By Jesse D. Palmer
We’re living in a frustrating time of political and cultural stagnation — both in terms of the collapsing corporate monster and our (currently feeble) resistance to it. The horrors of the system keep piling up and trying to drag us down: another open-ended US war in Iraq and Syria, gentrification, evictions and economic stratification licking at our heels, and what’s left of the oceans and wilderness teetering on the brink of extinction while fracking and industrialization pour more CO2 into the air. . . .
Even more concerning is the relative calm and silence in the streets in the face of all of this. Where are the strikes, the riots, the active resistance and refusal? It doesn’t have to be like this — with the system’s internal contradictions so extreme, the veneer of resignation and apathy is unlikely to endure much longer.
We all sense the system is unsustainable — environmentally and economically. What that means is that the system as it is currently organized is on the verge of being swept away. The system wants everyone to think that if it collapses, this will bring a period of famine, epidemic, destruction and suffering — and too many of us willingly buy into this narrative. Doomthink is fashionable, accompanied by resignation and a reorientation to purely personal concerns since “we can’t do anything anyway . . .” Naturally, the system seeks to preserve itself by psychologically and culturally promoting fear of its own collapse in such a way that people feel powerless, resigned and isolated so they’ll passively accept business as usual.
But another way to approach the system’s unsustainability is to rejoice, because this means that our current hassles are near an end. Part of the unsustainability of the system is us. Our role — if we’re willing to step up — can be to rise up against the system and its meaningless jobs, its production for profit not use, its ugly industrial machines, its police and endless wars, and its isolation, selfishness and loneliness.
Environmental collapse isn’t the only option and the question now is whether we can shake off our collective pessimism and see that the kind of collapse we’re about to be part of is really up to us. Sure, if nothing happens soon industrial capitalism will run up against natural limitations, killing us and itself. But we’re not dead yet — why the mournful sad faces when there’s still time to fight back against the coal mines, the oil trains, the fracking, and the greed, shortsightedness and corporate and governmental structures that are killing the planet?
There’s at least two ways we can choose collapse of the system over collapse of our ecological life support systems.
First, we can fight the system politically, economically and culturally — in the streets, in our communities, and in long-term and short-term ways. This is about more than fighting each new pipeline, or the huge 350.org rally in September, but that may be part of it. It is about more than fighting the 1%, the corporations, the WTO and the police, but that all may be part of it. It is about much more than the same old single issue politics, boring political meetings, and alphabet soup of activist groups, although all of these things may still be part of it.
An activist who cut her teeth during Occupy recently told me that direct action and protests were passé and ineffective now because things have changed and the system has figured out ways to co-opt and divert us, but I think that’s wrong. Resistance to power and injustice has always been essential to social change throughout history. Powerful structures won’t give up their power or fall apart on their own — they need our help. The fact that things may seem bleak at the moment, or that a lot of people spend all day glued to a computer, doesn’t change these historical dynamics. If you understand history, then you notice how economic structures, those in power and their police and prisons always seem invincible . . . right before they are wiped out. And when these structures suddenly change, it’s because people got together and made it so.
It is impossible to know what issue, what tactic, what slogan or what moment might provide the spark for fundamental shifts in social organization, but when that moment comes we need to be there and ready. For each such moment, there are a hundred defeats and forgettable rallies. That means that successful prolonged resistance requires self-care and community so we don’t get tired, lonely and bitter while the struggle unfolds. Resistance needs to give us more in meaning, excitement, connection, fun, music, beauty and love than it takes from us so we can endure.
A new social order requires resistance to the old order, but it also needs new ideas and examples of alternatives to the status quo, which is the the second way we can struggle for collapse of the system on our own terms.
Understanding and critiquing the current system is essential, but not enough. The current system is based on hierarchy, violence, competition, loneliness and technological and economic systems disconnected from the pursuit of happiness, freedom or beauty. The better we understand these dynamics, the better we can wrap our brains around how to reorganize the world on counter-goals and counter-values. An ecologically sustainable and just world needs to be based on cooperation, not competition. On diversity, community, and connection, not violence, power, isolation and loneliness. Such a world will understand that happiness and freedom aren’t based on material wealth, but rather on engagement with the beauty of and love for other people and the earth.
Theoretical alternatives can be powerful and inspiring, but they’re more culturally contagious when they’re expressed in the real world. At least a part of the process of social transformation is millions of people collectively concluding that living in new ways is easier and more enjoyable than plodding along under the current system. We need to build demonstration projects to give some feeling of how amazing life is without capitalism and the system. These may include building worker cooperatives, communal housing, volunteer collectives and local economies, but these structures have their own frustrations, and retreating to lifestyle politics is not enough.
Our demonstration projects need to be less about structure and more about ecstatic, underground pleasure — people offering free, decentralized gifts to their neighbors. Guerrilla sculpture gardens filled with chickens and vegetables and bees. Community hot tubs under a house on a quiet street where naked bodies drift through the steam into a redwood grove. A basement full of free pinball machines open every Friday night where radical debate, laughter and pot smoking continue until the wee hours. These all exist a few blocks from me in Berkeley right now but you would never know it from the media or the grim “be realistic” culture of the American Dream built on everyone mowing their own fucking lawn. The political and economic foundations of the system — privatization, competition, consumerism, efficiency — should make our counter-culture / alternative / radical community impossible, and yet we’re thriving. Our friends are named Bananas and Booze.
Along with building community gardens and bike co-ops, we need to build lived experiences of solidarity, mutual aid and sharing. The system loves selfishness and hyper-individualism, and promotes a hip cynicism in which when one worker hears another worker is earning more because they’re in a union, the reaction is to complain about the union, rather than your own boss for not paying you more, too. This lack of solidarity between workers and failure of workers to see themselves as a class is currently a glaring roadblock to social transformation.
Both types of struggle — resistance and building alternatives — crucially depend on millions of us first changing our own psychological outlook so we can pull ourselves and our friends and neighbors out of the current rut of powerlessness and resignation. The system is limping along, drifting rudderless from crisis to crisis. As such, it’s fragile and vulnerable. The meaninglessness, boredom and social alienation of life in a self-destructing system with no goal greater than making more and more stuff faster and faster is increasingly driving people mad. This helps explain the seemingly random school shootings and the fundamentalist beheadings carried out by alienated youth from western countries.
Ultimately, only a very thin line separates the system’s dull days from the world that will emerge in its ruins. The process of collapse and transition is inevitable, but passivity and resignation are not the inevitable or exclusive response. Rather, we can be part of the process if we stay engaged with others, ourselves and the world around us.