Confronting My Political Negativity

Note to the reader: this piece is me processing a bunch of stuff. I thought about not posting it, but something I’ve found about this page is that I tend to be more useful to others when I am more open and vulnerable. In this case, I tried to be as clear as possible about the steps of my processing so that maybe it could be helpful to others when they are trying to think through political negativity.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I felt like I’ve become more grumpy and conservative about politics lately, often complaining to myself about the state of organizing, while contributing less than ever. The feeling has been bothering me since I wrote about it, to the point that it’s affecting my sleep.

I don’t want to be that person, that cliché who snipes at other radicals—mostly younger folks—while never knowing or admitting whether it’s because of genuine disagreement, or just bitterness about how my own life choices have distanced me from the struggle. Here, while I have some time in Guatemala, I want to work through some of these feelings, and see if I can come out the other side with a healthier orientation to politics—and especially to the local organizing that I tend to react most strongly to.

Step 1: Breathe, Ground Myself, and Notice My Feelings

When I pause, close my eyes, and just feel, it’s amazing what my body tells me that I don’t want to tell myself. The tension I feel in my back and chest when I think about what’s happening in Seattle, the signs of anxiety that I detect as I catch up on reading political blogs, they show me that there is certainly more going on for me than political disagreement—though I’ll get to that part soon enough. Underneath all my rationalizations, the most visceral feelings I have are more personal—and more petty—than political.

I am jealous, and I am scared. I am jealous that people are out there taking risks, writing things, building groups and countercultures, and growing a movement that seems even more large and significant than anything I’ve done…while I work, play video games, and numb myself in a consumerist domesticity. At the same time, I’m scared that other people will build a winning movement without me, that someone else will write the great books that I want to write, and that I will just be a has-been, sellout teenage-anarchist-turned-professional. I am scared of being left behind, especially as I age.

This part is very telling: I am far more threatened by other radicals’ potential success than I am by the possibility that our movements might be losing. Pretty sad, Jeremy.

This is what happens when your identity, since you were 14 or 15, has been based on not only a vision of a revolutionary movement, but especially on a belief—even a sense of entitlement—that you will be a special and celebrated contributor to that movement. When your context and your choices start increasingly contradicting that identity, you either grow and reassess who you are, or you start frothing up and lashing out. I’d rather do some growing.

So, what do I do with my not-so-healthy feelings? Where do I go next?

Step 2: Own the Unhealthy Feelings, Identify Positive and Healthy Goals, and Refocus There

Even further below my jealousy and fear, there is a guilt and a dissatisfaction. I am not quite happy with who I am politically. While I don’t think I’m currently self-hating or depressed or anything, I do know that there are ways I want to grow.

I want to better appreciate the ways in which my teaching work, fatherhood & partnership, and our commitment to our family in Guatemala uphold, rather than contradict, my political values. And where these things do contradict or excessively strain my politics, I want to do something about it. I want to better use community resources, friendships, and movement opportunities so that my personal life and teaching work can evolve within a movement, not alienated from it—which is mostly the case now.

I have the perennial goal of working through the pain and self-doubt that have festered from many past organizing and interpersonal experiences. This includes finding constructive alternatives to the self-medicating I do with consumerism, video games, and obsessive internet use.

Given the realities of my life, work, and personal commitments, I want to renew my confidence in who I am as a political person. Instead of subconsciously judging my political success or failure based on my teenage self’s dreams of full-time revolutionary activity—not to mention hubris and fame-seeking—I want to continue developing a more balanced, humanist, and feminist sense of what my own political contributions can be. I want to be confident and comfortable with who I am as a revolutionary, even if I can only contribute a few hours of explicitly revolutionary work in a week.

This means that I also desperately want to reflect and decide on how to use my precious few free political hours each week to make the best possible contribution to revolutionary movement building—with minimal interference from unhealthy jealousy, fear, ego-centrism, or attention-seeking.

So, after this internal emo-fest, exploring these personal things that are making me crabby and cold toward current political work, what will my healthier orientation to that work be? How do I want to participate? Is all my grumpiness just personal and unjustified, or do I have also have legitimate concerns to air about local politics?

Step 3: Having Recognized the Internal Stuff, Explore the Critiques and Disagreements That Remain

Acknowledging my jealousy, fear, and other personal issues and putting those on the table, there are still a handful of things that are making me uncomfortable about the current political context, at least here in Seattle. I want to at least mention them here, for potentially more discussion or even public intervention later.

