By Ben Barker / Deep Green Resistance Wisconsin
Do you believe in a better world? Do you believe in one without the torture of poverty and slavery; without hierarchies based on dominance; without a dying planet? If you do believe in this world, what are you willing to do to help bring it about?
I know many who yearn for justice, but far fewer with any kind of plan for achieving it. There’s no lack of morality in this equation, just of strategy and, perhaps, courage.
Every movement for social change has understood that when a system of law is corrupt, we must turn instead to the laws of the universe: human rights, the living land, justice. These movements are always deemed radical—and that’s because they are. Hope and prayers do not alone work to change the world. We’re going to have to fight for it.
All your heroes of the past knew this. Those who won civil rights knew it. Those who won women’s suffrage knew it. Those who abolished slavery knew it. Those who freed India from colonial rule knew it.
Martin Luther King, Jr. clearly understood this. He said, “Freedom is never given to anybody, for the oppressor has you in domination because he plans to keep you there, and he never voluntarily gives it up. And that is where the strong resistance comes. We’ve got to keep on keeping on, in order to gain freedom. It is not done voluntarily, but it is done through the pressure that comes about from people who are oppressed. Privileged classes never give up their privileges without strong resistance.”
All movements striking at the roots of social problems were—and still are—radical by default.
There’s no shortage of issues that need tackling today. Pick your favorite atrocity: dying oceans, species extinction, deforestation, climate chaos, pollution, violence against women, militarism, white supremacy, poverty, colonialism, homophobia, slavery, government corruption. The hard reality is that the world and all that makes life worth living is under attack—and we’re losing the battle. Everything keeps getting worse and our standards for success keep getting lowered. Never has there been a more critical time for those who want a better world to rise and make it happen. So what’s stopping us?
Of course there are vast and powerful entities wholly invested in and mercilessly guarding the way things are. This is an old story; we’re Margaret Mead’s small group of thoughtful, committed citizens taking on a giant. But in reality, we’re not even there yet. No, we’re still struggling to find unity amongst ourselves, to gather the people necessary to begin making any change at all.
It’s long past time to be forthright about what divides us as activists. Most all of us want to see the same outcome—a living planet, flourishing human communities—but we stumble on how to get there. Sure, some things we just won’t agree on, and that’s perfectly fine. But with the stakes so high, are we willing to forfeit all possibility of effectiveness because we can’t find a way to get along?
Let’s talk about our differences so we can better find our common ground. Writer Lierre Keith has investigated the history of social movements and emerged with much of the work done for us. She suggests there are two major currents amongst activists: liberals and radicals. This is not a dichotomy: like reform and revolution, both liberals and radicals have been necessary and complimentary to each other. The key is balance and respect for various approaches to the same problems.
The first difference between radicals and liberals is how we view individuals. Radicals see society as made of groups or classes; individual people share common clause based on shared circumstances and goals. Liberals, on the other hand, see individuals as just that; each person is distinct from another. The “working class”, for example, was a radical concept which liberals have largely removed from their discourse.
Next is how social change happens. Liberals lend their energy to ideals and attitudes, certain that change will come one heart and mind at a time. Institutions are the targets of radicals, though, with old corrupt ones sought to be dismantled and replaced with just, sustainable, new ones. If Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement would have focused solely on convincing whites that blacks aren’t inferior, they would have been taking the liberal route. If they would have focused solely on defeating racist laws, they would have been taking the radical route. History suggests that it was both that got the job done.
A final difference centers on justice and what we think it looks like. Radicals tend to measure justice by long-term material conditions—a lack of oppression and destruction in everyday life, now and forever. Morality is predetermined for the liberals, with the law or broader society acting as judge. Any win in the realm of free speech, for example, might look like a step in the right direction to the liberal perspective, whereas radicals might be more concerned with eliminating hate speech (and groups), whether or not it is legally permissible.
Despite the distinctions, effective activism hinges on understanding power and how it works. Wherever we may fall on the spectrum, we must keep our eyes on power: who has it, how it’s being used, and how it can be transferred from the hands of the powerful to the hands of the powerless. There is no way to talk about social change without talking about power.
