Review: The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, And the Will of the People

THE UNCONQUERABLE WORLD: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People
By Jonathan Schell


Consider our historical moment: The United States has just invaded a country against the will of most of the world's people, proposes the right to attack preemptively any nation it views as a threat, possesses a military many times larger than any other nation, and is now returning to the production of nuclear weapons, with a focus on small, “usable” nuclear bombs. Nuclear weaponry has recently spread to as many as nine nations, and much of the world has in recent decades been convulsed by genocidal civil wars. Is this a moment to take seriously a book that proposes that violence is losing its effectiveness in deciding human affairs and that nonviolence is rising to take its place?

It is precisely the right moment, says Jonathan Schell in his persuasive new book. The Unconquerable World is one of those rare and satisfying books that build on carefully investigated details to reach sweeping historical explanations. His argument is not the pacifist one that violence is always wrong and ineffective and non-violence always superior. It is the more hard-headed, historical claim that as human power to wreak violence has reached new heights, its very power has undermined its capacity to achieve its own ends. Violence, once the final arbiter of political affairs, has ceased to carry certain political victory with it. There have to be people left to claim victory over, but in the 20th century modern warfare became total, unlimited in its destructive power. Total war yields plenty of corpses and chaos, but little power to rule. With the discovery of the nuclear bomb, war not only means huge numbers of people dead, but potentially the end of the entire human species and even of life on the planet.

This ultimate power is the result of four historical trends: science, industrialism, imper-ialism, and democracy. Science and industry created ultimate weaponry, imperialism drew the whole world into Europe's wars, and democracy pulled the commitment of entire peoples into war. But even as democracy increased war power, it also, Schell argues, fed the force that now, for the first time in history, can replace war as the arbiter of politics. This force is the “other superpower” that showed its 10-million-person face in the global anti-war protests this spring. Rather than nonviolence, he prefers to call this force “cooperative power.”

He prefers this term in part because he traces the development of cooperative power not only through the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but also through the brutal “people's wars” that overthrew imperial rulers. The Viet Cong and Mao, for example, were deeply violent, but it wasn't their violence that achieved their victories, for they were drastically overmatched in terms of military might. They won by uniting the will of the people. Violent as it has been, people's war introduces the notion that there is another force besides raw physical power that can be decisive in political struggle. Nonviolent action takes the idea to its logical conclusion by avoiding violence altogether, relying solely on cooperative force.

Schell is thorough. For each of his examples, a skeptic may object that the case for cooperative power has not been proved. But Schell always has another example to settle the charge. Perhaps you think that only democracies succumb to cooperative power. In the case of France's battle to hold Algeria, De Gaulle said that if his country had not been a democracy, but willing to use brutal “communist methods” like the Soviet Union, it could have kept its colony. But there is Afghanistan, or, a still stronger example, the collapse of the Soviet empire in the face of nonviolent activism. Perhaps you object that the Soviet empire in fact fell only because it was weakened militarily and economically. But there is Vietnam, where a Third World people successfully resisted the greatest military and economic power in the world. Schell even uncovers the hidden role of cooperative power and discounts the role of violence in Russia's communist revolution.

Schell weakens when he begins to advocate political structures to reduce violence and strengthen cooperative power throughout the globe. But he is on to deep issues. What form of world governance could succeed where the League of Nations and the United Nations failed, at preventing both international war and intra-national genocide and crimes against humanity, without becoming a terrifying and inescapable worldwide oppressor? The answer, Schell says, is that governing power—sovereignty—doesn't have to be all or nothing. Instead, as in the American system, various powers could be allocated to different structures.

Schell suggests the European Union as a nonthreatening model for the loose kind of international entity we should create, yet because he pays so little attention to economic democracy, he doesn't notice the dangers of this model. The European Union has boosted the power of global corporations at the expense of national welfare systems (in Finland, for example, where welfare programs and economic policies created the most equitable society in the world, that system has been threatened by EU austerity requirements).

Schell runs into worse difficulty when he tries to solve the problem of how to balance the rights of minorities against the right of a group to define its identity. Schell advocates “collective rights.” This is the idea that in addition to the classical rights of individuals, there are rights of racial or ethnic groups, such as “to speak one's own language, to control local schools, or to practice one's faith.” Consider that middle item in the context of the religious right's attempt in the U.S. to force schools to teach creationism and their successful takeover of many local school boards. Does the collective right to practice a faith mean not simply the freedom to practice one's religion privately, but the power to impose a religion on the public space? Attempts to impose versions of sharia (Islamic law), for example in the Sudan or recently in a province of Pakistan, involve terrible oppression of women, denying half the population the right to travel, to work, and to receive an education (and not to be stoned to death for adultery). The most important collective right is, all too often, the power to deny rights to women. Typically, collective rights mean the right of one segment of a collective to interpret their tradition and impose that interpretation on their community and everyone in the vicinity.

On the other hand, surely Canada is correct to support the right of its French-speaking minority to maintain their language; every Canadian wins by this measure, as it gives every Canadian the chance to be bilingual. In the U.S., English-only measures wrongly disenfranchise and disempower non-English speakers.

The mechanisms that would protect ethnic, racial, and cultural groups without infringing on individual liberties remain to be articulated. But Schell has pinpointed the problem behind many of our world's intractable conflicts and suggested a new way to begin thinking about international governance. His analysis of the history of warfare and the rise of cooperative power is the most enlightening explanation of our historical moment I have yet read. It is also a cause for reasoned hope, illuminating a way forward in these dark times.

Reviewer Carolyn McConnell is Senior Editor for YES!

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