Saturday, February 24, 2007

35 Ways to Take Action

Soon enough, whenever you are talking about the world and about social change, the question arises, "Well, okay, but what should I do?" Influential public intellectual Noam Chomsky has said he gets this question all the time when he does talks, albeit mostly from audiences in the rich countries of North America and Europe -- in the global south, people seem much more able to answer it for themselves and tend to be more interested in sharing what they're already doing.

This post is an attempt by the people over at Insurgent American to provide a generic answer to that question in its most generic form, in response to repeated queries of this sort from people who have come across their site. Normally, I'm a bit dubious about attempts to answer a question so broad in an abstract kind of way, given how much a good answer really depends on each individual's experiences, resources, social location, talents, and desires.

However, the way the IA people have gone about answering it is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, you usually see attempts to produce generic answers to the question of what to do coming out of liberal politics, but this is very clearly coming from a place of revolutionary politics. At the same time, great care has been taken to make it actually meaningful to actual lives, rather than any sort of dogmatic or abstract irrelevance. They write:

New practices create new forms of consciousness; and here are a few ideas on some practices. Anyone can do one, two, or as many as are workable in present circumstances. The mental test we use in trying to determine the what’s appropriate is woman-burb-hood. Is this something that can relate to the capacities of a woman who lives in either a suburb or an urban neighborhood?

I am also interested in it because of the obvious priority it places on increasing the capacity of individuals and collectives to expand their potential for autonomous action. This is based not only on the IA folks valuing autonomy per se, but also on their analysis of the centrality of the pending end of cheap energy and what that will do to our lives and our world. So lots of their suggestions have to do with the development of capacity that increases our scope for autonomy -- if not exactly extracting us from the web of dependency and control that characterizes industrialized societies, then at least putting us in a position to act with greater agency with respect to it.

Perhaps another way to say this is that it recognizes that one way in which we are kept pacified by ruling relations is through the many ways in which they remove, constrain, erase, and deaden our capacity to do, again both as individuals and as communities or other sorts of collectives. There are some aspects of that global denial of capacity to act autonomously that will only be regained through massive struggle. But there are other aspects, smaller but still very important aspects, that we can actually do something about here and now. Sometimes it's as simple as trying and doing -- I know that I wrestle all the time with barriers to acting in the world in ways that would make me more effective as an agent of change and that would result in a me more genuinely in tune with my own wants/needs/desires, and often those barriers have more to do with what's going on in my own head than anything external preventing me from acting. Sometimes it's a matter of investing effort in developing skills that will make us less dependent, more able to act. Sometimes it's a matter of creating simple, social infrastructure. In any case, as the block of text quoted above implies, the authors of this list recognize that one of the most important aspects in fostering radical, autonomous, political doing in search of liberation is the deceptively simple goal of fostering habits of doing, but doing that is decidedly not habitual.

I also enjoy the deliberately eclectic nature of the collection, though I suppose almost all could be categorized as either fairly conventional political action or as capacity and community building. Still, the attention the specifics show to actually considering where a fairly broad and diverse chunk of ordinary North Americans are at is a good lesson in what radical politics have to be, I think. Personally, I don't think I'm going to follow either of the suggestions related to firearms. I am also distressed to notice there are at least four that I have done in the past but no longer do (grow my own food, vermiculture, own/ride a bike, frequent a farm market/Community Shared Agriculture farm). I think I might think about going back to one or all of those, to the extent that I can. The ones related to organizing in a more conventional sense make me a bit sad because of the relative lack of opportunities to do such things in my current location. But the one on doing a communtiy access cable show, with community radio mentioned in the explanatory text, has given me a bit of a jolt -- since reading it, I've actually been giving some thought to the idea of getting back involved in community radio, and I have a disturbingly practical idea for a show I could do. And as for the idea of deliberately setting out to learn new, practical, fix-it and build-it skills on a set schedule...well, speaking as someone with almost no such skills to speak of, this suggestion is both profound and intimidating.

Anyway. I have said often before to friends and loved ones that I am almost always in a state of low-level existential crisis, and I have a feeling that at the moment I am in the early flutterings of what will end up being a fairly significant transitional period for me, so "What to do?" and its myriad possible answers are feeling very close to home. But I think part of the point of a list of this sort is that invites all of us to be critical of the ways we are complicit in our own barriers to doing, and to do something about that.

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