Passive Resistance: Creating Change in the Modern World

Table of Contents

Passive Resistance

What is Passive Resistance? 

Passive resistance refers to nonviolent protests against an authority, convention, or power structure. Passive resistors eschew violence even when faced with violent opposition. Despite the word ‘passive,’ this type of resistance is not inactive or lazy. Passive resistance will often involve sit-ins, boycotts, walkouts, marches, hunger strikes, and so on.

The day after the Tiananmen Massacre,

The day after the Tiananmen Massacre, ‘Tank Man,’ an unknown protestor, stood in front of tanks driving through China’s Tiananmen Square (1989)

Photographed by Jeff Widener 

Source: TIME 

While various forms of passive resistance date back millenia, the term itself came about sometime between the American Civil War and the early 19th century. ‘Passive resistance’ was used to refer to the Colonists’ nonviolent provocations prior to the beginning of the war. Despite its origins, the term came into common parlance with Mahatma Gandhi and his famous nonviolent protests against the British Raj.

Per the Commonwealth Fund, “the average U.S. resident paid $1,122 out-of-pocket for health care, which includes expenses like copayments for doctor’s visits and prescription drugs or health insurance deductibles.” Does the US healthcare system need to be so expensive?

Political Theories Behind Passive Resistance

French Magistrate and political theorist Étienne de la Boétie (1530–1563) contemplated the nature of political power. He argued that even a king or dictator must have some degree of cooperation by the citizenry to remain in power. Operating purely based on their own whims without consideration of the public interest will likely result in some form of resistance.

Although far from a case of passive resistance, the French Revolution (1789-1793) illustrates just how important it is for a ruler to remain on the public’s good side. The exploitative, rigged system of the Ancien Régime eventually led the ~98% to fight for socioeconomic equality

Famed English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), also known as the “Father of Liberalism,” made similar claims about a century later. He argued that governance, in general, can only gain legitimate authority through the consent afforded by the governed. Modern democracies, according to Locke, center around the exchange between a government, its governors, and its governed. Thus, large enough resistance from a nation’s citizens will compel change lest the governors wish for a revolution (or more extreme resistance, at least).

Photograph of one of the Chicano Movement’s nonviolent protests Photographed by George Rodriguez

Photograph of one of the Chicano Movement’s nonviolent protests

Photographed by George Rodriguez

Source: BuzzFeed News

Perhaps the foremost expert on passive resistance, Gene Sharp compiled a list of 198 different methods of ‘nonviolent action.’ Sharp very much believed in the high-stakes balancing act involving a ruler/government and its people. Passive resistance, Sharp argued, represented a powerful strategy to tip the scales in favor of the citizenry. They might not have the firepower to fight those in power, but they have significantly more numbers. 

Passive resistance, according to Sharp, need not stem from a moral commitment to pacifism. It can, but it is not necessary. This means that protestors can elect to use nonviolent action for purely strategic or practical reasons. If they believed violent resistance would yield better results, then they would have no qualms doing so.

Women’s Suffrage Movement 

The women’s suffrage movement provides one of the prime examples of passive resistance. In both Great Britain and the U.S., suffragists published pamphlets, organized demonstrations, and even resorted to hunger strikes. Some groups, however, did believe that violence was necessary to win the right to vote.


The terms “suffragist” and “suffragette” actually differ. 

Suffragists were individuals who advocated for women’s voting rights, often in a peaceful, non-confrontational way. 

Suffragettes specifically referred to women who advocated for women’s suffrage through ‘militant’ or extreme tactics (e.g. hunger strikes, smashing windows, accosting politicians).

A leader of the British women’s suffrage movement, Emmeline Pankhurst took no half measures. She sacrificed her health numerous times by going on hunger strikes in prison. The government responded to this method of passive resistance by passing the ‘Cat and Mouse Act.’ The legislation enabled the government to temporarily free imprisoned protestors enfeebled by their hunger strike. When the protester recovered or appeared in public, authorities would force them to serve the rest of their prison sentence. 

Prison authorities force fed suffragists who had committed to a hunger strike

Prison authorities force fed suffragists who had committed to a hunger strike

Source: Museum of London

In the U.S., the National Women’s Party took a nonviolent approach to achieving women’s suffrage. The organization typically used lobbying and petitioning, but also organized parades, pageants, and demonstrations. It eventually ramped up its aggression, picketing the White House at one point

The Movement for Indian Independence

The movement for Indian independence from the British Raj was led by one of the greatest proponents of passive resistance and pacifism: Mahatma Gandhi

His early life actually did not suggest that he would make much of himself. Gandhi showed little aptitude for academics, although he managed to earn a law degree. Unable to find much work in India, he traveled to South Africa in the late 19th century, where he would truly find his path. 

