At Religion Dispatches, Ira Chernus (whom I interviewed here a few years ago) ably responds to Ian Diaz’s New York Times op-ed, which argues that Gandhi would call for disbanding the Occupy movement:
[T]he Mahatma would have been amazed at the conclusion Desai draws: Dismantle the occupations and fan out to establish “community centers, schools, shelters, charities” everywhere. That’s a subtle distortion of Gandhi’s program of “constructive work.” It had nothing to do with charity and everything to do with creating alternative economic and social institutions while actively resisting the dominant, dominating institutions.
Where better to start brainstorming and experimenting for a new society than in Zuccotti Park and the dozens of other urban spaces where occupiers are building real 24/7 communities? Split those communities up into little teams of volunteers and their creative energy would soon be gone, which is no way to fulfill our responsibility to transform a society that is unjust in so many ways.
Chernus goes on to reply to Desai point by point—very much worth reading. But the whole question seems odd to me. This is of course a whole sub-genre in the debates about the Occupy movement, that of asking what this or that historical figure would do if suddenly transported to the present. Would Jesus occupy? Would the Founding Fathers? How about Rosa Parks? The trouble is, the reason these people changed the world is that they responded to their circumstances creatively, beyond a simple yes or no. What they did to confront the challenges of their time pushed beyond the either-or that other people were stuck in. If they lived in our time, they’d probably surprise us too.
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It is important to realize is that positive programs also provide sites for meaningful satyagraha. A positive project basically is the bus on which Rosa Parks rode. The occupiers are creating a false conflict in the main; they have to build the bus first. The skirmish line with the police is more appropriate for a movement concerned primarily with police brutality. Positive projects would involve initiatives which would then be sites in which people forwarding their alternatives could run up against the prevailing systems and face the stasis that might well never provide an opportunity for these programs to be implemented without real resistance and holding-to-truth. Thereupon the satyagraha as protest and civil disobedience might — might — be needed but would and should only take place out of an original relation to others that itself is essentially good-willed. But therein lies a host of problems that really need explication. It is not easy; it is both highly possible and at the same time very hidden by the over-developed rage and vengeance culture, including the entirety of the Western traditions.
To realize “positive programs” in Zuccotti park or elsewhere and get clear on what this entails requires the decisive turn from the hidden-in-plain-sight capitalism of rage that dominates both Left and Right, creating, quite often, a mockery of Gandhi’s own simple – and not so simple — path and professed belief and practice of a deeper, truer nonviolence founded not simply in a practice of “non-anger” and “good-will”, but rather, quite radically, on a truth upon which that good will is founded. This points to the heart of Gandhi which is apparently simply rarely understood. While many idolize mohan (let us not go along with Chernus in saying “the Mahatma”!), far fewer actually step foot on the path he actually trod (indeed, who would dare call themselves a saint or mahatma, so why bother trying that sort of level of engagement…), which is by no means reducible to creativity, nor even to experimentation with the truth: it is the truth that he experimented with that is the issue.
The creativity to few rightly emphasize remains trapped in the rage culture and rage capitalism that systematically degrades it, in spite of its own ostensible manifestations of “creativity”, hiding the fact that beyond the many rage-products we are sold and which have lodged themselves in many hearts, there lie resources of creativity whose quantity, like the light of the sun, can one day dwarf our best efforts today and empower those in great need beyond what is considered in any way realistically possible currently. The path to these “resources” is closed by the great economy that diverts the emergence of this truth. No, it is not the materialism we are constantly told is the “man behind the curtain” determining the stasis and dominance of our culture. It is the great economy of rage and vengeance as this expresses itself in heart, mind, court, social milieus, media, religion, philosophy, theory and activism. It is this culture that must be refused, both in its dark moments, which is easy, but also in its boldest affirmations of “necessary” violence, as in the war in Iraq and the sanctions before and in the rage against oppression that flourishes within progressive culture.
