Thought, word and deed
THIS magazine is about people who are changing their lives - people who have pushed aside familiar daily routines and decided to make things different. This can mean anything from opting for natural childbirth to taking up arms in a revolution. But what they all have in common is a point of personal decision: a refusal to accept things as they are: as they always have been: or as we are told they must be.
Change can begin as the flicker of a dream or as a sharp stab of pain: either can pass and quickly be forgotten, dismissed as an idle whim or just one of those things that sometimes hurts and makes us cry. Life, after all, is full of fleeting dreams and discomforts that punctuate our experience but never really change the way we live. Yet revolutions do happen: people will die for a change they have come to believe in; or leave their family and friends; lose their jobs: march on the streets, work without pay: or simply speak their mind.
The world does change: and it does so because men and women try to make it change. Political scientists and historians still build their reputations by debating how societies evolve: either denying or sanctifying the role of individual will and purpose. 'Men make history,' wrote Karl Marx, 'but not under circumstances of their own choosing.'
His is a useful rule of thumb when investigating the limits to man-made change. But we should start with personal belief with the spark of hope or indignation that first challenges the world as we find it. From there we can follow the road from personal change to social action.
Lois Gibbs was a housewife: 'I wanted to live the American Dream - white picket fence, healthy family, well-adjusted children.' Then, step by step, she discovered that her five year old son Michael was slowly being poisoned to death by chemical waste buried under his school in the town of Love Canal. Hundreds more were threatened in the same way. The fight for Michael's life was a fight against authority: the Board of Education, the Hooker Chemical Company, the State Governor. It meant petitions, neighbourhood organising, and a long hard campaign. But first of all it meant deciding to act, to confront other people with her beliefs. That was the most traumatic thing in my life. I put a petition together and practiced it at home for a week. I did not know what I expected, but when I got to the first door I broke out in a cold sweat I had to go to the bathroom. So I just picked up and ran all the way home. I just could not do it.'
Faced with a dying child, Lois Gibbs tried again. She got support she gained confidence, she won. Now she runs the Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Wastes, and deals daily with other inarticulate, fearful, desperate Lois Gibbs's. Self-interest is the key to their motivation, as it was to hers. And anger drives them through the barriers of apathy and fear.
People begin where they are. Although there are movements in public opinion (and today less than 20 per cent of US citizens have confidence in their government compared with 42 per cent in the mid-sixties), immediate individual discontent is where the action starts. Textbook analysis may help focus our grievances or tell us where to look for other people's oppression, but there is no substitute for gut feeling as a starting point for change.
Much of it is still-born. Society offers us a thousand and one reasons why we should discount our own bad feelings: dismissing them with a dose of guilt - as neurosis, inadequacy, greed or fantasy. Nineteen-fifties American sociologists cooked up theories defining 'the function of inequality' even poverty, in moderation, was not to be grumbled at. And maybe a third of all US housewives are on valium: solitary relief for solitary depression.
'Upward mobility' is the dream that society offers as its prime antidote for discontent: 'you can get it if you really want it'. Anything in the showcase, in the glossy brochures, on the telly can be yours if you work hard enough for it. Each individual is offered a competitive solution to personal deprivation. Change of sorts is on offer - but only within firm rules. You can, if you are very lucky. change your job or your home. More easily you can change the TV station you watch, the beer you drink, the make-up you use. Once every four or five years you can change the Party you vote for. But that, as Lois Gibbs discovered, is usually it The Love Canal School Board first dismissed her as 'an hysterical mother with a sickly child'. The sort of change she wanted was definitely not on offer. We all know the force that our parents bring to bear on our early choices of dress, sexual partners, careers, drugs. Some things we are encouraged to work hard for, others we are forbidden to dream of. Authority of that kind is reflected and reinforced throughout our entire life. And change can be very, very hard.
The key to successful change is usually solidarity. Forget the media myth of clenched fists and flying pickets. Solidarity means anything from a shoulder to cry on, telling someone they're not crazy to want things different, to passing the ammunition. Usually it is somewhere in between, sharing with a group of people the hopes and fears of struggling for change: 'I knew very early on that I was "different" remembers Canadian student Richard Fung. 'But it was only when I started to read about gay liberation and to meet other gay men who were comfortable with their sexuality, that my life changed.' This experience is recounted again and again by people whose lives have changed: meeting other people who feel the same, discovering you are not alone, gaining courage for your convictions, sharing the bitter conflicts and sweet rewards of a changing life.
