In the twentieth century, in case anyone had previously been in doubt, many movements showed that nonviolent direct action, used by individuals and groups, does in fact work to bring about the goals of the movement--that is, it works at least as often as wars "work" in achieving their goals.
I'm working on a paper for Religion & Society that addresses the issue of power within social systems. In traditional systems, power is based on continuing the status quo, but to the advantage of the one wielding the power. So the person or group holding power may change, but the way they attain and continue using that power is basically the same across time. In most social systems, power comes from being part of the society's elite, whether that is based on hereditary privilege or education and ability. (Really there is some of each in each system, because even in our system of democracy, those in power have the ability to be in that position, for the most part, because of the opportunities given to them by their social position as they grew up. This is not true for everyone, but is true for a fairly substantial part of the population. Also, in hereditary systems, one may always have one's title, but if one has no ruling ability or is too frivolous with money, one might lose one's position of power.) People continue giving these individuals power because that's how it has "always" been. Also, in many social systems, the religious establishment supports the status quo of the social hierarchy and vice versa. Therefore, the people in power are said to be there because of divine right. Those in religious power are there because they have received proper instruction from ancestors who have connected with God or the spirit world, and without mediation from those with this instruction, say the religious leaders, one cannot receive the necessary elements which will include one in the religious community.
Nonviolent direct action refuses to cooperate with this system. Most of us cooperate with the status quo because we don't see any alternative. This is how things are, and we believe the lie that the world is dualistic, is a place where we must choose a side between opposing views. But if we really look at things we can usually see that the two sides are more similar than different: in our country, Democrats and Republicans are so similar it is hard to tell the difference between them in many ways. They are enmeshed in a system that requires corruption, moral compromise, hurtful rhetoric against the "other" whether that other is another American politician or a political enemy of the USA, and a kind of power that says "might equals right." This political system--and most others--requires competition and vanquishing of one's enemies in order to show that one has what it takes to rule, and that this rule is justifiable because the ruler has the ability to protect those under him/her with one's superior power.
In contrast, nonviolent direct action must be a grassroots movement. It must give power to a mass group of people, and they must believe they have power to change the system. This power works as people refuse to believe the dichotomous lies of the traditional system, refuse to believe that to win another must lose, and people are convinced in an internal way rather than through external force. This kind of power appeals to the truth that is in each person: it appeals to the conscience. It trusts the other to have a conscience in there somewhere, even when all indications are to the contrary. It trusts in the humanity and value of the other, knowing that eventually through practice of the truth others can only make the choice to join in with the truth, or to act against their conscience in blatant ways.
Nonviolent direct action attacks symbols of hierarchical power, not people. The people are desired as friends, but the system is seen as the enemy. The people participating in the system are invited to join with the nonviolent actors in a search for truth, where they share the common enemy of an oppressive system and a common goal of searching for justice through the truth. This kind of power diffuses defensiveness and creates an opening for dialogue and reflection.
When Quakers refused to tip their hats to people of a higher station in seventeenth century England they were participating in what we now call nonviolent direct action. They were refusing to capitulate with a system of hierarchy so visible it was almost imperceptible. Rather than honoring some above others, they honored all. Although not tipping their hats might not seem like a huge overthrow of the system, it got at the root of the problem: it was a daily symbol of the social system's inequity. It also forced those in power positions to recognize their own inconsistencies. Those to whom hats were tipped thought of themselves as "gentlemen" or "ladies," people of refinement and civility. When hat honor was not given to them, however, they were faced with that inside themselves which they had been hiding: they found they were really prideful and did not think highly of themselves--they needed others to show them honor in order to feel good about themselves. This was not information they wanted to know about themselves--and I can empathize with them. I am the same way in many respects. They were forced to either recognize their shortcomings with humility, or fight for hat honor to reinstate their sense of self as substantiated by the status quo of seventeenth century English society.
I wonder what we could do today that would be similar to refusing hat honor? What symbols of the American hierarchy can we attack in ways that would appeal to the consciences and sense of justice inherent in people? Perhaps we should begin with ourselves. As an American, how am I cooperating with the status quo in order to continue receiving the comforts and status I have come to see as my due? How am I allowing myself to be deluded by the dualistic lies of the traditional status system, forgetting that our common enemy is injustice? How am I sacrificing my own comfort and status in order to work for the destruction of the symbolic system that holds people in a state of oppression?
Nonviolent direct action works because of each individual's willingness to listen in humility to the Truth found within. Quakers call this the Inner Light or the Light of Christ. Are we listening? Are we acting?