The Gordian knot refers to an intricate problem that is seemingly unsolvable, especially when considered in its own frame of reference. Cutting this knot requires a bold solution.
From the obscene bloodshed in the Arab world to the political bipolarity of the West, from the looming threat of environmental catastrophe to the cold profit motive of large banks, from a new balance of power between Western and non-Western countries, from one extreme to another, the world and its conflicts, active and latent, seem increasingly indecipherable. Everything seems to be spinning out of control.
There is hope. It lies in mass democratic activism. Our overriding frame of reference in the West is that we can effect change through voting. Since voting is increasingly ineffectual in influencing the political process, activism is the bold solution we need.
It is easy to forget that activism can work. The civil rights and woman’s movements in the United States in the Sixties, the incredibly courageous students of Serbia’s Otpor movement, which helped to overthrow the Milosevic regime in 2001, not to mention Gandhi’s satyagraha (people’s movement), as well as the Tea Party movement, are examples of activism leading to large-scale change, for better or for worse.
So what is the knot? In the view of this author, it is the disproportionate influence of corporate interests on the political process, at least in the Western world. A 2010 poll conducted in the United States by MoveOn.org found that 79% of voters polled, including 72% of Republicans and 75% of Independents, believed that it is “important that a candidate commit to reducing the influence of corporations over elections.” A substantial portion of Europeans have a similar opinion to Americans; a Flash Eurobarometer poll conducted in 2013 indicated that 41% think that the overall influence of companies on society is negative. Scientific evidence supports Americans’ views; a 2014 paper by Princeton and Northwestern University political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, respectively, proved through statistical analysis “that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Independent influence includes voting choices.
The entangled interests of large corporations and governments have left us with no other choice than to challenge this vile nexus with non-traditional means of popular participation.
Moreover, not only does activism work; it doesn’t have to be mere drudgery. It can be an absolutely thrilling and empowering experience to realize that there are others who think and feel similarly to us. Activism, if one engages in it in a healthy way, can lift us out of our fragmented, insulated existences and add meaning to our lives. This is also substantiated by a recent, statistically significant study by Malte Klar and Tim Kasser.
It is also important to note that we need healthy expressions of activism, not insults hurled at a rally. While anger in some countries is boiling over, and it clearly needs an outlet, insults merely create more separation between people. Nobody reacts well to being insulted. People should use their power wisely, demanding what they need from the corporate-government nexus without becoming engulfed in their anger. This is the difference between a healthy expression of anger and an unhealthy one.
There are various levels of activism. Protests and marches are one, along with grassroots organizing. The next level involves civil disobedience, such as getting arrested on purpose. These approaches should be calibrated according to the seriousness of the situation.
It is very likely that once activism begins to have a measurable effect on macroeconomic productivity, economic elites will be forced to listen.
It is also important to note the role of information technology as a new tool for activists. The opportunities here are myriad.
Most importantly, people need to become engaged in their communities again, and look beyond ideology in order to find satisfying, practical solutions to problems. People need to start talking again. A couple of hours a week is enough. You might feel empowered!
You might be wondering how local activism can have an effect on a situation as seemingly remote for a Westerner as Syria. The beauty of activism is that it can create a political groundswell which, if large enough, can influence policy even on the international level. The West plays an important role in international affairs, and activists can choose to demand action on these issues also.
As I mentioned before, boldness is paramount in cutting the knot. Problems are compounding, and we’re running out of time; one only has to think of the environmental situation. We in the West have the luxury of petitioning our governments in various ways, and we should take advantage of this. If the brave students of the Otpor movement can take on a totalitarian regime, then we can take a couple of hours out of our week. Humanity’s greatest political innovation is democracy, real democracy. Let’s use it to get what we really want and desperately need.