Strengthening the Ties that Bind in an Era of Alienation
by Randall Amster and Windy Cooler
As we move into the winter of 2012, the days are getting shorter and the sociopolitical realities put before us seem, in some ways, to be darkening by the minute. How is it that we do not know how to live in the world, in those ways that have sustained and advanced the human experiment for eons? Today we have reactionary, regressive policies masking as “progress,” replacing the reciprocal bonds of authentic community with the wafer-thin ties of social networking and, in the process, turning our alienation and dysfunction into a nouveau spectacle. During the recent Israeli assault on Gaza, for example, a reporter for the Jerusalem Post actually asked residents in fear for their children’s lives if anyone could give an interview about how the shrieking sirens were affecting pets. It is so taboo to speak of what really matters with the people who matter that we have to be encouraged to do so.
Let us not be timid about this, nor idealistic about the prospects of reinvigoration: it is going to take an unprecedented effort of critical thinking and constructive action to save us from ourselves. The dominant culture possesses a mass-suicidal tendency that pits sustenance against sustainability, success against society, and wealth against wellbeing — and it must be resisted at every turn if we are to survive. And perhaps the surest path to doing so lies in restoring the overarching human tendency toward solidarity.
We want to put forward the suggestion that solidarity, taken as the “just communion” of humanity, is best served not by an emphasis on analysis and strategy, but by a prioritization of what was once the traditional work of women, work that can and should be shared by all people. This is the work of homemaking, parenting, physical and emotional care of an extended family, mentorship, unconditional acceptance, fair conflict resolution, comfort, moral guidance, empathy, education — all shared, within a community of caregivers. These are at once ephemeral values and learned skills, the development of which requires dedication, time, and both personal and community patience. Solidarity has been a traditional ideal of the Left, which is a hard-to-define political community except for its emphasis on the principle of solidarity. Can we forge a union between the political ideal of solidarity and a traditional domestic vision? This represents a planned departure from alienation in the work of activists, creating supportive relationships inside activist communities where burnout has been a powerful, destructive force both personally and politically.
We have seen examples of this in the Occupy movement. What was more powerful in the camps of last fall and winter than the communal kitchens, our libraries, the childcare we created for one another? What is more powerful today than the home occupations? Let us take this a step further, or a step backward, as the case may be.
Relationships are the key to forging new communities and, ultimately, a new world. Though (as people writing for a blog) the irony does not escape us, when we replace the interpersonal with the internet, and the communal with the commercial, we tend to diminish our capacities to meet one another from a place of authentic care and mutual aid. The “mile wide” aspects of social networking allow us to broaden our notions of solidarity and community in one sense, but in another (and perhaps more powerful) manner they serve to stretch them so far as to be almost nonsensical. If you had an actual emergency — say your house was on fire — would you post something to Facebook and Twitter, or would you call on actual neighbors living in proximity? The latter is more apropos, but it assumes that we still even know our neighbors — a scenario that is less likely as we spend more time in either virtual or professional communion than in search of the proverbial “beloved community.” The central question of our era seems to be whether we can locate it in time.
The issue of how to proceed to the beloved community is not merely an academic or historical one. “Community” is often invoked as a desirable end even by those antagonistic to it, and it can be a static, limiting trope when it emphasizes a narrow parochialism as against an expansive solidarity. Stripping away the fallacious constructs, we find that our raison d’être is solidarity. The tactic is solidarity and the goal of the tactic is solidarity. It is in our nature. But what is solidarity? In brief:
• Solidarity is motivated by love
• Solidarity is restorative
• Solidarity respects what a human being is
• Solidarity is communal
• Solidarity must be political and it must be personal
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1957: “Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method … is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community.” In this sense, we see the beloved community as the nexus of solidarity and empathy, the union of shared interests based on a common humanity and emotional bonds based on feelings of compassion and understanding. No one suggests that these are easy to practice, nor that they are quick fixes for a society wracked by alienation and outward signs of despair — but it is incumbent upon us to try. Again, King: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
We note the feminist underpinnings of these concepts, connecting the personal and the political, as well as the penchant for loving, respectful, and restorative relationships within the working definition. In a recent interview on Democracy Now!, long-time activist and radical feminist Selma James said: “We are civilized by this work [of caretaking], we women … we need men to be civilized by this work … we don’t want them working for capitalism…. I’m talking about our working to care for others, to be with others.” Our task, then, is to reemphasize the essential role of relationships, and to reprioritize the work of being caretakers of ourselves, one another, and the world.
In the end, we recognize that the road ahead will be arduous and that the beloved community will remain a work in progress. Yet in this, it is equally apparent that the beloved community is a means to its own end, and that it is our shared capacity to be nurturers that simultaneously enables us to feel nurtured. It is the interdependence of our existence that defines us, the sense of mutual destiny and common humanity that will allow us to move from dominators to liberators. As our friend Aurora Levins Morales once said, “Our liberation is bound up with that of every other being on the planet.” The beloved community is our highest expression of this ideal; reclaiming it as a living principle can strengthen our ties to each other and to the balance of life in our midst. We can choose to embrace this in celebration, or consume ourselves and the world in desperation. The time to decide is now. It has always been now…
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008). Windy Cooler is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. A long-time organizer and former teenage-mother-welfare-queen, she writes about the emotional lives of homemakers and activists. She has two sons and lives in suburban DC. She blogs at windycooler.com, and can be reached at WindyCooler(at)gmail.com.