“The oxygen that social movements breathe is called optimism.”
The sidewalks, living rooms and Facebook pages are full of recriminations, insults, self-doubt, soul-searching, and stuff like that, much more now than usual in these United States. (And even other places, too.) I doubt anybody reading this isn’t already way too familiar with the phenomenon, as of last week, if not before then.
Understandably enough, many people are feeling responsible, guilty, worried, sickened, and other negative things, for all kinds of different reasons, depending. In familiar and unfamiliar ways, from those in the highest political offices to folks living under the bridges, the questions of class, race and gender are being pitted against each other, and now everybody seems to be screaming (either that or they literally are screaming).
What we had was an impossible situation, in terms of this election — on one side, a Nazi appealing to the “the forgotten class.” On the other side, Wall Street. The Nazi won, even though Wall Street got more votes. (The more sensible options weren’t, because this is the USA and we don’t really do democracy.)
So now what?
Someone on Facebook left a snarky comment (the normal tone lately, across the political spectrum, it seems) after a post relating to Trump’s victory, that “at least you’ll profit from it.” I wish that were the case, but that’s not how it actually works, from my experience.
But it somehow seems like a nice launch pad for what I wanted to say here. That is, when you look at history, as I am wont to do, you find that what really makes big changes in just about any society, very much including the US, is social movements. Electoral politics just reacts to social movements — if they’re big, militant, ecumenical, and well-organized. Electoral politics responds just as readily to the lack of a social movement as well.
I could illustrate this point with loads of examples, but you can read the good history books yourself if you’re interested. (Just ask if you need recommendations.) Point is, we need a big, militant, ecumenical and well-organized social movement, or we’re goners.
How do we do that?
From my reading of the history of societies and social movements throughout the world, there is at least one common thread, and that is optimism. The oxygen that social movements breathe is called optimism.
So, to take a recent example of a social movement that was imbued with optimism for a few years or so: at the end of Bill Clinton’s second term, a movement took the world stage in the form of the WTO protests in Seattle. It took a few years of having this “New Democrat” in the White House before enough people started to realize that he was basically just like Reagan, except a lot worse, in all the same ways. Then after GW Bush took over, the movement against neoliberalism — the anticapitalist movement, the “anti-globalization” movement, or whatever you want to call it, continued unabated.
In terms of this primarily pre-9/11, global, egalitarian social movement, it didn’t much matter who was in the White House, because it was widely understood that those who ran the show in both ruling parties in the US represented the capitalist elite. (Which was, and is, true.)
The dying gasps of this movement continued for a couple years after 9/11, but for various reasons which I won’t go into here, 9/11 was largely responsible for bringing it to an end.
Concurrent with the decline of the anticapitalist movement was the rise of the antiwar movement. This movement more or less ceased to exist in any significant form early in Bush’s second term. Bush — a very vilified Republican president (for very good reasons) — would still be in power for several years, waging wars around the world, but there would be no large-scale protests against his foreign policy in the US after 2005.
Which is all to say that these movements were not just responses to circumstances. They were responses to “free trade” and imperialism, respectively, for sure — but there was nothing automatic about these responses happening. They happened because there was a widespread sense of optimism that they could succeed in changing things in concrete ways. The movements had goals, and millions of people involved with both of these movements in one way or another had a sense of optimism that success was possible.
So how do we build a movement like that?
If I or anybody else knew the answer to that question, the world would be a very different place. But one thing is clear to me: the movement doesn’t happen unless the optimism is there first. Lots of other things, too — but essentially, the optimism.
So there’s of course a place for beating yourself and your neighbors up when things all go haywire, I suppose. But after all that, what’s still needed is a widespread sense of optimism for positive social change to happen, by means of a social movement with a clear set of goals.
No one seems to ever be able to predict where or when these movements will arise. What’s clear is they can happen (or not happen) when the White House is staffed by the most progressive or the most reactionary administrations, during times of peace or times of war, during periods of relative prosperity or during a financial crisis. What’s also clear is all those other things need to be present — optimism, inclusiveness, massive size, and lots of people willing to get arrested, beaten, and worse (which is what I mean when I use the term “militant”).
Where does optimism come from?
OK, so I don’t know. It’s always a bit mysterious, in terms of how these things start. If anybody says differently, they’re probably running a cult — or aspiring to run one. What’s clear is that once the optimism is there, it has a tendency of building. (Which the powers-that-be understand better than most of us do, so they’ll do their best to nip it in the bud in all kinds of very overt and surprisingly underhanded ways when it begins to manifest.)
The reason it has a tendency to build, once it’s there, I think, is that an optimistic, inclusive social movement tends to bring with it a sense of community. We humans are tribal animals, and we yearn for that sense of shared purpose (whether we know it consciously or not).
This need for community can be (and often is) exploited by people like Trump or Clinton — and institutions as diverse as the US military, MTV or General Mills. But this yearning for community can also be answered by egalitarian social movements. (As one of my former bosses once told me when I was young and idealistic, “I joined SDS in college because that’s where all the cute guys were.”)
So how do we foster that sense of community?
One of the most common ways to foster a sense of community is through music. Playing music together, organizing musical events, concerts, festivals, protests that include lots of music, etc. (As you may know, I play music for a living, so hopefully you’ll forgive me for engaging in a bit of inevitable self-promotion here.)
Music can inspire people, in lots of different ways. It can also cure depression, and make you buy a certain kind of cereal as opposed to another one, even though they both taste the same.
Music can teach you things, too. It can teach you that the only things that matter in life are romance, sex and narcissism (which is what you’ll learn if you watch enough MTV). Or it can teach you about historical events, social movements, methods of organizing, and lots of other useful things — and it can do that without you even knowing that you’re learning about all of those things. (Cindy Sheehan takes notes at my gigs, but you don’t have to.)
There are all kinds of people doing this kind of music. It’s a very old tradition, around the world, in lots of different languages and musical genres. This kind of music can be very hard to find (even for regular listeners of Democracy Now! — to say nothing of NPR, BBC or MTV). If you subscribe to the daily posts on my Song News Network Facebook Page (@songnewsnetwork on Twitter), you’ll see that there are lots of people from around the world doing this kind of music — many of them still living and touring, like me.
A lot of them are really affordable, too, and even do house concerts. I have a recipe on my website for how to organize a gig — it applies to me or to other musicians on the DIY, grassroots circuit.
Whatever else you do, sitting at home and sulking is not going to help you or anyone else in the long run. If that’s what you’re up to these days, it’s perfectly understandable. But when you get that out of your system, drop me a line, call all your friends and neighbors, and let’s do something.