Thoughts on Revolution: Art, Hypocrisy, and Violence in Perspective

A friend gave the pamphlet The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand to a friend of his, passing along his reactions to me. This essay is an attempt to answer some of his concerns, which I am not publishing here. However, I think it stands reasonably well on its own as a meditation on genuine change and its propensity for resulting in some kind of suffering. The friend began by asking,

With whom, economically and culturally, should or does the contemporary poet or artist identify?

I appreciate the question. My personal opinion is that I see no difference between the answer to this question and the answer to the question, "With whom should anybody identify?" You either see an unjust system as acceptable or not. How honest you are with yourself about the actual decision you're making is the real matter, and I don't think anybody scores perfectly in that area.

The range of self-honesty among artists is probably on par with the general population. Some honestly find an elite-organized society appealing (it's a cliche to mention nowadays, but let's remember Hitler's artistic inclinations). I'd agree that artists tend to have more empathy than your average person, but not that all do without exception. And business, prejudice, religion, and other forces invade art to varying degrees of distortion like every other aspect of life.

Any genuine resistance should begin, and in fact is beginning, to engage more directly with the conservative political economic vision of the status quo. As long as these ruling class systems are accepted as the default starting point by which others are compared, any truly revolutionary cultural impact artists can make is hedged against, as a rule. But the burden of moving the center of discourse is by no means borne solely by artists - everybody has talents that they can and should put to better use in order to convince one's fellow man that more is possible in our world. Artists and poets can inspire the imagination, but it takes a lot of people doing the imagining to realize material change.

Realizing it, frankly, means slowly building and growing counter-institutions and organic, human-scale communities that can give people an identify and context independent of the status quo. Kevin Carson is a big fan of the old Wobbly slogan about "building the new society within the shell of the old". To see rejection of the status quo as primarily a question of violence is mistaken. In order for such a rebellion to even be possible, much creative, positive work will have had to take place.

It's kind of like what John Adams said during the debate over independence with Britain: the question isn't whether to separate, but whether or not to formally acknowledge the separation between Britain and America that has already occurred. Similarly, the question isn't whether the revolution will be violent, but to what degree the establishment will suppress the rejection of the regime that will have already occurred. Any armed struggle is far less important and completely at the mercy of the creative forms of insurrection, such as building counter-institutions like mutual aid societies, militias and community patrols, local businesses using their own transactional forms and instruments that fly under the state's radar, building local economic networks for distribution (say, in emergencies to start), etc.

If one focuses on the violence brought about by change, it is far too easy to be discouraged. It may feel hypocritical to advocate for change when so much suffering is possible and when one benefits from the current state of affairs. But supporting the status quo as an effort to minimize violence is far more hypocritical, ignoring the ocean of violence exercised on behalf of this system every single day, at home and abroad. As white, middle class American men we have the privilege of occupying a societal position where this violence is not apparent. But it's still real.

So if a moral cost to action is weighed, the cost of complacency and inaction must also be considered in comparison. Calling what we enjoy now "peace" is just as empty as calling revolution "justice". In our hearts, we know neither is a pure good or pure evil, and dangers lurk on all sides. Faced with such daunting moral calculus, what is the concerned individual to do?

A more responsible approach would be to simply look at the world honestly and decide the manner in which one wants to contribute to it. We live within a system that is positively saturated in violence; escaping it is not an option, but acknowledging it is. The issue to my mind is not whether we will achieve a personally consistent and non-hypocritical approach to our condition (as Derrick Jensen once said, the genius of our system is that it's impossible to live in it and not be a hypocrite) but whether we will act according to our values or resign ourselves to spectating. Moral certainty has never been a pre-requisite of moral actions, and we are dishonest to believe so.

The honest path is, I feel, to acknowledge the complexity of our situation instead of pushing it down and ignoring it because it's uncomfortable. I think you can live a normal life and still work for human freedom and dignity. Contributing money and time to social or political causes, or building mutual aid institutions to solve your own problems, or engaging in conversations to open others' minds - all of these things are individual acts of transforming self and, by extension, the society in which the self moves and has being. We need changed minds, not changed politics or economics; too often the cart is put before the horse.

What I think is important to understand about the anarchist perspective is that individual transformation, not some grand, outward historical event or abstract ideological mass realization, is the essence of revolution. These small, individual creative and social acts scale up spontaneously to the large, outward events that historians study, to be sure. But it's a mistake to see the events as causing the change. The real change already occurred in the hearts and mind of the people. The events are at best lagging indicators; the personal transformation of individuals and the emergent social paradigm shifts are the material change we seek.

Revolution is a correction to the political order similar to a stock crash: the tumult comes from the delayed realization of the inherent imbalance that existed all along. If a social correction becomes violent, who is more to blame: those who prize their own hegemony over addressing injustice and suffering, or those willing to risk their lives to address it? Blaming violence on those who want change is an attempt to take the spotlight off those who fuel the system that caused the instability in the first place. Ultimately, those with the money and power will determine how violent the correction becomes, just as they decide right now how violent their "peaceful" rule is.

To put it another way: the reason I'm an anarchist and advocate for change is not because I think I know how the world should be organized. The goal is to change minds about what is possible, so that human potential can be explored more fully and people can live in a world that makes sense to them, that they have a stake and say in. The improvement over our current condition will come from all of us working messily and disjointedly towards it, not from one easily-identified leader or one tidy systemic model or one clever ideology. As Karl Hess once said, "Liberty means the right to shape your own institutions. It opposes the right of those institutions to shape you simply because of accreted power or gerontological status."

Written on Sunday, August 01, 2010 | Tags: left-libertarian, politics, resistance, revolution, spirituality, counter-institutions, mutualism