After reading The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs & Scott Kurashige, I confess my primary reaction was a frustrated, “Why is this not being better shared? Why must we keep re-inventing the wheel?” Upon reflection, I’d guess there must be some serious corporate (or socio-cultural?) interests involved, that such community-useful information is not being taught in the public schools and reported in the media.
What makes The Next American Revolution so fascinating to me is the clear explication that for true change in society today, we’re going to have to dump the old way of behaving. This shouldn’t really be a surprise, of course: as Boggs notes, if you don’t like the results of something you’re doing, you should change what you’re doing rather than expecting better results from just repeating yourself more emphatically. Through thoughtful examination of the examples of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Boggs shows how reflection upon major social change, and changing one’s revolutionary techniques accordingly, can cause more productive social results.
Interestingly, her argument rests strongly (and, I think, powerfully) on both recognizing cultural specificity (as in not expecting what worked in one time and place to always work precisely the same way in other times and places), and dispensing with the usual cultural perceptions of Malcolm and King (as, respectively, the fiery iconoclast and the engineer of Civil Rights marches in the deep south). Instead Boggs notes the importance of these two activists’ realizations, later in their lives, of where their current techniques were not working. Were it not for the tragedy of their assassinations, the steps these two fascinating men were taking to change their techniques — in order to create more beneficial social change — might have had tremendous results in today’s world already.
The revolution which Boggs discusses (and which both Malcolm and King seemed to be approaching) is a true paradigm shift, precisely as the US revolution in 1776 was a new and different kind of revolution. As Boggs notes, we need a “two-sided transformation, both of ourselves and of our institutions” (45%, 1360 [these numbers are for the ebook; I apologize that I do not yet know the proper way to cite epages]). Interestingly, the American Revolutionary war, like this new one Boggs espouses, is also based on the principles of indigenous peoples — though it was slanted to benefit only the white land-owning males. I agree with Boggs that it’s high time now to revisit those principles once more — and this time implement them for everyone.
Effectively what Boggs teaches is revolution from the bottom up, rather than the more familiar top-down. Top-down (whether deliberately or no) benefits fiery, competitive, often militaristic, charismatic young men who are good at making bitter people even more angry, so that these young men become the new rulers. This does not necessarily choose the best or most qualified person for the job, and it certainly doesn’t change the social framework in which these mini-revolts occur. As the old song goes: “Meet the new boss / Just the same as the old boss.”
This lust of fiery young men to be the ones in power is why nothing ever really changes. I think they don’t really want change, in fact, past placing themselves into positions of power — though they may believe that is their goal. They are the reason why the black women who were told to not agitate for women’s rights by the black men during the Civil Rights movement were betrayed. They are the reason the Taiwanese women were similarly betrayed, even as the fiery young men of that revolution cheerfully accepted the critically necessary help of women — just as long as the women “knew their place” once the revolution was won. They are the reason indigenous women are worriedly feeling the same concern as their men tell them the same thing, even as those men embody the same desire for white male power-over and indifference to women’s needs and desires (as heartbreakingly described in Paula Gunn Allen’s chapter “Does Euro-Think Become Us?” in the book Daughters of Mother Earth: The Wisdom of Native American Women). This pattern of taking advantage of women in order to benefit the current angry young men happens repeatedly through history — we can even see it happening in the New Testament in Paul’s letters. However, as Boggs notes, these men “are powerless to make fundamental changes because they have not empowered the oppressed prior to taking power” (35%, 1073). As a friend of mine once put it half-facetiously, he doesn’t want to do away with white privilege — he wants it to extend completely and fully to everyone.
In the end I believe this is what Boggs is espousing: in order to achieve true, permanent, beneficial change, the oppressed must be empowered. Much of her book discusses different people and community groups who are spreading programs designed to do just that. For example, she points out that our education system is designed to create factory workers. It is high time a different, more horizontal (rather than the current hierarchically vertical) form of education is implemented, so that we create thoughtful human beings instead of (effectively) working objects and consumers. This changed form of education will teach both the usual math and sciences, as well as the creation of community — and in the process, also encourage new ways of meaningful communication (73%, 2209). The goal is to dispense with schooling based in hierarchy and mind-numbing rote learning, and to allow the children to become “constructive participants in the social life of the community” (73%, 2223). Further, this learning needs to be of practical use to the children:
to create a much more intimate connection between intellectual development and practical activity, to root students and faculty in their communities and natural habitats, and to engage them in the kind of real problem solving in their localities that nurtures a love of place and provides practice in creating the sustainable economies, equality, and community that are the responsibilities of citizenship (76%, 2294).
Another important point made by Boggs is our need to reject consumerism, to shift our economy from its current orgy of needless production — if I see yet another cheap, mass-produced “Must-have!” seasonal article I think I’ll scream. Instead we need to recognize that a solid economy includes not just the exchange of luxury goods for money, but also all the things we do for each other where money never enters the scene: household activities, favors between friends, all the work of creating and maintaining a healthy community (81%, 2460). We need a decentralized economy whose “foundation is the production and exchange of goods and services that our communities really need” (81%, 2445).
Boggs recognizes the enormity of this much-needed change, but points out that if we wish for real change that respectfully empowers all of us, that comes from the bottom up — then we cannot wait around for some government or fiery young man to do it for us. Truthfully, they cannot — even if for some reason they might wish to. As Gandhi poignantly said, we must become the change we wish to see in the world. If we wish to see a more humane society based in social responsibility and creativity, then we must realize it is up to us: we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.