What can the Wall teach us about the effectiveness of political action in general, and a hunger strike in particular?
The reason lies in the intersection between these quotes:
“What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
“The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
“It is incredible how as soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, … that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement.”
To begin we need to note that most of us have no idea how or why the Wall fell, or indeed why any historical political movements succeeded or failed. Oh sure, we know that people mobilized and marched and did things like protest and boycott and what not, but how did that lead to anything changing? and why?
We learn nothing from history because we forget our history, if indeed we ever knew it. One thing is certain, contrary to the popular myth believed by some, the Wall did not fall because US President Ronald Reagan told Soviet President Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
If we look at some archival footage of the news on Nov 9, 1989 we find it is fairly typical of “news.”
“What can I say about journalism? It has the greatest virtue and the greatest evil. It is the first thing a dictator controls. It is the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap. In many cases it is the only history we have and yet it is the tool of the worst men.”
While the news story includes some explanation of the events in terms of government decisions and the subsequent flood of people to the border crossings, there is no context, no information as to why people made those decisions. Not only is that not explained, it is entirely absent in the sense that there is no suggestion that it might be relevant.
I underscore this to make the point that the news is presented within the frame of a particular world view, that of top down power. Things happen because governments decide. Governments may be influenced by the people, but the government decides.
In fact, while the East German government was one of the key players in the events that led to the fall of the Wall, it was not “the one deciding.” The following “Moments in History” short documentary gives us a fuller picture, including the extent to which the East German government was swept along by events, but it is still incomplete.
The documentary starts with “Tens of thousands of East Germans fled thier country through the border between Hungary and Austria.” OK, how did that happen? and why didn’t the East German Government stop it? Have we really learned so much more?
It would take many, many volumes to thoroughly explain all of the significant factors that lead up to Nov 1989, particularly as it includes all of the Soviet Union, the entire Cold War, and so on. Volumes, and I am not going to pretend to do it in a blog post.
I will acknowledge the vastness of it, and condense it into the observation that there was considerable popular discontent in the Eastern Bloc, encouraged by an active pro-democracy movement which had been engaging in multiple forms of political action for decades (and suffered severe repression for it). This set the stage for
“In August 1989, his [Hungarian Prime Minister Nemeth] government granted local democracy activists permission to organize a symbolic event on the border near Sopron – a “pan-European picnic,” in which they would share food, drink, and declarations of cooperation with their Austrian neighbors. A rural border gate would be opened for just three hours to allow approved delegates to pass through.
… ultimately allowing 600 East Germans to escape into Austria.
…Nemeth has said his government quickly decided they would soon open the border altogether, allowing the remaining 60,000 East Germans to leave … The mass escape after Sept. 10 encouraged more East Germans – most of them young, skilled, and educated – to flee their country in the coming weeks and months.
Some points I want to underscore:
1) It was a symbolic political action that triggered the subsequent events. It could not have happened without numerous government decisions and actions, but they in turn were influenced by peoples political action, which were in turn … etc.
2) No one really knows what is going to happen. As the article repeatedly notes, the leaders often had no idea what ramifications and consequences their decisions and actions would have.
Neither did the activists.
As noted before, success in political movements almost always catches everyone by surprise. We all make the best decisions we can based on the information that we have, but that’s as good as it gets.
3) This picnic was merely the last straw that started what in hind sight was an inevitable chain of events. The picnic would not have worked 10 years, one year, or even one month earlier.
There was nothing particularly significant about this particular action other than it being yet another one of many. It takes thousands, if not tens of thousands of such actions to create success.
4) Had the picnic not triggered events as it did, it still would have been yet another straw setting the stage for some other event that would act as a trigger. As political action this picnic was no more “successful” than all of the other actions that contributed to creating the tensions and dynamics of August 1989. Had it not been the trigger, it would have been no less “successful” as political action. It would still have made it’s contribution towards achieving the ultimate goal.
Will a hunger strike make a difference?
Some of our difficulty in political movements stems from several confusions and misunderstandings that we have about power and politics. We tend to ask “Will it make a difference? when we really mean “will it make the difference” ie will it be some sort of ultimate trigger to change?
Will a hunger strike make a difference? Done properly, absolutely! without any question at all (more as to why below).
Will it make the difference? No one can know, but almost certainly not. Nonetheless it, and all of the other actions, are needed to create the conditions necessary for some action to “make the difference.”
No one action can make the difference until many actions have made a difference; we know that for certain.
Will it be effective?
Another confusion we tend to have is between things that are “effective”, ie contribute to achieving our goals, and things that “have an effect” ie we can see a reaction and hence know that we influenced the system somehow.
This is the heart of many of the violence vs non-violence arguments that go on within movements. Too often the advocates of violence do so because it is clear that it has “an effect”, although the question that needs to be asked is whether it is actually “effective.”
A simple example might be that of having a dispute with your neighbour over some issue such as a straying pet. Screaming abuse, threats and physically attacking them will “have an effect” when hours of discussion seems to have accomplished nothing, but is it effective?
In most cases you will only get their cooperation until they can call the police or fetch a weapon.
Which is why paradoxically the actions that seem to have the greatest effect are often the least effective, and vice versa.
To some extent the term “symbolic action” is misleading in that we think it means action that is symbolic rather than actual. In reality it means actions that involve or use symbols, but are real actions nonetheless. We misunderstand this because we think some actions “force” institutions and individuals to do something, whereas other actions merely attempt to influence them.
In reality you cannot force anyone to do anything, you can merely influence them. Certainly you can do extreme things to them, such as threaten, torture, maim, kill etc, but ultimately they decide whether they will cooperate or not. Granted these sorts of extreme action (or the threat of them) are very powerful influences, but that does not change the fact that it is ultimately their decision whether to cooperate or not.
Threats will not force or influence someone who is not afraid of pain or dying. A boycott or strike is not a threat to someone who does not care if they go out of business, so it cannot “force” them to do anything, and so on.
The effectiveness of the action is determined by how the ‘other’ feels’ about it. The effectiveness of any and all political action is determined by the psychological impact that it has, not the form that the action takes or whether “the effect” is highly visible.
All forms of political action are tools. It is meaningless to talk of one or another being better or worse without a context, just as you cannot say that a saw is better or worse than a hammer. They are equally useful or useless depending on the job that needs to be done and the skill of the person wielding them.
The specific dynamics of how and why a hunger strike works will have to wait for another post. Suffice to say that a hunger strike is not necessarily any more or less effective than any more or less effective than any other form of political action.
Can a hunger strike bring about climate sanity? No, no more than a picnic could topple the Berlin Wall and end the Cold War …
“Since 1982, spring in East Asia (defined here as the eastern third of China and the Korean Peninsula) has been warming at a rate of one degree Fahrenheit per decade.” Earth Gauge
We give our consent every moment that we do not resist.
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