Every day it seems I discover a new reason to understand how completely I am a secular, liberal humanist. And I am pushed each time to double down on that commitment. The latest occasion is reading a superb essay by Alexander Livingston, “Fidelity to Truth: Gandhi and the Genealogy of Civil Disobedience,” published in the journal Political Theory (2017: pp. 1-26).
Livingston makes a compelling case that Gandhi’s understanding of non-violence and of political action are severely misunderstood (“creatively misread” if we want to be more generous) if adapted to a means-ends understanding of politics (i.e. non-violence adopted as a tactic to gain certain ends) or if non-violent civil disobedience in Gandhi is interpreted as entailing an appeal to (hence a respect for) constituted legal forms and authorities. Livingston calls the theory of disobedience that sees it as mobilizing a certain kind of action in order to sway constituted authority “liberal”—and claims (persuasively) that such a view accords those authorities a legitimacy that Gandhi does not grant them. Gandhi, instead, advocates a political practice that steps outside of constituted modernity and its self-praising notion of itself as “civilized” in order to seek an elsewhere. That search is, in Gandhi, the search for truth—which should be the locus of action. Gandhi seeks “to reorient the time of action away from the teleological pursuit of abstractions, like principles of justice, towards giving oneself over to the experience of seeking truth in the lived present” (19). “The pursuit of truth reorients political action inwards toward a transformation of the self rather than primarily outwards as an appeal to the law” (14). It entails “courageously acting without attachment to the fruits of action” (18). As contrasted to the “impatience” that characterizes ends-driven political movements, Gandhi issues a “call for patience” that “by contrast, repudiates the very idea that the future can provide redress to the present” (9).
The similarities to Fred Moten’s work (my post on Moten here) are apparent to me. On the one hand, there is the totalizing rejection of modernity as rotten all the way down. (Livingston explains to us how Gandhi includes modern medicine in his totalizing renunciation.) On the other hand, there is a search for an “elsewhere” to modernity, a place where one can live somewhat sheltered by its horrors. For Moten, that elsewhere is “black sociality,” the undercommons. For Gandhi, it is the pursuit of truth. In both cases, I find the elsewhere disappointingly vague. Truth in Gandhi is radically unspecified, which (of course) its adherents would say is partly the point. The closest we get is the recommendation of a set of practices of “humility and self-renunciation” that, combined with exhortations to be “fearless” in the face of death, are supposed to lead (admittedly paradoxically) to “self-realization” (16). Equally paradoxically, this patient self-renunciation will prove politically more efficacious than more direct, ends-oriented political action.
I don’t see it. Here’s my basic position. We live in a social/political order that imposes sacrifices on the many. That imposition is wildly unequal. The politics to which I subscribe is oriented toward challenging—and changing—that inequality. Three issues immediately arise.
One: is the goal access to the goods that the privileged already enjoy or to establish an entirely new social/political order? I read the suffragette movement (with which, as Livingston shows, Gandhi was in continuous dialogue) and the American civil rights movement as seeking access. Hence the huge emphasis on the getting the vote. They wanted in; so, I guess, their movements qualify as “liberal” in Livingston’s terms. They affirmed the current order of law; they just sought a voice within it.
A similar question would arise in relation to economics. Is the goal a piece of the pie—or a transformation of the whole economic order? Social democracy, as I understand it and am committed to it, looks to state/political intervention in the economic to see that its goods are more widely and equitably distributed while also attending to the conditions of labor, and controlling environmental devastation—not some vision of an entirely alternative economic order.
It looks like Gandhian politics doesn’t even address those questions in any specific way. There is the total condemnation of modernity and the desire/set of practices to step entirely aside from it—but no strategy for the dismantling of the modernity that is loathed. Except perhaps the old “what if they declared a war and no one showed up.” Seceding from modernity seems to be the path both Moten and Gandhi offer.
Which leads me to number two of my responses. Here’s the oddity of my—and many other intellectuals’ political position: I am doing just fine, thank you. The inequalities of the current order do not afflict me. So what is the appropriate political action for someone of my sort? I cannot help but feel that devotion to self-realization through a search for a vague and never to be fully attained truth is a cop-out. It may be a deeply satisfying practice, but I can’t see how it does anything for the many who are living lives of misery in the current order. The powers that be would be very happy to see all the trouble-making activists and intellectuals turn to the path of truth-seeking.
