Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Creating Social Change

Here's one possible overview of how to create change. You need three things: 1) You need to see very clearly what's going on now, 2) you need an explicit idea of where you want to go, and 3) you need a way of getting from here to there. Radical groups often refer to this as analysis, vision, and strategy.

There are a lot of good analyses around. Feminists can show clearly what patriarchy is and how it works. Black writers like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks detail how white supremacy keeps African-Americans and other people of color second-class citizens. Socialist writers have shown how capitalism and especially corporate capitalism (aka monopoly capitalism) makes a few people rich while workers and poor people suffer. Anarchists from Peter Kropotkin to Emma Goldman to Murray Bookchin point out the oppressiveness of both the state and hierarchal systems. Writers like Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy demonstrate what global imperialism is doing to the world. Peace activists focus how war affects, not only those being warred upon, but the attackers, even if they are the so-called victors. Ecologists and environmentalists of all types provide an analysis of what we are doing to the planet. All of these writers are worth reading, but reading too many analyses of what's wrong gets depressing rather than activating. Analysis needs to be balanced with vision.

There are lots of good visions. Some of the best are in utopian novels--I'll put a list of these novels in a future blog.

My question is, how do we make that change happen? What kind of strategy do we need?

I learned the slogan "Agitate, Educate, Organize" when I was involved with community organizing out in Detroit. Unions and organizers have been using it for a long time. I've never been able to trace the quote to its source. I've seen it attributed to everyone from Susan B Anthony, to the Women's Christian Temperance Union, to the Knights of Labor, to Mother Jones, and to the Fabian Society.

When I've thought about social change and tried to figure out why we haven't gotten that far after all we did in the sixties (not to mention the twenties, thirties, seventies, and eighties--and all the other decades as well), "Agitate, Educate, Organize" came to my mind.

It seems like we've been really good at agitating. Using various kinds of demonstrations, protests, and direct actions, we stopped the Vietnam War, made some progress on civil rights (of all kinds), and stopped the building of nuclear power plants, among other things.

Organizing, however, has been so-so. There was a lot of good organizing done in the twenties and thirties (not to mention the eighteen-nineties). Much of that was coopted or destroyed in the red scares of the fifties. Since the sixties there have been some alternatives built, and some of them have lasted (more on this later). Liberals and progressives have built some organizations that have done quite a bit. But it feels as if there's a lot of strong, long-term organizing that still needs to be done.

However, it's in educating that we really need to work. Our message has been lost to the general public. Yes, there are some messages we've gotten out that have made it. Racism (at least overt racism) is not okay. Women have rights, and there is even some sympathy for gay people. There is more awareness about ecology and the environment, and recycling is common. People worry about global warming. The Iraq war is now widely recognized as a mistake.

But there is a lot of misinformation out there and the system often coopts what changes that do happen into their own ideology. Radicals and progressives are often seen (largely due to the success of our agitation) as against everything. It isn't clear to many people what we are actually in favor of. Although the conservatives claim the mainstream media is biased toward the liberals (and, yes, a lot of it is owned by people identified as liberal) the actual content is middle of the road (at best) to quite conservative. Of course, there are liberal media outlets--NPR for example. But how many people in this society get their information from NPR? Many more people get their information from commercial TV stations (FOX News being the worst) and talk radio. Along with that, fewer and fewer people are reading.* Yes, some people get their information off the internet, but that's a mixed bag, and it still leaves a large percentage dependent on TV and radio and the misinformation that comes from it.

One example of how widespread that misinformation is: A Harris poll in April 2004 found that 49 percent of Americans believed that "clear evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda has been found." Only 36 percent disputed it. Of course this doesn't make a lot of sense if you know that Saddam Hussein's secular government stood for little that the Islamic fundamentalists in Al Qaeda believe in. Or that groups like the September 11th Commission (after thorough investigation) found no evidence of such a collaboration. But Vice President Cheney claimed that evidence of a link was "overwhelming," and stated that Hussein "had long-established ties with al Qaeda." And when the government claims something, and the media reports it as truth, people assume that it's reality. (The claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction is another piece of misinformation, along with the assertion that Iran was building nuclear weapons--both of which have been disproved.) It seems like the government and the media do a better job 'educating' of the public then we do.

But simply making people aware of how bad things are is often counterproductive. In the sixties, when much of the public believed things were wonderful for everyone, learning the reality of things got a lot of folks angry. It got them out protesting and trying to change things. But by the time I was out in Detroit in the eighties, telling young people how bad things were was greeted with 'Yeah, we know that. That's just the way things are. You can't change that.' No one needs more information on how bad things are (they get that in the news every day). People need hope. More than that, they need a hope grounded in a vision of where we could be going and practical steps to get there. They need to see what could be and believe that it's possible.

How do we do that? We need clear strategy. Beyond agitating, we need to be able to educate and organize.

I suggest that we begin with theory and research. Begin by answering the questions: 'What's possible?' and 'How can we do this?'

As we get clearer about where we need to go, we must educate the public. We need to wake people up and get them thinking. Make more and more people aware of possibilities, as well as ways of moving forward. The more that people are aware of what’s going on and get support to think about it, the more they are going to want to see and create alternatives.

At the same time we need to do more organizing. The more alternatives we build, the more models are out there for people to see. We need to publicize these options and models so people know about them. And we need to reach a critical mass where building alternatives becomes the norm.

I'll talk about theory and theories in a future blog.

*[Newspaper readers are declining. Polls done a few years ago found that 54 percent of all Americans read a newspaper during the week and 62 percent read a paper on Sundays. In addition, fewer than half of American adults read anything literary.]

Quote of the day: "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love." - Che Guevara
Word (or phrase) of the day: Code Pink (and also Code Green)
Hero(es) of the day: Danilo Dolci

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