We need movements that are built to grow, that open opportunities for anyone’s participation, and that are enthusiastically prepared to move us from the fringe to becoming a mainstream counter-power.
I believe that our movements are in need of a huge boost of imagination regarding who we consider “our people” and what we think they are capable of. I believe that building a better world necessitates massive, revolutionary movements that are actively constructed by hundreds of millions of people—and that’s just in North America—and I think that it falls on us who are already radically inclined to get better at nurturing the potential of ordinary people to develop their revolutionary vision, power, and capacity. If we want to settle for merely tweaking society as gadflies, then it’s fine to just engage what those bumper stickers (wrongly quoting Margaret Mead) describe as “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.” But if our goal is social transformation to end all forms of oppression, well, that’s going to require almost all of us. I think that building towards movements that big requires lots of creativity, quite a bit of gall, and some gutsy shifts.
First of all, I think we’ve got to get serious about just how big we really need to be, and what that logistically looks like. A great way to get started is by thinking backwards, tracing in reverse from the kind of revolutionary changes we might broadly want, back to where we are right now. When we do this kind of backwards visioning, what we see might feel absurd, shocking, unobtainable, but I think it’s rife with possibility.
In my own amateur estimation, given the realities of global systems of domination and their carefully tuned mechanisms of self-preservation—be it military force, cultural manipulation, or economic lever-pulling—there are actually only a few distinct avenues for how an anti-authoritarian revolutionary process could be successful in North America:
- A slow process of “non-reformist” reforms: over a period of decades, movements could rack up enough small wins that oppressive systems progressively lose more territory, which would be replaced by our own powerful alternatives. Eventually, with weight and momentum shifting toward our side, we could simply take over the functions of the old society. But somewhere along this kind of slow-burn path to a revolutionized society, one of these other outcomes would likely end up getting triggered first.
- Electoral victory: an overwhelming slate of electoral initiatives and movement-accountable candidates could win victories so large that they would have the popular support to dismantle current systems in favor of radical, directly democratic policies. However, since this would mean using our existing corrupt systems as tools to destroy themselves, it would require almost magical levels of movement strength and strategy to survive with any integrity—which is why pretty much all previous radical electoral projects have eventually lost their integrity.
- Rebuilding post-collapse: in the wake of economic, environmental, social, or military collapse, networks of communities could coordinate together to build anew from the ashes, using their daily collaboration and resource-sharing as vital practice for the evolution of a grassroots, participatory society.
- Claiming a smaller autonomous region: massive federations of anti-authoritarian communities could unite together as a bloc—either within North America or even across continents—to declare an autonomous revolutionary space where they could build their own independent revolutionary systems without the need to win over the entire world. However, as long as other world powers exist to compete and contest this autonomous space, they might never be entirely safe or stable.
- Uprising, general strike, or other moments of seismic confrontation: revolutionary movements could find themselves with the size and confidence across enough strategic areas of society that they could use massive people power to shut down, occupy, reclaim, and take over administration of the infrastructure of our current society in order to transform it into something new. This could happen in rapid waves of insurrection or as a series of bursts or ruptures that steadily form into new forms of grassroots community control of society.
While pontificating and speculating about the probabilities of each these might make for a swell party trick, I think that any of these possibilities is too far off to accurately predict. Yet, for our purposes, what matters is what they all have in common: to take our society where we need it to go, all these scenarios require the development of a widespread, millions-strong counter-power of revolutionary culture and infrastructure.
Only real life practice can tell us exactly what a sufficiently strong anti-authoritarian counter-power would need to look like, but—admittedly pulling numbers off the top of my head—here’s an estimate:
- At least 1/3 of the U.S. population (about 100 million people) at least passively supports the anti-authoritarian movement; another 1/3 is neutral or sympathetic but skeptical; the other 1/3 may be hostile. For example, if we do polls and surveys (which we should), at least 1/3 show support or sympathy with our anti-authoritarian movements…not just our values, but the movements themselves.
- We have built a cultural counter-power that provides diverse, rich, and daily whole-life programming at a mass level (tv shows, daily news and commentary, books, summer camps, intramural sports, hobby clubs, etc.). This counter-power has made special effort to reach and engage with armed forces personnel stationed across the globe.
- We are running popular community-rooted social services such as free meals, healthcare, childcare, sustainable energy, internet access etc. across communities in most major population centers in the country.
