A future to work towards?

Even if I believe it’s important, I find visioning a future to work towards really difficult. It’s probably because for anyone engaged in wanting the world to change in the direction of social and environmental justice, things look pretty grim on a bigger picture scale. The climate and ecological crisis looms and increasingly takes hold, the far right gains momentum, inequalities widen, and we on the left seem to lose and lose and lose, even if we make the odd small gain. It therefore seems better not to think about the bigger picture too much. Rather than getting bogged down in the enormity of it all, activists typically pick a cause (or several) to delve into and keep chipping away at. Fighting to stop or change a particular injustice feels much more straightforward and practical, even though it can start to feel like constant firefighting. And added to this, getting lost in utopian dreams, especially when a deeply just, equal and sustainable way of living seems so completely unrealistic, doesn’t seem like the best use of time.

In any case, it’s quite widely recognised that on the Left, in terms of fighting for a world we want to achieve, we find things that we say ‘no’ to more easily than having a shared vision that we say ‘yes’ to. We can find common ground in fighting fracking, a nuclear power station, the arms trade, poverty or racism. But if we start to look at how we want the world to look and how we want to get there, our different ideologies can lead us to have very different versions of what we want to head towards. Do we want a state which serves people rather than capital, or do we want to do away with the state altogether? Do we want environmental protections to be put in place so that civilisation becomes more sustainable, or do we see civilisation as inherently unsustainable, with a need for an entirely different way of life? And even if we could find agreement on what we’re working towards, how do we get there? Smash capitalism and the state and take over the means of production? Or chip away with incremental reforms?

The fact that the world is in such a mess, coupled with the tendency to put on the blinkers and work on a particular cause so as not to have to think about the big picture, as well as the problem of what we want and how we get there, means that I’ve found it incredibly difficult to vision a future bigger picture that I want to be part of fighting for. But I recently came across this passage in a book called ‘Revolutionary Witchcraft’ by Sarah Lyons, which has brought me to realise that my visions are there beneath the surface once the fear and confusion has been swept away. She writes…

“There are forces in this world that seek to dominate us against our will. These forces wish to control how we dress, how we look, if we live or die, who we love, how we love them, and if we are allowed to feel love at all. Living in the ‘Disenchanted World’ can make magic seem impossible and our sphere of influence small…You may be physically and financially restricted in a thousand different ways, but one thing I hope you never let get shrunk down or confined is your imagination. Our ability to dream a different world is the foundation of magic, and quite frankly, it’s the only hope we have. Looking at the news, it can sometimes feel like someone has captured the dreams in our world…we’ve got big problems, but our imaginations seem just a bit too small to solve them. A carbon tax to fight the death of the world? A clever sign at a protest to keep people from dying? Small steps can be necessary to reach our goals, but sometimes we are sold small steps to keep us from imagining bigger ones. Besides, even if our steps must sometimes be incremental, why can’t our dreams be big?” (Revolutionary witchcraft, p59).

Sarah then goes on to ask the reader to identify a goal, by:

1.   Listing long term goals (“This fight can’t just be about one thing, or you’ll end up fighting little battles all over the place and losing a lot of them. So think bigger!…What is your absolute biggest, most ridiculous dream for the world? What does your utopia look like? Sit down and think about this, and let yourself dream big”)

2.   Listing intermediate goals (“…now that you have where you ideally want to end up, how do you get there?”)

3.   Getting a sense of what victory looks like (“In magic, you are going to get better results if you have a pretty clear picture of what you want. So, what, exactly, do you want? What is victory going to look like…? Dream about the feeling of victory, so you remember it when you get there”) (Revolutionary witchcraft, p83)

Going through these steps was an interesting and enjoyable process, and I’d encourage anyone reading to do the same. Maybe go through them before you read on in this article, so you get to come up with your own thinking without it being influenced by mine!

Here’s what this process brought me to come up with:

In terms of 1. Listing long term goals, the vision that came to me as a long term goal was:

‘A big, interconnected, diverse, resilient social movement, capable of challenging power and untruth, of transforming conflict, of being rooted in communities of mutual aid, support and solidarity, and of deciding democratically the path forward in a way that aligns actions with collective values’

When I reflected on this vision, I found it interesting that my vision was not a utopian endpoint, such as a federation of anarchist communities, or a post-civilisation permaculture way of life, or a deeply democratic form of socialism. On picking this apart, I found that my particular vision had emerged for three reasons. Firstly, even when dreaming big, I couldn’t dream beyond the confines of what I know about history and about power relations. I couldn’t think into a culture that could ever have transcended fighting off a dominant power completely. But what I was able to vision was a force that was powerful enough to meaningfully challenge domination.

Secondly, I realised that I’d visioned something where the means and the end are the same thing, in that any movement with these attributes would, according to my vision, be able to put into practice their own version of utopia, even in the face of ongoing crisis.

