It is often said that in the face of the type of crises we face individual action is ineffective and that the only way ‘progress’ can be made in changing things – is by mass collective action. On the face of it this is obvious.
It is also true that calls for individual action – “be the change you wish to see in the world” – are a distraction, a way of letting people feel they are doing something when in fact their acts are trivial and far from effective. “I’ve stopped flying/eating meat/using plastic straws/whatever so I’m doing my bit”. Incidentally the “be the change…” quote is NOT from Ghandi, it is a much later (c1974). The closest verifiable thing like this that Ghandi said comes from 1913:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
In this formulation there is considerably more meat and much closer to what I see as the necessary relationship between the individual and the collective.
Firstly the real quote is actually talking about the relationship between the individual and the world, not the instrumental consequence of an individual act at a global level. As we change our own nature, through highly personal deeply embedded changes what we also change is the way we appear to the world and thus the way the world appears to us. It is this change in our relationship with the world that matters, changes in what others do, how they relate to us, may flow from this. We do not wait for others to take the lead, if we lead ourselves and are true to ourselves then in one sense it does not matter what others do.
But having changed ourself, and thus our relationship with the world as a whole, we can bind more easily with others on the same path. A genuine change in self where we deeply feel and embrace the whole impact of the change, as opposed to an intellectual change in our head only – doing something because we think that we should not because we genuinely want to – is something that can naturally lead to community (communion) with others in a far deeper and more resilient relationship than simply ‘joining’ a group because you have a shared intellectual concern about something.
Kingsnorth, Monbiot, Macy and others talk about this in terms of Love, and in particular love of place; your place in the world and your relationship to it, both physical and emotional and intellectual. Once we learn to love the aspects of the world that sustain us, then the collective that we form with others who share our love is far stronger and more powerful than a mere common interest group.
Collective action is vitally important, but it has to grow from a fertile soil. Since the project is ultimately to replace our industrial civilisation with more harmonious societies (an important plural there) the roots of action need to extend outside human society. A soil of individual loving relationships with the world.
Collective action that is based on differentiated aspects of the existing human order – the working class vs the ruling class, the rich vs the poor, the environmentalists vs the industrialists, the south vs the north, the powerful vs the meek – can only hope to change the existing order of things, to revolve not to replace.
For me this is why individual change must precede collective action. It is why the work of reconnecting people, as individuals, with their place in the web of life is a really essential prelude to genuine mass transformative action. To transform our civilisation into a new age that can live with the changes we have already set in motion in the ecosystems that exist on our planet.
Just look at the warriors who are in the forefront of actions against the ravages of industrial civilisation – the water defenders of Standing Rock, the Pacific Islanders ‘not drowning but fighting’, the Amazonian Indians, even the local residents who come out to stand against fracking – they are united by starting from a love of place, not from a hatred of a civilisation or an exploitation of a class. Those negative aspects are consequences of their love not the starting point for action. Action that is grounded in love not hate. Love wins.
We need a disjunction not a revolution. A revolution results in changed relationship within the pre-existing paradigm. The wheel turns, the bottom becomes the top but the road rolls on. A disjunction arises from a fundamental change in relationships that creates a new world order.
The relationship of a human society to the world it inhabits is both the sum of the relationships to the world of the individuals within the society, and also affects and influences those individual relationships. Both have to be changed. People need to change in themselves AND society needs to change its relationship to the world. The first is the realm of individual action, the second arises through collective action. Both have to happen simultaneously as there is massive inertia in the existing relationships at both levels.
The individual is under tremendous pressure to conform to the norms of her society – including the norms of individual relationships to the world. Stepping outside those norms can be enormously difficult. Living within is the comfortable option.
At the same time society is under tremendous pressure to conform to the current desires of its members, and in particular those desires of whatever members happen to have the biggest leverage in any particular society. The norms always seek to preserve the status quo, and only change slowly as generations rise and fall.
The world outside human civilisation is rapidly changing, changing as a consequence of human action and changing in ways that are going to demand a response in human society.
If we want to ride through this turbulence and not be swamped by it then we can start by reconnecting with our world, by building our personal resilience, by discovering what we can relinquish and by restoring where we can the damage that we have done to the world.
All of these individual starting points – reconnection, resilience, relinquishment and restoration – then lead directly to collective action Collective action that seeks not to change industrial civilisation but to replace it because it is not compatible with any of those four starting points.