We must be interested not only in the grand scale, systemic, and institutional changes that we so desperately need, but also in the human center of change that is both root and spark for lasting, fundamental transformation across society.
By uniting these two components of change, they become at once the reflection and the reflected, the potential and the path.
20 theses and a thousand buts
For the last few months, I have been a co-organizer of a project for radical solidarity, a unifying framework of positive vision and strategy for social transformation. In other words, I have joined in the audacious pursuit of developing a culture that fosters collective, strategic action, aimed at building and sustaining a movement of movements.
The project is based on the essay 20 Theses for Liberation, co-authored by 36 activists, co-hosted by ZNetwork, DiEM25, Cooperation Jackson, Academy of Democratic Modernity, MetaCPC, RealUtopia, and now co-signed by a growing list of individuals and organizations. It seeks to be a kickstarter for a wider convergence of perspectives, continually adapting, and a source of collective power for local and global applications.
Before I lose the realists, the seen-it-before’s, the good-luck-with-that’s, and the ain’t-got-time-for-this-shit’s, let me interrupt your “no, but…” for just a moment longer.
Yes, it’s utopian. And, it’s strategic.
I do not propose that the 20 Theses project is without fault, and that no negative or even dismissive reactions are warranted. Rather, I propose that much of the perceived problems and resistance to engagement with this project, and others like it, are reflective of a deeper ailment in liberatory struggle.
Using the 20 Theses project as it was intended, as a jumping off point for developing culture conducive to building collective power, reveals that perhaps the first steps forward must include a step back.
Prisoners of our own device
“The worst walls are never the ones you find in your way. The worst walls are the ones you put there.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin
In a recent email to a fellow organizer, I admitted that my biggest impression from this project, so far, is that I am now even more solidly convinced that the left (and many people in general) are so well conditioned by our society to have a “no, but” reaction, rather than a “yes, and” reaction, to positive formulations.
We aim to see what’s missing, reject-able, or just doesn’t reflect our own personal situation, and we use that as a stopping point rather than as an invitation to listen, add, apply, share, contextualize, etc. We have a reflex to oppose rather than propose – and not because we’re all just narrow minded assholes but because, for a long time, opposition has been understood as our only power.
My comrade advised me to share this observation publicly, and after some thought, I agree. Why pretend this problem doesn’t exist when we can name it, confront it, and maybe overcome it?
What is the lesson and the way forward from this pervasive ‘no, but…’ syndrome? The answer might lie in the question – in order to knock down the walls we’ve thrown up, we have to remember that even though we were pressured and conditioned to build walls, we did in fact build them. And we can let them fall.
The frustrations suffered while initiating, growing, and sustaining solidarity and building collective power should give us all the more reason not to stop. This initial wall shows us how seriously we need such efforts to keep trying to connect, to open pathways for engagement. Behind each self-imprisoning wall are the cries of people who have nearly forgotten that we hold our own keys. In insolation, we will remain captive. In community, we are reminded that the power and potential of interdependence is greater than any wall.
Perhaps even this might sound wishful, vague, or even self-helpy. Again, I challenge your “no, but” with a YES, it has to do in part with collective and personal psychology and wellness, AND it can be strategically linked to systemic conditions. Within our problem lies an invitation: any ways in which to foster connectivity and a culture of ‘building up’ are urgently needed. We can’t expect to have any collective power or left unity without such a culture, let alone any appeal to wider groups or any skill at grassroots organizing.
An honest look within
“Without community, there is no liberation…but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”
– Audre Lorde
Refocusing on positive vision and strategy toward mutual aims does not imply that we abandon critique. Rather, it requires getting better at critique. Critique is one of those things where quantity can drown quality, washing away everything in its path.
Part of good critique is self-critique. I do not intend to steamroll the nuance out of millions of participants in diverse struggles. I highlight our “no, but” syndrome not to point a snide finger at “us” or “you”, but to confront some shared experiences honestly. I fully recognize that I am making generalizations, and I do so in an attempt to create space for an increased appetite for nuance. I recognize and celebrate examples that diverge from the problems I describe. They are not the exception that proves the rule, rather they are bastions of the true human spirit serving as guides if we will only follow their light.
Now for the self-flagellation…
It has become normalized to focus solely on what we reject or oppose. We are not habituated to linger over the possibilities between the constructive versus the deconstructive. The space between these two types of critique is where many potential choices lie, and it is highly self-defeating to squander such opportunities. Sometimes, deconstructing is beneficial, as in deconstructing gender binaries to reveal that the binary itself is a mere construct. This has significant liberating potential. However, without constructive critique, a feedback method that offers specific, actionable recommendations for change and improvement, this potential cannot be built upon. While good constructive critique certainly exists in gender justice and in other realms of struggle, it must often fight to be heard and to thrive over the din of demolition. This does no favors to the movement.
