A couple of days ago I opened the Sunday New York Times. The main headline, front page, top right, was “At many homes, more profit and less nursing.” The article was about a trend in nursing homes in Florida where private investors have cut costs to raise profits. Details followed. Florida investors gained mightily. Florida nurses and especially nursing home residents lost mightily. The former were profitably fired. The latter were profitably brokered to oblivion. But don’t fret, the nursing homes gained bottom line glory. Stocks climb, lives decline, praise Wall Street. Business and business only.
What I saw blazoned on that front page of the Times was the bloody cement foundation that supported the ugly article’s reality. Everyone knows that everything is broken, and everyone knows why. Even when we read about social injustice, we barely cringe, don’t clench, and give not the slightest thought to assembling a group to fight for our elders or ourselves. But suppose millions had read in the same Sunday Times, “Aliens take over the Florida nursing industry, patients dropping like flies while aliens soak up profits.” Quite a large number of we the people, from coast to coast, would have grabbed clubs and bats, pitchforks and all too many household arms, and trucked down to Florida in droves, or to our local nursing homes, or just into the street outside our residences, eyes peering every which way, to protect our elders and ourselves. Aliens beware. But let relatives, friends, or whoever, be succumbing to the intrinsic dynamics of capitalism, dynamics that are relentlessly mercilessly present, and we the people barely wave goodbye. What is the difference? When in the old folks home at the college, where minds suffer imposed neglect on behalf of bottom lines and social control, again what is the difference that it is business as usual rather than evil enemies constraining our kids? Or in the mine, or behind the counter at McDonalds, or on the assembly line, or wherever? Why does hypothetical calamity imposed by aliens provoke outrage, while actual calamity imposed by social institutions provokes moving on?
The fatalism I am angsting over is that we the people think that there is no alternative not only to capitalist business as usual – but even to a slip slide toward hell. The fatality I have in mind is that thinking there is no alternative makes it so.
Put more bitterly, it seems to me we are becoming a population of cowardly ignoramuses – or perhaps I should say we are becoming an even more cowardly and more ignorant population – since the malady is not new, but only accelerating. And for those with parchment credentials and an air of accomplishment, who walk with noses held high and who expect others who lack said credentials to move out of their path, for those who have lots of money (though not obscenely much), and who think themselves above everything ignorant, please note that in talking of people who are fatalistic, I am not referring mainly to poor people who suffer serious repression and who lack access to substantive information and educational credentials. Society’s most downtrodden do indeed feel a degree of paranoia but they do so precisely because they face conditions warranting it, including enduring violence at the end of a club or, even worse, by a flourish of poverty inducing contracts. Cringing a bit at that, as the poor wisely do, isn’t being cowardly, it’s being cautious. More, poor people, though lacking detailed information, nonetheless largely understand the nature of the world around them, including particularly its hypocrisy, vulgarity, greed, and violence. They just lack means, unless movements become accessible, to do much about it. And please note also that in referencing fatalists becoming fatalities, I am likewise not referring to the rich and powerful, to the owners, senators, administrators, bosses, and media moguls. Those gray flannel folks are just doing what their training, conditions, interests, and long-since ingrained mindsets require of their ilk, despicable as their behavior often is.
No, in referencing fatalists becoming fatalities I am mainly talking about people who are both educated and who are, as well, derivatively substantially insulated from repression and retribution. I am talking of the quite privileged people who are not, however, at the top of society’s mountains of materialism. I am talking of the well dressed, well spoken, well poised people who are not obscenely rich and powerful but who are instead only considerably wealthy and taken together incredibly influential. They are the stupid cowards or, if you prefer, theirs is the cowardly stupidity. And their fatalism is a virus. And it is spreading at the speed of silence.
