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How Empires Fall: An Interview With Jonathan Schell

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Posted on Mar 3, 2012
Håkan Dahlström (CC-BY)

“Non Violence,” a sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd, sits in a number of cities around the world, including New York, Berlin and Stockholm.

By Andy Kroll, TomDispatch

When Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World, a meditation on the history and power of nonviolent action, was published in 2003, the timing could not have been worse. Americans were at war—and success was in the air. U.S. troops had invaded Iraq and taken Baghdad (“mission accomplished”) only months earlier, and had already spent more than a year fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Schell’s book earned a handful of glowing reviews, and then vanished from the public debate as the bombs scorched Iraq and the body count began to mount.

Now, The Unconquerable World‘s animating message—that, in the age of nuclear weaponry, nonviolent action is the mightiest of forces, one capable of toppling even the greatest of empires—has undergone a renaissance of sorts. In December 2010, the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor triggered a wave of popular and, in many cases, nonviolent uprisings across the Middle East, felling such autocrats as Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in mere weeks. Occupations, marches, and protests of all sorts spread like brushfire across Europe, from England to Spain to Greece, and later Moscow, and even as far as Madison, Wisconsin. And then, of course, there were the artists, students, and activists who, last September, heard the call to “occupy Wall Street” and ignited a national movement with little more than tents, signs, and voices on a strip of stone and earth in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

You might say that Schell, a former New Yorker staff writer renowned for his work on nuclear weapons and disarmament (his 1981 book The Fate of the Earth was a best-seller and instant classic), prophesied Occupy and the Arab Spring—without even knowing it. He admits to being as surprised as anyone about the wave of nonviolent action that swept the world in 2011, but those who had read Unconquerable World would have found themselves uncannily well prepared for the birth of a planet of protest whenever it happened.

That book remains the ideal companion volume for the Occupiers and Egyptian revolutionaries, as well as their Spanish, Russian, Chilean, and other counterparts. Schell traces the birth of nonviolent action to Gandhi’s sit-in at Johannesburg’s Empire Theater in 1906, and continues through the twentieth century, all the while forcing you to rethink everything you thought you knew about what he calls “the war system” and its limits, as well as protests and rebellions of every sort, and the course of empire.

One afternoon in January, I met Schell, now the Nation‘s peace and disarmament correspondent, in his office at the Nation Institute, where he’s a fellow, a few blocks from Union Square in Manhattan. It was a bright space, and for a writer, surprisingly clean and uncluttered. A Mac laptop sat opened on his desk, as if I’d walked in mid-sentence. Various editions of Schell’s books, including his Vietnam War reportage The Village of Ben Suc, were nestled into the bookshelves among titles popular and obscure. I settled into an empty chair next to Schell, who wore a jacket and khakis, and started my recorder. Soft-spoken and articulate, he described the world as elegantly in person as he does in his writing.

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Andy Kroll: You’ve written a lot before on the nuclear problem, and one feels that throughout the book. But The Unconquerable World also stands on its own as something completely original. How did you come to write this book?

Jonathan Schell: It was a long time in the making. The initial germ was born toward the end of the 1980s when I began to notice that the great empires of the world were failing. I’d been a reporter in the Vietnam War, so I’d seen the United States unable to have its way in a small, third world country. A similar sort of thing happened in Afghanistan with the Soviet Union. And then of course, there was the big one, the revolutions in Eastern Europe against the Soviet Union.


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By ReadingJones, March 7, 2012 at 11:30 pm Link to this comment

Re: The Handwriting on the Wall
There is a website known as WordOrigins.Org founded by
Dave Wilton. It has a number of very scholarly
regulars. If you request information about a word or
phrase they will sort it out with citations

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By Lafayette, March 7, 2012 at 11:20 pm Link to this comment

anarc: The common use of the term ‘writing on the wall’ as a portent of doom refers not to any old graffiti but to the feast of Belshazzar as recounted in the Book of Daniel.

Bullsh*t.

When people freaked out with their leaders, they did not go shouting it out about the town. The put it on the walls, which portended upheaval. Or “doom”.

It was long after that the notion was scripted into the tale described in the WikiP article.

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By Anarcissie, March 7, 2012 at 1:15 pm Link to this comment

Lafayette—I’m well aware of graffiti.  The common use of the term ‘writing on the wall’ as a portent of doom refers not to any old graffiti but to the feast of Belshazzar as recounted in the Book of Daniel.

Although next time I hear someone fulminating about graffiti I’m going to remind them that graffitists have a rather imposing predecessor.

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By Lafayette, March 7, 2012 at 11:08 am Link to this comment

Lafayette, Are you trying to tell us that the Super Bowl is our version of the gladiatorial bouts ?