Yet what was Gandhi’s truth? Was it simply the disclosure of the world founded in good-will and nonviolence? In other words, one version of truth? Not exactly. The culture that sells us the truth that the media and capitalism sell us “lies” has sold us many lies as well. They are no mere lies, however. They are meta-lies in service of the greatest lie of all: that materialism and greed are the problem rather than the rage and vengeance culture that goes on unchecked. When the meta-lies are exposed along with the fundamental lies of violence itself, mohan’s truth begins to show itself for what it is: the truth. Without a capital letter, oddly enough! Positive programs (which I term enconstruction, enarchy and envolution) limp in precisely this way: truth is diverted into rage and vengeance culture which serves as the true basis for materialism. Materialism flourishes in violence culture because violence is the great illusion of justice and action, and thus has great stakes in rendering minds being fitted for reception of the spirit of violence. Gandhiji’s fundamental action was the refusal of the reception of and participation in that spirit and illusion.
In other words, the call for the positive program, and the idea that Gandhi wouldn’t be simply protesting as the occupiers are today may be true, but this entails dealing with certain, specific issues. Only when the occupation movement is oriented fundamentally to confront the criminal justice system and vengeance-based media and spirituality will it be able to adequately limit corporate, capitalizing greed and its partner, *consumption*. For this other consumption remains the chief problem: the spiritual consumption of rage logics wherever these occur. They flourish in their own way in the progressive movements and additionally systematically degrade positive projects and creativity, not to mention problem solving.
The decisive confrontation with, departure from and enpositivization of the rage culture need not seem daunting, however. For if one is given to the positive program one need only realize this: that it is not just any positive program that needs to be enacted, but specifically, that program which consists in the unfolding of the essential matters as is needful regarding the elucidation of the rage and vengeance culture. This is a specific, substantive turning, which I would suggest is itself a kind of spinning. I suggest it is an elegant solution to a difficult problem that enables the most full-fledged efforts possible but does not suffer from the problem in which Gandhi’s truth languishes and limps today in the effort to vaunt positive action and *satyagraha* without understanding the situation as regards the great capitalism taking place and what is truly unique about Gandhi’s holding-to-truth.
In other words, there is indeed a great need for the positive program, but if one thinks Gandhi would just be setting up positive programs, think again. And again. And again. In fact, don’t stop thinking at all: realize this, if you will: that the positive program that needs to be developed is precisely the positive program of the unfolding of the nonviolence thoughtaction in its essence that addresses specifically this rage and vengeance, that is to say, violence-based, culture. For that is truly Gandhiji’s – mohan’s – truth. That is the truth of satyagraha. No mere tactic, nor violence of shaming, nor method of trumping up crimes for which to prosecute cops or oust chancellors or fill the prisons with Wall Street bandits, or method of social shunning that capitalizes on the idea that not to physically hit amounts to nonviolence like the sanctions in Iraq capitalized on the idea that not to bomb is relatively nonviolent (the opposite is evidently true), mohan’s first and foremost positive program was this truth, spun together in his first act of spinning truth and action together in satya-agraha. Specific actions were founded on precisely this and in a way only this. This is what eludes most of the “nonviolence” contingent within most movements. The releasing and realization of nonviolence at the same time releases and realizes the potential of the positive program. The rage and vengeance culture shuts down this development systematically because it orients the mind to receive its proffered illusions of violence as such, crippling in essential ways the development of positive potential. Without getting clear on this, calling for positive programs is like suggesting that a firefighter who is spraying a burning house with gasoline point the spraying hose on another part of the house. Satyagraha consists in this: standing in the stream of that gasoline in such a manner as to transform it into water. It is a fitting analogy given the role of the self-immolation of the Tunisian who helped to start these revolutions and attempted revolutions, while we do not serve his hideous and sad suffering adequately if we do not do precisely this.
