Lessons from the School of Radical Change: Notes of a Slow Learner
Photo: At middle to lower left, Mama D, me, and Merc from the Soul Patrol, with the Family Farm Defenders from Madison, Wisconsin. In the 7th Ward, September 2005.
This is a somewhat expanded version of a text written for a PM Press authors session on "Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change" at the Left Forum on June 3, 2017. In this text I try to summarize briefly, if inadequately, some of the lessons I’ve learned about radical change over the past fifty years. I dedicate it to someone who taught me some of the most important of these lessons, Mama D, the great 7th Ward community leader in New Orleans, who died shortly before this was written, on May 20, 2017.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I participated in something that was rather vaguely called “the Movement,” and which was for me above all a comprehensive movement for grassroots democratic and cooperative projects. During that time, I gradually learned certain lessons about the possibilities and limits of grassroots organization from participation in child care co-ops, food co-ops, alternative schools, the free university, the worker coop movement, the Industrial Workers of the World, the anti-nuclear and anti-war movements, various ecological, feminist, and post-Situationist anarchist groups, and an anarchist affinity group, in addition to many other experiences. Out of this milieu came a vision of a new society based on values such as mutual aid and solidarity, equality, dignity and freedom, peace, love and care. In the new world that was envisioned, not only production and consumption, but personal relationships and family life, education and child care, care of the body and soul, arts, music and recreation, and all other spheres of existence would be transformed in accord with these values.
Though the movement of the period did not ultimately fulfill the vision many of us had of the imminent fundamental transformation of society, it made many breakthroughs and revealed much about the processes of radical change. I learned that there exists at certain points in history a possibility for creating a vast movement in which large numbers of people quickly become open to change. I learned that there can be a proliferation of small-scale transformative communities and projects that become the basis for a large-scale movement for social transformation. I learned about the power of the radical social imaginary and the power of a transformative ethos or way of living everyday life.
In 1974, I visited the Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where I found, in one specific locality at one particular moment, a convergence of initiatives in community technology, local self-reliance, neighborhood self-government, community coops, and communal living, in the context of an emerging liberatory culture with its own forms of art, music, and communication. From seeing various degrees of such a convergence, there and in many other places, I learned that that we can collectively create a new culture and new forms of organization based on freedom and solidarity.
I also learned difficult lessons from seeing, by the mid to late 1970’s, the disappearance or cooptation of most of the constructive social projects that I had found so inspiring. I learned, on the one hand, that there are powerful and usually underestimated or ignored obstacles to the creation of a free, just society, but that, on the other hand, these obstacles are not material or technical ones. I learned that to sustain the kind of breakthroughs that we achieved we would have to address more seriously and, in effect, much more radically, issues concerning the self and character-structure, human relationships and interactions, forms of social organization, the nature of ideology and social control, and (as I learned particularly from the Situationists) the battle for the imagination.
By the 1980’s I had become heavily involved in a theoretical and political tendency called social ecology. I learned more about the history of and possibilities for decentralized direct democracy and community control of all major aspects of social life. I learned that we need to have a vision of social transformation that recognizes the problem of the transition. I developed a deeper understanding in the rather obvious truth that we cannot merely do good, and hope for the best, but rather we must consider, carefully and realistically, what kind of organizational forms could create the new society and replace the old one. I also learned about the pitfalls of political sectarianism and the need for openness to many sources of truth and enlightenment, and, above all, openness to the experience of communities of people struggling for liberation.
At this time, I also became active in Central America solidarity movements. From these movements, I learned about the intimate connection between the domination around me and the more intensified and brutal forms of domination elsewhere in the world. I learned that the struggle for liberation and solidarity must be at once local, regional, and global. This process of learning continued during the 1990’s, as my political ideas were transformed deeply by day-to-day involvement in support for West Papua and East Timor, and especially by engagement in the struggle against the global mining industry in West Papua. I learned from East Timor that we should never forget the genocides that are going on at this very moment, and that it is very easy for the vast majority of us to do so. I learned from the Papuans about how extractive industry can transform places with the greatest concentrations of natural wealth into sites of sickness, death, oppression, poverty and devastation. I learned, especially from the Papuans, that there are many fundamental forgotten truths to re-learn from indigenous and traditional communities. I learned that we have to break with Eurocentric models of political organization and revolution that had been integral to my own political formation.
