Job’s coffin looks down
At the day you shut your power down
You must out-create that destructive tendency
Let your fire starter hear the fury
Job’s Coffin, Tori Amos
Last night was the Kierkegaard presentation, the one posted here a couple of days ago in which I concluded that although we might agree with Kierkegaard’s critique, we might not agree with his solutions to the crisis of passionless existence. The discussion last night was lively (and awesome) and as much as I didn’t take a strong position in my presentation, I found myself in a particular place during the discussion that was very familiar. That would be the place that advocates for action, for responding to the yearning – the need – for revolutionary and decision activity, and for the acceptance of radical action as part of the necessary spectrum of enacting social change. As much as I struggled through The Present Age, I discovered its resonance through the class discussion – which felt very relevant to the times and conditions we find ourselves in.
This morning I find myself going back over some of the discussion in order to clarify my own positions which perhaps were unclear (even to myself) last night, and it’s something of a comfort to me to discover that I haven’t given up on the principles which have fueled so much of my adult life and direction. Because of the terrible things which happened to my friends and movement back in 2006, and my subsequent difficulties in my own trade union, I thought perhaps I would be too cynical about the prospects for change to continue to be much of an advocate for struggle. But recently, things have started shifting into a more positive framework again and no small part of that is the reading of philosophy, history and literature I have been doing.
In any case, before I lose my thoughts from last night I want to record them here. These are headed under what I thought were some of the main points raised in the discussion…. and I do not pretend to be unbiased here, these are my responses to the points brought forward, not a reflection of the totality of the discussion.
The Leap of Faith (possibility)
Kierkegaard makes much of the “leap” we must make in order to take action (not to mention to possess faith), and in order to escape from the cynicism which pervades our reflective age. The danger of such a leap is that it does require more faith than knowledge. Faith that things are going to be improved by our actions, that we will somehow control the outcomes or at the very least be able to mitigate for any problems along the way. This is not unlike the faith that carries us into the arms of God, for it is impossible to know the future, just as it is impossible to know all of what makes for our human existence. All we can know is the present in which we struggle, in which injustice is writ large on the psychic landscape of the individual compelled to act.
As anyone who has been involved in resistance knows, an action’s stated objective is rarely met. Often it simply misses the mark, falling short of achivement – but sometimes the outcomes are much worse and we end up with the apparent opposite of what we were striving for. An example of this which I raised last night was that of WoodSquat, a squat and tent-city action which I participated in ten years ago in order to raise the issue of the need for more social housing in the DTES. In that year (2002), it had been seven years since the federal government had de-funded social housing as a national priority and at that time no new social housing had been built in Vancouver. Over ninety-two days, hundreds of people held the building and the sidewalks outside in the first visible show of resistance to the housing crisis that Vancouver had seen in decades. Thinking about it now, it was a pretty remarkable thing, even as the building which eventually emerged from the struggle was the antithesis of what we were fighting for. Rather than creating a bullwark in the fight against homelessness, the new Woodwards building (a blend of social housing, market condos, a university campus, commercial and social space) instead serves as a landmark of gentrification in an increasingly volatile community. It’s hard as a social activist to ignore that by putting pressure on the government, we helped to drive another spike into the death of the DTES and its resident population.
On the other hand, while it’s true that the Woodward’s building as it exists right now wasn’t the *intention* of the action – it is equally true that since that action, we have seen a lot more social housing built in Vancouver and in the DTES specifically. Not only that but everytime housing comes up as a crisis issue, the legacy of Woodsquat is drawn on as a symbol of resistance and of hope in moving forward in dignity.
This of course is a mild example, and the larger the leap is, the larger the potential for a much darker and dramatic outcome. But without action, we negate possibility and that demoralizes the individual (not to mention society), dragging our politics, arts and culture into a skidding halt. Taking the leap is no doubt terrifying because it is impossible to predict the future, and because when we do, we commit to putting our own bodies in front of the machine as a show of that faith.
Levelling (The lens through which we view history)
I am going to suggest that to cast the revolutionary projects of the past as “failures” is to engage in exactly what Kierkegaard argues against: Levelling. It is this levelling which casts Lenin as simply an opportunist rather than a key figure in building towards the Russian Revolution. It is this effect which denies the connection between the development of the modern welfare state and the revolutionary uphevals abroad and at home which influenced North American policy-makerrs (afraid of Communism coming to their own shores). It is this mantra of past failures which we are fed in all our mass media, our history classes, our public discourse – and which informs our fear to take action.
This is not an argument for blindly cheerleading the past as being essential to the present. Our critiques, however, have to be mature to the point of examining all the evidence and using our imaginations to extrude our inherited legacies of rebellion in full. To do so makes the “leap” a much harder one to take because we then have to critically own the possibilities of our action. But I think to do otherwise is intellectually cheap and it’s a dishonesty modern radical movements are frequently guilty of. We think we’re doing it because we don’t want to scare anyone off from making the leap, but this just reflects a distrust of “the public” and its ability to think and act with individual agency.
Using The Master’s Tools
With all due respect to Audre Lourde (who used this phrase in an entirely different context) – I disagree with the premise that the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house. And further to that, I see these types of arguments as a method of distancing which builds in a rationale for refusing to take action.