In short, politics is rhetorical. And a key feature of its rhetoric is appeals to principles of, intuitions about, justice. Practices of political action take place in public and are meant to persuade others of the righteousness of one’s cause. Gandhi’s truth-seeking is only political because it was conducted in public—and was meant to sway the many fence-sitters, those who were still sitting on the sidelines. The extent to which such political action does accord legitimacy to currently constituted power depends on the extent to which it rests on a notion that democratic power should rest in the majority. Politics as rhetoric is premised on the need to create that majority through public action/speech that tries to win the undecided (or even your adversaries) to your side. Non-violence to my mind always involves this acknowledgement (even if never explicitly enunciated) that the only means to legitimate power is through democratic processes and persuasion. To seize power through violence is illegitimate—and (furthermore) usually has deeply undesirable consequences.
So: I can’t buy the notion of political action that does not have any eye on its “fruits.” The pursuit of self-realization is not political (to my mind) unless it aims for political effects—and I prefer action that aims for those effects by trying to mobilize a democratic majority. What worries me about Moten—less about Gandhi–is that their attempt to step outside of modernity leads to a non-political quietism that doesn’t challenge modernity on the grounds on which it could be changed. Non-political efforts of self-realization are not outlawed; I just don’t like it when they claim to be political, to be transformative as some level beyond that of the self.
Third, I have the traditional worries about power when I read this account of Gandhi. I.e. that established power is perfectly happy to allow people to sacrifice themselves and/or retreat into some space of spiritual transformation. If we live in a world of unequally imposed sacrifices, then it seems dangerous to me to embrace sacrifice. Furthermore, the worldview that sees sacrifice as a (necessary?) pathway to achieving certain goods is precisely the one I wish to combat. The logic of sacrifice partakes of an economic logic—that everything has its cost—that I want to repudiate. It seems to me that adherence to that logic only augments suffering—while providing a facile explanation of why suffering must be endured. I want to see sacrifice as (in the vast majority of cases) as what power imposes on the non-powerful—so I respond to an embrace of sacrifice as the non-powerful doing power’s work for it.
Additionally, I don’t see any compelling reason to believe that practices of self-renunciation and self-sacrifice will lead to “truth.” Just as possible to claim—like Blake or Wilhelm Reich—that a full-scale embrace of one’s desires is the path to full self-realization. What would/could count as evidence here? When the desired end—truth or self-realization—is so nebulous? Even if self-sacrifice has pay-offs you affirm, what would lead me to believe I would get similar results? Try and see is fine. But praising sacrifice in the name of truth doesn’t seem to me enough. Livingston writes: “Truth is one but our perspectives on it are plural” (19), but I would argue (instead) that truths are many. The pluralism goes deeper than just a multiplicity of perspectives. There is not one Truth with a capital T, but many truths—and they are not even all compatible with one another. It’s a messy universe we inhabit—and I am suspicious of all efforts to clean up the mess via assertion of a unifying truth (or any other covering term one prefers.) In short, I am not a monotheist, but a full-bore pagan.
“Ends-oriented political action characterizes the weapons of the weak: non-violence is a commitment that remains conditional on the good will of others to concede to the justice of one’s demands,” Livingston writes (15). But I would read it exactly in reverse. Stepping aside from pushing for ends and eschewing incessant clamoring for justice is the weapon of the weak. It is tossing in the towel, using non-participation as the only option open because the battle is lost. And, yes, politics is about trying to engage the “good will” of others by convincing them of the facts of injustice that need to be addressed. There is no politics without that rhetorical work, without that attempt to sway the others with whom one lives in the polis. To cede to others the political work that centers around disputes about justice is simply to accept defeat.
I am going to stop here—but will use tomorrow’s post to take up another thread in the Livingston’s essay: Gandhi’s analysis of “fear.” Let me finish by saying that I have no doubt that Livingston’s reading of Gandhi is correct—and that Livingston, in channeling Gandhi, is not necessarily fully endorsing his views. My point is to say how those Gandhian views do not seem to me terribly productive in the context of our current political battles.