Overcoming Oppression With Power

Morton Deutsch

March 2005

Power Strategies

Apart from resigning into depression, what can a low power group do when the dominant group is unwilling to negotiate a change in the status quo? Basically, there is only the possibility of increasing its relative power sufficiently to compel the other to negotiate. Relative power is increased by either of two means: enhancing one's own power or decreasing the other's power.

Enhancing Ones Own Power

As I have indicated in earlier essays, empowerment involves

1. increasing one's possession of the resources on which power is based and

2. increasing the effectiveness with which the power is used.

There are three areas in which those with low power can find additional resources:

1. within one's self or group;

2. within potential allies; and

3. within the oppressor.

Nelson Mandela in his autobiographical book, Long Walk to Freedom, provides many illustrations of how he did this, even when he was a prisoner of the repressive, apartheid South African government.[1]

Developing Power Within One's Self or One's Group

By exerting considerable self-discipline while he was a prisoner, Mandela kept himself in excellent physical and mental condition. He stated that when he was a prisoner on Robben Island, the notorious prison island, "On Monday through Thursday, I would do stationary running in my cell in the morning for up to forty-five minutes. I would also perform one hundred fingertip push-ups, two hundred sit-ups, fifty deep knee-bends and various other calisthenics."[2] He kept himself in good shape mentally by reading widely, by becoming an informed expert on the laws and regulations concerning the treatment of prisoners, and by studying for an L.L.B. degree at the University of London.

And he kept his self undistorted by preserving his dignity and refusing to submit, psychologically, to the definition of self that the oppressors tread to force upon him. For example, he described the following incident after landing on Robbens Island:

"We were met by a group of burly white wardens shouting: "Dis die Eiland! Hier gaan jiell vrek! (This is the island! Here you will die!)... As we walked toward the prison, the guards shouted "Two - two! Two -- two! -- meaning we should walk in pairs... I linked up with Tefu. The guards started screaming, "Haas!... Haas!" The word haas means "move" in Afrikaans, but it is commonly reserved for cattle.

"The wardens were demanding that we jog, and I turned to Tefu and under my breath said that we must set an example; if we give in now we would be at their mercy...

I mentioned to Tefu that we should walk in front, and we took the lead. Once in front, we actually decreased the pace, walking slowly and deliberately. The guards were incredulous (and said)... we will tolerate no insubordination here. Haas! Haas! But we continued at our stately pace. (The head guard) ordered us to halt and stood in front of us: "Look, man, we will kill you, we are not fooling around... This the last warning. Haas! Haas!

To this I said: "You have your duty and we have ours." I was determined that we would not give in, and we did not, for we were already at the cells. [3]

By his persistent public refusal to be humiliated or to feel humiliated, Mandela rejected the distorted, self-debilitating relationship that the oppressor sought to impose upon him. Doing so, enhanced his leadership among his fellow political prisoners and the respect he was accorded by the less sadistic guards and wardens of the prison.

Allies are Very Important

The acquisition of allies is central to enhancing the power of oppressed groups. Leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa devoted considerable effort to developing allies among the leaders of other African nations, as well as among many other influential groups in the UN, the Commonwealth, and the various industrial nations with economic ties to South Africa. There is little doubt that the allies they developed played a crucial role in bringing about the ending of the apartheid system and the formation of a new government with Nelson Mandela as President and the ANC as the dominant political party. Their allies did this by bringing sufficient economic, political, and moral pressure upon the apartheid government to convince the economic leaders of the country that a change was necessary if they were to avoid an economic disaster.

Unfortunately, sometimes oppressed groups do not sufficiently realize the important potential for allies among other oppressed groups. They may narrowly define their interests as overcoming the injustices which they are experiencing and not be concerned with those being suffered by other oppressed groups. In the United States, for example, there is not an effective working coalition among such oppressed groups as blacks, gays, women, Hispanics, the disabled, the poor, and the elderly because these separate groups do not define their interests inclusively. While every group has to be for itself, when it is also for others, it becomes stronger from the support it receives.

The Oppressor's Power can Often be Used Against the Oppressor by the Oppressed

As Alinsky indicates: "... Since the Haves publicly pose as the custodians of responsibility, morality, law and justice (which are frequently strangers to each other), they can be constantly pushing to live up to their own book of morality and regulations. No organization, including religion, can live up to the letter of its own book."[4]

Alinsky cites many examples of tactics in which bureaucratic systems were snarled in their own red tape by pressure to live up to their own formally stated rules and procedures.[5]Tactics of this sort may center upon demanding or using a service that one is entitled to, a service that is not ordinarily used so massively and for which the institution is not prepared to provide in large volume without excessive cost to itself.For example, banks may be disrupted by a massive opening and closing of accounts, department stores by massive returns of purchases, airports by a massive use of their toilets and urinals by visitors, and so forth. Or, the tactics may center upon disobedience to a rule or law that cannot be enforced in the face of massive noncompliance. Thus landlords cannot afford to throw out all tenants who refuse to pay rent in a cohesive rent strike or schools to dismiss all students who disobey an obnoxious school regulation -- if the students are united in their opposition.

