Popovic was one of the founding members of Otpor!, the Serbian student resistance movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in the late ‘90s, and since then has helped run CANVAS, the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies, which trains pro-democracy activists across the world. So it’s clear that he’s got a track record of success in the subject.
The book is short and clearly written to be as accessible and entertaining as possible, each chapter dedicated to a specific principle or strategy—stuff like “make oppression backfire” and “have a vision of tomorrow”—and illustrating it with a lot of anecdotes from either Otpor! or other resistance movements that Popovic has worked with. Case studies range from the Israeli cottage cheese boycott of 2011 to the overthrow of the dictator Gayoom in the Maldives in 2008. A number of these stories are surprisingly delightful—the Israeli cottage cheese boycott was just the most bonkers thing; I actually laughed out loud reading about it—and in several cases this is by design. Popovic is a great proponent of what he calls “laughtivism,” or what I would more likely call “TROLLING FOR REVOLUTION” or possibly “meme warfare.”
(Aside: I spent much of this book wondering what Popovic thinks of the current Nazi-punching meme; obviously literally punching Nazis is an act of violence, but setting the gif of Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched to music and spreading it around the Internet seems otherwise the exact sort of goofy, low-barrier-to-entry rejection of a self-serious bigot that he’s advocating. Anyone can make and post Nazi-punching memes. And Popovic explicitly says that his commitment to nonviolence is more about tactical efficacy than about morals, and he gives Nazis as the quintessential example of “Obviously these guys had to be fought.” But there’s also long histories of both violent and non-violent resistance to Nazis and fascists that I think really need to be gone over in actual detail by anyone seriously thinking about how to best fight Nazis, and this book isn’t really about Nazis.)
At times, Popovic’s “I was just a regular college asshole” everyman schtick gets a little annoying, probably because I had bad experiences with Regular College Assholes, but I tried to sit with and examine that feeling until I got used to it, because inevitably any sort of mass movement is going to consist largely of people who are at least sort of assholes because people are like that. Avoiding everyone who’s even a little bit of a dick is a great way to end up hiding in a hole on some obscure corner of the Internet shitposting about those splitters at the People’s Front of Judea instead of getting anything done. Getting people to not be assholes to the rest of the movement in the course of doing the work is important so resentments don’t build, but that’s a more specific issue.
Probably the biggest blind spot in the book, though, is the conflation of specific political goals with fundamental cultural change. The second is a lot harder and Popovic doesn’t really talk about it, but sometimes it leads him into stepping into bits of American history that he doesn’t seem to know more than a surface-level amount about. The worst offenses are when he’s talking about the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, which he paints as being a huge success. It was successful if you consider it in terms of being a movement about legislative goals—ending the Jim Crow laws, passing the Voting Rights Act—and in that light, it was indeed a major victory. But the civil rights movement didn’t challenge a single unpopular figure with outsize power, like a dictator; ultimately, it was challenging a deeply rooted foundation of American culture, one with largely unexamined majority support. Any by that light, it only made very incremental progress. Popovic also ignores the role of Malcolm X and the more militant black power movement in framing Martin Luther King as a palatable, respectable alternative; nor does he discuss how the movement eventually devolved into riots in the early ‘70s. The message that can be fairly easily gleaned from what is and is not covered in this book is that cultural sea change is extremely hard; smaller, concrete policy goals are important to make sure you can claim yourself any wins at all. Most people don’t super enjoy living under murderous dictators in quite the same way that racists love living in a racist society, so the challenges are different.
The occasional foray into respectability politics aside, Popovic actually does do a pretty good job of presenting the case that the way a movement is presented and how it “sells” itself are pretty important. Symbols and storytelling are powerful tools; while some people certainly overestimate the importance of appearances over actually doing stuff, it’s also very true that people are emotional creatures, and they’ll respond to stuff better if it offers community, if it’s fun and exciting, if it feels cool and rebellious rather than strict and ideological, if it has a symbol and a narrative and all that good stuff. Otpor! also employed elements of what we’d now call gamification, such as giving out t-shirts for getting arrested, color-coded so that everyone could see what level of getting-arrested experience you’d earned.
The catalog of failed or partially failed resistance movements—Occupy Wall Street is a frequent case study—coalesces around one thesis: Learning from past movements doesn’t mean just looking at what they did and doing the same thing. It also means interrogating your own current situation and getting creative in figuring out the best way how to apply the principles of nonviolent resistance and when and in what way it will be effective to employ any given individual tactic. Occupying a space, Popovic stresses, is a tactic; it’s not a strategy or an identity. Activists need to be creative, perceptive, and flexible; striving to simply copy past successful movements makes you too predictable.
Overall, I think it’s a charming, accessible little book that explains its basic principles well and would be an especially good thing to give to the sorts of people who ask dumb shit like “Why don’t they just protest peacefully?” as if a) graffiti is violent or something or b) there’s anything “just” about organizing large masses of people, because it will explain bog-standard concepts like “Maintaining peaceful control over a large crowd of upset people is in fact something you have to actively do, and it requires discipline and organizing, and it’s possible to fail at it” in much nicer and more persuasive ways than, say, shouting at them that they’re stupid and liberals are fucking useless, which is what I want to do every time I hear stuff like that. (If you don’t want to buy them a whole book, I also recommend this excellent Foreign Policy piece about political violence.)
I’ve probably got more to say, but book club is tomorrow and I should probably save at least some of it for that? And write up questions, because that’s my responsibility which I forgot about until right this second.
Anyway. Dictators hate it when you make fun of them, so go forth and troll for democracy.