Working for Transformation In a World of Dirty Tricks

We are in a political storm season. Or maybe a storm generation. The spiraling out of control of speculative capitalism, growing sex trafficking and commodification of bodies, the coming collapse of the US dollar’s dominance, radical global climate change, the depletion of water resources and coming wars for water control, out-of-control militarization of communities of color and prison expansion, peak oil and the crisis of a new energy configuration, massive language and species extinction…the list of major, systemic shifts and dangerous crises is long, and its real. Even if we take only half of these topics, and halve the estimates of their scale and potential implications, we are still looking at a massive confluence of global crises.

The systems in which we live are going haywire. The mainstream political culture of this country is so off the mark, so dumbed down that it’s seemingly incapable of even talking about these issues for more than 15 minutes, not to mention actually proposing timely solutions. Just watch the Sherrod debacle. Barack Obama, the great moderate hope to bring some neoliberal stability to a system in crisis, has proven that he is also trapped in the undertow, and cannot swim out of it.

If there will be a transformative solution to these dire, mounting problems, that solution will come from mass social movements. I feel confident of this.

But where I have doubts is in the how, and in the if. Because I don’t believe in destiny, or God, or any certainty to social change, that means it feels entirely possible that it’s too late, or that the system is too far along. We could be charging at windmills. Those of us working so hard for change could be certain to lose. There is no guarantee of victory or liberation. Not for me.

But I don’t actually think we will lose, though, nor do I think it’s particularly useful to dwell there. So, for me the “if” question isn’t particularly interesting.

But the “how.” The “how” is endlessly interesting to me!

And today, what’s particularly interesting is this part: how to win by fighting ethically, against a system that is entirely built from dirty tricks?

See, systems of oppression stay alive because they don’t fight fair. They lie, they cheat, they attack and they steal. That is why they are oppressive. This is bad enough if you look at these systems instance by instance: colonization, slavery, holocaust, bracero programs, imperialist wars, sexual divisions of labor, etc. But if you expand your analysis to the historical, systemic level, then you see the real problem with their dirty tricks:

They accumulate.

We are struggling against systems that are still working from wealth and power accumulated during slavery, during the enclosure movement, during the East India Company, during the witch burnings. We are working against systems that grow like rings on a tree, on top of all of the garbage they did in the generations before. How do we beat them in the big fights if they win so many of the little fights, and accumulate and compound their winnings each time?

Well see, this is where I, and many of us, can fall in the trap…the mystique of the immortal enemy, the unconquerable ruler. It’s important to not get stuck here.

One way to avoid getting stuck is to choose to fight dirty as well. Hierarchical movements, cults of personality, unchecked internal oppression, lying propaganda, most forms of armed struggle and electoral politics…all chosen for their perceived pragmatic value…all potential poison to social movements. I don’t want to dwell here either. There are other times and places for discussing the strategic viability of the master’s tools.

There is another way to avoid the trap of hopelessness in the face of the colossus that is global oppression, and it’s also the most simple, and seemingly weak: to look inward. To look at our own strengths as “the little guys” and see those as key to revolutionary change.

A huge number of the most progressive changes in history have been won by those who are most marginalized, using tools and tactics that their enemies thought were too rudimentary or too weak to make a difference. Just look backwards and you’ll see that it’s true. And the way they have done that is they have claimed and fought in spaces in which the accumulated wealth and power of the enemy suddenly became not very useful. You know, because it doesn’t matter how many zeroes you have in your online bank account, no matter how many years those zeroes have been building, if the terrain of a struggle has been shifted to a place without internet!

So if we look at all the modern crises that I’ve mentioned, really look at them closely, things get a lot more interesting. What we see is not just a bunch of all-powerful, monolithic systems that can throw money or force at all opposition and instantly win. We see a multiplicity of human systems, built on human relationships, operating across wide swathes of culture and human experience. They are really big, with lots of joists and struts to hold themselves up…but they are holding themselves up on top of us, the little people, and we are not stable ground!

Look at homophobia, for example. The powerful had a plan to keep it going, and they have put millions into making that happen. They are winning on many fronts, and it will be a long time before homophobia disappears, but there’s something they didn’t count on: their kids aren’t mindless drones. If we see the fight against homophobia as a generational fight, we are definitely winning. The newest generations, even of evangelical kids, just doesn’t care as much about maintaining homophobia as much as the older folks. That is, the human ground that homophobia has stood upon is shifting in time.

Look at something like wal-mart, sort of a symbol of modern capitalist hegemony. The stores might look all the same across the entire planet, but the communities in which they are built are not the same. And so the way to beat these things is to really look inward…what are the particularities, the cultural traditions, the unique values of the community that are being threatened by the corporate monoculture? Those are ripe contradictions for organizing!

It’s our small little individuality, it is our humanity that is the best tool for crafting a winning revolutionary strategy. I believe that it is human relationships, human feelings, and culture that are the most fertile spaces for forging winning movements. We won’t beat capitalism on economics. We won’t. Their numbers will always grow faster than ours because of their dirty tricks. We won’t beat militarism through combat. Their weapons reload faster than we can pick up stones. I think that if we are going to win, if things are going to transform, we will win on the basis of human relationships, and their fierce ability to stick and spread. Not even organizations or marches or strikes or insurrections…not structurally shutting down anything, per se. We will win on relationships, how well we keep them, how well we maintain them…all the other tactics are really just tools for that purpose. There is, of course, much, much more complexity to this, but I think this is a foundational piece for building that complexity up.

For revolutionaries and activists who don’t have time for feelings, for relationships, for some kind of spirituality…who don’t think it’s systematic enough or strategic enough, I think I’m at the point of drawing a soft theoretical line between myself and them. I see a movement without affect and human connection as a dead-end road. I see it as a strategic travesty.

It’s just kind of spewing out now, and so far I’m not saying anything new. But I am kind of building toward something, I promise!

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi

5 comments

Yeah.

Those at the top are liars, cheats, robbers, and murderers. Expose the lies, and we’re halfway there. Decolonize ourselves.

Tilting at windmills – Don Quixote did inspire social movements, actually.

On defeating capitalism without resorting to economics or warfare: I recommend _The Telling_ by Ursula Le Guin.

On one small person making an impact – the movie _Not One Less_.

Thanks for the references, Kristin. I loved the Telling, though I remember being disappointed by the ending, but don’t remember why.

I put the movie on my netflix queue.

Really interesting, well-written post. I love how you said, “They are really big, with lots of joists and struts to hold themselves up…but they are holding themselves up on top of us, the little people, and we are not stable ground!” I think our responsibility as humans is to shake the ground as much as possible, and this we certainly are capable of doing. Just like Britts began to boycott sugar that was made by slaves in order to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade, we can make change happen. I recently just decided to not buy chocolate unless it is fair trade. One of those small things that can eventually cause an earthquake under massive monoliths.
-Michelle Brock

Hey Michelle!

Thanks for finding this blog and thanks for your kinds words. Can you tell me more about why you specifically chose chocolate as the thing to boycott? I can imagine many reasons why, but I’m still curious.

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