Related to the tactic of clubbing the haves with their own book of rules and regulation is the tactic of goading them into errors such as violating their own rules or regulations. If they can be provoked into an obvious disruption of their own stated principles, then segments of the high power group may become disaffected with the resultant weakening of the haves. In addition, previously neutral third parties may, in response to the violations by those in power, swing their sympathies and support to the have-nots.

In general, it is a mistake to think that a high power group is completely unified. Most groups have internal divisions and conflict among their most active members; further, only a small proportion of their members are likely to be active supporters of current policy. The conflicts among those who are active in the high-power groups and the distinction between active and passive members provide important points of leverage for the have-nots. The passive compliance of the inactive majority of the haves may disappear as their leaders are provoked into intemperate errors and as they are subject to ridicule and embarrassment by their inability to cope effectively with the persisting harassments and nuisances caused by the have-nots.

The power of the haves, as is true of any group, depends upon such tangibles as control over the instruments of force, an effective communication system, and an effective transportation system and upon such intangibles as prestige and an aura of invincibility. While a low-power group may not be able to interfere seriously with the tangible bases of power of the haves without engaging in illegal, destructive actions of sabotage, it has many legal means of tarnishing and weakening their intangible sources of power. Ridicule and techniques of embarrassment are most effective weapons for this purpose. Here, as elsewhere, inventiveness and imagination play important roles in devising effective tactics.

Tactics of embarrassment and ridicule include the picketing of such people as slum landlords, key stockholders, and management personnel of recalcitrant firms and other such wielders of power in situations that are embarrassing to them -- e.g. at their homes, at their churches, synagogues, or mosques, or at their social clubs. The advantage of such tactics as ridicule and embarrassment is that they are often enjoyable for those in low power and very difficult for those in high power to cope with without further loss of face.

Reducing the Power of the Oppressor

There are three strategies that are used to weaken oppressors: divide and conquer, violence, and non-violence. In prior essays, I have alluded to the "divide and conquer" strategy and my emphasis there was on the recognition that there are often potential allies for the oppressed to be found among the oppressors. Even apart from recruiting allies among the oppressors, there is always the possibility of exploiting or creating divisions within this group. Various techniques can be employed in an attempt to create or increase the antagonism among different factions within the oppressors -- e.g. planting rumors; creating incidents; making "offers" that favor one faction over another; and distorting their communication processes to one another in such a way that mistrust and hostility are fostered among the different factions.


As a strategy, violence has some positive features but, in my view, it has considerably greater negatives. Its positives are that it gets the attention of those in high power who have previously paid little attention to the oppressed and their needs. Additionally, it may be cathartic and psychologically empowering for those in low-power groups who feel enraged and humiliated by their oppression. Also, if well focused and executed, it may weaken the oppressed group.

Nelson Mandela, at one point became convinced that nonviolent strategies were not being effective against the apartheid South African government, so he advocated that the African National Congress create a separate, secret group (MK) which would engage in violence. In planning the direction and form this group would take, Mandela indicated that:


"We considered four types of violent activities: sabotage, guerilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner. Guerilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals: sabotage.

Because it did not involve loss of life, it offered the best hope for reconciliation among the races afterward. We did not want to start a blood feud between white and black. Animosity between Afrikaner and Englishman was still sharp fifty years after the Anglo-Boer War; what race relations would be like between white and black if we provoked a civil war? Sabotage had the added virtue of requiring the least manpower.

Our strategy was to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines, and transportation links, targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital, and weaken the economy. This we hope would bring the government to the bargaining table. Strict instructions were given to members of MK that we would countenance no loss of life."[6]


Mandela was undoubtedly wise in advocating that the violence not be directed at people, but rather be directed at targets that would impair the government's political, economic, and military capabilities. Violence against people is apt to weaken the support of existing and potential allies, unify the oppressors, and lead to a vicious spiral of increasing irrational violence. The violence is irrational in that it is impelled by a thirst for vengeance rather than by an attempt to achieve strategic objectives. Violence of any sort against a powerful oppressor usually leads to an intensification of oppression rather than an increased readiness to engage in constructive negotiation.

The rare exceptions are when the violence by the oppressed is perceived, by both the oppressed and the oppressor, to be part of a rational appeal to the self-interest of the oppressor (i.e. an inevitable cost of refusing to engage in constructive negotiations for a change in the status quo which could be mutually beneficial). And when the oppressor's response to violence is disproportionate, it may have the effect of delegitimizing the oppressor in the eyes of observers as well as in those of the oppressed. If the observers become active allies of the oppressed, as a consequence of the oppressor's disproportionate reactive violence, then the balance of power may shift away from the oppressor to the oppressed.

I conclude that the use of violence by the oppressed against a much stronger oppressor is most likely to worsen its circumstances and, even in the unlikely possibility of a victory over the oppressor, it is apt to produce leadership among the former oppressed that is undemocratic and predisposed to employing violence in its leadership style.


