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Nonviolence and Power

»The state is a social relationship, a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e., by people relating to one another differently.«— Gustav Landauer1


Nonviolent movements or campaigns aim to change society – or even for revolution. In doing so, they will most likely come up against existing power structures which do want to prevent the change. An understanding of power – of different forms of power – is therefore crucial for any movement for social change.

Most people have some assumptions about power. The power lies with the government (which may or may not be democratically elected), with the large multinational corporations, with the media, with the international institutions – to name just a few. All of these answers are true to some degree, but how is it their power is exercised? Where does it come from?

This article aims to explore a nonviolent understanding of power, and the forms of power nonviolence opposes, but also the forms of power it wants to build and nurture. Because power is needed to achieve social change – revolutionary change. And clarity about the kinds of power we object to, and the kinds of power we want, can help to avoid a “power-trap” of recreating structures of domination after toppling the powers-that-are.

A nonviolent theory of power

When we talk about power, we most often refer to what can be called power-over: the power of governments or corporations (or other power structures, such as patriarchy or heteronormatism) to impose on us what they see fit.

But power-over is only one form of power. There are several others, and most commonly used categorisations of other types of power includes power-with, power-(in-relation)-to, and power-within2.

Power-within: Power-within is related to a persons sense of self-worth and self-knowledge. It is also the capacity to imagine and have hope. It means on one hand to realise one's own situation of adjusting, dependency and oppression, to want to free oneself from this; on the other hand it means to realise that every person him/herself has the possibility, to influence the course of her/his own life and to change it. To develop and realise one's power-within is crucial in any empowerment process.

Power-with is related to finding common ground among different people and building collective strength. An awareness develops not to be the only one effected by a situation, but that others make the same experience too. This can lead to the realisation that not oneself personally bears the guilt for her/his fate, but that often a structural or political pattern is at work. This realisation and cooperation in the group can strengthen the self-esteem. Not everybody has to find ways for her/himself to deal with the situation, but it is possible to struggle jointly for change. The group provides the opportunity to join skills and knowledge, to support each other. Campaigns and movements can be developed further, even if some activists drop out, because other things became more important for them.

Power-with is related to the power of numbers, to the collective power we build when joining together with others, forming organisations, networks, and coalitions.

Power-(in-relation)-to refers to our goals and to the dominant power relationships. It is the power to achieve certain ends and opens up the possibilities of joint action for change.3 The question is: What leverage do we have, working in groups and coalitions, against the entrenched corporate and political power?4

Any nonviolent movement needs to set into motion empowerment processes that develop these types of power, in order to challenge what is usually understood when we talk about power: power-over.

Challenging power-over

Power-over – or just power – as understood by most nonviolent movements is nothing static. A government doesn't just have power because it is the government – even if it is a military dictatorship. The person or group of persons in power – governments – have in themselves no more power than any other human being. If that is the case, then, as Gene Sharp points out, the power to rule must come from outside of the person (or group of persons).5

Sources of power

If power is not intrinsic to political elites, then it has to be based on external sources. These external sources include authority (the acceptance by people of the elite's right to command), human resources (the elite's supporters, with their knowledge and skills), intangible factors (such as psychological considerations and ideological conditioning), material resources, and the type and extent of sanctions at the disposal of those in power. These sources of power, in turn, depend on the obedience and cooperation of the people. The relationship between command and obedience is an interactive one, and power-over can be exercised only with the active or passive compliance of those being ruled. Or, as Sharp puts it: “A closer examination of the sources of the ruler’s power will indicate that they depend intimately upon the obedience and cooperation of the subjects.6

It would be over-simplistic to say that people obey only because of the fear of sanctions – legal sanctions such as fines or imprisonment, the threat of violence, or death. While this might be the dominant reason in extremely violent dictatorships, generally other reasons for compliance are more important. Habit (or tradition) is possibly an even more important reason – we are used to obey (generally), and without being challenged about it we do not see any reason not to.

A third reason might be called “moral obligation”: because of social or religious values in society we feel morally (not necessarily legally) obliged to obey, to not divert from the accepted norms and paths within society. This is also linked to “hidden-power” (see below),

Often, cooperating with power might also be in our own interest. We might gain from it – in terms of prestige, monetary benefits, or we might gain a little more power too.

We might also identify with those in power, and therefore obey, or we might just not see the issue as important.

And lastly, we might lack self-confidence and just feel powerless (a lack of power-within).

This is not to say that it is always easy to disobey. We are part of a web of (power) relationships and structures that often – seemingly – leave us little choice but to obey. How can we disobey capitalism, when we need to earn money to satisfy our basic needs? While complete disobedience might not always be possible, there are often different degrees of compliance with the demands of power-over, which can be used to develop resistance.

A social movement aiming for social change – and not just for replacing one government with another – needs to address these reasons for compliance with power-over in order to challenge the power relationships, and build different types of power as a social movement.

