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  • Representative Jan Schakowsky hugs a Code Pink activist at an event delivering more than 400,000 signatures to Capitol Hill in support of the Iran nuclear deal, July 29, 2015.

    Representative Jan Schakowsky hugs a Code Pink activist at an event delivering more than 400,000 signatures to Capitol Hill in support of the Iran nuclear deal, July 29, 2015. | Photo: Reuters

Published 30 August 2015
Why hasn't the much discussed arc of history reached a desirable destination?

Financialized colonialism in Greece. Sophisticated imperialism in Latin America. Fascist policing in the U.S. High water rising everywhere. Why hasn't the much discussed arc of history reached a desirable destination?  

System defenders have guns, money, lawyers, media, and academia, and callously use their immense assets to relentlessly divide and destroy people seeking real change. Worse, daily life pressures very nearly preclude dissent in the first place. People typically have no time and feel too isolated to rebel.

Still, why can't we get it together to win a new world anyway? We win lots of gains, some very very important, but decade after decade they don’t seem to accumulate into larger and larger movements, activism, commitment, and then a changed world. Why?

To think "why do we lose" is too depressing, too abstract, too academic, too self flagellating, too hard, too irrelevant, too nasty, too anything, either to ask or answer, is to ignore the most important focus we can address to win, our own shortcomings.

No PhD is required. No kudos will be earned for rhetorical brilliance pursuing this. Dressing the question or its answers in fancy language will be counterproductive. Answering the question plainly, clearly, constructively, may contribute to winning.

Below are twenty interrelated reasons that may help explain our having not yet won a new world. They arise largely from experiences in the English speaking countries and Europe. Do you think the twenty answers are valid in your country and even in your own experience? Certainly not all of them will be, but perhaps some.  

  1. Left projects and movements are all too often caught in cycles of financial worry, endless fundraising, constrained budgeting, and generalized penny pinching yet we don't seek ways to collectively finance the whole left. Each left project separately fends for itself. Many cede great power to non-profits and big donors. Many drift away from strategic planning as well. Few, nearly none, try to tackle the overall issue.

  2. Collectively too many left projects and movements do too little to address the crippling impact of fear on initiative. Indeed, it seems our rhetoric and writing often do more to stoke fear than to overcome it. Are we trying to scare people into action? Do we not see that this instead produces depression and apathy?

  3. Another problem that arises is that in many places and times we too often denounce faster than we support. We castigate rather than ally. We give no quarter to mass murderers, sensibly, but then sometimes become so habituated to that level of hostility that it spreads until we give no quarter to average folks, or even our own activist allies.

  4. In reverse, if someone criticizes our actions, again, too often we feel attacked and reflexively reject the criticism. We don't see criticisms as opportunities for careful clarification or constructive improvement. Do we crave dumping on others more than we crave working with others?

  5. Many ideologically committed leftists too often disparage people who seek less than system transformation. Too few work to overcome some immediate oppressive arrangement while also prioritizing providing inspiring information that might enlist people into deeper and more far reaching endeavors.

  6. Similarly, too often many of us talk and write in radical tongues. We spout what people already know in ways that bore and irritate people, pushing them to go out our windows faster than they come in through our doors. Not all the time, not all of us, of course, but it is prevalent enough to be our public image.

  7. Considered collectively, we are too fragmented into too many righteous efforts each of which has too few people involved. We all bemoan this, but we rarely try to develop organizational connections and overarching structures to allow and enlarge mutual aid even while of course attending to all the separate concerns.

  8. We too often, especially in the North, express anger and exhibit our feistiness, personal creativity, or commitment at the expense of reaching out and organizing people and especially creating lasting relations and organizations. I have heard this called, "expressivism over strategicism." As with all these problems, there are many exceptions but the point is, too much that is not so good trumps too little that is very good.

  9. When we do seek winnable gains, including actually enunciating demands and trying to win them, we too often fail to do it in ways carefully conceived to ensure that those fighting will fight on for more once the gains are won. We don't prioritize developing better conditions and awareness to fuel fighting on. As a result, even when we win most of the people involved go home.

  10. We sometimes create movements that one has to be ready to forego living a life to join, movements which have insufficient time or space for people who have responsibilities and commitments that they can't or won't reduce. In such cases, we come off as nearly oblivious to the needs of parents, people with multiple jobs, young and old people, people with little material means, and people with health and, yes, emotional problems - which is very nearly everyone in our oppressive soul crushing societies. Again, many movements and projects grapple with this, and some do very well, but writ large, and viewed across all progressive endeavors, isn't this a major tendency?

