Beautiful Justice: An Open Letter to Liberals

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.

11 thoughts on “Beautiful Justice: An Open Letter to Liberals”

  1. Great stuff Ben. I’m writing about similar topics and am looking forward to more of your work. We are truly one people and I think the most radical acts are those that remind us of that. We are living in profound times indeed. Greetings from across the pond!

  2. Hi, Ben

    I strongly agree that radical action is now needed, and I like your sense of outreach, as well as your pragmatism in realizing radicals can’t simply reject institutions and leaders. And I’m likewise fed up with the incrementalism of liberals. While we’d have to discuss terms a bit before I’d agree that the root problem is “industrial capitalism, I do think that the close collusion of corporations and plutocrats with our government, as well as an American lifestyle based excessively on production and consumption of material goods, has produced a system that endangers the planet and democracy and is clearly unsustainable.

    While I also agree that a variety of resistance strategies are needed, I have one of my own to propose. I believe it fulfills your criteria of a well-thought-out strategy, and also–for pragmatic reasons–works through rather than rejects institutions many fellow radicals might consider too wussy or overly compromised: to wit, the electoral process and the Democratic Party. Not that I’m a great lover of either in their existing form; rather, I see a progressive revolt INSIDE the Democratic Party–a revolt that rejects the whole “war on terror” framework, rejects Obama’s insane “all of the above” energy policy, and embraces rather than cold-shoulders the Occupy movement–as the best way of simultaneously putting heavy pressure on so-called “liberal” pols and waking up a significant portion of the mainstream to how badly they’re governed and how deeply Democrats, under a pretense of progressivism, have betrayed them. The very name of this new movement, True Blue Democrats, implies that today’s Democrats have betrayed the values of the party at its New Deal and Great Society best–and that True Blues are the ONLY Democrats standing up for those values.

    This is a grassroots “party within a party” blackmail scheme (like the eary Tea Party before it was easily coopted), but for democratic political ends that provide strong insurance against Big Money cooptation. The blackmail is precisely a willingness to bolt from the Democratic Party after heavily recruiting its progressive wing and possibly converting some of its mainstream. If True Blues are forced to revolt by lack of reform among Dems, we contemplate a new coalition party with Greens and progressive Independents that would be mainstream Dems’ worst nightmare.

    Thinking this strategy (more radical than first appears) might interest you and your followers, I’ll conclude by supplying you the link to our Facebook page:

    In solidarity,


  3. A radical solution is required, but will not emerge from the same level of thinking that gave rise to the problem. Agree that industrial capitalism is a major part of what is wrong and that power will not willingly be shared. A strategic – and radically paradigmatic – approach would be to neutralize the medium through which power is measured, negotiated and held: money. It is profit that is driving destruction. Introducing a new (first in 10K years) means of managing resources and relationships with a non-fungible value index will redefine value in non-monetary terms and re-set all relationships.

    In time this system will supercede and replace the monetary system in an organic, non-violent, non-disruptive way removing the source of capitalist hegemony, in what i call rhizomatous development. A distributed network in a fractal pattern is congruent with chaos theory, holonomic implicate and explicate orders, and is infinitely recursive. Anything less than this, from whatever quarter – progressive, libertarian, radical, but moneytheists all – is merely reform of the prevailing monetary system.

    1. The necessary requiste for ANY solution is winning over a significant enough proportion of people to drive change. That’s why I find overly radical radical solutions utopian–and probably dangerous; they require endless amounts of time for public education–often in complicated and sometimes counterintuitive concepts–when the people currently in power are poised to do enormous amounts of harm in a very short time. Therefore, we must try solutions that subvert their grip on power. I would point out that U.S. political and social institutions (while ALWAYS far from perfect) served the general public MUCH better within recent memory, and similar instittuions do far better for their populations in other countries (say, Scandanavian ones or Iceland) right now. Excessive radicalism is an impossible sell to the general public, at least in time to save civilization as we know it.

      Of course, if you’ve already written off civilization as we know it and are designing solutions for the aftermath, fine. But I hasten to remind that that aftermath could be horrible beyond our imagining–and also that simply writing off current civilization is likely to amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think efforts like using grassroots voter rejection of rule by Big Money should be tried first–pitting the force of votes against money (something that obviously motivates pols, provided voters are offered a real alternative). True Blue Democrats is a grassroots scheme to create that alternative.

