Epilog: Beyond Reform, This Side of Revolution

 Epilog – Beyond Reform,This Side of Revolution


More than any time in the past two centuries, radicals seeking systemic societal changes – that go beyond mere tinkering with symptoms of the doomsday economy and failed politics – are on a quest without historical signposts or widely agreed strategies.


Repeating the failures of the 20th century’s armed revolutions that invariably turned authoritarian and repressive is a non-starter, at least in the over-developed G-8 countries. As noted earlier, reform strategies that seek incremental change have also run out of steam. It’s hard to imagine, say, a Civil Rights-type movement today based on moral suasion gaining traction with a majority of security conscious, debt burdened citizens. The revolutionary masses that were supposed to be saved by a militant vanguard have been transformed by advanced capitalism into an immovable mass that absorbs and neutralizes all reforms based on appeal to a higher good.


Recent calls to resurrect the New Deal to rebuild infrastructure and develop renewable energy is an unlikely option with the nation drowning in debt and an economy constricted by high energy prices. Even if a mix of public and private investment was agreed to, the self-defeating aim of such efforts would be to moderate the excesses of capitalism to ensure its future.

As noted earlier, reforms are also frustratingly temporary and easily overturned during crisis. Witness the recent reversal on drilling in environmentally sensitive areas in response to rising gas prices. As the late conservationist David Brower said, “All our victories are temporary, all our defeats permanent.” Such is the path of reform.


More than a century ago Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin debated the merits of revolution versus reform. Both have had their day and both failed to create a better world.


Today’s chastened progressives have no great principles to debate. Instead we have a seething politics of outrage, a scream of frustration and an ocean of tears in response to widening inequalities and ecological pillage. More generally, the populace is plagued by rampant self-destructive nihilism, political dissociation and a festering inactivity encouraged by the ruling system.


However, as shown earlier there is a yet unnamed trend afoot of pragmatic idealists, calculating provocateurs and revolutionary dreamers working on the margins and within the gaps of the global empire to hasten its demise by creating autonomous spaces to innovate and build non-hierarchical, non-coercive relationships, test non-exploitative economics, develop counter-narratives, weld together alliances and strengthen cooperative skills – empathy, solidarity, peaceful conflict resolution – that have atrophied under capitalism.


The argument here is not that incremental reform, expressions of outrage – or even armed revolution – are categorically wrong. Reform strategies can still produce results – a good example being the progress made to establish basic rights for gays and lesbians. However, traditional reform strategies are often successful to the degree they refrain from challenging basic economic and political power arrangements.


Outrage and tears may be necessary for letting off stream and maintaining a degree of individual sanity. But individual outrage, as therapeutic as it maybe, doesn’t build a movement or lead to critical analysis of structural problems or visioning a better world.


On violence, the Dalai Lama said it best, “Violence is like a very strong pill. For a certain illness it may be very useful, but the side effects are enormous.” Islamic extremism and free market fundamentalism both use violence as their primary tool to tear open social fabrics and in the resulting chaos impose a repressive and authoritarian order. However, violence is a poor fit for us working to extend “spheres of free action until they make up most of social life” (Day 2005:217).


Our aim is to change the world without taking state control through a bottom up restructuring of current power arrangements and social relations to build a truly just and sustainable social and economic order. The test for our political strategies is whether they strengthen the status quo of domination and exploitation or drain energy from the system, thereby making it redundant and unnecessary. As agents of change, our dual role is to both block and resist the top-down imposition of power and, at the same time, prefigure in our daily lives a world where citizens are not imprisoned in the endless drudgery of work and ever increasing levels of additive consumption and harmful waste generation.


It is no accident that the World Social Forum in challenging the metastasizing spread of global capitalism adopted as its premier slogan “Another World is Possible.” On its face, that seems obvious. Early twentieth century Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) organizing in the sawmills of Idaho and SNCC civil rights campaigners in rural Mississippi most likely would not have needed reminders that a more just and humane social order was possible.


As noted earlier, the difference today is that predatory capitalism has not only colonized the earth and its many diverse cultures but also the radical imagination. The murdered South African activist Steve Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Thus before any change for the better can happen, an interior tyranny of limited expectations must be uprooted and our collective imaginations radically decolonized.


The task is both visionary and pragmatic, to dream into existence the world of our values (initially often described in the negative – non-hierarchical, non-coercive, non-exploitative) and craft achievable goals and doable means to challenge illegitimate institutions. Both must be pursued simultaneously. “Pragmatism without vision is accepting the rules that are stacked against us while vision without pragmatism is fetishizing failure” (Reinsborough, 2004:195).


As always, the first step is to know your enemy and that begins by naming it. Without a name, what oppresses is locked within the collective unconscious and beyond the possibility of change. “Whatever is conscious wears out. What is unconscious remains unalterable,” said Freud. Naming is more than labeling. It means bringing the apparatus of power out of the shadows, examining its history and how it defines and controls economic and social reality.


