Category: Non-Violence

No, It Was Not Mob Rule. It Was Civil Disobedience.

More responsive, as always, to their legislative overlords than to the students and public they purportedly serve, UNC system president Margaret Spellings and Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith issued the following statement concerning the toppling of Silent Sam on Monday night on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.

“We have been in touch with UNC-Chapel Hill Trustee Chair Cochrane and Chancellor Folt both last night and this morning about the removal of the Silent Sam statue on UNC-CH’s campus. Campus leadership is in collaboration with campus police, who are pulling together a timeline of the events, reviewing video evidence, and conducting interviews that will inform a full criminal investigation.

The safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff are paramount. And the actions last evening were unacceptable, dangerous, and incomprehensible. We are a nation of laws — and mob rule and the intentional destruction of public property will not be tolerated.”

The statement was circulated to the UNC, Chapel Hill community with the additional signatures of Chancellor Folt and Board of Trustee Chair Haywood Cochrane.

Leaving aside the laughable comment that the actions of Monday evening were “incomprehensible,” we should be clear that they were the antithesis of “mob rule.”  To use an odious term our military likes to employ to show it is in full control of the mayhem it unleashes, the toppling of Silent Sam was “surgical.”  It was obviously well-planned and carried out with care, resulting in no harm to anyone or anything except the statue itself.  This was a disciplined collective act of civil disobedience, not mob rule. A mob would have broken windows, turned over cars, rampaged across campus and Franklin Street; a mob would have, in other words, acted indiscriminately.

The first statement from Chancellor Folt’s office about Monday evening’s action referred to persons “unaffiliated with the University”—the old “outside agitators” canard.  Can we please recognize the irrelevance of making any distinction in this case between those officially connected to the university—as current students, faculty, and staff—and the general public?  We are a public university.  As such, we have no right to exclude anyone from walking on our campus or speaking their mind on its grassy lawns or (as happens every day) in the “pit” in front of the student union.

Furthermore, Silent Sam was a statue placed on the campus by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  The university granted the UDC access to the campus; it did not erect or pay for the statue itself.  It has always been unclear to me who actually “owns” the statue; there is no good case for claiming it is university property.  Instead, we seem to have been its cooperating—and increasing troubled—custodian.  As a target of protest or of support, then, it seems clear to me that the statue was fair game for all citizens, irrespective of their affiliation or not with the university, since the statue’s own “affiliation” is cloudy at best.

Civil disobedience entails breaking the law.  It does so when the established modes of redress for a wrong have proved unavailing, and it does so in the name of a good that it claims the law is flouting.  Law enforcement, the powers that be, can respond with outrage, insist that the majesty of the law requires these offenders be punished, and resolutely ignore the moral point the protesters are making.  That becomes the ground on which the battle is waged.

At least Chancellor Folt acknowledges that the statue is “divisive,” and that what it stands for is offensive to some people.  I assume that, in her case, the protestors’ actions were not “incomprehensible.”  But she seems, for reasons I will not presume to speculate about, to have lined up with the decision to refuse to “tolerate” this civil disobedience and to conduct a “full criminal investigation.”

Civil disobedience always carries with it the recognition that laws are being broken and there may be consequences for that fact.  Some writers on civil disobedience even claim that a willingness to submit to punishment is part and parcel of this particular type of action. It is certainly true that, in the past, the spectacle of the law coming down on the protestors has sometimes served the cause those protestors are trying to promote.  In our polarized moment (much the same was true in the 1960s), I think it highly likely that sympathy for the protestors and the desire to throw the book at them will both be in ample evidence as this story unfolds.

However, in one way, Monday evening did not replay the 1960s.  The police (like the crowd itself) showed admirable restraint.  Obviously, a decision was made (by whom I do not know) that the welfare of a statue was not worth harming a single, real living human being.  An admirable decision—and I took the occasion of thanking the first campus police officer I saw on campus yesterday for the way the whole campus force handled the evening.  He responded that the safety and well-being of the people there was their chief concern, to which I responded: “Exactly.  As it should be.  Well done.”  Unlike so many 1960s demonstrations, Monday evening did not turn into a riot.

The law is within its rights to conduct its full criminal investigation and to show that it places the destruction of public property [again, whose property is Silent Sam anyway?] above the welfare of the public who find it an insult (and worse).  My hope is that if a decision to prosecute is actually made, that hundreds of those, like me, who sympathize with the protestors’ actions will step forward, say we were there that night and participated in its toppling of the statue, and insist on being held to account with all the others.  That, at least, is my plan for myself as we wait and see what happens next.  If they want to create martyrs, let’s give them bushels full.

