The New Satyagraha: Progressives’ Leverage under LOTE

Written by Patrick Walker   
Thursday, 20 August 2020 05:43

Gandhi's satyagraha movement

Updating Gandhi for a Nation “Colonized” by Propaganda

Informed readers will quickly identify satyagraha with Mahatma Gandhi, the world-revered political liberator, patron saint of nonviolent resistance. While I fully intend that identification, my updated application of satyagraha will differ substantially from Gandhi’s. Peaceful–yet forceful–resistance, rooted essentially in truth, will be the common denominator.

Invoking a world-historical figure like Gandhi and his satyagraha movement probably seems a wild, bizarre turn in a series discussing progressive strategy under “lesser of two evil” (LOTE) voting. I’d never risk taking it but for two salient facts: 1) the stakes of the next presidency being extremely (indeed, world-historically) high and 2) every previous instance of progressive pressure under LOTE voting--presumably “holding Democrats’ feet to the fire”–having failed abominably.

The desperate situation facing progressives/leftists is no laughing matter. Even as respectable a fixture of the “progressive resistance” scenery as RootsAction has implicitly recognized this. RootsAction co-founder Norman Solomon has appropriately “upped the ante” by the brilliant rhetorical touch of saying progressives’ must “reject and elect Biden.”

As a student of effective political rhetoric, I can’t possibly admire Solomon’s slogan more. Even the sequencing of words is brilliant: we must reject before we elect. To me, rejecting Biden before electing him (electing him only because Trump poses such a humongous danger) rightly implies that we should put effective resistance to Biden in place long before his prospective inauguration, even using the election itself to recruit for resistance. (Despite touting “finger-rape” rhetoric too controversial for wide adoption, I’m proud to have early proposed such constructive use for such a dismal election. Valid as ever, that proposal simply screams relevance for would-be Biden resisters.)

Here, Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk gets things exactly right in a scathing critique of Bernie Sanders. Bernie’s doing absolutely nothing to prepare resistance to Biden from day one of his presidency. In associating Biden’s publicly professed “friend” Bernie with their campaign, RootsAction lends credence to the sneering, dismissive language I read in a leftist comment about that campaign. Namely, that “reject and elect” is simply the updated version of “hold their feet to the fire.” Solomon’s brilliant new coinage need not be that–it could be revolutionary–but unless we think BIG in enacting it (Gandhi-and-satyagraha big), Solomon’s rhetorical bang will fade to a pathetic whimper. With great likelihood, to the predictable (if unintended) whimper of sheepdogging for Democrats.

Even “hold their feet to the fire” is superb political rhetoric and deserved a better fate. What discredited it was progressives’ unspeakably lame execution: repeated failure to organize a grassroots movement large and obstinate enough to ignite that awe-inspiring fire. While “reject and elect” fits Biden’s case so perfectly I’m green with activist envy, unless we think BIG–Gandhilevel big–it’s guaranteed to flame out with the same dispiriting pathos.

My heavy emphasis on political rhetoric should underscore a crucial difference between our updated satyagraha movement and Gandhi’s. While Gandhi, in both South Africa and India, had to fight literal colonialism, progressives now face the (possibly more daunting) task of reaching and radicalizing minds “colonized” by relentless establishment propaganda. In both cases, obstinate–even pigheaded–insistence on truth is the only remedy.

Literal Colonization vs. “Mental Colonization” by Propaganda

As an out-of-place, budding-intellectual weirdo in my hometown (ironically, once Biden’s too) of Scranton, PA, I invented a motto that’s long offered consolation. Namely, “Why be normal when you can be normative?” Though coined for personal consolation (by someone frequently neither normal nor normative), that motto seems strikingly relevant to every decolonizing revolutionary’s rhetorical (meaning persuasive) task.

So, I don’t wish to imply that a revolutionary liberator like Gandhi didn’t face the task of decolonizing minds: of awakening them from a pernicious normal to something far more normative and ideal. In fact, Frantz Fanon, both psychiatrist and revolutionary theorist, teaches us that literal decolonization crucially involves overthrowing the colonized mind of each oppressed colonial. A formidable obstacle, for revolutionary liberators like Gandhi and Fanon, is the colonial’s “normal” sense of inferiority to his or her oppressor–a sense meticulously cultivated by the oppressor’s propaganda.

So, in fighting literal colonization, I don’t mean to imply that Gandhi didn’t need to fight the figurative “mental colonization” of internalized oppressor propaganda. Our struggle differs from Gandhi’s not simply as an either-or matter of literal colonization vs. mental colonization by propaganda; Gandhi indeed had to fight both. But the sheer unnoticed omnipresence of propaganda in our case (insidious, omnipresent propaganda is indeed our “normal”) may make our struggle more difficult than Gandhi’s, even though he had to fight colonization both literal and figurative. And the fact that our elite oppressors, unlike Gandhi’s, both look like us and share our language and culture may prove a huge disadvantage.

So, while I wish to make the case that satyagraha is deeply relevant to resistance and political leverage under Biden–in fact, it may be the only strategy that can work–it will, given our radically different struggle, need to be an adapted in ways substantially different from Gandhi’s.

