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The Riverwest “Village Republic”

“There is enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for anybody’s greed.” –Mahatma Gandhi Many people are familiar with Gandhi’s principle of non-violence, or ahimsa. However, there are three other principles of Gandhi’s teaching that are vital to understand if one is to use his ideas as he intended. The first of these concepts is captured by the Hindi word, “swadishi,” which means self-sufficiency. Not only does this concept call for the use of locally manufactured articles, it also demands the use of local political institutions and ancestral religions. Swadishi calls for a web of interconnected “village republics,” self-sufficient, with minimal trade, only of goods and services that could not be produced by the villagers. Each village republic would have its own teachers, musicians, artists, bankers, merchants, builders…all the professions and trades necessary to contemporary life. To Westerners, who are committed to centralization, this seems wasteful and inefficient, a constant re-invention of the wheel. What it accomplishes, however, is the distribution of meaningful and dignified work to a larger number of people, and the assurance that each professional person will serve only as many clients as can be served well. No one will be unable to get services; no one will be overworked. As Gandhi said, “Not mass production, but production by the masses.” This concept is in stark contrast with mass production. Satish Kumar, head of the E.F. Schumacher Society, writes in his essay, “Gandhi’s Swadishi — The Economics of Permanence:” The driving force behind mass production is a cult of the individual. What motive can there be for the expansion of the economy on a global scale, other than the desire for personal and corporate profit? The idea of the “village republic” is one that resonates with Riverwest culture. We have our own artists, our own political voice, our own newspaper — our local music style is referred to as “DIY.” A new “Village of Riverwest” group has sprung up to create new local institutions and celebrations that are needed by new residents. (Find contact information in this month’s Neighbor Spotlight on page 7, or visit them on the web at www.milwiki.org/VillageOfRiverwest/HomePage.) Swadishi, self-sufficiency, is a noble goal in itself. However, Gandhi saw it as even more — he saw it as the basis for satyagraha, which translates literally as “holding to the truth,” and more popularly as passive resistance. Passive resistance encompasses the three concepts of non-violence, non-cooperation and self-sacrifice. Self-sufficiency gives a group of people the strength, the dignity and the mutual respect that allows them to support each other in making the decision to not participate in a system or government or civilization that they deeply believe to be wrong. A community with its own urban agriculture won’t need to buy vegetables that are shipped thousands of miles in an expensive, unsustainable, polluting transportation system. A community with its own cobbler and seamstress won’t have to participate in a wildly inflated system based on product label recognition and arbitrary fashion. A community with its own locally-funded health care professionals won’t have to participate in a failing, dysfunctional system run by insurance and pharmaceutical companies. This brings us to Gandhi’s third and most dearly held concept: swaraj or self-rule. To Gandhi, swaraj first and foremost meant freedom from British rule. However, it also meant the personal self-rule or self-discipline of each individual. Gandhi believed that swaraj in India could eventually lead to “every nation doing likewise.” It’s tempting to think that Riverwest could be on a path to self-rule. We’re certainly moving toward self-sufficiency, and many Riverwesters find themselves not participating in large parts of contemporary culture, either through temperament or insufficient means. There are those in the neighborhood who have called for “secession” at various times in the past, with late-night bar talk of blockading the bridges on Locust, North and Humboldt. What’s much more likely to happen is a gentle pulling away, a quiet insistence on doing it ourselves, a polite declining of “help” from well-meaning outsiders. This is what has worked best for us in the past, and seems to be our best hope for the future. Swadishi, Satyagraha and Swaraj. Self-sufficiency, non-cooperation, and self-rule. Gandhi, the great visionary, has given the Village Republic of Riverwest her motto.