Next to solidarity is shared experience. Beatrix Campbell, co-author of Sweet Freedom : the struggle for Women's Liberation, argues that extravagant bra-burning gestures have little to do with the appeal of feminism to ordinary women: 'If anything, it is the way women experience their motherhood which produces a shared crisis - the solitude, the total financial dependence, and men's excavation from parenthood'. Once again people begin where they are: add solidarity to common experience and you have the seeds of collective change. 'Although many gay men are not consciously political' argues Tim McCaskell, one of Toronto's leading gay activists, 'that unifying element of commonly felt-oppression means there is a tremendous capacity for being organised.'
Marxists have studied this point of change very closely. Inline with a class-based analysis of society they talk about the shift from a 'class-in-itself' to a 'class-for-itself'. What this means is that a group of people who have interests in common (usually their oppression) but do not know it, come to realise their shared position and so grasp the importance of collective action. The shift means becoming 'class conscious'. A distinguished line of Marxists have tried to formulate the best recipe for class consciousness - as a prerequisite for wholesale social change but with only limited success.
There is, however, considerable agreement in all political camps over the importance of the concept. We can argue about whether industrial society has only two classes capitalists and workers or a dozen social strata from garbage collector to corporate executive. But we can all agree that a single common purpose within a group of housewives or generals - is something to be reckoned with.
Getting organised gives the fight for change an identity. It also lends strength and confidence. If you wear your beliefs openly you may be ridiculed, harangued, even physically attacked. In challenging consumerism, members of Norway's Future in Our Hands Movement choose bicycles and secondhand clothes signs of a social loser to the conventional eye. So support from others sharing the same values is vital. Lois Gibbs gained confidence as soon as her neighbours started getting angry as well. And in the forests of eastern Ontario, members of The Farm have opted for shared isolation as the basis for social action: 'staying connected to the means of survival'.
But organisation is not everything. Any city has dozens of ossified or defunct orga, but no followers: twenty-four hour a day activists who have lost sight of their vision. A cause's ultimate deterrent can easily be its most passionate advocates, with one hand on the rule book, one eye on the next election.
The women's movement has done a lot to bring politics back home. 'Instead of producing programmes and manifestos in smoke filled rooms,' argues Beatrix Campbell 'it has tried to generate priorities out of personal experience.' And the touchstone of change is invariably experience.
Turning gut feeling into effective social action is not easy. And neither do progressive groups have a monopoly of personal outrage. Discontent can fuel violence and bigotry as easily as it can inspire community action. Britain's inner cities have become a recruiting ground for right and left-wing groups eager to channel the idle aggression of unemployed youth. And here the National Front's simple neo Nazi message has proved as successful as finely-tuned 'Rock Against Racism' gigs. 'Hitler to me' insists muscular skinhead Barry Watts 'is like Napoleon was to you.' Barry's head is filled with ideological confusion, and a real desire for change. Lumpen-proletariat is the dismissive label Barry earns from old-fashioned Marxists. But he and his mates are best not ignored.
When the personal desire for change becomes a collective goal, then belief becomes ideology. People get together to work out and write down what they believe: sometimes it becomes a manifesto. That is good: analysis and discussion clarify thought and inform action. But beware that the vision is not lost. Utopianism is often dismissed as idle dreaming, And attempts to put beliefs straight into action - becoming a vegetarian or leaving childcare to men are considered irrelevant. The end result, as with all our major political parties is strategies without utopias: policies without personal change. Politicians talk drably of change, but no longer inspire it.
The theorists have coined a precise and uninviting term for our alternative: 'prefiguration'. And Peter Berger has something similar in mind when advocating 'hard-nosed utopianism'. The idea is to work out in practice, here and now, some of the things we wish for, and are working for. You can do it anywhere, from the privacy of your own home, to your workplace or political group, even nationally if you get the chance or by studying the experience of other countries.
You do not have to wait for the revolution to discover if male chauvinism is a gift of nature: men can start working at equal relationships with women today. Neither must we submit to authoritarian job structures: we can gamble on a democratic co-operative tomorrow. Why suffer the stubborn disinterest of City Hall's faceless bureaucrats in silence when you can take a look at Walsall's neighbourhood experiment that has dismembered local government empires? And instead of griping at another Third World sell-out to multinational corporations or neo-colonial 'spheres of influence' try a little solidarity with Nicaragua or Zimbabwe: see what you can learn from other people's efforts to change the world.
'If you want knowledge' urged Mao Zedong 'you must take part in changing reality'. What are we waiting for?
This special report appeared in the thought, word and deed - from personal change to social action issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.