Visible, invisible, and hidden power

It can be useful to look at power-over also from a different perspective, which are in some way related to the sources of power. These can be called “dimensions” or “levels” of power-over.

Visible power

Power-over can be very visible. This includes the formal rules (constitutions, laws) which might establish relationships of power-over, structures, etc. But it also includes the threat of sanctions, either legal sanctions or a commonly known threat of arbitrary detentions, torture, etc, which are designed to prevent people from claiming their rights.

Hidden power

Power-over can also be hidden, in the sense that no obvious, visible decisions need to be made which would expose the power. One example is the power of agenda setting: which issues are worth discussing in a society, at the place where decisions are being made. Who decides about this? This can be related to controlling the media (which plays an important role in agenda setting), but also to deciding who will be involved in discussing certain issues, and in taking formal decisions. While the process of decision making itself might seem democratic, power-over is exercised by keeping issues off the agenda or excluding those most affected from taking part in decision making.

Invisible power

Power-over can also be completely invisible. It is kept from the mind and consciousness even of those most affected by it. By influencing how individuals think about their place in the world, this level of power-over contributes to shaping people's beliefs, sense of self, and acceptance of their supposed superiority or inferiority.7

In many ways, invisible power is closely related to what Johan Galtung calls “cultural violence”8, which serves as legitimisation of both personal and structural violence, or the existence of power-over. As VeneKlasen and Miller put it: “Processes of socialisation, culture and ideology perpetuate exclusion and inequality by defining what is normal, acceptable, and safe.” This contributes to creating what Sharp calls the “moral obligation” to obey (see above).

Patriarchy in societies where it is still almost unchallenged and therefore widely accepted can be seen as a form of invisible power. Heteronormatism or the binary gender systems are other examples of invisible power-over.

Social empowerment – nurturing the power we want

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.
Alice Walker

As movements for social change, which are distinct from political parties (which might want to get into government) we are not interested in acquiring power-over, but rather in limiting it. First and foremost, through empowerment we need to develop power-within each one of us, which is a prerequisite for developing power-with and power-(in-relation)-to.

These three types of power influence and strengthen each other. The desire to achieve certain aims (power-to) can foster the power to act and join with others (power-with). And the group passes passes on power to the individual (power-within) – and the other way round.

In order to develop these kinds of power, we need to make sure our work facilitates empowerment processes. These processes often begin out of an experience of crisis, of a change in personal circumstances, which can lead to the realisation that one has to take responsibility for ones own life, and the desire for change. In joining with others in a similar situation or with similar interests, people begin to realise that they are not alone, and in acting together with others gain yet more confidence. With more experience, people get a better understanding of the structural causes of their problems, but also begin to challenge their assigned positions in personal life and within the group.

Finally, one might reach a stage Wolfgang Stark calls “burning patience”9, paraphrasing from a poem by Arthur Rimbaud: “And, in the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities”. This stage is characterised by an awareness of one's capacity to make change happen (together with others) and a burning desire to do so, but combined with an understanding of the time required for empowerment processes and generally social change, and the patience needed to facilitate and nurture empowerment processes in others.

These stages should not be seen as linear, but rather are intertwined and can occur in parallel.

A group culture facilitating empowerment is characterised by the possibility to gain new skills, fostering of social relations, sharing of competences and decision making (e.g. by consensus) and an open leadership structure10. Our groups and organisations need to be at the same time empowering organisations – that is organisations that nurture empowerment processes among their members or activists – and empowered organisations, focusing on making use of power-to to achieve their campaigning objectives.


This text will be part of the second, revised edition of War Resisters' International's Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns, to be published in autumn 2014.

Thanks to Andrew Dey, Joanne Sheehan, and Cattis Laska for helpful comments on this text. 



1Gustav Landauer: Revolution and other writings: A political reader. Edited and Translated by Gabriel Kuhn. Merlin Press 2010

2See, for example: Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller: A New Weave of Power, People & Politics. The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation. Practical Action Publishing, 2002

3See: Julia Kraft and Andreas Speck: Nonviolence and Social Empowerment. 2001, http://www.wri-irg.org/archive/nvse2001/nvse/nvse-2-en.htm

4Howard Clark: More power than we know. Peace News No 2422, February 1998

5Gene Sharp: Social Power and Political Freedom, Porter Sargent Publishers, Boston, 1980

6Gene Sharp: The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part One: Power & Struggle, Porter Sargent Publishers, Boston, 1973

7Lisa VeneKlasen with Valerie Miller: A New Weave of Power, People & Politics. The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation. Practical Action Publishing, 2002

8Johan Galtung, “Cultural Violence,” Journal of Peace Research 27 (1990): 291–305.

9Wolfgang Stark: Empowerment – neue Handlungskompetenzen in der psychosozialen Praxis. Freiburg, 1996

10See: Julia Kraft and Andreas Speck: Nonviolence and Social Empowerment. 2001, http://www.wri-irg.org/archive/nvse2001/nvse/nvse-2-en.htm

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Article | by Dr. Radut