by Alex Knight,

[This article has been translated into Spanish by Guerrilla Translation and can be found HERE!]

magnetic-fields-in-action1. There is a paradox at the heart of this global power structure we live in, known as capitalism. It is the result of two contradictory truths.

2A. The first truth is that capitalism is destroying our planet. Through global warming, extinction, impoverishment, racism, sexism, homophobia, propaganda, war, the burgeoning security state, computerized isolation, and more, it is literally killing us.

2B. The second truth is that we are dependent upon capitalism for our immediate survival. Whether through wages, pensions, or social services, our livelihood depends on income provided by the very system which is killing us.

3A. Most of us would like to avoid facing this paradox, and so delude ourselves into apathy, nihilism, and cynicism. We accept the system’s offer of fantasy and mute our inherent knowledge of the deep wrongness that pervades the real world.

3B. Some braver souls among us face the first truth and so do whatever they can to avoid complicity with the machinery of death and destruction. They may adopt an ethical diet, curb their consumption, or even attempt to “live off the grid” (to the extent this is possible within a global power structure whose tentacles reach into every corner of the Earth). Taken to its extreme, this is the route of escapism. Its goal is moral purity, flight from guilt, the individual satisfaction of knowing you’re no longer part of the problem.

The failure of escapism is that avoiding responsibility for the problem also means avoiding responsibility for the solution. You can take comfort in your moral stance, but with or without your participation, capitalism rolls on, destroying billions of lives.

3C. A different set of folks are more concerned with the second half of the paradox – the fact that we are trapped in this system as bad as it is, and therefore the best we can do is to improve it or make it more fair. They may fight for policy changes through lobbying or even run for office. In its pure form, this is the route of reformism. The aim is to work “within the system,” influence the people in charge, and perhaps become one of them in time. The theory goes that once in a position of power, they would be able to steer the ship in a new direction.

The failure of reformism is that it requires the abandonment of our ideals for actually overthrowing the system or creating a world without capitalism. There’s nothing wrong with making life more livable within the system, but when we become ourselves part of the system, we betray ourselves and we have already lost.

4. By themselves, neither of these two poles, escape or reform, offers us any hope of abolishing capitalism and saving our world. Yet, no way forward can exist without both elements. Rather than fleeing this paradox, if we embrace the absurdity of our situation, we can harness the energy of the contradiction to create something new.

Imagine these two poles are carrying electric currents in opposite directions – one is “negative,” the other “positive.” By placing them near each other they will create a magnetic field. If a magnet were placed between the two poles, it would want to turn so as to align itself with the field. Tesla discovered that a magnetic field need not be static, so the magnet would not have to be stationary once it aligned itself. If the electric currents generating the field are alternating currents (AC), meaning their polarity switches back and forth, the magnet will have to keep spinning to adapt to the ever-changing field. The timing can be aligned so that the magnet will revolve at a very high speed, harnessing the energy of each alternating pole as it spins past. This is how an electric motor works.

[This video illustrates the electromagnetic principles I’ve attempted to describe.]

As in this theoretical example, real revolution should be possible if we make use of the invisible magnetic field between contradictory poles. Rather than discarding either escape or reform due to its obvious deficiency, consider the vital energy that revolves around each. The impetus to confront and make changes to the system can pull us away from individualism and toward meeting social and ecological needs. Conversely, the desire to escape the system’s grasp can motivate us to create autonomous means of survival and reproduction not dependent on profit or foundation grants.

How can we best orient our politics so as to gain momentum from these magnetic winds without becoming stuck in a static routine which never builds power? Can we be fueled by both escape and reform, while never becoming escapists or reformists?

5. I believe a revolutionary politics requires a strategy to open up pathways for millions of ordinary people to mobilize and empower themselves. Undoubtedly this does not require everyone to do the same thing, but for each of us to pursue the endeavors which liberate our knowledge of the world, and of ourselves. Everyone who reads this essay is probably already doing this – creating projects which uplift us in tangible if insufficient ways, whether gardening, organizing a single-issue campaign, or writing a blog.

What is missing is the alternation of currents, or better put, the circulation of struggles. It serves no one for us to specialize in one revolutionary niche and become entrenched experts of that stationary role. The movement depends upon the interplay of divergent forces, and most basically on the strengthening of relationships across difference.1

How are we constantly challenging ourselves to learn new ways of making change? How are we socializing our projects so that they don’t depend on our own individual efforts? How are we encountering those who view the world from a contradictory perspective, and actually embracing them into our lives? And like magnets, how are we building long-term momentum by alternately mobilizing both negative energy in the forms of anger and rage against the system which dominates us, and positive energy in the forms of communal reproduction and survival outside the system?


Magnetic fields surround a solar flare.

6. In practice, given how deflated social movements in this country have become, we must be realistic about the challenges facing such a two-directional strategy.

How do we fight the profit system to provide for our survival (and stop doing so much harm), for example through universal health care, at the same time that we build communal reproductive structures that provide food, shelter, health care, child care, information, mental health support, etc. outside the logic of profit? All while selling our alienated labor to our day jobs to be able to just survive and keep our families intact? Where will we find the energy?

Can we avoid the pitfalls of holier-than-thou posturing and accept that people have real and perceived needs that they can only meet through participation in the system? Can we implement transformative justice practices to hold ourselves accountable for oppressive attitudes and behaviors without relying on the prison system? Can we keep our revolutionary hearts aflame with hope for a liberated future when the system is so successful at ignoring and stifling our efforts, and even when our movements self-destruct from our own failings and cowardice?

I believe we can, if we accept the challenge of forming a magnetic, self-reproducing revolutionary strategy. If we continue to tinker with our practices so as to best align ourselves with the shifting social and ecological needs around us, I believe it will ultimately bring us more energy than it asks – in the forms of new relationships, new knowledge, and new self-confidence. If we can orient our movements such that they offer people outlets for true autonomy and self-realization, if they can discover themselves and a deeper humanity through involvement in struggle, then I believe more and more folks will be pulled into the process and real power can flow.

What do we mean by power? We are not attempting to construct a new system of power-over that can overcome the old capitalism and create a more efficient domination. Our aim is the decentralization of power in the form of power-with.2 This means that as our efforts circulate and combine with one another, they must do so in non-hierarchical and probably non-permanent ways. The goal is not for a few of us to figure everything out and save the world on behalf of anyone – the goal is for each person, each community to empower themselves in connection with a swirling, dynamic process of self-liberation.

7. We live in a paradoxical world; the most important truths are the hardest to uncover, and the entire world is drowning in lies. How can we expect any easy, unipolar answers to our current quagmire? The simpler and more commodifiable an idea, the emptier it tends to be. Truth lives in complexity and contradiction. To liberate the world and ourselves, we must be able to hold two opposites in our minds at the same time, recognizing that neither is sufficient and yet both are necessary.

For some reason Latin Americans seem better equipped to handle paradox than we North Americans, who are preoccupied with chasing purity. The Zapatistas understand it well – “Walking, we ask questions,” “Lead by obeying,” “A world in which many worlds fit.”

And this essay was inspired by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, who wrote these beautiful words which describe our predicament exactly:

¡Si me lo quitas, me muero; si me lo dejas, me mata!

(If you take it from me, I’ll die; if you leave it with me, it will kill me.)


1. Audre Lorde described a very similar analogy in the essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House“:

“Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”

2. Starhawk in her classic book Dreaming the Dark distinguished between power-over and power-within. I prefer “power-with” because I want to emphasize that we are empowered through our connections to other people and to nature.