On the Value of Our Social Movements


(To Elizabeth Hallett, who has devoted her life to social change and caring for the wounded.)

It´s yet another bloqueo, paro y huelga in Bolivia, nary a week passes without one or two or three somewhere in the country. The syndicates, collectives, and communities are in the streets marching, striking, blocking traffic with boulders and tires, hurling rocks at the police, shooting firecrackers, martyring themselves in hunger strikes—causing havoc, threatening the national economy, pushing the blind eye of government to see their demands. All the while, activists, protestors, and anti-globalization visionaries in “advanced” societies are stunned, inspired, awed. And green with envy. The campesinos and city folk in Cochabamba´s 2000 Water War, after all, put a stop to an already-signed contract with mega-corporation Bechtel to privatize water sources and delivery, while those in the 2003 Gas War in El Alto brought down a government.

Yes, green with envy.

Having been exposed to Andean social movements for seven years and having lived the previous years inside movements spawned in the United States, I stand in awe as well. But from this southern side of the equator, I have also gained fresh perspective on our own efforts. It is pride and encouragement in these that I want to pass on to my compañeros to the north, as confused or disheartened as we may be in these times as the world turns cuatro patas to the clouds.

Of course, there is always a reaction when injustice occurs. Hostility, violence, manipulation, exploitation, and theft cannot take place without the knee-jerk screech of response emanating from an inborn knowing of what hurts. As Ernst Bloch has pointed out, boasting consciousness of self in the context of events, environment, and possibility, humans are hope-bearing animals; burgeoning with “anticipations, images of desire, contents of hope,” we are saddled with an urge to realize the full humanity that lies within imagination. And a willingness to jeopardize life and limb to resist when harm is done, to impede, heal, and create anew.

Eric Hobsbawm offers the insight that the US and European political movements of the 1960´s were essentially anarchistic—meaning spontaneous, often without discipline, thought-out tactics, or consistent membership; they were fought largely in the realm of symbolism; and they lacked the discipline of a “war strategy” that would have been required to bring about not just momentary change in policy, but structural change. Speaking from memory´s eye aimed toward the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Durant during the heat of clashes with the Berkeley Police and Alameda County “Blue Meanies,” I would have to agree. Years later, I was surprised to learn that many fellow activists of the period never grasped the significance of Vietnam War protest as a battle against US imperialism rather than a mere slip-up in foreign policy.

Yet another slant crops up. This is the remarkable wisdom that bloomed in those times. Here we were young, naïve, and burgeoning with the bizarre hubris that we knew Where It Was At and–despite KPFA-FM´s honoring of the brigades, heroes, and intellectuals from times before, the resurgence of old folk and ethnic music, the poring over Marx´s 19th-century theories—we were products of a technological “culture” whose chief attribute was to charge ahead in fast-forward.

And yet, and yet. From the depths of our psyches—it can only be from there—arose knowledge of the aspects of insubordination and embrace that would be required to rebuild the human world. There was the first health food store that presaged a national movement toward locally-grown, organic, natural foods and medicines. An urge toward communal living echoing the human propensity to tribal existence. The Diggers with their free food and white bicycles. Resurgence of craft and whole-earth tools. Consciousness-raising. Natural childbirth. Sexual liberation. Improvisational dance. Peace. Buddhism. Shamanism. Nature-cycled ceremony. Psychologies challenging repression while encouraging expression of feelings, memory of dreams, re-knitting the whole of human consciousness that had been eaten away since the days of Descartes. Bodywork to dispel the clutches of said philosopher’s mind/body split. Championing of roots in history, tradition, ritual, resistance. Peer groups. Cadres of activists dedicated to working together. Marches, protests, sit-ins, civil disobedience, building scaling, clandestine attacks on infrastructure, whistle-blowing, work stoppages, and hunger strikes,. The courage to cross a boundary, don a disguise, charge an impediment, stand in front of a moving train. Fierce debate between violence and non-violence, socialism and communism, representation and full-on participation, large-scale and small-is-beautiful, hard reality and dream. Care for a planet being destroyed by industrial society. (Who can forget Ramparts magazine´s 1969 forewarning of the death of the oceans?) Remembrance of traumas long buried. Acceptance of death.

Arose from some inexplicable inner knowing, just as it had for so many generations before, the full panoply of the facets of a world we would like to live in.

Then, like bees to nectar, so many dedicated their entire lives to one or another aspect of this holistic endeavor. Came institutions, educational and support groups to further activism, research/take on issues, hone techniques, invent techniques, mobilize national protests, lobby congress, break barriers erected to separate classes, communities, and nations; agencies to disseminate other sides of stories than those told by the press; publishing houses, newspapers, radio stations; books, films, records, cassette tapes; funds, credit cards, and telephone companies to support activist labors; psychological/nervous-system-based tools for recovering from traumatic stress, group therapies situating individual healing in the context of a violent world, addiction-recovery support; progressive schools and colleges; organic farms, community gardens, natural food stores, meditation centers, dance studios, holistic health clinics, hospice; deeper analysis of the systemic nature of the dysfunction of mass civilization until near every thread was examined and made known.

Perhaps not a “war strategy” in a Hobsbawmian sense, but dear peers: in the midst of a global system that has penetrated/perpetrated pain upon every aspect of life, this is a monumental accomplishment.

Now, as fast-forward does, the ante has been upped. The new technologies—supercomputers, satellite and wireless mastery, techno-surveillance, genetic engineering, etc.—have fostered a global take-over that would make Alexander the Great and Adolf Hitler rise up out of their graves; a novel, at times invisible form of fascism is upon us; and through seduction, lying, eliminating choices, and force, every one of us has been corralled into it. The “web is constructed,” as Pedro Susz Kohl puts it, “woven, by a spider and, additionally, with a precise end in mind, to trap flies of the type the weaver eats.” 

Hello 1984-on-steroids. From the salt flats of Bolivia´s Uyuni to the hip cafés of New York´s Village to the penthouse of an Indonesian skyscraper, we exist within lightning-fast links and interlinks, actions and interactions on a screen, the ultimate mediated reality; a barrage of ceaseless innovation; a splintering of person from meaning, action from effect; enforced relativity of experience, ideas, and events; facebook individualism; quickening of the clock; loss of Place; hyper-reality based in scandal, spectacle, and drama.

“Inverted totalitarianism” is Sheldon Wolin´s term for this form of conquest. It “lies in wielding total power without appearing to, without establishing concentration camps, or enforcing ideological uniformity, or forcibly suppressing dissident elements so long as they remain ineffectual.”

A question lingers. How are we applying who we have become and the knowledge of our experience to this predicament? With pride in our audacity, intelligence, and accomplishments, I would hope. With an outlook that is green with possibility. With reverence for the audacity, intelligence, and accomplishments of past heroes. With attention to the new generations that have arrived and respect for their intuitive knowings. And, to quote Susz: rife with “… permanent insubordination, the dare of the moment… the only form of affirming our irreversible decision to reposition the dialogue, the creativity, the imagination…”

Chellis Glendinning is a psychotherapist, author, and card-carrying Permanent Resident of Bolivia. She can be reached via her website www.chellisglendinning.org. 

November 30, 2015
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