Why Common People Must Unite – OpEd

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Although struggles everywhere are, by definition, local, all future movements for change will have to be transnational. It is impossible that they can escape the advances in communication technologies or the global interdependence of political economies that have made most nationalisms redundant, except to groups desperate for a platform from which to articulate their constructed need for an identity.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm, in his eminently readable autobiography Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life (2002) noted, “I discovered a country in which the failure to make a social revolution had made violence the constant, universal, omnipresent core of public life” (373). In other words, social revolutions serve an important purpose, which is, to bring about change for the better in the living conditions of common people. Ironically, they reduce violence to a great extent for the simple reason that the discontent too is lesser among people, when they have a say in the government.  

The sad truth about the second half of the 20th century is that in most parts of the world identity politics has effectively overtaken the masses, with individuals and groups burning every bridge leading to another person or group. Globalization in the form of social media gave these groups the illusion that they have a power base from which they could put the state on the defensive. Today, they stand isolated as islands in the deep ocean with no support from others and vulnerable as ever to the dictates of power. Ambitious and manipulative leaders, for petty gains, became complicit with power and prevented real change from happening at the ground level.

Common people have been divided in the name of caste, religion, race, nation, region, language, gender, sexual orientation and dialect. Almost every external difference, however threadbare, has been transformed into a division with each group asserting its claims to supremacy based on mostly hypothetical parameters and a false understanding of history. In fact, most of the times the histories are concocted, depending on the platform or the political position of the particular individual or group. Identity-based struggles have a limited agenda and rarely are progressive unless the group is socially and economically marginalized. It is gender and class struggles that are real and carry within them a vision of equality, irrespective of every other parameter.

Therefore, it clearly makes no sense to ask whether the government is left or right-wing; fascism is about an authoritarian mindset that wishes to turn everyone else into zombies – weak, afraid and self-centered. Using the pretext of saving the masses from a nebulous enemy, every autocrat throughout history has managed to turn normal citizens into a nation of zombies. Instead of whether left or right, what perhaps needs to be asked is whether the government is for the people or working actively against it, in the same way that people who claim to be religious must be thoroughly examined based on the kind of moral concerns they display in any real life situation.

A pro-people government is one which is sensitive to the needs of common people. An anti-people government is one which deceives ordinary people and treats them like beggars who are looking for charity to meet their basic needs. Governments everywhere are adopting the charity model with the masses made to look like undeserving recipients of welfare, without having worked for it. Somehow this never is the case with the rich who, with impunity, loot the banks that are supposed to safeguard the wealth of the people. 

By and large we have had only anti-people governments which were possible because of the rise of rabid groupism based on false needs which ensured that people stay divided and never unite for a meaningful cause. The result is a brutalized political order, hungry for power and hell-bent on safeguarding the status quo, while actively sowing seeds of divisions between people along the lines of region, religion, language, caste, race, ethnicity and class. The political order needs to humanize itself before it can embark on some real changes.

I, for one, am a firm believer in movements for social and political change; but, what kind of a mass movement and what kind of a change, is the question! Genuinely progressive people will work towards raising awareness without assuming that the masses are stupid and don’t know what is better. A moral foundation has to be in place before any political transformation. You cannot turn people into greedy monsters and bring out the worst in their character with political change. Accommodation and inclusion, which means gender rights and freedom of expression, must be made a vital part of any social and political platform whose agenda is a long-term transformation of society.

A society where dishonesty is the norm is more dangerous than spending your life in a pit, full of vipers and scorpions. The conditions for honesty are possible only when people are willing to share both work and resources and strive towards a pollution-free environment. In countries of the third world, where large numbers have no access to clean water, air and edible food, combined with the humiliation of being poor and without dignity, one can only imagine how close we are to a “suicide pact.” In my own country where dishonesty happens to be the norm rather than the exception, it is also the source of a loss of self-respect. I am convinced that only an honest person will respect him or herself. Likewise, people who lack self-respect are also thoroughly dishonest and shamelessly corrupt. Without an ethical-cultural transformation in attitudes, any change is bound to be at best ephemeral.

Such a transformation demands a careful examination of the relationship of means to ends. What kind of a means is necessary to bring about change is as important as the question of what kind of a change it is that defines the end. Synchronizing the means with the ends is extremely important for the sanity of an individual as well as the social order. I personally subscribe to nonviolent, passive resistance for the one reason that, as a long-term strategy, it leaves little room for meaningless divisions and hatreds that usually follow a violent transformation. Wounds may heal with time but there is no evidence to say that scars disappear. The scepter of India’s partition continues to relentlessly haunt us with no end in sight. The wounds may have gone but the scars have been carefully preserved by political parties and ideologues perpetuating the communal divisions.

