After Nonviolent Protest…

As nonviolent protest rolls across the Middle East—now in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran—we see governments convulsing and fighting back, violently, but in a way that shows their ultimate lack of power. Today’s New York Time’s reports on how the quiet American intellectual, Gene Sharp, took Gandhi’s ideas and compiled them into a primer on nonviolent protest. One lesson he takes is that nonviolence is a good pragmatic tactic. “If you fight with violence,” Sharp told the NYT, “you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.”  Alas, even with nonviolent protest, there are still many brave and dead heroes these past few weeks, 365 in Egypt alone. Still, nonviolence  is probably the most effective method for it hits autocrats where they are most vulnerable, unveiling their complete and utter lack of popular support and legitimacy and ultimately deposing them.

A couple of years ago I met with some of the staff of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which has its roots in Gene Sharp’s work.  The work they are doing is great and important, but I wonder:  What happens after the revolution? If nonviolent protesters remain in the posture of beseechers rather than as actors, they will remain supplicants, begging whoever steps into power for higher wages, more freedom, and a better life.

Autocratic regimes treat “their people” as subjects not citizens. Over generations, it’s easy to take that lesson to heart, to become a supplicant rather than one who with others creates a new world. Subjects may rise up nonviolently, but sustainable change won’t happen until subjects turn themselves into citizens.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. The people of the world need to read the work of George Lakey. His “Strategy for a Living Revolution” and his most recent update, “Powerful Peacemaking: A Strategy for a Living Revolution”. In both of his books, he lays out a 5 Stage Strategy For Nonviolent Revolution.” Sharpe layouts our brilliant tactics, and illustrates them with historical examples. And no doubt influenced the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts. What is lacking is parallel institutions and economy to really take control once the dictator steps down. That is what Lakey’s 5th Stage calls fall. We have seen his 4th stage, mass non cooperation and civil disobedience. We need to have alternative institutions to take over the rains of the government and the economy when we through the corporatists and their lackeys out. Check out Lakey’s company, “Training for Change”, where he has his “Manifesto for a Nonviolent Revolution” and the revision of “Revolution: A Quaker Prescription for a Sick Society” which was revised and expanded as “Moving Toward a New Society” both out of print but maybe the later on Amazon used, Inter Library Loan or at the Swarthmore College Library Peace Collection i PA.

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