We have lived as a species in times of kings and despots and decided we had experienced enough. The majority of us were still poor, died too young, had no real rights to speak of, and seemed powerless to change our fate. It had been like that for millennia, so why should we have accepted anything else? The point is that we didn’t. Despite our, at times, inertia and lack of direction, something had changed within us. We didn’t turn ourselves into political and economic reformers, but some did – and we listened to them. At times we were foolish and hearkened to the voice of others who were just as despotic as those they were fighting to replace. But then there were those authentic heralds of a new age, reminding us that there were other options – rebellion, negotiating, refusal to work, banding together in groups. Sometimes institutions like the church or the press would form a gathering point. Sometimes they helped; most times they defended the status quo because their own future required as a quiet acquiescence to present order of things.
Over time, groups of courage and fortitude arose struggling for everything from worker’s rights to a woman’s right to vote. For too long a time the average person continued to watch from the sidelines, reading the tea leaves and only joining such groups of protest when it became clear there was a chance of change in their present circumstances.
This is all now history. Our ancestors wore the t-shirt of political protest and eventually delivered to us a world of possibility far greater than anything they had experienced.
This is how progress has been made for thousands of years, but for some reason history doesn’t seem likely to repeat itself. Sure, there are voices out there calling for political renewal and a realignment of the economic forces that will eventually see our future perhaps hold out more promise than our present. There are more groups of action around the world than ever could have possibly be sustained in times of earlier transformation. By now we understand well enough that the inability of the Occupy movement to actually get beyond itself and display the maturity required to live out a credible alternative actually saw it collapse in on itself. But just like the Arab Spring, there was a time when it held out a certain appeal to us because we sensed that what such movements were struggling for were actually things we leaned towards ourselves.
But in the end, we didn’t sign on. We can blame Occupy for its immaturity, or the present financial system of globalization for its inevitability, but the reality is that is we who seemed unrecruitable. We wanted change but lacked the tensile strength to throw our own weight behind it. Why is that? Thousands of groups are struggling in Canada to build enough of a political movement to bring about the changes we seek, only to discover that most citizens themselves don’t appear interested in first having that change work within themselves.
What we have done instead is to turn away from the public space as any kind of guarantor for providing our children a better future. We throw up our hands as we come to realize that yesterday’s stimulus bailouts have become today’s service cuts. The very financial system that placed us on the precipice of disaster took billions from us, the taxpayers, and went right back to “business as usual,” with little change or reform from what was transpiring on the even of the global economic fallout. We watch all this transpire, know it, and yet we can’t be recruited to change it – to organize, develop more equitable policies, demand media start paying attention, and using the economic and democratic levers available to us.
I spent a good amount of time while in hospital this past two weeks speaking with numerous people – other patients, porters, orderlies, doctors, nurses, specialists – and while there was a clear sense of frustration at the present political orders, there was never one moment of expressed interest in getting involved and changing the system. Again, why?
Like some mouse transfixed before the weaving head of the snake, we are too preoccupied with our present circumstances to comprehend our future danger. What we choose to do instead is just chuck politics altogether. Politicians themselves, just as transfixed an unable to change the world they helped create, take this is a sign they can do as they wish. Yet for all that free field for running, they can’t even engineer progress themselves.
I thought a lot about this while recovering from surgery. I know some very good people, from the Republic of South Sudan to activists from Old South London who have been burning the candle at both ends in an effort to get citizens more involved. It’s not working, at least to the degree that is required for change. But worse still, this need for public agitation doesn’t seem to be growing – and in that is our biggest struggle.
Political and social inertia isn’t just our greatest challenge, it seems to have become our greatest fear – just at the moment it is required most. Decline isn’t just about a lack of resources; it’s about the loss of meaning. Following days of reflection, it has been confirmed for me again that our greatest challenge is not to replace one bad political lot with another, but to actually get people to care enough to pull together in a democratic movement that will put blood back in our veins, steel in our spines, and a future back to our kids.