Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Gandhi, Satyagraha, And Ends/Means In Politics, Art, And Life

So I finished a book today. Joan Bondurant's Conquest Of Violence: The Gandhian Conquest Of Violence. Her main task is to explain how Gandhi's actions and thoughts constituted a novel approach to political conflict and social change. She claims that Gandhi's method, known as satyagraha, (which means 'truth force' or 'to hold onto the truth') is far more than passive non-violence. Rather, Gandhi's method was a technique of action that was very active, very aggressive, and ultimately a form of conquest and struggle. Moreover, she claims that Gandhi's thought challenges some of the fundamental assumptions and practices of Western political thinking. There is, therefore, two major arguments being made. The one about Gandhi's notion of satyagraha in its own right, and the larger argument about the shortcomings of Western political thought that satyagraha brings to light.

I'm still not entirely clear on all of the particulars of satyagraha as a technique. I know that it revolves around the importance of truth (as in social, relative truth), non-violence, and self-suffering as a means to socio-political change. I'll have to do some careful learning about satyagraha at some point.

I am much clearer, however, on the claims being made about western political thought and how Gandhi challenges it. The argument centers around the distinction between means and ends. Bondurant claims that western political philosophy can be characterized by its emphasis on ideal ends. We find ourselves talking about ideal theories of justice, of the state, of the social contract, of economic systems, of rights, and so on. Bondurant seems to think that western political thought is heavily focused on political ends and ideals to be obtained. Western thinkers, however, have very little to say when it comes to how these ideals are to be obtained, on the means to achieving those supposed ends.

Gandhi, on the other hand, had no interest in specifying the ideal form of political or social organization. On the contrary, Gandhi was concerned with developing a technique of action that could be used to address specific socio-political grievances. That technique is satyagraha. It doesn't matter if the ideal form of society is known ahead of time. The process of satyagraha will produce a better situation for all sides. This is why for Gandhi means were ends in the making. Furthermore, this is why satyagraha is a fundamentally creative process. Basically, the process of satyagraha will create a better and creative situation. That is what it was designed to do, and it means that we don't need to know what we are trying to create precisely. It means that we know something is wrong, and that we need to do something to change it. I'm struggling to talk about this clearly. But Bondurant puts it this way. For Gandhi " 'How can we transform the system?' superseded 'What is the form of an ideal organization?' " It is a creative process that is focused on means and not on ends

Bondurant says it works through a sort of dialectic. She refers to the Gandhian dialectic. What she means is that satyagraha is meant to find a synthesis between two opposing points of view. The point of satyagraha is not to defeat the enemy, but to defeat the problem at hand by persuading the enemy of the correctness of your position. It is not a simple compromise, but a complete synthesis of the opposing points of view that overcomes the initial confrontation.

Hmmmm. Clearly I have much reflecting to do on this stuff, it is difficult to think about or talk about clearly. I don't know how to parse it in an organized or coherent way. But I think the issue of ends and means should at least be clear. Gandhi came up with a powerful means for social change that did not need a specified end. Now this issue of ends and means seems to have larger implications for me. It reminds me of two things. It reminds of Collingwood's ideas on art, and it reminds me of my recent ideas about the aesthetics of existence.

So, as for art. Collingwood's philosophy of art seems to be characterized primarily by a discussion of the means of creating art, as opposed to the ends. Or, perhaps I should say that Collingwood's philosophy of art is focused on the process of creating art, as opposed to the analysis of the end product of art. It reminds me of his distinction between art and craft. Collingwood says that art is a process of expression in which we don't know precisely what we are going to create. Craft, on the other hand, is a process of turning a raw material into a finished product that has been fully planned out before hand.

Now, given what Collingwood says, I think it would be fair to say that most western philosophers approach politics from the point of view of craft: they try to name the end, the ideal model to be attained, and then they try to enact it. Gandhi, on the other hand, approached politics as a creative process that didn't have to be planned out, but rather had to be pursued as an open-ended and creative process of expressing truth. Bondurant claims that Gandhi's philosophy of conflict was fundamentally creative. It might be fair to classify Gandhi as a political artist, in the sense of being expressive and creative, and focused on the means rather than the ends.

It also reminds me of the thinking I have been doing on life as an art form. I guess with all of my writing and thinking and stuff there is this question of why I'm doing it, what end I'm striving for. I look at other writers and think, oh jesus, look at what these people did, how they inspired all these people, how they made those great works. How can I do that?

There is a desire to see great writers as something to emulate, to take their example as an end to strive for. I can think, oh god I need to become a great artist and writer that will influence people.

But I wonder if those artists really had those ideas as an end. I wonder if those artists were enacting a plan, focused on the end, or if they were just busy expressing themselves, focusing primarily on the means without a clear end in sight. I wonder if my life is going to be lived best by thinking of a goal, of a plan, of an end, and then pursuing that end. Or should I simply worry about the means, worry about expressing myself, and know that that will be enough, that my means will create ends.

I think that Gandhi's insight that what we need is a technique for action applies to art and to life. I don't need to create a plan for myself, I don't need to focus on my ideal end. I need to focus on techniques for action, on my means of living, on my capacity for expressing myself.

I'm struggling to articulate this stuff. But it is very fresh to me. But I think Gandhi's insights about the importance of elaborating means and not ends applies both to art and to life. I think I'll have to come to terms with this stuff in some way.

Also, I wonder about Foucault and Gandhi. I had some idea. About how Foucault and Gandhi both have the goal of political change that is a change in individual people. Something about how Foucault provides a means of specifying problems with history. He uses history to show that there are certain problems that we have been unaware of, and how they can change to find creative solutions to those problems. Similarly, Bondurant makes it sound like Gandhi was really about opening people up to creative solutions. He wanted to clarify problems for people and give them new possibilities. Or, as Bondurant says: "Gandhi's method provided the means through which an individual could come to know what he or she is and what it means to evolve.... The objective is not to assert propositions, but to create possibilities." I'm not sure what all these means.

For some reason earlier I had some idea about Gandhi and Foucault coming at the same issue from different angles. Foucault's work, ideally, should be about ideas that can incite people to action. The problem for Foucault was that ideas had become powerful that people don't always feel the need to act out against certain forms of injustice. Indeed, those injustices have become so naturalized that people don't even know how to regard them as problems. Gandhi, then, would provide the technique for physical action.

So, then, what I'm saying is this. Revolution and social change has to have both a mental and a physical component. Foucault's work would cover the mental component, revealing to people that there are certain problems that they were previously unaware of. Gandhi, then, would have the technique for the actual physical action that Foucault's work would inspire.

The marriage of Gandhi and Foucault could be an interesting path to social action.

I wonder if I'll ever be an activist.

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