I first thought about the way people's lives can become symbols that result in societal change as a result of doing some pretty intensive research about Mohandas Gandhi for a course I was teaching called "The Activist Toolbox". One of the things that really struck me about the guy was the way every aspect of his life seemed to be geared towards projecting a specific image.
Most people have seen pictures of Gandhi spinning yarn. What they don't know is that this was an act of political theatre designed to mobilize the people of India to support home rule.
When the English first took over India, it had a thriving textiles industry based on handicraft production. Ordinary people spun yarn during their spare time. In turn, Cloth was woven from it by agricultural labour during the rainy season when no work could be done on the fields. Under the exploitative system created by the English, both yarn and cloth was being created by English factories which out-competed with the work done by these men. As a result, they were being driven into utter destitution. (Gandhi refers to the poor of India as "the skeletons".) Gandhi believed that the answer to this rural poverty was for people to go back to spinning their own yarn and sell it to the rural poor, and then buy the cloth for their clothing. The cloth is known as "kadhi". Gandhi was dead serious about this idea----to the point where when he was president of the Congress Party of India he once devoted an entire forty minute talk to silently spinning cloth.
Spinning cloth to help the poor was one part of this project, but I suspect that it wasn't the most important. The British Empire was a tremendous "wealth pump" that sucked money out of India and into the home country. One of the ways it did this was through enforcing an empire-wide "free trade" zone that meant that existing (English) businesses always had a competitive advantage against emerging (colonial) ones. This meant that money was constantly bleeding out of India to buy cheap cloth from England. And this constant flow of capital out of the country meant that there was no money to invest in Indian factories for not only cloth making, but anything else. This kept India undeveloped and poor. (At the same time, America had strong import duties against England that allowed an indigenous industrial base to be built. This decision to create a trade wall was one of the reasons for the American Civil War---the South wanted to have free trade with England so it could sell its cotton there and buy cheap goods; the North wanted trade barriers that ensured that Southern cotton went to New England mills and the South bought its goods from there too.) The independence movement in India decided that one of the best ways to wean India off the Empire was to convince large numbers of people no longer buy English cloth. To that end, the Congress Party organized demonstrations where people burned their English clothing and pledged to only wear Indian-made cloth.
|For an entire generation in 20th century India, khadi was the only mode of clothing|
|A side of Gandhi people rarely see!|
Not only did Gandhi attempt to make himself into a model Englishman, he also demanded that his wife and children did too. In My Experiments with Truth he writes, if memory serves me right, that they complained bitterly about this. For example, the socks and shoes made their feet sweat and smell bad, but he was convinced that it was necessary. This was part of an entire agenda that also included things like working to recruit Indians to serve in the British Army during various wars. Eventually, it was his experience in South Africa that convinced him that Indians could never be equal partners in the Imperial system so the only option was home rule. At that point he decided to give up his Westernized clothing and adopt Indian dress.
|No dhoti, but a turban!|
I've made a big deal about Gandhi and khadi because it is a clear example of how the symbolic can work in social transformation. It isn't as if symbols don't regularly exist in our society, but they are so deeply embedded in it that people usually have a hard time seeing them. It's like a fish not being aware of water or us not thinking about the air. They surround us, yet they are invisible.
|USA (Basic black!)|
|Canadian Supreme Court Judge|
|French Supreme Court|
|A scene from a "slut walk"|