I also became increasingly involved at this time with the Green Movement. I worked on grassroots issues such local control and municipalization of utilities, decentralization of political power, community garden projects, and, above all, the fight against ecocidal and genocidal transnational corporations and their powerful influence over local political systems and communities across the globe. I learned that our local struggles in the semi-periphery are in a great many ways one with the struggles at the center and in the periphery.
A crucial turning point at this time was the decision to take the opportunity to begin buying land on Bayou La Terre in the forest of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. I had begun to study bioregionalism and to think about the process of reinhabitation, or learning to create a culture and way of life rooted in a sense of place and a knowledge of the land and the life forms that are part of it. This was the beginning of over a quarter-century at La Terre, in which I slowly learned about the power and beauty of the way of nature, and about what Gary Snyder calls the goodness, wildness, and sacredness of the land. This place, whose name means both “the Earth,” and “the Land” was to become one of my greatest educators.
At this time, I also became very active in the movement against the several strong political campaigns of former neo-Nazi and Klansman politician David Duke, and, more fundamentally, against the resurgence of neo-fascism. I learned about the depth and the insidious nature of long-neglected and long-denied authoritarian and racist tendencies within contemporary society. I also undertook extensive study of and writing about the resurgent religious fundamentalism and the growing power and influence of televangelists and their media empires. I learned that, in addition to becoming adept at the use of mass media, the religious right was doing in practice the kind of grassroots organization that the left, with a few notable exceptions, has mainly talked about since the Civil Rights, Black Power, student, anti-war, and community control movements of the 1960’s and early 1970’s.
In the early 2000’s I began spending time in India and working with Tibetan refugees fleeing their recent tragic history of conquest, genocide, and ongoing oppression and colonization. I learned additional lessons about the power of community and of traditions of dedicated practice of compassion and non-egocentrism. I also began studying Buddhist philosophy and its “Three Jewels” more seriously, and discovered its relationship to radical critique and revolutionary social transformation. I learned, first, about the importance of the fully awakened mind, and what some Boddhisattva once called “the ruthless critique of all things existing.” I learned, secondly, about the importance of complete dedication to following the truth along whatever path it takes, and of being completely open to the lessons of experience of the world and nature. I learned, third, about the importance of the sangha, or small awakened community of love, compassion, and care. I learned that the great anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus also discovered the importance of these “small loving associations” to the process of social transformation.
I learned many lessons from direct participation in, or contact with, communities of this kind. For a number of years, I attended Quaker Meeting and learned much about consensus decision-making, respect for the person and the individual conscience, dedication to peace and justice, and the value of having a long tradition of communal practice to draw upon. I learned from friends who worked in or were inspired by the Catholic Worker Movement about the great power of a small community living a life together based on the everyday practice of peacemaking, pursuing justice, and expressing love, especially for those greatest need. I also learned from participation in Zen meditation groups and sanghas about the deeper meaning of awakened mind, and the challenges of overcoming egocentrism and the obsessions and distractions of a world of obsessive consumption and accumulation. I learned that a good criterion for assessing the value of a group is whether, when one is with its members, one immediately becomes a better and more joyful person.
Perhaps the most decisive turning point in the transformation of my perspective on radical change occurred in 2005, when I experienced the trauma of Hurricane Katrina, the devastation of much of New Orleans in the flooding, and the corporate capitalist and structurally racist re-engineering of the city in the post-Katrina period. I learned the most important lessons from participation in Post-Katrina grassroots recovery communities. I learned to appreciate more deeply the meaning of crisis and collapse. I learned about the role of trauma in personal and group transformation. I learned that another good criterion for assessing groups is the extent to which at crucial moments they put aside everything that is merely habitual and inessential and respond whole-heartedly to the greatest and most vital needs.
I was affected powerfully by working with a small recovery community in the upper 9th Ward of New Orleans. I learned that living and working together full-time with a small community devoted to serving the most real and urgent needs of the community is the most fulfilling life possible. I later learned from working closely with the legendary community leader Mama D and the 7th Ward Soul Patrol, of the miraculous powers of a grassroots, matricentric, Rastafarian-influenced neighborhood group that followed only one principle, “Neighbors Helping Neighbors.” Contact with many volunteers from the anarchist-inspired Common Ground Relief, some of whom stayed with me in my home, taught me about the vast underappreciated reservoir of compassion that exists in our world, and how engagement in grassroots recovery can bring out the cooperative and communitarian impulses in people. I learned from Common Ground about the enormous good that comes from practicing “Solidarity not Charity” and about the invaluable human quality that my friend scott crow calls “Emergency Heart.”