The finding of nonviolence does not lie in its capacity to vaunt positive programs, although these are obviously quite important. Gandhi wasn’t simply creative. Pushing for these won’t suffice. No, it lies in the happenstance, felicity and unique and irreducible condition that the positive program one chooses to develop is nonviolence as such, a happening that one must strive ever to make happen more, but never with violent force, but only by working to help unfold and develop the conditions of possibility of this turn and specific devotion. For this is at the same time the very form of alternative, restorative and meditative justice, which Gandhi likewise vaunted quite fully in spirit. The radical action of nonviolence lies in this turn. Gandhi’s promotion of positive programs was a fruit of his nonviolence. The lack of the manifestation of this fruit today is an indication of the underlying status of nonviolence. Nonviolence is indeed “creative”, but not simply in order to “solve things in order to ameliorate violence” or creatively interact with violent oppressors, although these things are good and are involved. No, nonviolence fosters creativity in a more original way, and it is out of that specific way that Gandhi was able to vaunt the positive program: that nonviolence opens the eyes of its practitioner far beyond the squint of rage’s hyper-focusing and can disclose rage for what it is: the blinding of possibility that in turn closes the positive program.
This turn is a spinning. This is always in a way the first spinning. This was Gandhi’s spinning. This turn is a kind of revolving that turns and spins, in a kind of revolution that enjoins without toppling, enlists without forcing, enables without owning, enriches without suffering depletion, enacts without pummeling with “action” and force, en-… well you see the role of the “en” in this, and that is why I term what is needful here as “envolution”, which was Gandhi’s mode of revolution and the basic mode of the positive program some are en-visioning. This nonviolence thoughtaction is engaged and creative, unfolding and in a way infinite. I would suggest it is far more Jeffersonian than one might think at first, oddly enough, and that his kind of cosmopolitian, learned, disciplined, skilled, polymath engagement and living might be an important example of the kind of work that is needed. And that really is a bit of a far cry from Zuccotti park, but closer to Gandhiji than one might think, in a way. But it is a far cry from Zuccotti for a real reason, and that has to do with the culture of rage and vengeance and its great capitalizations that continue to hold sway and essentially immolate truth, indeed, Gandhi’s truth. For this we must stand in the face of the stream of rage, the flow of the gasoline, and help to create the happening of the positive program that finds itself unfolding the specific positive program of nonviolence that identifies and release from the strangle-hold of the culture of rage and vengeance that keeps positive programs from developing.
While this thinking seems complex, it is at the same time repetitive and may even admit of a certain beauty and, in any case, an odd capacity for a kind of continuing unfolding. Indeed, it does so just as spinning may be repetitive and may unfold or en-fold together disparate strands and fibers into a certain thread, a spinning thread that may constitute a certain act of affirmation of a kind of freedom and a kind of resistance to a dominating capitalism. I have indicated just what I think that capitalism is. I hereby spin and continue to spin in a kind of joyous spirit (for the moment), what I call *satyagrahaha* that stands within the flow of the flames and gasoline of the culture of rage, vengeance, judgment and its ongoing crippling of positive work, amelioration, problem solving, empowerment and nonviolence in that peculiar manner in which the violence of it is at one and the same time the very closer of the unfolding that this unfolding releases itself from in this spinning that has happened to take up the issue of this very spinning in this way: that it undertakes in the space of the question of nonviolence the opening of the question in light of the nature of that opening and in the darkness of the closure of that opening in the dominance of the violence of many kinds that holds sway both in the darkness of the prisons but in the blinding light of the rage of the movements that protest materialism yet, oddly enough, not so much the prisons, not so much the sanctions, not so much the wars, even. Oddly enough.
Thank you, Ravia—quite a tour de force of a comment. There’s much to appreciate in what you’ve said! One thing I might question at the beginning, though: I’m not sure building the bus constitutes the positive (or “constructive”) program. In fact, Rosa Parks’ action on the bus was just the kind of direct confrontation with power that I’d probably put under the category of the negative (or “obstructive”) program. You contrast her action against the occupiers’ confrontations with the police, but remember that she was indeed arrested by a police officer for her action. There is a place for confrontation with the police—the means by which one’s opponent maintains its power—but I think the evidence of a good satyagrahi is that the confrontation is clearly and always directed against the opponent, not the police. As OWS moves toward actions like this week’s K Street shutdown in DC, or Occupy Our Homes, I’d argue it is getting closer and closer to the ideal of an action like Parks’.