An escalation of militant rhetoric and tactics, while the mass base shrinks

At the height of the Occupy movement in Seattle, I would say that there was a genuine mass attraction to what was happening. The language and populist angle of the movement spread far into popular culture and is still referenced by some non-active people today. However, as radicals dug in and fought valiantly for their positions, the masses have not stuck around. Anti-capitalists have not created sufficiently attractive “containers” for the aspirations and activities of non hardcore people to grow and blossom, yet at the same time the rhetoric of revolution, insurrection, and class struggle seems to be heightened. Anti-authoritarian revolutionary strategies can only work with millions of people involved, and our ability to build a mass base should be our most important barometer of success—of course, while maintaining our principles.

The movement is not growing fast enough, especially given the potential that Occupy had. We can blame the historical moment. We can blame the powerful. We can blame the identities or class compositions of the participants. We can critique people for being liberals and reformists all day and night. However, I believe that those critiques, in the end, often fog over radicals’ own failures to attract people to our positions. I think radicals, from the beginning of Occupy on, have been speaking a language that is unnecessarily at odds with mass culture.

One quick example: the black bloc. I can recognize the bravery and efficiency of the black bloc. I recognize that there is a huge difference between property destruction and actual violence. I understand that they are going to do their thing, even though it’s not my thing. However, I also think they scare the shit out of people. What’s the good in that? Black bloc: take a look and reflect on tactics like the European Ya Basta! (white overalls) folks during the anti-globalization movement—there are ways to be militant while also effusing color, hope, and opening spaces instead of closing or trashing them.

An uncomfortable political dialect

This connects with the point above, but it’s more personal to me. When I read a lot of today’s political blogs, including the writing of people who I really like and respect, I just kind of feel…off. If I need to let this go, I will, but I least want to air it out a little bit.

First, I’m seeing very little positive vision or strategy in people’s work these days. What are we building? What’s the point? What I see is a lot of issue-specific fights, which often get really intense—mostly because a small minority of people make them intense in pre-determined ways—but which don’t tell us what we’re fighting for. I know I’ve always been a kind of posi- kid, but I also know that most people don’t like to spend all of their time fighting, fighting, fighting without a deep connection to the vision underneath.

Second, I’m both intimidated and worried about the reliance of some of today’s most thoughtful and committed anti-capitalists to materialist, class reductionist, or otherwise Marxist language. I’m not anti-Marxist. I think Marx and Marxists have been very useful for a lot of things—particularly for understanding capitalism. However, I think they suck at communicating with ordinary people and at practicing anti-authoritarian revolutionary strategy. To reference Marx himself, I think way too often some really great people are talking with the corpses of past Marxist moments in their mouths. Anything more I have to say about this, I think I’ll say in direct response to the things I read or hear.

Third, this struggle is going to take a long time, and that means that radicals can’t always have our volume on at full
blast. There is way too much epic language in people’s writing, way too much bombastic rhetoric. The insurrectionist anarchists are the worst on this point—and Crimethinc before them—but it’s spread to a lot of the things I read in Seattle. I’m sorry, but most of the time, we revolutionaries have to be just people living our lives—and even our revolutionary writing has to reflect this. We can’t expend every breath as if we were on the barricades. It’s exhausting and it’s insincere.

A subculture that seems increasingly closed and paranoid

I don’t have much to say about this because it’s mostly anecdotal, but the impression that I get is that as repression has heated up in Seattle, radicals have become more subcultural and more closed than they were a year ago. This is unfortunate, because, despite police repression, the actual state of the movement is way too weak to justify this closed type of attitude. A movement has to be huge—or the repression has to be much more significant—before it starts acting all underground like.

From what I can tell, Seattle organizers are really on the defensive. Repression, sexual violence, and immigration attacks are dominant issues. I just hope that radicals can figure out ways to flip these defensive issues into potentially offensive issues so that it becomes real work that builds power instead of distracting from other, so-called “real work.” I’m excited by how “Who Are You Callin’ Illegal?” is trying to make that strategic flip from defense to offense, for example.

It’s amazing how much the Seattle radical scene has changed in the last year and a half. At the same time, I’ve felt tremendously unwelcome in a number of spaces—particularly anarchist spaces, and that feeling has gotten worse lately. That’s a big problem, because I’ve been doing this for a long time. What about newcomers?

There. When I really get down to it, these are the things that have been legitimately bothering me. I’ve gotten them off my chest, now what?

Step 4: Figure Out What the Hell You’re Going to Do, Jeremy!

Here’s the outcome I need from this lengthy processing session: a new orientation toward actually working in community with other Seattle revolutionaries. What am I going to do?

This is where my teacher training kicks in. It’s time for some backwards planning! When teachers need to plan a big, intimidating unit that could last months and months, we are taught to plan backwards…starting with the vision we have for what our students will know at the end of the unit, then planning how our students will be able practice that knowledge in the world, how we will confirm that knowledge through assessments, and then, finally what day-to-day activities will help us achieve these educational goals. This is what I need to do for my own organizing activity.

And that is going to have to be another post : Backwards Planning For the Revolution!

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi