What Would Gandhi Do?

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 “village industries” 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.

Desai continues,

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.

This sounds promising.

25 thoughts on “What Would Gandhi Do?

  1. “Mass actions (on) the consequences of financial injustice might be just the thing”. OK, can you (or commenters) post some examples of what you mean?

  2. bruce k – something I posted yesterday: during the financial “recovery” the median US household income decreased by 6.7%; 9/10% of income growth, on the other hand, since the end of the recession has gone to corporate profits.

    From a moral stand point, I would call that an injustice – corporations profited from the ‘recession’ while the average American worker took it in the neck. From a purely practical stand point, if corporations have so much capital why aren’t they creating jobs. Isn’t that the Right’s argument? That when corporations are flush with capital, they create jobs. So, where are they.

    • The question is, how might some kind of demonstration more vividly illustrate the consequences of economic injustice? Something that would draw attention to the living conditions of people whose lives have been devastated by the machinations of Wall Street. March into hard-hit communities with armloads of Christmas presents, maybe. Have handouts for the press ready explaining how people became economically devastated through no fault of their own, and why more tax cuts for the rich won’t help.

  3. As to the “us-against-them” mentality, in the movie on Gandhi there is a scene where a father whose non-Muslim son has recently been killed by a Muslim visits Gandhi asking him what he should do, if anything. Gandhi advises the father to adopt a Muslim boy into his family and raise him as one of his own.

  4. felicity,
    thanks. i was not questioning the rationale or the argument or the consequences of economic injustice, i was instead asking for examples of “mass actions that demonstrate the consequences of financial injustice”.

    maybe maha could do a post about such mass actions that might be “just the thing”…

  5. bruce k – I can think of one mass action that would demonstrate the consequences of financial injustice – gather up our 50,000 homeless in LA and build them a tent city in the heart of the city. Pretty hard not to notice 50,000 people.

  6. Families with young children whose parents must work multiple jobs to avoid homelessness, families with students in college taking on ever increasing debt to finance their hopes of improved economic security, familes with greater than average health care costs, veterans who cannot get work or adequate health care–examples of expanding social injustices that will likely result in wide-ranging consequences which Americans will, collectively, attempt to blame on people who are simply doing their best to make agonizing choices while confronting bad to worse options. By the way, any suggestions for best (political) books to give this holiday season? (Sorry if that topic has already been covered in a post.) The ideas, touched on here, about New Left mistakes have undoubtedly been expanded on by some fine scholars, for example, and might provide helpful guidance for these (potentially) hopeful new movers and shakers (I’m thinking of my own college age children). Thanks!

  7. The last 10-30+ years, the increase in the holdings of the wealthy, the growth in the number of poor and un/under-employed, the election of President Obama, the rise of the astro-turfed Tea Party, and now the grassroots OWS, have all helped to create a national dialectic.

    On the one hand, you have the wealthy and the corporations, and the Conservatives who side with their interests, and on the other, you have OWS, and the remaining Liberals and Progressives.

    I wish we had a Gandhi, or a Martin Luther King Jr., but we don’t.
    Right now, OWS is at least a start.
    I saw somewhere recently, that support for the Tea Party has gone down dramatically – even in districts that elected Teabagging Congresscritters. Now, sure, some of this is the result of the “Party of NO!” that has stymied Obama and the country from making advances.
    But I think that OWS may have had something to do with this too, pointing out the dichotomy between wealth and poverty in this country, and how tenuous anyone’s position is who is not part of the top 1-2%.
    The Tea Party had a lot of older Baby Boomers who benefited from low tuition, and all sorts of government programs, up to and including SS and Medicare, and who were out there protesting the very government and programs that they had allowed them to advance, and to retire. Sure, there were others there, but even in that case there were those people who were employed by state or local governments, or who depended on disability payments or Medicaid. Maybe it took OWS to help people spot the hypocrisy.
    OWS is the students with tuition debt that is crippling to their financial futures, with few good job prospects in their futures. But it’s more. It’s the construction workers, who were only to eager to crack the skulls of the anti-war protesters, who come out and join in on their lunch hours. It’s a movement that doesn’t exclude anyone who’s not part of the wealthiest of the wealthy.

    Maybe OWS as is, is enough.
    For now.
    As a start.
    What the future will be is for brighter minds than mine.
    But waiting for an American Gandhi or another MLK to lead OWS will be like waiting for Godot – which is still a play you can learn a lot from, even if Godot never shows up.

  8. Ok, once my comment gets out of moderation – I remembered where I read that about rapidly declining Tea Party support. It was at BJ, and here’s the link to the original article in the NY Times:


    My question, if you read the article, is the last sentence, where it says “The analysis is based on polls conducted by the Pew Research Center from March 2010 through November.”

