Gandhi’s Constructive and Obstructive Programs

August 22, 2018


It’s Time To Change

Is it not time for our species—inheritors and caretakers of this wondrous planet—to renounce the waste of resources and lives taken from us by war?

Growing evidence suggests that with regard to using deadly violence, we have over evolutionary time preferred to get along or move along. That whenever our numbers seriously outpaced our resources, we split up and sought out new territory rather than fight to the death.

Space Shuttle Launch

Space Shuttle Launch

Our cooperative abilities have now led to many amazing results. Among these, we now control staggering and dangerous powers. We are sculpting the planet itself—changing the land physically, altering the numbers and kinds of other life forms, even shifting the weather.

Most awesomely, beyond the wildest imaginations of all generations before us, we have taken our first steps off-planet. We begin to reach for the stars. Destiny calls. What kind of destiny shall we create?

War is not a genetically built-in trait, inescapable and inevitable. It is a recent cultural invention/habit/meme. We can tolerate it, or dump it, along with other things that have become obsolete, into the dustbin of history. For suggestions how to accomplish that goal see To Abolish War” and “Paradigm Shift: Shaping the Future.”

Dismantling the War Machine


To abolish war, a critical mass of global citizens must come to share the following beliefs.

  • Believe that war is a cultural invention, not part of our inescapable biology.
  • Believe that when humans set their collective mind to it, we have the power to achieve pretty much whatever we choose: we can climb the highest mountains on the planet. explore the deepest reaches of the Earth’s seas, fly in the sky, end human sacrifice and slavery, and put colonies on the Moon and Mars. We must believe that we can end cultures of war—and create a culture of peace.
  • Believe that great achievements, certainly one as massive as ending war, require that our efforts be organized, focused, and well led.

Unless these beliefs become the guiding reality for a sufficient number of global citizens, we cannot end war. When, however, these beliefs do become real for enough of us, success is only a matter of will and time.

So the next question becomes, how do we dismantle the war machine?

Something history and logic make evident is that we cannot use violence. We cannot kill our way to liberation from war. Consider World War I. If this war taught us nothing else, World War I—the “War to End All Wars”—brought that truth home with brutal clarity.

What options, then, do we have for undoing the mentality and operational machinery of the beast?

Here we are indebted to nonviolent social transformers of our recent past who used the strategy and tactics of nonviolence to mobilize critical masses of people to dismantle specific evils. Inspiring visionaries like:

  • Mohandas Gandhi, who catalyzed the dismantlement of British rule of India,
  • Suffragist women, who dismantled systems of political enfranchisement for men alone,
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., who was the face and voice of a great movement to dismantled one country’s system that segregated humans based on skin color alone.

Their efforts teach us many things, among them that we will need to use both Constructive and Obstructive approaches.

Constructive and Obstructive Programs

Two synergistic approaches are required. Neither alone will achieve the grand vision of a global peace system.

Mohandas Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi

The first approach Gandhi used is called “Constructive Program.” Good works people do prepare the ground for a transformed future, one that can be maintained. These efforrs tend to bring about change through a gradual evolution in social mores and norms. Gandhi’s Constructive Programs were things like teaching Indian villagers how to be independent (spinning their own cloth, for example) and ending the worse exceses of the caste system. Through good works of peace education, peace making, peace keeping, and peace building we are laying the ground for living in a warless future. We shift our cultures from a war mentality to a peace mentality and give people the tools to live in peace.

Unfortunately, Constructive Programs alone can actually enable war. An enabler is someone who helps another to persist in self-destructive behavior by helping that individual to avoid the consequences of his or her actions. An enabler can be kind and thoughtful, with no intention of fostering self-destructive behavior, nevertheless, they do. As wonderful as good works belonging to the Constructive Program aspect of the campaign are, they alone are not likely to be culturally transformative with respect to ending war. They can transform individuals, change communities, and shape history in powerful ways. These kinds of efforts, for example, gave us democracy, nurses, hospice care, food relief, health care, education, and improved human rights.

Good works alone, however, will not apply sufficient force to transform warrior cultures into nonwarring cultures. And what’s worse—the painful part—is that they actually enable violent, dominator war cultures to persist. Constructive Programs alone have not, and will not, dismantle the war machine. When we bring education, economic progress, better health care, and even democracy to those in need, we give them hope…hope for a better life…someday. We do not thereby transform let alone dismantle the war system. Giving help and hope to people has the effect of blunting peoples’ wrath and thereby (inadvertently) allows the war machine to escape the consequences of its destruction and waste.

