Building a movement to build a new reality
By Michael Nagler
April 5, 2012
The spinning wheel, and the spinning wheel alone, will solve the problem of the deepening poverty of India.
Anyone who thinks consumption can expand forever on a finite planet is either insane or an economist.
After a roaring start, the Occupy movement hit a wall in the form of rough-handling and evictions by the police. Occupiers could have given up on nonviolence—as a small faction will always try to get us to do—or just given up; but instead we have gone back to the drawing board, while continuing to occupy select spaces, this time with advance training. This is exactly the right response. As my former Berkeley colleague Todd Gitlin writes in The Nation, “To take on a warped state of affairs that has been decades in the making will take decades,” and for this purpose the encampment culture is “both necessary and inadequate.”
It’s time to step back, take stock of the situation we’re in, and work out a roadmap of the way home.
The worship of wealth that has brought corporations into a position of dominance in the world today has also brought in its wake two unexpected benefits. First, it planted in the minds of many the idea thatsome kind of world unity was possible: “Globalization from above” awakened the old dream of “globalization from below,” the dream of world unity without world domination. Secondly, by releasing many of the traditional constraints on greed (they were already pretty weak) it gave the one percent enough rope to really squeeze the economic middle class, taking away from them the false comfort of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” and thereby reawakening, though in new forms, the class struggles of the 1930s. This has finally exposed the inherent contradiction of an economy based on indefinitely increasing wants—instead of on human needs that the planet has ample resources to fulfill.
These new realities are what Walter Wink calls “gifts of the enemy,” a natural feature of nonviolent struggle. The sometimes rather brutal evictions from New York’s Zuccotti Park, Los Angeles, Oakland, Washington D.C., and other sites, along with the beating and pepper-spraying of students in California last November, could redound to our advantage. They might serve as a wake-up call revealing the militarization of America—though there are not many signs of such awakening yet in this numbed nation.
I was never among those who thought that the occupation of public sites was what a serious revolutionary movement should look like (Tienanmen Square is still fresh in my memory). Now that we have been pushed off the streets we have an opportunity—as many occupiers have recognized —to regroup, reframe, and rethink what this movement is really about, how it should proceed, and what historical precedents can help us bring it to fruition.
What it’s about is nothing less than the Great Turning. Occupy 1.0 was criticized for not putting forward a list of demands. Well, if we are to escape what the late Václav Havel recently called (again in The Nation) “the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption—which underlies all the dissatisfactions that launched Occupy—then we are called to a revolution in our very way of seeing the world and sensing who we are within it.
How to carry out this great change is, at least in part, equally clear. Throughout the waves of popular uprising that keep springing up where conditions are right, from India’s freedom struggle and the color revolutions to the “Arab spring” to the global manifestations of Occupy, nonviolence has become steadily more accepted as the preferred route to freedom, so that by now it is taken for granted by the vast majority of the 99 percent. How could it be otherwise? In fact, the highly regarded study by Erica Chenowith and Maria Stefan, Why Civil Resistance Works, shows that transitions to democracy are twice as successful if they’re nonviolent, and also are three times as rapid (that part surprised even me). And, as George Lakey has shown, the only revolutions that have managed not only to establish some sort of political democracy but also make sure that the one percent don’t reestablish their grip in another form were nonviolent, at least in the sense that they did not wield weapons.
But much more than this strategic calculus is involved. Occupiers sense that nonviolence is part of their message: If our movement is about raising the dignity and value of the human being, we cannot use the method of violence, which degrades. As a Kurdish man recently told an American woman who was visiting his part of Iraq as part of a peacekeeping delegation, “Sometimes you are happy in nonviolence because you are not losing your soul. You might lose hope, or get tired, but you are not losing your soul.”
In Yemen, protestors cried, “They can’t defeat us, because we left our weapons at home.” Fair enough; but for Gandhi at least, nonviolence was far more than a protest without weapons. What was it? Particularly, what would a sophisticated, fully rounded nonviolent movement for today look like? At the Metta Center, we have been debating this question for several years, and I think we’ve come up with something that converges nicely with what Joanna Macy, David Korten, Barbara Marx Hubbard and other visionaries have also seen about the way forward.
