by: Tara Ruttenberg
don't you know
they're talkin' bout a revolution
it sounds like a whisper…
don't you know
they're talkin' about a revolution
it sounds like a whisper…
when Tracy Chapman first sang those words it was 1988, and very few people were in the mood for global revolution - especially in the West - despite the sprouting seeds of growing inequalities, environmental concerns and corporate interests coopting democracy. flash-forward 25 years and what then might have sounded like a whisper is now a world-wide chorus of screams we can’t possibly ignore. and they really are talkin’ bout a revolution now, even when it’s couched in friendlier language like ‘transition’ or ‘shift’ or ‘occupy’. we use those lighter words because when we hear ‘revolution’ we think guillotines and Jacobins in 1789 France or the decades-long Islamic Revolution in Afghanistan whose violent aftermath persists today. we hear revolution and we’re scared of what it might entail: will we have to die so that others might live in justice and freedom? what will the new system look like and how do we know it won’t be worse than the one we’ve got? god forbid, will we have to change the ways we live and exist in the world to accommodate more sustainable ways of living?
we forget that revolution need not be violent or even abrupt as it has been in the past; instead, we might conceive of our present revolution as a steady change now decades in the making, finally coming to the fore as global citizens unite against oppressive power imbalances, taking a stand versus corporations running politics to the detriment of people everywhere, and demanding a reversal of the destructive pillaging of the Earth on which all life depends. but the revolution we’re experiencing today isn’t just ‘against’ the powers that be with no direction on where we go from here, akin to a short-sighted protest lacking vision or purpose. no, our current revolution is both deconstructive of injustice and creative in innovation at the same time, offering tangible examples of what kind of world comes next while concomitantly destroying the old order through resistance movements and withdrawal of consent to oppression and exploitation. when we recognize our revolution for what it is – the dismantling of the old and the simultaneous creation of the new – it need not be terrifying, but rather inspiring that a fundamental change in power relations, socioeconomic structures and governing institutions is indeed on the horizon. and that our many interventions, be they minor or grandiose, are contributing to this change in ways we might not even recognize or understand.
we all have a unique role in supporting the change: fighters, writers, farmers, artists, activists, eco-socialists, community leaders, spiritual gurus, filmmakers, academics; young, old, rich, poor, North, South, East, West. we all have something to contribute; and more and more, these interventions are coming to be seen not just as choices we make in support of a sustainable and just future, but as moral obligations of the global countermovement to build new realities and to rise up against the system and its increasingly illegitimate institutions controlled by corporate interests:
the legitimacy of both states and international institutions is now contaminated by corruption, usurpation, and bias. it is therefore the obligation of the people – in this case the people of the world – to “alter or abolish them.” given such an obligation, there must also be a right to take the action necessary to fulfill it. further, institutional structures, practices, and purported laws that block or punish such action are inherently illegitimate and unconstitutional. they represent little more than lawless force and violence. these concepts legitimate a withdrawal of consent of the kind that… provides the underlying power of social movements.[i]
with governments unresponsive to citizen demands for socio-structural change, it’s less about rallying for piecemeal legislation within unworkable political frameworks and more about entire system transformations aligned with new-paradigm thinking and a complete overhaul of the global economic model at the heart of hegemonic oppression and exploitation; for in the words of Audre Lorde, “the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house”. in that sense, our revolution is disassembling the global capitalist system and its instruments of control by way of building new-paradigm approaches to social and economic relations and institutions based on collectivity, cooperation and shared solutions to common challenges. as we are seeing in the growing presence of social movements and protests in major cities around the world, global society is ready for change and our systems are ripe for revolution; now it’s just a matter of when and how.
in the circle I had a vision of a buffalo skull and it said: ‘now is the time to rise up; we can’t wait any longer.’
