This personal reflection was written for and performed at a spoken word event on March 2nd in Philadelphia.
“After the Apocalypse” – by Alex Knight
When I was 10 or 11, my father and I watched a TV special, probably on FOX, called “Prophecies Revealed,” which rounded up an assortment of fables from Nostradomus on down, to scare the crap out of the audience and get ratings by making people believe the end of the world was right around the corner. One segment talked about the Mayan calendar, and over a background of creepy and violent images, posed the question, “what’s going to happen on December 21, 2012? Will our technologies revolt against us? Will there be some kind of cataclysmic event, like an enormous meteor impact? Will nuclear war finally consume the Earth?”
I feel silly to admit it, but these ideas of imminent doom really stuck with me. Maybe I was just an impressionable kid who had seen too many Terminator movies. Or maybe there is something really appealing, even liberating, about apocalypse – at least for those of us living in a repressive, alienating, hierarchal social system such as zombie-capitalism. The specter of apocalypse seems to substitute in negative form for the positive vision of “social revolution” that radicals a century ago believed in – namely, a way out, an escape. Say what you will about the Rapture – at least it’s a rupture. Meaning, even if the fires of armageddon were a nightmare in the short run, at least the horror of the world we live in would come to an end, and then maybe something better would sprout from the ashes.
Almost immediately after I left home for college, these apocalyptic prophecies were resurrected from the nether-regions of my mind. On September 11th, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit by hijacked airplanes. As I watched in my Freshman dormroom, I felt shock, sadness, but also a forbidden and shameful giddiness. The attack was a horrible, evil thing, and I feel awful for those who lost loved ones. But for me at age 18, the dramatic realness of that event was a sharp, sudden puncture to the bubbly propaganda image of 1990’s peaceful hegemonic America. It was the first time I ever realized that the world is not static – it is changing all the time. I had just never looked outside my plastic suburban cage to see the real world, in its full ugliness and beauty. September 11th, as hellish as it was, was for me that rupture – it jarred me into the awareness that there is an exit from the prison of mainstream America, if you’re willing to do a little digging.
I started to listen a bit more to my communist English teacher, be less defensive in response to voices critical of capitalism, and I set off down the rabbit hole. As Bush put the country on the warpath, I transformed myself from a video game junkie into a committed activist devoting every bit of energy I could to making revolution happen in this country, starting by organizing a national student movement against the war, I hoped.
2012 wasn’t something most social change organizers discussed seriously. I certainly didn’t. But I held onto a secret hope that the date would prove to be significant, and that it would coincide with the inevitable collapse of capitalism and at least the possibility of world-wide democratic upheaval.
My role in this quasi-religious quest was to serve the cause as a martyr. I wanted to give everything I had for the revolution, and probably die trying, like my hero Che Guevara. For my young activist self, 2012 was an end date which gave my efforts and sacrifices context. I made no time for strolling in the park, or even socializing, because I was on a mission of supreme importance. As far as I knew, Che had given up everything to fight for other countries’ liberations from oppression – how could I allow myself any unnecessary luxuries? Time was limited. I didn’t expect to live to see 30, so I had about ten years to pour all my energy into organizing, writing, and anything else I could do to make this global transformation a bit more likely. I took no shortcuts and I didn’t even know how to ask for help. I tried to take the weight of the world onto my shoulders.
As I grew older, my self-sacrificing philosophy turned increasingly self-destructive. I got into abusive relationships and justified my partners treating me badly as sacrifices I needed to make for their sake. I drove myself to exhaustion doing activist work that often didn’t bring me closer to the people I was trying to work with. There were nights when my friends had to almost physically drag me away from my computer to get me to a party or social event. I was so focused on my work that I totally neglected friends who came from out of town to visit! Only later did I learn the lessons of bell hooks, that the revolution is about relationship building, and that you must take care of yourself to sustain being a changemaker over the long haul.
Even though the revolution seemed further and further away, December 21, 2012 still stuck out as a significant reference point on the timeline of my life. How would we mark the occasion? Around 2007, some primitivists suggested going down to the Mayan pyramids for “the party of a lifetime.” That never happened. In the end, I spent the night of the apocalypse bowling in the suburbs with some high school friends. Talk about anti-climactic. By then, no one even talked about it anymore, except in the same way we had talked about Y2K, as the stupid, media scare-tactic spectacle that it was – just another way to get people to buy shit they didn’t need.
