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20 years ago, Srdja Popovic was part of a revolution — literally. He was a founding member of the Otpor! movement that ousted Serbia Slobodan Milsovic from power in 1999. It’s easy to characterize social movements as a bunch of people rallying in the streets, but successful movements require a lot of planning and a unified vision around a singular goal — things that are often easier said than done.
Srdja joins us this week to discuss why Otpor! was successful and anyone can use the same principles of what we describes as “laughtivism” to fight for change. He is the director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CAVNAS) and author of Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.
At the end of the episode, Michael and Chris compare Srdja’s discussion of anger and fear with some of the results we’ve seen from our Mood of the Nation Poll.
Srdja visited Penn State as a guest of the Center for Global Studies, the same organization that hosted Syrian journalist Abdalaziz Alhamza in the fall. Our episode with him is a nice companion to this conversation with Srdja.
A book Srdja references in the interview: The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy
Another Democracy Works episode you might enjoy: Breaking the silence in Syria – Abdalaziz Alhamza
- How did the Otpor! movement achieve its goals?
- How should a social movement balance its members individuals goals and views against the larger goals?
- How do you see the apathy and fear Srdja described playing out in today’s political climate?
- Do you think Otpor!’s approach could be successful in a place like Hungary or Brazil?
- What are some recent examples of laughtivism? Are they effective?
[4:20] What was the the political climate in Serbia when the Otpor! movement began?
We started with large students protests. We were occupying campuses and all the intellectuals were there. The first large-scale demonstrations started in Serbia and we figure out that in fact, we can win local elections if opposition is united, but we lost. After three months on the streets every day, we understood that it’s a very stupid way to have everyday protests because are very costly. The movement grew from 11 people into several hundred, then performed a large tactics of recruitment and and grew up up to 70,000. We had a pretty clear vision of tomorrow — we were trying to build unity among the civil sector and the opposition parties. We stayed cool and nonviolent and focusing in low-risk tactics.
[10:15] What are some of the the strategies you recommend for people to build broad coalitions or movements?
The first thing is you need to understand what you really want to change. You need to look the terrain and your constituency. Try to listen and try to find the smallest common denominator that will bring groups to your side. Try to figure out why the people who are pro change and against change feel that way.
[13:32] As these movements grow, people come in with their own ideas. How can you be receptive to them without curtailing the main goal?
It is really important is to figure out your grand vision and the grand goal. Movements are driven by the people, and the best thing people bring to the movements are their ideas. The way the Serbian movement operated and several other movements we worked in in the past, like Egyptian movement, was to make a highly decentralized structure. That creates a culture in the movement where everybody can become a leader.
[15:16] How do you push forward for social change given the prevalence of nostalgia?
When you take a look at the biggest obstacles to the social change of any kind, it’s either apathy or fear, and if you really want to make a change you want to deconstruct these obstacles. The key for change in these cases is to turn up into enthusiasm.
[20:39] How is laughtivism an effective tactic for authoritarian regimes?
There are a few reasons why humor is so powerful in these situations. The first reason is that humor breaks fear and makes scary situations look a little less so. The second reason is that humor attracts people and gives them something they can get behind. The third is that it disrupts order, which dictators and authoritarians thrive on.
[25:18] How are these tactics translated into public policy?
Some politicians think that democracy is all about winning elections and then winner takes all, but social movements are now taking a new role which they call defending democracy. They are actually defending the courts, defending the parliament, and defending the pillars that are already there.
[32:55] What does democracy mean to you?
To me, it means having the right balance between strong and active state and strong and active people to hold the state accountable.