Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Is Change Impossible? (Part 1)

About a week ago, I rewarded a productive day of writing with what was intended to be just a few minutes of mindless web surfing. After following a trail of links, I stumbled upon one of the saddest things I have ever read, Loren Bliss’ The Stolen Prerequisites of Liberation: Why Change is Impossible.

I’m not sure why Bliss’ piece affected me so deeply. Perhaps it was because I’d spent the day working on my novel Goodbye Jambalaya which is in large part about the geography of despair. Maybe it’s because I’ve often heard his hopelessness (and bitterness) echoed among several of my older activist friends. Anyway: it hit me hard enough to get saved into the PDF archive.

Bliss begins by thanking a couple of friends for their comments on previous posts and then gets down to explaining why he hasn’t posted anything for nearly a month. “Several people have wondered if I am sick — if my long silence is the result of illness. Indeed it is, but my affliction is neither viral nor bacteriological. It is instead political: the fact our collective powerlessness has become so obvious — and so depressing — there is little I can do beyond the proverbial wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

Oh yeah, I thought, I’ve definitely been there before. Several times: right after the latest Iraq War started, when the public option was taken off the table in the health care debate, when President Obama decided he was going to expand the war in Afghanistan, when BP’s insatiable lust for profits (as well as our insatiable lust for fossil fuels) propelled them to tear a hole in the ocean floor, and for 85 days, 16 hours, and 25 minutes all we could do was watch it bleed.

On most of those issues, I thought I was a good active citizen. I kept myself informed; I voted; I wrote my congressman and senators; I wrote and published zines. In the case of Afghanistan, I even wrote the President — in longhand, since I read somewhere he’d be more likely to actually see my missive that way. “Do something truly audacious,” I implored him. “Stop a war.” But no go. All my efforts — as well as the efforts of several million others — were in vain.

Bliss asserts this state of powerlessness is more than a passing malaise, that indeed real change is impossible and the bad guys (the Ayn Rand capitalists) have won. Part of the reason for this is that the “four basic requirements” for “liberation from tyranny” no longer exist. These four basic requirements are: solidarity, a disciplined population, the ability to master the “extant technologies by which the Ruling Class maintains its power” and support from a major foreign power.

I estimate Loren Bliss to be at least 20 years older than I am (judging by the fact he’s retired and by his terminology, which seems dated. Who capitalizes “Ruling Class” anymore?) so presumably he has less time to try to live in a state of total despair. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to give up; it’s a matter of survival and sanity. So I do not take Bliss’ four prerequisites as gospel and refuse to believe the tools to build a better world have vanished forever. But his post did get me thinking — and in my next posts, I will use his four conditions as a framework to discuss why real change is so slow in coming.


: By this Bliss means ideally ideological solidarity, or “at least the solidarity of a common list of grievances”. If you are going to effect change, you have to have enough people to agree on what needs changing first, and in America, getting to that crucial first step is quite a challenge.

I started attending demonstrations in the early 80’s way after the late 60’s/ early 70’s heyday. The one thing I was struck by was how scattered many of them felt; there was no solidarity of purpose. While we nominally might have been there to support one cause — divesting from South Africa, equal rights for women, etc — it was patently obvious to me (and I think anyone watching) that people were more interested in publicity for their own special interest group. Sometimes verbal altercations broke out between young and old, blacks and whites, anarchists and Democrats, gays and straights. It was depressing and sometimes flat out embarrassing. What does it say about your particular cause when you can’t get people to agree on it for a single afternoon?

I think that’s why I was foolish enough to think the anti-war demonstrations just before the second Iraq war would actually work. Not only were they huge, but, more importantly, they were focused. You really got the feeling of “we the people” because, amazingly, everyone in attendance was on the same page. It was exhilarating!

Part of the reason we have trouble coming together is that American society is incredibly diverse. But we are also intensely individualistic and selfish. I don’t mean to imply we are all personally selfish, as Americans have the ability to be quite generous when we want to be, but we live within a system that rewards selfishness — indeed thrives on it — and that’s bound to color our everyday dealings with one another.

Plus, many of us lack the knowledge and skills to be able to see the big picture. We don’t see what racism has to do with worker’s rights, has to do with women’s rights, has to do with early childhood education, has to do with universal health care, has to do with the environment. We almost never think about the long haul. Hell, often we can’t even remember what we did yesterday, and worse than that, in some cases we simply refuse to. (Hence the Tea Party people who can’t tell the difference between Hitler and Obama) If we lack the ability to think outside the box of our own heads, how can we expect to recognize what we may have in common with our neighbor?

A Disciplined Population
: “Effective political action requires discipline and teamwork”, Bliss states. True enough — although Bliss seems to think Americans lost their best opportunity to learn true teamwork and discipline when we abolished the draft. I’m not sure I agree with him on this point, but I understand what he’s getting at.

Some sort of compulsory national service (though not necessarily military) might teach people that freedom means more than just doing what you want; it costs something; it demands you give your best in return. It also might serve to give all Americans the benefit of a common experience of serving their country and help them become more invested in the common good. For instance: if everyone’s son and daughter had to serve in the military, we’d probably start fewer wars. Certainly, more people would have been more skeptical in the run up to Iraq.

But back to the point of discipline: political action and governance is often tedious. Yes, it requires passion, but it also requires patience. Yes, there are demonstrations, civil disobedience, and grand speeches, but there is also database maintenance, teaching yourself Flash, fact checking, grant writing, copy editing, accurate bookkeeping, talking to people you might not like and the occasional wearing of uncomfortable clothes and shoes so people will take you seriously. It’s not all fun and games and is often a thankless job.

(to be continued...) 

1 comment:

  1. You take on that despair that ever shadows progressivism. Our optimism of will is ever under attack by our pessimism of intellect, when we gaze on the awful truth. That long arc of history bending toward justice bends beyond the visible horizon.

    I applaud your efforts to counter intellectually the pillars of Loren Bliss’s pessimism. For in many ways artists today generally re-enforce his four pillars of disempowerment. For me, all four pillars boil down to the issue of solidarity.

    Solidarity is strengthened when we confront racism, sexism and other ways we reduce human beings to geopolitical or theological categories; but it is weakened when the art of identity is exclusive and individualistic.

    And discipline? Artists are disciplined by that market, foundation, and academic system which pays or punishes the pipers. If artist have solidarity, we can resist the blandishments and threats of empire and demand that progressive arts be supported.

    We can resist because those “extant technologies by which the Ruling Class maintains its power,” at least the new communications technologies, can provide alternative models of dissemination and even pay. It’s time to walk away from the Big Four corporations who control the world’s arts and entertainment.

    As for support from a foreign power: Well, that brings us back to solidarity, international solidarity. Solidarity is in reality a form of moral and intellectual courage. Whether it’s in solidarity with the electoral revolutions in South America or with the right of return for Palestinians, artists need to be brave.

    In sum, artists need to struggle against the spell of obfuscation and fear by which the “ruling class” maintains power. We need to practice forms of art in solidarity with audiences, that lift them from their passivity into co-authorship and action and bend that arc of history ever so slightly more near.

    But I want to see the rest of your contribution to this crucial issue.