The Power of Myth
Was 2012 ever anything more? Speaking for myself, the passing of the calendar into 2013 feels disorienting. I no longer have an end-point in mind, giving structure to my life’s path. The movements I devoted my energy to, from SDS to Occupy, have now faded into history. Clearly, we have not overthrown the systems of oppression and we are not living in a liberated future. Movements today feel so powerless that’s it’s almost impossible to even imagine that liberation is possible, let alone that it’s right around the corner. Maybe the biggest problem is our inability to imagine. Maybe the stories and myths we tell ourselves actually confine us within certain parameters that we can’t seem to get out of – sunglasses that bring into focus the world we expect to see, while filtering out the rest.
After reading Starhawk’s book Dreaming the Dark and talking to my friend Hugh, I’m starting to think the story of the apocalypse is really a male-driven way of ascribing meaning to our lives, fitting into a patriarchal grand narrative of the universe.
It’s a pretty compelling story. There’s a beginning, in creation, and a clear end of Judgment Day, where the good will be rewarded and the evil punished. There’s also a pretty interesting protagonist, the savior, or martyr, who sacrifices himself to allow the masses to find salvation. What’s in it for him? (Of course it’s a him.) Well, for one thing he achieves the greatest ego boost you could possibly gain, you know the one for being the hero who saved the world. He gets to be recognized, validated, appreciated, in a way that he could never get from normal, worldly endeavors. They don’t tell you in the story that this desire to be a martyr is really a reaction against severe insecurity and the feeling of being invisible and insignificant. My therapist pointed out to me the irony that even if I won the Superbowl and released a multi-platinum album on the same day, this wouldn’t be enough for me. Within the expectations I’d set for myself, nothing short of saving the world would cause me to feel like anything but a failure.
The other interesting thing about this mythology is that the apocalypse is a necessary component to justify the martyr’s self-sacrifice. If there were no final judgment or ultimate revolutionary orgasm, and the world were just going to continue, more or less as it had before the martyr’s plunge into self-destruction, could he still go through with it? Doesn’t the suicide bomber expect forty virgins to meet him on the other side, as reward for serving the cause? What reward did I expect for countless hours of slaving over Google Docs and conference calls, looking down on my friends who cared about fashion or pop culture, scorning joy itself as counter-revolutionary? Is self-righteousness reward enough for torturing yourself?
It occurs to me that the beneficiaries of suicide bombers’ attacks, or American soldiers “serving their country,” are not the martyrs themselves, or their families or friends, or anyone they cared about, or even necessarily their cause. The beneficiaries are the ones who propagate these myths, and who recruit people to believe in them. They’re the patriarchs. The old men who sit back and collect the rewards while sending the young men and women into harm’s way, armed with righteousness and a desire to serve. It doesn’t really even matter if the Pentagon dickheads and Islamic fundamentalists even believe their own mythologies. The narrative of apocalyptic struggle between good and evil facilitates the creation of a world where other people throw their lives away in order to serve them.
All this gives me deep pause. I have to wonder, who was I serving by pursuing a path of self-sacrifice towards the goal of revolution, even a revolution that seeks the overthrow of all oppressive systems? Who benefits from the myth, apparently dominant in many young activists’ minds, that they have to throw away comfort and convenience, and orient every fiber of their being, from their diet to the number of exasperating meetings they attend, towards “the cause”? I’m not sure, perhaps it’s the male-dominated activist culture itself which ultimately benefits.
Certainly the most successful messianic figure on the Left over the last few centuries has been Karl Marx. He spent most of his adult life squirreled away in London libraries, huddled over economic textbooks, trying to conjure a formula which would explain the evils of capitalism and its inevitable downfall. This effort earned him the boils on his ass and a burial in dire poverty and relative anonymity. Yet, Marx’s narrative of the meaning of the world has attracted so many followers since his death (who’ve gone on to found their own sects, with competing interpretations of his holy word) in part because his story very closely mirrors the patriarchal Judeo-Christian prophecy with which he was raised and educated. He has the linear storyline, with the brilliant beginning, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,” moving through different stages of class society, and climaxing in communist utopia. He has the world-savior protagonist, represented by the enigmatic proletariat, who for Marx has been given its ordained mission precisely because it has been stripped of all land and power. “The meek shall inherit the Earth” anybody?
