The 2020 US election result is impressive. As someone who grew up in Chicago and now lives in the UK, I feel like I have been holding my breath for as long as I’ve been cognisant of politics, and that feeling only intensified during the past four years. To me, this result proves the power available to ordinary people when we act collectively. Left movements in the US put aside factionalism and in-fighting and largely united behind a common cause – that of ousting the openly fascist Donald Trump. Think whatever you like of Biden and Harris, this feels like someone opening a window in a room full of rancid dog farts.
And yet the mainstream media here in the UK have adopted the stance that Biden and Harris won because of who they are as individuals, because they were the ideal candidates. This is not the impression I get from reading more widely and I think this line of thinking raises some broader points about how political change takes place, especially in societies that are deeply in bed with celebrity culture and the celebration of individuals. I have also seen fellow white women online saying they want to “marry” Stacey Abrams or peddling versions of the idea that Stacey Abrams single-handedly turned Georgia blue. As with most things in life, the reality is far more complicated. This is not to denigrate anybody’s work -especially not that of Stacey Abrams, who uses her platform to talk extensively about the importance of networks of grassroots activists- but rather to uplift all of the people involved, instead of centring any one exceptional individual. By all means celebrate Stacey Abrams but celebrate and acknowledge all of the grassroots activists too.
Why does a focus on exceptional individuals harm movements for social change? Simply put, we need many bodies to bring a more liberated world into being and celebrating individual people at the expense of the collective gives a false impression of how social change works. Lasting social change cannot rest on the shoulders of any one of us. It is the work of many people, often over many generations. If the goal is greater liberation for all, we need many minds to dream that liberated world into being and many bodies to build it. As ordinary people, our power is in our numbers – we are the many, and those who wield the greatest amounts of power and financial privilege are few. History has shown over and over that when ordinary people coalesce in great numbers, it becomes possible to shift seemingly unshiftable oppression. To take one example, eight-hour workdays are now enshrined in law and considered a norm in many countries, but the eight-hour workday (or equivalents such as a 40-hour work week) was won by workers from around the world as a result of campaigning and strike action. Another example is the work of queer activists in Britain in the 1980s (as portrayed in the wonderful film Pride) – who by standing in solidarity with striking miners against a common oppressor (in this case, Thatcher and her police) built lasting relationships with mining communities which resulted in the Labour party codifying its support for LGBTQ+ rights, in large part because of the support from the mineworkers’ union. These are just two examples of how movements become greater the sum of the people involved, and certainly than the actions of any one person.
When we direct praise at exceptional individuals only, it dims the power of everyone else. Everyone who phonebanks or canvasses or shares a petition is taking action. All of these small actions have impact. But when we focus only on the exceptional people, it becomes all too easy to think that these small, day-to-day actions lack worth. Social change is more like an Impressionist painting – up close it looks like a bunch of dots, but when you step back, a beautiful garden (or more likely, a haystack) is revealed. I am a dot. So are you. Together we are the beautiful garden (or haystack). When we look at someone else who we think is doing more and compare ourselves negatively to them, a process called compare and despair sets in. When we think that we’re not doing “enough” or we think that we’re not doing as much as someone else, we often feel shame or guilt. Shame and guilt generally don’t feel good, so when we feel ashamed or guilty we tend to slow down, or stop taking action at all. Similarly, when we perceive that the impact of our actions is not being recognised, we tend to feel discouraged or disempowered, which again are emotions that tend to lead to stasis rather than action. I’ll go into this more deeply in subsequent posts, but everybody’s role in the revolution looks different. We all face different obstacles to taking action, dependent on our life experience and circumstances. Your role might not look like someone else’s and that is okay.
Finally, focusing on a few exceptional people or groups of people lets everyone else off the hook. It lets us think that those people will always have it covered, that we can rely on other people to get things done. This is the same in a local campaign, on a picket line or at the scale of a national election. Unions are particularly vulnerable to this form of complacency, as they are only effective when a majority of members are actively engaged in shaping workplace decision-making and policies, rather than when the bulk of members view the union as something external to themselves that exists in order to provide insurance when something goes wrong. A further example of how complacency frustrates movements for change is evident in the online posts and comments of well-meaning white people saying how grateful they are that Black activists and voters “saved” the US. It is not acceptable for it to be left to Black folks to “save” white people. That Black folks overwhelmingly turned out and voted to oust Trump (many of them in states with the worst records of voter suppression) and white folks voted for him in droves underlines the deep current of danger supported by the complacency of so many white Americans.
When we focus on building collective empowerment and solidarity, we can do great things. The 2020 election is one small glimmer of proof that this is possible. What we need to do now is to build on that success. The US in particular is a deeply unequal society. The UK seems to want to follow in its footsteps to dismantle the social contracts of care that have shaped our society for the past 60-odd years. In order to preserve or create societies that serve the people who live in them, we need as many people to feel empowered as possible. Solidarity is infectious – when we see the impact of our actions, we start to believe. Democracy isn’t just about casting votes, it is about influencing decision making at all levels of society. When we choose to believe that we are all society and that our actions have impact, instead of believing that we live in a society that happens to us, which we cannot influence, powerful things happen. Let’s keep making them happen.