The Quiet Power of Everyday Resistance

Scholar Roger Mac Ginty’s Everyday Peace explores how acts of individual solidarity or noncompliance are vital in forging conciliation amid war and violence.

German Nazi SS troops guarding members of the Jewish resistance captured during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. (Photo by Universal History Archive / Getty Images)

By Francis Wade, The Nation, October 6, 2021

Most accounts of life in, say, Nazi Germany in the late 1930s or Rwanda in the early months of 1994—each a place and time when preparation for war and mass violence had begun to alter the granularity of the everyday—paint an image of large-scale conflict as totalizing. In Germany, even intimate relations became sites of preparation for war and domination. Parents were coerced and incentivized to bear more children, all part of Hitler’s drive to create a strong state, and decisions that before had been up to the individual now had to be made according to a new calculus that lay beyond the personal sphere. In Rwanda, so unrelenting were the efforts of Hutu Power ideologues to lay the groundwork for genocide by casting Tutsis as “foreign” and “threatening,” that ethnic identities took on new and lethal meaning, once daily cross-communal interaction had all but ceased, and civilians in their hundreds of thousands became killers. Both Germany and Rwanda are examples of how war and extreme violence are not invariably the work of trained fighters alone; rather, they can be mass participation projects that pull most everyone and everything into their orbit.

Yet the scattered stories of people who refused to fall into line, even as death became the price of nonconformity in both countries, tell us that conflict isn’t quite so all-consuming. Within something as apparently single-directional as a war or genocide, marginal space does exist in which small and private acts of resistance play out. Theorists of nationalism and state-building have long taken 1930s Germany as emblematic of how, given the right set of conditions, a murderous ideology can take hold among vast sections of society, such that millions of “ordinary people” either participate in, or turn a blind eye to, mass murder and its preparation. But there were those living under Nazi rule who refused to yield to party ideology: the families who hid Jewish children and their parents, or who quietly flouted the state-enforced boycott of Jewish-owned businesses; the German soldiers who refused to shoot unarmed civilians and POWs; the factory workers who acted to slow production of war matériel—or in Rwanda, the Hutus who quietly undertook rescue efforts at the peak of the 1994 killings.

Such “everyday” acts are too small to significantly alter the course of a war or genocide, and for that reason they tend to be ignored in analyses of how projects of mass state violence are either prevented or ended. But in focusing only on more formal, structural approaches to conflict resolution—amnesties, cease-fires, development programs, and more—are we missing a potentially important area of inquiry? Where, if at all, do lone acts of resistance fit within the larger story of how peace was returned to a fractured society?

The subject of “everyday resistance”—acts undertaken in a site of conflict or struggle that purposely make no public claim—remains puzzlingly understudied. Its most celebrated analysis, James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985), is the one that launched the field. Scott, a political scientist and Southeast Asianist, had undertaken ethnographic work in a small Malaysian farming community in the late 1970s, where he observed villagers using a range of techniques, many of them subtle—“foot-dragging,” “false compliance,” “feigned ignorance,” and more—to defend their interests “between revolts”: i.e., when not in direct confrontation with authority. His study, which focused on class struggle, brought the concept of “everyday resistance” into common use. Yet, save for a smattering of books and journal articles since that have examined the form in a range of fields—feminist, subaltern, queer, armed conflict—the degree of inquiry has remained light.

Part of the problem, as Roger Mac Ginty notes in his new book, Everyday Peace: How So-called Ordinary People Can Disrupt Violent Conflict, is that in a conflict setting in particular, the impact of such acts is difficult to measure through the prism of conventional peacebuilding. In the lull that follows the brokering of a cease-fire, for instance, warring sides can negotiate their claims, civilians can move about safely, and prospects for peace grow. That is measurable. But how exactly does buying bread from someone on the opposite side of a social divide, passing medicine to a family interned in a camp or ghetto or deliberately misfiring during an attack on an enemy position—acts of individual solidarity or noncompliance that disrupt the divisive logic of conflict—affect the overall course of events? How can a taxonomy of “impact” be developed when so much of everyday resistance purposefully refuses grand gestures and is therefore largely unseen?

Over a number of years, Mac Ginty, who lectures at Durham University in England and is the founder of the Everyday Peace Indicator project, has worked to open up this subfield within peace and conflict studies to deeper inquiry. Conflict prevention or resolution tends toward top-down approaches whose impact is visible from afar, and that can be influenced by forces not directly involved in a conflict. But, so Mac Ginty’s argument goes, the many bottom-up, pro-social acts that go on despite violence, or the threat of it, work away at the level at which violence can have an irreparably rupturing effect: the hyperlocal. Between neighbor and neighbor, small gestures, acts of kindness and empathy—a repertoire of behaviors and stances that Mac Ginty terms “everyday peace”—can change the “feel” of a locality, offer a vision of what could be, and, if circumstances allow, may have knock-on effects.