In a word, yes!

Our modern world is different ... and yet very much the same.

More importantly, cultures fail for base human reasons. With Rome, it came about from its sense of invincibility.

Ours will fail because of hubris. We think God has predestined America for greatness ... and somehow has a watchful eye on us.

Which is puerile nonsense.

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By Lafayette, March 7, 2012 at 9:07 am Link to this comment

For anarc. - Graffiti.

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By Ed Romano, March 6, 2012 at 2:26 pm Link to this comment

Lafayette, Are you trying to tell us that the Super Bowl is our version of the gladiatorial bouts ? Are you saying that Disneyland is is our Roman Circus ? Are you saying that we’re so dense that the amusements proided by the masters of the asylum are a necessary part of the program to keep us befuddled ? Is that what you’re saying. Shame on you. The next thing you’ll be saying is that they are contantly waving the flag at us to make sure we stay hypnotized.

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By Lafayette, March 6, 2012 at 2:23 am Link to this comment

THE HANDWRITING ON THE WALL

The above phrase above goes back to the beginning of time. In ancient Greece or Rome, if someone wanted to out a scoundrel, they just painted their complaint on the wall for the rest of the town to see. Which was, of course, quickly white-washed by the person concerned; so one had to write the complaint all over town. It became a public nuisance and so, there were parts of towns where the walls were reserved for letting off steam.

It is obvious to anyone in this forum, that we have simply made that very human trait of complaining a bit more sophisticated. But, isn’t it also more than that?

Even in times past, it was a smart leader who kept appraised of “the handwriting on the wall”, which is why that phrase still has common usage. It was a pulse of public opinion. Roman Emperors knew well that they must provide the grain for the Roman porridge that was a staple dinner.

And the games of course in the town arenas. So, food and entertainment were base necessities throughout Roman times, as the arena ruins attest today. And if Caesar went to meet Cleopatra, it was for Egypt’s abundant grain reserves, and not only her well-known female charms.

MY POINT?

Fast forward 2000 years. What has fundamentally changed in mankind ?

Not all that much ...

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By Lafayette, March 6, 2012 at 1:58 am Link to this comment

KNOW THY FELLOW MAN

He (Shell) admits to being as surprised as anyone about the wave of nonviolent action that swept the world in 2011

Which is about the average running-speed for most Americans who know more about Israel than Arab countries.

I was peddling goods into the North African Arab countries and got to know the people rather well. Away from the office, when discussing politics, they would ask me a great many questions about America’s system of governance – a sort of infatuation with this thing called democracy. When I asked them about their present situation, they mostly shrugged and said, “Well, what can you do?”

The autocracies were an integral part of their common existence since the Ottoman Empire of the 14th century. That’s 600 years …

The Arab Spring took a little spark in a small town in Tunisia to inflame the house of cards of political colossus across the Arabic nations. The work (in Syria) is ongoing.

MY POINT?

We need to make as much of an effort to understand these people as we did to understand Europeans who are closer to us in cultural attributes.  Let’s not condemn them for a handful of fanatics who did us grave damage in 9/11. Besides, the author of that act, bin Laden, is sleeping with the fish where he belongs.

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By Ed Romano, March 5, 2012 at 7:29 pm Link to this comment

Reading Jones, Thanks, but I rememered the title of the book…Containment and Change. As I remember it vaguely…. Ogelesby’s analysis was critical, but Schell’s was predictable liberal propaganda….My involvement in the anti war movement was somewhat to the left inasmuch as I didn’t criticize the military so much as I did the capitalists who were behind the whole imperialist adventure.

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By ReadingJones, March 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm Link to this comment

Ed Romano

I think so. Try Amazon for “Ravens in the Storm” and
have a look inside.

BTW I am proud to say that I made a speech against
our involvement in Vietnam in September 1963. My
argument was that the decision makers in our military
forces (say Lt. Colonel and up) were basically
incompetent to run a war. Many of my classmates were
outraged especially the pretty girl whose father was
a Major stationed in Vietnam.

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By Ed Romano, March 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm Link to this comment

Does anyone know if this is the same Johnathon Schell who co wrote a book with Carl Ogelsby on American imperialism during the Vietnam War ?

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By gerard, March 5, 2012 at 9:29 am Link to this comment

Anarchissie:  In all fairness, you should send your critique to Schell, maybe in the form of pointed questions.  His answers would be enlightening, and he seems to care enough to respond, especially if you respond with your name and address.

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By Anarcissie, March 5, 2012 at 7:52 am Link to this comment

The Internet has made it possible for what is normally marginalized to be widely published.  This novel condition will probably have some effect on day-to-day politics and culture.  However, there was a time when the printing press had a similar effect, yet eventually the print media were brought under control, as later were radio and television.  Today, there is a similar struggle to control the Internet.  The outcome is not determined.

