On Smallness and Power

puny humans

It’s easy to feel small, or insignificant, when you think about the scale of the world, or the universe, or even your local city.

Then again, it’s easy to feel like you’re the centre of the world when you’re wrapped up in your own stuff.

Both feelings are wrong, of course. You’re enormous as far as ants are concerned, tiny by comparison with a forest, and probably normal-sized next to other humans. We’re all affecting each other’s lives all the time, and as a human, the human scale is the one I’m most interested in. At the level of humans relating to each other, how we act and talk and think is hugely important — and people acting like they’re the centre of the world really do bugger things up for the rest of us.

Small is big for the smaller!
Mehmet Murat ildan

Still, the world is not just shaped by individual choices. Even individual choices are not just shaped by individuals. We’re embedded in systems of relationships, systems of thought, legal and economic systems. Even though in some sense those are all constituted by individual humans, they are much bigger than us, and our choices do not necessarily change them. Partly this is because in each of these networks, some people have much, much more power than others. But they do change, and trying to understand how that happens is one of the big reasons it’s worth studying history.

When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.
Rebecca Solnit

David Graeber and Rebecca Solnit have both argued convincingly that so many people are currently pessimistic about the possibility of fundamentally reorganising society because hopelessness has been actively pushed by some who benefit from the status quo. We are taught first of all to see ourselves as individuals and consumers. We are told that we are free: free to exercise our consumer rights to buy or boycott whatever we can afford, to work long hours at any job we’re offered, to vote in the occasional election. We are encouraged to think of the systems in which we do these things as inevitable, and of all alternatives as fanciful and dangerous.

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.
— Kurt Vonnegut

We are pushed in many subtle and less-subtle ways into thinking of all efforts to achieve systemic change as pointless. Insurgent left-wingers are written off as unelectable, by a chorus of commentators with no discernible insight into how elections are won in this post-crisis era — as throwbacks to a time when it was still fashionable to hope for a better future. Social movements are laughed off as a waste of time. Mass activism is resisted and ridiculed, and when it wins major victories in spite of everything, this is simply never mentioned, or it is credited to heroic individuals. These heroes may have been anti-authoritarian socialists and radical democrats, emphatic about the importance of the wider movements they were part of, but there’s no need to mention that.

With my short existence
I can make a difference
Connie, Steven Universe

Anyone who pays any attention to the world around them must notice that change does happen, somehow. It happens both slowly, all the time, and in occasional fits of rapid reorganisation. Yes, this comes about partly thanks to the march of science and technology, partly through the actions of a few prominent individuals and partly by the slow adaptation of existing power structures to changing circumstances. But a great deal of change comes about as a result of concerted efforts to challenge existing powers: collectively, we have far more power than the most powerful individuals. It should not come as a surprise that they would much prefer us not to notice that.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
Marianne Williamson

What does all this mean for individual vs. collective action?

One thing is that a lot of energy gets channeled into actions which can be comfortably accommodated by existing sytems, without any real change to who wields the power. Not that such actions are necessarily a waste of time. Think of it like this: it’s good not to litter; every person who drops rubbish makes things a bit worse for everyone else who shares their space. But if you want your city not to be strewn with rubbish, there’s not much point relying on everybody always doing the right thing: you need systems in place for people to come round and pick it up, and maybe some kind of consequences for people who trash the place. When such systems fail, doing the right thing can seem futile.

To realize that everything in the universe is connected is to both accept our insignificance and understand our importance in it.
Jeffrey Fry

In recent decades far too much activism has focused on changing consumer behaviour. Environmentalism is probably the most glaring case of this, with repeated pushes for individuals to recycle, replace light bulbs, reduce emissions where we can. Something similar occurs in fashion, where people maybe make an effort to buy ethically produced clothing and shoes, when they remember, if they can afford it. Agriculture is another big one, where we might choose to cut animal products out of our diet, buy organic if we think it helps, maybe try to get local produce when we can.

These are all positive steps, and every person taking them helps to normalise them for everyone else, but as long as they’re taken within the context of an economic system that prioritises short-term profits over all else, the problems are going to keep on coming. It’s profitable to exploit people and resources, and to make every effort to disregard environmental costs. Most of the big decisions are taken by people who are incentivised to think in terms of money coming in and going out, and to disregard everything else that human beings value. Yes, we can get them to make better decisions by collectively making better buying decisions, but as long as nothing really fundamental changes, they’re still going to be routinely making terrible decisions. When shopping ethically is something people have to go out of their way to achieve, we have a problem. Unethical should never be the default.

it really ought to be possible to create a system at least a little less stupid and unfair.
David Graeber

The truth is that consumer choice is a hopeless mechanism for accountability. It’s weak, and it relies on us knowing all about the business practices of companies we might support — and having the time, money and opportunity to shop around. It is nowhere close to a substitute for legislation, let alone for the kind of genuinely democratic control that might be possible in a world where power was not so intensely concentrated in the hands of the few.

So I’m a habitual vegan who accepts that veganism is not an adequate response to the crisis of livestock emissions. I encourage people to avoid eating animal products, and littering, and shoplifting, because our small decisions do add up to something. They add up to much more when we act collectively, and doing the right thing as individuals makes it much easier to persuade other people to come along with us. But the way to effect major change is to work on the levers of power: to persuade governments and other powerful institutions to change course, by any means necessary. Elections and consumer power can be part of that, but so can direct action and concrete experiments in how to live better, among other things. We need to recognise possibilities, talk about them and act on them.

We all become important when we realize our goal
Should be to figure out our role within the context of the whole 
— Kimya Dawson

Nothing short of systemic change is adequate for addressing problems like climate change, biodiversity collapse and mass exploitation of workers. Real change will always be resisted by those favoured by existing systems. At best, our choices as individuals can wake people up to the possibilities of different ways of doing things. At worst, they can distract us all from how to make sure those things actually get done.

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