At the risk of being labelled a blasphemer, let me point out a few contradictions in Marx’s prophecy. First, Marx’s critique of capitalism did not extend to a critique of patriarchy or a critique of power structures as such. He didn’t even see capitalism as a bad thing in the end, since it was creating the technologies and social arrangements he believed were necessary for future communism. Without railroads or telegraphs, he reasoned, human freedom is impossible. Only in his early unpublished manuscript on “Alienated Labor,” or in the very brief “Primitive Accumulation” section of his massive text Capital, and maybe a few other places, does Marx focus on the terrible violence that the system has levelled against humanity.
Of course, this should be the very center of anti-capitalist analysis – what does the system do to us? how does it dehumanize us? how does it subjugate women? how does it appropriate and destroy nature? how does it brutalize and humiliate the non-European world? how does it invade our minds and turn us against ourselves? and more? It’s these enclosures, where the capitalist system interacts with the non-colonized, or not-yet colonized universe, which should be the setting for the story, because this is the terrain where we have agency and can fight back. (Or, where we’re already fighting back.)
Marx bypasses these front-lines of struggle and sets his focal point inside the system itself, trying to find the flaw in its logic as if he’s taking down a debate opponent from his collegiate Hegelian philosophy club. This causes Marx to position the incredible violence that capitalism does to human and non-human life as something in the past, as “primitive accumulation,” rather than as the ongoing assault on life-systems which forms the basis of capitalism’s profit and productivity. The result of this blindspot is that Marx’s mythology rests on the idea that capitalism will collapse in on itself by being insufficiently productive and the “law of the falling rate of profit.” And so it falls to the working class to seize control of the existing economic apparatus and manage it even more efficiently, producing even larger surpluses, and thereby heaven on Earth.
Lenin’s messianic mission picks up where this prophecy leaves off, with the one revision that the workers aren’t ready or politically advanced enough to manage the economic machinery, so we revolutionaries will appoint ourselves their representatives and manage the machine for them. They’ll still have to work, in fact they’ll work even harder to produce our coveted surpluses, but we’ll convince them that those who work the hardest will be great communist heroes. And if they resist? We’ll shoot them. Stalin, Mao, and the rest are simply the beneficiaries of successful variations on the same overarching Judeo-Christian-Marxist narrative.
Prospects for Hope
Some mythologies, such as these patriarchal Leftist ones, are oppressive. But myth, narrative, and prophecy are still incredibly powerful, perhaps necessary, tools for communicating hope that the future might be better than the present. So what does a feminist narrative of changing the world look like? To be honest, I don’t know.
Maybe the story has no defined beginning or end, but instead is a continuous resistance against oppression. We’ll probably never be able to pinpoint the exact day when patriarchy first entered into the world, and we may never get to see the precise moment when it is overthrown. But perhaps it’s more important to keep the flame alive, to simply survive the system and its attacks, to endure it, to outlast it, and to give the next generations a better chance of creating a world worth living in. This doesn’t diminish at all the importance of knowing history, because it’s not the presence of a timeline itself that makes narratives or mythologies oppressive.
In fact, I think there may still be a place for 2012 in a new, feminist and anti-capitalist narrative. I would actually like to believe that in the future, our descendants will look back on this era and say to themselves, “Wow, our ancestors in the early 21st Century really had it rough. I don’t know how they survived. Thank the Goddess that we don’t have to live like them anymore.” I know fretting about the horrors of the future is en vogue right now, especially on the Left, which is partially why the idea of apocalypse was, or is, so popular to begin with. But I actually think it makes more sense to invert the story of the apocalypse so that 2012 simply becomes the low-point in human history, the rock bottom, from which things can only ultimately improve in two key indices of goodness: ecological well-being, and the well-being of human community. Maybe that’s what the Mayans meant after all, that 2012 was the end of the dark ages, and the beginning of a new era.
At this moment it’s really hard to believe that things from this point forward will actually improve, but this is because the lenses through which we see the world are tinted by our experience of the world as-it-has-existed. There’s no way to dispute that things have been getting worse and worse for the vast majority of humanity, and certainly for the planet, at least over the last forty years since the movements of the Sixties were defeated. Our hopes have simply been dashed at every turn. Every movement we’ve put our faith into has faced steeper and steeper climbs, harsher and harsher odds. This is not to say that our efforts have been wasted – quite the contrary, they’ve been all the more important given the obstacles they’ve had to overcome. And they’ve laid the groundwork for us in the present to be able to carry on the tradition and pass the torch of collective resistance down to the next generations.
