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Big Picture Thinking for the Left in the New Year (Part II)

The second of two parts. The following is a list of ways to cultivate "big picture thinking", subtitled "Three or four ways to direct our thinking to prepare for changing the world" (ok, I lied; it came out to 5)

1) Think big picture: systemic, systematic, strategic, ambitious

Let us say we identify as leftists (or qualify as such, by the definition in Part One, whatever the name by which we prefer to have our philosophy identified). Now, other than those broad definitional terms, are there any other "big picture," strategic principles we can unify around? A friend of mine once said: "You know, if only we all could unify around a one single common goal at a time, we could accomplish so much more. Let's say, one year we all decided that 'This year, we will all dedicate ourselves to some key environmental issues, and all work together to strike one mighty blow.' Then next year, it could be labor rights, etc. But if only we could all combine our efforts on the same things at once, we could accomplish so much more!" Of course, it doesn't work that way in practice: All of us are individuals with different life experiences, different priorities. Which is as it should be. And yet...

We all need to constantly think "big picture","outside the box", all the time. Because anyone who doesn't struggle to break the mold, and develop new thought patterns and approaches, eventually suffers poverty of spirit, and depression. And we need a big picture of reality within which to locate our individual, local efforts. We all probably understand, at some level, that alone we can accomplish little, that only by combining our efforts with those of others can we achieve an appreciable effect in the world, and that it is precisely this combination of efforts, of many ordinary people cooperating in mutual aid for their common good, that the essence of real participatory self-government, of "democracy," lies. But if we are separated by so many diverse concerns and priorities, then how do we achieve such unity? What more specific principles could guide us?

One way to look at it is to ask the question, "what are the key factors that limit the self-organization abilities of people to fight for a better future?" If we identified those key factors, maybe we would then identify points of leverage, on which the success of many movements and efforts might converge and hinge at once.

If you are reading indymedia right now, you probably already realize that "the media" is a good example of such a pivotal point of leverage. By controlling the media, the social elites wield a weapon more powerful than all the armies in the world (afterall, all the armies are nothing without soldiers who can be convinced to fight and die in them). Control people's information, and you control their thoughts. Control their thoughts, and you control their actions. So, for the sake of a society of truly free and self-determining human beings, naturally we support and participate actively in independent media. And that is excellent, as far as it goes.

So, along the lines of strategic, systemic, "big picture" thinking, what other key "points of leverage" might there be?

Once upon a time I thought of myself as a generic "environmentalist" without any appreciable concern about class struggle, because I thought that, while people are divided in many ways, ultimately what really threatens everyone equally is destruction of the environment. Afterall, without an intact planet that can support human and other life, none of us can survive and live to fight for anything else worthwhile. I believe that is still a sound and correct observation.

Eventually, though, I came to think of myself as more of a straightforward leftist, because I came to see that neither environmental survival nor social justice and equality can be attained without addressing economic and social factors that divide people and prevent them from organizing to fight to protect their environment. I came to see the fight to protect the environment as being part of a bigger picture, that was contingent on the ability of people to protect their basic economic and social survival long enough to even organize themselves in order to think about and fight for other vital, universal concerns. Afterall, if we are to protect the environment, we can't rely on the good will of people who may be getting rich from despoiling it. We have to rely on the majority of people of modest means banding together against the despoilers. If the former are too busy barely scraping by to even notice the world going to hell in a handbasket, thing's will remain hopeless.

So if we acknowledge that people need to have the opportunity and wherewithal to organize politically, whatever the issue, we can understand basic economics as a key leverage point. But it is certainly not necessarily the precise level of material comfort and wellbeing that is the important factor (although, beneath a certain level of utter desperation, it can become near to impossible for people to effectively organize themselves -- think of refugees or villagers starving of famine, as obvious examples: think "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs"). But, once people enjoy at least slightly more than the bare minimum required for physical survival, then psychological and social factors become crucial. Then, we can observe that people will have the capacity and tendency to organize themselves for the sake of mutual aid and personal and social progress, to a greater or lesser degree depending on their relative economic independence: People who are totally dependent on bosses for their livelihood, bosses whom they must not upset by any nonconformism, will be, all other things being equal, quite unlikely to get uppity anywhere at anytime, whether on the job or off. Whereas people who enjoy a certain degree of economic autonomy will also have more wherewithal to pursue a greater degree of political and social nonconformity with the demands of social elites, as well.