We start from this proposition of Václav Havel: “Human beings have created, and daily create, this self-directed system through which they divest themselves of their innermost identity.” It is by reasserting that innermost identity—our innate empathy for the suffering of others, our sense of fairness, our concern for our children—that we begin to create a better system. As Saint Augustine said when he faced the “Great Turning” of his day, “duo amores faciunt duas civitates”—roughly, ‘there are two drives within us that would lead to two very different world orders.’
This brings us to the “outer jihad”—changing the world. Gandhi made a discovery very early in his career (1894), the power of which is again being recognized by many activists. He called it Constructive Programme (CP): building what you want rather than (or as preparation for) disestablishing what you don’t want. CP recognized that truth lay with the resisters, that their dependency on an outside oppressor (today, on corporations and financial institutions) was a lie that could be exploded through constructive projects (such as, most famously in his case, making homespun cloth rather than buying British imports). There is something inherently right about building what you want in a context of a nonviolent struggle, and in fact Gandhi asserted toward the end of his career, “my real politics is constructive work.”
But CP does not mean that you neglect resistance where it’s needed: you spin your own cloth and boycott British imports. More to the point, you make your own salt and defy the police to break your head for it, thus breaking their empire. The parallel for us might be to reach out to those who still cling to militarism and try to persuade them, but to also sign the Pledge of Resistance to offer massive civil disobedience if this country attacks Iran. We, like the satyagrahis of yore, should look to trap the government in what George Lakey has called a “dilemma action” whereby if the opponent lets you do what you want, you win, and if he has to use brutality to stop you, you win on another level. The brutality meted out to the satyagrahis who attempted to enter the salt works at Dharasana in 1930 basically doomed the Raj even as they succeeded in keeping the satyagrahis out.
It is good to keep in mind how much weight Gandhi put on constructive action. A 1977 survey by the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi (Gandhi Memorial Fund) found 1,845 institutions in 22 states still functioning that were founded by Gandhi and his close associate, Vinoba Bhave. It is not that we ourselves don’t have constructive projects underway; YES! Magazine has been reporting on them for years. What we don’t have is a consciousness that these innumerable projects are part of a coherent whole.
Recently I, with others from the Metta Center and activists from around the country, had the great privilege of hearing from someone who lived through the Salt Satyagraha and in fact spent the first 23 years of his life with Gandhi: Narayan Desai, the son of Gandhi’s lifelong secretary, Mahadev. This unforgettable weekend was the closest most of us will ever come to a living contact with the Mahatma. And his presentation of Gandhi’s legacy for us today took exactly the shape we have also reached for a revolution of peace from within: 1) personal transformation 2) constructive program, and then 3) protest — graduating, where required, to direct resistance.
From this point of view, Occupy at first picked up the stick by the wrong end. But no matter. The point now is to settle in for the long haul and draw up a cohesive strategy based on the compelling power of truth.
As Joanna Macy, and my own teacher, Eknath Easwaran, have emphasized, truth demands that we uphold a much higher vision of humanity than that currently circulating in the mass media (especially advertising media, with its dehumanizing materialism)—in other words that we uphold and embody what’s frequently called the “new story” (though it’s been around for millennia). We need to draw upon what new science and ancient wisdom are telling us: that we are conscious beings deeply interconnected with one another, indeed with “the whole of Nature in its beauty,” as Einstein said. That we are beings who can never be satisfied by consuming things but rather by building trusting relationships. And who instinctively understand that security can never come from locking up “criminals” or eliminating “enemies;” but only from building crime-free societies in which the occasional offender is restored to a life of dignity, and the goal of all conflict is to turn opponents into friends.
This is why, in the overall strategy that we’ve envisioned, with its six major problem areas, pride of place (top dead center in the diagram below) goes to New Story Creation, where we articulate and publicize the higher vision of humanity. But in another key area, militarism vs. peace, we would work on learning to transform our justifiable anger, into what Gandhi called “a power that can change the world”—for example through Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping, and/or by acting on opportunities for direct action when we are ready for them, like the above mentioned pledge of resistance.
We are not calling on anyone to stop occupying, if they feel called to do so (as we ourselves sometimes are). What’s most important, though, is that before too long the movement attains a capacity for concerted action at the national level; that we understand ourselves, as the diagram below shows, to be part of a single movement for a new kind of reality; and that we can together show the rest of the world that they want that new reality as much as we do.