The world is definitely having “a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
Add it up: super storms, droughts, war, massive unemployment, global government gridlock and resurgent nativism, along with myriad other horrors and catastrophes.
Surviving the coming end of the world, Armageddon, and/or Zombie Apocalypse is where many conversations go these days. Easier to wrap our heads around how to kill an apocalyptical zombie (it is critical to destroy the brain) rather than how to defeat a real-world, hydra-headed corporation that’s considered a person; or break up a vampire squid bank that’s too big to fail or jail.
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I’m an optimist. I live and thrive on hope and possibility. And I increasingly feel like the odd person out. Union meetings, and other gatherings of progressives committed to economic equality and social justice often take on the tenor of a death cult. First we recite the mantra of our lost clout, power, membership – insert your favorite example of decline. Then, in a fit of fantasy, someone invariably weds nostalgia and bad history, giving birth to the notion that our best hope for the future is in trying to recapture an idealized version of a past that never existed.
Recently, I was with friends who were talking about where and how we would live after the apocalypse – a world similar to the one described in Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. In addition to a defensible property, up on a hill (ideally with a freshwater source), my friends then listed what skill they each would bring to our band of post-apocalypse Zombie slayers. Turns out, mine is a fairly talented group of friends. We had a carpenter, someone who could make fishing nets out of old clothes, a gun enthusiast and a couple of gardeners who could grow vegetables – the beginnings of a progressive survivalist collective.
I touted my skills, but my friends were unimpressed that I could write political manifestos and polemics. My pretty good record of organizing in the Justice for Janitors and other union campaigns didn’t seem that useful either. It soon became clear there was not a role for me in the post-apocalypse world, at least not based on my current skill set.
I realized I faced a choice. I could learn how to hunt, shoot, farm and build anti-zombie fortifications based on an analysis that it was best to prepare for the end of the world. Or I could double down on the crazy, improbable notion that the very things threatening the world create the opportunity to save it. This may be the time of greatest opportunity in recent history to win transformational change precisely because the economic, environmental and political systems as currently constructed are unsustainable.
So here is the paradox: It is not an exaggeration to say “the end is near” – climate change and global warming truly threaten the existence of humanity. Growing corporate consolidation, increasing inequality and the spiraling decline of unions threaten not just our standard of living, but democracy itself. And the radical right really does want to disenfranchise people of color, control women’s bodies and deport everyone who doesn’t agree. But predicting, repeating, telling, yelling and proving through charts, reports and statistics that the “end is near” doesn’t motivate people to act. It does the opposite – it overwhelms, numbs and shuts people down.
If we want people to organize and fight back, not shut down and curl up, what do we do? What keeps a hopeful person from going nuts in a crazy world? How do we seize opportunity, and develop tactics that give heft to our hope? How are we not only optimistic but also strategic? And how do we move off of losing defensive fights and into winning offensive ones?
The Missing Link ideology (without the isms)?
I think part of the answer may lie in developing an ideology (nondogmatic, not rigid) that embraces complicated webs of sometimes contradictory ideas, emotions and motivations that make us human – combined with an analysis of what is going on in the economy and world. Some people are moved to incredible heights of self-sacrifice guided by selflessness; some by long-held moral values; and others by self-interest, rage at injustice and anger at those who profit from others’ suffering. I am increasingly convinced that the antidote to “end of the worldism” and the death cult that grips all too many of us is developing an ideology (or call it something else if it makes you more comfortable) grounded in faith and hope, economic analysis, class struggle and strategy. What we need is:
A vision of the Promised Land
Movements that have captured people’s imagination and changed the world have not been built on the idea that “if we all join together we might win modest incremental gains.” They have talked about the possibility, the dream and the hope that together we can reach for and win a far better world – a promised land, a world of extraordinary opportunity, equality and justice. In the Justice for Janitors Campaign, tens of thousands of undocumented workers struck – risking jail and deportation – for higher wages, for the rights of immigrant workers and the hope of a world where their children had real opportunity. We need to throw off our fear of being accused of being utopians and embrace a vision of a Promised Land that inspires people to join with us.
Analysis of economic concentration and the superrich
The superrich are tireless public advocates for their brand of capitalism; we need to lose our fear of talking about and critiquing how their capitalism operates and impacts all of us. The facts are not in dispute – a tiny group of people and corporations increasingly dominate the economic and political life of my country and the world. Their growing wealth and power comes at the expense of the rest of us. Through unending schemes and manipulations, they have methodically reorganized the economy in their favor, enriching themselves at our expense. The world cannot afford and sustain the domination of the superrich, nor can real democracy survive their stranglehold on the economic and political lifeblood of the world.
Strategy and tactics focused on who really has power
The growing concentration and interconnection of corporations at the top offers us an incredible opportunity to connect seemingly disconnected campaigns. We need to look up the “money tree” in each of our campaigns to figure out how to engage the corporate power structure at the highest level. By connecting more of our fights to the drivers of the economy, we magnify their impact, increasing the pressure on those who really have power. Wells Fargo Bank is just one example – a central villain in the foreclosure crisis and housing discrimination. The company has invested in private prisons where immigrants are detained; is tied to payday lending; has CEO John Stumpf who is on the board of Chevron; and to top it all off, is a major profiteer in the trillion-dollar student debt debacle.
Faith – How we keep going
This is a funny word. For some it’s religious, for some spiritual, and for others it comes from a deeply held belief that the “arc of history bends toward justice.” Wherever we find it, faith can carry us through the moments where we are overwhelmed and under siege. It is essential, individually and collectively, that faith, not cynicism and defeatism, guide us.
What’s love got to do with it?
This is the part that makes me a little nervous. In my life as an organizer, I’ve warred with giant multinational corporations and seen workers fired, their lives destroyed by arrogant billionaires hiding behind the so-called free market to justify paying workers subminimum wage. I am not known as a love-thy-enemy kind of guy. I think anger and rage over injustice is a critical part of any movement. When we lose our capacity to be outraged, to be angry, it is easy to lose our urgency and moral compass.
Despite being powerful fuel, anger alone is insufficient to sustain us individually and collectively. Anger by itself leads to burnout and a movement that often appears unattractive and impenetrable to most people. Yes, you do need anger, rage. But most people are not inspired to sign up for a life of unending struggle and warfare.
What people do sign up for is love. When you fall head over heels in love with someone – essentially, a leap of faith – you become willing to risk it all for them. You’re willing to make sacrifices for their happiness. Their future becomes as important to you as your own.
If we can marry that kind of intensity of commitment with solidarity – bonding love for those increasingly left out and behind with dedication to a better world for all of us – we may have the missing link in developing an ideology that simultaneously contains class struggle and a path to the Promised Land. If we can unite love with solidarity, we can back them up with an analysis of how the economy works and who has power. If we do those things, we will be able to see the barriers blocking our path to the Promised Land. And if we add in a concrete set of strategies and tactics, we will start to develop the tools to move those obstacles out of our way.
The choice is ours – prepare for the apocalypse or head for the Promised Land.