these words linger in my ears and brain crevices now, months after they were spoken by a sister at the moon dance, finding deep resonance in the sense of urgency we’re experiencing in the seemingly imminent need for change NOW, not tomorrow or the next day but right this very instant. and it seems that more and more people are being called to the causes that irk their heartstrings and make their souls sing: climate change, poverty and famine, labor rights, sustainable development, social equality, economic and environmental justice. and while our motivations differ, our objectives are one and the same: a radical transformation in the current global order toward equality, justice and peace for all of humanity in harmony with nature. it might not be about a grand scale plan, since grassroots change and local solutions are proving powerful in driving global change from the bottom-up. but no matter how local the effort, the interconnected nature of our transition networks is strong through solidarity and shared ideals of the new paradigm. we know what we don’t want, and we’re now in the seemingly chaotic reorganization phase of defining what we do want, yet we’re still not all the way sure how we’re going to get there or what it’s going to look like when we do:
“never in history have there been prepared alternatives. when feudalism disappeared and capitalism arrived, no one announced that at 12 o’clock one would end and at 12:01 the other would begin” (El Diario Interview with Arcadi Oliveres, Professor of Applied Economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and President of NGO Justicia y Pau (Justice and Peace), May 11, 2013; translation mine).
our new type of living social system has to evolve; it can’t be invented and assembled, but rather it will always be a surprise based on trial and error given the previously unknown capabilities of new systems.[ii] but we are clear on one thing, and that is that we can’t wait any longer. and while we might be scared of the unknown, we are even more scared of maintaining a status quo that condemns the lives of billions to subservience, oppression and marginal existence. doing nothing is no longer an option. for in doing nothing, in being content to live our day-to-day lives blind to the suffering of our brothers and sisters and our life-giving Mother Earth, we give consent by way of complacency to the injustice of elite power dominance over humanity and nature. and once we open our eyes to that reality, it is no longer a choice or an uncomfortable burden to our conscience, but a clear and irrefutable obligation to act. and to act now.
so what are we gonna do and how is this whole thing gonna go down? is violence our only option as dominant power interests hold tight to their reins in the face of resistance movements whose window for peaceful means of change grows increasingly narrow? many in the countermovement would say yes, that lacking traditional or democratic mechanisms for dismantling global capitalism without resorting to violence, we must meet force with force. i’m realistic enough to concede that at this stage in the game, they may unfortunately be right, and we may very well see the situation get worse before it gets better. however, i for one am hopefully (and practically) optimistic in aligning with a peaceful trajectory for nonviolent eco-socialist revolution. and it’s messy and uncomfortable and it forces us to be surreptitiously creative and outspoken when we’d otherwise cow to social pressure to conform because it’s easier. but we can, and we must, so we will.
withdrawing consent through civil resistance
“my life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” ― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
since the durability of power relies on the consent of the governed, particularly in democratic regimes where government is supposedly a representation of the desires of the people, the most important component of revolution is the withdrawal of that consent as a process of delegitimizing power. while seemingly obvious, this crucial step is perhaps the most difficult to catalyze given modern capitalism’s far-reaching tentacles and subtle tools of social control, including media, pop culture and consumerism, whereby the internalization of capitalist values by the majority is the most powerful form of consent, and the hardest to overcome. as David Harvey explains, the constructed consent of the majority of people is what allows the injustice and exploitation of the capitalist system to persist, requiring “the construction of political consent across a sufficiently large spectrum of the population”, centered around what Gramsci calls ‘common sense’, or ‘the sense held in common’, which is itself “constructed out of long-standing practices of cultural socialization often rooted in regional or national traditions”.[iii] so while people everywhere are being fed images of glamorous modern lifestyles espousing the accumulation of wealth and materialism as social aspirations, the revolution seeks to undermine such practices by drawing awareness to the fallacy that these lifestyles are even attainable let alone desirable given finite natural resources and income’s diminishing returns to happiness as discussed in the previous posts of this series. the Occupy Movement has been perhaps the most successful in this process, using the simple imagery of the 1% versus the 99% to single-handedly turn capitalism on its head and into a four-letter word by drawing attention to structural inequalities inherent in the system. social movements can continue this important work of deconstructing consent by propagating similar images in mainstream culture through social media, magazine articles, blogs and documentaries to raise consciousness as to why a complete overhaul of the system is necessary.
