Pillars of Power: How Ordinary People Can Bring Down a Government

October 23, 2014

How have regular people, again and again throughout history, overcome brutal authoritarian or colonial governments using only nonviolent weapons?

One of the most fundamental concepts behind how nonviolent action works is that every government – even the most dictatorial – relies on institutions and groups in society to provide them with the power they need in order to function. Influencing these “pillars of power” so they withdraw their support for a government creates enormous leverage for a movement.

Watch Tendor discuss (and illustrate!) Pillars of Power in a short new video:

In recent analysis of the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, civil resistance expert Maria J. Stephan emphasized the importance of reaching out to these institutions:

The mass protests in Hong Kong have featured tens of thousands — maybe even hundreds of thousands — of participants, spanning young and old, men and women, Christian, Taoist and Buddhist, white and blue collar workers. But who the protesters are matters just as much as how many of them there are, and right now, the democracy movement needs to attract support from key pillars in the business community that are either on the fence or currently supporting Beijing.

When citizens of the Philippines challenged the “crony capitalism” of the Ferdinand Marcos regime, they did so with the help of the business community from the powerful Makati financial district, and small and medium enterprises in Ukraine played a key role in sustaining the Maidan movement. A targeted consumer boycott of businesses most closely aligned with Beijing, combined with the creation of a “white list” of the most pro-democracy businesses in Hong Kong, is one way to create economic leverage.

Identifying what pillars are keeping a government in power or allowing it to continue the status quo, who the individuals or groups are who make up these pillars, and what their interests are is one of the most important steps toward waging successful nonviolent resistance campaigns. By influencing these critical institutions, a movement can erode their loyalty to a government, shifting the balance of power towards the resistance movement.

Read more about Pillars of Support in the Tibet movement here: (English) (བོད་ཡིག).