On the five-day Time to Cycle bike ride to Paris in December, it turned out that one of our fellow riders was James Cracknell, who we’d published in the last issue writing very pessimistically about the climate talks.
James sat at our dinner table and explained how, if he was to re-write that article, it would be different because he felt more enthused after riding for two days with 125 other climate activists. His understanding of the facts would be the same, his analysis of the problems in the negotiating process would be the same, but the framework he would put around it would be different because he felt so encouraged by the positivity of the ride.
(To be honest, many of us were bowled over just to be allowed into France, which had seemed tricky given the state of emergency. To be met off the ferry and welcomed by a representative of the mayor of Dieppe was then very unexpected.)
So there’s an important truth here about how we grow our movements, that being in motion creates energy, that taking some action makes it more possible to take more action.
Faith without works
There’s another truth there, that increasing our understanding by itself doesn’t make change. It is essential for us to learn about the things we’re concerned about, in order to know what changes to ask for (and which ones not to ask for), and in order to be able to dispel lies and propaganda, to take just two good reasons.
But learning by itself does not make change. Unless we want to expand the definition to mean the kind of learning which isn’t just at a head-level, and which gives us not only new skills but the confidence and power to use those skills for change.
A while ago we printed an article by George Lakey in which he said that the environmental group he helped found, Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT, pronounced ‘equate’), had a policy of refusing to do information talks. They would visit other groups, but only to do action trainings, and these workshops would include actually taking some action, out there in public.
I find this very challenging, having spent much of my life writing and giving talks, and spending a lot of my free time every year creating Peace News Summer Camp, which is to a large extent a framework for people giving talks.
It’s also challenging for Peace News itself. How can this paper be action and movement as well as reflection and reporting?
Limits to democracy
For over forty years, PN has advocated ‘nonviolent revolution’, the transformation of society through nonviolent confrontation with oppressive institutions and the building of creative alternatives.
In that effort, the immediate crises always, and rightly, demand most of our attention. This war, that weapon system, this group of people in immediate danger.
At the same time, we know that unless we can transform the system as a whole, either through radical reforms or through some kind of ‘revolution’, there will just be more wars, more weapon systems, more people in immediate danger.
Under the current system in Western societies, as Noam Chomsky remarks, ‘representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere’.
There’s a contradiction between the (limited) democracy we have as citizens in our political lives, and the totalitarian system most of us endure as employees in our working lives.
Chomsky argues that if we looked at the structures of a corporation in political terms, we would call it a fascist system: ‘it has tight control at the top and strict obedience has to be established at every level’.
The contradiction between political democracy and economic dictatorship could be resolved either by politics becoming authoritarian or by democracy entering the workplace.
At the moment, politics in western societies is dominated by the interests of wealthy investors, who benefit from an unequal world order enforced by violence that has no thought for tomorrow. So long as political systems shape themselves around the needs of big business, we will continue down the path of oppression and self-destruction.
If we really want to abolish war and hunger and nuclear weapons, we are going to find a way to link our immediate agendas (‘stopping Trident replacement’, ‘stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia’) into a larger framework of bringing participatory democracy into all parts of society, and eliminating economic inequality and class division.
That larger agenda is daunting, for sure. But ignoring it is just to guarantee that we will continue stumbling from one crisis to the next until human civilisation is overwhelmed by the problems we’ve created.
As we try to hold in our hands both the immediate crises and the long-term changes we need, we can gain the energy we need from keeping in motion, connecting to the people around us, doing what we can, where we are.