Acting Historically: Feeling Effective Over the Long Haul

by Chris Carlsson
(get the PDF)

National conventions long ago lost their function as arenas of genuine political contestation, becoming hollow rituals of secular coronation. The campaigns to get nominated have lasted longer and spent more money than ever before, and yet there is an awkward emptiness to the whole process, perhaps best exemplified by Obama’s meaningless promise to deliver “change you can believe in.”

In the face of this war of advertising campaigns masquerading as politics, there is still a palpable hunger to take part in history, to act and to be effective. Thus, the dilemma confronting protesters at national conventions stretching back at least to the 1970s. With the actors already cast, the scripts already written, and history staged as pre-regurgitation, what is a dissenter to do? Locked in protest pens, barked at by official speakers of the Left, Labor, Women, et al, entertained by “radical” millionaire musicians, is it our historic role to be a faceless mass, to cheer on cue, to march where and when we’re “allowed,” hoping against hope that OUR clever home-made sign will skitter behind the reporter’s 30-second TV spot on “the protest”?

The shrinking boundaries of protest and politics have already turned generations of thoughtful Americans away from participating in their own irrelevance. But does it end with that? Clearly not. The pre-defined rules of political engagement have successfully depoliticized a majority of the population, forcing the reinvention of opposition and political/historic agency on new terms. Exploring the fissures of modern life, probing for weak spots in the ruling order, uncovering resources in our daily lives that are practically invisible until we stop to look, finding the real politics of everyday life—these are vague descriptions of a necessary reorientation that can rapidly and dramatically re-engage us as actors in our own drama, as makers of our own histories.

One characteristic of the empty politics on display at national conventions is how much the real issues of daily life are systematically ignored: what work is being done, by whom, to what end, under whose control? How can cities be reinvented to radically reduce energy use, improve human communities, feed everyone fresh and tasty food, guarantee basic sanitation and health care to all? Can climate change and global warming be addressed locally through depaving, urban agriculture and aquaculture, and an urgent commitment to a flourishing biodiversity to complement our under-nourished cultural diversity? How can we democratize decisions—socially and politically—that shape our technological choices?

Changing the frame of reference for political thinking is a key long-term—even life-long—task for making radical change not only plausible, but crucially, desirable. For protesters and dissenters to our mad, mad world, a difficult but urgent challenge is to convince people who DON’T already share our views to come along. On our path problems get addressed instead of ignored, individual skills and tastes are welcomed and encouraged instead of stifled and defeated, and life for everyone gets much better while planetary ecological health shapes our deeper vision of wealth.

Revolution can seem an empty goal without a real engagement on the ground with daily lives as they are. To that end, spectacular protests at national conventions or international summits can become unmoored and attract only a self-referential set of subcultures. To be sure, those of us in these “choirs” need to keep dialoguing with each other in addition to widening our scope to welcome people with other agendas and experiences. Experiments in tactics and self-organization at convergence centers, guerrilla gardens, mass bike rides, and even some familiar marches and picket lines, are all important parts of maintaining and growing a culture of opposition. Learning from piqueteros in Argentina and Bolivia, who clogged the vital arteries of modern society by blockading roads, turns our attention to the vulnerable flows on which modern society depends, rather than the static spectacles which are designed to absorb and demoralize oppositional energies. Learning from radical reform groups like the Ontario Campaign Against Poverty, who combine direct action with demands for improved social safety nets and benefits, points us towards practical goals with tactics that reinforce and expand communities who can act together.

Ultimately our ability to persist over the long haul, facing certain disappointments and defeats amidst our successes, depends on the pleasure we take from living our lives to the fullest. Avoiding the cycle of frenzied overwork and burnout in favor or a convivial life of good friends, good food, and full enjoyment is a political responsibility! We can change the world, and our everyday behaviors do make a difference. But we cannot subordinate our own pleasure of living to urgent political agendas—no matter how vital they might sound. Our enjoyment is a much more subversive force than our anger. Radical patience doesn’t mean waiting around for others to change things, but it does mean recognizing that history moves in fits and starts—sometimes your own work is part of a lurch forward (or sideways) but much more often, our political activities accrete slowly across time and space, giving others self-confidence and strength to carry on far from our immediate view. Keeping our inner fires burning steadily requires a good sense of history—fantasies of sudden, overwhelming change are fundamentally religious beliefs. Real change, deep and lasting, takes mutual aid and cooperation on a scale few of us can imagine and almost none of us have experienced. We catch glimpses of it when we come together in large-scale protests, when for a fleeting time we feel the solidarity and visionary excitement that set us on fire in the first place.

– April 8, 2008

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