Gandhi, talking to mill workers in 1927, wanted them to understand their power. Without labor, he insisted, there would be no product. He tells them, “When you know that the mill is as much yours as the mill-owners’, you will never damage your property. You will never angrily destroy cloth or machinery.” A destructive reaction rides upon estrangement. The core of the exploitation of your labor is the attitude that whatever you make, your work, belongs to someone else. What is the subtext of such exploitation? Nothing short of trying to convince people that they are only cogs in a machine, not full human beings in their own right. For labor to reclaim its humanity, then, the workers need to recreate their image as equals to those for whom they work. Where there is alienation, let there be belonging.
Yet, as with many of Gandhi’s utterances, we can squeeze even more wisdom out of it, if we change the term ‘property’ to ‘what is one’s own,’ (shifting the focus from ownership to belonging). Let’s take an example: cleaning villages. One often-used, and often overlooked technique in nonviolent movements is to do the work that a regime or colonizing force is supposed to do, but doesn’t, such as street sweeping or trash removal. In Syria, the nonviolent movement quietly went out into the streets and started cleaning them, telling the world (and the regime) that the streets belonged to them because they, ordinary people, were caring for them. It’s a constructive way of showing that they are as much of owners of their communities as the government tries to say it is. When we were visiting Palestine, in the West Bank, we noticed trash piles next to the streets. Our friends told us that while they pay the Israeli government for trash removal, Israel takes their tax money but doesn’t provide the service. The Israeli government is often remiss on their duty, we suspect purposely. Gandhi would say, stop paying that tax and start doing the clean up yourself — it’s an opportunity for nonviolence. Trash removal. Doesn’t sound too revolutionary, does it? It sounds like charity work, but in a context where such actions are a display of one’s willingness to challenge a regime’s self-appointed duties, it can wake people up from their sense of alienation to their sense of personal agency, restore their sense of belonging, and encourage them to resist injustice without resorting to destructive means.
The next time that you are feeling that a destructive reaction might work to make your voice or feelings heard, consider whether you’ve been made to feel inferior to the situation or person in question. Try to imagine yourself as the equal you truly are, and strategize your response along nonviolent lines.
The Metta Center for Nonviolence, PO Box 98, Petaluma, California 94953 707-774-6299 firstname.lastname@example.org