Consider two very different examples, both of which do share some things in common:

  • In Bolivia, the indigenous people have risen up multiple times in the last 4 years to overthrow multiple, US-supported neoliberal governments. They have turned back numerous attempts by foreign corporations and political operators to privative and sell off their natural resources. They have occupied government buildings, blockaded roads, called general strikes, and shut down all commerce in the capital until they could force the government to bend to their will. They have done so in the face of terrible massacres and frightening odds. And today, the first indigenous, non-European president in their history has been elected, much to the displeasure of Washington
  • In Europe, in France and Germany, on numerous occasions in the last decade, including very recently, tens of thousands of people have participated in blockades, shutting down the railroad lines where the governments have been attempting to ship highlevel nuclear waste, sitting down on the tracks, parking 18 wheel tractor trailers on the tracks, and even blowing up railroad trestles, to stop or slow down the shipments.

How, one might ask, do masses of people in other countries "get such balls" to pull off such feats of courageous and heroic organization against powerful establishment forces? And, one might ask, "how come we're such wimps here? Why are THEY over THERE so much better at this stuff?"

I believe a key factor is: "economic autonomy." Although such places as Bolivia and Europe are as diverse and different as can be, they share this trait: You can bet that people in such places who participate in such actions are not thinking, "Gee, I better not get arrested or I might not get to work on time on Monday. And if I don't get to work on time on Monday, I will lose my job. And if I lose my job, how will I pay for my daughter's tonsilectomy without medical insurance?" No.

In the case of Bolivia, indigenous people form the vast majority of the population, and they have managed to retain much of their traditions and social cohesion even with the onset of urbanization and industrialization. Even to this day, the indigenous communities who compose most of the population of El Alto, the large urban area surrounding the capital of La Paz, are largely self-employing. People may be quite poor, but they are economically independent, and they know that their survival depends crucially on mutual aid. So how do poor people manage to blockade a major city like the capital, La Paz, and still find time to work and feed their families?? Answer: they do it in shifts!! One neighborhood carries on the blockade of one road from 11am-1pm, another comes to relieve them, from 1-3, etc. And your boss is not going to fire you for participating! Because he also lives in the same community and has the same commitments as you (although he might get pretty pissed off if you DIDN'T participate).

In Europe, people don't have such deeply rooted, relatively homogeneous, indigenous community traditions, the way people in Bolivia do. They have pretty diverse, urbanized, industrialized, cosmopolitan societies, similar to ours. But what they do have are pretty good social welfare states. They have pretty good national health insurance, unemployment benefits, public transit systems, widely available, affordable, publicly subsidized housing, etc etc. The effect of such things is to greatly loosen the death grip of economic necessity on people's daily lives. Being unemployed there is not such a great thing, but nowhere near as harrowing an experience as it is here in this country. "Economic autonomy," in effect -- although in a very different form than people enjoy in Bolivia.

So, although we are not all going to drop all our individual priorities and issues instantaneously to embrace a single common, specific, immediate political goal, nonetheless, we can recognize this factor, economic autonomy, as a key leverage point that we should be thinking about, and factor it into our calculations, with the understanding that with it, all our separate goals and struggles could be crucially advanced at once. Whereas, without it, all will probably suffer.

Undoubtedly there are other, interconnected leverage points along the same lines that others can probably think of.

2) Nothing succeeds like success (and nothing fails like failure) (aka, "When it rains, it pours"), therefore: Cultivate tangible victories!

Don't play "rope-a-dope." It largely doesn't work. Social movements require tangible victories to build on, or they wither on the vine. And don't let "the better" become the enemy of "the good." This doesn't mean settling for too little, but it does mean recognizing a victory as such, when it serves to improve the lot of ordinary people, especially when it serves to embolden and encourage them to fight for more in the future, or frees up their energies to do so, or both. Which leads to a corollary:

3) Demand the impossible! But recognize and acknowledge that "the impossible will take a little longer." Therefore: be a practical utopian!

