Existential Compost: Staying inspired in spite of pain

By Finn

A few years ago, I was helping a friend with an understaffed bike cooperative that provided composting services in a city that lacked a municipal green waste system. The co-op, which was based out of an anarchist community center, was run by a small handful of self-identified radicals. While showing me my bike route, one of the co-op’s founding members explained to me why he was quitting. He had very strong feelings about insurrectionary anarchism and had decided that more structural projects — such as worker-owned cooperatives — were pointless if we weren’t actively engaged in armed revolution. His views had become so strong in this respect that he had decided to “wash his hands” not only of activism, but of composting, bicycling, and the other “trappings of radical lifestyles”.

More recently, Slingshot received a letter from a person who was struggling with feelings of self-hatred and inadequacy around being an anarchist. The writer was grappling with what it meant to engage in radical politics — if it was arrogant to fight for something so massive and complex as a stateless society, and if there was a way to let go of worrying whether The Revolution was ever going to happen. Notably, they were wondering if it was possible to detach oneself from the concept of a “final goal” in radical activism without losing passion.

These two anecdotes speak to a type of burnout that has less to do with overcommitment and more to do with existential pain. Unlike others I know who have taken extended breaks from activism because they exhausted themselves with over extension, these are examples of folks who got so caught up in anger, hopelessness, and a desire for immediate large-scale change that they began to question the value of their efforts.

I hit the existential wall 10 years ago, when I was cutting my teeth at an anti-Monsanto protest. Temperatures were nearing triple digits, a cop who’d dropped to the ground after beating a preteen with a billy club lay dying from a heart attack, several of my friends were bleeding and being dragged off to the Philadelphia Roundhouse, and the living cops were beating folks at random with (maybe this is ironic?) bicycles. While debriefing with what remained of my affinity group and preparing to do jail support, I felt pretty shaken by the amount of violence that had gone down so quickly and was wondering whether we’d accomplished anything positive. I got pretty bitter and jaded about direct action when the protest barely showed up on the news. Awareness hadn’t been raised, other actions hadn’t followed, and whatever sense of temporary autonomy we’d felt had been rapidly beaten down.

Engaging in radical politics means being aware of intensely pervasive structures of hierarchy and oppression. It means having dreams of a better world that are complex and idealistic, and it is easy to feel that those dreams may never come to fruition. As activists, we often hold ourselves to unrealistic standards of being the Perfect Revolutionary, a person who feels confident in their knowledge of how to dismantle hierarchy and restructure a new world, who speaks in the right lexicon and groks the right theories. Faced with such standards and an immense sense of powerful opposition, feelings of despair, alienation, and burnout are common.

There are numerous schools of thought within anarchism. Some — such as anarcho-syndicalism — place great emphasis on coherent theory and organized collective effort. Others, especially those influenced by situationism, are more focused on deconstructing organization and engaging in acts of social disruption — these schools of thought are often called “post-left” anarchism. Regardless of the details of theory and preferred tools for enacting change, the idea of a functional stateless society is very broad and complex. Getting to a point where such a world is feasible requires massive change in social infrastructure, and while I’m certainly not in opposition to idealistic end goals, I do support framing one’s personal politics in a way that encourages practical action without leading to “I want The Revolution or no change at all” burnout. Because we as anarchists advocate for dismantling structures that are mind blowingly powerful and pervasive, what can we do to stay inspired when we feel unsure if the world we want will ever exist?

There is no single correct answer to this question, but I can speak to my own experiences. I dropped out of radicalism for a few years — not because I was tired or didn’t have enough time, but because I felt powerless. I came back into the scene after joining up with some anti-prison organizers at a transgender health conference. They were part of a collective that believed in the eventual abolition of the prison industrial complex, but in the meanwhile, had concrete ideas for improving the lives of incarcerated folks. I realized it was possible to hold to ideals I believed in but had little hope of seeing – like the abolition of prisons — without falling into an existential rut. That sense of hopelessness was tempered by a sense of empowerment at being able to do something — like hooking up reentering prisoners with healthcare, or running copy scams, or sneaking AIDS resource guides into prisons where they were banned. Tangible work that felt effective and meaningful, especially within the context of a tight-knit collective, is what brought me back into the fold.

Housing co-ops, worker owned collectives, and community gardens may not be The Revolution, but they’re valuable in that they create alternatives that make tangibly positive differences in people’s lives. I’ve heard people dismiss these kinds of projects — “Why spend so much time on gardens when we ought to be rioting?” — but this sort of work builds the foundation of the world we want (and you know, it isn’t mutually exclusive with rioting anyway). Endeavors such as free clinics, infoshops, and community gardens are radical in that they aim to transform the way basic human needs are met. Each project is a tiny pocket of transformation that may one day swell and synthesize with others to form a new world. Even if they don’t, those projects make concrete improvements in our lives in the present moment, giving us the hope and energy to move forward.