The effect renders us into solitary homing missiles for what we each want to destroy, yet we have little skill in the work of constructing, repairing, rebuilding, and including. Our landscape is littered with the burnout and rubble of our own movements while the ecocidal-racist-cis-heteronormative-ablist-patriarchal-imperial-colonial-capital-authoritarian-corporate-war machine takes our uncoordinated hits in stride and chugs along.
In searching for the roots of this phenomenon, we can certainly point to our confidence having taken a beating. It’s possible that “no, but” syndrome is caused by prolonged attacks on liberatory movements. Driven from a constructive focus to go underground, all that’s left is deconstructive activity leading, over time, to a culture dominated by deconstructive thought. Eventually, our identity itself is based on being deconstructive. We might wear “no, but…” on a T-shirt. The key is in recognizing that this is actually an individualistic perspective that limits our collectivism, and where we easily mistake extremism for radicalism.
The implications of this demolition-mode span all struggles. Deconstructive critique flourishes, and though important when holistic, careful, and nuanced, it is increasingly impotent as we have become so unskilled in seriously and collectively engaging with what we want to build and promote. It is the constructive component of critique that solves problems, that builds numbers and commitment, and that makes fundamental change happen.
Yet history is riddled with repression and suppression, and though our time is certainly troubled, we shouldn’t be tempted to place all the blame on the past, conveniently out of reach. We cannot erase decades of repression, but we can confront the lack of hope that it has promoted. It is the mentality that fundamentally changing society is either not possible, or not important, that must now be confronted and debunked through practice. Frequently, we don’t even know our own foundational values and norms clearly enough to be able to apply them to diverse contexts, and so we end up reflexively rejecting things that are actually examples of practice. It’s time to come back above ground, re-root in a broadly shared framework, and connect positive vision to examples of prefigurative practice, giving each other something real to point to and aim for.
It’s not me, its you
“Coalition-building is not easy. You don’t make a coalition because you like those in the coalition. You make a coalition because none of us are going to triumph alone.”
– Audre Lorde
Beyond transforming critique from bludgeon into wand, and perhaps more personal than reviving a commitment to elevate positive vision and strategy, there is another consistent pothole in the road to sustaining healthy, powerful communities of struggle. And very commonly, it’s not me, it’s you.
Can I be brutally honest? You fellow progressives and proponents of radical liberation can suck to be around and work with. Tell me you’ve never had this thought cross your mind? Anyone who regularly engages in meetings, forums, projects, etc can attest that we are often lacking even in skills for conversation and deliberation itself, regardless of topic. It’s draining.
Why is this? Are you actually awful, no fun, oversensitive, either totally lacking in confidence or possessing it in unjustified surplus, disconnected from reality, and generally ready to pounce on any perceived difference we might have in ideology or priorities? And am I just so enlightened, committed, and well-meaning that your failings couldn’t possibly also reflect on me?
Unlikely. There’s an obvious point here in that we are a group of people who all feel passionately about our activism, and so are predisposed to be extra sensitive and even volatile about that which we care for so deeply. Bunker mentality is real. It’s also true that we tend to feel most hurt and let down by those to whom we feel closest — it’s why you might feel less personally stung upon learning that Trump had committed sexual assault, than if a member of your coop made an unwanted sexual remark about a colleague’s appearance, even though Trump’s offense is more extreme. You’re not surprised by Trump but you’re disappointed and hurt by your coworker. The two offenses are also different in that your immediate power to directly oppose injustice is much more accessible the nearer the offense. All these personal dynamics play their parts.
However, there is something more going on – it’s not just you, it’s not just me, it’s us. The good thing about this fact is that we can address movement culture both personally and systemically, together.
To start, many if not most of us, have at some point been hurt deeply, even traumatized, which has led us to identify and become opponents of hegemonic systems of oppression. Joining in collective struggle is a valiant response to experiencing or witnessing suffering, but we must still recognize that we are largely a collection of misfit toys. The “successful, well-adjusted radical” mirage may occasionally present itself on TV or YouTube, but even our superstars have scars and even people who were born and raised into counter hegemonic perspectives still suffer under the same oppressive systems. However we got here, we are all “other” in relation to existing social norms by default of our resistance.