    Now, that would make less than NO sense, since November of 2010 is when the Teabagging assholes got elected – so, I assume they mean 2011.
    It HAS to be 2011, or if it was 2010, then it was the ‘P-U’ Reasearch Center who did it, because their polling stinks.

  9. maha,
    How about blocking champagne deliveries to the Wall Street firms celebrating above the protesters, and instead have the OWS protesters send up some cheap beer, MadDog 20/20, or home-made moonshine or raisin-jack instead, for the rich to toast them with when they mock them?
    Especially the home-made raisin-jack.
    Raisin-jack, as I understand it, is one of the few things people in prison, where many of these people should be, can brew with ingredients available to them.

  10. There’s a lot to chew on here, but I would argue that the protests at millionaires’ homes are precisely what Gandhi would have advocated. You have to confront those who are oppressing you, so they can see it with their own eyes. It isn’t about we vs them in this case.

    Now – these protests – if they were just randomly picking some nice part of town and going after rich people – that is dumb. It has to be targetted against those who specifically are oppressing you.

    But I agree in general with the we vs them mentality that ideally should be transcended. It’s an aspect of Bigger Asshole rule – you have to always be on the higher moral ground.

    • You have to confront those who are oppressing you, so they can see it with their own eyes. It isn’t about we vs them in this case.

      But the demonstrations really didn’t serve the purpose of showing the millionaires that they were oppressors. All it did was show them some DFHs didn’t like them.
      Gandhi avoided making anyone the “enemy,” even if they had to be confronted. His confrontations were not against people and institutions but against specific policies. It was against what people did, not the people themselves.

  11. Well, maha, Gandhi was working against a caste system in India that had been there for what, well over a thousand years?
    From what I remember, it was nearly impossible to move up in caste.
    And people who were in the upper caste (Brahmin’s) had little or no contact with the poorer castes, down to the “Uuntouchables.” So, these poorer people were looked upon as subhuman – as bad, or even worse than blacks were looked upon here in America for centuries.
    So Gandhi had to show the Brahmins and the upper castes that the path to an independent India lay not in continuing to ally themselves with the British, but with other Indians – ones who they looked upon as lower than dogs and cows. He had to show them that Untouchables were human just like them.

    A lot of our modern American Brahmin’s are only Brahmins for several (legacied) generations. If they want to look for their own families “Untouchables,” or other lower caste members, they can probably look back in the family photo albums one one or both sides, or their family Bible if they kept track of births and deaths there.
    So, the difference is that we don’t need to introduce ourselves anew as fellow humans, but as the same humans as them except for the old adage of, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
    And a lot of our Brahmins have forgotten that what separates most of us here isn’t effort, or skill, or even smarts – but luck. And that they really do need the rest of us, as much as they may feel superior to us.

    Like these American Brahmins who won Powerball in CT:
    These guys were born on 3rd Base, walked Home with the bases loaded, and probably think they hit a Home Run. Well, at least that money’s going to charity! Or, so they say. And what possible motivation could they have to lie to us?

    It’s shit like this that makes me not believe in God.
    Either that, or He/She/It has a cruel sense of humor, and really hates Liberals.

  12. From a purely practical stand point, if corporations have so much capital why aren’t they creating jobs. Isn’t that the Right’s argument? That when corporations are flush with capital, they create jobs. So, where are they.

    They have an answer for that. Investors in businesses are citing “uncertainty”. What does this mean?

    Well, in normal times – when a Republican is President, say – it means “if we open a new pizza place, well, people might not have enough money to buy pizza. Now is not the right time. Maybe in a while.”

    Today, it means “they’re uncertain about new taxes or regulations!”

    The evidence for this? Well… if it wasn’t that, they wouldn’t have any reason to attack Obama. So, it must be true.

    Plus, if they agreed that it’s “well, it’s a bad time to open a pizza place” they’d have to agree with (UGH!!) Paul Krugman.

  13. The main thing about OWS that confounds so many outsiders is they appear nebulous and leaderless. There is a purpose for that; “leaders” can be corrupted, then the movement falls apart. OWS will eventually evolve, into what, I’m not sure.

    Back in the days of the British Raj in what is today India and Pakistan, the British would infiltrate various groups and movements and install a mole who eventually emerges as a director in the group. This is how divide and conquer works.
    It is certain that esoteric groups are trying to gain control of OWS in order to destroy it or make it move in another direction to control it.
    Gandhi knew how the system worked, and in the end, things did not work well for him.( same for MLK)
    I think the object of OWS is to draw attention to the problems, and it seems the next arena for the movement is cyberspace. I have learned to never trust anyone under 30 with electronic devices ( the circle is now complete?)
    At this point in history, we are faced with a number of major problems and possibilities. Record unemployment, budget busting foreign adventures, feuding lawmakers who have grid locked government, over the top corruption of our finance system, and now an INSANE debate has started about attacking Iran.
    On the news last night, there was a film clip of Romney saying how he needs to be elected to help the “Job Creators”, why doesn’t he start some job creation right NOW? WTF? And Herman Cain has yet another woman emerging from the shadows claiming to have had a relationship.
    Nothing like a honey trap to end a political career; the more people you murder, the more they like you; but sex is the bad thing.
    Not that I’m in favor of cheating on a spouse, but what is considered good and bad in modern America sometimes boggles the mind.
    Actually, Patagonia is looking pretty good right now……..

    • Back in the days of the British Raj in what is today India and Pakistan, the British would infiltrate various groups and movements and install a mole who eventually emerges as a director in the group. This is how divide and conquer works.

      You think that can’t happen now? People in groups will sort themselves into leaders and followers; we’re hardwired to do that. It would be easy for an assertive person with an agenda to join an OWS encampment and peel off some OWSers to serve his purposes. I don’t doubt it’s happened already. Indeed, unless people in the group are committed to some kind of direction, the group will divide itself sooner rather than later.

      I don’t buy the argument that since MLK and Gandhi didn’t accomplish everything they wanted to accomplish, they exemplify a failed leadership model. What they did accomplish was extraordinary; OWS will be lucky to do half that well.

      I read this yesterday

      Like many of the Occupy actions that have focused on specific policy questions, this one is being organized by established progressive and labor-affiliated groups along with their allies in the movement. Among the allied groups listed on Occupy Our Homes’ website, for example, are the New Bottom Line and New York Communities for Change. On the Occupy Wall Street side of things, members of the direct action working group and the movement-building group in New York have been involved in the project.

      Occupy Our Homes’ website (which was registered by a former SEIU official staffer) has the trappings of a slick professional campaign, with videos featuring the stories of families facing foreclosures and a pledge visitors are encouraged to sign stating:

      … that until the banks do their part to help homeowners and to fix the economy, by writing down mortgage principal to current home values, I will:

      I will support homeowners resisting wrongful foreclosure evictions.
      I will resist any attempt by the bank to take my home.
      If they come to foreclose, I will not go.

      A network of groups organized as Take Back the Land has been doing eviction defenses and related actions around the country for five years, according to organizer Max Rameau.

      In other words, established, hierarchical organizations are making use of the symbolic action of OWS to ramp up the work they already were doing. I’m fine with this, and maybe OWS will continue to generate energy and momentum that can be useful for progressive action. If so, then it certainly has value. But some parts of it easily could be turned to work against progressivism.

      I have learned to never trust anyone under 30 with electronic devices ( the circle is now complete?)

      LOL. Awhile back I remember proposing a rule that no male under the age of 30 be allowed to use a megaphone at public demonstrations. Young fellas tend to have way too much energy and, well, testosterone and not nearly enough sense or experience to know their own limits. The way we ladies used to be raised, we knew our limits a little too well, but perhaps that’s not as true as it used to be.

  14. erinyes,
    “…the British would infiltrate various groups and movements and install a MOLE who eventually emerges as a director in the group.”

    You see how much better we are than the English? Good old American ingenuity! We replaced the moles with ratfuckers. USA! USA!! USA!!!

  15. How Republicans Are Being Taught to Talk About OWS.

    Frank Luntz:

    “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist and one of the nation’s foremost experts on crafting the perfect political message. “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”

  16. LongHaired – Remember what a CEO of GM said a few years ago – we make the largest profit on our car loans, not on the sale of our cars.

    America’s financial sector in the ’70’s and ’80’s was 1/5 as big as the total profits of America’s non-financial firms. After 2000, it was about 1/2 as big.

    The point is – Robert Reich goes into this in depth in one of his latest books – a supporting truth of successful capitalism is we create wealth by making things. A little more than 40 years ago our industries had the ability to and did modernize, innovate, produce and compete. Our economy was free. As the second and third worlds began to compete, our industries found it more profitable to invest their capital in the financial sector, and did so big time.

    And it was a good move. Since the ’80’s the financial sector has speculated, swindled and cheated its way to overwhelming wealth. It’s unrealistic to expect corporations to put the bulk of their profits anywhere but the financial sector. (Their “uncertainty” argument is a pile of bull shit.)

  17. maha – Off topic, but I recently found an article in the Nation by Eric Schneiderman suggesting that the conservative tsunami of the last 30 years was accomplished because the conservatives moved voters closer to them, rather than changing their positions or rhetoric to move toward the voters. He calls this transformational politics rather than transactional. Something to mull over, perhaps.

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