This unconquerable world – power, nonviolence, and hope

Joanthan Schell’s “The Unconquerable World: power, nonviolence, and the will of the people” is a profoundly hopeful book. Schell analyses power and looks at the history of the world and of the war system. He shows that nonviolent people power, in the long-run, truly is mightier than force and Empire. Some brief notes follow.

First caveat: I read the book some time ago now, so this is not a review so much as my recollection now of the main messages I got out of it. Second and third caveats: I can’t in brief convey the persuasiveness of the range of historical examples Mr Schell lines up in support of his argument, nor can I convey the “ah-ha” feeling I got as certain of those historical events made full sense to me for the first time in the light of the facts and perspective he provides. Fourth caveat: there is much more in this book than my brief reflections here will portray.

Two major trends in history:
1. War system/arms race – the imperatives of which generate ever more extreme capacity for violence and force, culminating in nuclear weapons/weapons of mass destruction, which contain such extreme force they could destroy human civilisation, and, particularly when locked in a balance of power, are limited to a veto power as no sane decision-maker would choose to use them (even if they might not be able to admit that publicly).
2. The rise of people power – ruling increasingly requires the (non-violently gained) consent of the governed. Conventional armies can win wars, but ultimately they can’t win peace, they can’t ensure the ability to govern effectively. That requires a substantial degree of consent. This is particularly true where conflicts are tied up with nationalism and cultural identity. In the long-run, true of all systems. Soviet system collapsed because it had no consent, the rulers lost the will to rule without consent (it is hard work to rule without consent).

Conclusions as they apply to the current world situation:
1. The fantasy of world domination held by the current US administration is just that – a fantasy. Even if the fantasists wet-dream (and everyone else’s nightmare) of domination from the ultimate high-ground of space occurs, governance on a global scale is impossible without global consent, and that cannot be gained by force. The reality is that the U.S. is barely capable of holding even Iraq against its will.
2. Unfortunately, the U.S. is capable of causing untold deaths and human misery over a period of decades if it fails to perceive the lessons of history and tries to live out its domination fantasy.

An important conclusion for activists:
1. Much of the time, in seeking to achieve change, it is more effective for activists not to aim at “the heights of state power” but to look at the world around them, to “live in truth” and seek to achieve “immediate local improvement of life” through a constructive programme: or, in other words, to work in, and to enrich, civil society. The more absolute and totalitarian are the systems you are working to change, the more essential and effective this approach is. The weaker civil society is, the more important this strategy is.

The big question:
1. What do we do about global governance?
1.1 It is sorely needed to deal with issues on a global scale – like climate change, energy security, and food security – and to contain our capacities for self-destruction with WMDs (well – let’s be blunt at this point: to contain the danger that the United States government currently poses to all other states and peoples and to its own people).
1.2 And yet how would we make it effective and contain the risk of the world government itself becoming a tyranny? It would need the ability to enforce its decisions. World police? World army? How would we make it a consent based organisation given the size of the world, and the fact many governments don’t meet even fairly basic ‘democratic’ standards? How would we protect the rights of small nations? How would we reconcile such divergent interests and human values as exist?

Certainly a challenge. But I would argue it is do-able:

1. Principle of minimalism. Make (and enforce) decisions on as few issues as possible.
2. Principle of subsidiarity. Make all decisions as low down the chain as is feasible.
3. Federal structure? This is the most common human solution to protection of minority and regional interests within a unified system.
4. Overlapping sovereignty. Learn to work within and accept systems where bases of power are not absolute.
5. Building trust. Requires rich and powerful nations to act in accordance with international law and begin to make decisions in the global interest. Requires, at minimum, a commitment to and action to eradicate extreme poverty while tackling major environmental problems.

“The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People” Jonathan Schell (Owl Books) 2003

…shall the world, at long last, say its farewell to arms? …. …the obstacles are mountainous…the temptations of violence, including the longing for revenge, power, or loot…still grip the imagination;…the quandries facing peacemakers confound the best minds;…in many parts of the world growing scarcity and ecological ruin add new desperation to the ancient war of all against all;…that the dream of dominion holds fresh allure in the counsels of the powerful,…[and] hardly a single step toward peace takes place without almost superhuman tenacity and sacrifice. ….I shall contend, nevertheless, that quiet but deep changes…have expanded the boundaries of the possible. Arms and man have both changed in ways that, even as they imperil the world as never before, have created a chance for peace that is greater than ever before. (p.10)


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