Of course, I am familiar with the argument made by the American anarchist Peter Gelderloos in his book, How Nonviolence Protects the State (2005). Take the instance of India’s freedom struggle, where Gelderloos points out that Gandhian resistance was foregrounded at the expense of other forms of resistance to British rule.

“Resistance to British colonialism included enough militancy that the Gandhian method can be viewed most accurately as one of several competing forms of popular resistance. As part of a disturbingly universal pattern, pacifists white out those other forms of resistance and help propagate the false history that Gandhi and his disciples were the lone masthead and rudder of Indian resistance.” (Gelderloos 8)

The point that Gelderloos makes is relevant when we look at how governments and states tend to perceive resistance movements. To the police, the political class, the judiciary and the army, it is seemingly easier to deal with nonviolent protests than with violent ones. More importantly, the success stories of nonviolent movements tend to be overrated by the media, while conveniently ignoring the fact they are often intertwined with violent forms of protest.

“In reality, the nonviolent segments cannot be distilled and separated from the revolutionary parts of the movement (though alienation and bad blood, encouraged by the state, often existed between them). Pacifist, middle-class black activists, including King, got much of their power from the specter of black resistance and the presence of armed black revolutionaries.” (Gelderloos 12)

I do not wish to contest either of the statements that Gelderloos makes because there might be some truth to them. The seemingly contrary methods of protest used by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X have to be placed in a historical perspective in order to gain a broad idea of the black civil rights movement in the US.

However, my own endorsement of nonviolent protests which includes passive resistance is that they legitimize the fight against injustice in a way that violent protests do not. The outcome may not be as visible as we might expect as in the case of social movements that derive their power from violence. It would be false to assume that, therefore they do not have any outcome at all or at best the bare minimum. Jason Brennan’s distinction between strategic versus principled violence makes sense here.

“Consider the difference between what we might call strategic versus principled nonviolence. The doctrine of strategic nonviolence, the one that Martin Luther King Jr. most likely advocated, holds that people who are trying to produce social change should avoid violence because peaceful methods are more likely to succeed” (Brennan 18).

“While strategic nonviolence holds that nonviolence “works” better, what we might call principled nonviolence maintains that violence is wrong, period, regardless of how well it “works”” (Brennan 19).

Though I am convinced that like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. subscribed to “principled nonviolence,” the point remains that strategic nonviolence, wherever possible, is better than the advocacy of open violence. Ideally, of course, the only real doctrine of nonviolence would be that which is principled. In my view, the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh was strategically nonviolent although it was violent resistance that to a large extent put an end to French colonialism followed by victory against the American forces in the Vietnam War.

In individual cases of injustice, it would make sense to fall back on what Brennan terms as “defensive violence,” which is a reasonable response to expect from any normal human being. If you hit me once, maybe I could consider not hitting you back. But if you continue to hit me, it would be unwise of me not to hit you back, to the extent that I am able to at least prevent you from inflicting further injuries on my body, if not my mind.  

“Consider that according to the commonsense theory of defensive violence, one of the conditions for defensive violence against someone liable to defensive violence is that it must be necessary to stop him from committing the severe injustice. The necessity condition at the very least means that there is not an equally good and effective nonviolent means of stopping that person.” (Brennan 176)

On a mass scale, however, defensive violence might not be the best possible way of dealing with something as big as state violence that is politically and legally correct, because it has the consent of the majority.

To delegitimize the violence of power should be the goal of any protest movement. This can happen not only through criticism, awakening of conscience and raising of public awareness by inspiring the masses to act rather than be mute spectators, but also through a readiness to stand up to power, without losing one’s own sense of what is right from what is wrong. Let us not forget that Socrates could have escaped the death sentence given to him, with the help of his friends and start a movement elsewhere. Instead, by heroically submitting to death by hemlock, Socrates not only resisted the violence of power with equanimity and truthfulness, but also became a symbol through the ages of someone who was not afraid to speak his mind, the way he looked at the world.

Delegitimizing the propaganda of the powerful is a life-time task. Personal integrity, an endless surplus of patience and strategy are a must for anyone willing to embark on the path to a nonviolent social revolution that will not only be an antidote to state and non-state violence, but also will create the conditions for a just society.

References:

Brennan, Jason. When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice. Princeton UP, 2019.

Gelderloos, Peter. How Nonviolence Protects the State. South End Press, 2007.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life. Abacus, 2008.

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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