  11. We too often create movements and political processes and spaces that do not make their members happier, more confident, more hopeful, and more fulfilled and empowered. Our choices too often do not improve people's lives today nor do they provide real hope about tomorrow. Bickering, back biting, and especially boredom too often limit involvement, or wear it away, especially given all the outside time pressures people suffer. No wonder we are not big enough to win. No wonder support fluctuates, but doesn't just keep climbing.

  12. Particularly in the North, we too often denigrate a great many choices as compromised for not living up to our standards. If workers go to McDonalds, many who avoid McDonalds (who are often more financially secure) feel those dining are ignorant or even sell outs. But when we activists celebrate Facebook posting links to it all over our efforts, thereby advertising the largest spy agency in the world, we see it as astute and even brilliant. If workers read the sports section of the local tabloid for pleasure and accurate information, many who avoid sports think the fans are hoodwinked. But if we activists daily scour the main newspaper in our town, which lies profusely about everything substantive, we consider ourselves well informed. If workers watch TV (other than what we watch, of course), or go to church, not least to be able to socialize with their community, too often activists consider the church goers and TV viewers lazy and duped, complicit in reproducing the system. If, on the other hand, we read the same few writers saying the same things over and over, confirming what we already believe so we can socialize with a community in which we all speak and dress alike - and differently from others - we consider ourselves to be profoundly insightful. It should be no wonder that in such cases workers perceive an anti-working class and/or elitist paternalistic bias but not much solidarity and understanding in our attitudes.

  13. Beyond small circles, if even there, we have no shared compelling vision for worthy institutions for a new society and lacking that we cannot answer people who ask: why bother? Hearing no compelling answer to their honest query, they don't bother. The idea that there is no alternative is pervasive and persuasive. Skepticism that feeds and feeds on apathy is widespread. Pleading and begging people to get involved in activism cannot replace offering a compelling vision of the long run aims. Incoherence nullifies entreaty.

  14. Lacking vision, in turn, we pay lip service to planting the seeds of the future in the present, but don't agree, at least beyond generalities, on what the seeds even are. Yet without prefiguring the future our projects often succumb to past habits and patterns leading to internal tensions and dissolution. What we create sadly often repels and collapses more so than it inspires and persists.

  15. Lacking shared compelling institutional vision, however, we also too often lack strategy that extends beyond short term aims. In turn, lacking strategy we can't effectively marshal our efforts or inspire people who know that short term victories will in time be nullified or rolled back unless we attain longer term protections against their being undone.

  16. We widely and rightly reject authoritarianism but we don't understand its visionary opposite, self management. As a result we often trounce initiative and avoid collective discipline and coherence. Sometimes we even frown on mutual respect and on creating organizations that include responsibilities. Do we think all discipline and responsibility is authoritarian rather than seeing that much discipline and responsibility are essential for overcoming authoritarianism?

  17. We know we lack the means to reach out to large audiences yet we don't often try to collectively change our media deficit by creating or even just supporting creating large scale media. This ensures that truly bad messages predominate and proliferate.

  18. We talk about our movements serving the oppressed but instead our choices often internally replicate the oppressions around us rather than the visions we seek. This is not only about racism, sexism, and homophobia (and in all three areas we have made major gains and there is much awareness), but also about classism, where the replication of society's ills inside our movements and projects is rampant and profound, yet the issue is barely ever raised. We create structures that assume and reproduce corporate social relations and our doing so goes virtually unchallenged even as it wrecks havoc with our focus, commitment, understanding, creativity, morale, and outreach.  

  19. We too often cause people and even ourselves to believe that each effort we undertake has to win all or it will accomplish nothing. Since no effort will soon win all, many feel like every effort achieves nothing, and new folks tend to go home, despondent. We snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

  20. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, at a deep level too many of us don't believe we can win a new world. We try to win modest gains but we don't attach them to long run agendas because we have no long run agendas. Instead, in our mind's eye the long run looks dismal, so we don't bother with long run vision or strategy. We don’t try to have movement projects, structures, meetings, writing, speaking, and especially organizational structures and practices that address all the above issues as priority concerns. We instead treat endless debates about barely relevant matters as the priority.

If none of the above reasons why we haven't won a new world are true, and if nothing else about our movement choices is a reason for not winning, what would it mean?

Answer. It would be horrible news because it would mean we don't have anything to fix. It would mean we are and have been doing as well as possible. And that would mean we are totally screwed and so is humanity because the sources of our failure would be completely external to our decisions and to us.

If one, two, three, or a great many of the above reasons for not yet winning a new world are broadly true - of course not applying to all activists and all left writers, but to enough to be part of why we lose - what would that mean?

Answer. It would be very hopeful news because it would mean we can develop better methods of organizing, raising consciousness, enlarging skills, tending to faults, and especially creating lasting organizations. It would mean we can structurally mitigate the negative effects of our socially destructive tendencies even while we slowly but surely introduce new and better practices and mindsets. It would mean we can win.

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