Life moves in weird ways sometimes. I started reading this book towards the end of May to find some hope as lockdown seemed to extend endlessly and more and more people were dying. By the time I finished it George Floyd has been killed, people took to the streets and the book became even more relevant.
Originally published n 2004, I think the edition I have is a 2016 edition. Nonetheless, the topic remains fresh, which is scary in itself. Solnit writes about activism. Her goal is to focus on the victories. She believes historically the left has a tendency to despair and brood on failures, to such an extent that we miss appreciating the victories and changes that happened. Often those victories can only be recognized from a distance, their outcomes not immediate.
She writes that the left often aims for perfection, so anything that is not a utopia is considered a failure. This in turn breeds disappointment and pushes people into inaction. What is needed is hope, the future is dark, not in the sense of being negative, but in the sense of being unknown, so the only way to influence it is to have hope and act on it. As with some of her other books, this is a call to action, a restorative voice that wants all of us to focus on how much has been achieved, so we’re motivated to keep going. Solnit reminds us how often making history means that something was prevented, something did not take place. Those victories are often forgotten, because how do you commemorate preventing something?
I liked how she described an idea transforming into action and the journey of the idea from the fringes into the center. Not a new concept by any means, but elegantly presented here. To give examples of the victories she calls on the fall of Berlin Wall (1989), Zapatistas (1994), The Battle of Seattle (1999) disrupting the WTO meeting and demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Despite the war in Iraq taking place, all of those events are victories, they all made a difference and changed our world. Solnit argues that victory does not have to be perfect to be one. She writes about prefigurative politics, where the fact you actively live by what you believe in is already a victory. We may achieve part of what we set out to do and it still is a victory, every step in the right direction is a victory.
And this is where things get interesting – when we start talking about the right direction. Solnit acknowledges how it is impossible now to maintain a single narration. There is too many issues, to many perspectives to pretend there is such thing as one right direction. What she advocates instead is ‘improvised activism’ allowing people from various groups to organically coalesce around the current issues, without a single overarching doctrine. A movement that perpetually evolves, where the uniting factor is the need for change.
She writes for example how historically ecologists and farmers were opposing groups. That lasted until both groups realized there’s a common reason for the problems they identify. It was companies such as Monsanto, destroying the environment and tearing the land out of farmer’s hands, making any mode of farming other than industrial financially unsustainable. Suddenly it appeared that farmers and ecologists have a lot more in common, and can actually fight together rather than on opposing sides. That’s not to say they will fight for everything together, their interests may clash at some point, but they came together where it mattered. This is what she means by improvised activism, fighting for specific causes without a single rigid idea behind it.
Solnit is a big proponent of localism, as opposed to globalization. Almost always. What she believes is the globalization of ideas not of capital. If we globally share ideas and beliefs and act on them locally, the world can be changed.
It was an interesting read, as always with Solnit a passionate expression of her thoughts and ideas. A bit messy and disjointed at times, but inspiring despite that. If you are an activist and you’re running out of steam this book will help you dust yourself and pick yourself up for the next battle.
As over the past few months I have become more attentive in my life, I started noticing some topics cropping up repeatedly, almost a synchronicity. In the case of this book, she writes about Subcomandante Marcos, incidentally, I watched a short video in April by Bartek Sabela, writer and traveler, in which he talked about Marcos. I definitely need to read more about him and at least try to read some of his texts. Another small thing was that she mentioned Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which has been lingering on my shelf for a few years now. Maybe the time has come.