a theory for social emancipation


Climate Change is in the process of monumentally changing forever the way life on Earth exists. What is to be done? Well, I’m not exactly sure. But, politics is the theory and practice of influencing power, and at my current gig as an aspiring organizer*, we have been putting into practice our** own theory of social transformation, known as the 4R’s. The 4R’s, when all four are put into practice, is essentially a different way of conceptualizing our way to socialism. Below is a brief(ish) description of our calculus for transformation.

Reform– Political folks who are exclusively reformers  are particularly nauseating for most radicals. And really, reforming any inherently oppressive institution is actually quite gag inducing for myself. However, this first of the 4R’s is actually of some importance. Reforms that are put in place to give folks on the ground time to organize can be of some practical use. There are beings in a literal Hell on Earth as I type, and reckoning with actually existing structures of domination can give us a chance to catch our collective breaths. By no means should reform ever be confused with a strategy or goal. Let me be clear. Reform is NOT the answer to our problems, but it is a small piece in a large puzzle for liberation.

But I don’t think I have to explain to you all for too long why reform on its own is wholly inadequate and counterproductive. Perhaps the greatest reforms in the history of this decrepit and dying empire were all simply political pacifiers and placeholders. The Voting Rights Act is essentially unenforceable and being done away with, and was only ever passed to siphon righteous indignation off the street and into a dead end, truncated and racist political process. The same can be said about one of this country’s “crowning” legal achievements, Brown v. Board. Of course, action from the executive branch, such as Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, are largely symbolic. Lincoln didn’t free a soul; Black people freed themselves. Lincoln didn’t give a shit about slavery until it was politically feasible to do so, and only acted then in order to pave the way for the rise and entrenchment of the U.S. as a supreme power on the global stage. Obama’s climate plan, as a colleague of mine so eloquently put it, “Is literally the least we can do,” and is only being done because his vision of a resurgent America hinges on people who look like him not to organize to abolish environmental racism, fight climate change and generally fight to hasten the demise of this despicable dump of a country. On the flip side, sometimes reforms can be instrumental at targeting and exposing capital accumulation at its most degenerate. Which is why reformism is necessary, yet inadequate.

Resistance– While folks are doing the awful work of working in the system, some folks will be doing the equally awful work of directly confronting that system head on. This includes armed resistance, civil disobedience and strategic attacks on capital and its many insidious manifestations. This means having integrity, and a willingness to have political boundaries for ones self and community. At a certain point, compromise becomes an existential impossibility. Real political struggle must take place between opposing forces.

There is a tendency to romanticize resistance to oppression as heroic. But it is full of too much pain and sorrow to be confused with pure heroism. Existence is resistance yes, but that means that it is agony. It’s mind grinding. It’s bone crushing. It’s daunting. It is broken bodies, murdered children and strange fruit. It is catastrophe fully expressed. Even for folks who preach non-violence, have PhDs and wear their pants on their waists.

But this work of resistance must be done too. Not because martyrdom is normative for good politics, (it is not) and not just because serenity through indifference to suffering is at the heart of conservatism (it is) but because oppressed peoples the world over come out of a long history, one in which our courage to be in struggle against domination gives us a sense of purpose. This is true for Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. This is true for Miss Major and Ella Baker. It is true for #BlackLivesMatter and the broader Movement for Black Lives today. The differences between then and now, as one of my generative somatics facilitators taught me, is that while the abolitionists were organizing during the rise of U.S. global dominance, and the Civil Rights Movement coalesced at the height of U.S. power, we are organizing during its fall. This gives us space for something new.

ReImagine–  While reform is about working in oppression and resistance is about working on oppression, the final two are about epistemologically practical social and cultural interventions towards forging an entirely new existence. This is why education and collective learning is so important. Having an understanding of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy isn’t necessarily conditional for a left politics, but it can definitely help. This is why music is so central for me. For Black people in the U.S., gospels and hymns are attempts to make a connection with God within the context of calamity. Jazz, Swing and the Blues come from people who have been so brutalized but still create art that is as aesthetically pleasing as any of Beethoven’s string quartets. And Hip-Hop is a revolutionary cultural intervention and critique of Post-Industrial U.S. society; a critique brought forth by poor Black and Brown youth.

But ReImagining on its own has limits. No doubt, there is unbelievable lyrical pleasure listening to Pusha T rap about armed resistance against cops. And no doubt wrestling with (and refuting) Nietzsche’s interpretations of morality and its genesis is intellectually stimulating. But ending oppression can’t be done solely through bookmarks and baselines. Theories of oppression and liberation are key, but we must never be so caught up in our own poetry or philosophical studies that we forget that people need to be in struggle now. The most brilliant revolutionary mind trapped in their home library or music studio is still trapped.

ReCreate– This leads us to our final R, recreation. If reimagination means imagining another world while in this one, than recreation means to practice that reimagining. It may mean freedom schools, free universities, commonly owned and democratically controlled resources or free childcare programs. Recreation is essentially prefigurative politics, whereby folks attempt to practice now a kind of social organization that embodies the society people deserve now. Recreation has been practiced across the left; from Anarcho-liberal formations like Occupy Wall Street in its attempt to create public space in huge cities for dialogue and housing to the Black Nationalist and Maoist inspired Black Panther Party and their Free Breakfast programs to the trauma healing body work done at B.O.L.D.

Of course, recreation on its own won’t do either. Solely focusing on a politics of prefiguration can lead to an isolation as intense as being trapped in the aforementioned home library. As great as your freedom school may be, if it does not have the resources that reformers have access to, and if it does not resist oppression with everyday people, and if it does not a have a social or cultural foundation, than it will further isolate itself from the people.

Finally, the 4R’s framework is only useful and valuable to folks on the left if all 4R’s are being practiced. Each pillar needs the others. Only reforming will likely turn one into a vacuous, ethically constipated human calculator focused less on achieving justice with the people and more on attempting to rationalize their constant enablement of fascism. Only resisting will leave one physically broken and, because trauma can be passed down through generations, intergenerationally bruised. Only reimagining can leave you speaking a highly academic language that the people don’t speak or understand, effectively making your academic words meaningless to us. Only recreating will soon leave you with no resources, no people and no ideology.

By no means is this post meant to be a definitive portrait of this theory. Nor is this post my definitive portrait of how I understand the 4R’s, because I will continue to put this theory into practice in my work, where I may find it ultimately unconvincing. What this post is is an attempt to put into words the ideas grounding my work around Climate Justice.

For the love of all the people!

a concluding note:

* I say aspiring organizer because I want to approach this work with humility. Folks came before us who set the way. Harriet Tubman freed thousands of slaves in 19th century America while dealing with epileptic seizures nightly and the weight of the Southern slaveocracy daily. She was an organizer. I aspire to be like that one day.

** Honoring origins is paramount. This particular formula for transformation was created by our Climate Justice Director. What up Jodi!

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