I mean your family doctor where I am assuming that she is a nice down-home neighbor with a local practice. I mean your kids’ third grade or fifth grade or high school teacher, where I am supposing that he is the caring type, a liberal, by gosh. I mean the butcher and baker, your post deliverer, and each worker in each somewhat effective union, both firefighters and auto workers, who all manifest plenty of caring for friends and neighbors, and even for people they don’t know who might be burning up in buildings they risk themselves to extinguish or seeking transport in cars they produce, but who manifest no caring for people burning up in poverty or fricasseeing in furnaces made by bombs labeled made in the USA, nor for people who can barely traverse their own neighborhoods much less travel across towns, cities, counties, regions, or countries. I mean the miles of minions in white collar firms who labor many stories beneath the top but well above the streets. I mean the people comfortably beyond survival incomes, who have TVs, internet access, books, and papers galore, and who may even have a piano or at any rate a couple of cars and a folk guitar. I mean people who have some degree of comfort and some degree of insulation from the violence of inner city daily life and who have plenty of access to true information even if getting it takes some effort. I mean, that is, the people who are not anti social, not jack boot maniacs, and not, by virtue of their position, so domineering over others as to inevitably be horrendously self interested and jaded, or so smashed and isolated and hurt by circumstances that anything beyond seeking bare survival is a Herculean undertaking. I mean, in other words, nice people like you, nice people like me, nice people who are watching from within while America rains destruction on others, nice people who are watching from within, as well, America’s internal dissolution into escalating repressiveness. I mean nice people, liberal people, sensitive people, caring people, who are watching, watching, watching, but who are doing nothing much to stop the daily calamities that owe to capitalism.
We the fatalists say to ourselves, not even explicitly, but in some subterranean channel of mind, hey, self, there is no better world. Pay attention now, self – there is nothing good that you can do outside our small circle of friends. More, if, self, you make our deep down buried horror at what we see all around us apparent to others, apparent even just to me, you will in that act impose on me the almighty sacrifice of looking different, of not fitting, of being dissident, and, well, gee, what’s the point of suffering such an incredible loss of comfort and continuity merely to protest jackboot repressive trends at home and international mayhem abroad, merely to protest the daily assault against all wage slaves, not to mention the cooking of the planet unto drowning, when if I instead celebrate all that, or I just ignore all that when celebration is beyond my capacity for hypocrisy, or I even just calmly bemoan it all for a minute or two before getting on with other business, I can prosper nicely.
Hey, self, face reality. Keep my bitterness hidden. You see, self, I am convinced – albeit without the slightest logic and contrary to all evidence – that protest will get us nowhere. So, of course, self, if there is nothing to be done about all the horror, it is better for me to care for me, and it is better for me to care for mine, and it is better for me to make believe all is well, and it is better for me to smile with a happy face, and to parade my civility at all times, and to say have a good day to everyone…hoping against hope that some miracle will make things better before I have to go buy a shotgun to keep the jackboots away from my life too. So, self, please put a lid my better side, curb my solidarity, stifle my humanity, and let me be a happy, if cowardly, idiot.
Well, of course, at some point someone is going to have to do something more than look away. And it is going to have to be enough to seriously shake the minds and feelings of the broad populace and of ourselves too. How else can we possibly dislodge large numbers from fatalism given that for the fatalistic anything that appears perfunctory just adds to the malady. March in place, hold the line, make an appearance, fight the good fight unto defeat, be on the side of the angels unto the graveyard – or do anything that screams out or implies or even just suggests, to any fatalist wanting to so interpret it, that we can’t win, and our entreaties will just bounce off fatalists’ slicked down cynicism.
Instead, to get suburbanites and city dwellers, both students and workers, to realize that if they don’t act they are abetting their own subordination, curtailing their children’s prospects, terminating their children’s children’s hopes for a humane existence – all while aiding our country in massacring victims galore who they need to feel solidarity with if they wish to climb out of the hellish pit of alienated loneliness nearly all of us endure – we are going to have to do more than “protest” to evidence that a small sector dislikes the inevitable.
Being a lemming following the crowd over a cliff saying hooray for crowds and cliffs is pretty pitiful. How much more pitiful is it to go over a cliff, barreling along like all the rest, but moaning about how unjust it is, how painful it is, how un-lemming like it is, nonetheless churning away, cliffward and then over, right to the end.
