“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
— Howard Zinn
How ironic it is to write an ode to participation and collectivity while hunkering down behind voluntarily closed doors enduring voluntarily welcomed isolation. Stupid hypocrisy? Marvelous victory? Maybe both. So it goes.
People call it Covid-19, and as I write it spreads. Its death march, or the next, appears still toddling, not even adolescent, far from adult. Aged, infirm and hungry humans take notice. Young, able and comfortable humans soon will. Commerce, even arrogantly elevated above people, collapses, resuscitates, collapses, resuscitates. Profit persists. Counts improve. Counts worsen. Surely The Virus will finally succumb. But what next?
Some call it Systemic Racism and how exciting it is to write an ode to participation and collectivity while doors fly open and events, rallies, demands and sustained organization burst forth to marvelous battle. Resistance spreads. Joyous militancy amazingly augers more and still more. Will activism become up, up, down, down as have so many past movements, or can activism go up, up, up? Self sustain, self multiply, self diversify? And what next?
Determining “what next” is already a battle among all battles. Growing, diversifying, self sustaining, can this become the battle of our decade, the battle of this century, and maybe even the battle of all centuries?
When someone writes more beautifully and compellingly than you can hope to, you may as well quote. Arundhati Roy writes: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Post Covid, will we revert to pre-Covid only to then lay seeds for a new-Covid? Will we repeat the same travails we endured pre-Covid only to later repeat, repeat, repeat, unto diseased oblivion? That is the corporate agenda that Trumpian fear tactics seek. Endlessly deprive the rest of us. Everlastingly enshrine themselves.
Post racist police violence, will we revert to pre police violence only to then lay seeds for new police violence? Will we return to the same systemic travails we endured before our massive upsurge – only to later repeat, repeat, repeat, unto coerced oblivion? That is the white supremacist agenda that Trumpian fear tactics seek. Endlessly enlarge the subordination of many on behalf of those who sneer-smile down from above.
Or, post Corona, will we achieve post racism, post sexism, post capitalism, and post social depravity? Will we demand and seek not just temporary palliatives but sustained gains, over and over, until we attain civilized existence plus participatory collective preparedness for whatever new comes our way? Will we persist until we have another fundamentally fulfilling world? That is what wise activism and grassroots pressure seek. Boundless liberation that elevates us to Another World.
In sum, will post Covid revert us to restricted life as it has been? Or will post Covid launch us toward marvelous life as it ought to be? Will we limp back to old nasty normality or dance forward to a vastly better new normality?
Will post today’s escalated police violence revert us to racially restricted life as it has been, or launch us toward culturally and socially marvelous life as it ought to be? will we limp back to old nasty normality or dance forward to a vastly better new normality?
For now, The Virus is vicious. The Virus ignores intelligent entreaty. The Virus ridicules moral suasion. The Virus sounds familiar, like a microbial chip off the old orange blockhead.
For now Racism is vicious. Racism ignores intelligent entreaty. Racism ridicules moral suasion. Racism sounds familiar, like a cultural chip off the old orange blockhead.
For The Virus’s only redeeming feature, for Racism’s only redeeming feature, the two deadly allies loudly ask: die or live better? So amidst their rubble, ironically, The Virus and Racism don’t only kill and destroy. They also lecture. Will we hear? Which way through the portal?
First Lesson: Going it alone is damn lonely. Going it alone barely survives and never thrives. To avoid still more debilitating disease, still more racial depravity, plus climate catastrophe, nuclear meltdown, and the vicious deprivations of gender, economic, and political business as usual, Big Change is gonna have to come. And Big Change is gonna require steadfast, informed collectivity. Forget “I shop til I drop.” Instead, “we fight til we win.” Forget about I refine myself till I shine. Instead, we combine our many selves until we prevail.
Second Lesson: Humans display venality but also mutuality. No denying it. Humans can be cruel. Israeli Virus-infected settler gangs spit on Palestinians to try to sicken them. American youths gleefully call The Virus a “Boomer Remover.” Teenage parties, invite guests with Covid, charge admission, and offer prizes for whoever first gets Virus-ed. Knees crush necks. Realty creates ghettos. Jobs coerce. Incomes impoverish. Landlords evict. And a seemingly pathological Trump seeks personal elevation over the corpses of Covid counts that he causes, over the ravages of racism that he radiates and accelerates, all while seemingly sane souls celebrate his doing so. But humans can also be compassionate, empathetic, and courageous. Acts of mutual aid magnificently proliferate from home to home, street to street. Blacks lead and whites joyously join, aid, care, fight. Moreover, against all pundit protestations to the contrary, not only can people be good, but on top of that, Big Change is possible. Not just human will but also material resources exist. Instead of trillions for the already rich we could allot trillions for the unnecessarily poor. Instead of bailouts for the rich we could elevate health care, housing, education, and empowerment for everyone else. We produce it. We could have it. Instead of doing what socialized habit says, what corporate normality says, what Trump says, we can unite and fight.
