Swans Commentary » swans.com July 26, 2010  



From Sharp To Lovins
Elite Reform as Progressive Social Change


by Michael Barker





"Think, if you were in the CIA or KGB, how you'd go about infiltrating, controlling, manipulating or disrupting a social defence organisation. The very easiest way would be infiltrating or corrupting the people at the centre of the organisation."
—Brian Martin, 1993. (1)


(Swans - July 26, 2010)   In 1987, the Australian-based magazine Social Alternatives, with the support of an International Year of Peace Award "for $1,500 from the Australian Government," dedicated two issues to the theme of peace and disarmament. Edited by Ralph Summy, the second issue in this series focused specifically on "Nonviolent Political Action" and included an article written by one of the leading theorists of nonviolence, Professor Gene Sharp -- who at the time of writing the article was the president of the Albert Einstein Institution and was head of the Program on Nonviolent Sanctions in Conflict and Defense at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs. (2) However, of more relevance to this article was an indirect critique of Gene Sharp's work that followed on from Sharp's own Social Alternatives piece. Titled "Social Defence: Elite Reform or Grassroots Initiative?," the author of this article was anarchist researcher, Professor Brian Martin, a well-known theorist of nonviolence, who has in more recent years joined the academic advisory board of the imperialist International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. (Social defence refers to the idea of "nonviolent civilian resistance to aggression using methods such as strikes, noncooperation, demonstrations and alternative institutions, as an alternative to military defence.")

In his excellent Social Alternative article Martin argues "that relying on elites to introduce social defence is both unreliable and also undercuts its potential to challenge the roots of war." And he informs us how "Gene Sharp is the best example of an advocate of social defence who aims his arguments at governmental and military elites." Despite the clear difference of opinion between Martin and Sharp, Martin doesn't think that activists should steer clear of Sharp's work, as he is quick to point out that "Sharp's scholarship and writing is extremely valuable" and he "routinely recommend[s] it to many people." Nevertheless, he continues, "that does not provide any reason to refrain from 'friendly criticism' of some of his underlying assumptions."

While I have argued that Sharp's work provides vital succor to liberal imperialists, Martin is far more forgiving. Thus despite Sharp's location within the heart of the imperial establishment (at Harvard University, see footnote 2), Martin writes: "Sharp assumes that the reason for present military policies is that people, both policy makers and the general population, lack knowledge or awareness that there is a viable alternative defence policy without the extreme dangers of nuclear deterrence." In Martin's mind Sharp must be suffering from a "lack of knowledge or awareness" of imperialism's mechanisms: as Martin writes that, "[i]t is not feasible to dismantle the military system of organised potential for violence without also undermining the dominant power structures within states, including the power of capitalists in the West and of communist parties in the East."

Either way, despite his expert knowledge of people power and nonviolent resistance strategies, Sharp believes that it would be a good thing if governments brought in social defence as a reform, even though he recognizes "that governments might adopt social defence measures to 'mollify' a strong peace movement." How the co-optation of a strong peace movement would be a step forward is hard to imagine. As is well-known to all progressive activists, but not to Sharp, "The history of social movements shows that popular action is the key to social change, not the logical arguments of experts with the ear of elites." Indeed, as Martin notes, if social defence were to be incorporated into elite reforms many problems would result, for instance:

Although popular participation is intrinsic to the operation of social defence, participation can be either organised and designed by those participating or manipulated and controlled from above. Elite-sponsored social defence could well be organised and run by a professional corps of experts and leaders, with the populace entering in according to the plans and directions of the professionals.

Likewise, if social defence were adopted by elites, Martin suggests it would become "integrated with other methods of defence, including continuation of military defence." This is clearly not the type of outcome that would be promoted by an anti-capitalist grassroots approach to social change (or even by most peace activists), as such changes "would preempt more radical initiatives for popularly organised social defence." This would be similar to the way "that demands for workers' control have been partially coopted by limited forms of worker participation, and demands for women's liberation have been partially coopted by promoting some women into high positions within otherwise unchanged institutions." Moreover, in Martin's mind it is critical to note that:

Social defence which is organised by professionals for national defence as a supplement to military defence could actually serve to contain popular action for social change. The military establishment, through its influence over social defence plans and knowledge of avenues for popular action, might find itself more able to control the populace.

This certainly does not sound like a good thing; yet this appears to be exactly the type of approach that is being encouraged by the likes of nonviolent training centers like the Albert Einstein Institution and the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, which work closely with leading imperial elites based at the National Endowment for Democracy and the Council on Foreign Relations. Martin concludes his article by saying: "It would be especially ironic if social defence, which by its nature is ideally designed for grassroots initiatives, were to become another captive and casualty of elite policy-making." Sadly this accurately describes what has been happening for years.

Gene Sharp says that serious consideration of social defence "is more likely to be advanced by research, policy studies, and strategic analyses of its potential than by a 'campaign' being launched advocating its immediate adoption." Sharp's view is flawed on two counts. First, activists who campaign for social defence do not demand its "immediate adoption," but rather foresee a gradual but punctuated process, just as Sharp does. Second, and more serious in its implications, is Sharp's view that research is more useful than "campaigns." Sharp clearly wants to distance himself from the peace movement and, indeed, hardly mentions it in his book. His concern is with policy studies and policymakers.