What I mean by this is the argument which goes along the lines of “Look, those anti-capitalists are using money – isn’t that hypocritical.” Or “Those environmentalists use computers, we can’t trust or join them.” And I know you might think that I’m setting up a straw man here, but I have actually seen and heard these arguments in online debates as recently as last week. Back in my younger environmentalist days I can’t tell you how many times I heard the critique that we couldn’t possibly be serious about saving trees because we printed things on paper for demonstrations.
When I hear these things I wonder how people think rebellions have happened in the past, or what type of action would be pure enough to be authentic and thus supportable. Of course every revolutionary movement starts out by using the master’s tools, and along the way (often completely unforseen), new tools are developed and added to the box at our disposal. It is simply unreasonable to expect that without the activity of resistance, a committee of people is going to have some kind of predictive control over what tools will prove useful in the future.
And by this I don’t simply mean physical tools or even the abstractions of currency and media – but the ideological tools we posseses are only tested in the practice of attempting to live them. Our new cultural tools only emerge when we are truly on the edge of paradigm shift.
But to get there? We start with what we’ve got and we hope that through the process of acting we create, rather than overthinking to the point of doing nothing (which is exactly Kierkegaard’s critique). I’m not sure this works with everything (like using Facebook to protest technology, that might be a bit of a stretch), but suggesting that social justice activists shouldn’t use money or computers isn’t fair, and ultimately this search for “hypocrisy” in others is a cynicism that will be pervasive right up until the revolutionary movement comes (and frankly, during it for a fair chunk of the population – revolutions are typically made by less than a third of the citizenry).
Last week I wrote about Weber’s critique of the “ethics of conviction” in a post called The Gradual Road to Nowhere – so I don’t want to belabour the point here (since we’re now at 1600 words and this is supposedly a blog post, not an extended essay). But I am highly suspect of the argument that slow reform of the system is the most responsible method for making change. I definitely agree that gradualism is one mechanism by which change is made, but without periodic conflagrations, that slow process grinds to a halt. And when that happens, the result can be bloody and cost human lives. I underscored this point last week in my discussion about the mill workers of Burns Lake who did not exercise their right to refuse unsafe work when workers smelled a gas leak earlier in the day. This is what happens when we buy into the myth that things are fine, that someone is looking out for us, that we do not need to take our own radical action in order to save ourselves.
I’m not sure what gradual change means when you are outside the halls of power. Currently we have a government taking decisive action on labour rights, human rights, old age pensions, public services, taxation and corporate handouts and many other things. This is what we mean when we talk about changing the system from inside it seems – get elected and then ignore the will of the majority, essentially shutting the door on anyone who disagrees. This works particularly well in an age where the cynicism has raised us to believe that “everyone is only in for themselves anyways” and where we would decry the worker who refused unsafe work by calling them “lazy”. Workers who go on strike, do so as a mechanism within the system of reform, but if it goes on for more than three days, the government passes legislation thereby outlawing the worker and subjecting them to police bruality, financial fines and possible jailtime. Environmental organizations that involve themselves in consultations against the pipeline – a sanctioned activity within the system – are called radicals and terrorists and the government threatens their funders with sanctions if they don’t pull back.
This is the difference between those in power and the rest of us. Our attempts to reform the system from within – as good workers or good citizens, as public servants even – are thwarted by those taking decisive action at every turn while we mumble around and try to reason our way into social change.
A full spectrum of activity
Having said that, I have worked inside the system for too long to discount the work that people do inside in order to effect progressive, positive and democratic change. It’s truly amazing to see the dedication with which people attempt to move environmentally positive issues and policies through the system in the face of an increasingly hostile government – and I would never discount that work as unimportant. But the interplay of forces which persuade change is complex and if we are to accept gradualism as one end of the spectrum, we must admit that at the other end we have certain kinds of radical activites which polite activist society would rather not talk about. I think the key to moving society forward is ensuring that no matter which part of the spectrum one draws from, there is ample support for the end goal.
This, of course is a challenge when we are dealing with the manufactured sentiments of a public (in the Kierkegaardian sense) who may ideologically ally with the digital opinions of particular pundits and politicians believing that somehow this formless leadership is representative. But in the end we must “leap” to the belief that our fellow worker has both a rational and a responsive side which can not be forever squeezed and/or lied to.
But the fact of the matter remains that no matter how much we philosophize or organize, talk or march in the streets – true radical moments take us all by surprise, both in when they erupt and in the forms which they take. We might feel like “this age is good, it gives me everything I need” and yet still find ourselves swept into history’s army by a series of personally touching events. We might find that even as our lives are comfortable, the dispossessed living one postal code over don’t believe that opportunities for change within the system are there for them. Similarly, we can wonder how Canadians can watch a radically conservative government strip the country of fundamental human rights and hand off its tax dollars to their corporate cronies without rising up in a roar? The truth is, we don’t get to choose our moments. But we do have to be ready for them. We have to be ready to lead and fight and follow and march. We have to have organic communities in which we live and can fight from. We have to be ready with our ideas and just as ready for them to change.
Which means the revolution is now and always, irrepressible even though we might never see it in our lifetime – we still hold on to our moments of rebellion as belonging to our true selves.