This can be both a blessing and curse depending on how our internal movement culture is developed. By striving to organize internally according to the values we seek for society, we are better able to unleash a full diversity of perspective, experience, thought, and practice, thereby enriching movements and empowering people. Through organizing, we have more than just the chance to analyze and critique the system. We have the chance to construct meaningful connections among people in extraordinary and impactful ways. Community is built more by means than ends. Without strong community, the ends are out of our hands.
In addition to organizing through liberatory practice, walking the rocky road of radicalization towards empowerment requires that instead of victimizing ourselves and each other, we must again let down our walls and practice regenerative, interdependent activism. To confuse adding our own suffering for alleviating the suffering of others is a recipe for burnout, and it is ineffective. If we oppress ourselves and each other inside while fighting oppression outside, only the masochists will remain. Our movements might not always be able to be “safe spaces” or fun spaces, but they should at least be regenerative spaces.
Just a taste of community and collective power inspires hope and determination. Why then is it so often ephemeral? We can call for interdependence and solidarity, but to work collectively takes trust, which takes time to build and is easily destroyed. Having the courage to believe in the possibility of change through collaborative efforts is foreign and enormously daunting for many people. It requires challenging the prevailing myths of our system, reshaping our habits and fears, and actively participating in collective endeavors. We will have to help each other in envisioning a world where mutual reliance is fostered, even if we don’t always agree or even always like each other. Overcoming the grand scale challenges we face will require a cultural shift towards believing in each other and believing that we can collectively create better alternatives.
“Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. So, what is utopia for? That’s what it’s for, it’s for walking.”
– Eduardo Galeano
To inspire massively and seriously, when asked, “what do you want?”, we have to have an answer — not a rigid blueprint, but a framework. This is one goal of the 20 Theses project. It does not make the leap from broadly shared vision and strategic norms to any specific program or policy. Instead, it aims to establish a communal gathering place from which diverse applications of a shared framework can be self-determined by people in many places over various timeframes.
The second goal of this project is simply to suggest that by sharing some roots, we might build interdependence and trust between movements. The 20 Theses is a living foundation, able to guide and be guided, without overstepping or overprescribing. The original authors made it explicit that engagement, critique, and adaptations are encouraged — in fact, collective engagement itself is the purpose, developing a culture of solidarity that enables desperately needed strategic organizing.
I do not claim that we shouldn’t search the 20 Theses, or other proposals, for flaws or gaps. However, if that is our primary and final response to positive vision in general, we will not get anywhere. Instead, we must connect positive vision to today, to program and practice, each in our own ways and contexts. At the same time, we can identify immediate and medium-term struggle and let visionary frameworks guide strategy and program towards long-term goals in a positive, plausible arc.
Why does this simple logic for moving forward so often stall and fail? Perhaps we can’t just walk towards Utopia – it is not a place to which one can arrive alone. Perhaps, we must take a step back, hold hands, and dance.
Building community, coalitions, and power blocs, and attracting mass participation along the way, can only be done with a “yes, and” culture. It also requires a look within to overcome defeatism and cynicism, to relearn how to behave with each other, to offer positive pathways that inspire mass involvement over a fixation with purity of ourselves, our identity and aesthetic, and our movements. We need to promote new forms of desire and practices that offer meaningful self-determination towards fulfillment that are not tied to oppressive systems. A large part of this work will be to develop as a hopeful community, interlinked in deep solidarity via unifying frameworks, and relevant through collective action for what is strategically necessary to make changes today and tomorrow towards a more utopian future.
The 20 Theses for Liberation can be read in full and signed by any person or organization who wishes to engage with the ongoing project. #4Liberation
Co-Hosts & Co-Authors:
ZNetwork, DiEM25, Cooperation Jackson, Academy of Democratic Modernity, MetaCPC, RealUtopia, Kali Akuno, Michael Albert, Renata Avila, Ramzy Baroud, Medea Benjamin, Peter Bohmer, Fintan Bradshaw, Jeremy Brecher, Urška Breznik, Noam Chomsky, Savvina Chowdhury, Devriş Çimen, Mark Evans, Andrej Grubačić, Jason Hickel, Kathy Kelly, Arash Kolahi, Bridget Meehan, Sotiris Mitralexis, Jason Myles, Cynthia Peters, John Pilger, Matic Primc, Don Rojas, Stephen Shalom, Alexandria Shaner, Norman Solomon, Cooper Sperling, Yanis Varoufakis, Brett Wilkins, Greg Wilpert
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