Ian Desai makes a provocative argument that for all the deference shown to Gandhi by the OWSers, they don’t really “get” Gandhi. I have a few quibbles with Desai’s argument, but I agree with it more than not.
I agree with Desai that Gandhi would have discouraged the “us against them” mentality one sees on all sides. Gandhi said,
All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family, and each one of us is responsible for the misdeeds of all the others. I cannot detach myself from the wickedest soul.
The protests at millionaires’ homes, for example, is not something Gandhi would have done. That really served no purpose except to reinforce the us/them dichotomy that is the foundation of inequality. On the other hand, I believe he would have approved urging people to move money out of banks and into credit unions. He urged people to not cooperate with wrongdoing.
Even while protesting British colonial rule, however, Gandhi disavowed personal animus toward the British and left a door open for cooperation and discussion.
Further, genuine nonviolence begins with acknowledgment and atonement for one’s own responsibility for the current situation — Desai writes,
Society exists in a certain way when we enter it, but it is our actions or our inaction that maintain the status quo, make things worse, or transform them for the better. Gandhi explained this most pointedly when he declared that the British Empire existed because Indians had let it exist. He would say the same thing about the drastic income inequality in America today: it is here because Americans collectively allow it to be here.
Of course, Americans allowed it to be here. And those Americans include progressive and liberal activists.
As I’ve pointed out many times on this blog, much of our current economic/political situation was made possible by the actions of progressive activists over the past few decades. Most particularly, New Left activism played a large role in destroying the New Deal coalition back in the 1970s, but then the New Left failed to step in and take its place as a reliable voter base for the Democratic Party. Instead, the New Left fell in love with identity politics and splintered into myriad single-issue advocacy organizations that mostly stayed outside election politics. And the Right was well funded and ready to step into the vacuum. Soon Democrats were left with no alternative but to line up for corporate money to win elections.
We can complain all we like that both parties are corrupt, but let’s acknowledge that progressives collectively allowed this to happen. I know most of the OWSers are too young to have been around in the 1970s, but an understanding of how we got into this mess is critical for finding a road out of it, IMO.
The knee-jerk dismissal of all party politics one sees among so many lefties is the same mindset that caused the New Left to kick the props out from under the Democratic Party and then walk away from it, which is how come we are left with right-wing dominance of politics. It’s just compounding the same stupid mistake.
Citing the course of Gandhi’s work, Desai suggests that OWS would do well to re-focus on “direct social assistance and positive political action.”
At the height of his prominence in 1930, Gandhi renounced his own home and political headquarters and later moved into the heart of rural India to set up service organizations and promote â€œvillage industriesâ€ and sustainable small-scale economies.
There are differences between 1930s India and 2011 America. There already are programs and charities serving the needs of the poor, even if inadequately. The Right, in fact, would probably approve of such action as a way to completely absolve itself of responsibility — let the libs take care of ’em. But mass actions to call attention to the consequences of financial injustice — rather than just occupying city space while waving “tax the rich” signs — might be just the thing.
As for political action, Gandhi would also want a more systematic, constructive plan for the movement. While he would have been patient as objectives and tactics were debated, he would insist that eventually the protesters adopt goals, define their strategy, and communicate these to their opponents and the broader public. That is the responsibility would-be revolutionaries must assume. If you want transparency, fairness and conscientiousness from your opponent, you have to become an exemplar of those virtues yourself.
Yes. Like it or not.
Update: This sounds promising.