The Elephant in the Activist Livingroom

Yesterday I attended the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California, a forum about “inspiring a shift to live on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations.” I heard lots of great things — truths about where we are, examples of positive developments of all kinds. But I ended the day with frustration surging through my body because the biggest truth was unsaid.

Capitalism and Its Discontents

Naomi Klein and Clayton Thomas-Muller keynoted the day and later sat on a panel about the question on everyone’s mind: “can the global convergence of disparate movements gain the traction necessary to overcome the concentration of wealth and power driving the destruction of civilization and nature.”

Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, was just published, and, as her interviews show, she is a passionate, articulate spokesperson, one with an amazing command of the facts. She explains the climate-change disaster, the nice-words-but-terrible-action policies of our government and others, and a how a climate-justice campaign has the potential to unite the concerns of disparate environmental, peace, and social-justice movements. One of our modern-day prophets, she denounces in stirring terms the fatal flaw in any kind of environmentalism that thinks it can compromise with unfettered capitalism, that backs off identifying the problem as corporations’ pursuit of endless growth and their being supported, rather than regulated, by the governments they buy.

Thomas-Muller, a Canadian like Klein, is a First Peoples climate-justice activist. He touched on similar themes, with an emphasis on an indigenous, earth-centered, and pre- and post-patriarchy perspective. I also liked his “big-tent” philosophy, that all the widely varied ways of working for change, big and small, that people are drawn to, are in some way part of the solution.

Since both speakers see clearly the scope of the problem, I was primed for a conversation about the way out. I wasn’t alone; audience member after audience member asked a version of, “But what do we do?,” each amplifying Klein’s theme that we have democracy in name only.

The answer wasn’t there, though many good subsidiary ideas were, like learning to analyze the assets of a particular campaign and the weak points of its opposition, and focusing on those, especially the poor, whose material needs make them committed to putting their bodies on the line.

Circling the Solution

I didn’t get a chance to speak, but here is what I was dying to say:

I love hearing you speak, and I am truly grateful for your work. But there’s an elephant in this room, and in every room where activists and progressives meet in this country, and it is so big here that I can barely breathe.

“You name how corporate wealth runs an economy and government that drive us to ruin in so many ways. You note that masses of our fellow citizens are deluded, and I’m sure you know the cause: the same interests largely control public education and the mass media.

“There is a conclusion that leaps out of all this. Campaigns to influence our corrupt governments must and will continue. But those who understand what we understand must work within those movements to turn the conversation towards how to make revolution. A nonviolent revolution, for compelling strategic reasons and, in my view, for spiritual ones, but nonetheless a complete dislodging of government that oppresses and deludes and manipulates, in favor of real democracy that serves the needs and expresses the values of the vast majority.”

How do we build for that? By creating an organization of people who want it, who see how the dots are connected. An organization that supports us, and in which we support each other, in the day-to-day work of teaching our fellow citizens that we, like the Americans of 1776, have suffered “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object,” and that we are, therefore, among those for whom “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

That organization can develop the literature and independent media with which we can inform those who are ready to listen. Someday a crisis here will finally drive millions into action. When it does, they must know our massive movement and its allies as the ones who can help coordinate that and provide information, answers, and direction. Otherwise they will turn to a right wing that has known for decades that it must be organized to influence public opinion.

How we do this all is a bigger topic. (Some thoughts are in this post on the way forward in general; others in this one, written two years ago, on how, for example, we would carry on such work in a local campaign reacting to police violence against people of color.) But for God’s sake let’s start thinking about it and talking about it!

The Truth: (a) Inconvenient (b) Will Set Us Free (c) Both

I don’t know why so few of us are thinking about revolution. Is it too scary? Too Third World or Eastern European? Are we taken in more than we know by the myth of American democracy? Do we think the state will come down on
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us like it did on Occupy, and on the movements of the ’60’s and early ’70’s, if we use the R-word, yet will treat us kindly if we try to create enough civil disobedience to halt the extractive, military, and other harmful industries without addressing the political structure?

Or are we so afraid of the errors of the Old Left (1930’s through early ’50’s) or the New Left (’60’s–’70’s), and revolutions elsewhere that have failed to live up to their ideals, that we forget their strengths and throw the
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baby out with the bathwater? There are answers to the questions about past failures, but we will not learn them if we go on hoping that (1) today’s struggles will finally converge spontaneously, or (2) enough uncoordinated action, on enough different fronts, aimed at putting out the fires set by advanced capitalism’s economy and government, will somehow, will somehow . . . well, I can’t finish that sentence any better than the panelists did.

Please, friends, open your eyes. It actually feels good to embrace at least the possibility of a way out.

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