Gandhi on Fear and Political Action

Here is yet another attempt to state succinctly one question I have been worrying on this blog for the last six or seven months:  if you deny any legitimacy at all to currently constituted order (whether that order is political, economic, or social), what does that entail for the strategy and tactics to be adopted by your politics?  If there is no justice to be found or means toward gaining democratic access within current political institutions (i.e. if our democracy is rotten to the core, completely unreachable by its citizens), then how to move forward?  Not surprisingly, good answers to these questions are scarce.  In the place of good answers, what I have encountered in my readings over the past year (Hardt/Negri, the material on contemporary social movements, Butler on assembly, Moten and now Livingston’s essay) either gesture toward some kind of “multitude” that gathers (but then does what?) or suggests a retreat into some kind of elsewhere, outside of the prevailing madness of the current political/economic reality.

One claim, found in almost all writing about non-violence as a political strategy (so it is present in Todd May and Gene Sharp), is found in Livingston as well: the jujitsu argument.  Basically, the idea is that non-violence often works by making the adversaries’ power/strength into a weakness.  As Livingston puts it, “the police and the state cannot threaten or coerce where there is no fear of death” (12).  Bertrand Russell’s somewhat different version of this argument was to say that if the Belgians had simply laid down arms in 1914 when the Germans came marching in, there would have been much less bloodshed.  Armies are not going to kill people who are not actively resisting/fighting against them. Set aside for the moment the fact that 20th century tyrannies have been all too willing to kill non-resisting, passive people.  More germane to my concerns here is that such non-resistance does nothing to undo, to effect a transformation, of the status quo. Just because power is nonplussed or embarrassed, that hardly means it is going to dissolve.

If non-violence effects a jujitsu reversal of the relations of force it can only do so because of the effect on witnesses—witnesses who have some kind of power within the polity.  In Gandhi’s case, that appeal would have to be to British subjects.  He would demonstrate to those people the moral outrages of empire—and thus make empire unsustainable.  King’s work in the South followed a similar path.  He was out to demonstrate to the polity the cruelties of Jim Crow.  In other words, as I said in the last post, sacrifice is only politically efficacious if it is theater, if it is public.  If the state (or other constituted authorities) can kill and keep the fact of its killing a secret, then non-violence has no other way of achieving that hoped-for jujitsu. In short, I don’t see how any non-violent strategy is not deeply and unavoidably dependent on moral appeal–and such appeals rely on the faith/hope that political actors can be swayed by moral considerations.  Our current hopelessness resides, in large part, in loss of faith in the efficacy of a politics based on morality–where the key framework for moral positions circle around questions of justice.

But today I want to go down a different path, one that engages with the problematic of “life.”  Basically, another track I have been trying to tread this past year concerns the suspicion of “life” as a goal/end, a suspicion found in the work of Foucault, Arendt, Agamben, Charles Taylor, and (now) in Gandhi as represented by Livingston.  An attachment to “life” and a notion that the primary political goal is to ensure its “flourishing” is identified as an absolutely core feature of liberalism (Martha Nussbaum is one key figure here) and is seen, at best, as the legitimizing premise of a “bio-power” that augments the power of the state in the name of its ability (through public health measures, compulsory education, policing measures that promote “public safety,”  food and drug administrations, welfare policies, and other interventions) to make its citizens lives better.  In more extreme critiques, such as found in Taylor and Gandhi (it would seem, as I will show in what follows), those suspicious of setting up “life” as a goal argue that, perversely, the attachment to life serves to create political regimes that end up violently dealing in destruction and death.  Such writers employ the rhetorical strategy that Albert O. Hirschman, in his wonderful book The Rhetoric of Reaction, called the most exhilarating piece of reactionary rhetoric, namely the argument that the efforts to cure a certain ill were actually the means toward perpetuating and even augmenting that ill.  Hence, in Hirschman’s example, the Charles Murray argument that welfare payments actually make their recipients worse off than if you left them in utter poverty.

Gandhi (let’s leave Taylor aside for the moment; I will return to him in subsequent posts) was undoubtedly a reactionary, if we mean by that term someone who wishes to turn aside or even reverse what is deemed “modern.”  Gandhi unabashedly denigrates and wishes to secede from “modern civilization.”  In the Western context, as Corey Robin has shown, reactionary thought is almost always tied to a repudiation of the modern in its egalitarian clothes.  Western reactionaries are defenders of privilege against what is seen as the leveling effects of modernity—both its political attachment to the equality of all citizens (reactionaries thus fight against the extension of political and social rights—such as the right to vote—against each attempt to extend those rights to new groups like non-whites and women) and modernity’s more radical (in all its leftist forms) attachment to social (status) and economic equality.

It is not clear to me where Gandhi stands on equality; I suspect that he believes the path to “self-rule” that is to be achieved by the practices of satyagraha (the quest for truth) are open to all.  So he is not a western style reactionary, fighting against the vulgar masses’ accession to the privileges, status, rights, and prosperity of the chosen few.

But Gandhi is deploying the perversity thesis in his attempt to step outside of modern civilization.  The linchpin of his argument (as Livingston portrays it) is an analysis of “fear.”  “Modern civilization is intoxicated by its attachment to a materialist conception of the self as an organic body struggling to sustain its corporeal integrity in a hostile environment. The highest good of modern civilization . . . is to promote bodily happiness” (10).  It is this attachment to bodily happiness that underwrites the modern subject’s willingness to grant the state such huge amounts of power—power ostensibly used to help secure that bodily happiness, i.e. “bio-power” (although, of course, Gandhi does not use that term).  However, “the attachment to bodily happiness engendered by civilization produces illness, disappointment and, ultimately, fear.  The modern self clings to bodily happiness out of a fear of harm and death; civilization unwittedly perpetuates this very fear in its attempt to redress it” (11).

We are slaves to our body—and to the fears generated by that body’s vulnerability to various harms, most drastically death.  We are incapable of “self-rule,” of true freedom, in Gandhi’s view if we do not get over that fear.  “Cultivating fearlessness in the face of death is not simply a preparation for political action; it is itself the practice of freedom itself” (13).  Gandhi preaches the abandonment of “the cowardly attachment to mere life. ‘If we are unmanly today,’ Gandhi asserts in 1916, ‘we are so, not because we do not know how to strike, but because we fear to die’”(12).  In advocating for this “courage,” this fearlessness, that is required for those aspiring to “self-rule,” Gandhi “fuses the renunciation of the sannyasi priest with the fearless activity of the warrior class (Kshatriya) as two sides of a singular search for truth” (16).

The priestly side is premised on a metaphysics of spirituality.  Gandhi writes: “The body exists because of our ego.  The utter extinction of the body is maksha [attainment of the truth; full self-realization]” (16).  I don’t have anything to say about such a claim, except to say that if Gandhian politics is dependent on accepting that the body is illusion, that it does not truly exist—or that its existence can be nullified by some act of self-transcendence—then I can not participate in Gandhian politics nor do I want to.  The pleasures of the body—food, sex, vigorous exercise—seem to me among the chief goods of human life—and I am looking for a politics that affirms and enables the ordinary rather than one which extols a repudiation of the ordinary in the name of some “higher” good.  Furthermore, I think the historical record rather convincingly demonstrates that politics driven by “non-ordinary” pursuits have a considerable track record of proving tyrannous and death-dealing.

But I want to focus on the “warrior” side of the occasion at the moment.  I think Gandhi’s understanding of the stakes—and even as the way the game plays out—are eerily and disturbingly reminiscent of Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic.  Basically, it seems that the fundamental path to freedom for Gandhi is to overcome the fear of one’s death.  Recall that in Hegel the one who lets the fear of death motivate him becomes the slave; the one who can put his life unreservedly on the line becomes the master.  The Gandhian twist is to achieve that overcoming of fear by basically declaring that life—at least bodily life—has no value anyway.  The master tries to gain control over me by playing on my fear of death.  So the best response is to overcome that fear, to be fearless.  And the benefit of—what I gain by—overcoming that fear is freedom.  (A pretty empty freedom to my mind if it entails renouncing all bodily pleasures, but maybe freedom is worth that high price.)

My kids gave me a bumper sticker that read: “Oh well, I wasn’t using my civil liberties anyway.”  Gandhi’s position strikes me in some ways as similar.  The outrage of tyrants is that they make living my ordinary life impossible; they threaten that life everyday, and make it miserable in various ways when they don’t actually take it away.  And the best response is to say, “well, life isn’t valuable to me anyway.  Do your worst.”  Hard for me to swallow.