I guess we are done with Schell?  I was trying to figure out whether he was ignorant, dishonest, or merely sloppy.

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By vector56, March 5, 2012 at 7:11 am Link to this comment

Surfboy’s has got a point; I have noticed that the so-called lefty blogs (Daily Kos, Crooks & Liars…) are starting to look and sound a lot like the MSNBC, Current TV fake corporate progressives.

About 85% of their space is consumed with the Mitt, Newt and Santorum “dog and pony show”; before that it was Herman Cain, Sarah Palin…

What we have is a kind of “Orwellian” homogenization:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/11/22/1038964/-Homogenization?via=blog_744899

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By gerard, March 4, 2012 at 4:27 pm Link to this comment

Opinions solicited:  I’d like to hear what people commenting here think is the relationship of new information technology (the Internet etc.) to the rise of nonviolent movements and their growth and continuance—if any.

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By EmileZ, March 4, 2012 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment

@ litlpeep

“criminally ignorant” might be considered a criminally ignorant accusation to toss around.

Ever think of that Mr. Smarty-Pants???

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By litlpeep, March 4, 2012 at 11:37 am Link to this comment

I very much appreciate reading Jonathan Schell.  He is one of our most cogent and poignant thinders.

But I flinch when I read things like this
“The Einstein of Nonviolence

AK: You pinpoint the birth of this force at a single event on September 11, 1906.

JS: Precisely, a peaceful protest led by Mohandas Gandhi at the Empire Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 11, 1906. It’s rare that you can date a social invention to a particular day and meeting, but I think you can in this case.”

These poorly educated fellows think and write as if they have never heard of Henry David Thoreau, the American born author of “On Civil Disobedience.”  Gandhi had, and read him.  He even cited Thoreau as one of the greatest influences in his life.

It is a terribly common oversight, and also a terribly costly one.  For having no grasp of Thoreau’s writing costs the left access a great American spiritual forebear and strategic as well as tactical democratic thinker.  Of course, the essay is readily available, but who reads things more than a century and a half old?

This is but one example of how our common ignorance of our American Heritage allows the preposterous reactionaries to get away with their criminally ignorant political nonsense.

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By gerard, March 4, 2012 at 10:51 am Link to this comment

Anarchissie:  I think Schell is referring to “ahimsa”, the word Gandhi chose to embody the techniques he was practicing and attempting to teach. He was leaning in part on some ancient Buddhist teachings on nonviolence which I doubt were widely practiced throughout the long and troubled political history of India. If I remember right, “ahimsa” is translated into English as “harmlessness.” One more point:  How “severity” translates into “terror” is a huge question.
  My intense interest in nonviolence is in its inevitability.  Evidence indicates that war has “warred itself out” and that fact raises the question “if not war, then what?”  We are also beginning to see (in prisons, on the streets of large cities, in cases like the “drug wars” etc.) that much of violence seems to be counterproductive.
So again, “if not violence, then what?”
  Once the question is asked, the answer will be anticipated, envisioned, attempted.  When attempted it will have some success. It will become a movement—in fact may be becoming a movement now.
It will either be encouraged or discouraged—violently or nonviolently or something ambiguous in between. We ourselves are making history—for better or for worse. Machiavelli is long dead. Hitler proved a point or two. The CIA obviously doesn’t know what time it is.

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By EmileZ, March 4, 2012 at 10:45 am Link to this comment

@ Anarcisse

As to the bombing and invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t know where you were hunkered down, but in spite of the widespread protests, they were pretty overwhelmingly popular here in the states, I would say at least 80% either supported or were too uninformed and generally not interested in forming some kind of opinion about the whole thing. When asked, they went along with the flag-wavers and the mushroom-cloud smoking gun baloney.

As to the Soviet Union, there is some truth in both yours and Schell’s version. On the whole however, I think Schell was on the right track as far as people in the USSR trying to adapt to the inevitable trend that was very difficult to ignore once the satelites began to slip away like melting butter, smooth and creamy, well maybe not creamy but too hot to handle.

It became tedious when you observed that Schell evidently hadn’t read Machiavelli. I don’t know anything about Machiavelli, that is as good a reason as any for my probably true accusation.

How any of this might apply to the US is pretty unknown, and considering the kind of global climate and resource catastrophe that may be coming, I see very little hope of the “iceberg melting from within” phenomena happening all by itself.

However, one thing is for damn sure. The best hope we’ve got is in non-violent social movements that address our major problems BEFORE the shit really hits the fan.

