As has been pointed out by too many people 2016 was a devastating year for progressives (a homely term for all those who are want equality, democracy and ecological sanity). There is no need to repeat the list of atrocities, failures and disappointments as we all have them indelibly marked on our psyches. One result of the annus horribilis is that activists everywhere have pledged to try harder – at what is clearly not working. There is even a sense of optimism rooted in the old left-wing shibboleth that ‘the worse things get the better’ – meaning, of course that if things get really, really bad, people will rise up (and overthrow the 1%).
But the truth is much simpler if less optimistic: the worse things get the worse they are. There is no measure of misery beyond which revolution pops up out the ground. And if there is any popping to be done it is clearly not guaranteed, nor even these days remotely likely, that it will be socialist. The victory of Donald Trump and the rise of right-wing parties across Europe demonstrate how much easier it is to play to fear, insecurity, hatred and retribution than it is to attract people to competing visions of the good life, rooted in science and delivered by the state – a state that has been openly complicit in making things worse for two generations.
It’s not that there is no good news on the social change front. Jeremy Corbyn’s and Bernie Sanders’ unexpected successes were exhilarating. But the context in which they shone – political ‘leadership’ in traditional party politics in the US and Britain – severely limits the potential for future growth of broad-based movements. Why? Because beyond making activists feel temporarily less powerless and marginalized they are still examples of why dependence on leaders is a barrier to the possibility of transformational change.
And let’s be clear. Today anything less than transformational change is simply not good enough.
Peter Block in his insightful 2008 book, Community: The Structure of Belonging dissects the preoccupation of citizens with leaders and leadership. “It is this love of leaders that limits our capacity to create an alternative future. It proposes that the only real accountability in the world is at the top…The effect of buying into this is that it lets citizens off the hook and breeds citizen dependency and entitlement.”
When citizens don’t feel accountable they increasingly act as consumers. Beyond neo-liberalism’s obvious imperatives such as free trade, privatization, tax breaks for the wealthy, etc. its most pernicious impact on society is the destruction of community. The greatest weapon the 1% has is our isolation from each other. And all efforts to defeat neo-liberalism no matter how valiant, inspired, smart or sustained will fail unless they somehow, ultimately contribute to the rebuilding of community. Unless and until that process begins in earnest the systematic isolation of individuals and families from each other and from community will make garnering significant citizen power impossible.
Not difficult, impossible.
After 40 years of neo-liberal social (and economic) engineering we are at a stage where as consumers we have virtually endless choices – a mind-numbing variety of choices streamed at us at a speed and volume that leaves us stupefied – shell-shocked by choice, diverted from our possible lives by shopping. But our choices as citizens are now so constrained by the erosion and corruption of democracy and the endless promotion of small government that our citizenship has atrophied.
The dominant form of politics in fact reduces most people to passive consumers of politics just as they are consumers of goods. As consumers of politics rather than intentional citizens we simultaneously abdicate responsibility and end up indulging in the culture of complaint. Says Block: “Consumers give up their power. They believe that their own needs can best be satisfied by the actions of others…” whether they be public service providers, elected officials or store managers.
For activists facing this entrenched political culture there is enormous temptation to sink into a nearly pathological attachment to failure – what Block calls “the joy of complaint, of being right.” The more powerless we feel the more satisfaction we get from observing the next corporate or government outrage against the public good. It justifies our political stance and our critiques. How many dinner parties have lefties gone to where the whole evening is spent out-doing each other with stories that demonstrate things are actually worse than we thought they were.
It is hard to imagine how activists, who know people’s daily reality, can actually believe that scaring the bejesus out of people about the dozen tsunamis about to engulf them will actually motivate people to act. But we do. The new people the left wants to engage are a-political for good reasons – they are bombarded by a media utterly complicit in designing their misery and their consciousness, they are cynical about the idea that government will ever provide for them, meetings about the latest crisis are depressing, and most people are working so hard as part of the precariate that asking them to come to a meeting is asking them to sacrifice the only two hours they would otherwise have with their families.
At a certain point warning disengaged Canadians about the “fearful“ consequences of doing nothing about climate change isn’t much different psychologically than the right telling them to fear crime and immigration. We can argue, of course, that our intentions are pure. But no one cares.
Block spends a lot of time repeating the core message of his book: that we have to radically shift the way we engage people and move away from presenting them with problems to talking about possibilities. Talking about possibilities is “strengthening interdependence and a sense of belonging.” It’s not about a vision of the future delivered whole cloth from above but about transforming “self-interest, isolation and feelings of being an outsider to connectedness and caring for the whole.” It is not blind optimism but it is hopeful, emphasizing the assets, gifts and strengths of the community rather than the same old problems.
I confess I am a bit hesitant to recommend Block’s book given that it diverges so dramatically from my usual prescriptions. He eschews mega-analysis and even class analysis. He has nothing to say about neo-liberalism. He mistakenly proclaims that government can’t be a force for good. But when it comes to shining a light on the critical issue of agency – of how transformative change will actually begin – his insights are invaluable.