What also troubles me is the very acceptance of the Hegelian scenario.  It leads to two things: first, the notion that manhood—i.e. true courage, the status of warrior—rests on this confrontational encounter with the other.  You can only have political freedom, full status, by facing down this other who aims to dominate you.  Your options are very few: a) you have to dominate him instead, b) you can cowardly submit and hence become a slave, or  c) (in Gandhi’s playing out of the game) you can achieve fearlessness by showing that you don’t care a fig for the life that your adversary aims to take from you.  A zero-sum game if there ever was one—and one that fatalistically seems to accept that there is no other basis, no other way for organizing, fundamental human social relations.  Our relations to others are antagonistic to the core; it’s a pretty fable to tell ourselves otherwise.  No wonder there is then the spiritualist temptation to say there is another realm altogether, one where we can step out of this terrible scenario of endless antagonism.  This world is inevitably so bad that we need to invent one elsewhere.

Hegel, of course, then is at pains to show that the master’s “victory” is hollow; the battle over, the master’s life becomes meaningless.  The struggle is all for the warrior.  Once it is over, his occupation is gone.  Whereas the slave finds meaning in his occupation, in the very work that the master makes him do.  Not surprisingly, I interpret that next step in Hegel’s text as a discovery of the resources resting in the ordinary.  Apart from the heightened moment of confrontation, in the daily rounds of living a life, lie meanings and pleasures sufficient to day thereof.

I want to develop that notion of the ordinary—and of a politics that would nurture/attend to/be built on the cooperative relations that function within the ordinary in subsequent posts (while continuing  to think about Taylor’s claim that such “bodily happiness”—to use Gandhi’s term—is “shallow.”)

But to finish up today’s post, I want to highlight something else: namely, the implied (or not so implied) contempt in using the term “coward” to refer to those who are attached to “bodily happiness.”  It is no accident that Gandhi resorts to gendered terms (lack of “manliness”) when his thoughts turn to fear and fearlessness—and no accident that this proponent of non-violence talks of “warriors.”  (Livingston tries to claim Gandhi upends traditional gendered associations, but I find his argument strained at that point.)  Running throughout all the critiques of “life”—which entail, as I have been suggesting, the recognition that attachment to life is joined to an intense valuation of “the ordinary”—is an affinity to the long-standing disdain for the “bourgeois,” for the unheroic lives of the classes that have the nerve to push the aristocracy to the sidelines, and who devote such attention to “getting and spending.”  (I think we get this contempt for the bad taste and vulgar pleasures and petty ambitions of the masses in spades in Arendt’s hatred of the social and her diatribes against a politics geared toward issues of sustaining life.  Her politics is meant to be heroic through and through by showing its disregard of such material issues.  “As for living, we have our servants to do that for us”—a favorite quote of Yeats’s, taken from a French symbolist writer.)  The haughty aristocrat merges with the splendid warrior, the one who doesn’t count costs and give a fig for his life, willing to put it on the line at any moment since his honor, his sense of self-worth, and his dignity are all far more valuable than life.  (Nietzsche also obviously partakes in this lingering aristocratic disdain for the bourgeois and his material concerns.)

Gandhi is hardly as outrageous as Arendt and Nietzsche in his contempt for the masses.  I have already mentioned that he certainly seems to believe that the quest for truth is open to all.  (Similarly, Arendt certainly believes that the realm of political action is open to all.  She just laments that the moderns, because of misplaced desires and allegiances, seem to prefer social activities to political action. Nietzsche is another matter altogether; he does think most humans incapable of heroic action.)  Nevertheless, Gandhi is accusing the mass of men of cowardice.  He is saying that lots of people desire the wrong thing.  They are living their lives in a fundamentally misguided way, one that also entails their unfreedom.  The use of the term “mere life” (12) is a strong indicator here.  Somehow, “life” itself is not a sufficient reason for living; there needs to be something more.  It is that insistence, that hectoring admonishment, that I am suspicious of.  I think the heroic life, with its attachment to the agonistic encounter we find in Hegel, much more trouble than it is worth.

Sacrifice and Politics

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.

Impasse

George Shulman (NYU prof who is part of the reading group that meets in New York every year) is interested in impasse—basically the feeling that we are stuck in a world we hate but can’t figure out how to change.

Framing it as a question of impasse helps me to state baldly some major themes of this blog’s agonizing over the past six to eight months.  First comes the sense that current evils somehow operate under a thin veneer (but an effective veneer) of legality and normalcy.  There seems no way within current legal and political institutions to intervene to stop daily operations that are unjust and render millions of people miserable and millions more vulnerable, a step away from misery.  The machine grinds on relentlessly.