Given that Constructive Programs alone cannot end war, we come to “Obstructive Programs.” To dismantle with any speed the war machine that underlies and is, in fact, enabled by Constructive Programs, we need something with teeth. Something with force. Obstructive Program is a strategy that has several names, among them nonviolent civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action, or nonviolent struggle.

Gandhi created the term satyagraha. Successful nonviolent revolutions that we view as positive used Obstructive Program, from suffragists to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. to the first demonstrators in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Examples of actions that constitute nonviolent struggle have been explored in detail in the books of Harvard professor Gene Sharp. They include protest marches, flying forbidden flags, massive rallies, vigils, leaflets, picketing, social boycotts, economic boycotts, labor strikes, rejection of legitimacy, civil disobedience, boycott of government positions, boycott of rigged elections, strikes by civil servants, noncooperation by police, mutiny, sit-ins, hunger strikes, sit-down on streets, establishment of alternative institutions, occupation of offices, and creation of parallel governments.

This strategy allows a social transformation movement to focus laser-like on the heart of the problem and challenge it directly. Such a movement can put fire into followers and galvanize a social upheaval and swift shift, even one as seemingly impossible to achieve as wiping out war.

Why nonviolent? Again I refer to Gandhi: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” What this means is that to end war, violent means can’t be used. For example, the idea of WWI, the “war to end war,” is contrary to this principle, and it clearly didn’t work.

Many modern examples of major social transformations were achieved using nonviolent means. The introduction of my Book Shift: The Beginning of War, The Ending of War mentioned a number of them. We also have studies that show which strategies and tactics work and which don’t, which movements created a lasting shift in the desired direction and which ones didn’t.[ii]

The practice of this type of struggle is not based on belief in “turning the other cheek” or loving one’s enemies. Instead, the widespread practice of this technique is more often based on the undeniable capacity of human beings to be stubborn, and to do what they want to do or to refuse to do what they are ordered, whatever their beliefs about the use or nonuse of violence. Massive stubbornness can have powerful political consequences. In any case, the view that nonviolent struggle is impossible except under rare conditions is contrary to the facts. That which has happened in the past is possible in the future.

Gene Sharp[iii]

Regrettably these options are rarely, if ever, taught systematically at any level of educational systems. For example, few schools K-12 in the United States offer classes in peace studies, let alone peace studies that promote use of nonviolent struggle for any cause. Our best minds are not challenged to perfect and use them. And since the present world system assumes that war is inevitable, relatively little time and resources are ever devoted to the art of using nonviolence to wage permanent peace.

[i] Sharp, Gene. 2005. Waging Nonviolent Struggle. 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers. pp. 18-19.

[ii] Nagler, Michael N. Hope or Terror? Gandhi and the Other 9/11. Minneapolis, MN: Nonviolent Peaceforce and Tomales, CA: Metta Center; Sharp, Gene. 2005. Waging Nonviolent Struggle. 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers; Stephan, Maria J. and Erica Chenoweth. “Why civil resistance works. The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict.” International Security 33 (1): 7-44. http://tinyurl.com/5ko7s9. (accessed 17 June 2012).

[iii] ibid. p. 23.

Governing systems deeply entrenched in a war culture will let do-gooders do good until hell freezes over while their practice of domination by force remains unchanged and they remain fully in control.

Legions of organizations and institutions around the globe are dedicated to a variety of Constructive Programs. But so far, the world does not have many Obstructive Programs, let alone a united, mobilized campaign aimed at the war industry.

We’ve taken only initial steps to end war (e.g., founding the United Nations, establishment of the International Court of Justice, actions directed at eliminating nuclear weapons, and treaties against the use of landmines and cluster munitions). But AFWW believes the time is right for the global community to unite in a way that will create an unstoppable movement to overcome all forces—financial and political—supporting the continuation of war.

AFWW also believes that peacebuilding, peace-education, and peacemaking alone or in combination will not do it. To tackle this enormous dismantling task we’ll need to use directed action, Obstructive Program, against the war machine.

Enough is enough! It’s time to change.

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