Yet, in the face of the massive shortcomings of Sharp's work, Martin contends that his "writings are immensely valuable to social activists, who will continue to read and refer to his work even if he does not consider their activities worthy of mention." On this point I would care to disagree. I think that instead of relying on the writings of a liberal imperialist to inform their actions, activists would be better off taking the useful parts of Sharp's work (i.e., his detailed descriptions of types of nonviolent actions) and embedding them in an explicitly anti-capitalist reference text. This radical and revolutionary text could then be distributed worldwide, and progressive activists could begin raising awareness about why elite research institutions, like Harvard, are so intent on studying the dynamics of revolutionary social change.

Here it is important to learn from similar examples of intellectuals who have opted to align themselves with elite rather than grassroots activists, and Martin himself provides the example of "the energy debate in the late 1970s." He writes:

Amory Lovins provided a powerful indictment of conventional energy planning and an eloquent case for a "soft energy path" based on energy efficiency and an increased use of renewable energy technologies. Lovins argued his case in terms of physics and economics and eschewed arguing on the basis of social and political grounds. Like Sharp, Lovins argued in terms of pragmatism rather than morals or social action. But as the "alternative energy movement" encountered the enormous difficulties of opposing entrenched interests and became partially co-opted into government programmes, the impetus towards the soft energy path faded.

Martin refers to a longer critique -- of the "friendly" variety -- that he made of Lovins's elite-orientated reformism that was titled "Soft Energy, Hard Politics" (published by Undercurrents in 1978). Not surprisingly, "Lovins more or less explicitly adopts the value system of top decision-makers (especially in chapter 2 [of his book], which originally appeared in Foreign Affairs, an impeccably establishment journal), so as to expose inconsistencies in their position and not disturb them with threatening changes in social structure."

Moving to the present, it is now clear that Lovins is a leading proponent of neoliberal conservation strategies, having in recent years authored (with Paul Hawken and L. Hunter Lovins) one of the most important books in this field, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Little, Brown, 1999). As a result of such scholarship, Lovins now works closely with the Pentagon to improve the war machine's ecological footprint, and sitting on the board of directors of Lovins's green think-tank, the Rocky Mountain Institute, is none other than Suzanne Woolsey -- the wife of the former head of the CIA. Fittingly, Suzanne's husband, R. James Woolsey, sits on the advisory board of American Abroad Media where he serves alongside a former board member of the Albert Einstein Institution, and the founder and chair of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, Peter Ackerman.

One might also add that Peter Ackerman is a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations, whose main publication is the aforementioned journal Foreign Affairs; while Lovins's colleague Suzanne Woolsey is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition to being the former head of the CIA, Suzanne's husband happens to have also been a signatory of a letter written by his friends at the Project for a New American Century, and he served as the former chair of Freedom House before being replaced by Ackerman. This should not be taken as a demonstration of a massive conspiracy, but is simply evidence that imperial elites are clued up on the best ways to co-opt critical voices.

There is no doubt that Brian Martin's gentle criticisms of liberal intellectuals has been useful for the progressive community, but I would argue that anti-capitalist researchers (like Martin) need to be more conscious and openly critical of the regularity with which the scholarship of well-intentioned writers is brought into the service of capitalism and imperialism. Such trends are by no means accidental. Therefore, closely scrutinizing the main funders of such apparently well-meaning scholars would be a start. Thankfully, this has already been done, and there are ample critiques of the natural pro-capitalist funding proclivities of liberal foundations. What now needs to be done, with some urgency I might add, is for progressive activists to work to raise awareness of these issues within their own communities. This will not be easy given the depths to which liberal foundations have insinuated their way into the heart of progressive activism, but it must be done all the same.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Brian Martin, Social Defence, Social Change (Freedom Press, 1993), p.143.  (back)

2.  Editorial Collective, "Message from the Editorial Collective," Social Alternatives, 6 (2), April 1987, p.2.

For criticism of the work of the Albert Einstein Institution, see "Sharp Reflection Warranted: Nonviolence in the Service of Imperialism." After completing his doctoral studies at Oxford University (UK) in 1968 (under the supervision of Professor John Plamenatz) Sharp returned to the United States where he worked as a research fellow at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (1965-72). Edward Berman points out that the Center for International Affairs was one of the " most important" research centers supported by the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations during this period. "Individuals associated with Harvard's Center for International Affairs over the years have included Robert R. Bowie, head of the State Department's policy planning staff, Henry A. Kissinger, secretary of state in the Nixon administration; McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor to presidents Kennedy and Johnson and later Ford Foundation president; and James A. Perkins, vice-president of the Carnegie Corporation and a director of the Rockefeller's Chase Manhattan Bank." Edward Berman, The Influence of the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations on American Foreign Policy: The Ideology of Philanthropy (State University of New York Press, 1983), p.102, p.103. (For my summary/review of this book, see here.)  (back)


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Published July 26, 2010