as part of this strategy, transforming patterns of production and consumption are coming to define the countermovement, whereby economic localization and individuals’ voluntary withdrawal from consumer culture have become important means of resistance to corporate control of what and how we live, relate, produce and consume. by opting out of the global economy and saying ‘no’ to the modern consumer lifestyle by buying (minimally) and producing locally, creating non-capitalist mechanisms of exchange and barter, and swapping previously-owned goods for other previously-owned goods instead of buying new things, we are leading by example and weakening the influence of mass production and its mantra of ‘buy-buy-buy’ to support corporations and the economic growth mechanism fundamental to global capitalism. at the same time, opting out of the debt-cycle money system is another way of withdrawing consent by limiting the power of banks to enrich themselves and their executives at the expense of the working class, while simultaneously reversing the power relationship between people and moneylenders. this entails students saying no to repaying outstanding student debt, families opting against taking out a loan or mortgage to buy a house, and small-business entrepreneurs finding alternative means of financing outside the banking system. while these processes may be slow to catch on given the socially ingrained lifestyle practices of modernity and the internalization of the values behind the American Dream, they are specific and tangible steps with potentially powerful and wide-reaching implications when more and more people join in the fun.
similarly, nonviolent protest in the form of civil resistance has been increasingly powerful in the withdrawal of consent despite mainstream media’s minimal coverage of mass protests in cities around the world. disobeying illegitimate laws, showing up for protests at all levels, sitting or standing in silence as a form of resistance, and impeding construction efforts for environmentally destructive energy projects all fall under the category of nonviolent civil resistance, and their impact is broad yet subtle. undermining state power in stealthy ways is one method of saying ‘no’ to social control and injustice, and the more of us who are willing to risk the consequences, the greater our chances of making unjust laws a thing of the past.
i have been accused of political posturing and criticized as too radical by proposing things like abstention in US elections, but i write these things as a challenge to all of us to consider our role in perpetuating global injustice, violence and war by legitimizing otherwise illegitimate policies; we do this by exercising our supposed democratic right to vote and elect our leaders and policymakers, and taking it a step further, by funding the wars and economic practices we claim to oppose by continuing to pay taxes, fueling the machines of war and contributing to the loss of innocent lives to protect what we are told are our ‘national interests’. we are beginning to recognize that those national interests are in fact not ours but rather those of a teeny-tiny majority at odds with the needs and lives of billions around the world, yet we continue to offer our consent by doing things like voting and paying taxes. at what point do our leaders and representatives’ actions become illegitimate if we are the ones tacitly offering our consent in the democratic system of which we are a part? when it stops being about ‘we the people’ versus ‘them the leaders we elected but whose policies we don’t agree with’, we cannot ignore our role in this great big mess we call democracy – WE ARE THEM AND WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR POLICIES because we legitimize them through continuing to play the game of democracy, thereby supporting murder, exploitation and environmental destruction in the process. the overt withdrawal of these forms of consent is what is ultimately required by us as individuals propelling the revolution as the means of delegitimizing our corporation-controlled governments. we may worry that our singular acts of resistance are futile against the overwhelming power of dominant interests and the state apparatuses of control, but with all of our individual actions taken together as a multitude of drops in the countermovement ocean, we are not alone, and we are powerful indeed. and there aren’t enough jail cells to house us all anyway. :)
strengthening the global countermovement for peaceful revolution
…fear not, fellow revolutionaries: our time is now.
another, more positive reality, however, is that much of the global countermovement is not centered in the Global North, whose hesitance to disobey is slowing the revolutionary process. instead, many of the revolutionary epicenters are in the cities and communities of the Global South, where people are no longer waiting for change to come to them; on the contrary, resistance and socioeconomic alternatives are emerging organically and powerfully by the people of the South in the form of new social movements, political parties and local strategies to design communities and government institutions in the best interest of people and the planet, rendering mainstream systems of dominance and control increasingly irrelevant. Raj Patel writes of this phenomenon as the countermovement and contends that “the people leading such movements are the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the people on whose shoulders the externalities of the rich often fall, the world’s least free people who are discovering that they are The Change They’ve Been Waiting For”[iv].