Second comes the primary debate on the left.  At what level should the effort for change takes place.  Is electoral politics any use at all?  Could we actually vote into office  a political party that would effect the changes needed, alter both the ends and the means (i.e. significantly redistribute resources in ways that actively alter balances of political and economic power)?  It seems to take larger and larger leaps of faith to believe that the system can be reformed (to use the hoariest of clichés).  The gridlock (another cliché) that is another name for impasse seems utterly baked in at this point.  Too many veto points, too many established immunities (campaign finance, gerrymandering, voter suppression, lobbying, tax breaks, conservative judges etc. etc.) for those fighting against change.  Obstruction is the order of the day.

So the electoral route is only going to work if there is astounding pressure for change from the populace—and the US populace rarely swings left and seems, instead, to cling desperately to what little it has (deeply averse to risk) instead of working to force the system to yield it more.

The alternative, then, is some sort of forced, dramatic change.  Two things intrude here.  The first is the worry (a big and legitimate one) about forcing a change that the majority does not desire.  Anti-democratic (in the core sense of the term’s reference to the will of the people) change is problematic for any number of reasons.  So the left’s first work, it would seem, must take place on the battlefield of rhetoric.  We must win the hearts and minds, so that the clamor for substantive change can not be ignored.

The second problem is violence.  With the possible exception of Terry Eagleton (and even he masks his talk of violence in the “soft” language of Christ-like sacrifice and of Greek tragedy), all the radical leftists I read shy away from talking about violence.  In Judith Butler’s book on the performative theory of assembly, she briefly says that activism must be non-violent.  Interestingly, the force of that “must” is more pragmatic than ethical.  Violence is counter-productive; it calls down repression at the same time that it alienates potential supporters.  Non-violence is the winning strategy.

But a description of effective non-violent tactics is missing.  Non-violent disruptions of business as usual, of daily life, will be treated almost as harshly as violence.  Which isn’t to say that martyrdom can’t prove effective politically.  But we seem at this moment pretty far from a place where martyrs will be viewed sympathetically.  (Contrast to King’s children campaign.)  I fight shy of asking people for fruitless sacrifices; of course, the response is that one never knows ahead of time if the sacrifice will be fruitless.  We can’t know what might, against all logic and predictions, galvanize people.  The shortness of the current news cycle, the way in which things (even the horrible mass shootings at schools), fade from public attention is just another barrier in the way of imagining galvanizing sacrifices.  (This returns me to my obsession with figuring out how to create a movement that has legs, that is sustainable over the long haul.)  When today’s anti-liberal, radical leftists write of galvanizing moments, they reference Seattle’s anti-globalization demonstrations and Occupy, neither of which really offers grounds for hope.  There is a vast sympathy for the Palestinians, but nobody is calling for the formation of liberation fronts or armies in the West.

Eschewing violence has much going for it.  Calling for large-scale, systematic transformation, however, and refusing to think hard about the means (including violence) toward that change seems more wish-fulfillment than productive thinking.  King’s non-violence was paired with the urban riots of the 60s; the anti-war demonstrators were beaten by police and they didn’t end the war, although they did makes its prosecution more costly for our benighted political leaders.  The system (I keep using that word for lack of a better shorthand at the moment) is violent through and through—under the cloak of legality.  The left keeps coming to a gunfight with a knife—and keeps refusing to even consider the fact that it might be in a gunfight.

Within this set of dillemmas/delusions, the left’s most characteristic move is to argue that the majority really is on its side, that if we just offered the populace full unadulterated leftism (some kind of democratic socialism presumably, although the left gets fuzzy on those details as well), we would win elections handily. Bernie Sanders would have swept to victory.  It’s pretty to think so, isn’t it?  And it gives our dissident leftist so much to do—fulminating about those liberals who queer the pitch, instead of thinking about the really hard work that would be required (especially in addressing that populace he is convinced secretly agrees with him) to break the ongoing impasse.

Do I have anything constructive to offer?  Not all that much since it wouldn’t be an impasse if we weren’t stuck.  But I will say that I much prefer loud denunciations, usually on moral grounds but sometimes on pragmatic ones, of the right’s constant enactment of petty and major cruelties.  The internecine fights on the left (of which I guess this post counts as one) are tiresome and not very useful.  True, the temptation to go that way is reinforced by the fact that such arguments may even gain a hearing and a response, while one’s jeremiads against the right seem cast out into the void, aiming to reach a general public that is nothing if not absent more than present, and certainly not going to move a right that has proved itself, again and again, without conscience and beyond shame.  Still, better to be a witness to infamy, than a nit-picking polemicist within one’s own tribe.

And better to be a clear thinker about ends and means than to throw blame about indiscriminately (those nefarious liberals!) and talk as if political victory was a matter of just snapping one’s fingers.