This brought me to recall some thinking of Marx, from the book ‘Clear Bright Future,’ by Paul Mason:

“History [is]…the unfolding of the biological potential within human beings to change the world around them. Human nature changes as we change the world around. We can change human nature by changing society…we can only know the world through trying to change it, to understand that the process of knowing is an act of pushing against resistance” (Clear Bright Future p140-3 & 188)

Thirdly, it struck me that I didn’t actually want to have an individual vision of a future endpoint goal – because it feels to me that this is something that I want to work out with people collectively over time as to what may be the best form of organisation for ourselves and the world we inhabit – especially in the context of my vision for this incredible movement. What’s the point of having individualised visions of utopia to work towards if it means that our different visions will be taking us all in different directions again?

In terms of 2. Listing intermediate goals, my head started to hurt with the number of things that needed to happen to get to the longer term goal. Taking all these things together though, the phrase that springs to mind is, ‘cultural healing and empowerment.’ Over time, communities help each other gain access to the education and training that they need – to understand power, to learn from history, to learn to organize, to learn ‘body informed leadership,’ to transform conflict, to create transformational systems of justice, to take back power, to redistribute wealth, to make reparations, to learn collective decision making processes. In many ways, this is already happening in all sorts of small corners, even if it isn’t connected up as part of a shared vision and project. Having this vision also helps me to realise that it’s within my power to take responsibility for certain aspects of the intermediate goals, and that I need to be clear about what I’m taking on.

Thinking about intermediate goals also brought me to think about how we imagine change is going to happen in terms of how capitalism might conceivably come to an end, because this thinking would give a further framework for what I believe we need to work towards. In this way I drew quite a blank. There are plenty of us who have a vague idea of a Revolution, where we rise up and smash capitalism and supplant it with new structures. When we look to history though, this kind of revolution seems to lead to all sorts of problems of power. But if we don’t get to have the big Revolution, won’t we just be making tiny incremental reforms to make the current system put its liberal values into action while the vagaries of capitalism remain unchallenged overall?

I looked to the writing of Erik Olin Wright to develop my imagination in this way, in his book, ‘How to be an anticapitalist in the 21st century.’ His belief is that in light of the fact that it doesn’t seem possible to ‘smash’ capitalism, we need to ‘erode’ it. When reading about eroding capitalism, I found it to be a multifaceted concept, the following excerpt serving as an introduction:

“The strategy of erosion is grounded in a particular understanding of the concept of economic systems. Consider capitalism. No economy has ever been – or ever could be – purely capitalist. Capitalism is defined by the combination of market exchange with private ownership of the means of production and the employment of wage earners recruited through the labour market. Existing economic systems combine capitalism with a host of other ways of organizing the production and distribution of goods and services: directly by states; within the intimate relations of families to meet the needs of their members; through community-based networks and organizations in what is often called the social and solidarity economy; by cooperatives owned and governed democratically by their members; through non-profit market-oriented organizations; through peer-to-peer networks engaged in collaborative production processes; and many other possibilities. Some of these ways of organizing economic activities can be thought of as hybrids, combining capitalist and noncapitalist elements; some are entirely noncapitalist; and some are anticapitalist. To [use] a game metaphor, in real economic systems a variety of different games are being played simultaneously, each with their own rules and moves. We call such a complex economic system ‘capitalist’ when it is the case that capitalism is dominant in determining the economic conditions of life and access to a livelihood for most people. That dominance is immensely destructive. One way to challenge capitalism is to build more democratic, egalitarian, participatory…relations where possible in the spaces and cracks within this complex system. The idea of eroding capitalism imagines that these alternatives have the potential, in the long run, to become sufficiently prominent in the lives of individuals and communities that capitalism could eventually be displaced from its dominant role in the system” (How to be an anticapitalist in the 21st century, p59–60).

So my current vision of intermediate goals is able to take in both the ways that we can develop outside of state structures, as well as ways that we can challenge and transcend the state and capital on an incremental basis to form alternatives forms of relationships, organizations and institutions. If I was to break this down further, I’d start to think about strategy and tactics, how to organize in communities, how to build networks and coalitions, how to overcome alienation and atomization, how to challenge the toxic mainstream media, and then start developing some more concrete goals to work towards or ‘next achievable steps.’

In terms of 3. Getting a sense of what victory looks like, a collection of qualities came up for me that I believe I would experience if I had the sense that things were going well, such as ongoing joy, self-belief, sense of connection, sense of purpose, enjoyment of sharing and camaraderie, feelings of empowerment and energy. I compare this to my current state of frequent confusion, isolation and malaise, and think, surely if I get to feel those things, visions are something to work towards – and in the possibility of living a life where those are my usual feelings, I start to gain a real bodily sense of why visioning is so important. I’m looking forward to starting to grow the visions of myself and others together.

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