Philip Smith and Manfred Max-Neef refer to this flow of people-power energy as “an unstoppable underground movement of civil society”:
what we have is two parallel worlds. one concerned with politics, competition, greed and power, which seems to have everything under its control; and another concerned with equity, well-being, respect for life and solidarity, which doesn’t control anything, but grows and expands as an unstoppable underground movement of civil society…. the latter, because of its dispersion, its diversity, its fierce independence and its chaotic structure, cannot be beheaded nor can it collapse…. the need for radical change of the dominant economic model underlies all the components of the movement”[v] [italics mine].
this movement of civil society is making its presence felt in societies of both the Global North and South as a reaction to the harms of modern lifestyles of overconsumption and profit-seeking plundering and exploitation. citizens in the North have begun expressing their desires to escape the ills of modernity, to ‘un-develop’ for greater sustainability, sufficiency and a return to the ‘human home’: “accepting and living by sufficiency rather than excess offers a return to what is, culturally speaking, the human home: to the ancient order of family, community, good work, and good life; to a reverence for skill, creativity and creation…; to communities worth spending a lifetime in; and to local places pregnant with the memories of generations”[vi].
as Fritjof Capra notes poignantly, it is this connection between civil society in the South and sympathetic Northerners with power that is finally tipping the scales in the direction of revolution, creating a global social movement promoting people-centered approaches and democratic, participatory political processes[vii]. we see these trends emerging in the annual World Social Forum, the International Forum on Globalization’s seminal report on “Alternatives to Economic Globalization”, ongoing meetings of the Group of 77 (G-77), now comprised of 132 developing countries united within the UN system to support collective economic interests and strengthen negotiating power, and most recently with 350.org’s Global Power Shift – all coming to define the revolutionary processes of ‘globalization from below’[viii] to counter increasingly discredited institutions like the United Nations, World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
the unity in solidarity we are seeing in these new movements is not merely a coincidental convergence of similar yet unrelated calls for individual and social change, but rather an early reflection of what Morris Berman calls ‘the waning of the modern ages’: “the dual process of the disintegration of capitalism and the concomitant emergence of an alternative socioeconomic formation”; what is to be “the central story of the rest of the century”[ix]. as alternative socioeconomic formations continue taking shape, we move closer to satisfying Lindner’s requirements for the transition to a ‘dignity economy’, which:
requires a multi-thronged approach with two core moves…. it must be a hybrid bottom-up and top-down approach. a simple combination of bottom-up and top-down would not suffice, because we cannot wait for the majority of the world’s citizens to become Mandelas from the bottom up. we can also not wait for the politicians of our time to implement necessary changes from the top down.”[x]
as the interests of social movements, civil society, grassroots community organizations, and select policymakers conjoin within the global countermovement, we find hope in envisioning a peaceful transition toward new alternatives to support the full realization of human potentialities, meaningful community livelihoods and relevant ways of living in harmony with nature – outside the confines of the global economic order and its international instruments of domination, exploitation and oppression. in building the new, the countermovement undermines the power of the old by making it both unnecessary and irrelevant.
while this post helps us get a clearer understanding of what the revolution looks and feels like on the individual, national and global levels, the following and final installment of this 5-part series will get into the meat of what comes after the revolution as a guide for where we’re headed next: post-capitalist alternatives and people ‘doing utopia’ in communities around the world.
[i] Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, & Brendan Smith, Globalization from Below: The Power of Solidarity (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000): 45.
[ii] Graeme Taylor, Evolution’s Edge: The Coming Collapse and Transforming of Our World. (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2008).
[iii] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 39.
[iv] Raj Patel, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy (New York: Picador, 2009): 108.
[v] Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good (UK: Green Books, 2011): 173-174.
[vi] Alan Thein Durning, “Are We Happy Yet?” Ecopsychology (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995): 76.
[vii] Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living. (New York: Anchor Books, 2002).
[viii] Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, & Brendan Smith, Globalization from Below: The Power of Solidarity (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000).
[ix] Morris Berman, “The Waning of the Modern Ages,” Counterpunch (September 20, 2012). www.counterpunch.org/2012/09/20/the-waning-of-the-modern-ages/
[x] Evelin Lindner, A Dignity Economy: Creating an Economy that Serves Human Dignity and Preserves Our Planet (Oregon: World Dignity University Press, 2011).