An open space for global conversation
Four years ago, I wrote an essay called Revolution of the Small: The Uselessness of Global Action and the N.... The main point of the essay was that a person's voice is only meaningful within the range where that voice can be heard. Actions where people try to speak beyond the immediacy of our senses (as when people vote, or buy consumer goods, or join national advocacy organizations) are not meaningful actions because each of our voices becomes such a small fraction of the entire whole. However, because all of our actions do have consequences that reverberate across the universe, it is possible to take local actions which have revolutionary consequences.
I want to piggyback off of that essay to consider a complementary problem of revolution. Because the systems of oppression in our society are so large - global capitalism, global-scale environmental destruction, nuclear weapons, huge nation states - one cannot pretend that a small group in Montana can (or should) successfully pull off the destruction of these systems by ourselves. If we were somehow able to bring capitalism, for instance, to its knees, what would that say about us? Would it say we are damn effective? Or, rather would it say that either we had far more power than any small group of humans should possess, or that we just somehow happened on hitting a leverage point in the system that brought the whole thing tumbling down? We should think the second case more fortuitous except for this point - what next? What happens if the system just unexpectedly crashes down because of a random action somewhere? Are we suddenly to expect liberty and justice to spread throughout the land? Will the hierarchies of abuse simply be gone because the governing and economic systems were thrown into a momentary state of chaos? I would think not, if only because there would have been no cultural change in society. Where would the racists have gone? Would people stop trying to be greedy? Would people stop trying to get others to work in the new factories? Will others not try to get their hands on nuclear weapons?
The truth is that revolutions of this type have happened occasionally in history. The most obvious example was in Russia, where the disaster of World War I finally was the impetus for many decades of radical movement-building to bring about the collapse of the tsar and eventually the rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The ultimate autocratic society crashed and along with it its capitalist institutions. What replaced it? - autocracy and graft and persecution of anyone who did not tote the party line. Defenders of Bolshevism say that this was due to the pressure and ostracizing from the rest of the world, which necessitated the hardships and ugliness of autocracy, but if you read works like Emma Goldman's Disillusionment in Russia and Living My Life one will quickly realize that what happened in Soviet Russia was not at all a revolution and its horrors could not be explained simply by outside intervention. And, that was at the beginning. After many decades of Communist rule, it would be hard to say that the Soviet Union was anything akin to a transitional state to a revolutionary stateless society.
So, even if you doubt your intuitions that a sudden collapse brought about by a few people would not provide the revolutionary change we seek, search through the sudden revolutions of history (from France to Russia to Egypt last year) and see what little such a view of revolution has accomplished.
I want to note two points from this discussion. The first is that a small group of people by themselves cannot bring about a meaningful and lasting revolution. The second is that there is a problem in identifying what will bring about a meaningful and lasting revolution.
If revolutions must begin with small groups of people, but that it must also involve many small groups of people so as to be large enough to take on the system, obviously this raises a lot of issues - many of them I cannot discuss here and frankly I cannot answer. How do small groups coordinate in a way that they can become big while activists work only within the small local context? That is another problem we will need to turn to in another discussion and one that people are discussing. The problem I want to get at, rather, is the notion of the size, scope, and form of a revolution. That is, revolutions must arise out of small groups (if my previous essay from four years ago is correct), but revolutions must be large enough to have any hope of being meaningful and lasting. What form should they take so that they will not simply be transfers of power from one large group to another?
I call this the problem of biodegradability. That is, revolutions must be biodegradable in the way that the consumer products we use should be biodegradable. The power we use to take down the systems of abuse in society must not itself become the new power that lords over everyone else. The power must decompose and not quickly come back. Eventually, any manner of injustice may come back and rise again, and so let me be a little more precise. I think it is enough to be meaningful and lasting if it is not likely to come back during a generation of life, the span in which those who brought about the revolution can live freely without imposing or being imposed upon in any essential way by someone else (that is yet another question we cannot delve into in this essay in any meaningful way and is another huge question). What can bring this about? What allows for small groups of people to band together to take on global power structures that just as quickly fade away?
