Freedom starts the year with an anti-burnout perspective:
I keep on having the same conversation over and over again with various activists and people trying to evolve society.
‘What can I do? Am I doing enough?’
‘I do this and it doesn’t fit in with my ideas.’
‘I have to do things to survive in the system that I don’t want to do.’
‘I feel like I should be on the front lines but I can’t manage it.’
Standing back and looking at these kind of phrases, they are all saying a similar thing: ‘The weight of the world is on my shoulders and my concern for the world is all-powerful.’ The standards they are holding themselves to are much higher than those who conform to society’s norms. And taking one step further back they are saying: ‘I am separate from the world.’ This is the bizarre blip of logic which I have found myself in, and it is very pervasive. A division of the self from the ocean of humanity, a kind of ideological transcendence.
When you are in a social circle at the vanguard of change, it is very easy to become separated from the whole. You spend so much time at the fringes that you stop identifying with that you are trying to change. You become, in quite a crude way, ‘transcendent’. This is what allows impossible value systems to emerge, along with confusing cycles of guilt and shame and individualistic self-criticism.
None of us can live an authentic, total anarchism in a capitalist world. Taking that world onto your shoulders and expecting to be able to carry it is a promise to be crushed and broken. As activists, our goal is to transform the world-devouring system into something more creative, not to perfect ourselves within that system.
If you are fighting for a good cause, you have to come out of the other end intact to truly succeed. The movement needs healers, nurturers, carers and therapists in its radical spaces. It needs families, gentleness, comfort and respite from the front lines. A balance between being active and passive needs to be achieved.
Even looking at it from a more detached perspective, the cause needs to look after its warriors just to win. This is not just one battle, but an ideological campaign which could last any length of time – even to the end of our lives.
One does not throw ones warriors mindlessly into battle, expecting them to fight at full strength time and time again without rest. For the capitalist system, people are expendable means to an end. Foot soldiers of the system are not in short supply. They can afford to use people, chew them up and spit them out. The people in power are detached enough from the consequences of their actions to use others, without the bite of conscience.
But for us, every individual person is as precious as the whole.
We cannot allow for expendability, because fundamentally we are in touch with our emotions and sensitive to the world (otherwise, we would not be activists). We cannot commit atrocities or trample over others, because we do not have masks of detachment, and we have not been bent out of shape by decades of false promise.
Activists need to recognise their humanity, and acknowledge their own basic needs before taking but a single step on their path. The capitalist world system maintains itself through the sacrifice of one’s time and the martyrdom of one’s dreams and we should not be mirroring those warped ‘virtues’ in our own movements.
Furthermore activists need to challenge the expectation that everyone has to give one hundred percent of themselves, one hundred percent of the time. This is especially true in regards to marginalized people. A group can proclaim itself ‘progressive’ and yet still replicate the same power structures found in society – empowering some and disempowering others.
No one can fight beyond their strength and nothing is more strength-sapping than privilege and oppression. For instance, how can I give my all to a group which does not recognize how its subconscious ‘whiteness’ is disempowering and alienating to me? How can a woman feel safe in a group if it is dominated by men making ‘edgy jokes’ about gendered violence? How can a trans person function and thrive if cis people do not realize how they are taking their cis-privilege for granted?
Activists need to do the uncomfortable work of confronting privilege and oppression within their groups. They need to identify the subconscious forces at work in order to be just and sustainable. It may seem like this task is ‘overshadowed’ by the cause, but I believe such thinking harms and weakens the cause. The ends do not justify the means; the means always shape the ends.
Do you what you can at this time, in your own time.
There is no way to live a pure life in an impure world, and to even try is to fail. Society is not something to separate from, or demonize as some absolute evil. Instead we need to stay involved, take its resources, dare into the labyrinths of power and come out with its power in our hands. Only this time for the good of all, and the good of the world.
This transformation cannot be achieved (or can only be achieved at immense cost) if you see yourself as separate from the world, and fail to look after yourself as a result. You cannot achieve noble ends if the means are to destroy yourselves and your allies.
You are the good cause.
This article first appeared in nyteshadeblog.
Image: Guy Smallman