So what is needed?
It seems to me that many many people are going to have to be severely disrupted into realizing that they can contribute to attaining a better world and that doing so has so many benefits, and that not doing so has so many detriments, that to not do so will be fatal, whereas to do so will win liberation.
And what can cause such a large crowd, currently hell bent on collective cliff diving, to transcend their current posture toward a new perspective? What can meet that challenge?
Well, first, here is what won’t meet it.
Polite toe tapping won’t meet it. Civil litanies of doom won’t meet it. Even big marches and rallies, occurring over and over, staying one size, or even shrinking, won’t meet it. Nor can movements hope to meet the challenge if they exude disdain for all non members. Nor can movements do it if they harbor habits that reveal that they are only about posturing, or about grabbing brass rings for themselves regardless of the impact on others. Movements without a vision of what they intend to do, and of how they intend to do it, and a compelling explanation of why and how each member’s efforts can be a constructive part of the process, won’t meet the challenge.
So what do we need?
We need shared vision to overcome the view that no other world is possible. Our vision must be inspiring, convincing, and liberating. We must hold it with passion, participating in its definition and development.
We need to enunciate and advocate shared strategy and program too – a picture of a broad pattern of activity that can plausibly lead from where we are to where we wish to wind up, not merely winning one thing and losing another, going nowhere fast, but always growing our movement even when we suffer periodic defeats in specific battles. We need an image of ourselves following a successful trajectory of change to see how we and others can contribute to social change, and we also need to make room for people to do so, and need to incorporate the new ways they find for doing so, and need to create an environment in which they are not only welcomed to contribute, not only empowered to do so, but steadily strengthened in their commitment to do so.
Yet even all that, which might have been more than sufficient if we had had it years back, nowadays, I fear, won’t be quite enough. Even all that will need an additional edge to it. Because fatalism is not just a common everyday variety malady. Fatalism has defense mechanisms of considerable robustness and effectivity. To whip fatalism we not only have to have shared vision, shared strategy, and a movement that is empowering, congenial, and inspiring, we also have to communicate what we have, advocate it, trumpet it, and literally propel it into people’s awareness, until all souls have no choice but to see it, and their selves have to face the facts and the prospects.
In short, people suffering fatalism won’t come to movements seeking to be saved from their psychic malady or from the decaying world they daily navigate. We are going to have to push our alternative – both vision and strategy – into constant view of people who are hell bent on looking in every other imaginable direction. We are going to even have to make it constantly annoying to people, intrusive upon people – until they register it, comprehend it, face it, and decide about it. With fatalism in the way, communicating will take more than writing our vision and strategy down, or even speaking it at rallies or teach-ins, as good as it would be if we were doing a whole lot more of each. It will take implementing deeds that make attention to our messages unavoidable. We must somehow forcefully convey vision and strategy everywhere. But we don’t own TV channels. We don’t own billboard companies. We don’t own radio stations. We don’t have the financial means to easily shout into everyone’s consciousness over and over. So we must instead use clever deeds, clever actions, as well as bring our words straight to people one by one in endless conversations. We must have deeds and actions and yes conversations too, that are so audacious and so visible, so provocative and yet also so respectful of the people we seek to communicate with, that those people have to hear our vision, have to assess our strategy, and thus have to communicate and think and transcend fatalism.
And how do we do this? No one knows, yet. But here is the point of this screed. Someone, in fact a whole lot of people, better start thinking about it instead of just going through the motions of what decades have proclaimed constitutes being a radical, but which the self-same decades have also taught us damn well won’t be sufficient to produce really radical, much less revolutionary change.
The participatory potential around us is enormous. Almost no one is deep down enamored of profit making, of pummeling unto death, of polluting and prevaricating. Most of the population is more than ready for a hopeful alternative. If movements provide vision and strategy and audacious activism, and then nurture and refine all three with contributions from each new person coming aboard, movements will succeed.