regime causes a movement to collapse, but other times brutal actions by the regime, particularly if they're seen as unreasonable or unjustified, provide the spark that mobilizes a much more powerful revolutionary force.  In "V for Vendetta," Finch spells out this process in his monologue on what will follow V's mass distribution of Guy Fawkes masks.  In the video which overlays Finch's speech one of the government "fingermen" shoots a young girl wearing a mask, which sparks a riot, the imposition of martial law, and the eventual mass mobilization of the people of London in the final scene of the movie.   Real-world parallels include the Santa Cruz Massacre in East Timor, the nonviolent siege of the Dharasana Salt Mines in India, and the brutal repression of civil rights marchers in the 1963 Birmingham Campaign.  As with V's distribution of masks, the Birmingham Campaign was intentionally chosen to provoke arrests and repression in a highly brutal, visible way, with the strategic objective being to provoke political backfire.  Thus far from being the government's ultimate trump card, the use of violent repression is a multifaceted strategic action that can sometimes have unpredictable consequences and can be manipulated by the civil resistance movement for its own ends.

3. Overcoming fear is a crucial step.

One of the most powerful and disturbing sequences in the movie is when Evey is kidnapped by V (unbeknownst to her) and tortured and interrogated repeatedly until she no longer fears death and is willing to be killed rather than comply with the regime.  This kind of freedom from fear, while of course pursued unethically by V, is another essential principle in successful civil resistance campaigns.  Gene Sharp, one of the foremost theorists of nonviolent action, emphasizes repeatedly that freedom from fear is an essential first principle for pursuing nonviolent action.  Civil resistance veterans at the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies devote an entire chapter of their manual on nonviolent action to the question of overcoming fear.  Fear of sanctions, of what the opponent is able to do to the nonviolent actor, is most often the critical factor which gives the regime people's obedience.  If the civil resistance movement is able to help the people overcome their fear then the state will be unable to gain their obedience.  Without the obedience of the people, the power of the state will be dissolved - the state will have a choice to either kill its people or accede to their demands.

4. Laughing is important too.

No dictator can stomach is a joke at his own expense.  In "V for Vendetta" the TV star character Gordon is "disappeared" after he runs an episode of his show which mocks the dictator, Adam Sutler.  While the episode isn't delved into much further in the film, there are implications that the mocking episode was a crucial point in turning the British population against their government. Humor and mockery are classic "weapons of the weak" that the oppressed use to undermine the power of their oppressors. Humor puts dictators in a dilemma.  To allow it to occur undermines the fear which they use to cow the populace into submission (a crucial part of their power), but to use violent force to stop it makes them look thin-skinned and weak and can provoke backlash.  Revolutionary humor and mockery provides an easy way to make people want to join your cause.  Everyone can get on board with a revolution that's having a good time!  The masters of revolutionary mockery were most definitely Otpor!, the Serbian youth movement that spearheaded the "Bulldozer Revolution" which overthrew Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.  Among other things, Otpor put up a barrel in a mall in Belgrade with a bat and a picture of Milosevic and invited Serbians to take a swing at it (the police, not sure of what to do, ceremoniously arrested...the barrel, provoking more laughter from the crowds).  Activists in Uganda, banned from demonstrating, led a march in downtown Kampala on authoritarian President Museveni's birthday.  When police arrested them (and their birthday cake) for not getting a permit to demonstrate (which would have been denied) the activists responded that they wanted their march to be a birthday surprise!

V for Vendetta does fail on a few crucial points, though.

1. Killing leaders is less important than coercing soldiers.

In the final sequence of V for Vendetta the mass uprising which goes to watch V blow up parliament isn't massacred because Sutler and Creedy, the two most powerful leaders of the government, have been assassinated by V.  Without clear orders from above the soldiers on the ground stand down and allow the uprising to continue.  This sequence of events, while possible, doesn't match the behavior that is more typically observed when governments face off against popular protest movements.  Field commanders often independently instruct their soldiers to fire on unarmed protesters, sometimes in even more brutal fashion than would be approved by higher-ranking leaders (who are often more concerned about political backlash).  A classic example is the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in India.  A breakdown in the chain of command would be just as (if not more) likely to provoke an extremely violent response by field commanders.  A much more effective strategy is to directly appeal to the soldiers themselves and bring about defections.  Critical moments in recent nonviolent revolutions have occurred when soldiers and commanders refused to obey orders from brutal dictators, not when the dictators themselves were removed from the picture.

2. How the revolution succeeds is extremely important.

And my personal biggest problem with "V for Vendetta"?  The ending.  The dictator has been assassinated, parliament explodes to fireworks and the 1812 overture, and as all of Britain takes off their Guy Fawkes masks we are assured that everything will be ok.  The problem, of course, is that revolutions don't simply end when the dictator is gone.  As David Rothkopf points out in this article, mobilizing dramatic street protests are the least of the many problems that a revolutionary civil resistance movement faces. The power of elites and inertia against political change may doom even the most popular revolutions to little or no impact on their society.  If a revolutionary group wants to succeed for the long term, how they succeed is very, very important.  Bringing a million people onto the streets is one thing.  Ensuring a peaceful, prosperous, free society is quite another. In a current working paper of my own I use statistical analysis of every successful nonviolent campaign from 1900-2006 (From the NAVCO 1.1 dataset) to show that the transition mechanism that a civil resistance campaign uses to achieve power has strong,significant effects both on how democratic and especially how peaceful that country is in the future.  One of my strongest findings is that dramatic popular uprisings where the people simply assume power (similar to the one portrayed at the end of "V for Vendetta" ) actually have the worst track record when it comes to creating democratic, peaceful societies in the long term.  Winning the revolution isn't the endpoint where no more decisions are necessary - it's a critical juncture where it's essential that the movement think strategically about the long-term consequences of their actions.

Having said that, the ending really is an amazing piece of cinema, and still gives me chills when I see it. Enjoy!

1 comment:

Rania-ish said...

(You're not going to read this, are you? Right . . . Anyway . . .)

Thank you for saying all of that! I totally agree with what you have said. Despite my lacking knowledge in the field of civil resistance, it all made sense. I definitely second your thoughts on the fact that V for Vendetta needs a reality check. That is why I often tell people that my favourite romance movie is V for Vendetta. That is because it has romanticised the concept of revolution . . . and there were all those heart eyes they kept looking at each other with . . . but, that does not matter.