Identify the institutions that your target relies on for support so you can weaken or disrupt their power.
First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win. – Gandhi
Many believe that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” as Mao Zedong famously said. However, research and experience show that power stems not just from a powerful opponent’s ability to use force, but also from the consent and cooperation of the institutions and organizations that sustain the oppressor: the media, the army, the police, the courts, the universities, organized labour, international backers, and others.
Pillars of Power Analysis
Use a pillars of power analysis to identify the institutions without whose support your target would collapse, and to strategize ways to weaken or remove those institutional “pillars,” so that the foundation that sustains the target begins to crumble and the system falls. Once you understand the various institutions that enable a specific oppressive regime or status quo situation to maintain its power, you can investigate how to neutralize, undermine, or withdraw the foundations that the oppressive system depends on, and reduce its power.
Power ultimately rests in the hands of millions of ordinary people who keep society running smoothly on a day-to-day basis, and who can shut it down should they so choose.
Some of these pillars, such as the military, the police, and the courts, are coercive in nature, compelling obedience through force or the threat of force, while other pillars, like the media, the education system, and religious institutions, support the system through their influence over culture and popular opinion. Hence, the power of even the most charismatic or ruthless leader is contingent upon the support of key institutions, themselves vulnerable to popular action or withdrawal of consent from the general population.
In February 2011, Egyptian President Mubarak was forced to leave office when several of his key institutional pillars cracked — the army and business community foremost among them — removing their support for him. (Unfortunately, in the long run, the Egyptian revolution was unable to assemble a strong enough foundation of its own to counter the regime’s largest pillar, the military, which retook control in a coup in 2013.)
Identifying the internal construction of a pillar of power can help determine where you can have the greatest impact as you break down support for the system.
As another example, a major turning point leading to the downfall of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 was when the police refused to enforce his orders to fire on protesters. This was the result of a deliberate strategy by the leading opposition group Otpor to reach out to the police and remind them that their families and friends were among the demonstrators. Desertions, especially from high-level military positions, are a clear sign that this crucial pillar of support has begun to crumble.
Power ultimately rests not in the grip of presidents, generals, and billionaires, but in the hands of millions of ordinary people who keep society running smoothly on a day-to-day basis, and who can shut it down should they so choose. This is the meaning of the slogan “people power.”
One of the main reasons that so many injustices persist is not that the powerful can simply do whatever they want with impunity, but that most people are ignorant of the power they can wield by withdrawing their consent (see: Tactic: General strike).
This understanding of power has been repeatedly vindicated in recent decades, as numerous dictators and extremely repressive regimes have been toppled by unarmed people with minimal violence but much courage and creativity. These successful nonviolent struggles simply cannot be explained by someone who sees violence as the only, or even the primary, mechanism of power.
How to Use a Pillars of Power Analysis
- Draw a building, represented by a roof that is a simple triangle, with pillars holding it up. Label the roof with the name of the system, regime, or issue you are working on.
- Identify the “pillars” that constitute the institutions that support the target (educational institutions, the media, the military, corporations, etc.). Start generally, but refine and specify as much as you can about each pillar. For example, if you identify the police or the military as a major pillar generally, then sub-labelling them more specifically “Capitol District Police” or “President’s Special Forces” will give you a more precise picture of the issue and a better framework for strategic planning.
- Take a moment to identify which pillars are most critical to holding up the system. Perhaps some pillars are bigger than others in your drawing, representing the relative strength of one institution in supporting the system to another lesser institution.
Then, compare and identify your ability to impact or reach whomever makes up the pillars that are both critical to the system and vulnerable to your impact. These are the places where your campaign has great potential.
The pillars of power are the institutions that support the system or issue you are addressing.
- One way to determine where you may have the most potential to impact the strength of a pillar is by analysing the internal construction of each pillar. Start by drawing a circle that represents a cross section of the pillar, with concentric circles that you can label with the individuals or groups that compose the pillar itself. Be specific about elements of the support structures, with the center being the most impacted or powerful (the dictator or general might be in the center of the military pillar, with other leadership in the next circle, then regular troops, then veterans, military families, etc.). As you move out from the center, the power the groups or individuals hold changes, and their connection or loyalty to the institution often diminishes. This will help you visually assess where you could have the most impact on a pillar, and which constituencies you may be able to reach as you try to break down support for the system.
- Now, use this big picture analysis with a more in-depth strategic planning tool such as spectrum of allies, which identifies the relative resource cost of moving specific constituencies (see: Spectrum of allies); SWOT matrix, which correlates internal and external plans (see: SWOT); or points of intervention, which hones tactical plans (see: Points of intervention). There is often a benefit to using more than one tool at a time, helping to identify missing pieces and bringing in a specificity that will help to create a more effective strategic plan.
Real World Examples
- Bringing Down a Dictator
Film that tells the inside story of how Milosevic was brought down by a courageous campaign of political defiance and massive civil disobedience.
- By targeting the pillars that uphold police violence, Black Lives Matter is shifting power to the people
From National Guardsmen laying down their shields to bus drivers refusing to take protesters to jail, activists are tapping into a powerful principle of nonviolence resistance.
This tool is great for starting out with people-power strategic planning, and will develop a big picture overview of the vulnerability and strengths of the system you are fighting. But don’t mistake this for a detailed road map for your campaign — follow up this tool with others mentioned in the “How To Use” section. And, as in real life, if you end up pushing the pillars of support in towards the center rather than pulling them away, the roof will not come down. Take this into account when determining which pillars you will target, and how.
The origins of this analysis come from Gandhi, Gene Sharp, Robert Helvey.
- This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the 21st Century | ThisIsAnUprising.org, 2016
- People Power | Lisa Fithian, 2013
- On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking about the Fundamentals | Robert Helvey, Albert Einstein Institution, 2004
- Waging Nonviolent Struggle: Twentieth-Century Practice and Twenty-First-Century Potential | Gene Sharp, Porter Sargent, 2005
- CANVAS Manual | Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, 2004
- A Force More Powerful | International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2000
- Pillars of Support | ICNC & Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, 2007
- Power Mapping to Design a Winning Campaign Strategy | Beautiful Trouble