The Strategic Estimate: First Step on the Path to Freedom

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December 5, 2006

By January 1, 2025 , every American who is determined to live free shall do so. Those who are content with their chains are welcome to keep them, but we who must be free will have our own centerless legal system and free institutions that are not subject to the State.

For 20 years I was a libertarian and market anarchist, but not an activist. I had some small involvement in electoral politics in the early years, but it was hard to rouse much enthusiasm for spending a tremendous amount of time and effort to inch 1% closer to electing a libertarian to office, who would then have at best a miniscule possibility of affecting some incremental change that might slightly delay the government's ambition of becoming a full-blown police state. I knew what I wanted: a truly free society, with no privileged group of people (a.k.a. "The Government") set above the rest of us and exempted from the rules of civilized conduct. I just didn't see anything I could do towards achieving that goal that had any reasonable chance of making a worthwhile difference . . .

. . . until I ran across the extensive and detailed literature on nonviolent struggle. Over the last 25 years an impressive parade of dictators and authoritarians have been forced to relinquish power via this technique. I could finally see, in outline, a way to actually achieve that free society. It was time to act.

I suspect that there are many, many others like me, who have searched for years for some way to make an effective contribution to the cause of human liberty. If you're one of them, this is your chance. This coming March (2007), at Beyond Ballots or Bullets, freedom seekers from across America will be meeting to work out a plan for achieving a free society. You're invited to attend, but even if you can't, you can help make it a success. As I mentioned in my previous article, we need solid information to guide our strategic planning. I need your help in collecting that information.

Let's talk about how we'll use the information, and then what specific information we need. (Much of the remainder of this article is adapted from material in Waging Nonviolent Struggle and Nonviolent Struggle -- 50 Crucial Points.)


First we need to establish some vocabulary.

The non-violent struggle group (NVSG) is the organized resistance that has chosen nonviolent means of achieving its objectives. In other words, it is us.

The broad grievance group (BGG) is that segment of the populace whose grievances are issues in the conflict and are being championed by the NVSG. In our case, this could be anyone who feels that Americans have lost significant freedoms.

The opponent group is the organization against which the NVSG is struggling. In our case, this would be the Federal, state, and local governments.

Sanctions are punishments meted out by either side to discourage undesired behavior. The State's sanctions are the penalties for disobeying its so-called laws, as well as more immediate, on-the-spot violence used in suppressing open resistance. Boycotts are an example of nonviolent sanctions the NVSG may use.

Levels of Strategy

In Waging Nonviolent Struggle, Robert Helvey and Gene Sharp describe four levels of strategy: grand strategy, strategy, tactics, and methods.

Grand strategy is the master concept of the struggle. It answers the question, "How are we going to win this struggle?" It specifies how to divide the struggle into a progression of phases/campaigns, and provides a framework for developing strategies for the individual campaigns. It ensures that the limited resources of the NVSG are most effectively used. Without a grand strategy, the NVSG may easily dissipate its energy and resources pursuing ineffective action.

The grand strategy considers which of the methods of nonviolent action are appropriate. Shall the resistance apply pressure through economic losses? (This was an effective weapon throughout the first half of the American Revolution.) How about undermining the opponent's legitimacy? For example, we may want to take every opportunity to highlight the essentially lawless nature of the State. What kinds of actions can weaken or remove the most important sources of power of the opponent? The grand strategy also considers what nonviolent actions to use that are not strictly struggle, such as fact-finding, publicity, education, etc.

Strategy is the planning for a single campaign for specific objectives. It fills in the details of the grand strategy for a specific phase of the struggle. It includes allocation of tasks and resources to particular groups; creating a favorable situation for the planned offensives; decision of when to kick off the campaign; and a general plan for using more limited engagements (see tactics below) to achieve the objectives of the campaign. For example, the first phase of a struggle might focus on building up the strength of the NVSG before engaging in any significant level of conflict. The strategy for this first phase would then be a plan for how to increase the number of activists, train them in nonviolent action, develop strategic skills in the leadership, build up the material resources available to the NVSG, and publicize their cause. Similarly to the grand strategy, the campaign strategy keeps the NVSG focused on action that is effective in securing the campaign objectives.

Tactics are limited plans of action, focused on a specific encounter with the opponents, aimed at achieving some limited objective in furtherance of the wider campaign strategy. It includes the particular nonviolent method to be used, any supporting methods, time and place of the action, publicity, how to encourage participation, and support for those who may suffer as a result of their participation.

Good tactical planning is especially important when carrying out acts of civil disobedience. The strategic purpose of civil disobedience is to confront the opponent with a dilemma: either the opponent ignores the disobedience, thereby encouraging more disobedience and weakening its control; or the opponent responds with violent repression, thereby revealing its hidden brutality, creating sympathy for the resisters, and weakening its own base of support. But none of this happens unless both the act of civil disobedience and the opponent's response are widely publicized.

Finally, methods are the individual forms of nonviolent action used. They fall into three broad categories:

a. Protest and persuasion. This category includes vigils, parades, petitions, picketing, mock awards, and so on.

b. Noncooperation. This category includes social boycotts, economic boycotts, civil disobedience, withdrawing from government schools, and so on.

c. Nonviolent intervention. This category includes hunger strikes, sit-ins, nonviolent obstruction, creation or strengthening of alternative institutions, and parallel government.

The goal for Beyond Ballots or Bullets is to produce a first cut at both the grand strategy and the strategy for the initial campaign.

The Strategic Estimate

The Strategic Estimate is a concept borrowed from military planning, and first applied to nonviolent struggle by retired U.S. Army colonel Robert Helvey. We can't expect to simply pull effective strategies -- at any of the four levels -- out of our heads. We need solid data to guide us in forming our strategies. We need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents, as well as our own strengths and weaknesses. We need to identify our opponents' sources of power and pillars of support, so that we may undermine these; we must also identify potential sources of power and pillars of support for our own movement, so that we may develop these. This is the purpose of the Strategic Estimate: to gather the information we need to formulate effective strategies for our struggle.

The questions addressed in the Strategic Estimate are organized as follows:

A. Issues and Objectives of the Contending Groups;

B. The Opponent Group;

C. Nonviolent Struggle Group and Broad Grievance Group;

D. Third Parties;

E. Dependency Balances;

F. General Conflict Situation.

At the end of this article is a link to the list of questions to be answered in the Strategic Estimate. These are adapted from the questions listed in Waging Nonviolent Struggle (which I found to need sharpening and specialization to our particular struggle). Each answer should be accompanied by a reference to its source or supporting evidence; unsupported opinions are useless.

There are a lot of questions here, and many of them don't have one-line answers. It's far too much work for one person to do.

This is where your help is needed.

If you've been looking for some effective action you can take to advance the cause of liberty, here it is. Help me prepare this Strategic Estimate by March 1 so that we can use it at Beyond Ballots or Bullets. Choose a question that interests you, that you know something about, or whose answer you know where to find; research it; then either email your findings to me, or (preferably) post them to the Root Strikers' Columns forum under the topic for this article.

Here are the questions for the Strategic Estimate.

The path to freedom will be a long but rewarding journey. Let's take the first step together.

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Kevin Van Horn's picture
Columns on STR: 4

Kevin S. Van Horn, Ph.D., is a computer scientist living in Orem, Utah.  At age 11 he became a proto-libertarian when he first began studying and thinking seriously about issues of government.  He has been a market anarchist for about two decades now.