By Jesse D. Palmer
This is a moment of tremendous opportunity for social progress — as well as significant danger. It’s up to us to articulate alternatives to authoritarianism that unify and inspire enough people so we can resist our rulers’ fear, bigotry, and divide-and-conquer tactics. To do so, we need to stand for economic fairness for the 99%, social inclusion, ecological sustainability, humor and pleasure. We need to avoid being drawn into a series of reactions organized around someone else’s agenda, and instead sustain our own actions that knock the authoritarians off balance — which might be easier than one might think to the extent the great leader is crazy.
Somehow, radicals need to break our self-marginalizing habits. Now is not the time for endless in-fighting that saps our strength and disconnects us from being able to address regular people. Now is not the time to be timid and retreat to what is “possible” — assuming that radicals will always be on the fringes. Now is the time for big demands. The improbable rise of authoritarian buffoons worldwide shows that seemingly impossible things can happen more easily than we think.
The authoritarian assault may end up unifying various threads of popular movements that haven’t been able to unify themselves. To seize the initiative, we need to go beyond refusing to normalize a single authoritarian leader, and reject a much larger illegitimate and unjust system. A tiny minority should not run everything at the expense of almost everyone — this crisis didn’t start in November and plenty of people were sick of the unjust system even before recent events. Let’s refuse to normalize people owning the earth; let’s refuse to normalize the 1%.
A glowing sense of possibility, a good sense of humor along with our outrage and stubborn refusal to go along with this shit is what we need. Succumbing to fear, confusion or an overwhelmed resignation will only make us depressed and empower our oppressors.
We need to work hard on having empathy, too. It’s easy to be angry at people who took the bait and supported racist authoritarianism. While it’s essential to fight nationalists, it’s equally important to have empathy for the many relatively powerless people who’ve supported them. We need to figure out ways to communicate with these folks and ultimately work together for all our our common interests, rather than demonize and dehumanize people because they’ve been taken in. There is way too much dehumanization going on and it is an ugly and endless race to the bottom. We need to take the personal risks to listen to other people, try to understand them, and recognize that fear is the root of anger.
Capitalism, high-technology, urbanization, and looming ecological collapse — all of these factors have put tremendous pressure on all of us. The fear of displacement, change and the loss of cultural structures is highly disorienting — and not just to the “white working class” — but really to everyone. We don’t want to go back to a mythical, monocultural 1950s culture but the rapid pace of change hurts.
People worldwide who have been injured by the corporate speed-up have been trying to reject the status quo for a while, and it hasn’t been working. A few years ago, many people voted for polite liberals hoping they would stand for change — but the liberals never took on the status quo because they were part of it. No bankers went to jail and class inequality just got worse. The Occupy movement failed to turn our really good slogans into less inequality. Parts of the 99% grew ripe for a demagogue promising to fight the status quo.
Which leaves the regular sources of mainstream order remarkably vulnerable to radical alternatives. The elites have been displaced and discredited — unable to control the spread of ugly, clumsy right wing populist authoritarianism even when, by the normal rules of their game, it should have been easy to do so with overwhelming media control, more money, and sensible reality-based arguments.
The authoritarians want to be the only ones to fill the void, and they want to fill it with hate, racism, sexism, fear and violence.
We need to offer a better alternative — neither right-wing authoritarianism nor a status quo in which the 1% control the power and we meekly beg for crumbs. The elites in the media and polite society who have been overwhelmed by the right wing tide are getting what they deserve for, paradoxically, being out of touch with reality. They built an unsustainable system — economically and environmentally — based on their own forms of “alternative facts,” and it is falling apart.
The only question is whether this crumbling will bring an apocalypse of torture, ethnic cleansing and oppression that empowers new crueler, ignorant and ruthless masters, or opens space for a different kind of social order organized around fairness, cooperation, freedom, diversity, solidarity and love.
Unlike authoritarians, our alternatives come from the grassroots and bring with them an authenticity and do-it-yourself spirit that is lacking in an increasingly computerized, homogenized world. We need to maintain our humility, modesty and openness so we can continually discuss, refine, debate, demonstrate and embody what we are for, not just what we’re against. We’ve been practicing for this moment in our community gardens and our coops, but now we need to be beyond our comfort zones. We need to learn to hold multiple complex truths together at the same time, even though they seem disparate. What we’re for isn’t simple, it can’t be reduced to a single law or a slogan, but it isn’t a fantasy and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask for what we really want and refuse to settle for half-measures.
On a fundamental level we’re struggling over which values should organize society. We want a society based on sharing, self-determination, diversity, pleasure and beauty because we perceive that human beings are fundamentally kind, generous and able to make our own decisions.