Critical understanding of oppression cannot proceed without restoring the idea of freedom to its true meaning as a collective virtue, not an individual indulgence. Cicero said more than two millennia ago, “Freedom is participation in power.” Freedom in this sense is the opportunity to openly formulate choices, debate their merits and then make an informed and fair decisions in a transparent and accountable public process. Individual freedom is assured by such participatory structures and face-to-face contact with neighbors, strangers and even ornery antagonists. The state and corporations subvert freedom’s public purpose by defining freedom as a limited choice among essentially identical consumer products and candidates.


We need to create and enact decentralized, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy that serve as both alternative models to top-down governance by states, corporations and political parties and crucibles to forge new paradigms of sustainable and cooperative living.


One model is the affinity group conceived by Spanish anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that proved to be highly adaptable and enduring building blocks of participatory politics. They were small (5 – 20 individuals), often spontaneously self-governed and consensus-based in contrast to the hierarchical Marxist styles of organizing that have largely faded from history.


Affinity groups currently organize around events to confront and expose the myths, lies and assumptions at the heart of corporate dominance. They appear to be discontinuous and unpredictable, like lightening flashes that “light up the sky and pierce the capitalist forms of social relations” (Holloway, 2002:214). However, the shared ethical commitments developed in small groups are enduring. They adapt to new tactics and forms of expression and with minimal organizational structure resist being co-opted by funders and infiltrated by the national security state.


To build horizontal strength consistent with egalitarian principles, affinity groups in the large cities before major events network via confederated citizen assemblies (spokescouncils, radical caucuses, etc.) to adopt shared strategies, organize collective actions and, equally important, to perfect participatory processes that can and too often do succumb to infighting, suppression of dissent and other maladies of group dynamics. In this way they prefigure new social relationships that over time render redundant the current system based on domination and exploitation.


The larger aim is to cumulatively break down the legitimacy of capitalism through many small actions by casting doubt, undermining existing loyalties and innovating alternatives. Building inclusive participatory processes takes time and many cannot see its value. But like slow food, slow politics is consistent with natural rhythms and is therefore the key to emancipate daily life from the hectic pace of consumer culture.


A word of warning – there is a two-headed dragon in our path and both heads must be removed to make progress. The two heads are hero worship and hope.


The deadening influence of hope was discussed earlier, how it maintains self-destructive behaviors in the expectation that some outside force will save the day. “Hope and fear chase each other’s tail,” say the Buddhists (think of Democrats and Republicans on an endless treadmill). We need to break this destructive cycle with a new emancipatory narrative based on being fully in the present and creating your dreams now. In the meantime, let’s inoculate others and ourselves against the seductions of hope and work to invent a better future today.


Hero worship: movement leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez are traditionally cast in god-like roles of leading the slouching masses through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Like Moses, they never make it and, in the long run, neither do we.


In this myth we become dissociated from our innate instincts for social valor, projecting these onto movement leaders. A regressive pathology of learned helplessness has grown deep roots in the movement as we become like dependent children, limiting our strategies to demanding reformist government solutions and failing to recognize that real power resides in collective action. 


The Zapatistas deconstruct heroism by saying simply “we are ordinary, therefore rebellious.” Their movement has replaced the revolutionary hero, liberal government and an enlightened vanguard with common acts of courage on behalf of the greater good, empowering everyone to be a courageous leader.


Where leadership and power are distributed horizontally there are many voices and incessant questioning over where we are headed and how to get there. Revolution becomes almost a mythic quest – the goal aspirational, the means debatable and the questions eternal. “We ask not only because we do not know the way (we do not), but also because asking the way is part of the revolutionary process itself.” (Holloway 2002:215). As the Zapatistas say, “Asking, we walk.”


If reformists are satisfied with rocking the ship of state and revolutionaries with seizing the tiller and heading in a different direction (while preserving hierarchical power arrangements), we must head for the life boats to begin an odyssey to uncover free space needed for renewal and innovation.


We will chart a course beyond reform but this side of revolution, visiting along the way shrines to the mysteries where great questions are honored and simple answers rejected – returning wiser for the journey and ready to tell the future.


References and Further Reading


Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. In the shadow of the silent majorities: or, the end of the social, and other essays. Seimiotext, New York, NY.


Carlsson, C. Nowtopia – how pirate programmers, outlaw bicyclists, and vacant-lot gardeners are inventing the future today! AK Press, Oakland, CA.


Day, R.J.F. 2005. Gramsci is dead. Pluto Press, London.


Debord, G. 1967. Society of the spectacle, Ken Knabb, translator. Rebel Press, London.


Holloway, J. 2002. Change the world without taking power. Pluto Press, London.


Klein, N. 2007. The shock doctrine. Metropolitan Books, New York, NY.


Reinsborough, P. 2004. Post-Issue activism – decolonizing the revolutionary imagination: values crisis, the politics of reality, and why there’s going to be a common-sense revolution in this generation. in Globalize Liberation, D. Solnit, ed. pp. 161-212. City Lights Books, San Francisco, CA. 

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