This pandemic shows that Gandhi’s 'practical idealism' is possible
A new society can develop from the ways people are responding to this unprecedented disaster.
This article was first published on the Metta Center webpage at Waging Nonviolence.
In Wuhan, China, the Honda factory has returned to full production. People, most of them still masked, go here and there in this industrial city of 11 million, steadily resuming their normal, pre-pandemic lives. We are happy for them, but - at the same time - this is not the “normal” we want. As was seen recently on a wall in Chile: “We Won’t Go Back to Normal, Because Normal Was the Problem.” Joe Biden himself has just said, “When we come out of this, we can’t just go back to business as usual.” We have to fix what is “deeply broken” in our country.
A new society can be developed from the inspiring ways people around the world are responding to this unprecedented disaster, and this is what we should be planning right now in the spirit of Gandhi’s “practical idealism.” That is to say: We should not be expecting miracles like the president seeing the light and changing his ways, or his avid followers deciding they don’t really want to drink the Kool-Aid, or right-wing evangelical Christians getting some sense of what Jesus was talking about. Instead, we should be looking to what has spontaneously emerged from the vast reservoir of human resilience and fellow-feeling that seems to need such an emergency to call them forth.
As organizer and author Paul Engler has noted, “During a trigger event things that were previously unimaginable quickly become reality, as the social and political map is remade.” At the same time, however, when the height of the emergency is over, and we are picking ourselves up out of the wreckage, we will find that some things have become unimaginably worse. As Ejeris Dixon recently wrote while paraphrasing an old quotation of Churchill’s, “Fate has handed us a society-changing opportunity wrapped within a tremendous challenge.”
There is a resource we should not overlook: Substantial change comes from within. During a weekly Zoom call that Metta is facilitating, a participant reminded us that whenever Gandhi was jailed he looked on it as a great opportunity for his meditation - so much so that he called the prison where he was regularly housed Yeravda Mandir, or temple. And more than one person now sheltering in place has been heard to say, “This feels like a meditation retreat.”
Well, why not? If enough of us take the time for spiritual renewal, study (of nonviolence) and planning, we could come out of this ready to take on the damage left by those parties who took cynical advantage of this “shock doctrine” opening. What’s more, we would have the wherewithal to systematically replace the cynicism with the fruit of creative imagination and our renewed awareness of the sanctity and unity of life.
Nonviolence has a way of turning setbacks to our advantage. In Iraq, Latin America, Europe, India, and elsewhere people could no longer go out and protest en masse, in what we call a “concentrative action.” But the shortcomings of this tactic had already been realized by activists and scholars through both experience and research. As a result, groups like Extinction Rebellion in the U.K. and its cousin Sunrise Movement in the United States are finding other avenues.
The most promising of these, in my view, will not be the cacerolazos, or pot-banging episodes - which often just shift the protest mode indoors - but the various elements of what could become a constructive program: food banks, firms retooled to make vital medical equipment the federal government has disgracefully failed to provide and neighbors helping neighbors in innumerable ways - not the least of which is simply getting to know one another across the social (more accurately, physical) distances. Remember how Occupy Sandy and Rolling Jubilee, providing critical debt relief, rose from the ashes of Hurricane Sandy? For the nonviolent, necessity is truly the mother of invention.
But it goes way beyond activists. In just two weeks, China sequestered 100 million metric tons of carbon. People in North India are gazing at the distant Himalayas - some of them for the first time in their lives. They can see blue sky from the streets of Delhi; dolphins have already returned to the canals of Venice, and so forth. Who will want to go back after they’ve seen how fast nature can recover if we give her a chance?
Another thing we can take advantage of are the new forms of organization springing up, like the vast network Gandhi set up for the manufacture and distribution of homespun cloth - a typical and highly useful thing that often accompanies constructive program efforts. For us, the most promising new forms of network and organization are those at the “sweet spot” between the old hierarchical models of the capitalist system and the total horizontality that was Occupy.
There are studies now showing that complete horizontality, however attractive on the face of it, doesn’t work. But there are examples of grassroots democratic organization and polycentric support networks springing up in neighborhoods and beyond that could easily form the groundwork of a new democratic culture - if we hold onto them and refuse to go back to the disastrous “normal.”
I live on the outskirts of a small village with a weekly food bank, which has suddenly become critical for many families, and a radio-and-telephone network that keeps track of what every single person in our town might need as the emergency wears on. Two people in my own intentional community are sitting to their loom and sewing machine turning out masks and face coverings. It’s perhaps just the latest example of what has happened for eons throughout evolution: disasters and other challenges are the nursery of cooperation and empathy.
But we are human beings, and we can’t count on these new forms and rediscovered values that are already happening to coalesce into a new world by themselves. We will want a long-term strategy of creative resistance, based on the “best practices” that have been well documented over the last 30 or so years for nonviolent social action. Flexible enough to adapt to unforeseen obstacles and opportunities, comprehensive enough to focus the energies of the entire movement, our strategy will lay out a path starting from relatively easy changes and advancing from strength to strength until we’ve found a way to reset the planet. I can see such a plan unfolding in three interlocking paths:
- Democracy, beginning with voting rights (abolishing Citizens United and the Electoral College; other forms of voter fraud), and going on to include universal health care and the end of gross economic inequality.
- Culture: today violent media and virtually all commercial advertising acts to disempower people from citizenship, not to mention from self-actualizing as healthy beings with an overriding purpose.
- Planet Earth. The Green New Deal is laid out pretty well; let’s get it done.
Let’s remember what the great peace studies pioneer Kenneth Boulding called, partly tongue-in-cheek, Boulding’s First Law: “If something has happened, it’s possible.” Pieces of this desired future are already happening; there’s at least one large-scale example of an emergency fix that seems likely to be permanently established (Universal Basic Income), and an even more significant one being discussed - an end to war.
Carrying forward the cash bailouts Spain instituted as an emergency measure, the government is working on putting on a plan for UBI to create “a permanent safety net for the most vulnerable.” And after U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a worldwide ceasefire during the COVID-19 pandemic and 70 countries signed on, Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies pointed out, with irrefutable logic, that if war is not an “essential activity” why go back to it at all? Of all the things we’re finding we can do without, the most spectacular is war.
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