I think I see what you are saying. The constructive program is not in itself a confrontation. Parks’ action was not first and foremost a confrontation, however, and I think this should be a guide for satyagraha, like the salt march, which also was not a confrontation with the military who brutalized the marchers. It was a holding-to-truth. The power of this holding lies in there being, from the start, something essentially positive, an original good or affirmation, and no mere opponentiality at all involved. To “confront” means to face, to go in front of, face-off and ultimately it bespeaks a situation of force-against-force, a squaring off that already in its own way participates in violence, even if practice nonviolence is “used” tactically. Such a use is the predominant form today and constitutes the greatest threat to and degradation of nonviolence. Parks rode a bus she may well have been inclined to ride, sat where she should have been able to. That it incurred the reaction it did, like the salt marchers, was a basically and essentially secondary aspect. In fact, part of the problem with the basic rage/vengeance economy is that it leaves us too prone to frame interactions as confrontations and not as this “other thing” of the satyagraha — for which Gandhi had to strive even to find a name — that is, perhaps essentially, never simply confrontational at all.
Protests that see simply to “occupy” and challenge, or to boldly defy, even defy well formed commands to leave necessary roadways, seek, perhaps for a good cause, to confront, in the form of a “soft violence”. This is not satyagraha. Satyagraha is indeed a pursuit of truth, a holding to and standing firm in truth. This means that the bus, so to speak, needs to be there: what one rides, in an original good and basic action (the bus is a good: the good of basic transportation). The holding-to lies in sitting there, as Gandhi did in I guess South Africa, when one is being asked or forced to leave. This holding-to is not confrontation yet, and ultimately should never be, even if one is arrested in the process. Such satyagraha for Gandhi was the height of “prayer”, the gathering of self to the hightest good. In the most extreme situation of submitting to violence it is even less confrontational.
The constructive program gives the opportunity of starting to do something perhaps new but for which there ought to be a right: perhaps an economic practice in which willing participants engage, setting up their own bank against some law prohibiting this, just for example, and proceeding and holding to the truth of their right to do this, and in the process, perhaps getting arrested. But never as a confrontation at all.
The spirit of confrontation, as I suggested, links up with the major rage economy that operates in the background all over in prevailing activism. The first and most important satyagraha today is to hold to the truth of satyagraha itself in the face of the rampant misinterpretation of satyagraha, so one is given to, in one way or other, using these terms or others, a kind of basic spinning in an act of resistance: not just any spinning but the spinning of satya/truth and agraha/action together, in this way: to affirm that saytagraha is not confrontation. This may not really constitute a serious satyagraha, of course, and could only amount to differing within a free discussion. But it might entail more than that if one feels a need to hold to this against what I suggest lies in the background: the great and hidden economy of vengeance and retribution, essentially of violence and its many illusions, which I often call the “Other Wall Street”.
The recent shaming stare levied en masse at chancellor Katehi of UC Davis is likewise a good example of what is not really satyagraha. Satyagraha is not a wilting force of hateful disapprobation nor the stern silence and veiled or even overt threat of social exclusion, closure of dialogue and communication and ultimately rejection, dismissal and shunning. It is first and foremost a holding to truth that would proceed against forces that would seek to shut that down, but again, never in the way of seeking out a confrontation.
In special ways, it must be noted, this lies already within dialogue itself, in the use of language, speech and its essential and irreducible power and the simple fact that “mere words” are in fact never merely words at all, but are precipitations of Being. It is critical to understand this as the major site of the satyagraha that would have been appropriate for contesting the UC Davis policies and actions regarding protesters would like in the flow of dialogue. In no way could this be reduced to dialogue as such, but the dialogue would provide the bus, so to speak, on which one may sit in certain areas, affirming best practices for dealing with protesters, etc.