Again, all throughout history liberals and radicals have employed complimentary strategies to make tangible differences in the world. We may feel uncomfortable working with each other, but it’s either that or an increasingly ruined world. The ethical choice should be clear.
What liberals need to understand is that any efforts challenging systems of power are and will be seen as radical. There’s just no way around it and forging distance from radical counterparts is not only useless, but a betrayal of freedom-fighters before us. We need to remember that Rosa Parks’ hero was Malcolm X. We need to remember that Gandhi was successful because he was easier to negotiate with than Bhagat Singh’s militants. Neutrality is complicity and it’s time to take sides: one hand is the small group of capitalist monsters profiting off of misery and on the other is anyone willing to resist injustice.
Recently, I had a conversation with a member of the Democratic Party which highlights how far from solidarity many liberals have strayed. Upon meeting, he asked what I did. “I’m a writer,” I said. About what, he wondered? “Radical social change,” I told him. And the next fifteen minutes, up until the point I politely left, saw him adamantly discouraging me from using such a confrontational and extremist term as “radical.” My claims that this desperate time calls for radical responses fell on deaf ears, because how desperate can anything be with a Democrat in the White House? In hindsight, I wish I would’ve reminded him just how radical the movements have been that are now allowing for black, female, and homosexual candidates from his Party to get in office.
What radicals need to understand is that what is most militant is not always what is right, both in terms of strategy and morality. And sometimes it is. Power only changes by force, but force can take many different forms. Suffragists lobbied and campaigned for women to get the vote, but when that wasn’t working, they added sabotage to their arsenal. Simultaneously used, their tactics proved part of an ultimately successful strategy. Both approaches were radical because they applied force, but they were employed in very specific times and contexts. Strategy allows us to choose between tactics with a lens of pragmatism rather than by whim of emotion. Whatever actions are taken, they must be well thought out and conducted with discipline.
Too many radicals today fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking. They see bad institutions and therefore all institutions are bad. They see useless reforms and therefore all reforms are useless. They see poor leadership, and therefore no leadership is better.
Radical or liberal, we really need it all. We need the community organizers, the gardeners, the healers, the warriors, and the artists. Most of all, we need to each other’s work as necessary pieces of the larger struggle.
Regardless of our route, activists need to always remember the world we’re working towards. Solutions will come only after we honestly name the problems. This means we cannot look away from the severity of the situation, even if it doesn’t make us feel good. Social change is about social change and not about any individual’s emotional state. Suffering is real and it beckons us to fashion adequate responses.
Changing the world means naming the one we’re presently stuck with. It’s time to say this out loud: the problems we face are systemic, not random; they are symptoms of a social and economic arrangement of power. I call that arrangement industrial capitalism. You may call it what you like. What’s important is that we all understand that there is no future in the way things are.
Liberals, radicals, and anyone working towards a more just and sustainable world cannot continue to spend so much time condemning each other’s approaches. There’s a name for this destructive tendency: horizontal hostility. And unless we want to in-fight to the end of the world, it has to stop.
Success will be the forging of a culture of resistance strong and vibrant enough to take apart this society and build a new one. This means vast networks of communities of people supporting each other’s efforts towards a common goal. It means the artists support the warriors who support the healers who support the gardeners who support the community organizers who support the warriors. Not all in a culture of resistance need agree on everything; we just need to pledge that we won’t turn on our own in the heat of the struggle.
For every year, every day, and every moment we don’t act strategically and decisively, another person of color is terrorized by white police officers, another woman is violated by men, another indigenous culture is stamped out, another species is added to the extinction list, the health of human community and the entire planet accelerates in decline.
Those with fire and love in their hearts, those who live by moral obligation, know that the time to act is now. So the question becomes: will you join us in finally and totally changing this world. Is your privilege and comfort more important than justice, or will you join us? Are your ideals more important than the hard truth, or will you join us?
If you want a better world, what are you waiting for? Find your allies, work out your differences, and get down to business.
Beautiful Justice is a monthly column by Ben Barker, a writer and community organizer from West Bend, Wisconsin. Ben is a member of Deep Green Resistance and is currently writing a book about toxic qualities of radical subcultures and the need to build a vibrant culture of resistance.