Monday, July 21, 2008

Models of Social Activism at Navdanya

Saturday, July 19. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll call the different activist styles modeled by our last two speakers. It’s easy for me to find Chisti’s style more appealing, but easy too to see why I might want to think critically about that choice. Sharma tends to see the world quite starkly in terms of good and evil. For him the world is a little too neatly defined in terms of industrialism (evil) and agriculture (good), between states and multinational corporations who work in close collusion to manage the flow of cash and commodities and regularly turn to violence to ensure their hegemony, and people who are inherently peaceful, beyond corruption, and are overtly oppressed by the operations of state and corporate colonialism. There are some fundamental truths here, but I find his vision much too simplistic and conspiratorial. I’m attracted more to Chisti’s sense that the world we live in is a mix of the designed and the chaotic, that there is a level of idiosyncrasy to the social, political, and economic structures we inhabit, and that good and evil are spread around in fairly complicated and contradictory ways. It seems to me that in some key ways this vision is closer to Gandhi’s than Prof. Sharma’s, which is for me too doctrinaire and too often based on pat, overly simplified analyses. But, on the other hand, Sharma is much more serious about radical political change than Chisti, and once could argue that his historical analysis of the relationship between state colonialism and corporate colonialism, and what is required to reverse their disastrous effects, is both more comprehensive and politically hard-headed than Chisti’s. Sharma makes it much more challenging to be an activist in his insistence that we need to be “freedom fighters” in the specific mode outlined by Gandhi (including celibacy and non-possession), while Chisti makes it relatively more easy (be yourself, use your energy, be creative, accept that the world if crazy and full of contradiction). Sharma is a political worker, Chisti a cultural worker. If you’re committed to the idea that real change has to be effected politically and that cultural work is in some senses secondary to the primary work of changing political and economic structures, then Prof. Sharma is going to seem the more compelling figure. If, however, you see the political and the cultural as inextricably intertwined and view the whole history of political and economic development over the course of the late-19th and 20th-centuries as more chaotic and less managed than Prof. Sharma does, and if you buy into the idea that cultures and economies are always fluid and changing in ways that make it difficult to identify “pure” cultural forms, then Chisti’s vision of things is going to seem more comfortable.

One striking contrast between the two speakers that underscores the difference I’m trying to get at is that Prof. Sharma was insistent that multinational corporations and industrialism itself had to be eradicated altogether, whereas Chisti sees her artisanal production of khadi as a supplement to mass produced textiles. The two forms of production, in her view, ought to be able to exist side-by-side in a symbiotic fashion. What’s troubling here, of course, is our need to recognize the massive level of worker exploitation and environmental pollution produced by mass market textile production. The whole point of producing khadi is to produce textiles in a way that does not exploit workers and that does no harm to the environment. Prof. Sharma, I believe, would respond by saying right, that’s why the textile industry needs to be eradicated and be replaced by local production utilizing indigenous methods. Chisti, I expect, would respond by arguing that the mass production of textiles is simply a necessity in the contemporary world we live in and that the best approach to reversing exploitation and environmental pollution is through regulation and restructuring, not by a massive and inevitably violent overthrow of “the system.”

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