As a strategy, nonviolence is based on the premise that if we get what we want through violence, we will have created... "a certain amount of harm, pain, injury, death, or destruction... We may in addition have created a climate of fear, distrust, or hatred on the part of those against whom we have used the violence. We may also have contributed to the transformation of ourselves into insensitive or even cruel persons... Revolutions, even when they overcome violent resistance... often end up building the same sorts of abuses their promoters hoped to eliminate, just as wars set the stage for new wars."[7]

In other words, the nonviolence strategy basically seeks to avoid the harmful effects of physical or psychological violence. Most approaches to nonviolence also assume that, in conflict, one should respect one's adversary and that, even one's enemy is entitled to care and justice, to compassion and goodwill.

Gene Sharp, the most influential student of nonviolence, has identified at least 197 methods of nonviolent actions, which he groups into three categories:

(1) Nonviolent protests include marches, picketing, vigils, putting up posters, public meetings and issuing and distributing protest literature. These methods are meant to produce an awareness of dissent and opposition to unjust policies and practices. Their impact can be large if they awaken the sense of injustice in influential potential allies who were not aware of the injustices being experienced.

(2) Nonviolent noncooperation includes refusal to comply with unfair rules, regulations, or orders, socio-economic boycotts, boycotts of elections, general strikes, strikes, go-slow actions, rigid enforcement of rules, political jujitsu, civil disobedience, mutiny. These methods are meant to disrupt the normal efficiency and functioning of the system controlled by the oppressor to indicate that the oppressed will no longer cooperate in their oppression.

(3) Nonviolent interventions include sit-ins; nonviolent obstructions of communication facilities, traffic, banks, public toilet facilities, etc; nonviolent invasions and occupancy; and creation of a parallel government. These methods are most coercive and disruptive of the functioning of the system and are most apt to produce a violent counter-response from those in power.[8]

The use of nonviolent methods requires considerable self-discipline and courage. Systematic training of neophytes in the use of such methods by experienced practitioners makes their implementation more skillful and less dangerous. Training often involves role-playing and rehearsal of the appropriate actions to take in some of the typically difficult and dangerous situations that the non-violent participants may face as they engage in marches, refusals to comply with regulations, strikes, sit-ins, obstruction of traffic, or other nonviolent methods.

There have been no systematic research of which I am aware that attempts to determine the conditions under which nonviolent methods are likely to succeed or fail. There have been many instances of success as well of failure and it is an area ripe for study. (See Powers, Vogele, Krugeler, and McCarthy, 1997, for many case studies of nonviolent action.) Based upon my very limited knowledge of these instances, I would hypothesize that nonviolent actions are most effective:

  •  when they are contesting clear and gross injustices;
  •  when they are well-publicized;
  •  when they are successful in recruiting others who are oppressed
  •  as well as allies among those who are not; and
  •  when they occur in a state that is reluctant to employ overwhelming force to repress the nonviolent actions.

In a state that controls the media and is repressive, success is unlikely unless the nonviolent actors are able to recruit the employees of the media and members of the police and armed forces to their side. In other words, nonviolent actors are likely to be most successful in democratic societies where repressive force against them is likely to be relatively moderate and is apt to receive widespread, unfavorable publicity and to recruit allies to their cause. Thus, in the United States, the nonviolent civil rights movement was successful, partly due to the widespread revulsion against the well-publicized violence used against African Americans by public officials in the South. However, even in autocratically controlled states -- such as apartheid South Africa, the Marcos government in the Philippines, the Shah's government in Iran, the Milosovic government in Serbia, nonviolence was successful in overthrowing the governments because they were able to enlist the media and members of the armed forces to be against the repression of those seeking change of their oppressive, corrupt government.

Throughout much of the preceding discussion, I have emphasized the importance, for low power groups, to use strategies and tactics which would develop allies among the high power groups, among other low power groups, and among third parties. Through their actions and resources, allies can play a vital role in not only awakening the sense of injustice in the oppressor, but also by increasing the bargaining power of the oppressed. Additionally, they often can facilitate a constructive, nonviolent process of conflict resolution and social change through the procedures and resources they make available to foster and maintain such a process.

I conclude by stating that my objective in these essays was to provide a generalized framework for characterizing oppression and the forms it takes, as well as to consider what keeps it in place, and how it can be overcome. I hope this framework can be usefully applied to understand and change oppressive relations between specific groups such those between men and women, the economically privileged and the disadvantaged, managers and workers, parents and children, and between different racial, religious, and ethnic groups.


Note: This was originally one long article on oppression, which we have broken up to post on Beyond Intractability. This is the final essay in the series; the first is: The Nature and Origins of Oppression.

[1] Mandela, N. (1994). A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. London: Little Brown.

[2] Ibid, p. 427.

[3] Ibid, 297-9.

[4] Alinsky, S.D. (1971). Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Random House, p. 152.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mandela, op. cit., 282-283.

[7] Holmes, R.L., ed., (1990). Nonviolence in Theory and Practice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co, p. 5.

[8] Sharp, G. (1971). The Politics of Nonviolent Action: An Encyclopedia of Thought and Action. Philadelphia, PA: Pilgrim Press.

Use the following to cite this article:
Deutsch, Morton. "Overcoming Oppression with Power." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/oppression-power>.

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