The strategy of focusing on the pillars of support that hold up an authoritarian regime was first fully articulated by Otpor!, a grassroots civic association whose skillful organizing drove Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic from office in 2000. This excerpt from the group’s action guide outlines the analysis and vision that shaped their organizing and helped them win.
Define pillars of support
By themselves, rulers cannot collect taxes, enforce repressive laws and regulations, keep trains running on time, prepare national budgets, direct traffic, manage ports, print money, repair roads, train the police and army, issue postage stamps, or even milk a cow. People provide these services to the ruler through a variety of organizations and institutions. If people stop providing these skills and services, the ruler cannot rule.
Once we understand that this is the nature of political power in society, we must understand how power is exercised. The people are the main holders of power in society, but they are much more effective at exercising that power when they work together in the form of organizations or institutions, such as the police, civil servants, labor groups, business groups, etc. Some of these organizations may support your opponent and others may support your movement.
We call these supporting organizations pillars of support because they support the power structure in society. At the beginning of a nonviolent struggle, it is likely that many of these organizations provide support to your opponent. If these organizations and institutions begin to withdraw their support from your opponent (and some may even start actively supporting your movement), your opponent will no longer be able to maintain control.
For our purposes, we define pillars of support in this way: “Pillars of support are institutions and sections of the society that supply the existing regime with sources of power required for maintenance and expansion of its power capacity.”
Understand the importance of pulling out from, rather than pushing into, different pillars of support
It is critical for a nonviolent movement to find ways to influence the behavior of the people within various pillars of support, by:
- eroding their loyalty to your opponent(s)
- persuading them to deny their skills and knowledge, material resources, and time to your opponent(s)
When a nonviolent movement is successful at influencing a particular pillar, members of that pillar will find ways to withdraw their support from your opponent and his/her supporters, by openly or subtly disobeying orders, by ignoring orders altogether, or by carrying orders out slowly, inefficiently and/or incompletely. Members of some pillars may also begin to openly or subtly support your movement as well.
If the people do not obey, the ruler cannot rule. Strategies for nonviolent struggle are based upon this insight.