Secrecy and Pragmatism in Nonviolent Action

Anita McKone

Having recently solidly reengaged with nonviolent activists in Australia, I was surprised to find that actions requiring secrecy have become extremely common, particularly for environmental activists and even peace activists, and that these are seen as actions that are both pragmatic and escalatory within their campaigns.

I have met a large number of activists who I think are fantastic people – enthusiastic, experienced, skilled, committed, principled, organised and able to think widely across issues. And I have heard clearly that for many of them, achieving their immediate physical objective in an action requiring secrecy (such as sneaking into a prohibited area and locking on to a piece of equipment before they are caught by security) is really fun and gives them a feeling of success and achievement.

I have also heard that secrecy is often seen to be a pragmatic necessity to avoid the activists being prevented from performing an action which they feel is powerful. So, for example, the ‘People’s Parliament’ action where activists occupied the lobby of Parliament House in Canberra to create their own parliament after pretending to be tourists (in the mode of a flash mob), was clearly creative, subversive and emotionally powerful for the participants, and activists would feel a sense of loss if they did not do similar actions requiring secrecy in future.

The location and social milieu in which the People’s Parliament occurred and the high level of organisation and nonviolent discipline of the over 200 activists involved meant that the response of Parliament House security guards was mild, and activists felt empowered by the action. Nonetheless, opportunities were lost in terms of the strategic relationship building that occurs when activists perform open actions, and these relationships are particularly important if you are trying to build momentum in an ongoing campaign, rather than performing a ‘one off’ action.

As is explained fully in the article ‘Nonviolent Action: Why and How it Works’, it is not necessary to achieve the stated physical objective of an action to achieve the more important strategic psychological one. And there are many ways the People’s Parliament and actions like it can be reworked without the use of secrecy so that activists gain the same feelings of achievement, while also gaining the strategic benefits of openness.

At their worst, secret actions can have seriously negative consequences for your campaign. For example, I am aware of a nonviolent Peace Convergence action at the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) training base at Swan Island in Victoria in 2014, where three activists who secretly entered the base (while others were demonstrating openly at the gates) were captured by base security and treated extremely violently as terrorists, much to the activists’ surprise and traumatisation. While the behaviour of the SAS soldiers was obviously highly dysfunctional and unnecessary, invading a military base in secret did not allow for any prior communication that might have led to more positive relations between the activists and their opponents. If we accept that SAS troops are trained to behave extremely violently towards perceived threats, it makes sense to defuse the situation if possible and attempt to ‘derole’ them, rather than giving them an easy excuse to run their usual behavioural program. Activists need to be emotionally ready to experience many levels of abuse when taking nonviolent action, while remaining as steadfast and calm as possible, because this generates the most respect for the activists by both the opponent and third parties, including the general public. Secret actions, where both the activists and security people are likely to be surprised and unclear about the intentions of the other group, increase levels of fear on both sides, potentially leading to a breakdown of nonviolent discipline in the activists, and to a greater level of violence from security personnel.

I advocate nonviolent actions that are fun, creative, which may lead to arrest (and worse repression if there is no way to avoid it), which give the activists a sense of achievement, and which achieve real strategic goals (that is, they lead to specified non-elite groups of people changing their behaviour in specified ways in order to undermine the opponent and support your cause). If I was an advocate of violent defence (and I am very understanding of people who feel they have no choice but to use violence to defend themselves against invasion or other abuse), I would no doubt value secrecy as part of that defence, and know that my survival and my capacity to perform my role within a military strategy might depend upon it.

However, using secrecy as part of nonviolent actions is actually contrary to the basic psychology of how nonviolence works. As such, it may be exciting for activists to play the secrecy game in contexts where they are unlikely to be too badly punished for it, but ultimately, and therefore strategically, it has negative psychological impacts on opponents, third parties and activists that make it detrimental to increasing the size and commitment of a movement.

It is clearly of no benefit to a movement when actions are developed in a climate of fear of being ‘found out’ and groups are afraid of being infiltrated and spied upon, and when secrecy prevents activists from being seen as courageous and trustworthy (while being unflinchingly committed to acting for their cause) by potential allies, including security guards and the police.

I encourage activists to begin thinking of escalatory tactics that don’t involve secrecy, but that allow and encourage as many people as possible to demonstrate their courageous willingness to suffer while standing against the destruction of life on earth. The two most famous nonviolent campaigns of all time, the Indian independence movement led by Gandhi and the U.S. Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., achieved mass mobilisation and very direct confrontation with the powers that be without the use of secret tactics, so I believe that current activists just need to expand their horizons beyond what has become a habit of thinking over the past couple of decades.

I am inspired by Uncle Chris ‘Peltherre’ Tomlins of the Arunta people, who said no one needs to take out their mobile phone batteries for the sake of security while talking about an upcoming action at the U.S. Base Pine Gap in Central Australia because the organisers are happy to have ASIO listening in.

Is secrecy ‘pragmatic’ in the context of nonviolent civil resistance?

In terms of theory, it is not just Gandhi’s and MLK’s principled nonviolence that rejects secrecy. Gene Sharp, who is probably the best known pragmatic nonviolence theoretician, considers that the fearlessness and nonviolent discipline necessary to achieve success will be undermined if activists are not truthful and frank with the opponent and third parties. See Sharp The Politics of Nonviolent Action p.485. Secrecy may be part of advance preparations in a campaign, where people need time in a protected space to deal with their fears of acting openly, but tactics themselves must never rely on secrecy if they are to be effective at changing the status quo.

So, the term ‘pragmatic’ in relation to nonviolent action does not mean sacrificing basic nonviolence tenets in order to achieve short term tactical objectives. Rather, a pragmatic nonviolent activist believes nonviolent action is worth pursuing in a particular context where ordinary political methods have failed to meet their needs, because they can clearly perceive that using violence to defend themselves will not achieve their aims. They also believe that violent defence may be more effective in a different context. Advocates of principled nonviolence, on the other hand, believe that nonviolent action is always a more effective form of defence of life (physical, psychological and spiritual) because of its ethical underpinnings.

For more on this issue, see the articles ‘Nonviolent Action: Why and How it Works’ and ‘Fear, Fearlessness and Nonviolent Action’.

25 February 2017

This article ‘Secrecy and Pragmatism in Nonviolent Action’ was originally published here.

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