A Scene Critique

Put This Paper Down

The sad state of the world over the past few years — the increased concentration of power — spiraling environmental destruction — the Iraq war and occupation — Bush’s naked attempts to create fear — stepped up attacks on privacy — is creating a deeper level of popular opposition to the structures of power than has been seen for quite some time. Increasingly, huge numbers of folks who used to think of themselves as “mainstream” are having to face the fact that the systems of power they believed were justified, reasonable and legitimate are instead threats to freedom, peace, stability and life itself. There are opportunities for something positive to come out of a very scary situation.

The question is, how can folks in the activist community promote this transformation? And assuming more people are willing to take action against the system, what actions can we take?

I haven’t heard very good answers to either of these questions and I wish the activist community would think about them carefully and seriously. In such dangerous times, the activist scene appears to be going about business as usual, which means that it is celebrating its own marginalization and impotency, rather than trying to figure out how to attack the system.

If we’re going to help people decide to reject the system, we have to be willing to talk to people who aren’t already involved in the activist scene. This means people of different ages, races, backgrounds. On the most basic level, it means that we shouldn’t write-off so many folks because we think that they are too mainstream to ever oppose the system. We have to give people some credit that they’re not stupid. We need to stop rejecting people who aren’t young and pierced.

It’s true that ultimately, people must transform their own consciousness and political understanding, but there is a role for political outreach. Outreach doesn’t mean that we should all become preachers of a radical faith — we need to realize that thinking or behaving as if we have the “truth” just sets up a new hierarchy.

What I mean is that activists can encourage dialog and discussion — questioning authority. We should also realize that the system maintains power by keeping people isolated from each other and breaking down common spaces and moments when people can interact outside of realms organized by the market. We ought to be about creating these types of free spaces — and not just for ourselves and our friends, but for people who are isolated from discussion about political issues and isolated from political action.

At a time like this, we need to stop spending so much of our activist time organizing endless conferences or events primarily meant for people already involved in “the scene” — anarchist picnics, anarchist soccer teams, etc. Even a lot of actions seem mostly directed at folks who are already involved — basically, we organize an action by trying to “organize” those who are already organized and in the activist community, rather than by organizing society. The idea of organizing means organizing society, not just organizing the could-be organizers.

The forces of power spend huge amounts of energy on media propaganda and public manipulation. We need to figure out a grassroots response, and more than that, a way to go beyond responding and communicate a positive alternative agenda.

Day to day life in advanced capitalism can be grim — living alone, working a meaningless job that takes up most of your time and energy. There is a hunger for community and finding some kind of meaning or hope for a better future. If our process and actions empower people, provide meaning, and are based on community and connection, they will be powerful because they will fill the gap that the current top-down society creates.

I hope the activist community will make a New Year’s Resolution to start taking itself more seriously. Far too often, we get distracted by single issue campaigns because we assume that our efforts are incapable of addressing the biggest, systemic issues. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy — we make our own resistance irrelevant when we assume it can’t succeed.