Moving from Self-Centeredness to Collective Grounding
This is the seventh article of a 7-part series that will focus on the issues in our radical movements that I think need our immediate and ongoing attention. I am using the ancient eastern concept of chakras for the body as a parallel to our movement’s energy wheel. Healers believe sickness occurs when the body’s chakras are blocked or out of alignment. Likewise, the U.S. Left and our social justice movements need our collective introspection, analysis and adjustments that lead to unblocking our energy/chi points. A weakened Left, and especially the Black Left, have been unable to provide this critical guidance over the last twenty years. I do not have the space to go too deep into my thinking although I have been pondering and talking about this very subject for a few years now. I am looking to stimulate a higher level of principled discussion about how to energize and organize the social forces coming into play at this pivotal juncture in history and how we can rebuild a formidable radical movement in this country.
“The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”
– Audre Lorde
The term “transformation” can be over-used in movement spaces. Transformation this, transformative that. It’s almost as if once you speak the word, transformation will magically take place. However, I do prefer the term because it implies a dramatic change from one condition to another. We don’t understand the penetration of the hegemonic tentacles that wrap around us at birth in this country. This means these chakras usually stay jammed and affect our behavior in movement spaces. If ever there was a critical mass of this chakra operating freely, I think we’d experience tsunami-like chi on multiple levels. We would realize the transformative changes we only theorize about now.
If there were sound effects associated with our political baggage, we would hear us coming before we hit the door. For some, it sounds like boxes moving across the floor. For others, it sounds like the stones of the Great Pyramid grinding on a concrete surface. Stuffed in these bags are the isms of individualism, racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, homophobia and classism. These isms are the carry the toxins that maintain the hegemony of capitalism such as values, beliefs, ideologies and practices. Whether ours is a fanny pack or multiple matching luggage depends on how intentional and consistently we unpack our baggage as we grow older. Although it starts with self, unpacking your cannot be a solo act; it takes the support and wisdom of a radical collective.
In all the readings I’ve encountered, the target of transformation is mainly the society. Rarely is there exploration of that piece of the oppressor that Sista Audrey Lorde warns “is planted deep within each of us.” All of us consciously or unconsciously are feeding the capitalist monster. These toxins crowd out the healthy microorganisms of self-transformation and result in our becoming the willing carriers of all the isms which spill out into our organizations. Those in the movement for social justice are not immune just because we can spout political phraseology or because we’ve been organizing for x-number of years. We have internalized the poisonous beliefs, values and behaviors that become normalized unless we resist, unlearn and replace with revolutionary behaviors.
When people come together into a collective or into a social movement, our personal baggage collides with the political baggage. This is when our organizations become consumed with containing the drama, extinguishing the fires and dodging the political arrows. This is exhausting, demoralizing and unproductive. It leaves us little time and energy to mount a serious offensive against the Empire. Sadly, you’ll hear people in the movement say things like “I’ve done my time” before they move on to something else– as if they just served a prison sentence.
Conflict is inevitable but it can be a healthy conduit to a deeper unity if we engage in a collective, democratic process. Our groups do not, cannot survive this chaos and confusion. Our struggle with hegemony must be a conscious and ongoing one or else our organizations will be plagued with the same isms that infect the broader society.
Three reasons why our social movements don’t have the necessary intensity of struggle against hegemony that we need is because: 1) individualism is rampant in our organizations and movement spaces; 2) we often lack consciousness about the manifestations or dangers of hegemony and about our own complicity; and 3) we are hampered by liberalism, i.e. unwilling to have genuine self-criticism or raise constructive criticism of others for the greater good.
#1-Individualism is highly promoted by this capitalism culture, as in you are so damn smart, you don’t need these other losers. Individualism is ugly all by itself but when class is a motivating factor, it’s super ugly and always destructive. It’s a bad case of petty bourgeois individualism with emphasis on petty as in trivial, insignificant, small-minded, self-centered. Being born into the working class does not ensure automatic, life-long membership for those who love to throw their working class roots at you; you must consciously choose to throw down with the class and all that it represents. The people I know who did the most damage to organizations were the ones who lacked working class consciousness. They had the rhetoric down but when it came to their class interests, those folks exercised their class privilege every time. Once they get what is needed to promote their careers or if their self/class-interests are threatened, they are likely to leave the organization in shambles with little remorse.
#2-Under capitalism, the struggle against hegemony must be relentless. Our movements must do intense study of hegemony because it is a smooth operator. It has us doing the dirty work of propping up capitalism without even knowing it. Or if we know it, the personal rewards are so pleasurable that we don’t care how it impacts us or others. Espousing politically correct rhetoric will not adequately address hegemony, we must be radical and get to the roots. On a personal level, this means understanding the political, cultural, social and familial forces that impacted your development as a child and young person. Generally, if you are a male, you got many messages that you were superior to women. If you are heterosexual, you got messages that homosexuality was abnormal. If you are white, you received messages that people of color are inferior. If you are Christian, all other religions are illegitimate. Fierce study and principled debate can help us identify the signs whenever and wherever they appear.
#3-Our inability and in some cases, our refusal, to combat liberalism can never lead to principled and healthy self- criticism and criticism. Having crit and self-crit can be compared to the agitator of a washing machine. Some dirt from the clothes may be loosened up just by being put in soapy water but the agitating is going to loosen up a lot more dirt. It’s the difference between a dingy wash and a clean wash. Our dingy movement needs some serious agitation.
And can we discuss a revolutionary morality in our movement? This is different from how the religious right frames it. I’m talking about creating internal organizational cultures where negative behaviors will not be tolerated whether it is womanizing, theft or sexual assault. These behaviors or acts of disruption have little to do with our struggle for liberation and democracy. They will always undermine our unity of purpose and any strategy for power. Always. I would hope that a revolutionary morality is one that perpetually lifts up the most just and humane characteristics of people. A revolutionary morality is nurtured in an environment free of exploitation and oppression often perpetrated by us.
Self-transformation must be a perpetual act to create and strengthen a counter-hegemonic culture that challenges the racist, patriarchal status quo. The social justice movements are open to all who want to struggle to be our best selves—physically strong, mentally sharp, spiritually sound, ideologically clear and politically grounded.This is not a come-as-you-are party. You gotta leave your bags at the door. We’re transforming. Another world is coming.