You say it’s a shock to discover an analysis that puts the pieces of the puzzle together. You learned that climate change, the growing gap between rich and poor, higher tuition fees, cuts to social programs, layoffs, employers forcing workers to accept weaker benefits and lower pay, aggressive advertizing pushing us to buy useless crap for young kids — they are all consequences of capitalism. I know what you mean — I remember how it felt when I realized that the drive for profit affects every aspect of our lives in this society.
Everyone knows what this feels like, but not many people can explain why it’s this way and how the different aspects are connected. That’s what good theory is all about. It’s a bit like a fish coming to understand what aquariums and water are. I know you were skeptical about “theory,” but that analysis of capitalism you found so electrifying is theory. Yes, I think most theory written by social science academics today is useless, but there are a few radicals among them who are really worth reading. As for Marx, he didn’t write so he could go to conferences and list more publications on his CV, and it shows, doesn’t it?
“What do I do now?,” you ask. Good question – and I don’t have a simple answer. These are difficult times for anti-capitalists. There are more people who agree with us than you might think, but we’re almost always less than the sum of our parts. Capitalism has entered into a global slump, but so far capitalists and governments are doing pretty well at making the working class pay for the crisis we didn’t create. I know “working class” sounds a bit strange because it’s not a term we hear very much in Canada these days. But it fits because so many of us have to sell our ability to work to get an income to support ourselves and people who depend on us.
I’ll try to explain how I see the situation. A big part of the problem today is that very few people in this part of the world ever get exposed to the anti-capitalist ideas you’ve found so powerful. When people do encounter them, many don’t take them seriously because they’re so different from “common sense” ideas about the world. Even fewer people learn how to organize for social change. What’s become very weak is what Alan Sears calls the “infrastructure of dissent” — “the means of analysis, communication, organization and sustenance that nurture the capacity for collective action” (if you’re interested in what he wrote, you can find his article here).
A story I just read in the book Dancing on Live Embers helps illustrate this, I think. It was the account of a person who moved from the UK to Canada several decades ago and became a left-wing anti-racist activist. He discovered a bookstore that carried books by anti-racist people of colour, started to meet and talk with like-minded people and later joined the Communist Party. There he met people who had been involved in union organizing back in the 1930s, people who were “the history of left labour struggles in this country… back to the Winnipeg general strike and beyond.” He found “a sense of history, and a deep and abiding sense of connectedness to something that was worldwide that I really needed.” These experiences helped him to become someone with a radical analysis of society who could work with other people to put ideas into practice in community and workplace organizing.
The radical bookstore, the activist discussion group, the left-wing union veterans who were part of a tradition of collective struggle and could pass on its lessons to others — these were all parts of the infrastructure of dissent. They helped people learn how to fight for social change. Of course, there were problems. For example, the Communist Party was undemocratic, dogmatic and sectarian (by which I mean putting an organization’s narrow interests ahead of the interests of the struggle as a whole). Its members thought the bureaucratic dictatorship in the USSR was socialist. They often played a conservative role in activism. But the infrastructure of dissent as a whole was stronger then than it is now.
In 2011 a young immigrant could discover the writings of anti-racist authors online. Unfortunately, they’d be unlikely to find a group of like-minded people who would “meet every Saturday afternoon to discuss the books they were reading and ‘the movement’.” There are almost no organizations where people new to radical politics can meet others with decades of activist experience. People who are – rightly – excited about anti-capitalist ideas and want to do something to work towards transforming society don’t have many places to go. Yes, in some cities there are little groups of radicals of one kind or another. Some are worth joining. Sadly, many aren’t, because they suffer from problematic ways of operating, unaccountable leaders, sectarianism, wacky ideas and so on. A broad, democratically-organized, non-sectarian political organization uniting anti-capitalists in different regions is needed, but we’re far from that at the moment.
A weak infrastructure of dissent is one of the reasons why people like you who discover anti-capitalist ideas often have trouble figuring out what to do next. As an aside: Things weren’t great when I discovered radical ideas in my teens in Ottawa in the 1980s, but the infrastructure of dissent wasn’t as weak. When I was trying to figure out how to act on my ideas, I met the local branch of a revolutionary socialist group. Eventually, I joined. In hindsight, I can see that the group had many problems, but I was lucky because in the branch I joined I was able to get a good basic political education. I was later able to use some of what I’d learned to criticize the group and begin rethinking my politics. I don’t think any radical group today offers a political education that’s as good as what I had.
The reason I’m bothering to write about what you won’t find is this: it’s important to understand capitalism and the systems of oppression that are interwoven with it, but it’s also really important to try to understand the society we’re actually living in here and now. I respect your intelligence, so I’m not going to paint a brighter picture just to try to keep you politically active.
So what do you do now? For one thing, keep reading and discussing – and encourage others to do the same! There’s so much to learn about the systems we need to fight against, about past struggles and about the situation we’re in today.
As you do that, look around and ask yourself how you can contribute to building a movement of people acting collectively to change society. There aren’t any thriving movements to join today – movements involve thousands of people. There are only small activist groups (some of which want to build movements) and the much larger but bureaucratic union movement. Unions are very important but you can only be active in a union if you have a job in a unionized workplace, and not many young people do.
As a blogger recently put it, “Arguing that movements are the only way forward might be useful, but demonstrating that they can actually achieve gains for ordinary people is much more likely to be convincing. So put a high priority on actively supporting the strike going on in your city, the struggle against the city council decision to pave over a meadow, the anti-poverty and immigration-related direct action casework — whatever it is, use your energy and your resources and your privilege to contribute to victories, because victories create plausibility for movements.”
He went on to encourage people to “Work to create a culture of social justice, a culture of resistance. By that I mean we should model ways of living which assume that working to create movements for social justice is important, useful, and entirely ordinary… resist the urge to do it in insular, disconnected ways.” You told me about the people you met at the vegan café downtown. They seemed to passionately want a better world. But they also thought that anybody who didn’t see the Black Bloc’s window-breaking at last summer’s G-20 protests in Toronto as a great success was a write-off. I think this is an example of what that activist writer was warning against.
I think his advice is a pretty good place to begin. As a socialist, I’ve got some thoughts about movements, what alternative to capitalism is necessary and possible and how it might be achieved, but that’s for another time.
The next article in the series will be Letter to an Anarchist Activist.