The Ethical Spectacle September 1995

The Gandhi Game

Mahatma Gandhi invented a unique variation on the prisoner's dilemma: a move that was neither cooperation or defection, but which fell in between (we will call it noncooperation).

In an iterated game played with the British, Gandhi and the forces he represented could have chosen violence, which is the ultimate defection. Instead, by choosing noncooperation as his move, Gandhi, over a series of turns, led the British to understand that he was an honorable and reliable adversary: firm enough never to earn the sucker's payoff, Gandhi could also be trusted not to turn to violence.

A violent defector, such as a terrorist group, compensates for inferior numbers and armaments with surprises and betrayals: ambushes, bombs planted in civilian surroundings, ruses to lure victims. Such groups establish that they can never be trusted, that there is no middle ground of cooperation, since the sole thing they desire is the death of their adversary (maximum payoff for the group, sucker's payoff for the government they are fighting.) Though, as the PLO has recently shown, it is not completely impossible for a violent terrorist group to evolve a form of cooperation with its adversary, it is a difficult and unlikely evolution, given the group's willing self-identification as a scorpion.

By contrast, Gandhi's tactics illustrate that noncooperation shares certain traits with cooperation: it establishes that the noncooperator is consistent, honorable and reliable. Though the noncooperator cannot be trusted ever to comply with the laws he believes to be unjust, he can be trusted to live consistent with his own announced rules, offer no surprises, and to withhold himself and his followers from violence. Thus, noncooperation tends to lead to a high degree of respect between adversaries, which ultimately serves as the basis for a settlement of their disputes. Thus, an "All Cooperate" strategy for both sides is much likelier to evolve from a strategy of noncooperation than from "All Defect".

It is a significant limitation of noncooperation that it can only succeed if one's adversary, no matter how harsh, unjust and imperialist, is also somewhat honorable and is reluctant to use or endorse violence. Gandhi was successful with the British who (with a few exceptions such as Amritsar) did not commit massacres; but he would have died on the first day of opposition against the amoral, treacherous and violent Nazis, who would have executed him and all his followers and thrown them in a pit. In other words, there must be something about the adversary that makes it clear that the grounds for cooperation already exist. If the adversary will not stop short of any act of cruelty or murder, noncooperation is not an option and the only available responses are violence or silence.

Gandhi's strategy of noncooperation had another significant advantage: it more effectively builds mutual confidence among followers than any other strategy of resistance. By definition, a terrorist group, to escape law enforcement and produce surprise, must be small, secret and disassociated from the general population; its supporters, though fervent, may have relatively little idea of who its leaders are, what they stand for or what they will do next. Noncooperation builds a stronger network of mutual links in the population, because it is open, its rules are disclosed, and involvement in its acts, rather than being secret and dangerous, is usually open and considered honorable. While most people in any society will stop short of involvement in violent acts--even when they approve the ends--noncooperation offers a form of action that almost everyone is brave enough to be involved in and may feel good about. While active supporters of terrorist groups--providers of money, cars, weapons--must be extremely secretive about their actions, supporters of noncooperation may wear physical badges (such as black ribbons during the Vietnam war) that enable them to identify each other. The result is a kind of positive reinforcemnt that leads to an upwelling of self-confidence and arouses a desire on the part of more people to get involved.

Gandhi said, "we must be the change we wish to see in the world." Following him, millions of people, at the same moment that they played the noncooperation card against the British, were playing "All Cooperate" in a game with each other.

Nonviolence is better when the preconditions for it exist.