Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Frustrating Search for Ways to Act Collectively in the World

Like so many of us, I feel a need to act, to do something.

I can pass this feeling through all sorts of screens and frames and analyses to give it specificity and detail, and I have years of practice of translating it into fancy words, but at heart it's a feeling – a matter of experiencing life, of seeing the world around me, of hearing stories, and knowing that things cannot stay as they are, that they can change, that they must change.

I know that I can act as I, and that acting as I matters. We all do it – without naming it, without separating it from "normal life" by calling it "political," we (some, by necessity, much more than others) resist little indignities and harms in little ways, and big indignities and harms in little ways, as individual people living our lives. Whatever else happens to make change, that everyday resistance, those little cracks in the social systems that organize injustice and harm, are the most basic building blocks.

I feel drawn, though, towards acting not only as I but as we. This is not to disrespect the individual and everyday, but a recognition that even a small we does so much more than the sum of the I's that compose it – even just half a dozen people moving in the same direction can accomplish far more than six individuals on their own, and for larger collectivities to be truly effective in pushing for change (rather than amounting to passive agglomerations of individuals), they must in some sense be built from active collectivity that happens at a scale we can directly experience. Our need, the world's need, is urgent, so we need we's. And it is a recognition of humanity as social: Contrary to liberal and libertarian fantasy, there is no I in the absence of or prior to we.

So I search for we's that I'm already part of. I look around me, examine the spaces and the moments that I move through, the encounters that I have and the relationships that they make. I see relations of reciprocity and care, relations through which the mostly-unwaged labour of life-making gets its expression. These are a form of we, and especially for those marked as disposable in our world, their role in survival and thriving makes them radical. And for all of us, as a clever person recently remarked to me, they are "the stuff of life," the very core of what it means to be human, and we all must participate in them.

I can feel the utter centrality of these webs of we; it's not just a cerebral nod, but a genuinely embodied sense of how meaning and joy and power in life flows from this sort of we, and how much of my energy and time is invested in them. Yet as necessary as they are, they are not enough. I feel the need for more.

So I keep looking. Soon enough, I see other kinds of we, more distant kinds, more dispersed kinds, some might say imagined kinds. Some of these I feel, but some are abstractly known rather than felt – membership in polities, shared identities, demographic groupings, populations of broadly similar interest. These, too, are we. They matter, both those eagerly embraced and those reluctantly acknowledged. They can even be a starting point for building the kind of we that I'm talking about here, the kind that can act together in a practical way. But they are not that intrinsically, and not without further work.

I look some more. Though I currently am not part of such a formation, most people I see around me are part of hierarchical collectivities whose actual activities they may or may not care about, organized via the wage relation and made compulsory by the logic of the market. This is not the kind of we I mean, or at least it is only occasionally and incidentally so. As well, many people belong to other sorts of collective formations that they have not necessarily chosen, exactly, but because of who they are – forms of we that at least in theory can be a practical basis for acting politically in the world against domination and exploitation. I mean, of course, collectivities like churches (or synagogues or temples or mosques) and unions. Yet even they are in decline, and because of the work that I do and the path I have led through life, I am not currently and not likely to become a member of either of those.

I continue to search, to reflect on things I have done and things I have heard about since moving to my new-again city. I look, I listen, I think, I feel...and I find little. There is not a complete absence of we's, but there are few, and none whose call evokes enthusiasm.

Is this landscape of we really it? It sounds suspiciously like what Margaret Thatcher once said: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." Of course she posed it as descrpition when in fact it was her aspiration, her goal for the struggle in which she was immersed. But three decades later, has Thatcher's aspiration won out? Is this sense of lack of opportunities for collective political engagement a quirk of mine, a legacy of personal baggage or flawed perception? Or does it reflect something more?

Certainly it reflects left commonsense about the realities of life under neoliberalism. This doesn't necessarily make it accurate, but the breadth of this impression among a range of thinkers, writers, and do-ers that I respect carries considerably weight for me. As I've mentioned this impression to people that I know personally in the last few weeks, most have agreed with it. As well, the chance to occasionally interview people involved in various kinds of collective political projects in Quebec drives home for me how much more common they are there than in at least the white-dominated, English-speaking spaces of North America. There is some social scientific evidence too: My hazy memory of reading it 15 years ago is that there was a lot about how he tried to explain it that felt dubious, and he didn't particularly focus on grassroots political collectivities anyway, but Robert Putnam's careful documentation in Bowling Alone of the decline of voluntary collective life in North America seems relevant.

Still, I hesitate to turn my impression into a firm conclusion, and I certainly have no interest in just giving up on the possibility of a landscape richer in paths towards collective action. For one thing, while the majority of activisty types I've mentioned this sense to have concurred, not all have, and that dissent is worth paying attention to. More significantly, it is beyond common for people, particularly privileged people who think of themselves as rad in some sense or other, to look around and say "Wah! Nothing political is happening!" when really the problem is their narrow and self-centred definition of "political." Is this what I'm doing? My gut-level sense: Perhaps in part, but not entirely. But my gut is no more immune to such distortion than the rest of me, so who knows.

All of which has got me wondering about other people's experiences. I'm a firm believer in starting – whether you're talking about writing or analaysis or action – from what people are already doing.

Do you, too, feel that there are few opportunities to act collectively these days?

What do you already do in your life – however large or small, however shared or individual, however practical and material or imagination-focused and idealistic – that you think of as being in whole or in part to create change of some kind?

What would you like to do to make change? Most especially, what would you like to do to make change with others, if you had the opportunity and if circumstances made it possible? What would those differences in circumstance be?

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