- We have built sustainable, practiced organs for directly-democratic decision-making and the accountable execution of those decisions at workplace, neighborhood, and school levels.
- We have built an active network of millions of people (let’s say 10 million) who can mobilize and use a wide variety of direct action tactics (read: not just protest, but direct action) to defend the movement or push the movement forward.
- When asked, 100 million people have at least 1 daily contact point with the anti-authoritarian movement, such as participation in an assembly, accessing anti-authoritarian media, utilizing anti-authoritarian consumer options, or having daily contact with an organizer who they respect.
- The movement has at least 20-30 highly successful examples of workplace, neighborhood, and school direct democracy, with at least 1,000 more that are at least in embryonic form (the idea here is that if we have at least those good examples, their model can spread fast in a more heated revolutionary situation).
- On any given week, at least 1-2 million people are engaging in some kind of direct action across the country…and on following weeks, we see a different 1-2 million mobilizing. At least 1/4 of these mobilizations are in rural areas.
- At least 30 million people have participated in a strike, boycott, or walkout within, say, a year-long period of time.
- Our sources of strength are balanced sufficiently enough across rural and urban areas and key industries that we could generate the resources to sustain ourselves—at least for a time—even if the rest of the world and the country boycotted us post-revolution.
- There are GI coffeeshops and alternative institutions established near almost all military bases. (If you can’t tell, I think the distinct nature and cultural hegemony of the U.S. military is a unique challenge for U.S. revolutionaries)
Right now, this reads like science fiction, and it will remain just that unless we actually go for it. But how do we even begin to approach growing to that massive scale? How do we go from here to there?
Once again, real world examples have much to teach us, including examples from those who we would rightly consider enemies. Whether we look at the soviets (workers’ councils) of 1917 Russia, or the embryonic nations-in-progress of the mid-twentieth century anti-colonial movements (such as Yugoslavia, Algeria, Chile, Cuba), the rise of the New Right and the daunting evangelical Christian counter-power that currently exists in the U.S., or even the shadow caliphates and alternative social systems of radical Islamists like al Shabab, Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood, we can see that they all have at least three common elements that are worth learning from—particularly if we hope to stand up to some of these groups’ heinous actions. First, they offer each participant an expansive and hopeful worldview—of course, often based on violent falsehoods—that grounds their actions and the risks they take, which helps them make sense of their personal life struggles, which gives them a sense of making a difference in the world, and which allows them to identify with a project that’s bigger than themselves. Second, they offer a wide range of opportunities for involvement at all levels of experience, commitment, and capacity, with initiatives and programs that reinforce their vision across all spheres of life. Third, they maintain ongoing efforts to push against existing systems through fights and campaigns that both build the capacity and confidence of participants and, at the same time, publicly demonstrate a direct alternative to the status quo. With these elements and years of persistence, every single one of the above movements grew from being laughable fringes to become significant historical forces. I think it’s intellectually shortsighted to think that the growth potential of our movements is any different.
Unfortunately, the spaces and structures of today’s social movements are not currently offering these three common elements in an integrated and scalable way. In fact, our movements usually have alarmingly narrow, compartmentalized points of entry for non-activists. If you are new to activism and organizing, often the only way to get started is with some very specific fight or single-issue organization. From there, your ability to go deeper, become part of a community, and eventually connect that single-issue work with a larger worldview is almost entirely dependent on how much work you, the new person, are willing to put in and—let’s face it—how popular you are in the subculture. If you are working full-time or double shifts, if you have family responsibilities, if living with disability makes it a challenge to leave the house, your opportunities for involvement often shrink down to attending an occasional rally, licking stamps at a mailing party, or just writing a check—even though you might actually have many more rich ways to contribute. And if you actually want to dive into passionate and nuanced revolutionary discussions, they are often gated behind gauntlets of study groups, conferences, social network bubbles, in-crowds, subcultural hangouts, and “politically advanced” collectives or cadre organizations.
I think our movements can, and must, do things differently to build toward a mass scale. With each section that follows, I hope to articulate more and more specifically what I have in mind.
 I am so opposed to authoritarian, top-down processes—such as coups or military takeovers—that I won’t even honor them with consideration here. I believe that any revolutionary process that goes too far down the military road, however well intentioned, has already lost.