Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Whatever Happened to Social Defence?

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Whatever Happened to Social Defence?

Article excerpt

A potential alternative to military defence is nonviolent action by civilians, using methods such as protests, strikes, boycotts and winning over opponent troops. In the 1980s there were groups in several countries advocating and promoting this option, but subsequently it faded from view even within the peace movement. Meanwhile, nonviolent action has become a more prominent and acknowledged method, especially for challenging repressive governments, as illustrated by the events in Serbia, Georgia, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Why has nonviolent defence disappeared from the agenda while other uses of nonviolent action have thrived? One explanation is that challenging particular rulers is less threatening to the systems of state and corporate power than is an alternative that empowers the people. Converting military defence into civilian-based systems potentially undermines all types of rule and is thus far more radical.


Imagine a country where the people decide to get rid of military forces. Instead, they organise themselves to defend their freedoms without any weapons, by using methods such as protests, boycotts, strikes and sit-ins. They develop skills in foreign languages and persuasion to be able to talk to any foreign troops and win them over. They develop secure communication systems to be able to interact with each other as well as internationally. They prepare factories and farms so they can be shut down if an invader tries to take them over. They adopt decentralised systems of energy and water so the population cannot be held to ransom. They make strong connections with anti-war and pro-democracy groups in other countries, encouraging them to prepare to oppose any aggressive actions by their own governments.

The idea of defending a population without using violence was sparked by examples of popular nonviolent resistance to oppression. In the 1850s and 1860s, Hungarians used a range of methods of noncooperation to resist domination by the Austrian empire, and eventually succeeded (Csapody and Weber 2007). From 1898 to 1905, Finnish people used nonviolent means to resist Russian domination (Huxley 1990). In the first half of the 1900s, Gandhi led struggles in South Africa and India that inspired people around the world about the possibilities for opposing oppression using methods of nonviolent action (Brown 1987; Dalton 1993). If government repression can be successfully resisted without violence, then why not defend against military attack using the same sorts of methods?

Bertrand Russell wrote about defence without violence in 1915, and others expressed similar ideas (de Ligt 1937). Beginning in the 1950s, several writers, researchers and pacifist groups developed these ideas more systematically (e.g., Boserup and Mack 1974; Ebert 1968; Galtung 1958; Roberts 1967). For example, Stephen King-Hall, a former British naval officer, proposed that Britain, to defend parliamentary democracy and the British way of life against a possible Soviet invasion, get rid of its own military forces and instead prepare to defend nonviolently (King-Hall 1958).

In the 1980s, in response to an increased threat of nuclear war in Europe, a massive peace movement emerged and became influential in much of the world. The nuclear threat also inspired greater interest in nonviolent alternatives to military systems. The Green Party in Germany took up the concept promoted by Theodor Ebert (1981) and made this part of its platform. Activist groups in several countries studied and promoted nonviolent defence. In the Netherlands, there were a dozen groups, some of them looking at specific contributions to resistance, for example by public servants. In the US, the Civilian-Based Defense Association promoted nonviolent alternatives to the military. In Australia, Canberra Peacemakers interviewed tradespeople, public servants and others about methods for resisting a coup or attack (Quilty et al. 1986). The Swedish and Norwegian peace movements were active on the issue (Johansen 1990), and the Swedish government included social defence as part of its system called 'total defence', which includes military, civil and psychological defence. …

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