Strategic Optimism

I want to die in bed, a hundred years old, having lived most of my life in a stateless, anticapitalist society. This is possible. Authoritarianism is not unconquerable. I don’t believe in utopia, per se, and I don’t think an anarchist society would be perfect, but I believe we could live a lot healthier, happier, and more freely than we do now. So I want to win. I believe it’s possible for us to win.

On the other hand, I don’t expect to.

I came to terms a long time ago with my investment in this hopeless cause. Even when I was an eager and innocent baby anarchist, I never believed that a beautiful, black-and-red dawn was about to break across the horizon. I cut my teeth getting my ass kicked by cops trying to stop a war and trying to stop corporate globalization, then moved on to the insurmountable task of trying to slowly shift culture towards anti-authoritarian values. I never expected to win. I try to fight like I’m going to, though.

Acting as though winning is a serious possibility is the only way for it to become even the barest possibility.

Fighting to win, and fighting for what I actually believe in instead of some watered down compromise, has proven to just outright be a better way to live. Furthermore, acting as though winning is a serious possibility is the only way for it to become even the barest possibility.

My optimism is a cynical optimism, a strategic optimism, but it’s optimism nonetheless.

* * *

When I was a teenager, I had an art teacher who instilled in me a respect for process-oriented thinking. “The point of painting is the act of painting,” he told me, “not the act of having painted.” This was true across mediums and applicable to life itself… after all, the final result of life is death. One ought not live for one’s legacy, but for one’s life. Yet, with painting and most everything else, the goal mattered too. The goal informs and enriches the process, and the goal is only achievable by staying focused on the process.

We tell one another about the golden land that lies beyond the horizon not to convince ourselves that the place exists exactly as we imagine it, but because those stories give us a direction to walk and a reason to walk. The walking itself is what matters, of course. The process is what matters.

This is hard for me to reconcile with my anarchism, sometimes. Some of my friends are in it for the fight, but I’m not a fighter by natural temperament. I’m too anxious, these days, to spend much of my time on the front lines of anything. I hope we win soon, so I can find ways to be socially useful and keep myself entertained without the threat of prison looming like death in the shadows.

Still, absent of living in the society I desire to live in, I do find value and meaning in struggle, in walking, in imagining possibilities.

* * *

I’ve probably never experienced this contrast between my cynicism and my hope more clearly than I have in terms of how I engage with activism. For years, I was engaged in direct action activism — in campaigns to save this or that forest or mountain, to keep this or that development or youth jail out of this or that neighborhood, to save some person or keep some draconian law from passing. Activism, even of the direct action variety, tends not to be revolutionary. It tends to stay on the defensive. It tends to burn people out, expose people to risk, and use up a ton of resources. It’s certainly not going to save the world.

Direct action activism is one way to engage with passionate people, passionately, and to live life to its fullest. I have no illusions about it, but I don’t regret a moment of it.

To any extent that I engage with activism today, I engage in activism without illusions. Though I know we’re not going to stem the tide of global catastrophe, direct action activism often accomplishes its immediate goals. I know people who still live on their farms because of activism. I know of community gardens that still exist. I know of stands of old growth forest that are still standing. Those trees will likely survive until human-driven climate change destroys them in a few years time — and that’s the problem with activism. It’s never enough.

Still, without optimism — cynical or not — and its attendant courage, none of that would have been accomplished, and that’s not nothing. There’s an undeniable value there. There’s also a value in the unruly encampments we set up and a value in the connections we made with other communities. Direct action activism is one way to engage with passionate people, passionately, and to live life to its fullest. I have no illusions about it, but I don’t regret a moment of it.

* * *

I believe that we can win. I believe another [end of the] world is possible. I don’t always know what to do with this optimism. How do we accomplish it? Anarchism is not heaven. We don’t get there by just being good people and accepting Bakunin as our personal lord and savior. We get there by thinking seriously about strategy and by making plans. We get there by working at it, in whatever ways suit us or are appropriate to our circumstances. Whatever chance we’ve got of getting there, it’s by each of us trying what we can and seeing what works, it’s by supporting those of us who are trying in ways we aren’t.

When I die, not in bed, not a hundred years old, not in a society free of hierarchy, I’ll be able to say… well I probably won’t be able to say much of anything, because I’ll be busy dying, but let’s pretend I’ve got my wits about me… I can say I fought to win.

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One thought on “Strategic Optimism”

  1. I just read this and wanted to say how encouraging this is, to someone who is still kind of a baby anarchist but unable to be involved in any sort of direct action because I have a kid and I don’t want to put him in danger, or get myself arrested and have social workers turn up on my doorstep concerned about my ability to parent.

    On the rare occasions I find a babysitter and overcome anxiety and make it to meetings, I feel entirely useless because I can’t volunteer a lot of time or energy, and I feel like a total fraud because I only make it there approx. once every three months. I get these occasional bouts of “I believe in this, let’s do the thing!” but it burns out pretty quickly because I can’t actually do the thing.

    This is super rambling, but yeah, thank you for the reminder that direct action isn’t the only way to be involved. This bit was particularly encouraging: “We get there by working at it, in whatever ways suit us or are appropriate to our circumstances.”

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