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Perspectives on Activism: Waiting and Being Present

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Photo by Timothy Krause | CC BY 2.0

“The more people I meet, the happier I become.”

-Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

In the interregnum, we find ourselves as citizens waiting…for something. We bide our time with pablums, social media, or sports, or even pseudo-political debates. Many have insulated themselves from real issues: economic, social, and ecological justice.

Capitalism imposes a state of captivity, one where spontaneity and genuine feeling are shunted into commodified culture, into privatized service-oriented companies, and into increasingly mind-numbing social media and digital platforms.

When the unexpected occurs; a storm, a war, a tragic accident, we are transported back to the time when the depth of our emotions could overwhelm us, could drive us to joy or ecstacy or ruin. Just as many cannot help but watch a car crash, we cannot resist the temptation of a rush of adrenaline, a surge of serotonin.

To some degree, this urge is natural. Yet, for instance, the endless pathological displays of violence on TV and media point to some sort of social disease, a barbarism and degradation of inner life. This was best exemplified on 9/11: what was the point of endlessly replaying the jet smashing into the tower, or the people jumping? The only explanation is that it made people feel…something, anything to escape the boredom/ennui/anomie/malaise of modernity. The live feeds from CNN in 2003 Iraq accomplished the same goal, with the additional jolt of dark revenge-energies.

I think this is why, for certain people, it is inevitable that they go live with and experience plight of the drug-addicts, the very poor, the oppressed and castaways: for someone like Baudelaire, for instance, it was the only place where authentic human existence still thrived.

To be sure, we’ve all experienced immense joy and beauty in our own private lives. The thing is, we should be able to comfortably express the feelings of awe and mystery regarding our universe, our existence, in a common space, in public, unencumbered by feelings of guilt, shame, or judgment from community. We must confront our own mortality, daily, and live in the moment.

Our culture is complicit, but it does not mean we are necessarily doomed. We are “condemned to be free”, as Sartre put it. Our agency cannot be denied, we are free to choose our path.

This freedom can be downright scary, it is the feeling of existentialist dread and nausea. One can see it today, as Trump’s authoritarian promises calm the nerves of fearful, mostly older, mostly whiter folk who have and are living inauthentically, who have ceded their agency to the corporation, the nation-state, the town, the church.

Masha Gessen wrote of this recently, citing the great, often forgotten Erich Fromm:

“Fromm suggests that at certain times in human history the burden of ‘freedom to’ becomes too painful for a critical mass of people to bear, and they take the opportunity to cede their agency- whether it’s to Martin Luther, Adolf Hitler, or Donald Trump.”

This submerging of individual identity, losing oneself in the collective authoritarian or fascist collective, seems to ring true in today’s politics. One can sense this turn in large corporations, in state bureaucracies, in the military with all its Borg-like qualities. The loss of individual autonomy is palpable.

All this becomes even more dangerous in our “biopolitical” age: one where social production and reproduction reduces the juridical subject into a consumer, a body to be prodded, socialized, anesthecized and for many lobotomized into a culture of amnesia.

Now that the fires of Occupy and Standing Rock have died down, progressive citizens yet again find themselves waiting. Waiting, as millions of our sisters and brothers around the world die of starvation and preventable illnesses. Waiting, as the US bombs and kills civilians with impunity. Waiting, as we continue to plod along to our jobs pumping more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, imperiling hope for a livable future.

We know what we are facing. The solutions, however, are not exclusively, or even primarily material-technological ones. They lie within. The lessons of the indigenous are our guide.

Westerners are going to have to stop talking, and start listening. The answers lie in the ground we stand on, in the plants and soil that traditional people worship, in the waters that provides life and sustenance.

Recently, there have been some howls of protest about the defeatism on the Left. Broadly, the analyses are correct, but I am left to wonder, are they helpful to movement-building, are they inspirational?

It does no good to harp on the limitations of pusillanimous liberals, on the social justice warriors or identity politic mavens. Especially since propaganda and false consciousness continue to mold citizens into consumers, free-thinkers into conformists. We have been all socially constructed to become weak, infantile, and many have succumbed to this, and its not entirely their own fault.

Waiting can be tiresome, we all know that. It’s also tiresome to hear endless diatribes of the limits and failures on the Left. For we are have limitations, and we all need each other’s help. As for the lack of success, it was Beckett who said: “Fail again. Fail better.”

This is the task before us. The struggle is all we have, all we’ve ever had. There is no inevitable march of progress towards some pre-ordained teleological utopia, Marxist or otherwise, no moral arc of history. There is only us. There is the autonomy of the individual, and there is the structural servitude that the nation and the corporation impose upon us.

When I see someone consistently angry, or complaining, or consistently negative, I think of what Castaneda might say: “They are on a path with no heart”. It does no good to castigate a person or group, or to uphold one’s purity politics. What is needed is to hold out a helping hand, to establish charity, patience, reciprocity.

I read recently that the origin of the word miracle comes from the Proto-Indo-European words to smile, to be astonished. I cannot imagine a more apt analogy for activism today. We are going to have to remember how to smile.

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William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. His articles have appeared online at CounterPunch, Global Research, Countercurrents(.org), Gods & Radicals, Dissident Voice, The Ecologist, and many more. You can email him at wilhawes@gmail.com. Visit his website williamhawes.wordpress.com.

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