The “everyday” framework resists the simplification that power and authority lie chiefly with elites or armed men who enact the state’s agenda. Power is inside the home and the workplace as well; it is embedded in familial and neighborly relations. It takes varied forms: a soldier sparing the life of an enemy combatant, a parent encouraging a son to resist the call of peers to go and fight a boy from another religious group. And because certain types of conflict, like genocide, require the support or passivity of people at every social level, the “everyday” sees every space, from government offices down to the family dining room, as inherently political. Just as those spaces can be breeding grounds for violence, so too do opportunities lie within them to disrupt the rationales that drive violence. The everyday therefore doesn’t stop at statist, male forms of power but knows power to be complex, fluid, and in the hands of everybody.

When Scott wrote Weapons of the Weak, he was careful to hedge his inquiry with warnings of the limitations of such resistance. “It would be a grave mistake,” he wrote, “to overly romanticize the ‘weapons of the weak.’ They are unlikely to do more than marginally affect the various forms of exploitation that peasants confront.” Mac Ginty, for his part, acknowledges that skepticism of the overall effect of everyday peace acts is valid when perceived against the “tremendous structural power” of a conflict. But, he argues, it’s not at the structural level or in large-scale spaces—the state, the international—that these acts make themselves most keenly felt; rather, their value lies in their ability to scale outward, horizontally.

“The local,” he writes, is “part of a series of wider networks and political economies,” a micro-circuit nested in larger circuits. A small peace might be won with a seemingly insignificant or unintended event that, in the right context, takes on new meaning: a Protestant mother in Belfast during the Troubles watching a Catholic mother playing with her child, and seeing in that image a set of cross-cutting identities and needs—mother, child; act of nurture—that no amount of conflict can break. Or a small peace might have a multiplier effect. Accounts from the World War I trenches indicate that groups of soldiers, unbeknownst to their officers, had tacitly agreed to “low-fire zones” that were soon established elsewhere on the front line, thereby lowering the death toll of battle, if not changing the course of the war entirely.

Acts of solidarity, tolerance, and nonconformity, and other peace gestures, are important not because they stand much chance of ending a war but because they disturb a logic that feeds off of division, hatred, and fear, and that continues to do so even long after the physical violence has ceased. They might be, in Mac Ginty’s words, “the first and last peace”: the first, because they can undermine early attempts by political, religious, or ethnic elites to fissure communities; and the last, because they may remind polarized sides that the “enemy” is human, feels compassion, and has interests aligned with theirs. Such acts can quicken the healing and weaken the authority of those who, following violence, continue to manipulate fears and resentments to keep communities apart.

While compelling, this largely conceptual analysis might leave practitioners of more conventional peacebuilding questioning how it can be applied to real-world scenarios. Unlike cease-fires, prisoner swaps, and other strategies typically used when negotiating peace, these aren’t logical, ordered processes that can be engineered and followed by outside arbitrators; more often than not, they are spontaneous, silent, largely incoherent, and rarely connected sets of events that, if they do ripple out, do so organically, of their own accord. A practitioner flown in to Rwanda couldn’t have taken a group of Hutu extremists to sites where moderate Hutus were hiding Tutsis and recommend they follow suit, just as they would have been foolish to go to the home of a Rakhine family in western Myanmar at the height of the 2017 genocidal killings there and encourage them to mend relations with their Rohingya neighbors.

Those concerns may have some validity. Yet they illuminate a tendency, particularly among liberal Western NGOs and mediating bodies, to see opportunities for resolution only in forms that are both explicit and accessible to outsiders. In this reading, peace is imported to a site of conflict; it doesn’t emerge from within. The vehicle for its arrival is the state. Locals, meanwhile, lack the temperament or sophistication to negotiate peace on their own. They need outside help to save them from themselves.

This view, however, altogether elides the “local turn” in peacebuilding, which stresses that people on the ground in war-torn societies do in fact have agency, and that indigenous narratives hold the information required to develop effective outside interventions. Frameworks for peacebuilding that are crafted at a remove from the worldview of the actors involved, and that reflexively foreground the state as the ultimate arbiter of conflict, cannot possibly comprehend and incorporate the complex and ever-shifting local-level dynamics that shape and sustain violence.

But the local turn holds a value beyond this. It compels a closer look at the people themselves who become actors within a conflict. In doing so, it begins to humanize them once again, for better or for worse. If we’re to believe so many of the accounts of armed conflict and communal violence that appear in Western media outlets, especially those of the all-state wars and genocides of the late 20th century, they are events that split society into binaries: good and evil, in-group and out-group, victims and killers. As the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani wrote of lazy liberal depictions of mass violence, they turn complex polities into worlds “where atrocities mount geometrically, the perpetrators so evil and the victims so helpless that the only possibility of relief is a rescue mission from the outside.”

The fine-grained analysis that is the essence of the local turn, which Mac Ginty’s work over the past decade has done much to advocate, shows the error of such narratives. It draws out the many shades of humanity alive amid the wreckage, and tells us that individuals remain as mutable in wartime as they do during peace: They can do harm and do good, reinforce, and break down social divides, and they can project obedience to a violent authority while working quietly to undermine it. Through the “everyday” prism, actions undertaken by locals that might otherwise be dismissed as indicative of an abject powerlessness instead become demonstrations of forms of power unfamiliar to outside eyes.

 

 

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