June 21, 2017
Originally published in The Guardian. By Duncan Green.
I’ve just read the new book by Srjdja Popovic, one of the Serbian protestors who overthrew Slobodan Milosevic and then went on to train protest movements around the world, and it’s brilliant. First prize for readability (and length of title – the full version is ‘Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men and other Non-Violent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators or Simply Change the World’).
Popovic describes his “personal journey from a too-cool-to-care Belgrade guitarist to one of the leaders of Otpor!, the nonviolent movement that toppled the Serbian dictator”, and the style is anything but worthy: wonderfully contemporary-European, full of knowing cultural references, witty asides and awareness of the reader. A really fun (and funny) read – and you can’t say that for many books on politics.
His twin sources of inspiration are Tolkien – “If I had to choose one book to call my scripture, it would be Lord of the Rings” (activists are hobbits, ordinary folk allying with a motley collection of unusual suspects – dwarves, elves etc – to take down the Dark Lord) and Monty Python (dictators can’t handle humour, and it makes being an activist fun). His other less eccentric inspiration is non-violence guru Gene Sharp.
Blueprint for Revolution echoes a lot of the advocacy techniques I talk about on my blog – power analysis, quick wins, clear narratives, identify champions, allies, blockers and the undecided.
Although it’s called a blueprint, he shows respect for national roots and difference, building his case on his huge collection of experiences from Serbia, and his subsequent career with Canvas, training activists in some of the hottest political struggles around (Burma, Syria, Egypt).
Some of the ideas he picks out are particularly useful. Branding really matters, he argues. ‘We wanted Serbs to have a visual image they could associate with our movement [so they went for a clenched fist – cheesy, but effective, and it echoed Partisan heroes of WW2]. Struggle becomes a battle of the brands because “Every dictator is a brand” (this is Gramsci for the 21st century). “We need a brand that is better than theirs.”
Dream big, he says, (a compelling and positive “vision of tomorrow”) but start small. Find tactics that will prove “we are the many and they are the few”, without getting you “killed or roughed up too badly”, like taxi go-slows in Pinochet’s Chile; or vaguely subversive ringtones in Iran.
And apparently food is one of the best entry points. Activists have built movements around cottage cheese (Israel), rice pudding (Maldives) and most famously, salt (Gandhi) and tea (US). “Food has a special way of getting people to come together”, and is often low risk – it gets the ball rolling. But there are other small starters too – Harvey Milk’s political career took off when he switched from gay rights to campaigning against dog shit in San Francisco’s parks, recognising “this very important principle of non-violent activism: namely that people, without exception and without fail, just don’t give a damn.” The trick is really listening and finding out what other people care about, even if it’s not top of your priority list. The alternative is “rally the people who already more or less believe in what you have to say. That is a great way for coming tenth at anything” (as Harvey Milk initially did).
He argues that you should practice laughtivism. He admits it’s a terrible word, but quotes Mark Twain: “The human race has unquestionably one really effective weapon – laughter…. Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” saying “In the age of the internet and other distractions, laughter was our greatest weapon.” Popovic’s crew released anti-regime accessorised turkeys onto the streets of Belgrade (you had to be there), while Syrian protestors buried loudspeakers broadcasting anti-regime messages in smelly dustbins in Aleppo (so the police made themselves look ridiculous, and less scary, rummaging around to find them).
I think we’ve lost the power of humour in some of our more finger-wagging activism. That is serious because “humour breaks fear and builds confidence. It also adds the necessary cool factor, which helps movements attract new members. Finally, humour can incite clumsy reactions from your opponents – the high and mighty can’t take a joke.”
Be cool, Popovic suggests (not usually an NGO strong point, though the grassroots protestors are cooler). In Serbia, getting arrested apparently turned you into an instant sex magnet, especially if you earned the black Otpor! T shirt awarded only to those arrested 10 times or more.
Stick firmly to non-violence because it works. “If you’re up against David Beckham, you don’t want to meet him on the soccer field. You want to play him at chess. Taking up arms against a dictator is silly.” Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan, identified 323 conflicts from 1900-2006. They found “nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts” (53% against 26%).
But make them oppress you. “Making oppression backfire is a skill every activist can and must master – like jujitsu, it’s all about playing your opponents’ strongest card against them.” In Serbia Otpor! turned arrests into events, with elaborate pre-arranged systems for notifying parents and colleagues of arrests, crowds outside the prisons singing pop songs and chanting the prisoners’ names, and “rock star receptions” (and T shirts) when people were released.
Invest everything in building and maintaining unity (of message as well as organisations and alliances).
Know how to win: declare victory too early and it all unravels (Egypt), stay maximalist and you lose the chance of quick wins and building momentum (Tiananmen Square). Be clear on what your aim is (democracy rather than the fall of Mubarak). Keep unity after victory rather than return to infighting (Ukraine). “Successful movements must have the patience to keep working hard even when the lights and cameras have moved on.”
And that last paragraph points to one of the strengths of the book: Popovic is willing to criticise where he thinks movements have got it wrong – the Russian protest movement for sticking to largely middle class concerns and failing to build bridges; Tiananmen square students for failing to accept and loudly celebrate early offers of climbdowns (as Gandhi did) and instead demanding “everything or nothing” – they got the latter. What would Gandhi have done in Tiananmen Square?
He also thinks Occupy is a really badly chosen name, as it describes a tactic, not a strategy or vision – what would have happened if they had called themselves ‘the 99%’?
One whinge – he has an alarming tendency to overclaim on Otpor!/Canvas’ impact – something common to new, energetic insurgents (think Avaaz). Burma’s saffron revolution is apparently all down to someone smuggling an Otpor! DVD into a Burmese monastery. Some Egyptian activists come to a training session and voila, Tahrir Square! Yeah, right.
That aside, it is a wonderful book – make sure you give it to your friends after you’ve read it.