Thank you to everyone who’s written in so far with thoughtful, considered questions, and puns and rants. Posting an email address on the internet is an invitation for disaster, but Lever readers are a cut above the rest. Before diving into the questions, a preface: Questions will be lightly edited for length and clarity, and if you do not provide me with a pseudonym I will make one up. :)
Meanwhile, keep the questions coming! Send them to LeftWondering@levernews.com
Dear Left Wondering,
Between SCOTUS, Congress probably not passing a climate bill, and the general state of the world, my friends and I (including lots of organizers) have been fantasizing more and more about going off the grid. From a political perspective, I know it’s escapist and maybe even irresponsible. But with everything going to shit, I also want to build the best life possible with people I care about. Is there some happy medium here?
Dear Unsure Utopian,
There is no correlation between the amount of suffering you personally experience and your contribution to collective liberation. Wanting to seek out joy and contentment — and even to work a bit less — isn’t anathema to solidarity.
I wouldn’t say I’m old, necessarily (I’m 30), but I’ve seen plenty of comrades burn the candle at both ends for years only to step away from movement work almost entirely. In the climate world, at least, there also just aren’t all that many people above the age of 40 to look to for tips on how to make the work of staving off apocalypse more sustainable over the long haul.
Especially in the U.S., “movement work” is often, well, work — i.e., your job. And most jobs are bad. Union drives at progressive nonprofits have been a means of making those jobs (and the valuable work involved therein) more decent. The fact is that someone who shares your politics can still be your boss; people working toward a greater good still need paid vacation. Even movement work outside of nonprofits — which is to say, quite a lot of it! — still happens in a society where productivity is valued above all else, and not being visibly miserable/overworked is conflated with not doing enough.
This isn’t a case for trying to cultivate some ideal work-life balance: organizing projects can be all-consuming, especially in the heat of a campaign. Sleepless nights and greasy take-out all come with the territory. But the temptation to drop out and build a beautiful community after several such marathons is a real one. If the state isn’t going to provide paid family leave or free daycare or guarantee a dignified quality of life to the elderly, then communal living also makes a certain amount of objective sense.
There’s an obvious appeal for people at other stages of life, too. Until last December, I’d lived semi-communally since college, sharing food, chores, politics, party-hosting duties — and even a lawsuit against our landlord with roommates — in a tiny five-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Humans are social creatures, after all, and tend to crave forms of community that capitalism has made difficult to imagine.
Throughout history, unions and left parties have been more than an organ for campaigns and policy. They have also furnished social lives and material well-being for their members, animated by a vision for a better world. As those institutions have been destroyed by red-baiting and decades of attacks on organized labor, that social, world-building aspect of the left has fallen away, too.
There are practical realities ($$$) that can make trying to rebuild aspects of those communities in isolated places more appealing. As you say, though, there’s good reason to feel complicated about “going off the grid.” I’m personally skeptical of the idea that little utopias are only possible if you withdraw from society and its people. And while there seems to be a decent case for cultivating some practical skills — growing food, carpentry, electrical work, etc. — I’m not sold on the idea that society will experience collapse dramatic enough within our lifetimes to make using them on some secluded compound a necessity.
There also isn’t some morally justified point at which to resign to the climate crisis being too far gone, especially if you are living in the belly of the beast — the United States, the world’s largest source of historical emissions and biggest oil and gas producer. Every tenth of a degree of warming translates into tens of thousands of lives lost, many of which will be beyond U.S. borders.
The line here, in my view, is between doing what’s necessary to maintain your own work and well-being and orienting your political project around your own social circle, stopping at how to make people you know personally more healthy and happy, rather than putting a healthier, happier world in reach for the many.
Dear Left Wondering,
I’ve been feeling pretty helpless since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Where could I throw some time or money to make a difference (or at least feel like I am)?
An Anxious Abortion Defender