All around us – Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, the Congo, Ivory Coast, Palestine, Somalia, Libya, and elsewhere – empires are tearing a trail of destruction. This is not a sign of strength but of weakness, because the aim of empire is not to destroy but to conquer.
Since conquest cannot be achieved without the collaboration of the conquered, a campaign of demoralization is an essential component of empire. It is the job of the mainstream to present every initiative, good or bad, as issuing from power. This, it does exceedingly well. From the popular news, we may expect to learn that one set of westerners bombs a country and another set of westerners rebuilds it: never the natives. Or we may learn that all history is effected by powerful men. For example, almost everyone has heard that Abraham Lincoln freed the United States’ slaves in 1863, but how many know that Haiti’s slaves emancipated themselves in 1804. We are told, quite wrongly, that the Supreme Court granted civil rights to US blacks one hundred years after their emancipation, and not that African-Americans assumed those rights by facing the racist policemen’s dogs and fire hoses.
It is important to relate the truth of things: that real power comes from the people and not from its supposed rulers. Imagine for a moment, that a master is flogging a slave and insisting that the slave works nearly to death. And in response the slave says: “No!” Who has the power? In Haiti, we have always known who this is. It is whenever people lose their fear and decide enough is enough that historical advances get made. Think of the US labor movement. No rent-a-cop Pinkertons, no military, however technologically advanced, stands a chance against a resolutely uncooperative populace.
Non-cooperation may take many forms. We can all do more, but every day, the world over, people refuse to work for empire by striking, working for family or community, and learning to grow more, make more, and share more; they starve the empire by bearing fewer children, living in smaller houses, walking instead of driving, and foregoing the things that have to be transported over vast distances at a high cost in fossil fuels; they preserve wildness by planting trees, saving rivers, protecting animals.
To counter military might with civil disobedience is nothing new. The idea is originally Henry David Thoreau’s but has been successfully tested by Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, and many others in varying places and situations. Importantly, Gandhi insists that before any demands are made from an enemy, there should be a process of candid self examination together with a categorical rejection of the ways in which one cooperates with this enemy. A fantastic instance of this was when five brave Egyptian port workers, who had themselves been tear gased, refused to allow a massive new shipment of tear gas into their country.
Even Gandhi granted that sometimes there are occasions when one must directly confront one’s opponent, but out of respect for life, this must necessarily be after this opponent is weakened by an exhaustive campaign of non-cooperation.
Though this sounds vaguely idealistic, non-cooperation is hardly a feel-good, bury-your-head-in-the-sand, idea. It is an approach that forces one to rise from one’s easy chair and stop the endless wine-and-cracker conversations about the “global corporate” evildoers. Simplicity is a corollary to non-cooperation. Simple living is required, for example, when workers go on strike and have to make do without wages for weeks or months.
It is sometimes argued that non-cooperation is a feeble tool, because the revolutions in places like India or Haiti would have failed if the empires had not been previously weakened by other adventures. Or non-cooperation brings only superficial change, because the advances such as those of the Civil Rights movement in the US did not eradicate racism. If Indians and Haitians chose their timing well against European powers, it is because this was the most responsible approach. And although it is true that the Civil Rights movement failed to rid the US of racism, this movement led to more advances in the rights of minority populations than any number of “-isms” promoted by those who are ever ranting about the “masses,” hate each other and have no real love for anyone.
There is nothing saintly about Gandhi’s philosophy. For him, Love was something fierce: somewhat reminiscent of the Love of the Haitian Vodou goddess Ezili Danto, who lifts other beings to realize their selves. Such a Love does not stoop to hero worship. It cannot abide the destruction of any living thing, because the other is recognized as a continuation of the self in the great ensemble of life, in this epoch of Earth. And though Gandhi’s notions of Truth include speaking truth to power and remaining firm about the truth of things, the heart of his Truth — also the core of non-cooperation — is its absolute intolerance for self deception.
In any contest, it is imperative to choose one’s weapons well. One does not fight an expert marksman with a sword anymore than one fights a giant military with a small one. The US, Europe, and Israel, for example, are ever inviting military aggression because this is the arena in which their advantage is greatest. It would indeed be despairing to fight on their terms. By contrast, non-cooperation favors those on whom everything depends: the people.
It is not the empires’ job but ours to promote our methods of fight and to celebrate our victories. We cannot afford to lose heart. To lose heart is to fail to think rationally, and to fail to think cogently is to expose oneself to becoming conquered.