Authoritarians believe people are naturally greedy and that relationships should be organized around competition and power, with some people controlling other people. They point to the way people act within the capitalist economy — which demands competition and is organized to reward greed and emphasize material acquisition — as proof that people are naturally materialistic, greedy and competitive.
But this is circular logic — it looks at a result and claims it is a cause. Their goals aren’t happiness, pleasure or freedom, but rather to pile up fancy stuff — houses, cars, trophy wives. They see life as a zero sum game — a war of all against all in which if one person gets something, another must give it up. Their worship of things leads them to think of and treat other people as objects — tenants to be removed, workers to be downsized, consumers to be cheated, women to be owned.
But even in a capitalist economy, most human interaction is selfless, generous, and cooperative rather than competitive. Most people focus their real talent, passion and energy not on their jobs, but on their families and friends — selfless, generous, cooperative pursuits. Jobs and the economy are just the means to an end — getting enough resources from a harsh economy to sustain and protect personal life from the competitive realm. We freely give our time and resources to our lovers, children, parents and neighbors not because it provides a competitive advantage, but because that is what is really important and meaningful about our lives.
Authoritarians claim that people can’t take care of themselves — that people are naturally bad and need to be controlled by the church, bosses and police.
But most social interactions work not because an outside power is forcing everyone to obey the rules, but because both sides are cooperating to achieve a result that benefits everyone. It isn’t a zero sum game with a pie that gets split up. Like love itself, the pie expands so there’s enough for everyone.
Articulating a vision for society organized around love, solidarity and experiences that make our lives meaningful — not just around getting more stuff — is ultimately more powerful than an authoritarian rule based on fear. The capitalist high-tech world of instability and disruptive change has created a crisis of isolation and meaninglessness that gentrifies neighborhoods and replaces community with fake commodified McCulture and facebook friends. The world we’re building counters sterile, distracted emptiness with intense, poetic, emotional, polyamorous, communal connection.
Although people evolved as social creatures, the economic system reduces us to efficiency-chasing robots, alienated from any sense of history and stripped of hope for the future or time to appreciate the present. Our technology decimates the planet’s life-support systems — not only the climate but bees, soil, clean water, and the oceans. We demand a sustainable existence as part of nature.
There are real struggles over wealth and power under capitalism, but they are struggles between people who work to create the wealth, and a tiny class of people who suck up most of the resources through their ownership of property, investment funds and businesses.
The 99% need to struggle for redistribution of resources by all means necessary — be it through unions, minimum wages, redistributive taxes, by forming cooperatives, or seizure and collectivization of workplaces. It is obscene that 8 men own as much wealth as one half of the world’s population. For these 8 guys, these are just numbers on a computer print-out because they have too much money to actually spend it. Under these circumstances, cutting taxes for the rich, eliminating the safety net, and weakening workers’ bargaining power is exactly the wrong response. An authoritarian rule of billionaires is an obviously false populism and can only be sustained with lies and racist attempts to divide workers on tribal grounds. We need to welcome our differences and struggle against white supremacy while still uniting for our common interests.
The future is unwritten. In a crisis, doing nothing for sure won’t work. We obviously can’t be sure anything will work — we might be doomed — but when your back is up against the wall, the only reasonable alternative is to fight. Authoritarians depend on fear leading to mass resignation. Even a massive police state doesn’t have the resources to police everywhere all the time, to imprison everyone, to bomb everything. Instead, police states use violence against a few people to frighten and silence everyone else. The best response to a police state is mass disobedience because when it comes down to it, there are more people than police in even the most brutal context.
So in this moment, our first and most important challenge is psychological: we need to avoid succumbing to fear, resignation, depression, disorientation, or isolation. The next response is social and cultural: we need to come together and be there for each other in overwhelming numbers. It has been happening — we can win.
A key point is that neither of these imperatives are burdensome or unpleasant. To the contrary both of these actions will make our individual, personal lives better — more fun, more meaningful, inspiring, engaged and rewarding. Occupying an airport can end up being a huge party. We don’t have to choose between the personal and political — they reinforce each other. Each of us has their own part to play in fighting oppression and building a world worth living in. It’s been inspiring to see mild-mannered park rangers and scientists go rogue, and many other people will get their chance to shine.
The Women’s March was powerful because it showed how quickly a dark mood can brighten when a few million people pour onto the streets — an outpouring inspired by fear ended up being remarkable for its beauty and joy. What might have seemed like a chore ended up being a pleasure. Afterwards, it was easier to laugh at the clowns and their alternative facts.
Oppressors never expect the oppressed to fight back and we have to remember: the best defense is a good offense. We’re the majority and we’re not backing down — this is about the 99% vs. 1% and love over fear and hate. They want to keep us divided and fighting amongst ourselves. We won’t be divided.