As often happens during a revolutionary movement, icons will be mis-quoted and appropriated and remolded for other purposes. Lots of people think Gandhi explained the stages of a non-violent protest movement by saying:
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
The quote has a nice, poetic flow to it, but Gandhi-ji never said it. I expect he might well have agreed with it though, had he heard the original version, from a trade union address given by Nicholas Klein in 1918:
“And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that, is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.”
In the early decades of the 20th Century, a great mass of ordinary people of little means in Russia began to object to the large disparity between what they had, and what a very small number of people at the top, the Czars, had. The injustice of having to starve and freeze and suffer simply because you weren’t one of “them” became obvious enough even to uneducated people for them to protest, revolt, and violently overthrow their entire system of government.
In the end that Soviet revolution didn’t work out too well. Violent revolutions do not tend to end well historically. The revolutions beget counter-revolutions and those tend to be even bloodier. Think Rome in the 5th Century, or France in the 18th, or Germany between the World Wars. The American Revolution is highly unusual in that it was a violent revolt NOT followed by a counter-revolution. Perhaps that is what has preserved this nation. The energy and dynamic of violence got converted into industrial activity, for a while.
Some would say the Civil War (1861-1865) was in fact the American counter-revolution. It was a violent conflict over material disparity and ownership issues that had been left unresolved by the Revolution. Half the country believed it was acceptable to own humans as property, and force them to work themselves to death to support economic profit. The other half of the country preferred to believe that working yourself to death to support an economy should be a voluntary proposition. Nobody was really questioning whether or not one should have to work oneself to death at all. That was accepted as the price of profit, the path to wealth. Wealth was measured by material acquisition, as it generally is today.
When I was in high school, during the last phase of the War in Vietnam, a non-violent revolution was taking place that had a very similar dynamic to the Occupy Wall (and All) Street movement. At first the protesters were ridiculed. The mass media demanded a clear message, which by and large the protesters refused to provide. Back then it was because “the message” (the war is untenable) was so self-evident that the demand to play by their rules (choose leaders, offer sound bites) was akin to General Cornwallis objecting to the battle tactics of the American Revolutionaries. The early militias shot at the British from behind trees and rocks instead of facing the outnumbering forces in formation, out in the open.
Those who make up the movement here are drawn from many oppressed groups. Millions of workers had their jobs shipped overseas, never to return, in order to maximize corporate profits. Millions of students have graduated with honors only to find they can’t be hired in the professions they studied for. Millions who once worked full-time now can only find part-time work. These tragedies WERE avoidable. Our government, backed by mega-corps, chose to focus its main energy waging enormously costly wars that still continue, the longest international conflicts with the least cause in all our national history. Something’s got to give, or at least give back.
What the Occupy (the) Street movement is waging here is a non-violent guerilla war. They are out-monetized, and the opposing forces have better ground and supply lines. The only thing the Occupy forces have is the moral high ground, and a message so obvious that if the media and government can’t understand it, I suspect it’s because they just don’t want to face it honestly. The message is:
“Too few have too much, and it isn’t fair. We were told if we worked hard and played by the rules and got educated, we would find work and be able to buy shelter and provide a better life for our children. The going got tough, and you changed the rules and broke that contract with us, and we aren’t going to allow you to remain in power and keep all the stuff. YOU CHEATED US!”
That’s why they call themselves ‘The 99 Percent”. They feel that too many people are being told they must make do with less, while a tiny percentage are not only not being asked to sacrifice, but are actually able to increase their own profits at the expense of the rest, without penalty or accountability. It’s fundamentally unfair and inequitable, and fairness is a deeply ingrained value for most Americans.
As an example, let me parse an unfortunate statement made by Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America. In defending B. of A’s action last October in levying a $5 fee upon those who purchase things using their debit cards, he said the bank “has a right to make a profit”. This illustrates the fundamental sort of disconnect some financial institutions have. Making a profit isn’t anyone’s right. It is a goal or preference. This comes under the list of “unalienable rights” in our Declaration of Independence, which include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. You don’t have a RIGHT to Happiness. You have a right to GO AFTER happiness. You have a right to try, and the implied covenant is that there will be a reasonable possibility of achieving it if you work hard, follow rules and act in fairness.
In purchasing our current home in the summer of 2010, the third home I have purchased in my life, my wife and I experienced just a small taste of the unfairness the 99 Percent are complaining about. We were urged to apply for a mortgage one-third the cost of the house by both our financial advisor (for tax and credit benefits), and by the mortgage broker, even though we could have purchased it outright. We had superior credit scores, I was employed at two in-demand part-time jobs, and my wife had a large fixed income in the form of a pension. We put down two-thirds of the purchase price in cash. Then we waited, and waited, while for week after week the lender said, “all documents are complete”, then rescinded that position time and again, demanding additional forms.
It became obvious to me that the mortgage lender was simply unwilling to fulfill the contract and assume ANY sort of risk, no matter how good we looked on paper. They had our money, and they were just going to keep stringing us along and making interest and demanding more documents indefinitely. It wasn’t until I threatened to cancel the application and actually buy the house that they caved and wrote the mortgage. Two months later, they sold the mortgage to the bank our funds had been in all along. We could have gone through that bank in the first place, but we had taken our realtor’s advice and gone instead to a lender who thought they “had a right to make a profit”. I sure felt like marching in the streets at the time, but we had a home we loved, and I had sick, injured and dying people to take care of, so I chalked it up to experience. But I didn’t forget. We made out fine, but I totally understand the sense the protesters have that they’ve been played.
There are larger symbolic dynamics going on beneath the conflict here that shallow thinkers are attempting to portray as “class warfare”. There’s a denial of who it is that are the poor. The current overall U.S. poverty level is 15%, but the poverty level of those under age 18 is 22%. The poor are mostly children. Those who are financially well-off aren’t talking about the one out of five kids in this rich nation who can’t get enough to eat and decent clothes. And meanwhile, education is being cut at all levels using the spurious excuse that it is a bloated, inefficient system under abuse by illegal immigrants. It’s the National Workhouse, refusing to give a second bowl of gruel to Oliver Twist, and reacting with righteous indignation because he asked for more.
I’m sure there are different specific inequities being addressed in other nations by those who have taken to the streets. I’m sorry that any of the actions have turned violent or destructive. But people can only stand so much injustice and disparity between the richest and poorest. Without Gandhi around, not everyone is likely to react in as saintly or focused a fashion as his revolutionaries did. We must try our best to respond gracefully to this beast.