In ecology, there’s this idea of ecological succession, which I think is a really helpful concept for understanding social change. The story begins with catastrophe – maybe a volcanic eruption or flood, which totally destroys whatever ecosystems had previously occupied that terrain. This recalls the crisis our society has experienced under neoliberalism since the 1970’s – the spread of repression and austerity, the breaking of the New Deal, the defeat of the liberation movements. On this devastated terrain, usually the first lifeforms to arrive are simple organisms which rapidly spread across the land, seemingly out of nowhere, only to die off and fade away just as quickly. However, in dying, these organisms which arose in crisis leave behind a more fertile soil for more complex organisms and systems to replace them. Grasses will be replaced by shrubs, which will then be replaced by strong trees, which will house birds and bugs, and ultimately a fully interdependent and sustainable ecosystem known as a “climax community” will form.
For me, Occupy was exactly this kind of first-wave crisis organism. It started from a Facebook event, and before anyone knew it or could explain it, it had taken over city squares across the country, and become a mass political phenomenon the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades, only to disappear just as rapidly and mysteriously. And as spectacular a disaster as Occupy was in many ways, speaking as someone whose late 2011 was totally absorbed by Occupy Philly’s craziness, it was also incredibly inspiring and it has definitely left behind a more fertilized landscape for current and future movements to sprout and grow in new directions. So I see Occupy as a new beginning – out of the catastrophe of neoliberalism, we are once again thinking about building mass movements and thinking through the challenges of organizing millions of Americans. We can learn a lot of lessons from Occupy’s failures, and use that experience to invent, new forms of struggle which will be more sustainable, with deeper roots, and able to support more people. The hope is that our movements and communities will get stronger and more stable, until they overgrow the systems of oppression entirely, and an ecological equilibrium re-emerges.
Finally, our feminist story of change has to address the question of leadership. I think it’s obvious we should discard the idea of an individual savior or messiah emerging and leading us to salvation. As that great American socialist Eugene V. Debs so eloquently put it, “I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out.”
The more difficult question seems to be how do we act as leaders and how do we develop more leaders? This is certainly the question I personally struggle with most. How can I best contribute? How do I inspire others? How do I avoid burnout over the long haul? It’s difficult for me, coming from my background of self-sacrifice, to balance self-care with staying motivated and active in organizing. I fluctuate between throwing too much of my energy into projects and getting burned out and retreating into depression.
I don’t have the answers yet, but I’m inspired by feminist writers like Silvia Federici, who says that there is no room for sacrifice in the movement, because we need to build communities of care, in which our collective reproduction and the survival of ourselves is our priority. I think some Marxists and hardcore revolutionaries have a hard time with this theory, because they see it as a retreat if we’re not on the barricades, pouring every once of our energy into struggle at the highest level. But the reality is that there’s a tremendous amount of support that needs to go on behind the lines in order for people to be able to even be on the barricades. Things like raising kids, taking care of elders, taking care of the sick, making dinner, washing clothes, cleaning up, which are traditionally delegated to women and seen as somehow less important than what the male revolutionaries are occupying their time with. So to avoid inequality or hierarchy from entering our movements, it’s imperative that we find a way to share these loads, through communal housing, and other collective ways of organizing our survival.
So here we are, in our winter of discontent, without even an apocalypse to look forward to anymore. How do we stay motivated to keep trying to change the world? What is our vision for creating a future worth living in? Is a feminist story of change less compelling or less sexy than the patriarchal mythologies with their superhuman hero and simplified plot-line? Or is it even easier to succumb to despair and cynicism, and believe that there really is no hope at all, and any vision of a better future is pie-in-the-sky, so we should all become ironic hipsters who care only about mocking everyone who cares about things?
The only answer I have, which I’m trying to keep in mind as I move through a life in search of a path, is that I’m called towards change. I’m not sure where the calling comes from exactly, but I can either accept it or reject it. If I reject it, I know where that path leads. Isolation, addiction, irrelevance. Do I really believe in the depths of my soul that the other path, accepting the calling towards change, will lead to something better for myself and the world, or is it just a myth I’m telling myself to feel less hopeless, a leap of faith which will leave me even more scarred and heartbroken in the end?
I don’t know, but it’s bound to be more interesting than where things are now, so I might as well take another step.