I learned above all about the awe-inspiring power of small communities of care. I learned that such communities can help people appreciate more deeply what is of greatest intrinsic value, of what we must, in effect, recognize as being sacred and beyond all price. At the same time, the experience of disaster, mourning, and regeneration gave me an increasing sense of urgency about the need to change the entire present tragic course of world history. I learned to have a much deeper awareness of and concern about the degree of suffering and loss that is now taking place, and the vastly greater level that is to come, should we continue the suicidal and ecocidal course of capitalist, statist, patriarchal civilization. As the 2010’s began, all these lessons and feelings were intensified through the additional trauma of the BP oil spill, with its horrifying spectacle of devastation, despoliation, and ecocide.
Over much of the past dozen years, I learned much (as much as from anything else in my life) from the unanticipated experience of again taking on the challenging vocation of single parenting, and dealing on a day-to-day basis with addiction, alcoholism, mental and spiritual sickness, and suffering within the family and among many others close to family members. I have learned crucial lessons about the need to reassess priorities as the result of seeing so many young people lost to a society of nihilism, and the craving for and obsessive consumption of objects and substances, ideas and fantasies. I have learned equally important lessons from seeing others, including those close to me, saved by the power of the compassionate community. All these experiences and lessons led me to begin studying non-hierarchical, non-medicalized therapeutic communities.
I was invited to visit one of the largest and most studied therapeutic communities in the UK, and had the opportunity to spend time with people engaged in extraordinary processes of mutual aid and self-transformation based on unconditional love and complete acceptance of each unique person. I learned much from seeing the processes of healing and regeneration at work, there and elsewhere. I learned that miracles are possible through good practice, through care, and through openness to possibilities. I learned that—given the ways that the system of domination generates the voracious, insatiable, self-destructive ego—the communities of liberation and solidarity that will be capable of transforming and liberating the world must also be therapeutic, that is, healing communities.
As a result of all these slow processes of learning, I decided a few years ago that it was necessary to leave the university where I taught for decades, and to start working more directly, full-time, for the process of social and ecological regeneration. I started a project called La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology, situated on what has now grown to 87 acres at Bayou La Terre, in addition to having programs in New Orleans, to help pursue this work. I have learned from the early stages of the project that it is urgently necessary to find a small community of similarly motivated people who can work together, in order to make this undertaking a success.
I have become preoccupied with the question of how, given the actual conditions in the world, we can break with, and then overcome, the capitalist, statist, patriarchal system of domination, and prevent global collapse, while at the same time creating a free, just, and caring society. I have learned that it is necessary to focus carefully on the question: “What is the decisive step?” or perhaps more accurately, “What is the decisive process?” A few years ago, in a book called The Impossible Community, a work that was very much a product of the Post-Katrina experience, I argued for the need to address at once all the primary spheres of social determination. These include the social institutional structure, the social ideology, the social imaginary, and the social ethos. I concluded that to achieve this goal the most urgent necessity is the creation of small communities of liberation and solidarity, of awakening and care.
I have learned from many years of study of social movements that such communities of this kind can find inspiration in a rich history of micro-communities, including (to mention just a few examples) anarchist affinity groups, Latin-American base communities rooted in Liberation Theology, and the “ashrams” of the Sarvodaya Movement in India, which were really like prefigurative and transformative ecovillages that were to be created in every village and neighborhood of India. Further inspiration now comes from what is being created at this very moment by the Zapatistas in Chiapas and by the Democratic Autonomy Movement in Rojava.
I learned that the values and practices of indigenous people in Chiapas offer much richer and more radical concepts of mutual aid and solidarity, and much deeper images of communal personhood, than even the most radical political theory that the dominant society has to offer us. I learned that the revolutionary movement in Rojava has not only challenged the centralized state, capitalism, and authoritarian religion, but has gone further than any other popular social movement in working to destroy patriarchy and the dominating, appropriating, hyper-masculinist ego built on it.
I am continually led back to certain core questions that are implied by everything I have learned and experienced. What would a movement be like that included each person in transformative and prefigurative affinity groups and base communities—that is, in primary communities of liberation and solidarity, awakening and care? Could such a socially regenerative movement increasingly move on to create participatory democratic block, street, neighborhood, town and city assemblies, councils, and committees? Could such a movement ultimately replace the capitalist, statist, patriarchal system of domination? Could it create a free, just and compassionate human community, living in dynamic harmony with the whole of life on Earth? These questions have only one answer. It is our lives.