  4. all we do is send messages, what is “more radical action” other than maybe break something to send a message, what is needed is to build, ok so where is the platform? what are you building? what kind of community? online? how many people? I get the rehash of “how non-violence protects the state” but i didn’t agree with it’s super soft science approach then and still don’t now, but lets just move past that, are you networking? are you an occupier? have you heard of

    in response to patrick i would just like to say that plurality voting is a real problem, to just say hey support the “real” democrats is to ignore the systemic nature of the problems we face, there needs to be a multifaceted approach that looks at news, education, elections and law, or these new “true” dems could cast their votes based on how their constituency votes online or something like that, a true representation, but a very different system, if they want to build new foundations like that they have my vote

    1. I’m very willing to acknowledge that a “very different system” might be a desirable goal. But I think we FIRST must respond to a desperate crisis: getting the government and institutions we have to serve us and the common good enough to stave off mass suffering and environemntal catastrophe. Because, simply put, you’ll NEVER get most people to understand or back truly radical changes without letting catatstrophe happen; but the catastrophe that happens–for example, out-of-control climate change, could be SO bad that no sane person would want to live in THAT world. Some radical changes we fondly like to visualize may not be possible in a world where human civilization itself is largely destroyed. So I do not think we should be calling for a radical overhaul of institutions; we don’t have the luxury of enough public-education time. What we should do is get RADICAL about the institutions we already have–imperfect as we they are–to serve us. Available education time allows for little else, and the radicality of demands–not of immediate system overhauls–is what True Blue Democrats are about. Once we get our government even to passably serve us, we can discuss more radical changes.

  5. ok great, thanks for the reply patrick, thats where we have to start, so what about metrics? how do we gauge the size of this catastrophe and how fast it will happen, i think part of your approach starts by removing part of the population from the conversation by saying “mass education” is needed, but on the environment topic, which seems to be the impetus for the reliance on old trusted systems in a time of crisis, on the environmental topic what are the polls saying, do a majority of americans think we need to do something different? is there any benefit in crowdsourcing solutions? i think there is and i think science shows that r&d happens in an open source kind of way all the time, so then why do we remove the open source nature of science from politics? open source government, thats more or less what im talking about, doesn’t need to immediately reconstruct the existing gov but i think there are easy ways to include much more citizen input in an intelligent way, plus is from the constitution, add the internet and you have something pretty intesting, so i would say that im also in favor of leveraging existing systems to bring about the change that so many people seem to think is needed

    1. I’m very glad you agree on the leveraging of existing systems; I don’t consider that any particular endorsement of existing systems (their ultimate value is a question for a time of greater leisure, when we don’t have to respond to a crisis). But I DO think there’s evidence that they–I speak, for example, or representative democracy–have served us better in times when they were less perverted; also that similar institutions and systems have served or are serving the world much better than our current ones in the U.S. As writers like Tocqueville have pointed out, it’s not just a question of institutions; the same institutions can vary wildly in results depending on the mores of the society they’re operating in. Our current U.S. political mores are VERY bad; the public has learned to live with and accept as normal a lot of things it shouldn’t accept. A big example is the deterioration of the rule of law under the increasing influence of Big Money; another is the deterioration of government transparency and accountability under the fearmongering of the “war on terror.” In both cases, I don’t see ANY need for overhaul of our institutions (except for the passing of a Constitutional amendment reversing Citizens United); a sufficient change in public attitudes and demands on politicians would cause VAST beneficial changes in government.

      As to “metrics,” well, as far as I can see, you use the word to describe two very different things. Not a problem, but it’s important to be clear. For example, although there’s NO certainty about how serious the problem of climate change is, ALL the consensus peer-reviewed science agrees on the problem being urgent (to the point the word “crisis” is surely appropriate); there’s simply wide disagreement on how likely the apocalyptic “wipe out civilization” nightmare scenarios are. Common sense tells me enough–that these are dice we SHOULDN’T be rolling. Current policy–in the view of almost all climate scientists–locks us into highly undesirable scenarios, whether or not they amount to apocalpse. From what I’ve read, public opinion–perhaps because of increasingly common extreme weather–HAS moved in majority closer to climate science, though the public (perhaps taking its cue from politicians) doesn’t yet sufficiently see how urgent action is. And from what I’ve read, EXISTING technologies are already sufficient to solve most of the problem; the REAL question is one of political will. That’s why I’m focused on an up-the-ante revolt like True Blue Democrats; it seems, better than anything else I’ve heard proposed, to solve the problem of political will. But I’d add that the revolt is likely to work only if it’s accompanied by people taking to the streets–perhaps in a revival of Occupy (but this time backed by a forceful POLITICAL voice.

      That’s my best answer to what I’ve understood of your comments.

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