What is "practical utopianism"? It's the recognition that only a really dramatic redemptive vision can inspire people enough to takes risks, and save us from the terrible fate that seems likely to be the inevitable consequence of continuing indefinitely on our current course. Why else do people get so excited by evangelical religions? And what could make people in a country like ours care as much about politics as they do about religion? Only such a dramatic, redemptive vision of the future. Precisely what religion offers and politics lacks in such a country as ours.

But, to be useful, we can't stop there. We have to "demand the impossible," but by doing so, insist that the impossible must become possible. Otherwise we really are no different from religion. And the baleful effects of religion on politics today should be evident enough to warn us against that. So unlike the Christian fundamentalists, we must not be content to wait for Christ to come back down to Earth to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven before the meek can inherit it and get their due. No. We must insist on practical steps, here and now, that will themselves usher in the Kingdom. For God helps those who help themselves.

As an example, I've heard many leftleaning, radically inclined types of people muse on how wonderful it would be to have a "gift economy," how money corrupts and spoils so many social relationships. Quite so. And yet, I don't often hear the same people get very excited about the idea of mere "reforms" such as national health insurance, or better unemployment benefits. Such things must not seem very romantic or even very related to their lofty visions.

This might be "utopianism" of a sort, but it's not "practical utopianism." It's more like daydreaming, without any realistic or plausible hope of actually becoming reality. More depressing than exhilarating, to be honest.

Instead, a practical utopian would identify the common pattern: dependence on money exerts a tyranny over people's lives. A "gift economy" is a vision of the sudden and total elimination of such tyranny. But any measure to improve social benefits is an opportunity to lessen such tyranny. And that counts for a lot. So a practical utopian would be very excited by the opportunity to win tangible gains in such areas, and see them as steps in the direction of full utopia.

4) Look for unlikely allies

Now, if you are a practical utopian, because you demand the impossible, but acknowledge that "it will take a little longer," and therefore aren't upset by the need to pass through way stations on the way to your destination, rather than proceeding via instant teleportation, then the next point makes sense and becomes easier to swallow: Since we are temporarily weak, we have to combine our forces with others, who don't necessarily think exactly like us -- maybe they are less ambitious, less utopian, less egalitarian, etc. But perhaps we can work with, or alongside them, in a principled way, to make real, tangible progress to advance our objectives.

Alexander Cockburn gives a great example: consider the Libertarians and even many paleo-conservatives, who are very much opposed to war in Iraq and the expansion of US imperialism. There are even people like Pat Buchanan, whom we might find profoundly distasteful in other ways, but whom we can agree with on this issue. And we shouldn't necessarily be embarrassed to find ourselves with "strange bedfellows," or alarmed if we find ourselves attending a conference or a rally where someone like him -- whom we disagree with on much else -- happens to give a speech.

5) Cultivate sensible optimism

This is a pretty obvious corollary of everything else so far. "Sensible optimism" doesn't mean seeing everything through rose-tinted glasses and missing the real problems where much more work is still needed. It just means, "don't go relentlessly looking for the dark side." Cockburn gave the example in his talk of a radio interviewer who asked his opinion about the defeat of all the horrendous rightwing ballot propositions endorsed by Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger. In his response Cockburn expressed complete satisfaction about this. But his interviewer responded with a tone of seeming shock at what he implied was Cockburn's breathtaking naivete. "But hasn't it occurred to you that this is really a terrible loss?!" "A loss??! How so??" "Because," the interviewer replied, "don't you think that Arnie and fellow Republicans only did this to force the unions to spend all their money fending off these terrible propositions? It was just a diversionary tactic to deplete the resources of progressives! But now they will come out with their real strategy, and we will be spent, powerless to stop it!" Talk about snatching a vision of defeat from the jaws of victory!
Good article GB 27.Dec.2005 10:57

Man on the street

I like this series of artilces. I think we are coming upon a time were we will build momentum. Articles communicating how to organize have b a lot of value right now. I like the positive spin. Sitting on a pitty pot seldom motivates people.

. 27.Dec.2005 11:44


It is both victory and defeat. The neocon agenda is attacking on many fronts. In some cases those attacks are fended off. in other cases not. Overall they are on the offensive, and gaining ground. Here in this country we are losing. It may turn around, but right now we are losing.