Satyagraha and “Radicalizing the Mainstream”

As politically engaged songwriter Bruce Cockburn memorably sang, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” For decades at least, our U.S. normal has gotten worse: ever-increasing economic inequality, endless unjust wars, media consolidation that turns news to elite propaganda, bought-off politicians serving only corporations and plutocrats, inaction (at best) in an ever-worsening climate emergency, and festering popular resentment and scapegoating culminating in the election of dangerous science-denying demagogue Donald Trump. This list could go on and on.

Yet our only alternative to Trump, Joe Biden, has assured his wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” under his administration. In other words, Biden is committed to the same intolerable, ever-worsening “normal” that gave us Donald Trump. And whatever his recent obligatory lip service to progressive goals, decades-long experience with Biden’s Democratic Party–whose leaders insist on an enemy of change like Biden as their candidate–should warn us a disgusting, ever-more-dangerous “normal” is all we’re likely to get…

UNLESS we revolt in a radical, unprecedented way rarely seen on these shores. That way–rooted in telling the ugly, brutal truth about “normal”–is the way of satyagraha. Under satyagraha, Biden would never pass for “centrist” or “moderate,” as corporate media propaganda numbs us to sleep by describing him. For in our “interesting times,” moderation and centrism mean commitment to a dangerous “normal that always gets worse.” Bad enough, via unaddressed climate emergency, to destroy human civilization itself. Trump himself should be an ear-shattering alarm bell awakening us to just where “normal” leads.

In the final analysis, what a majority of people are willing to accept as “normal”–even if “acceptance” amounts to stomaching the disgusting as unchangeable–defines the nature of that society. For convenience, we can call the majority of people (whatever crap they may be stomaching as “normal”) the political mainstream. In a society where what’s “normal” does happen to be mostly crap, the real, ultimate task of political movements is to get to root of things, exposing “normal” crap in majority eyes for what it is. Or, in a highly useful phrase, to radicalize the mainstream.”

I’ve used that phrase, “radicalize the mainstream,” in numerous articles over the course of my own political evolution, but the piece just cited, defending Bernie or Bust, is probably most relevant here. It’s easy to look down on Bernie or Bust (especially if exposed to Democrat propaganda); once helping elect Trump became the “bust” option, even I as its co-founder found its chief weapon of leverage against Democrats too dangerous. But as regards political truth-telling, its strategy was always flawlessly logical: take the fairly mainstream Democrats Sanders had awakened (or drawn to such a lackluster party) and radicalize them some more.

So, in moving from Bernie or Bust to satyagraha strategizing, my aim has remained consistent: to radicalize mainstream voters complacently accepting a “normal” loaded with ever-more-dangerous crap. By running in the mainstream Democratic Party, Bernie awakened mainstream voters to leftist policy options they’d never thought possible before, thereby “radicalizing the mainstream.” But given Bernie’s delicate, precarious standing among Democrats, we knew he’d never be able to go far enough, organizing Bernie of Bust to radicalize the mainstream even further.

But, beyond radicalizing the mainstream by its message, Bernie or Bust had the additional mission of exerting leverage on Democrats by threatening to seduce Bernie’s voters away from the party. Since this tool of leverage is far too dangerous under Trump, the messaging itself must become the means of leverage. But to carry this heavy burden, the needed messaging must become correspondingly more radical–as in satyagraha. The leverage threat satyagraha poses to Democrat politicians is a growing mainstream so radicalized, so immune to Democrat propaganda, that it makes their days in office a living hell.

Present-Day Satyagraha: One Important Example

Satyagraha, as Gandhi coined the term, is rooted in two Sanskrit words, one meaning “truth,” and the other variously translated as “insistence,” “persistence,” “obstinacy,” or “force.” While all the varied translations are relevant, my updated usage will focus on two: “truth obstinacy” and “truth force.” In a U.S. political landscape relentlessly defined by propaganda, obstinate insistence on a few well-chosen, unwelcome truths is the only thing likely to give a movement political force.

To keep this article at readable length, I’ll cite only one satyagraha example–but it’s an important one. Present-day satyagraha should focus on crucial truths hiding in plain sight, buried either by corporate media propaganda–or, what’s the same thing, its simple unwillingness to connect the obvious dots. One such crucial truth, hidden in plain sight, is that Democrats are gaining progressives’ votes for Biden by extortion, offering nothing we value highly except what everyone must value highly: not being Trump. In other words–in a slogan our satyagraha movement should make viral–“they held a TRUMP to our heads.” Satyagraha progressives who vote for Biden should loudly, publicly proclaim that we are “Biden hostage voters.”

Such open, deeply unwelcome truth-telling–deeply unwelcome, that is, to the Dem establishment–will prove extremely useful in making Biden’s election an occasion to recruit for mass protest at his inauguration. And after that inauguration, it will prove an ideal rhetoric tool to lobby for national ranked-choice voting, as our means to destroy Republican craziness as Democrats’ weapon of electoral extortion.

In my next piece, “The Staff of Satyagraha: A Movement of Movements,” I’ll discuss the potential movement personnel for satyagraha messaging and peaceful direct action, as well as delving deeper into their demands and rhetoric. your social media marketing partner
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