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By gerard, March 4, 2012 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

vector56:  “extreme” social pressures sounds fairly clean—but what does it really mean? This “muscle behind the oppression” consists of millions of people who are either “just making a living” or dominated by irrational fears, or both.  Even if they all died off of natural causes, there would be others to take their place in six months—unless nonviolence somehow became a “way of life”.
  This is the true depth of the change that is needed, and will evolve if human beings remain to occupy the earth. We have to fall out of love with the belief in the efficacy of the “extreme social pressure” of killing each other. Next question:  What do you think information technology is all about?

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By Anarcissie, March 4, 2012 at 10:02 am Link to this comment

I am amazed at the omissions of this review. 

First of all, they managed to discuss the fate of empires without mentioning Paul Kennedy and his work. 

Schell says nonviolence, a technique prominent in the ancient world (perhaps someone has heard of primitive Christianity?) was invented by Gandhi in 1906. 

He says that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were popular when they started.  They were not, among those who had any knowledge and interest in the situation.  Half a million people demonstrated against them in New York City in 2003. 

The Soviet Union did not collapse because of a revolt among its people or its satellites; as anyone who followed the news knows, the Soviet ruling class split between people who thought they could do better as outright capitalists (Yeltsin and company), people who wanted to transform the state into a social democracy (Gorbachev) and strict conservatives (the Putschists).  The first set won, and accordingly split up the S.U. in order to accomplish their purposes. 

Schell says that usually it is thought that the overthrow of a government in violent, the aftermath non- or post-violent.  He has evidently not read Machiavelli, who observed that a revolutionary government must exert ‘severity’, that is, terror, because it is not supported by habit and legitimacy. 

I could go on, but it will become tedious.  But I am amazed.  I have often wondered why I can’t get a job in a nice airy office two blocks from Union Square confabulating with interviewers, and now I know the answer: I was made to take History 101.

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By balkas, March 4, 2012 at 8:29 am Link to this comment

i am much less interested why empires rise and fall and much more
interested about how/why the world 1% had arisen and never fallen.
empires do evanesce but the power of the ONEPERCENT seems to rise
and rise and rise…
thanks

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By vector56, March 4, 2012 at 6:42 am Link to this comment

ReadingJones,

I too an a SiFi fan; more of a Harry Turtledove, alternate reality kinda guy.

The 1% may have to one day look over their shoulders, and the “meek may inherit the earth”, but in what condition?

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By vector56, March 4, 2012 at 6:27 am Link to this comment

“what’s your alternative look like? You referred to it previously in such a jolly way.”

gerard; well for starters I would put “extreme” social pressure on the foot soldiers of the elite. Local Cops, FBI, CIA, NSA and the Military as a whole are the muscle behind our oppression.

If non-violence worked as well, Armies would be composed of mostly Social Workers.

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By ReadingJones, March 3, 2012 at 8:03 pm Link to this comment

Isaac Asimov wrote extensively on the subject of
Empires in novel form. So did many other science
fiction authors notably including the partnership of
Frederik Pohl and C.M.Kornbluth. They taught me to
not think of ruling elites as monoliths. Most of the
1% are not part of the ruling class at all. I
estimate that the 1% is only somewhere around 400
people and the the membership of that group is
continually changing. Further any ruling class must
be worried about “quis custodias, custodiet”

Please pardon my PFA statistics and poor use of
Latin.

This treatise on non-violence is very valuable and
should terrify the likes of the Koch brothers and the
toadies that work for them. The trolls that are
employed to corrupt the media would do well to
research the fate of previous worms who had their
sort of job.

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By gerard, March 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm Link to this comment

Vector, what’s your alternative look like? You referred to it previously in such a jolly way.

And by the way, why do you suppose the “governments of the world” feel they need to “maintain standing armies”?

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By vector56, March 3, 2012 at 5:06 pm Link to this comment

“Give it time. It’s only been around a few years.”

Who are you kidding gerard: the CIA has ready hijacked the so-called Arab Spring and turned it into a template for the re-colonization of the Middle East.

In Yemen, the vice president of the thug Saleh was just “elected”. That fact that he was the only person on the ticket seems to make very little difference to the West?

Yes, give it some time???

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By gerard, March 3, 2012 at 4:39 pm Link to this comment

Give it time. It’s only been around a few years.

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By vector56, March 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm Link to this comment

All of the countries of the so-called “Arab Spring” are still controlled by “replacement thugs”. Egypt is now run by the same army that backed Mubarak for 30 years:

Mubarak and what army:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/11/29/1040726/-Mubarak-and-What-Army-?via=blog_744899

It saddens me deeply to admit that non-violence never trumps opening a good old “can of whoop-ass”.

Notice that the governments of the world maintain standing armies.

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