Gandhi quickly discovered that Indians in South Africa were viewed as second class citizens. Once meek and retreating, he mustered up the confidence to champion the rights of the Indian community. But he refused to resort to violent resistance due to his studies of Hinduism and the Bhagavad Gita. One example of passive resistance from Gandhi’s tenure in South Africa was that supporters refused to carry government-issued passes. They even burned the passes, claiming their rights as citizens of the British Empire. Through his time in South Africa, Gandhi built his form of passive resistance, satyagraha.

We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in thought, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress towards it.

Mohandas Gandhi

His Salt March, a protest against the British empire’s exploitative salt tax, received global attention. Major news outlets around the world followed the 240-mile trip from his religious retreat to the coast of the Arabian sea. Ghandi’s grueling trip ended with him harvesting salt from the sea—a violation of a law that allowed Britain to unethically boost its profits from its subjects. His powerful act of passive resistance emboldened his compatriots to defy the tax and resist the Raj.

Gandhi, in his iconic garb, journeying to the coast

Gandhi, in his iconic garb, journeying to the coast

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Economist Utsa Patnaik calculated just how much money the British Raj ripped off from the Indian people. She claims: “Between 1765 and 1938, the drain amounted to 9.2 trillion pounds ($45 trillion), taking India’s export surplus earnings as the measure, and compounding it at a 5 percent rate of interest.

Martin Luther King Jr. & The Civil Rights Movement

My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not non-resistance to evil; but non-violent resistance to evil. Between the two positions, there is a world of difference.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Gandhi’s form of passive resistance managed to inspire activists all around the globe. One ‘student’ of his successfully adapted satyagraha to inspire and lead the civil rights movement. That student was an Alabamian minister, the venerable Martin Luther King. 

The civil rights movement (the 1950s-60s) was built on a wide range of nonviolent actions. King believed that passive resistance would not only establish a strong moral position about rights and equality but also exert considerable economic and political pressure on Congress. Although not a Hindu, the minister drew heavily from his own faith in Christianity.

Boycotts of segregated department stores, for example, generated economic pressure to change their discriminatory policies. Mass protests would often result in mass arrests, overloading the police and judicial systems. But much like Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence, Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches, perhaps, remain some of the most influential nonviolent actions he ever took. 

In particular, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (when MLK uttered the words “I have a dream…”) created the final push for the Civil Rights Act to get through Congress. The minister attracted more than 250,000 demonstrators in a march that ended at the Lincoln Memorial.

Lincoln Memorial.

MLK sought to achieve economic justice for all Americans. Through slavery, redlining due to the National Housing Act, wage discrimination, and much more, the Black community has bore serious economic injustices. The U.S. economy was rigged against them, but we might have an even bigger economic problem on our hands…

Our Form of Passive Resistance

Passive resistance can serve as a powerful tool for social change. The disenfranchised and mistreated do not necessarily have to take up arms to receive what the basic rights they deserve.

When it comes to the Zero Theft Movement, we take a democratic, evidence-based approach to combating the rigged economy. No weapons other than cold hard evidence. You might remember Occupy Wall Street, the group that took over Zuccotti Park after the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. They did not formulate a proper plan to accurately estimate just how much money is being ripped off of average Americans. 

So, how does the Zero Theft Movement solve the problem? 

The Zero Theft Movement has created an independent voting platform where you and your fellow citizens work together to calculate the most accurate estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the United States. 

The public investigates potential problem areas, and everyone votes on whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas exist and start working on addressing them systematically. 

Only through hard evidence can we prove where the rigged parts of the economy exist and force Congress to hold all the bad actors accountable.

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

The public has spoken! See how much the rigged economy is ripping off from you…

Explore the Problem Hierarchy

We have primers on potential problem areas of the economy. Before you start voting, it’s important you get a basic understanding of the issues at hand, so you can be as helpful as possible to other community members. Take a few minutes and come prepared.

Serve your fellow citizens as a citizen investigator

The success of our movement rests in your hands, the leaders willing to dedicate time to conduct investigations into potentially rigged areas of the economy. Lead the movement and help create an ethical economy.

Heroism made easy

Twenty minutes! That’s all the time you need to contribute to our effort. Just review a proposal and vote. Our reports will only gain legitimacy and power with your contributions.

Commitment to nonpartisanship

The rigged layer causes all of us to suffer, regardless of our political allegiances. If we wish to eliminate rigged economy theft, we have to set aside our differences and band together against crony capitalists and corrupt officials. 

Beyond the Plunge Protection Team…

An educated public is an empowered public.

We regularly publish educational articles on, just like this one on the Plunge Protection Team. They teach you all about the rigged layer of the economy in short, digestible pieces.