One controversial thing I'll say to start is that I think that this sort of revolution must then exclude the notion of an armed revolution. It is not necessarily to say that guns need fade away or be eradicated. The truth is; it's hard to see that happening. It is to say that the use of guns cannot be the power that produces revolutionary change. The reason for this seems simple to my mind. If guns are the power that produces revolution, does the power dissipate once the goal has been accomplished? Does not power now reside in those who used the guns to bring about the change? Why should we not expect a new Soviet Union? Why should we call this revolution? We will have killed people; will we have killed a system of hierarchy?
This again is not to say that guns will be gone; the point here is one about power. What power is used to bring about change such that when it is finished, it too is finished? Revolution may in that way be seen more like a cancer on the system. Once the body is killed by cancer, there isn't something left over called cancer that rules the now lifeless body. It too is gone, and the body rots into the earth.
What kind of power then eats at the system but is gone as soon as the system is gone? This is another reason to suggest that revolutions must be led by small groups of people. However, it is not any kind of small group of people. They must be small groups of people who do not function like the hierarchical systems that they resist against - that is, small groups of people who work on principles of consensus and mutual aid function in respect and solidarity with one another. If their actions are directed against abuses in the system, and those small groups are multiplied enough, then the cumulative effect of their actions should matter. If for instance, everyone opted out of the banking system AND worked on creating systems of material aid and support that worked within their very small community, then you would not only be hurting the system but also you would be doing so in a way that was culturally different. If things fall apart, then that small group has been developing the means to care for each other's basic needs. Revolution, then, is a simultaneous effort of large numbers of small groups taking direct action against leverage points in the system while developing and caring for the particular material needs of a group in a non-hierarchical, non-oppressive manner.
Now, that sounds highly unlikely even if I cannot understand how it would be impossible. It may be why I would have trouble finding actual examples of revolution in history. However, it is not impossible. I challenge anyone to show me the contradiction in the model proposed. I do not find one, but I admit that I have no idea how you are going to have a movement so large composed of so many smaller groups of people working on a culturally just model who simultaneously take actions against the overarching system. Yet, that to me seems exactly what is required. It requires taking actions at a local level, not knowing whether anyone will be doing the same in sufficient mass, and doing so on a non-hierarchical model. Wow ... but is it any wonder that history is the sad story of humanity run amok?
What's more, is it any reason not to work for it? The truth is, all of us are better off even if revolution remains elusive to try to go down this route. We will have greater voice the degree to which we engage each other within the range of our actual voices. We will be better off if we find ways to take care of each other. We will be better off if we force the powers that control the system to spend resources to try and quash us. It may not be enough for everyone and our world, but what other choice is there, really? Why should we expect a quick and easy solution? We want a magic bullet, but that is a large part of our problem. We want to get rid of the powers that abuse us, but we think that happens by some quick and aggressive power? This does not involve any meaningful revolution; it will only produce new devils.
Right now, I'm reading about Alexander Berkman, who spent 14 years in prison for attempting to kill Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead steel lockout in 1892. Berkman saw what he was doing as an attentat, a violent act of propaganda, not so much against Frick, but against the system that Frick represented. Frick would die, and the people might see the power they possess through that act. The truth is that Frick didn't die, but even if he had, all that was likely to happen was that Frick would have been replaced. Even if somehow the act of propaganda had served its purpose and the strikers managed to win a pitched battle against Pinkertons and the militia at Homestead would see themselves suddenly as proletarians (somehow fully understanding the import of Berkman's act), why should we imagine that anything is likely to have changed in Western Pennsylvania? I wonder if ultimately that is the lesson that Berkman would have to learn the hard way when he too became disillusioned in Russia so much so that he wrote a book called The Bolshevik Myth.
If we shoot and hit or shoot and miss, that means nothing. What matters is that we do something that has the potential for revolution. We won't get there by traveling to the seat of abuse where no one knows us and doing something where our voice will fall flat. Action must begin for me here in Bozeman and project at the tentacles of power that reach here. From there, you have to build growing overlapping circles of smaller groups, and then you have to hope. That's all we can do; if we really want profound change, we must toil and be workers. Revolution will come if and only if a critical mass embraces that cultural change.
A lot has gone unsaid, and I hope that there is a path that is somewhat easier than the one I have outlined. At this point, I'll throw it out for discussion, particularly within the smaller groups in which I actively engage.