We must change and we can change, not just in selfie-like acts, however well meant and welcome, but in collective, massive, institution-changing acts. But, you might rightly reply, the social obstacles inhabiting our minds and habits, and far more so the pressures emanating from the institutions surrounding us and manifest through the brutalized or confused souls those institutions produce are profoundly powerful. And indeed, they are. More, we confront the mother of all ironies. The institutions we necessarily rely on to help us – hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, militarized police, banks, our employers, government agencies – simultaneously themselves deny us a better life. They can be and are simultaneously leaky life rafts and purveyors of the very floods we grab them to escape. We must therefore un-Catch the mother of all Catch-22s. We must cling to even leaky means of at best bare survival and we must simultaneously conceive and undertake replacing those leaky means of bare survival with efficient vehicles of unbounded liberation.
Orthogonal to the verities of The Virus and to the ravages of Systemic Racism, decades of hard won observation teach still a third lesson. Felt need for Big Change, plus felt desire for Big Change, plus felt wisdom that Big Change is possible, even all taken together, will not alone win Big Change.
We can be courageous, committed, and confident but if we seek better without addressing that the defining structures of contemporary life not only allow most to live but also block everyone attaining better life, then our courageous struggles will ultimately deposit us back where we began. We will advance from Covid crisis, police crisis, climate crisis, or inequality crisis – only back to business as usual grabbing at leaky rafts. Going back to the earlier normal means going back to what oppressed us before and gave us The Virus, Racial, and Other Crises in the first place. Re-attaining the old nasty normal will mean we are again stuck with the old nasty normal.
And here is an even scarier truth. The Virus is not our biggest problem. Even systemic racism is not our biggest problem. Global Warming, Nuclear incineration, and diverse other ecological nightmares don’t just seem apocalyptic, they are apocalyptic. So Post Covid and post racism must be post all the other ugly social diseases and post ecological unsustainability as well. To live beyond The Virus and even to reduce racism only to die from high water and hard rain everywhere, will hardly count for much.
For Big Change that escapes endlessly spiraling from disastrous business as usual to catastrophic crisis and then back again, and then again, we must continually confront the institutions we daily endure even though they also undeniably daily fuel our survival. We must replace them like a heart transplant replaces an old heart. We must keep society kicking during the whole transition that provides new institutions that further our collectively becoming the best that we can be.
And to do that we must transcend the belief that current institutions are permanent. We must intelligently, militantly, and tirelessly replace current institutions via Zinn’s “infinite succession of presents” that continually bend toward and finally accelerate us into a better future.
Our minds must know the restrictive failings of the familiar institutions around us, but even more so the liberating virtues of the new institutions we want in their place.
Our actions must mitigate present-day injustice, but also envision, advocate, seek and finally enact future liberation.
Our immediate losses must inform later wins.
Our immediate victories must include provision that we fight on and not stop until we have won another world.
Our catalog of victories must combine month after month and year after year into a trajectory of synchronized gains that finally retire the old and birth the new. No collapse. Construction.
What values can inform Another World? Equity of responsibilities and benefits for all. Self management of decisions affecting our lives for all. Diversity of options and outcomes for all. Solidarity and even empathy for all. Internationalism. Local and planetary ecological sustainability and stewardship. Universal participation.
What can ensure that Another World fulfills such favored values? Only new key political, kinship, cultural, economic, ecological, and international norms and structures that are self consciously and uncompromisingly conceived for that task.
But beyond a snapshot, to remain better, Another World cannot be only momentarily worthy. It must always be busy being born, so it will never be busy dying. So what does Another World need to have if it is to always enrich its own future? Never devolve into its own past. It must have polity continually evolving. New generations perpetually birthed, educated, and matured. Art and wisdom continually made richer. Wise and ceaseless investing in the day after tomorrow’s tomorrow and in continually and joyously re-harmonizing with our ever changing planet.
And how do we get from where we are to where we want to be? We employ flexible but steadfast and diverse tactics to achieve flexible but steadfast and shared strategy. We in turn utilize flexible but steadfast and shared strategy to achieve Big Change.
But first a word of clarification.
We should get on with proposing and pursuing vision and strategy while simultaneously remembering that our visionary task is not like blueprinting a new skyscraper or even a bridge over troubled waters. In erecting a skyscraper or in building a bridge, we must pre-conceive fine details. But in seeking a better world, to pre-conceive details would overstep because current folks have no right much less right to determine the detailed preferences of everyone in a better world. Future details are for future citizens to determine. Put that way, clearly detailed blueprinting would overstep our legitimate mandate.
And pre-conceiving details would also arrogantly err because even when talking about a detail for which there really will turn out to be only one good choice, the idea that lacking any relevant experience we would know that ideal choice now is laughable. And, in any event, most details of a future better world will not involve one good choice but instead many good choices that will differ from one society to another and even within a single society from one region to another. Put that way, the arrogance of thinking we can now know finely detailed future preferences should also be evident.
Similarly, but for different reasons and to an even greater degree, wise and effective strategy also depends on time, place, the relative strengths of contending actors and many other variables. What propels one scenario can hinder another. Smart strategic advisories are by their very nature necessarily contingent.
So it is that we should propose, share, and pursue not a detailed blueprint but something more like a rough scaffolding. We should share vision not of every detail but instead of only the defining features of key institutions. We should envision not every detail but only what we can show to be necessary and sufficient to ensure that future citizens will be prepared, able, and institutionally propelled to themselves determine their own finely detailed fates. And we should share only limited strategic insights meant to be refined, enriched, and employed precisely as needed to fit actual contexts.
We should, in other words, propose, share, and pursue what now needs doing that can now be done. We should propose, share, and pursue no more than that, but also and most importantly, no less than that.