The revolution is happening.
The march of history in the last few hundred years has seen an unprecedented devolution of power from elites to the people. Tyrannies that once governed every corner of the world have in most countries been abolished. Democracy, relatively recently considered a ridiculous dream, has become commonplace. Within these democracies, under the governance of those elected by the people, progress has continued. Oppression based on race, gender, sexual preference or religion is less socially or legally acceptable than it has ever been. We have witnessed the formation of the largest movements in history against racism, sexism, environmental destruction, cruelty to non-human animals, social injustice and war. We have come so far that Arundhati Roy’s statement seems tangible: “Another world is not only possible, she's on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe”.
Progress was never inevitable and it was never smooth and linear. Changes have been made only because individuals before us took up the struggle to make change in the world. They often did so at personal cost, opposed by the vast majority of the society around them. We owe a debt to these often nameless people for much that is just in our society. The only repayment I can imagine worthy of that debt is for us to join our voice to the struggle.
In discussing why we need to continue the revolution, I can only reflect properly on the society in which we live, here in the ‘developed’ world – a liberal democracy with a high standard of living, an open press and the rule of law. I feel blessed to live in the place and time which I do. Many people would look upon our society as utopian, and we should feel grateful for what has been achieved so far.
Scratching the surface of even our relative utopia however uncovers less ideal parts. In a true utopia we all could walk the streets at night unafraid; people who become sick could expect the best quality care regardless of income; homeless people would find shelter; children would receive a good education regardless of their parents’ status; people would not be incarcerated in brutalising institutions; billions of non-human animals wouldn’t be suffering and dying at human hands; the products and services we use would be made by people who have the advantages that we have; we would contribute more to the world beyond our borders; we would be living within sustainable ecologically boundaries; we would be contributing to the vibrancy of the wild creatures and places of the world.
Few of these injustices may affect individuals in wealthy societies personally, thus the question of whether we feel a need to act upon them comes down to our self identity and what limits we place on our morality. Who do we feel empathy for when they are in need? Just our own circle – family, friends, pets? Our neighbours, our compatriots? Some other subset of deserving people? Any being capable of suffering? Where do we draw the line on what we will accept happening to others before we feel a moral obligation to act?
Einstein was clearly thinking about this when he wrote, “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”.
Similar sentiments have a long heritage in our culture. Philosophers and thinkers throughout the centuries have encouraged us to think beyond our self interest. This almost universally encouraged principle of consideration for others is replicated in our songs, stories, sayings, and fairytales, and encoded in customs and law. The universality of this theme is unsurprising given our evolution as a social being. We like stories of the good person triumphing over evil, because a functioning social system was essential to our success and survival over the millennia.
The social bonds which helped us survive in prehistoric times are also relevant in advanced civilisations. Whatever the size of the society, selfishness creates distrust, undermines social cohesion, creates stratification and a more brittle social structure. Unregulated capitalism, a system based on selfishness, provides a plethora of goods for those with money, but its disregard for the consumers and producers of those goods means it is as happy to prey upon their weaknesses as provide them with long-term benefits. Our power to affect the world’s ecology makes living selfishly mathematically incompatible with the ongoing health of the planet that supports us. It seems a simple enough conclusion to any fair minded person: selfishness is incompatible with the world we wish to live in. If we are serious about our ethics then the only course of action open to us is to join the resistance.
It takes a movement to change the world and, as Margaret Mead stated, it is always small groups of like minded individuals that are the basis of movements for change. If we seek change then we have no choice but to join with others. This is not easy for everybody, I always felt Schopenhauer's analogy of humans as hedgehogs, huddling together for warmth only to discover each others spikiness, is an even better metaphor for activist groups full of social rebels than it is for the general population. We will find few ideological soulmates, but we will find many who share some or all of our core ethical principles. We need to support each other in this, we each have to give something of ourselves to enable us to work together, whilst always being careful that we do not give too much. If we can build just a few of these groups in each city, if these groups can find ways to work together, I have no doubt they will form the basis of a movement which will change the world.
Of course those who would change in society rarely do so unopposed. Those who are benefitting from the status quo have obvious self interested reasons to oppose meaningful reform. In a capitalist system where money translates so easily into power, change from below will not be easy; the powerful will discredit or co-opt our strategies with all the considerable resources available to them. The most effective way to strike at the root of inequality is to remove the privileged access of the wealthy to influence our political leaders. Of course we should not descend into the simplistic language of one class against another, for the world is not so simple as to correlate morality inversely with wealth. Superficial characteristics such as class shouldn’t be how we judge others but, to use Martin Luther King’s phrase, by the content of their character.
Understanding people’s motivations is key in creating change. We cannot appeal to people to cast off the chains of their oppressors as Marx and Engels did in the Communist Manifesto, for it is not clear that they have any. The successful resistance movements of the past relied on ranks mainly filled with those suffering direct, overt oppression. Our fellow citizens in privileged parts of the world have no pressing need to get involved in the struggle; indeed it may be against their own interests to do so, they would probably be better off conforming and enjoying historically unprecedented luxurious lifestyles. Thus our hope cannot be located in self interest, which was always a simplistics view of human nature too often relied upon by progressive movements. Rather we must encourage people to care about greater themes, appeal to their empathy and their perception of themselves as fair-minded, decent people. Bringing to light abuses of people, the environment, non-human animals is one of the most obvious and important ways we can do this. However, while information is a powerful revolutionary tool, there are other tools often neglected when it comes to encouraging others to change. People learn most easily by example. As we model a revolutionary way of living in the world, both individually and in our communities, we can open up new possibilities for how to live. Our media informs but does not empower; this creates a feeling of hopelessness and without hope people will not act. We must be a counter to this by giving people opportunities to make a tangible difference, partly to change the external world and partly to create a positive self identity not related to consumption and competition. If we believe in our ability to create a better world, we need to prove it by example, building a model of it in our movement.
We must look to the long term health of our movement, and thus the people within it. The revolutionary life should not entail giving ourselves to a bleak view of the world. Emma Goldman was paraphrased “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution”. She lived a life overflowing with beauty, love and self expression, and if anyone lived a revolutionary life it was her. Our lives and our movement should embody the world we wish to create. As the famous mantra of the Latin American struggle says, “we want bread and roses”. The struggle is more than the reduction of suffering, it is also about the proliferation of joy. It is imperative to find the right balance for our focus, to remember that our struggle is for the beauty of each individual life which together ultimately create the beauty of the world.
We will take the next evolutionary step together; whether it is forwards or backwards is down to the sum total of the actions of each individual. The only way I believe we can live meaningful lives is by joining in the healing of this world and its people. We have the knowledge to do so, we have the tools, we lack only the collective will to make it be. We are each faced with a choice: to play a part in the revolution towards equality amongst people and empathy for all that can suffer, or to support selfishness and thus the status quo or even regression. Amidst the march of history there is no neutral pace to stand; for good or ill our actions ripple out into the world. With our labour, with our time, with our consumption, we are supporting some vision of the world, consciously or otherwise. If one seeks a meaningful life, to contribute to a better world for all living things, one must define oneself, one must draw a line, one must face the mirror and ask “Who am I in these revolutionary times?”.
“Repeat after me: I am a revolutionary” - Fred Hampton