This is just one of many manifestations of a satyagraha that is adequately clarified and understood. But this understanding is wanting because, as I have suggested, of the great rage economy that continually degrades satyagraha and systematically misunderstands Gandhi, as this has occurred from the time of King as well. This is a difficult, perhaps sensitive topic, as it invokes a major religious issue bound up in the problem: a specifically practicing Christian, King’s appropriation of Gandhi, whether one wishes to admit this or not, entailed the invocation of certain variously dominating and problematic aspects that lie within the depths of the basic spiritual operations of Christianity. While Gandhi affirmed Christ, he also took pains to delimit his role of teacher as being but one among others, but furthermore to clarify that were all the religious teachers he venerated and learned from to ultimately prove not to affirm an original nonviolence, he would adhere to nonviolence nonetheless. The consequences of this basic commitment are hard to comprehend but are crucial and are indeed why Gandhi needed to articulate them as such.
You see, there may be a bit more spinning and satyagraha in my discourse here than mere metaphor. When I invoke a major religious tendency towards domination and affirm, as indeed I do, an essentially and fundamentally independent nonviolence as Gandhi did, I hereby do reach to the earth and hold up a salt that is both available to all but whose very condition of possibility ultimately lies in a recognition of a simple but necessary condition: that nonviolence is indeed fundamental, as fundamental as truth, belief and action, and can not be reduced to anything else, including any specific practice, personage or simple action.
It is necessary to specify this independence of nonviolence in order to hold to this truth against the great culture of rage and vengeance, in which Christianity is, like it or not, a key player among others and an all too robust operation within and in a basic way supportive of the prisons. This may well include a deep Christianity and not merely “organized religion”, which we are constantly told is the “real problem” over and against a deeper spirituality. It is necessary to be clear about this as it has everything to do with the systematic degradation of nonivolence. Christianity, indeed much like the righteousness of the “born again” George Bush, has a foot in the good, just as Bush’s attempt to “install democracy in Iraq”, quite irreducible to a “war for oil”, and manifests some of the nonconfrontational, courageous and irreducibly substantive (“constructive program”) aspects of satyagraha. Yet at the same time it in its basic operation also establishes and maintains deeply retributive logics of justice and violence and does so in a particular manner of also issuing an edict of total superiority, and this appears to lie full within the heart of its teachings and not simply in the misinterpretations to which we are constantly referred. I would not restrict this critique to any specific religion or philosophy, however. Just as the revolution in Egypt grew from a growing weariness and willingness to decenter and delimit religion as such, there must be some adequate stipulation of an independence of nonviolence in order to find the way to satyagraha. This is indeed what took place within Gandhi’s path.
The basic nature of force and forcing, violence and its illusions must be adequately and freely opened up and allowed to find its way. The current status quo finds actions on the “nonviolent” end of the spectrum systematically degraded in the surging, seething culture of rage and symbolism-based violence, social exclusion and subtle harm, hateful and stern judgement, the systematic closure of general psychology and psychotherapeutics and rehabilitation as are strongly evidenced in the prisons but also in the logics of judgement so prevalent in culture today, along with the rich, highly capitalized flow of rage logics within the media and musics that absolutely dominate free thought, while slinking away from any question of this domination-within-freedom. These things and more work together to systemtically disable thought and nonviolence and so one simply must begin to spin in this way, one way or another, as I said, whether one uses the metaphor of “spinning” in specifically that way or not. It is necessary that the satyagraha that is undertaken is undertaken in the name not of the economy but in the name of satyagraha, in the name of nonviolence, in the name of and for the cause of nonviolence thought/action where thought and action and nonviolence are all equiprimordal and equifundamental. And where discourse, thinking and “mere words” are free to unfold in their specific and irreducible essence, for these words are as salt. Gandhiji did indeed use words, words and more words! It is needful to continue to make this salt from the sea around us against the great, dominating capitalisms that have seized the thinking of satyagraha, of nonviolence, resistance, justice and truth. It simply seems inconceivable that satyagraha could be required right in the vicinity of the venerated activists, the eloquent speakers of the Left, the progressivism already beset with its own enormous task of speaking truth to power and changing the world, even with those who have been peppers sprayed and beaten! Astonishing as it may be, that is the case and I continue to spin and make this salt.