The Problem That Got Me Off My Ass: A Long, Bitter Trail of Ex-Radicals
There is a problem that brings me here to write to you. There is something missing, something unsatisfactory, something not quite right about business as usual in our radical movements. Actually, it’s more like a web of somethings that we each experience unevenly, but whose disparate threads of dissatisfaction twist into something bigger, a deep and disturbing trend that we need to address firmly from the start: for all the good that our current radical and anti-authoritarian movements do indeed do in the world, they are actually quite repulsive at their core. That is, they have a nasty tendency to push people away.
From Food Not Bombs to the Direct Action Network, from Seattle Solidarity Network and Take Back the Land to Critical Resistance and Occupy Wall Street, explicitly radical and anti-authoritarian forms of social struggle have shown a remarkable ability to capture the popular imagination. In the last 25 years alone, hundreds of thousands of people—perhaps even millions—have had positive flirtations with revolutionary, anti-authoritarian politics; people of all sorts of identities and backgrounds have entered, participated, and warmly entertained the possibility that our entire society could be collectively remade.
But where are most of those people now?
Unfortunately, maddeningly, our movements have been consistently unable to leverage most people’s initial attraction and intrigue into life-long commitment to radical work. Far, far too many are gone—most before even hitting their thirties. Far too many will never come back. How many do you know and remember? For me, I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count.
We can blame dominant social systems and their repression, their ridicule and misinformation, their comforts, temptations, and coercion. We can mumble that the historical or material conditions just aren’t quite right yet, that we are not in a “revolutionary period.” Thoughts like this carry truth, but we can’t afford to let them be excuses. Our movements themselves, their structures and attitudes, their narrowness and cultural insularity, their straight-up meanness, pettiness, and violence are all just as much to blame as any outside forces for the ways that we are constantly shedding solid and well-meaning people.
Because of all of the unhealed and unchecked pain that we ricochet at each other, because of all the stale forms of struggle carried over from centuries of past movements, we are caught in an ugly and predictable cycle of attracting people, grinding them down, then either hemorrhaging them away or numbing them just enough to keep them sticking around. All that hope, all that wonderful vision that we have to offer, like a shiny and colorful balloon, inflated with toxic air.
Droves of books, articles, and open letters have elaborated on the specifics. A non-stop crisis mode mentality that leaves little room for non-political needs, feelings, relationships, or commitments. Oppressive dynamics, abuse, and sexual assault within our groups—and the scorched earth of failed or sabotaged processes to address them. Campaigns and initiatives that treat organizers like little more than names on a list. Projects that don’t make the effort to connect to long-term visions or strategies. Attempts at solidarity across identity lines that devolve into patronizing charity or even painful betrayal. Insecure, jealous, or grouchy colleagues who turn simple personality clashes into pitched political battles. Jargon, jargon, then extra jargon. Facebook flame wars. Cultures so suspicious of leadership or differentiation that brilliant new ideas get sniped, denounced, or self-silenced before even being attempted. Intellectual and social pecking orders of who is more radical, committed, militant, politically developed, or some other euphemism for “cooler than you.”
These are just some of the problems that converge to form the bigger problem: movements that stay small and fringe and highly ineffective. Movements that lose people as fast they win them, and which thus keep us away from the actual goal of winning a better society.
As the tone should make clear, I’m unhappy with things as they stand, and I want them to change. More specifically, I think we need movements, groups, organizations that want these things to change, too, and which are structured to do that hard work.
Still, as cranky or critical as I might be, I am not a pessimist locked into a negative perspective. For each of the complex problems that hurt our movements and sap our growth, I recognize the numerous dedicated people trying to make radical work healthier and stronger. From the intense campaign and base-building organizations that still dedicate time for relationships, reflection, and long-term strategy; to the on-the-ground organizers working their asses off and taking risks to build multiracial and multi-sectoral alliances; to the small collectives working all sorts of different angles to support mental health and caring labor; to even smaller groupings and pairings of movement mentors and mentees struggling to grow together, I know that there is a clear striving for movements that can both win and hold people.
But I write here because I think this problem of movement growth and retention is really quite big, and I fear that patchwork solutions are not enough. I believe that solutions to problems this big should be systemic, cultural, large-scale—that is, our movements probably need to face them in concerted and prolonged action together.
Even more, I believe that a good chunk of these problems actually share a common source that our movements must overcome: we are too caught up running on an intense, non-stop hamster-wheel of piecemeal resistance, while being too sheepish about unifying around our revolutionary visions and dreams. In a constant struggle for short-term, defensive wins, our movements are putting far too much of our energy into building movements based on limited—and cynical—forms of disruptive power targeted at elites and power-holders, and in that “pragmatism” we are neglecting, even hiding, what is actually our greatest strength—our radical imagination about the constructive power of millions of people to create a different kind of society.
So, feeling tired of the same unhealthy cycles, feeling unnerved by being a thirty-something radical almost completely surrounded by twenty-somethings, and sorely missing my old “sold out” and burned out friends, I feel like I really want to chime in. As scared as I am of derision or dismissal—and I’m terrified—I think it’s worth the risk to push for our movements to become healthier, stronger, and more capable of winning.
Let me show you what I mean.